Friday, November 28, 2008

Belief in God and Nihilism

Are non-believers more likely to think that life is pointless? I've posted on the topic before but spent little time on it.

The General Social Survey asked 2,367 people if they agree with the statement that life does not serve any purpose. The graphs show the answers by church attendance (top) and belief in God (bottom). We can't pay too much attention to those who agree or strongly agree with the statement, especially among non-believers, because sample sizes are extremely low. A better way to approach it is to calculate means:

Mean nihilism score

Never attends .73
Less than once a year .67
Once a year .59
Several times a year .48
Once a month .55
2-3 times a month .61
Nearly every week .50
Every week .39
More than weekly .39
SD .78

Doesn't believe in God .64
No way to find out .86
Some higher power .78
Believes sometimes .93
Believes but doubts .64
Knows God exists .47
SD .79

These numbers indicate that there is a tendency for the irreligious to find life lacking in meaning. To get a better sense of the strength of the relationship, I calculated the correlations: it's -.13 for church attendance and -.16 for confidence in the existence of God.

More often than not, I find that religiosity is related to good things, but the strength of the correlations is always disappointing. If intense religious commitment has only a weak impact on outcomes, this seems to me evidence that beliefs and values in general are not broadly powerful. Biology and material incentives are probably much more potent for most behaviors.

I'm not saying that culture never matters. For example, I strongly suspect that alcoholic liver disease mortality rates are very low in Utah County, Utah because the Mormon church tells its adherents that God commands them not to consume alcohol. Most do not drink, so they don't get hooked, and don't ruin their livers. So we should look for where worldviews have consequences, but in competition with powerful forces like genes, we shouldn't be too surprised when we find that beliefs and attitudes don't matter much.


  1. Churches teach nihilism. "Without God, life has no meaning." Speaking as a nihilistic atheist, I can't count the number of times I've heard devout Christians tell me that without belief, they'd see no reason to take care of their offspring, deal honestly with their neighbors, or even refrain from commencing a killing rampage. In this respect they are worse than animals, who manage to form working social arrangements purely out of a biological imperative to survive and perpetuate themselves.

    If you need an authority figure to tell you that cooperation is a more cost-effective way to get through life, you're fundamentally a sociopath. And I believe some churches deliberately induce sociopathy to insert themselves in the gap left when natural social urges are destroyed. I always tell those people that I'm glad they have faith, and to call me - their friendly neighborhood atheist - if they ever have doubts. That way I can alert the SWAT teams.

    It's to this social animal's advantage to have sociopaths shot in the head from 100 yards away.

  2. Anonymous8:11 PM

    How are we supposed to take Jason seriously when he makes ignorant assertions like "Churches teach nilhilism"?

    To Jason, such people ought to be shot in the head.

    Is this blog civilized, or is it for the likes of hardened killers like Che Guevara or Felix Dzerzhinsky?

  3. Anonymous12:19 PM

    If there are any headshots, it ought to be Jason shooting himself for his own idiotic comment. Obviously churches teach primarily God. Somehow someone can discard that teaching entirely, but they are hopelessly haunted by the secondary teaching that "without God there is no meaning"? That's shoveling sh**, Jason. go create some meaning and be done with it.

  4. Before you can sell a product, you must create a need. In order to sell a "meaning" provided by god - in actuality, "god's" representatives - you must eliminate all other possible meanings that could serve instead. Salvation is based on the bedrock of the essential depravity of man. No matter how beautiful the edifice built on it, nihilism (or worse) comes first. It is breaking kneecaps to sell crutches.

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The Inductivist admits that culture matters

A pure naturist would claim that the culture of East Asians would not change after moving to America. Let's test this with one question ...