Pope Comments On ‘Double Life’ Catholics
Suggesting it is better to be an atheist than one of “many” Catholics who he said lead a hypocritical double life, Pope Francis delivered another criticism of some members of his own Church on Thursday.
Nicole Carr grew up attending a liberal Lutheran church in New Jersey. But as she got older, went off to college and left her family behind, she started to question the things she’d been taught– especially those associated with organized religion.
“I slowly realized the things I’d thought didn’t make sense to me anymore,” she said.
Carr, 55, now considers herself an atheist, part of a growing but misunderstood group that according to a recent Pew Research Center survey has the highest rates of vaccination against COVID-19 compared to its religious counterparts, some of whom harbor serious doubts about the efficacy and safety of the vaccines despite data indicating otherwise.
Nine in 10 Americans identifying as an atheist report being at least been partially vaccinated against the virus, according to the survey of more than 10,000 adults conducted in late August. The number was higher than the 86% of Hispanic Catholics, and 82% of Catholics overall, who reported the same.
And it was notably more than Protestants, including 73% of white non-evangelicals, 70% of Black Protestants and just 57 percent of white evangelicals.
Among agnostics, the rate was 84%.
“Part of the core of our life stance is trusting in science and reason, and making decisions based on evidence,” said Carr, who serves as deputy director of the American Humanist Association, based in Washington, D.C., and who recently received a COVID-19 booster shot. “That, coupled with our belief in the importance of compassion, is why I think we’re vaccinated at a higher rate than the typical population.
“We know the rates of vaccinated people versus unvaccinated people hospitalized due to COVID, and we trust that science.”
As of Friday, the United States had recorded 45.9 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, with nearly 745,000 deaths attributed to the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Nearly 191 million Americans – close to 58 percent of the population – have been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anjan Chakravartty, a philosophy professor who focuses on atheism and secular ethics at the University of Miami, said that atheists were the most highly vaccinated group was “fascinating, but not surprising.”
Because self-identifying as an atheist involves questioning whether belief in religious dogma is rational and what might instead make more sense, “it’s very common for atheists and humanists… to have a very high regard for scientific investigation,” he said. “It’s hardly surprising that atheists, as a group, would be especially serious about following the advice of our best science.”
Growing number of Americans eschew organized religion
About 4% of Americans identify as an atheist, meaning they don’t believe in God or a spiritual force of any kind, according to separate surveys conducted by the Pew Center in 2018 and 2019, compared to just 2% in 2009. Agnostics also grew from 3% to 5% in the same time period, the center reported.
Atheists are far more plentiful in Western Europe – for instance, the Czech Republic, where 25% of the population identifies as such, Belgium (19%), Denmark (16%) and France (15%).
In the United States, most atheists are young white men, with a median age of 34, and tend to be more educated than many Americans: 43% have a college education compared to 27% of the general public.
While an atheist is someone who doubts the existence of a God, humanism goes further, Carr said. She pointed to the humanist association’s tagline, “Good Without a God.”
“To be a humanist, you believe the ‘good’ part is just as important as the ‘without a God’ part,” she said. “This is the only life we have and it’s up to us to imbue it with value and worth. Being good to each other is how we do that.”
This year, the association, which now includes 240 U.S. chapters and affiliates, named Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious disease, its 2021 recipient of its Humanist of the Year – not only for his work during the pandemic but for his openly humanist stance, Carr said.
“He has twice remarked that despite being raised Catholic and educated in Jesuit schools, he no longer identifies with organized religion,” Carr said.
In a 2015 interview with C-SPAN, Fauci said: “I’m less enamored of organized religion than I am with the principles of humanity and goodness to mankind and doing the best that you can.”
Science vs. faith: A deepening divide?
For some religious communities, opposition to vaccines can rest on more than safety or efficacy concerns: In February, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans issued a statement advising against the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, calling it “morally compromised” for having been developed with cloned stem cells from aborted fetuses. Those same cells were used in tests for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines but ultimately not in their production.
Neil Gross, a sociology professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, sees a growing distinction between two groups of people in the United States divided by the institutions and authorities they consider legitimate. One side follows science, the other faith and faith leaders, each with a deepening distrust of the other.
“That’s playing out in a whole variety of areas,” he said. “The vaccine is just one of them.”
Fifteen years ago, Gross and colleague Solon Simmons of George Mason University surveyed 1,500 professors nationwide about their religious beliefs, finding much higher rates of atheism or agnosticism among those at elite research universities (37%) than at community colleges (15%).
Conversely, the share of those who believed in God was twice as high at community colleges (40%) as at the universities (20%). The survey also found belief differences depending on the academics’ field of study: Those in psychology and biology were 61% atheist or agnostic, while 63% of those in accounting said they believed in God’s existence.
Both groups, however, have leaned on their respective communities for support in hard times – including during the isolation and stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In College Station, Texas, the Texas A&M chapter of the National Secular Student Alliance has filled that role for its approximately 30 active members – particularly during the shutdown, before vaccines became widely available.
“A lot of atheists, when they get out of religion, try to find some kind of community,” said chapter president Aref Sadeghi Googhari. “It’s like, how am I going to fill the gap?”
Sadehgi, 26, began doubting God’s existence in his late teens, slowly picking at the foundations of his Baha’i upbringing and questioning the beliefs of his and other religions. The fully vaccinated computer-engineering major considers himself an atheist but says he never lost the support network he always had despite differences in faith.
Sadeghi said getting vaccinated was not just about protecting himself but those around him.
“Atheists are more responsive to science,” he said. “As opposed to religious people who may have ideas about God protecting them or it being God’s plan, that there’s no point to getting the vaccine.”
Struggling to find acceptance
Kimberly Rios, a psychology professor at Ohio University, said that while atheists may put more trust in science rather than religion, it doesn’t mean those beliefs can’t be just as extreme as those sometimes ascribed to the faithful.
“Some psychology studies have suggested atheists can come to see science as a religion of sorts,” Rios said. “Atheists are more likely than other religious and non-religious groups to believe science is the best or even the only means of discovering the truth. In other words, atheists can have ‘fundamentalist’ views of science that mirror what certain religious fundamentalists groups think about their faith.”
Atheists typically haven’t identified with others in their group, Rios said, since their beliefs, or lack of beliefs, are not usually a significant part of their self-concept. But she thinks that could be changing as the population grows and secular humanist organizations multiply.
A study published in the Journal of Religion and Health in 2016 found that while atheists and agnostics showed slightly better physical health differences in some areas than their religious counterparts, they scored worse in terms of social support circles, health behaviors and other factors related to psychological well-being.
With the share of atheists and agnostics continuing to grow among the U.S. population, the researchers cautioned that the findings could have implications for future healthcare needs.
The group remains among the most stigmatized in American society, said Rios, who earlier this year co-authored a study that found atheists were most likely to face opposition to openly expressing their views in the workplace compared to other minority groups, including Jews and Muslims.
Such discrimination, she said, are rooted in stereotypes of immorality and indifference – labels that high levels of vaccination would seem to contradict.
In Tucson, Arizona, retired podiatrist Gil Shapiro half-expected rocks hurled through his office window as the onetime spokesman for local humanist organization Freethought Arizona. Instead, he said, “I gained as many patients as I lost.”
Raised in a conservative Jewish home, “I started asking my father questions about the Holocaust, like ‘How could a loving god do this?’” said Shapiro, who just got his COVID-19 booster shot. “During my teen years, I became firmer in my thinking as I saw the way the world was working. And it works exactly the way you would expect if there was no god.”
While religion might provide the path for some, Shapiro said, atheism requires making your own meaning and purpose and relying on the goodness of fellow humans to deal with crisis. Such notions, he said, are actually inspiring and comforting for nonbelievers.
“Life has its ups and downs,” said Shapiro, who lost a childhood friend to COVID-19. While he didn’t know his friend’s vaccination status or beliefs, “we live in a world of probabilities, where sometimes good things happen and sometimes bad things happen. You just have to accept that the universe is exquisitely indifferent to what’s going on.”