Is The Position Of Atheism Growing Stronger?/Chapter IV

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One of the desperate pleas of those who do not like to see the world passing away from Christianity is that there is "a considerable and increasing interest in religion." That is to say, they bully the press into giving a large space to the activities of the Churches and use their wealth to put religion on the ether (radio) and in the topical pictures, and then they ask us to be impressed. When some scientific man writes a book which seems to be favorable to religion, they boost its circulation and then flaunt the figures in our faces. Curiously, they never mention as an indication of interest in religion the immense circulation of 280,000,000 Little Blue Books. But the best test of the sincerity of these people is that, as I said, not the least attempt is made to ascertain even approximately how many in the last 20 years have passed from Christianity to Atheism, though the figure obviously runs to tens of millions.

In the very conspicuous case of Russia the religious writer first says that the change has been brought about by compulsion, which you easily disprove, and then he objects that the fascination of some millions of peasants who have just learned to read for new ideas is unimportant and transitory. Again he completely ignores or misrepresents Russian experience. We might make a broad distinction of three intellectual levels in Russia. The highest is that of the higher officials, technical experts, professors, writers, artists, and all who have received higher education. No one questions that the man and women of this category are solidly atheistic. The second intellectual level is that of the skilled workers, town- workers generally, officials of third and fourth grade, and youths and young women who have had secondary or technical education. These are overwhelmingly, though not so completely, atheistic. The third level is that of the mass of the peasants, the great majority of whom were illiterate until a few years ago. And it is in that category that you find the remaining tens of millions of believers, and particularly in the remoter provinces where education is most difficult. To point out a few exceptions to this classification is polemical trickery. It is the broad truth that matters.

But the chief blunder of these people is to imagine that when we speak of Atheism in our time we are thinking only, or almost entirely, of Russia. There are today more Atheists outside Russia than there are under the Soviet rule, That is what I have now to show, and we will begin with a consideration of the number of Atheists in the United States and Great Britain.

1. Statistics Made by Holy Men[edit]

The government of the United States was persuaded many years ago to omit from the census-papers the clause that asked a man's religious "affiliation." The clause itself was deliberately ambiguous and was intended to enable men and women to say that they had some sort of connection with a Church, or disliked it less than others, though they never attended its services. But skepticism continued to grow, and the clergy persuaded officials that the best way to ascertain how many Catholics and Protestants there are in the country is to ask the Churches. It must have tickled the genial cynicism of our civil servants, but they agreed. How nice and easy their work would be in the Treasury if they just had to ask a man what his income is and need not trouble to put any check on his statement.

As a result, naturally, we get fantastic figures of church-membership at which the clergy often smile. Dr. McConnell says in his Christianity, an Interpretation, (p. 229):

"Church statistics are worth less than nothing. It is probably speaking within bounds to say that not one parish in 10 could find and locate one half the number of members it reports."

In the circumstances the preciseness of these religious statistics is an exquisite piece of humor. At the last census we learned that there were just 54,576,346 Christians in America. It conveyed an impression—to some people—of swarms of priests and parsons perspiring over their books and meticulously counting their sheep to the last unit.

I once, in my clerical days, was staying with a priest when, in my presence and talking to me about it all the time, he made up his figures for his own clerical authorities. These were not for publication, and his authorities demanded to know not only how many Catholics actually attended services but also how many there were in his parish who were baptized Catholics. He did not know the first figure within hundreds and the second within thousands but he reported that there were about 5,000 nominal Catholics in his parish and about 1,000 real Catholics. This was an exceptionally bad case for the people were wretchedly poor and the Church was not so keen as it would be in a comfortable suburb of Boston, but it illustrates how such statistics are made. At the best they mean only that a clergyman who keeps a register counts the names of all who were inscribed in it and not known to him to be dead. What proportion of them have given up their creed and never came near his church he has, as a rule, not the least idea.

The inconsistency and other peculiar features of the statistics give them away to any person who examines them closely. The Roman Catholics, for instance, counted their numbers in their Directory as 2,000,000 more than they figured in the Census of Religions, and their learned representative who was invited to write on them in the new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica gave them a further 5,000,000 or so. They claimed even in the Census of 1926 that during the preceding 10 years they had, as usual, grown even more rapidly than the growth of population, yet on another page it appeared that, whereas in 1916 they had reported 1,860,000 Sunday School pupils, and the admirable fertility of Catholic mothers ought to have raised this in 10 years to well over the 2,000,000 mark, they in 1926 reported only 1,201,000. They clearly lost nearly a million children of Sunday-School age in 10 years yet boasted of an almost miraculous growth.

In No. 1 of the Appeal to Reason Library I carefully analyzed the Roman Catholic total for 1928. Different versions of that total in Catholic publications airily differed from each other by one to two millions, though each of them was precise to the final unit, and the 'Christian Century' made a careful estimate, on information supplied by the Catholic clergy themselves, which was more than 3,000,000 less than the lowest Catholic estimate. I referred my readers for remarkable disclosures by Catholics to John F. Moores's work, Will 'America Become Catholic?' He shows that Catholic writers in some cases nearly doubled figures supplied by the priests for the purpose of the Census, and that even these latter figures were shown by Catholic local inquiry to be 30, 40, and in some cases nearly 50 percent exaggerated. He quotes a Catholic writer in a Catholic periodical complaining bitterly that the statistics supplied by the priests are "shockingly suggestive of either prevarication or down-right stupidity." They are, he says, "padded" and for the purpose of "deceiving ourselves and others." In short, I gave ample proof that Catholics in America number at the most 15,000,000 instead of 22,000,000 people. Any reader who cares to go back to my article in the Appeal will recognize that even the figure of 15,000,000 is optimistic.

2. The Sad Reality[edit]

I have already quoted Protestant divines making even larger deductions from their statistics, so we are fully assured that the figures are very high above the truth. Is it possible to have some sort of approximate idea how many do belong to the various Christian bodies? Church going is still the safest test, for the small number of genuine Christians who never attend any church is more than offset by the number of those who do attend but do not accept the creed in any fashion, even in the Modernist interpretation of it. And the assurances of religious writers and impartial observers which I have repeatedly quoted make it quite plain that the number falls enormously short of the figure of 50,000,000 to 60,000,000 which is usually given. In the Catholic Fortnightly Review for January 1, 1927, it was pointed out that for one Catholic diocese the Census figure was 21,268 and the Catholic Directory figure, 39,450, for the same year. But I have made it quite clear that the Catholic one-third of the supposed total number of Christians must be reduced by 30 percent, and we may safely make the same deduction from all the figures.

This would give the real number of church-going folk as about 40,000,000. Seeing that, as I will tell in a moment, the clerical authorities in Great Britain admit that they hold only one-fifth of the population, to allow that the Churches in America control one- third seems too generous. Probably the very much larger proportion of rural population and the colored folk of the southern states do give the American churches a higher percentage than the British: though in the circumstances it is not a matter to boast about. But let us not be finicky. Let us give them a round 40,000,000 for all Churches. When I was running the 'Militant Atheist,' I quoted from the ordinary press one witness after another declaring from personal observation and inquiry that nothing like one-third of the people go to church. But, as I said, let us have a little Christian charity or generosity.

This leaves at least 80,000,000 Americans who do not attend church, chapel, or synagogue. Now, how many of these are Atheists? Well, your guess is almost as good is mine, but let me give you a few pointers. First, if only 30 percent of the ordinary professors of science in the universities and higher colleges believe in a personal God, we suspect that the proportion is not likely to be higher among their pupils. Professor Leuba made an exact inquiry of some interest more than 20 years ago. He had a questionnaire distributed in nine colleges and received 927 replies from students of 18, 19 and 20 years. It turned out that 56 percent of the young men believed in a personal God (82 percent of the girls), but we are not told if any of the colleges were religious or under religious influence. More instructive was the result of an inquiry into the belief in immortality in a college of such religious respectability that even Roman Catholics were found in it. Here 80.3 percent of the freshmen, 76.2 of the sophomores, 60 percent of the juniors, and 70.1 percent of the seniors believed in immortality; and the greater amount of belief amongst seniors than juniors was explained by the fact, which all attested, of the "intellectual superiority of the junior class." In both investigations many refused to reply. We see that a very high proportion lose their beliefs in transit through college. Nearly half (or 40 percent) of the male students of senior rank became or were Atheists.

But this was a few years before 1916, or more than 20 years ago, and it will hardly be questioned that there is much more skepticism among the men, and especially the young women, today. Unfortunately we have had no further exact inquiries and can only conclude that the Christian young men who write to the papers to say that there was not a single Atheist in their colleges were either brought up in cotton wool or mean by Atheist what no Atheist does mean. Taking middle class and working class together it is impossible to say statistically what proportion of the 80,000,000 non-Christian Americans are Atheists. It would be of considerable service if Atheists would make careful reports, based upon entirely impartial personal knowledge and inquiry, what proportion of the non-church-going people whom they can reach are Atheists. I have made extensive inquiries of this kind in England, and both in England and America it is my favorite practice, not to inspect civic halls and other buildings, but to eat in every variety of eating-shop and listen to the conversation of the people everywhere. We must further take into account the tone of the literature the people read, the plays and talkies and vaudeville they prefer. In a later number of this series of essays I will carefully analyze the change that has, in spite of censors, come over this kind of literature and entertainment, but everybody knows that the situation today reveals that tens of millions not only want "godless" novels and shows but keenly enjoy any jest about religion that the censors permit. Certainly one-fourth, probably a third, of the non-church goers do not believe in God. But I have better material for judgment in the case of England, where the situation must be much the same as in America.

3. England Passing to Atheism[edit]

First let us get the number of church-going folk in England and Wales (which have joint statistics). I have repeatedly pointed out during the last 10 years that the combined Churches, which every year supply their figures of membership, to such annuals as the 'Statesman's Year Book' and 'Whitaker's Almanack,' do not claim even one-fourth of the population of England and Wales; and it is the same in Scotland, yet, such is the general educational atmosphere in which we live that I still find a skeptical London audience surprised when I mention the fact. There is now little excuse for surprise. In 1934 the heads of the Church of England appointed a committee to make as severe an inquiry as possible into these figures, and the published result was that of the 40,000,000 people of England and Wales between 80 and 90 percent do not go to church. The clergy now put it that they control only one-fifth of the population;. and this has recently been repeated by Father Knox, one of the leading Roman Catholic propagandists. It is therefore an admitted figure that 32,000,000 people in Great Britain do not belong to any Church or attend any services. The true figure is probably higher. There are churches within a mile of my home of which the ministers refuse to marry any who will not submit and induce their families to submit to baptism first; and so urgent is the craving of girls for the picturesque church-wedding that I know of whole families of Atheists who, with sonorous cursing behind the parson's back, submitted. They, of course, never entered the church again, but they are on the list of members of the Church of England. I see all round me people, of the one-tenth or one-twentieth of church-goers in London, who "affiliate" avowedly for social reasons.

These people, as I said, offset the number of folk who genuinely and deliberately believe in God or Christianity yet never go to church. But what proportion of the 32,000,000 are Atheists? Inquiries which I have had made into the frame of mind—that is what it really comes to—of dozens of middle-class and working- class families which do not go to church yet have no connection with atheistic associations and have never read atheistic literature report that about half are scornfully atheistic and in the other half one gets a value frame of mind shading from "I don't know—I think there must be something in it" to a definite belief that there must be a God who "made the world." The real difficulty in counting Atheists is that between the men and women who emphatically say they do not believe there is a God—they generally refer to the cruelty of life and the hypocrisy of the clergy and religious people—and the men and women who promptly and definitely say they do believe, there are millions who never think about the subject until they are asked, and they are then apt to say that "there must be something in it." Without hesitation we may say that at least a fourth of them, probably a third, have no belief in God.

And this is strongly confirmed by the few attempts that have been made to elicit their opinions. About a dozen years ago—I have lost the cutting and this remarkable experience is never mentioned in books on religion—the 'Daily News' urged its readers to reply to 14 questions about religion. Of the 500,000 readers of the paper, which was the favored daily paper of Methodists and Baptists, Only 15,168 filled out the questionnaire, though for two months they were implored to do so, and many clergymen joined in the request. I do not see how any man, in such circumstances and in view of the semi-religious character of the paper, can suggest a reason why a disproportionate number of Atheists should reply; yet of the 15,000, only 9,991 said that they believed in a personal God and 2,686 said they did not. By arrangement the questions were published simultaneously in the London Nation, a middle-class weekly. Of those who replied in this case 537 professed belief and 736 rejected the belief. The figures are so small that we can do no more than draw the broad conclusion that the proportion of Atheists amongst non-church goers is very, high, It confirms my moderate estimate that at least a third of them do not believe in God.

The cultural level is so much the same in England and America that the admission of the British heads of Churches, that they have lost four-fifths of the people, suggests a parallel situation in America. If one accepts that suggestion, the number of non-church goers in America rises to more than 90,000,000, and at least a fourth of these have no religious beliefs. The time has gone by for admitting the frivolous claim that people who never go to church are really Christians without the church-going habit. In September, 1935, the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral (London), one of the abler officials of the Church of England, said at a Church conference:

"I do not believe that more than 20 percent of the people of this country are in any possible sense of the word Christians."

We have no reason whatever to speak different of the 80,000,000 or more Americans who never go to church, and one is surely very generous in entertaining the idea that even one half of them cherish a pure theistic belief though they never hear a sermon and few read religious books.