According to various surveys, polls, and studies, atheists account for roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population and around 25 percent of Canada’s. There are indications, however, that the numbers are much higher, perhaps closer to 20 percent in the U.S. and as much as 40 percent in Canada. One study suggests that only five percent of the U.S. population born before 1946 are atheists, but that 19 percent of those born after 1977 fall in that category. Although the numbers vary significantly from study to study, they all seem to agree that atheism is growing among the younger generations. Then again, it could be that the number of people declaring “no religion” is growing, not really atheism, per se.
The difficulty in coming up with more exact numbers has to do with semantics and with the stigma attached to the word, atheist. Many “non-believers” prefer not to be labeled as atheists and therefore identify themselves as agnostics (don’t know) or simply as non-religious, humanists, or secularists. Realizing this, the researchers often just ask the respondent for a “religion” or “no-religion,” and it cannot be inferred that “no-religion” necessarily means the person is an atheist. Moreover, some people who might list a religion in a survey have really divorced themselves from that religion and may be de facto atheists, but, for one reason or another, find it convenient to continually affiliate themselves with their old religion.
The simple dictionary definition is that an atheist is “one who denies the existence of God” but that requires a definition of “God.” If a person believes in a “Higher Power” of some kind but rejects the idea of an anthropomorphic God—one with human characteristics—and further believes that consciousness survives death, is he or she to be counted as an atheist? There are a growing number of people in that category. Should Buddhists, who do not believe in God, yet believe in some form of afterlife, be considered atheists for statistical purposes?
While many non-believers prefer to remain in the closet and not be labeled as atheists, there clearly are more and more militant atheists who wear the title as a badge of honor. They undoubtedly have been encouraged by a flood of books on atheism during the first decade of this century. The authors include Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis), Christopher Hitchens (god is not Great), David Mills (Atheist Universe), Michael Onfray (Atheist Manifesto), Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason), and a number of others who have reached best-seller status. Their ideas have inspired more timid minds and fueled a militancy that is increasingly apparent in the media and on the Internet. They justify their aggressiveness by arguing that religion promotes intolerance, impedes social progress, and leads to war and terrorism.
Waving the banner of science, these militant atheists fancy themselves self-appointed guardians of truth in the war on superstition. And while recognizing that their philosophy dooms them to eternal nothingness, they rationalize that their “truth” combined with on-going science gives meaning to life. That is, life is all about providing a better world for future generations. However, in all their altruism, they stop short of explaining to what end the progeny or to which generation full fruition. If a future generation experiences a world of peace with unsurpassed comforts and conveniences, what will give meaning to their lives? In effect, life remains short-term and meaningless for all generations under the atheist’s banner.
“Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head,” Jerry A. Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at The University of Chicago, wrote in a feature article titled “Science and religion aren’t friends” for the October 11, 2010, issue of USA Today. In championing the cause of atheism, Coyne haughtily goes on to say that “science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns.”
There is nothing in the article to indicate that Coyne, who says he is a “former believer,” is even remotely aware of all the scientific research suggesting that consciousness survives death—research in near-death experiences, mediumship, past-life regressions, deathbed visions, apparitions, astral travel, and other paranormal phenomena. If confronted with the evidence, Coyne would likely parrot the words of well-known “skeptics” like James Randi and Michael Shermer, claiming they have all been debunked in one way or the other and were never subject to strict scientific methodology in the first place.
In fact, a very strong case for survival was made by a number of distinguished scientists and scholars of yesteryear who represented the Society for Psychical Research in investigating mediums. Yet, the research of those early pioneers has been filed away in dust-covered file cabinets and all but forgotten. It has been repudiated, rejected, refuted, resisted, and ridiculed. Mainstream science has smirked, snickered, scoffed, and sneered at it. In an article titled The Mystery of Consciousness appearing in Time Magazine a few years ago, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, stated that “attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks.”
Anyone who is really familiar with the old research understands that there was much more to it than cheap magic tricks and that the findings of those research pioneers is as solid today as it was a hundred years ago. More recent research with clairvoyant mediums by Dr. Gary Schwartz of the University of Arizona and Dr. Julie Beischel of The Windbridge Institute in Tucson has validated the conclusions of the pioneers.
“At this point, we can definitively state from the results of our proof-focused research that certain mediums are capable of what we call anomalous information reception (or AIR),” Beischel said in a recent interview. “That is, they can report accurate and specific information about deceased individuals (or discarnates) without any prior knowledge about the discarnates or sitters (the living people interested in hearing from the discarnates), without any feedback during the reading, and without using fraud or deception.”
Beischel went on to explain the quintuple-blind protocol she and her colleagues used effectively eliminated all the explanations that a skeptic may claim are responsible for a medium’s apparent accuracy, including fraud, experimenter cueing, information so general it could apply to anyone, rater bias, and cold reading (a situation in which a medium uses cues from a present sitter to fabricate an ‘accurate’ reading).
Research in the area of near-death experiences (NDEs) points to a spirit body, energy body, astral body, etheric body, whatever name be given to it, enveloping the physical body. This research strongly suggests that this energy body separates from the physical body at death and carries with it the consciousness of the dying person. “That death is the end used to be my own belief,” Dr. Pim van Lommel, a world-renowned cardiologist and NDE researcher, states in his 2010 book, Consciousness Beyond Life. “But after many years of critical research into the stories of the NDErs, and after a careful exploration of current knowledge about brain function, consciousness, and some basic principles of quantum physics, my views have undergone a complete transformation. As a doctor and researcher, I found the most significant finding to be the conclusion of one NDEr: ‘Dead turned out to be not dead.’ I now see the continuity of our consciousness after the death of our physical body as a very real possibility.”
Unfortunately, most of the media today is grounded in materialism and atheism. When research scientists like Beischel and Van Lommel announce their findings to the public, the media unwittingly supports the atheists, or “skeptics,” as they call themselves in this context, by calling in one of them to offer a theory in opposition to the findings of the researcher, thus impugning the integrity and objectivity of the researcher, who started as a true skeptic and has already discounted the skeptic’s theory. The end result is that the testimony of the skeptic, who likely has not been involved in the research, is given equal weight with that of the dedicated researcher. Indeed, it seems that those involved in paranormal research which ultimately leads to the question of whether consciousness survives physical death must continually reinvent the wheel. Moreover, once the researcher offers evidence in support of a non-mechanistic universe, he or she is considered a “propagandist” rather than an objective scientist. This is what happened with the pioneering psychical researchers and explains why modern researchers are forced to give guarded statements or significantly hedge in their conclusions.
In his 2009 book, The End of Materialism, Dr. Charles Tart, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Davis, states that the conflict is not between science, per se, and spirituality, but between scientism and spirituality. Scientism is, he says, a rigidified and dogmatic corruption of science. In other words, scientism is scientific fundamentalism and is to science what religious fundamentalism is to religion. While the religious fundamentalists are locked into the “letter” of whatever good book they adopt, the scientific fundamentalists are dogmatically locked into the scientific method.
The roots of modern atheism took hold during the latter part of the nineteenth century in the wake of Darwinism, which was preceded by the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment. Unable to reconcile biblical accounts of creation with biological evolution, educated men began dismissing all religion as mere superstition and mythology. “Never, perhaps, did man’s spiritual satisfaction bear a smaller proportion to his needs,” wrote Cambridge scholar Frederic W. H. Myers, one of the co-founders of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), of the despair and hopelessness that gripped Western civilization during the last four decades of the 1800s. “The old-world sustenance, however earnestly administered, [was] too unsubstantial for the modern cravings. And thus through our civilized societies two conflicting currents [ran]. On the one hand, health, intelligence, morality—all such boons as the steady progress of planetary evolution can win for the man—[were] being achieved in increasing measure. On the other hand this very sanity, this very prosperity, [brought out] in stronger relief the underlying Weltschmerz, the decline of any real belief in the dignity, the meaning, the endlessness of life.”
William James, the distinguished Harvard professor who is considered one of the founders of modern psychology, is said to have suffered from the “soul sickness” of the time and to have contemplated suicide because of his despair. Like Myers, whom he befriended, James turned to psychical research in the hope of finding evidence that consciousness does survive death and was instrumental in establishing the American branch of the SPR. Ironically, even though the SPR research strongly suggested an afterlife, orthodox religion also rejected it because some of the research findings were not completely consistent with established dogma and doctrine and thus appeared as a threat to religious authority.
Influenced by materialistic philosophers like Hume, Spenser, Huxley, Nietzsche, Marx, and Mill, universities slowly but surely produced professors grounded in materialism and with a disdain for religion. They saw a belief in life after death as evidence of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, and, according to Henry Holt, an author and early SPR member, “the incapacity to face the music.” The dogmatic literalism of orthodox Christian leaders only added fuel to the fire, permitting science and common sense to prevail. “Atheism is a beautiful belief, honest and soul-saving, compared with that desperate, godless, devil-full theology, which gives splendor to the physical churches and such despair to the congregations of believing millions who support them,” wrote Andrew Jackson Davis, a nineteenth century mystic and philosopher who campaigned for religion and spiritual reform.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the materialistic professors dominated the schools of higher learning. “I can assure you that unless one carried a badge on his lapel making clear to everyone that he was an atheist, he probably would not get tenure,” said Dr. John Bockris, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania from 1953 to 1972 and a distinguished professor at Texas A & M University from 1978 to 1997. “I used to have to attend a church that was far away so I wouldn’t be seen by my colleagues.”
Dr. Stafford Betty, professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield, was lucky enough to get tenure and promotion to full professor before he developed a serious interest in paranormal research. “Otherwise,” he says, “not all my publications in philosophy and religion, and I had a lot of them, could have saved me.” As it is, he has been removed from his department, and students majoring in religion are routinely advised to avoid his courses. “Where I work,” he adds, “talking about life after death as a serious hypothesis, presenting evidence for its reality, is regarded as an embarrassment to the institution.”
Orthodox religious educators and leaders put the God issue before the survival of consciousness issue by assuming that God must be accepted before survival can be seriously considered. In so doing, they play into the hands of the militant atheists, who find it much easier to focus their attack on God rather than on the scientific evidence for survival. If religious leaders were to put the God issue aside and first look at the evidence for survival, letting God— whatever He, She, or It happens to be—unfold from that evidence, they might make some progress, but they remain stuck in the muck and mire of literalism and a belief that blind faith should suffice for everyone, completely ignoring the potential of scientific research to bring about true faith, or conviction, even if it falls a little short of absolute certainty.
Generally uninformed in more progressive views of spirituality, the militant atheists assume that religious fundamentalism is representative of all spiritual belief systems and react primarily to it. In his recent book, Mind Programming, Dr. Eldon Taylor, president and director of Progressive Awareness Research, Inc., points out that artifacts discovered in ancient burial sites suggest that people have always believed in life after death. Moreover, neuroscientists have demonstrated the existence of religious centers in the human brain. “In other words, we’re built to believe,” he offers. “It takes an act of society and an orchestrated effort by educators to produce an atheist. In this sense, atheism is a product of brainwashing.”
The late Dr. John Mack, a Pulitzer Prize winner and professor of psychiatry at Harvard, gave his views on the materialistic “worldview” in which so many academicians are stuck. “A worldview functions at both individual and institutional levels,” Mack wrote. “It is a source of security and a compass to guide us. For an individual it holds the psyche together. To destroy someone’s worldview is virtually to destroy that person. A complex network of institutions, an edifice of power and money, supports a worldview and gives it legitimacy.”
Mack went on to say that “the findings of parapsychology (a more modern name for psychical research) challenge the idea of a mechanistic universe operating by established causal principles, suggesting a world in which unseen connections work mysteriously according to principles we do not yet understand and certainly do not control.” He admitted that this was his own mindset—one devoid of consciousness and intelligence beyond the brain—until he began investigating the paranormal. He came to look back upon his former view of a secular universe as “quite absurd.”