One of the most interesting areas of study (and perhaps least researched) is the attitude of the converging middle group towards science. Middle grounders with an intellectual bent evidently love science as much as they love spirituality. In 2014 in the US, representatives of 551 church congregations met for an “evolution weekend” to celebrate hard science32. In India, scientists successfully launch rockets to Mars and give puja (blessings) for their success.33
Judging by the literature, the science establishment is increasingly non-hostile to views of reality that are not narrowly materialistic. These days, many scientists and science writers, whether atheist or otherwise, appear to have taken to heart Einstein’s dictum that: “All physics is metaphysics.”34 The ultimate non-reality of the physical world around us, the existence of unseen dimensions, the questions that generate discussion of the cosmological anthropic principle—these are all areas of lively, open discussion. While the science community remains as allergic as ever to anything that smacks of “pseudoscience”, we are honest enough to admit that there are numerous aspects of quantum theory that appear to move beyond that which can be explained by purely physical factors (such as the measurement problem, action at a distance, entanglement and so on). Since the confirmation of Bell’s Inequality, there is no doubt there exists a mysterious extra dimension outside our concept of time and space.
Consciousness is another area of open-mindedness, where many scientists say the you-are-your-brain hypothesis required by strict materialism feels inadequate. And there is very little gap between popular scientific hypotheses such as simulationism (the “we live in the matrix” concept)35, or the “alien intelligence designed this universe” discussion36 and ideas of the possible existence of some sort of higher consciousness.
In other words, today we all agree that the story of the development of the universe and organic life reads like an astonishing piece of science fiction. There’s simply no good reason to say that Sir Isaac Newton’s understanding of reality (he believed that the indications showed that a higher consciousness created us and we can call it God) is “wrong”, while the version offered by a respected modern science writer like John Gribbin36 (he says that the indications are that a higher consciousness created us and we can call it alien intelligence) is allowable.
They do not substantially contradict each other. Indeed, they are not even different.
Some of the world’s most respected scientists, including top astrophysicist Martin Rees, president emeritus of the Royal Society, have led the way to more openness in cosmological discussions. Like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, he promotes non-hostility to spiritual practices. The concept that “matter is made of ideas” comes from discussions in quantum physics rooted in the work of Werner Heisenberg, but could easily come from the spiritual world-view of progressive Christians in New York or Hindu programmers in Chennai. Other scientists who have championed a non-hostile view towards organized spiritual groups include cosmologists John D. Barrow, Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson.
CONCLUSION: THE POST-ATHEIST WORLD
After reviewing a large amount of data on this subject, what can we say about humanity’s main world-views, now and in the future? It’s almost inevitable that the media will continue to take a Western-centric stance and report that atheism is growing and people are falling away from churches. Pollsters will continue to ask people if they are religious or atheist, as if the two terms were opposites, and will continue to get answers that do not bear close examination.
But while the rise of atheism has certainly been a key theme in the development of human culture in the West over the past half-century, the view that atheism will sweep the globe to produce a non-believing utopia is extremely unlikely. The shrinking of the skeptical share of humanity is inevitable, as Welsh geneticist Steve Jones has stated37. The data gives us no reason to believe otherwise than that atheism will continue to be profoundly less popular than a more solidly middle view, characterized by an open spiritual stance combined with a growing respect for the beliefs of others. (This generosity of attitude appears to chime in with other analyses of sociological trends, such as the fall in societal violence described in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.)
As described above, the data suggests that the global proportion of atheists will fall, while the number of pro-spiritual, pro-science middle group will grow, its numbers boosted by a center-ward drift from both sides. They will come from extremely large religious groups which are moving at high speed away from hardline attitudes to liberal ones, and from ostensibly atheist groups such as the fifth of the world’s population which is China, re-opening up to a wider range of spiritual practices. This can be seen as a global convergence.
NAMING THE CENTER
How should we refer to the central group? Above, we have used terms such as “middle-grounders” and “convergence”.
However, it could be argued that this group already has a name, as mentioned earlier. Christians use the word “universalism”, a name and concept with a long history, to refer to the liberal belief that God ultimately draws all people to himself, not just those who subscribe to a specific set of doctrines. (They quote many Bible verses to back this view, including the words of Jesus as quoted in The Gospel of John 12:32: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”) Some historians suggest that the early church took a universalist view for several centuries, from Christ’s death to the fifth or sixth centuries. The modern growth of the current brand of universalism indicates that it is already widespread as a generally accepted mode of belief. Since the chief characteristic of universalism is respect for other world-views, it is already being used to refer to open-minded beliefs in a wider context.
Furthermore, by coincidence or subconscious design, many of the groups we have been calling the “nons”, people who don’t belong to either a religious or atheist world-view cluster, frequently use the term “The Universe” to describe their view of God. While we may associate this use of the word with new age trends, the idea of identifying God and the Universe is very ancient. Pantheism underlies much of the thinking in Hinduism, and Einstein declared himself a follower of Baruch Spinoza, a 17thcentury philosopher identified with the spread of pantheism in the West. (In Spinozan thought, The Universe or nature is God, but God is more than nature.)
In science, too, we talk about universalistic concepts with similar terms. Most famously, we have Charles Darwin’s views on religion as a receptacle of ideas that enabled man to live on a higher moral plane. Darwin noted that while tribes of “savages” did exist with no notion of a specific God or gods, a spiritual view of life was “universal”. He wrote that the God of Western religion was not found in remote climes; “If, however, we include under the term ‘religion’ the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different: for this belief seems to be universal with the less civilized races.”38
This may ultimately imply that humanity itself has a deep need to believe that reality has an extra dimension to it. As in so many things, Darwin appears to have got to this idea before the rest of us. Influenced by his friend, social evolutionist Herbert Spencer, Darwin wrote in 1870 that man was “led through dreams, shadows, and other causes, to look at himself as a double essence, corporeal and spiritual”.38
Although Darwin lost the simple, literal faith that he had in his youth, he later chose to raise his children as universalists (his wife was a Unitarian), sending them to church on Sundays. In his final years, he offered the use of his reading room for Christian gatherings.
SUMMARY AND FINAL THOUGHT
Atheism as a proportion of humanity’s belief systems appears to have peaked, while spiritual groups are undergoing convergence, as shown by a review of world-view data which includes a more nuanced examination of belief statistics from Asia, the world’s most populous region. Humanity is entering a post-atheist era featuring a global convergence of people with an open-minded, pro-science, pro-spiritual outlook.
Media suggestions that humanity is turning into an atheist utopia are unfounded. Such beliefs appear to come from an unhelpful understanding of spiritual beliefs as religious at one end and atheistic at the other. A form of universalism, defined as an inclusive spirituality in which all world-views, including skepticism, are respected, may already be the largest cluster.
Poet W. H. Auden would be pleased with the spread of openness and tolerance. Talking of humanity as a whole, he said: “We must love one another or die.”
But in terms of acknowledging the move to converge on what we share rather than what divides us, perhaps a quote variously attributed to Ferenc David, a Unitarian minister, and John Wesley, a Christian preacher, is more appropriate: “We need not think alike to love alike.”
Vittachi, Nury. 2015. “Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence”. Science 2.0. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online: http://www.science20.com/writer_on_the_edge/blog/atheism_peaks_while_spiritual_groups_move_toward_convergence-156528