It Is Not What People Believe That Shapes A City…

“…it is how they put those beliefs into action.”

Norwich has the highest proportion of residents describing themselves as having no religion, while Berlin has been called the ‘atheist capital of Europe’. But what about the rest of the world? And is such an assessment meaningful?

Discovering how many people in a given city believe in God (or not) is an almost superhuman task. In territories controlled or influenced by Islamic State, for example, the risks to declared non-believers are drastic and obvious. On the other side of the coin, the state atheism promulgated by the leaders of the Soviet Union meant that believers were stigmatised at best, persecuted at worst.

As sociology professor Phil Zuckerman pointed out in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, even the terminology of religious belief can throw up roadblocks to understanding. If my idea of religious practice is a good deal looser than yours, can we have a meaningful conversation about which cities are godless and which are not?

Naturally, the methodological hurdles have not prevented researchers from making the leap. According to the 2011 Census of England and Wales, Norwich had the highest proportion of respondents reporting “no religion”. The city’s figure was 42.5% compared with 25.1% for England and Wales as a whole.

The survey revealed that Brighton & Hove came in a close second in the ‘godless’ stakes with 42.4% of residents describing themselves as having no religion. Local newspaper reports in both areas pointed to the relative youth of the population and the high number of students as being relevant factors. If you are young and bright, it seems, you are more likely to be irreligious.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, provided a psychological profile of atheists in The Cambridge Companion. He argued that: “Those with no religious affiliation have been found to be younger, mostly male, with higher levels of education and income, more liberal, but also more unhappy and more alienated from wider society.”

Norwich had the highest proportion of respondents in England and Wales reporting ‘no religion’. Photo Credit: Howard Taylor/Alamy

Meanwhile, the author and biopsychologist Nigel Barber has argued that as cities become more stable and prosperous, their inhabitants are less likely to feel the need for religious belief.

These broad generalisations go some way to explain why Berlin has been dubbed the “atheist capital of Europe”. Some 60% of Berliners claim to have no religion, shaped no doubt by the city’s divided heritage. In 2009, a proposal to give religious lessons the same status as ethics classes in Berlin schools was defeated in a referendum. The proposal was backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, but a low turnout of 30% revealed the lack of interest from the capital’s citizens. Ethics classes have been compulsory in the city’s schools since 2006, introduced after a so-called “honour” killing of a Muslim woman by her husband. Before the change, voluntary religious education classes were poorly attended.

One attempt to study the demographics of godlessness is made by the American Bible Society, which ranks the nation’s cities based on their level of Bible engagement. The survey is conducted by the Barna group and regards individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches as ‘Bible-minded’. “This definition captures action and attitude, those who both engage and esteem the Christian scriptures. The rankings thus reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible in various US cities,” the survey organiser says.

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The least Bible-minded cities in the 2016 survey were Albany/Schenectady/Troy in New York state with only 10% of residents qualifying as Bible-minded. Boston, Massachusetts (11%), moved from third to second place while Providence, Rhode Island (12%), the least Bible-minded city in 2015, dropped two spots to third place. The only Midwest city to make the top five in ‘least Bible-minded’ list was Cedar Rapids, Iowa (13%), followed by Buffalo, New York (13%). Other cities in the bottom 10 include Las Vegas, Nevada (14%), San Francisco (15%), Hartford/New Haven, Connecticut (16%), Phoenix/Prescott, Arizona (16%), and Salt Lake City, Utah (17%).

A convocation at the Vines Center in Lynchburg, Virginia, which topped the list of ‘Bible-minded cities’. Photo Credit: The Washington Post

Emily Heady, an English professor in Lynchburg, Virginia, which topped the list of ‘Bible-minded cities’ told the survey organisers: “In some ways, when I moved to Lynchburg, I felt I’d stepped back in time 25 years to the conservative small town where I grew up, where the question was where, not if, you went to church and where the line between basic human decency and Christianity was hard to draw. At the same time, as the cultural swerve towards relativism and identity politics picks up speed, and as ideas like ‘basic human decency’ no longer have universal definitions, Bible-minded towns like Lynchburg will have to figure out how to articulate their own values in ways that make sense to those who don’t share them.”

Non-readers of the Bible may wish to argue that a lack of acquaintance with, say, the Book of Job, does not mean their values are any less decent. About half of Americans (53%) say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral, while 45% say belief in God is necessary to have good values, according to a 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center.

A report published by the same organisation last year found that atheists, agnostics and others who do not affiliate with any religion, though increasing in absolute numbers, will make up a declining share of the world’s total population in the future.

Over the next 40 years, the report stated, Christians will continue to make up the largest religious group, but Islam will grow faster than any other major religion. If current demographic trends continue, by 2050 the number of Muslims around the world (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) will nearly equal the number of Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%).

The four largest cities in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are Jakarta, Karachi, Cairo and Lagos. In cities across sub-Saharan Africa Muslim populations are increasing ahead of Christian nations in the west. In 2012, an Australian census showed that while more citizens than ever professed to have no religion, the fastness growing religion in its cities was Buddhism, due to migration from India.

Atheist shoes for sale at the World Humanist Congress. Photo Credit: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Last year the residents of Hamtramck in Michigan elected what is reported to be the first majority Muslim city council in the United States. The city boasts a population of 22,000 and it is estimated that 60% of the population is comprised of Muslims. In England, a census data visualisation tool developed by Oliver O’Brien at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, revealed a clear split between neighbours Bradford and Leeds.

Beyond the big numbers, the intensity of religious practice may matter more to the experience of urban living.

“It is not what people believe that shapes a city, it is how they put those beliefs into action.”

Three years ago, when Upstate Atheists, a South Carolina-based group, approached Spartanburg Soup Kitchen to help give out food, their services were rejected because of their differences in beliefs.

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The kitchen’s director, Lou Landrum, told a local newspaper that she was willing to resign from her position as executive director before she would allow atheists to volunteer at the soup kitchen. Eve Brannon, president of Upstate Atheists, said her group knew the organisation was Christian-based before they asked to help, but they did not expect to have their overtures rejected.

In the end, Upstate Atheists handed out care packages across the street from the kitchen. The group gave out 300 care packages containing socks, gloves, deodorant, toothpaste and antiseptic wipes among other items after raising about $2,000 (£1,590) through an online campaign to fund their efforts.

If, like believers, atheists are perfectly capable of making life in a city a little more bearable for those at the sharp end, can they also fashion an environment that inspires us to try harder? What would Durham look like without the most glorious cathedral in Europe? Can we imagine Granada without the Alhambra?

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton certainly thinks atheism and awe are compatible. His plan to build a £1m “temple for atheists” in London has drawn flak from the Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of St Giles’ Cripplegate church, in the Barbican, and Richard Dawkins, the militant atheists’ militant atheist.

Apparently visitors will enter the temple through a single door “as if it were an art installation” (it is possible to regard all spiritual buildings as art installations with extra ingredients for those who want them ). The roof will be open to the rain and sun and there may be fossils and “geologically interesting rocks” in the concrete walls. You probably won’t have to be an atheist to enjoy it, but by the same token you don’t need to be a Hindu, say, to have your socks knocked off by Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

From the Sodom and Gomorrah to the urban canyons of Gotham, the literary depictions of godless cities have usually focused on venality and despair, but researchers in real life find atheists to be at least as tolerant, keen on civic duty, and mindful of their neighbours as their more obviously religious fellow citizens. Identifying any one city in the world as the most godless of all remains fraught with problems.

In the end, putting a number on holiness is like measuring happiness – it often requires a leap of faith.


This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.


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