Religion is irrational, but so is atheism

Jonathan Lanman
  • 28 March 2011 by Jonathan Lanman
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Why are some people religious and others atheists? Do we really know what we mean by atheism? Here is a very paradoxical clue

IN THIS space a year ago, Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant called for a science of “non-religion”. They provided evidence against the idea that more education leads to less religious belief, which they call the “Enlightenment assumption”, and argued that we know little about why we have the beliefs we do (6 March 2010, p 26).

I agree. The origins of our beliefs are more mysterious than the Enlightenment assumption holds. Besides specific studies of education and religiosity, we also have a wealth of evidence showing the impact of unconscious biases on our thinking, which demonstrate the human mind is less rational than many of us would wish. The implication is that explaining religion or atheism is less a matter of explaining what goes wrong in otherwise rational minds and more a matter of explaining how different environments affect universal cognitive mechanisms.

But what, precisely, are we to explain? I spent 2008 researching atheism in theUS,UK,Denmarkand online. I found a great diversity of “atheisms”, from a lack of belief in God to a lack of belief in all supernatural agents to a moral opposition to all religions. So how is a science of all this to proceed? I think we need to get past the terms themselves and focus on patterns of thought and behaviour.

Two phenomena leapt out at me in 2008. The first was the large number of people lacking belief in all supernatural agents. This phenomenon is interesting both because of the universality of religious beliefs, and because of work by cognitive scientists of religion such as Pascal Boyer atWashingtonUniversity,St Louis, and Jesse Bering at Queen’s University,Belfastin theUK. This suggests such beliefs are well-supported by pan-human cognitive mechanisms. These mechanisms range from our tendency to detect agency in our environment to an unconscious assumption that we are always being watched by some supernatural agency.

The second phenomenon was moral opposition to religious beliefs and values. For many, religions are not just factually wrong but morally harmful and to be opposed. This phenomenon is interesting not only because of current controversies concerning religion and public life but because it raises fascinating questions about how moral judgements arise from both pan-human intuitions and particular socio-cultural environments. I have my own terms for these distinct phenomena: I call the lack of belief in the existence of supernatural agents “non-theism” and the moral opposition to religious beliefs and values “strong atheism”. The majority of Danes are non-theistic; few are strong atheists.

While distinguishing between the two is important, it is only a first step towards explaining these patterns of thought and behaviour. The next step is to notice patterns in their distribution. Not only do we find more non-theism and strong atheism in some places, but we even find, at least in the west, that they are negatively correlated.DenmarkandSweden, for instance, have the highest proportion of non-theists but very little strong atheist sentiment or activity. TheUS, however, has a very low proportion of non-theists but significant levels of strong atheism.

Why? In a word: threat. That is, I believe the distributions we see in levels of non-theism and strong atheism can be explained by the effects of threatening stimuli. Let’s take non-theism first. We have compelling evidence from Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in Sacred and Secular that nations with high existential security, that is the perception that one’s life, well-being and society are secure, exhibit less religious belief and behaviour. But we also have good reasons to doubt the common explanation of this pattern, that religion provides comfort and becomes more convincing in trying times.

Anthropologically, societies in existentially insecure environments actually believe in very non-comforting supernatural agents. In contrast, the most comforting religious ideas, such as New Age spirituality or hell-less Christianity, flourish in the affluent west. Psychologically, we have little to no evidence that our minds will believe in something just because it would be comforting to do so.

So how do we explain the link between existential security and non-theism? Rather than a “comfort” theory, evidence supports a “threat and action” theory. We have an abundance of evidence from psychology and anthropology that feeling under threat increases commitment to in-group ideologies, whether they are religious ideologies or not.

Threats also increase the motivation to participate in religious communities to obtain material benefits. For example, in many contexts, religions are the only game in town for social insurance. Finally, we have evidence that from prayer to psalm recitation, threats increase superstitious behaviour. Increased commitment, participation and superstitious behaviour are all actions, not just words, that testify to religious beliefs.

How important are such actions in producing theism? Crucial. Work by Joseph Henrich from theUniversityofBritish ColumbiainVancouver,Canada, myself, and others suggests that humans believe the statements of others to the extent that they back those statements with actions. That is, rather than believing everything authority figures say, we believe to the extent that they “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk”. The implication is that if parents and others believe in supernatural agents but do not show these beliefs through attendance, self-sacrifice, rule obedience and/or emotional displays, they will find their children sceptical of these beliefs and their society less theistic.

This is what happened inScandinaviain the 20th century as governments instituted extensive welfare policies for ethnically homogenous populations. Fewer economic and social threats meant less religious action and, in the span of a generation, levels of theism fell. TheUS, on the other hand, instituted comparatively weak social welfare policies for a more divided population. Consequently, it saw little decline in theism.

But what of strong atheism? Counter-intuitively, while I think that a lack of social and economic threat produces non-theism, I believe that higher levels of threat to a particular vision of society help produce strong atheism. Strong atheism is not the absence of an in-group ideology but the defence of one: modern secularism.

Many scholars, including philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, have documented the emergence of a new vision of western societies in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the growth of modern nation states. Societies were no longer seen by most of their citizens as kingdoms under God but as societies of mutual benefit in which citizens use their rational minds to cooperate and improve their lives. When religions stood in the way of this by denying individual liberty and pleasure and by asserting that the purpose of life should be transcendent rather than earthly well-being, religions themselves became anti-social and even immoral.

We can partially explain strong atheist sentiment and activity as the result of religious threats to this secular vision of society. Supporting evidence is chronological and geographical. Chronologically, we find Sam Harris writing The End of Faith as a response to 9/11; strong atheists in the US picking up Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and joining atheist groups after the re-election of George W. Bush; and many Danes joining the Danish Atheist Society after the Muhammad cartoon controversy.

Geographical evidence can be seen in the contrast between theUSandDenmark. In theUS, where many Christian conservatives make no secret of their desire to govern by “Biblical” principles, we find hundreds of atheist organisations and thousands of people expressing the view that religion is immoral and to be combated through argument. InDenmarkandSweden, with little threat of politicians governing by religious principles, we find fewer atheist organisations and, in organisations that do exist, much less activity.

My account is based on both qualitative and quantitative evidence, but it requires further research. An overall point can be made, however. Our beliefs, behaviours and moral sentiments are not simply the result of dispassionate reason. As psychologists and anthropologists have argued for some time, to understand them involves considering something we might call “human nature” as well as the particular socio-cultural contexts in which people live. This is as true for explaining atheism as it is for religion.