The four modes of atheism

I have mentioned Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict before. It’s worth reading. I’d describe it as a cross between In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Of course, that means I’m not sure I got the maximal utility from reading it since it leans on so much that I already internalized. But it’s a great introduction to the modern scientific study of religion.

But there was one aspect which I found rather novel, because it introduced new data to me. In particular, the author tackled the origin of atheism, and why it might vary as a function of location and time.

There are four causes of atheism that are surveyed in Big Gods:

1) Personality (low social intelligence)
2) Hyper-analytic cognitive style
3) Societal apathy toward religion
4) Lack of strong modeling of religiosity

The first two are straightforward. There has long been a hypothesis that those with lower social intelligence or weaker in ‘theory of mind’ have a more difficult time to find personal gods plausible. In short, theism depends on a relatively normal theory of mind. Looking at people on the autism spectrum who recounted their ideas of religion and god the author confirmed the intuition. Autistic individuals tended to be less religious, and, if religious, presented a model of God that was often highly impersonal and abstract.

One issue that is important to highlight here: I suspect that many great theological “truths” actually derive from individuals who engage in excessive intellectualism around the idea of god. For the average human applying formal logic to theism is probably beside the point, though these sorts of religious intellectuals loom large in the books because…they are the ones writing the books.

This relates to the second issue. The author and his colleagues did research where they primed individuals by engaging them in highly analytic thought. Correcting for background variables they found that this biased respondents toward an impersonal god or atheism appreciably. Again, I think it gets to the fact that for most humans supernatural beliefs are about the synthesis of intuitions and passions. Excessive intellectualization is more likely to engender skepticism, or, a hyper-formal model of religion (which I think has become religion qua religion for some).

The last two elements are related. In Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God he observes that in highly secular Scandinavia many respondents found it difficult to articulate strong feelings toward religion. It was simply not a prominent social institution in the society, though it was still part of the cultural furniture. But like furniture, it didn’t stand out. Societies with strong states, robust institutions, and impartial rule of law, along with some modicum of prosperity, tend to have lower levels of religiosity, and weaker passions about the topic from respondents. Once religiosity becomes less salient in a broad sense, then it becomes less of a concern in general for individuals.

A separate dynamic is that once people stop acting in a way that indicates that religion is important and true, others who take social cues begin to internalize this as evidence that religion isn’t that important. The authors give the example that there is social science that people who are raised Christian by parents who don’t go to church are far more likely to leave Christianity as adults because their parents did not credibly signal that religion was actually important enough to sacrifice any time and effort for. Perhaps another example which works as an analogy is that the vast majority of the children of interfaith Jewish-Christian marriages who were raised as Jews end up marrying non-Jews.

I think the first two factors in the list above explain the low but consistent basal rate of atheists and heterodox thinkers across history. One thousand years ago in Syria the poet Al-Ma’arri made statements such as below:

Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.

Al-Ma’arri was a brilliant eccentric, so he was tolerated. Some of his quips prefigure H. L. Mencken’s, as when he said that “The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

The other two forms of irreligiosity lead to standard models of secularization through increased affluence and decreased social relevance of religion as an institution. The United States was long the exception to this trend, but as recounted in books such as American Grace, it seems that secularization is starting to have its impact on the United States as well. Basically, as social norms shift to relax incentives toward being religious, more marginal believers will start expressing irreligiosity. At some point, some will start to conform to irreligiosity.

Of course, this sort of secularization is fragile. Aside from the sorts of demographic arguments made in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, examples such as post-Soviet Russia (and the post-Soviet nation-states more generally), as well as the progressively more religious nature of the Baathist resistance to American occupation in Iraq, illustrate that religion can bounce back rather fast, even within a generation or severl years. The social contexts for this resurgence are outlined in the book, but they illustrate that in some ways secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate.

17 thoughts on “The four modes of atheism

  1. The list misses two of my main maxims regarding the matter that seem to explain a lot:

    1. Religion thrives when it protects a threatened culture (immigrant churches, RC in British occupied Ireland, Evangelical Xnity in the American South, black churches), and withers when it reinforces secure establishment norms (e.g. established churches or formerly established churches – most of mainline Xnity in the U.S., RC in France, Shinto in Japan).

    If you are part of a threatened or minority culture that is associated with a religion that defends it, failure to support religious institutions means that your culture dies. If your culture is secure, supporting a religion that your culture is associated with is not necessary to preserve your culture.

    Paganism grew dilute in Rome when it was secure. Christianity grew strong when it preserved dying classical civilization in the face of barbarism.

    2. Religion, and superstition generally, are strong among people whose futures are most subject to the whims of chance (e.g. farmers dependent upon the weather, actors needed luck among many qualified people at every audition, gamblers, soldiers in an out of control conflict, people experiencing natural disasters). People who are more secure, who control their own destinies, and are less subject to luck (e.g. tenured professors) in contrast, are less religious and less superstitious.

  2. The decrease in human-to-human infectious disease transmission is starting to look like a major, perhaps the major, cause of secularization.

    1. There is a high correlation (over 0.6) between prevalence of infectious diseases and individual right wing/conservative political views.
    2. Controlling for other factors, a likely causal link has been established between prevalence of infectious diseases and individual right wing/conservative political views. The cause is not increased prosperity, nor lower levels of violence/warfare, nor general levels of disease, nor general levels of health care.
    3. There are similarly high correlations between prevalence of infectious diseases and various measures of individual religiosity.
    4. Right wing/conservative political views, disgust sensitivity and religiosity all part of the same psychological complex and are highly correlated. They all load onto the Orderliness subfactor of Conscientiousness, and bodily metaphors for the social group are common in both conservative politics and in religion.
    4a. We have to be a bit cautious, because political views, disgust sensitivity and religiosity aren’t not wholly identical things either.

    The correlations also hold by state/region. It’s interesting that the United States is the only major Western nation with a large semi-tropical region. (Southern Europe is can be quite warm, but is not semi-tropical.) Wouldn’t it be funny if delayed secularization in the U.S. was simply due to the climate in the South? Now, of course, the South is just another part of the First World in terms of infectious disease.

    In focussing so much on theory of mind, the association of Conscientiousness with religion is perhaps undervalued. People who are low in the Conscientiousness subfactor Industriousness can’t see the value of hard work, nor can people low in Orderliness see the order (or potential order) in the world. [Got that from a personal conversation with Jordan Peterson.] If seeing order in the world is a big part of religion then theory of mind, which would seem more associated with Agreeableness if any personality trait, would not be the most important factor in religiosity. Though, it should be noted, that higher Agreeableness is also associated with religiosity.

    I would agree that social norms are also important. If people around you credibly signal that they believe religion is true and important, then you are more likely to take religion seriously. This may even work on a national scale: perhaps the norm of religiosity in the South trickled out to the rest of the United States, for example, keeping it religious longer. However, once a certain critical mass of secularization occurs, social norms tend to become indifferent or even work against religion. That critical mass seems to have been reached in the U.S.

    I don’t think human-human infectious disease rates are the only thing that influences religiosity and secularization. A country’s average IQ likely also has a lot to do with it. Higher IQ people seem more open to being secularized.

  3. It’s always surprised me that studies do not show religious people behaving in significantly more moral ways than non-religous people, given that the major personality trait associated with being religious people is high Conscientiousness. This is doubly puzzling as higher Agreeableness, the other personality trait associated with morality, is also correlated with religiosity.

  4. It’s always surprised me that studies do not show religious people behaving in significantly more moral ways than non-religous people, given that the major personality trait associated with being religious people is high Conscientiousness.

    well it’s complicated. they sort of due. but it depenends on conditions.

    the whole thesis of the book that omni-gods arose to enforce and faster morality and group cohesion. here are some conditions.

    1) religious ppl act better in highly religious societies

    2) religious ppl act better if they believe in punishing gods not loving gods

    3) religious ppl act better when reminded of the salience of religion

    4) a small minority of highly religious ppl may drive much of the above signal, where non-religious and religious on the whole don’t differ much (eg groups of devout young men)

  5. ohwilleke, your ideas are kind of addressed and kind of right. basically, societies under stress and subject to inter-group conflict are much more religious.

    re: twinkie, within societies as you note the hold of institutional religion seems to go UP the class ladder…perhaps peaking in the upper middle class (professional class). otoh, the religion tends to become less emotionally/evocatively supernatural and intellectualized.

  6. but it depends on conditions.

    I’ve read Norenzayan’s book, so I know what it has to say. But religious people are higher in Conscientiousness even in modernized countries. Surely that should show up to at least some degree in measures of moral action regardless of context.

    In any event, the relationship between Conscientiousness (especially Orderliness) remains underexplored IMO.

  7. withers when it reinforces secure establishment norms

    Mormonism is essentially the state church of Utah. It indeed reinforces “secure establishment norms.” It’s not withering.

    Also, if you looked at the Pew data, what’s striking about church attendance is not its correlations to income/educational attainment (though the correlations runs the opposite of what you think among Christians). Instead, what’s particularly noteworthy is the high correlations to marriage.

  8. subject to inter-group conflict are much more religious

    This may be false. Right wing/conservative political correlates of religion are not independently predicted by warfare.

  9. Foreword: Please excuse if what I write below even though being a bit longish might still be lacking in elaboration and clarity. English isn’t my native language so proper writing takes effort and I am currently somwhat lacking in practice.

    A bit of pre-text:
    Long ago when I was still interested enough in the whys of human atheism/religious belief to spend serious time contemplating upon it, I came up with a more coarse split of “elective atheism” (basically 1+2, lack of social intelligence and/or intellectual development) and “social atheism” (basically 3+4, arising out of human sociability and perception of group signals).
    The impulse for those deliberations was rooted in the slow and somewhat painful realization that this self-comforting belief which I held about atheism equaling intellectualism became somewhat untenable when so many of my fellow atheists were more or less just echo boxes repeating the then fashionably left-wing talking points (and much worse, they couldn’t neither explain those nor were they concerned about consistency or other such things. Essentially those phrases they kept repeating were mere professions of faith)**.
    Later on after encountering more upper middle class christians I realized that the elective/social split also makes sense for the religious (coming from a working class background all the previous experience I had was more or less with the “social christian” type that as a rule of thumb wasn’t of the intellectual type and I had unfairly generalized from that experience).

    To finaly come to the point:
    Once one presumes the existence of the “social atheism” and “social religious” types where the kind (or lack) of belief is mediated by receptivity to social signals, there are some intersting hypothesis which can be derived from that, such as:

    1) Insofar as the modern university is a secular place where in their peer environment people would encounter societal cues that religion is NOT important and true we might expect the “social” type to become more secular.
    1a) Thus the religious might be rightly woried about the corrupting influence of the university on their children.
    1b) A second more interesting consequence: Some statistics show atheists to be smarter than (some) theists. We might consider the possibility that the atheism/intelligence link isn’t somehow intrinsic but might instead be mediated by the intelligent being more exposed to an atheism promoting environment (the university). This wouldn’t affect the “elective religious”, but a proportion of the “social religous” university attendants would turn into “social atheists” skewing the proportions in relation to the non university set.

    2) Absence of cues indicating importance of religion might lead to the withering of the religious belief. However there IS NO REASON why it should lead to a withering of the receptivity to this kind of cue! (the emphasis is important)
    2a) Hence it seems a bit odd to expect “belief absence” as the natural consequence amongst the “social religious” type. Instead it might be more sensible to expect “belief replacement” to happen. The sensitivity to the social cues is still there waiting to be tickled by whatever comes along. This might explain some of the crazy things which are seen on college campuses these days. The big topic off our times.
    2b) So modernism and secularism is to a large extent a lie or delusion. It might be more accurate to say that we live in an age of disguised religions of a political nature. We’re still the sons and daughters of our great grandfather and grandmothers, no new type of human, imbued with all the same social passions and desires and hence also the same religious impulses. Thinking otherwise is arrogant, we’re merely wearing different hats these days. The fashions change but the humans stay the same. Even the old manifestations are there, e.g. where in earlier times people had a hard time contemplating marrying somebody of a different denomination the same now holds true accross political boundaries.

    *as is natural for so many topics this one has become more boring over time.
    **just to clarity, I don’t want to imply that this holds for left-wingers in general. There are obviously some very smart ones, but as it had already become the high-prestige faith of the times it unsurprisingly attracted a much less impressive roster of adherents than it did when that wasn’t yet the case.

  10. within societies as you note the hold of institutional religion seems to go UP the class ladder…perhaps peaking in the upper middle class (professional class).

    According to Pew, that’s certainly the case with Christians in America (and Mormons), but not the case with Jews and Muslims. I know that in some Muslim countries religiosity seems to increase with income/education up to a point (“professional class” as you put it), but I think in Israel that trend does not obtain with Judaism.

    otoh, the religion tends to become less emotionally/evocatively supernatural and intellectualized.

    I consider that a false dichotomy. For me, in any case, religion is both highly intellectualized AND emotionally/evocatively supernatural. And that’s rather common among my social circle. Most of my Catholic friends are quite intellectual and well-read, but are often “intoxicated” by liturgy and Sacraments as I am. I remember you joked at my expense (very lightly, no offense taken) when I mentioned this before, but I frequently experience religious ecstasy from my “bells and smells” Mass, which is captured very well by Eliade’s “The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion” (“time without a place, a place without time”). After all, at every Mass, I drink the blood and eat the body of the Living God. That’s pretty supernatural.

  11. I think at least some religious feeling is “top down”. That is, many societies structure themselves in hierarchies that are justified by religious theories and feelings, and this gives a strong incentive to the people in the top half of the hierarchy to not only believe themselves, but reward belief (and punish unbelief) in people below them.

    As theories of class and gov’t have become more secular, the incentives for the powerful to believe, and enforce belief on others, has decayed.

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