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Atheism waxes and wanes, but the godless abide

This weblog began in 2002. Back then the second Iraq War had not started, and the United States was in the throes of dealing with the 9/11 attack. There was a lot of discussion about Islam, and religion, in the public arena (there was a Bernard Lewis renaissance, and it seemed he was on Charlie Rose every other day).

In the 2000s I spent a fair amount of time thinking about and reading about religion. This was not a new thing for me. My family is Muslim, and I was raised in a very normatively conservative Christian region of the country. Though I can’t say I had deep theological conversations with friends, my atheist did come up now and then as it was not typical (for many people I had to explain what the word ‘atheism’ meant). In the 1990s I read a bit of Christian apologetics, older stuff like Summa Theologica, and atheist works such as George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God and Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (on the whole I think the older apologetics are actually more persuasive than the newer ones, but they are harder to parse for contemporary audiences).

Around 9/11 one would probably be accurate in pinning me as a proto-“New Atheist.” But with 9/11 I took a renewed interest in religion, and to be frank I found New Atheism to be unpersuasive. Reading Sam Harris’ End of Faith and Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust in short order really sealed my own views.

Atran’s argument that religion as a natural phenomenon had deep cognitive and evolutionary roots was persuasive to me. Though I agreed with many of Harris’ specific points (e.g., he correctly describes the reality that Islam, in particular, seems to have special difficulties with secular liberal democratic modernity), I found his reduction of religion to a set of propositions not helpful in mapping out the way religious people actually behave in the world out there.

As an adolescent, I had assumed that religion was to be found in sacred books. I believed this because coming from a Muslim family that is what we are taught, and my Christian friends also brandished books which they asserted were foundational, instrumental, and singular, in defining their faith. As a bookish person, this was entirely plausible to me that people would root their lives in books.

But Atran, and the cognitive anthropologists who moved in his circles, pointed out that most people are not bookish at all. Rather than being ruled by reason, by reflection and analysis, they are ruled by emotion, custom, habit, and instinct. The specific contours of religious affiliation and identity are shaped by history, theologies, and liturgies which demarcate, but the roots of the religious sensibility, affinity, and intuition, are ancient and primal.

As an atheist, I do agree with the New Atheists about the God question. But, I profoundly disagree with them about human nature and religion. Religiosity is not the deviation from the straight path, irreligion is!

Since about 2006 or so, with exceptions, I have not focused much on the religion, evolution and psychology question. It did not seem to me that the cognitive anthropologists were making much empirical progress. I had come to the conclusions which inform my current views, and nothing more of interest seemed on the horizon.

Over the past few years, that has changed. The field of cultural evolution has now matured enough so that it’s own insights on religion as a phenomenon can add value. Though, to be fair, this did not come out of a vacuum. In the 2000s David Sloan Wilson wrote, which put forward a view that a functionalist understanding of religion as a cultural adaptation was a valuable paradigm. At the time I was skeptical. Now I am more open to this view, as other researchers have added more theoretical and empirical insight.

So where are we? For decades there has been a line of thinking that religion is adaptive. That it serves particular functions in society or psychology. The authors of Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict propose that religious phenomena are critical in understanding the emergence of social complexity over the last 10,000 years. There is now a debate as to whether this is true or not using data within the cultural evolution community, but the key is that there is debate around data and theory, rather than interminable verbal volleys back and forth.

Not only may religion not be the “root of all evil,” but if some cultural evolutionists are correct religion is indispensable to the emergence of social complexity.

A cultural evolution perspective is important because there was always a lacuna within the cognitive anthropology perspective: how to explain variation between societies in religiosity and the nature of religious expression. Cognitive anthropologists had good arguments for why religious phenomena tended to canalize into certain directions (e.g., why gods are anthropomorphic more often than an essence, like water), but had poor explanations for why people were atheistic or why religiosity went up and down over time. A new preprint out of the cultural evolution perspective offers some answers, The Origins of Religious Disbelief: A Dual Inheritance Approach. The “dual” just means that both genes and culture matter.

Here is the abstract in full:

Religion is a core feature of human nature, yet a comprehensive evolutionary approach to religion must account for religious disbelief. Despite potentially drastic overreporting of religiosity…a third of the world’s 7+ billion human inhabitants may actually be atheists-merely people who do not believe in God or gods. The origins of disbelief thus present a key testing ground for theories of religion. Here, we evaluate the predictions of three prominent theoretical approaches to the origins of disbelief, and find considerable support for dual inheritance (gene-culture coevolution) approach. This dual inheritance model…derives from distinct literatures addressing the putative 1) core social cognitive faculties that enable mental representation of gods…2) the challenges to existential security that motivate people to treat some god candidates as real and strategically important…3) evolved cultural learning processes that influence which god candidates naïve learners treat as real rather than imaginary…and 4) the intuitive processes that sustain belief in gods…and the cognitive reflection that may sometimes undermine it…We explore the varied origins of religious disbelief by analyzing these pathways simultaneously in a large nationally representative (USA, N = 1417) dataset with preregistered analyses. Combined, we find that witnessing fewer credible cultural cues of religious commitment is the most potent predictor of religious disbelief, β = 0.28, followed distantly by reflective cognitive style, β = 0.13, and less advanced mentalizing, β = 0.05. Low cultural exposure to faith predicted about 90% higher odds of atheism than did peak cognitive reflection. Further, cognitive reflection predicted reduced religious belief only among individuals who witness relatively fewer credible contextual cues of faith in others. This work empirically unites four distinct literatures addressing the origins of religious disbelief, highlights the utility of considering both evolved intuitions and cultural evolutionary processes in religious transmission, emphasizes the dual roles of content and context-biased social learning…and sheds light on the shared psychological mechanisms that underpin both religious belief and disbelief.

The coda of the preprint is also worth reading since it has some meta-commentary that I think is probably on the mark.

There is a lot presented in this paper. Overall, it’s good to have a pregistered large sample from the USA, but they need more cultures, and they are aware of this. But, it does seem in the USA the most important factor is broader local cultural attitudes toward religiosity and expressions of religion in public. A shorter way to say it is simple: most people are sheeple. In highly irreligious environments the modal person finds religious propositions uncredible on the face of it. Conversely, in highly religious environments atheistic propositions seem laughable. Just as most people’s religious beliefs don’t come about through deep reflection, most people’s irreligion doesn’t come about through deep reflection. It’s all part of a bigger process of social cognition, and religion in this way shares a lot of characteristics with politics and culture more broadly (do most people in rural Mississippi like country music as opposed to techno because of deep aesthetic judgments?).

All that being said, they do see consistent results that deep analysis of religious questions correlate with atheism. But, this only applies in environments that are not so religious. In other words, the variation is exposed only in a particular environment.

Finally, there is a tendency of more “mind-blind” people to be more atheistic (a major prediction of the cognitive model), but it is a much smaller effect than the broad social impact of religious culture, broadly.

These results, on the whole, are not surprising, though I’m excited to have precise quantities to grapple with. When you summarize a whole society you may miss some details as well. Not only will future lines of research expand cross-culturally, but there will probably be insights sub-culturally.

There has been some work to show that religious intensity is moderately heritable. I would be curious to see follow-ups on this domain, and I do know that some people are working on finding the genomic predictors of religiosity as I write this.

If you have gotten to this part of the post, please read The Origins of Religious Disbelief: A Dual Inheritance Approach. It is well done!

5 thoughts on “Atheism waxes and wanes, but the godless abide

  1. Some years ago when Robert Putnam published his book on “Bowling Alone” and social dissolution from diversity, he mentioned shared religion and military service as two social elements that counteracted decline of social trust (and the two are also tied as military personnel in most countries are usually more religious than the general public).

    I spent considerable time in several armed conflict zones and noted that the intensity of those two elements rose when one’s community was under physical threat (this also happened to us Americans after 9/11).

    The converse is also true, I think. When a community (or a nation) is physically secure and prosperous, widespread military service and strong religious affiliation decline. This is, more of less, what the developed world has experienced in the past 70 years.

    So some people (esp. on the left) seem to think that both elements are on a permanent downward slope. I am not sure. In my state, there is a stirring of civil strife. If that were to turn into a shooting war, I think trend would reverse sharply.

  2. Would there be any difference between Catholics / Protestants / 7th day adventists etc?

    Personally, I would describe myself as an Atheist Hindu, if that makes sense. That is I don’t believe belief in god/ idol worship is required to be a hindu

    Religion provides a set of moral/philosophical framework that serves as an anchor.

    If you decide to do away with religion and be completely rational then that requires a different set of intellect, culture, & education etc.

    For ex, I think people good at abstract maths (not calculative maths) might be more suited for a rational lifestyle

    On Hinduism, the way I see it, modern hinduism started with British classification of religion of natives. This resulted in 2 strains “catholic”/bookish hinduism of Arya Samaj & “protestant”/universal hinduism of Vivekananda.

    Followed by sai baba style piety

    More recently Osho Rajneesh made a huge contribution of his own & there have been a lot of copycats after him

  3. Razib,

    What do you think of Jordan Peterson’s take that religion is about acting out the useful evolutionary lessons? He goes in to only Abrahamic religions in his maps of meanings lectures, but other religions like Hinduism, in practice are also primarily based on rituals to transfer good practices. May be the tendency to drop the religious practices during prosperous times is an indication that the technological progress makes the good practices irrelevant (while also increasing the prosperity).

    Also, do you differentiate between religious beliefs and belief in supernatural occurrences? I find it strange when people who don’t believe in God are yet scared of ghosts. It could mean that they aren’t really writing-off the supernatural experience as a psychological effect.

    I wonder how “mind-blind” people reflect on those unnatural psychological experiences (e.g., out of body experiences while waking up, when mind becomes conscious while body is still asleep). May be in future surveys there could be questions related to frequency of unnatural experiences and check if P(analytic atheism | unnatural experience) is higher than P(apathetic atheism| unnatural experience). It would also be interesting to see P(unnatural experience | atheism).

  4. If religion adds to social cohesion and is natural, is there any value to atheist “proselytizing”? I least push back against people when they claim evolution is false and whatnot but I’ve gotten to the point where smug people who go out of their way to make people lose their faith kinda annoy me.

  5. It seems that for many people religion can have a “what’s in it for me” element. If it gets you a social network of people you like and respect, it can be well worth it. If it offers meaningful ways of dealing with the tragic aspects of life then it also has a utilitarian payoff. If, on the other hand, the people who are religious aren’t very attractive socially, or the religion doesn’t help much in times of strife why bother?

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