Atheism is as natural as religion?

The University of Cambridge has an article up publicizing and commenting on new research from Tim Whitmarsh. Whitmarsh’s book is Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, and the article is entitled, “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion.” I’ve seen a few different people linking to it, so I thought I’d offer some thoughts. First, Whitmarsh’s book is, from what I understand, a must read that I have on my list and am looking forward to as soon as I can get to it. It does swim counter to the conventional wisdom that prior to modernity, everyone and their dog was a true blue theist, and rightly so. The conventional wisdom is silly wishful thinking on the part of conservatives who feel threatened by atheism and anti-theism.

Having said that, I think the headline and portions of the story rather misunderstand or misrepresent the implications of Whitmarsh’s research. First, what the article means by the word “religion” is a modern cultural reification. Atheism is far, far older than religion, since religion—at least, what we tend to mean when we use the word—was invented between the Reformation and Enlightenment periods. Theism (not a synonym for religion) would be a better word, since that refers specifically to belief in deity, but even then, atheism and theism are still modern conceptual frameworks that aren’t really entirely commensurate with those of, for instance, ancient Greece and Rome. Squishy conceptual categories like religion and atheism are not helpful for cross-cultural and historical analysis. As an example of how squishy these categories can be, according to Pew, only 92% of self-identified atheists reported not believing in God. 2% reported absolute certainty that God exists. 19% of Buddhists, 10% of Jews, 5% of Muslims and Hindus, and 1% of Christians reported not believing in God. So it would seem that “atheism,” as the article appears to use the term, overlaps quite a bit with religion. They’re not incommensurate categories.

Next, the question of the naturalness of both perspectives is not something historical criticism can really determine. The fact that many ancient authors and others objected to ideas about deity really has little bearing whatsoever on the cognitive innateness or naturalness of atheism. The article’s claim that the research raises “considerable doubts about whether humans really are ‘wired’ for religion” is, I would argue, baseless. The reference to our cognitive “wiring” for “religion” refers to the Cognitive Science of Religion, and within that field scholars largely differentiate between intuitive and reflective beliefs. Intuitive ones are those instinctual or reflexive perspectives or thoughts or reactions that occur without our conscious input. Reflective beliefs are those that we formulate through our own reason or to which we subscribe because others told us to or convinced us to. A quote from Whitmarsh suggests he uses “intuitive” to mean something different:

Rather than making judgements based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren’t intuitively there in your world.

Whitmarsh here uses “intuitively” to refer to what cognitive scientists would say is “reflective,” which kinda problematizes the appeal to the findings of that field. The human is mind is indeed intuitively primed to accept things that are not there in your world. The consensus within CSR that belief in deities is a product of innate cognitive predispositions reflects research into intuitive beliefs that has demonstrated that we are evolutionarily predisposed to beliefs about the world around us that facilitate that belief in deity. For example, an evolutionary adaptation we all share is heightened sensitivity to mentality and agency in the world around us. Our prehistorical ancestors who were quickest to assume the rustling in the bushes was an animal with intentionality and big teeth were evolutionarily privileged over and against those who assumed it was the wind. We all have this cognitive default in our brains to interpret unnatural and unknown events and entities as something with a mind and agency. This goes hand in hand with the similar cognitive predisposition to interpret events in the world around us as happening for a purpose, or because of intentionality, and when the two are put together, we find culturally determined reifications of beliefs about agents that have counterintuitive properties that are more easy to remember and transmit culturally, like invisibility, full access to strategic knowledge, superhuman power, etc. And there were gods. In cultures without sophisticated philosophical or scientific frameworks to undermine those beliefs, they tend to become culturally embedded. This is what it means to say that “religion” (better, “belief in deity”) is natural, or that we are “preprogrammed to believe.” On a subconscious level, we are.

Studies have shown that these intuitions are there even in spite of firmly held ideologies. For instance, in a recent study that asked participants to determine whether or not given objects had been “purposefully made by some being,” results closely aligned with self-identified beliefs about the agency of nature, but when not given time for adequate mental processing, non-theists increasingly described earth as “purposefully made.” As a control, cartoon characters were included, and many non-theists actually more frequently identified them as naturally occurring. This was accounted for as an attempt to override their instincts and underplay creation. On the other hand, in a study about conceptualizations of deity, contemporary Christians who reported orthodox beliefs about the nature of God were asked to recall details about a variety of narratives involving computers, Superman, God, etc. They were more likely to appeal to and remember descriptions of God as anthropomorphic and confined to time and space. Both studies show the salience of intuitive beliefs that are grounded in our cognitive architecture when our ability to override them with reflective beliefs is mitigated.

Now, I have yet to read Whitmarsh’s book, and so I may be way off, but I doubt that he digs into evolutionary psychology or the Cognitive Science of Religion to show that rejection of those beliefs is just as cognitively innate. That would entirely overthrow the field. I don’t get the sense from a brief search that that’s what’s going on, either. The word “cognitive” only occurs twice in the book, and in one footnote there’s a reference to Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds, but that’s over 20 years old (for a much more up-to-date discussion, see Boyer’s Fracture of an Illusion). I don’t know if the notion that his research disproves the cognitive predisposition to beliefs in supernatural agents is his own idea or something the publisher or school thought would help promote it, but I flatly disagree with it and think it rather undermines the important impact his book will hopefully have.

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6 responses to “Atheism is as natural as religion?

  • Aaron Adair (Gilgamesh)

    Having read the book, I can say that Whitmarsh isn’t overthrowing CSR, but instead boosting the idea that atheism has existed among diverse peoples for a long, long time. Not that it’s as natural as theism/religion, only that doubters seem to be plenty common as not to be an invention of modernity. I was really surprised to see this headline which made little sense to me based on this one book (and as if any one book or study should overturn all other research). BTW, it’s a must-read, and Whitmarsh is careful to point out what is speculative on his part.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for clarifying. It’s been recommended to me by a few different people, and it seems very good from what I’ve been able to access online. It certainly is a peculiar way to frame the research, though.

  • Nick Byrd

    Interesting book and post! Thanks!

    I wonder if additional research bears on this question. For instance, researchers repeatedly find that atheists and agnostics are more reflective than religious believers — regardless of education and other factors (e.g., Byrd 2014; Pennycook et al 2016). More specifically, religious believers are significantly more likely to rely on demonstrably false intuitions than atheists or agnostics. Atheists agnostics are more likely to obviate or overcome such intuitions via reflective reasoning.

    So even if atheism is somehow as intuitive as theism, that is one thing. But the reasoning of atheISTS is systematically less intuitive (i.e., more reflective) than theISTS.

    Thanks for sharing the book and your thoughts!

    Byrd, N. (2014). Intuitive And Reflective Responses In Philosophy. University of Colorado. http://philpapers.org/rec/BYRIAR

    Pennycook, G., Ross, R. M., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2016). Atheists and Agnostics Are More Reflective than Religious Believers:… a Meta-Analysis. PLOS ONE. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153039

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments and for the references, Nick! I recall a few papers suggesting that non-theists tend toward less mentalization and more reflection. There has even been the suggestion that women tend to be theists more often than men at least in part because they tend toward more mentalization.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    The ones I can think of off the top of my head are recent papers by Will M. Gervais, like “Analytic Thinking Promotes Disbelief” and “Perceiving Minds and Gods.”

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