Tag Archives: Atheism

Atheism = Absence of Belief in God or Gods?

It’s a common trope among some New Atheists looking for more and better rhetorical tools for their identity politics that atheism is a-theism, and therefore means “a lack of belief in God or gods” and absolutely nothing else. This definition generally aids rhetorically in asserting atheism as a sort of default position for humanity. A recent example:



Apart from being a wildly naive etymological fallacy that ignores literally millennia of historical usage, the explicit denial of any qualification whatsoever renders all entities in the entire universe atheist, animate or otherwise, including all believers during the vast majority of their lives when they are not actively engaged in believing. I would suggest that this kind of petty and naive identity politics does neither service nor justice to atheism or atheists.

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.

Evangelizing Atheists

A couple friends on Facebook today mentioned an article on wikiHow entitled “How To Persuade a Christian To Become Atheist.” It’s a step by step guide to getting friends to question their theism without frightening them away. Apart from some errors in grammar and syntax, the article is pretty basic and logical, and emphasizes the importance of deepening one’s understanding of both sides of the issue. I’m familiar with some Christian patterns of evangelizing that utilize some of the same broad principles. Any thoughts on evangelizing atheists? Surprising? Unsurprising?

Thoughtful Post by Tom Verenna

Jim West points out Tom Verenna’s thoughtful discussion of labels in the debate over faith and secularism in biblical scholarship. It’s a good contribution.

Undercover Atheist Infiltrates Evangelical Congregation

The outcome may surprise you, though. The book she wrote is called In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. Here’s the blurb on an interview with her on Patheos.com:

Gina Welch grew up in an atheistic, anti-religious household in Berkeley, California.  After she moved to Virginia for graduate school, she found herself surrounded by evangelicals, at the very time that evangelicals were credited (and often blamed) for the re-election of George Bush.  To investigate what makes evangelicals tick, and to confront her own personal prejudices, Gina resolved to go “undercover” and fake a conversion at the fundamentalist Thomas Road Baptist Church, where the pastor was a certain Jerry Falwell. . . .

as Welch attended the church for two years, something entirely unexpected happened: she began to fall in love not only with the people she met, but even with the rhythms of the life of the church.  Even what seemed most foreign, the drive to evangelize, was eventually understood to be an act of profound compassion and social responsibility.  Yet after a mission trip to Alaska, Welch was increasingly haunted by the seriousness of her deception.  She left Thomas Road without explanation, but so longed to return to the church that her friends and family worried she had lost her way and gave her books on escaping the grip of cults.  When at last she returned to Thomas Road to explain what she had done, she received forgiveness and grace from those she had deceived.

Although her basic beliefs regarding God and the afterlife have not changed, Welch admits that “there were times that I felt moved in ways hard for me to account for.”  Welch’s attitude toward evangelicals certainly changed.  Now, as in this recent post at On Faith, Welch serves as an interpreter of evangelicals to secular progressives.

Sam Harris on Why We Should Ditch Religion

CNN has a video posted in which Sam Harris, one of the founders of Project Reason and author of “Letter to a Christian Nation,” explains why religion needs to go. It seems he’s arguing that religion is a distraction from, and an insufficient response to, the real problems of the world. The video formulates a caricature from the most fundamentalist and extremist manifestations of religion, and it is this caricature which Harris rather deftly confronts. That caricature, however, is only a caricature. That Islam and Christianity are theologically irreconcilable is not really a valid indictment of theism in general. I also take issue with his assertion that much war is waged because of religion, even when nationalism and political motivations may seem to be the proximate cause (his statement is that “it’s political because it’s religious”). This is a reductive and uninformed assessment of the causes of the wars to which he alludes.

UPDATE: Harris replies to common criticisms of his argument here.

Project Reason Video Contest Winner

I just received an email from Project Reason about the winners of their video contest. This was the invitation:

The primary goal of Project Reason is to spread scientific thinking and secular values. We invite you to help us further our work by submitting a short video that conveys the message of the foundation.

This was the winning video. I think it’s a good video, although I think the guy’s voice isn’t quite right for its tone. The issue I take with it is that it promotes equal social footing for all without belittling any segment of the population. This isn’t a bad position, but it is at total odds with the values of Project Reason, which seems committed to ridiculing all aspects of faith and religion.


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