Religion is irrational, but so is atheism

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 the US, UK, Denmark and 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 at Washington University, St Louis, and Jesse Bering at Queen’s University, Belfast in the UK. 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. Denmark and Sweden, for instance, have the highest proportion of non-theists but very little strong atheist sentiment or activity. The US, 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.

Religion is irrational, but so is atheism