“Another atheism book?” my husband mumbled as I carried to the night stand a new hardback book. In fact, not. Edmond knows I study atheism and yes, I have Hitchens, Dawkins and Epstein lying around the house. But the new hardback book I’m carrying is actually the opposite. It is in a category of books I’ve read a lot in the last decade, books with titles like these:
Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs (Justin Barrett, 2012)
Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not (Robert McCauley, 2011)
The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (Jesse Bering, 2011)
Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith (Andy Thomson, 2011)
Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter our Understanding of Religion (3 volumes, Patrick McNamara, 2006).
Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Justin Barrett, 2004)
Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion (Lee Kirkpatrick, 2005)
Religion Is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and what to Expect When they Fail (Loyal Rue, 2005).
In Gods We Trust: the Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Scott Atran, 2002)
Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (David Sloan Wilson, 2002)
Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Roots of Religious Thought (Pascal Boyer, 2001)
It was actually these books, many of which are part of the field called the cognitive science of religion, that launched me on my career as a psychologist who studies why some people do not believe in God.
I read back into the 1990s, tracking the emergence of a new understanding of religious belief, beginning with Stewart Guthrie’s (1983) Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) and Pascal Boyer’s (1994) The naturalness of religious ideas: A cognitive theory of religion.
Why do religious and spiritual beliefs exist in every human culture? Authors of the ‘religion is natural’ school have argued that religious beliefs and behaviors, broadly construed, result from natural selection, or at least are by-products of evolved human nature. The human mind evolved to be able to imagine and make hypotheses about other people’s motives, desires and likely future behavior. This social intelligence facilitated alliance building, allowing those individuals to rise in the social hierarchy of their group. If you are constantly thinking about motives and intentions, then you may see agents when they aren’t actually there, as in Guthrie’s Face in the Clouds. Justin Barrett, Jesse Berring and others of the authors listed above propose that belief in supernatural agents is an automatic consequence of this belief in the existence of others’ minds.
A complementary argument, more common among anthropologists than psychologists, is that religious belief and practices are found in every culture because they promote group cohesion and the ability to trust and be altruistic towards group members, as discussed by Scott Atran, Richard Sosis and David Sloan Wilson. Others note that the propensity for self-transcendence and hypnotism could promote ritual healing, positive thinking, and optimism, as described by authors in McNamara’s edited volumes.
I found these ideas intriguing, impressive, rich, informative, fascinating, disconcerting and occasionally infuriating.
Some experimental psychologists say that we all go through our lives doing “mesearch”. Suspending disbelief, I wondered:
If religion is part of evolved human nature, why am I color blind to God?
Logically, the alternatives are: God (and supernatural) belief is not as natural or normative as the cognitive science of religionists say it is,
We nonbelievers are statistically peculiar; we live in the tails of the bell curve.
Blanket statements about the nature of the human mind are risky and usually not helpful, and may even be incoherent. In my view, what is more reasonable, at least given the state of current knowledge, is restrict our statements about what is natural for humans to a given ecological context. In a technological society with insurance, hospitals, banks, 24 hour convenience stores and scientific explanations for natural disasters, we have less need to make close alliances with neighbors against disasters, rely on ritual healing, or draw on our supernatural beliefs to to explain the death of a loved one.
But focusing on what is natural in contemporary society still raises questions. Both believers and nonbelievers rub shoulders today. Jesse Berring is an atheist who says he personally experiences automatic magical thinking, which he then over-rides with logic. But other nonbelievers appear to have little magical thinking, such as the atheists I describe in my 2011 paper, Exploring the atheist personality: well-being, awe, and magical thinking in atheists, Buddhists, and Christians. Some people can be contented nonbelievers, focusing on improving this life without diverting energy into philosophical questions of why humans exist or worrying that life is meaningless.
Contemporary humans occupy a special place and time in human history. Existential security, which Norris and Inglehart say facilitates a materialist stance, is limited to some regions of the developed world. Religious belief and non-belief thus may co-exist (and conflict) because of of our species’ relatively recent (last few hundred years) emergence from traditional societies.
I hope to blog regularly on these and other topics related to the intersection of humanism/atheism and psychological research. Feel free to post (or email me) your ideas and questions.