The (Un)naturalness of Religion and Atheism

This post has been motivated by a fascinating article by Armin W Geertz and Guðmundur Ingi Markússon “Religion is natural, atheism is not: On why everybody is both right and wrong”. It shall mostly be a summary of the main points for those of you who don’t have the time to plough through such things, but I shall also be throwing in some of my own ideas and thoughts based upon my research and personal experience.

A major stumbling block which has reared its head at numerous points throughout my study is that, dependent upon the context, both the “religion as a natural phenomenon hypothesis” and the “religion as an unnatural/parasitic phenomenon hypothesis”, seem perfectly reasonable and valid. Thus. I was instantly rapt when I read the introduction to this article, where the authors claim that one of their aims is to:

“… consider the differences between the naturalness hypothesis and Dawkins’ memetic or unnaturalness hypothesis of religion and argue that, ultimately, both approaches must be combined if we are to achieve a comprehensive account of religious and cultural systems.”

However, even more important is the fact that this argument is applied throughout the article to both religion and atheism… with great success in my opinion.

Their snapshot of current opinion on atheist numbers in the USA and Worldwide:

I am always somewhat bemused and amused at the vast differences in figures that are presented when one asks the questions “How many atheists are there in X?” or “How many people do not believe in God in Y”. The simple fact is that many of the results presented rely on such figures as church attendance, or even merely church affiliation/membership and use these as indicators of religious belief, and that the way in which questions are asked in surveys, and the population being surveyed, and the source of the statistics, impacts hugely upon the ways in which the figures can be skewed.

Geertz and Markússon write:

A consistent discourse is promoted claiming that the vast majority of American citizens believe in God (a Newsweek poll claimed 91% in 2007) and ignoring or denigrating atheists as an insignificant minority (Aronson, 2007). Other polls seem to indicate that more than 29 million American adults, or one in seven, declare themselves to be without religion (American Religious Identification Survey, 2001 gave a result of 14%) [see also here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll of 2006 gave a result of 18% [see here]. The Financial Times/Harris poll also indicated that 73% in the U.S. claimed to believe in any form of God or any type of supreme being.Figures are quite different in that poll for European countries […]. The poll suggests that in Great Britain, France and Germany, the majority are either agnostics or atheists. In Spain, agnostics and atheists are almost as numerous as believers in any form of God or any type of supreme being. In Italy, believers form a substantial majority, but still not to the extent seen in the U.S. These figures, if reliable, could indicate why Europeans generally are not as upset by the New Atheist literature as Americans are.

They also point to a rough estimate provided by Phil Zuckerman in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism of some 500-750 million people in the world who do not believe in God… making unbelief statistically the fourth largest “belief”, “persuasion”, “stance” or whatever you wish to call it, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (c. 2 billion, 1.2 billion and 900 million respectively). However, the key thing that I wish to stress here is that these statistics are for non-belief. No comment is being made here as to whether these people have intentionally chosen this stance, or even give religious belief  a second thought… and it is most important to emphasise that these individuals are most definitely not all atheists. Unfortunately I do not have the precise citation to hand, but I remember when reading Victor Stenger’s fair abysmal The New Atheism, a moment where he effectively took the entire population of China and added them to the unbelieving choir (if not the atheist choir… damn I wish I had that citation with me). However, whether he said “unbeleivers” or “atheists” is not my central point. My point is that far too many people involved in the debate on numbers of religious or nonreligious affiliates  simply make sweeping generalisations to suit their own agendas. Be very careful which figures you trust. I can”t say more than that… but just always make sure you ask where they are coming from…

The New Atheist Movement

The authors seem to agree with my conclusions that the “Four Horsemen” (whether this appellation is suitable or not) are seen from both within atheism itself (by those labelling themselves as New Atheists, and those who eschew this more contemporary form of atheism, such as Julian Baggini), and from without atheism in both scholarly and religious circles, as the main spokesmen for this “movement”. The fact that the best article they can point to as “a summary of some of the characters in the New Atheism movement” is Gary Wolf’s The Church of the Nonbelievers fills me with despair… it is no criticism of their scholarship, which seems to be of a very high standard, but simply a criticism of the Wolf article and the severe dearth of scholarly analysis that there is “out there”. If anyone is particularly interested in an overview of this nature I can supply you with my undergraduate dissertation, and I would also encourage to check out the research project “The “Return of Religion” and the Return of the Criticism of religion – The “New Atheism” in recent German and American culture” being carried out by Thomas Zenk et al in Berlin. Or indeed my previous blog post “The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens on Herding Cats”.

Another interesting phenomea that these authors draw attention to is the emergence of atheist summer camps, starting in 1996 with Camp Quest: “Today there are six Camp Quests across North America (Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, California in the U.S. and Ontario in Canada) and one is currently being organized in the United Kingdom”. What exactly is the need for a specifically atheistic summer camp? Couldn’t it just be a summer camp for the sake of a summer camp? What do they “teach” at an atheistic summer camp? I suppose it is just a backlash against the scores of religiously themed and motivated summer camps prevalent in the US and other countries… but it still seems a bit unnecessary to me!

And finally, although in danger of extreme reductionism. the authors cite the work of Paul and Zuckerman, who propose that the reason why religiosity may still be so prevalent in the USA as compared to other first world democracies is that it is the only one without a stable, socio-economic security. Paul and Zuckerman write:

Rather than religion being an integral part of the American character, the main reason the United States is the only prosperous democracy that retains a high level of religious belief and activity is because we have substandard socio-economic conditions and the highest level of disparity… To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the U.S.

G. Paul and P. Zuckerman, Why the gods are not winning, Edge. The Third Culture (2007).

A very stimulating thesis!

The Naturalness and Unnaturalness of Religion and Atheism

What is the Naturalness of Religion Hypothesis? Phil Zuckerman is used as a caricature of an erroneous stance on this issue. He believes that the central tenet of this hypothesis is that “belief in God is biologically determined, neurologically based, or genetically inborn, growing out of the “natural” processes of the human brain”. Thus construed, he ‘naturally’ assumes that the statistics, intimated above, on the numbers of nonreligious people in the world, are essentially damning to this version of the naturalness of religion hypothesis.

The authors then discuss numerous alternative formulations of the thesis:

  • They state: “The naturalness hypothesis as widely understood by cognitive scientists of religion refers to the fact that religious ideas and behaviors thrive on (or are parasitic to) normal human cognitive and psychological processes.”
  • They refer to two types of “naturalness” proposed by Pascal Boyer: a) the subjective feeling amongst believers that their beliefs are self-evident or “natural”; b) “those aspects of religion which depend upon noncultural constraints” – these constraints being evolutionary or “cognitive”… “universal features of the human mind–brain, which have a direct effect on the likelihood that certain ideas will be acquired, memorized, and transmitted”.
  • And they point to Justin Barrett’s characterisation of the naturalness of religion hypothesis as “much of what is typically called “religion” may be understood as the natural product of aggregated ordinary cognitive processes”.
  • But they do acknowledge that Zuckerman raises a valid question which must be dealt with by any proponent of the naturalness of religion thesis: If religion is natural, whence the spread of non-belief?

Zuckerman’s stance is then related to the prevalent stance amongst many prominent New Atheists, who are ‘naturally’ (or should I say, understandably) averse to prescribing any type of “naturalness” to religion. The preferred stance here is the “unnaturalness hypothesis”, based upon the meme concept coined by Richard Dawkins and detailed extensively in both The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. At its most simply, according to this thesis, religion does not depend on normal human cognitive and psychological processes but on an external “mind virus”. But at its most simple, this thesis falls foul of the immediate, common sense objection… if religion is dependent upon something external to the human species, how has this same mind virus developed, in different variations, in vastly different and unconnected cultures worldwide?

This being said, Dawkins does make a great deal of sense when he writes in The God Delusion:

“Propositions about the world, about the cosmos, about morality and about human nature [come to a child from the respected and indeed unquestionable authorities known as parents, relatives, elders etc.]. And, very likely, when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass the whole lot on to her own children – nonsense as well as sense – using the same infectious gravitas of manner”

The authors continue:

“One can understand why atheistic activists feel more at ease with the unnaturalness hypothesis than its natural alternative. The notion of religion as a transmitted, mental illness fits hand-in-glove with the ideological aspects of the New Atheist movement. Not only is religion unnatural (and by association atheism natural), it is also a condition that is treatable, at least in principle.”

However, this risks equating two very different concepts. Just because something is “natural”… whether this specifically means genetically, evolutionary, or occurring by second-nature across the globe… this is not the equivalent to saying it is correct, good or indeed necessary. There are many things which have in the past seemed normal and “natural” but which have been left behind. And similarly there are things which have even been biologically engrained which have been outgrown. If it were to be shown that religion were natural and atheism were unnatural, this does not mean that one is a better state of affairs than the other… it would simply be a comment based on observable phenomena. Any of these statements that I have made could be true or false, but the simple point is that nature does not inherently have to provide the definitive state of affairs.

The authors eloquently sum up the merits of each explanation as follows:

“The naturalness hypothesis accounts for a range of recurrent issues quite economically. For example: a) why religion is a human universal, being present in all known human groups (the human mind-brain is more or less the same everywhere); b) why supernatural agents are central to most religious systems (they activate entrenched cognitive mechanisms such as our hyperactive agency detection and are easy to process and memorize); and c) why rituals take the form that they do (due to action representation and effects on memory). The unnaturalness hypothesis, on the other hand, explains at best surface variation (say, why an important agent is called “Jesus” here but “Visnu” there) and the propagation of superstitious beliefs.”

But are careful to clarify that “we still maintain that Dawkins’ unnaturalness hypothesis identifies important aspects of cultural transmission and that a full account of religion will have to combine both approaches.”

The authors propose a simple thought experiment whereby a group of infants find themselves on an uninhabited island and grow to form a society without the aid of parental influence. Will they become religious? The authors contend that the unnatural, virus-of-the-mind hypothesis would answer “no!” and that the naturalness hypothesis would give at best a “most likely”. This is because, in this hypothetical situation, the development of religion…

“does not depend on religious concepts being genetically hardwired, independent of environmental factors. The only inborn aspects at play are normal, cognitive mechanisms of the mind–brain which we use to navigate in our mundane, day-to-day environment – such as our ability to detect agency in the environment (in other living organisms and fellow humans), our capacity to infer the intentions of other people and automatic or intuitive expectations about things in the environment (such as solid objects cannot be in more than one place at a time, that living beings have agency and that people have intentions). In this [hypothetical situation], religiosity (as belief in supernatural agents) is an emergent property arising from the interplay of normal cognitive mechanisms and the immediate natural and social environment (opaque causal processes → ideas → talking → spread of supernatural concepts). Only by removing cognition from its environmental and social niche do we arrive at Zuckerman’s caricature of the cognitive science of religion.”

Here comes what I see as one of the key points of their thesis: naturalness is a question of probability, with religion being likely but not necessary – atheism, whilst being less likely, is “certainly possible, given the right environmental and cultural niche.”

“In urban conditions, the environment is to a large extent man-made, and thus there is much less incentive to interpret causal relations in terms of non-human, supernatural agency. Further, there is a difference in the modern epidemiology of ideas in the sense that naturalistic explanatory frameworks will be more readily available due to higher levels of education.”

The authors then present Justin Barrett’s thesis, that there are certain cognitive capacities when theism has no problem dealing with, that atheism will struggle to cope with, making it a much less likely outcome. At first these sound reasonable… but Geertz and Markússon manage to provide compelling counter arguments at each turn. I shall present each of Barrett’s cognitive capacities in turn, combined with Geertz and Markússon’s rebuttal:

  • The Hypersensitive Agent Detection Device (HADD) – “Repeated, demonstrated false alarms from HADD should equally reinforce beliefs in non-theistic, natural explanations. Wouldn’t the reasoning mind that concludes, ‘No, it’s not a tiger that brushed the branch, it’s only the wind’ also be able to conclude, ‘No, it’s not my ancestor who pushed the rock from the ledge above, it’s only a startled goat’?”
  • Moral Realism – Barrett is not concerned with whether or not we can be moral without religion. What he claims is that religion gives a certain moral certitude which atheism cannot. However, “We argue that atheists also find moral certitude in the ideologies of a just society or in human compassion or simply in enlightened altruism.”
  • Dealing with Death… specifically guilt: “We don’t know how atheists deal with such situations. We do agree with Barrett, however, that guilt for instance is a natural mechanism and can be felt without any apparent reason for it. But this problem must be dealt with by both atheists and theists regardless of their particular persuasions.”

Another argument that the authors use to refute the argument that atheists do not cope as well as theists in the world is quite simply that atheism is both ancient and complex… it is not a recent phenomenon. They spend a long time discussing this point, however I do not feel that it needs as much explanation as they provide. Alistair McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism and James Thrower’s Western Atheism: A Short History provide an ample introduction to atheism throughout history, as of course does Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. However, the do draw attention to some work by an early historian of religions, Guiseppe Tucci, who identified a heterodox movement in India approximately 300-150BCE known as the Cārvāka school, who held the following main tenets:

1. Sacred literature should be disregarded as false.
2. There is no deity or supernatural.

3. There is no immortal soul and nothing exists after the death of the body.

4. Karma is inoperative and an illusion.

5. All (that is) is derived from material elements.

6. Material elements have an immanent force.

7. Intelligence is derived from these elements.

8. Religious injunctions and the sacerdotal class are useless. (Thrower, 1980 and Tucci, 1924)

This bears a remarkable similarity to the views of some contemporary New Atheists…

Now what about more recent “adaptationist” or “religion by natural selection” approaches?

According to this type of approach, “instead of maintaining that it is a by-product of adaptations for mundane survival, it claims that religiosity is a functional adaptation in its own right, crafted by natural selection.”

I’m not going to do much more than throw out what Geertz and Markússon have to say on this approach. They point to the theory of Jesse Bering who “theorizes that belief in ambient, unseen agents, such as ancestors, was selected due to its beneficial effects on cooperation in our ancestral past.” He writes that the psychological foundations of some religious behaviours

“may be side effects of other design features that, quite by chance, had salutary effects of their own on the organism’s ability to pass on its genes and, over time, were independently subjected to natural selection.”

And continues: “God is a way of thinking that has been rendered permanent by natural selection.”

The authors cogently observe that “The interesting paradox here is that even staunch atheists, such as Bering himself, may continue to “hear” the “voice of God” emanating from the recesses of their mind, no matter their agility with Occam’s razor and other thinking aids of the scientific method.”

So how does this all fit with the New Atheism?

The authors tip their hat to the common (and to some extent common sense thesis) that the New Atheism “was ignited by the shattering events of September 11, 2001”, however they are quite rightly insistent that whilst 9/11 may have been a motivation to put pen to paper in some specific instances, in most cases (specifically in the case of Richard Dawkins) outspoken writing “is also the culmination of [a] long-standing opposition to religion and religion’s place in society, a career of critique antedating 9/11 by decades. Furthermore, 9/11 tells us very little about the continued strength and propagation of New Atheism.”

However, I think it is fairly obvious to you and me that, for better or worse, 9/11 has acted as a kind of “cultural primer’, enabling the message of atheism to strike a chord with others to whom it may not have reached.

The also draw attention to a Guardian piece written by Dawkins 4 days after 9/11 that I had not come across until now  – “Religion’s misguided missiles: promise a young man that death is not the end and he will willingly cause disaster”.

They point to three features of New Atheism that they believe help it spread and maintain itself:

  • “A rich ecology of signs increases adaptability as it makes it possible to employ different “segments” of signs (texts, and so on) in response to different circumstances (an analogy to cells applying different segments of DNA in different contexts). Externalization techniques like signs/mnemonics further enable the “offloading” of complex concepts into the environment, thus securing their spread and transmission. Within a relatively brief number of years, variously linked concepts such as memes, genes, rationality, secularism, science, naturalism, democracy, religion-as-a-delusion, religion-as-a-virus-of-the-mind, religion-as-abuse and so on became determining hallmarks of New Atheist semiotic ecology.”
  • A “reactionary semiosis” – “In order to secure the transmission of atheist thought, New Atheists have been engaged in systematic and aggressive criticism and deconstruction of theist claims.”
  • Arguments from authority give credit to certain trends of semiosis – whether these be from contemporary authorities, or from a carefully chosen and cited list of older – even ancient – authorities. I stumbled upon a striking instance of this phenomenon just a few days ago when Hemant Mehta – The Friendly Atheist – asked on his popular blog “What should atheists memorise?”… the greater than 100 responses so far should prove instructive. Why on earth should atheists feel compelled to memorise particularly notable passages? And do these passages perform the same evangelical and personal commitment functions as they would within, say, Christianity? Something interesting to look into I reckon!

For the authors, then,

“In this perspective, the New Atheist movement is a complex system of signs/external mnemonics and distributed cognition, well adapted to the uneasy world of popular media and social activism. These formal, semiotic aspects, we suggest, are key factors in the movement’s spread and maintenance. To restrict New Atheism to the individual brains of New Atheists is insufficient grounds for any claims on the cognitive naturalness or unnaturalness of atheism. Modern, Western cultural, political and social contexts function as the supportive framework for atheist cognition—just as they do for religious cognition.”

And at this point they conclude their paper:

“In the course of this paper, after considering irreligion and the New Atheism, we have refuted Zuckerman’s claim that statistics on atheism pose a problem for cognitive accounts of religion. Neither the by-product nor the adaptationist hypotheses of the naturalness approach make religiosity a necessity for humans. Such would only be the case if we were to remove cognition from its socio-cultural habitat. However, cognitive accounts often proceed as if the wider cultural ecology can be ignored. To amend this, the naturalness and unnaturalness (or memetic) hypotheses must be combined, bringing cognition and culture back together again. In redirecting attention to the fact that human cognition is always situated within a natural habitat of cultural systems, we find that atheism is no less natural than religiosity is. We are therefore critical of the cognitive science of religion accounts of atheism and their unsupported assumptions about atheists.

In the end, religiosity and atheism represent entrenched cognitive–cultural habits where the conclusions drawn from sensory input and the output of cognitive systems bifurcate in supernatural and naturalistic directions. The habit of atheism may need more scaffolding to be acquired, and its religious counterpart may need more effort to kick, but even so, that does not, ipso facto, make the latter more natural than the former.”

To my mind, this is an excellent paper. It may raise more questions than it answers, but I think it nicely frames how things aren’t always as simple as they seem, and how in the field of Religious Studies – whether we are looking at religion or irreligion, belief or nonbelief – the ultimate pitfall is to fall into the reductionistic trap of accepting on theory as definitive, to the detriment of other useful and worthwhile explanations.

I hope some of the citations, quotations, summaries and personal insights I have provided have been useful. Please do use this as a basis for further research and discussion.

Chris

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

5 responses to “The (Un)naturalness of Religion and Atheism”

  1. Ik says :

    The reason I is so confused is that, with One I, I is atheist, agnostic, and believer.

    All religion and all debate of religious thought ends in the Apocalypse.

    Peace,

    Ik

  2. liam Cottam says :

    Really interesting article. Obviously getting statistics on belief/non-belief is a near impossibility but I wonder how the statistics would look if areas of harmonious ideas were looked at. So rather than looking at religious belief vs non-belief the survey focused on specific beliefs/ideals. For example, Y/N I believe in a creator God, I believe the world has a natural order

    • religionandmore says :

      Things get very interesting when you get into those sorts of questions. There was a Research Note published a while back by Stephen Bullivant, where he used a combination of questions like “Would you consider yourself a) an atheist b) an agnostic c) non-religious etc” and also the type of specific belief/ideal question you mention. You occasionally ended up with the same individual identifying as an atheist yet agreeing with the statements which were supposed to designate theists or deists. Maybe all down to a misunderstanding of what these crucial key terms mean…

  3. liam Cottam says :

    Sorry for the double post, I also meant to add that I have seen Camp Quest pushed as a skepticism camp as opposed to an atheist camp. Atheist camp sounds a bit Wierd. Skepticism camp seems justified and would run parallel to critical thinking that we are supposed to teach in schools.

  4. Gemma says :

    Very interesting. I must admit I’ve shied away from looking at ‘why’ religion exists/persists for a very long time, in favour of looking at how society and ‘religion’ have interrelated, so this is all rather new to me.

    I love the fact you’ve mentioned a group that I don’t think get enough attention – those who don’t give religion a second thought. As someone brought up in a family where this was the prevailing attitude, I’ve been saddened by the tendency of RS to ignore these people.

    Anyhoo, a lot to digest here, so I’ll hopefully come back with something more useful when I’ve had time to consider it.

    G. :)

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