Among the many benefits gathered in the blooming fields of evolutionary studies of religion is a growing understanding not only of religious belief – but also of atheism. In their ground-breaking paper “The origins of religious disbelief”, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais (known for a range of brilliant publications in the field) bring up arguments for a new perspective on atheism by discerning four different pathways to it.
Ranging back to the learned theologian Charles Darwin himself, religion is defined as belief in supernatural (or super-empirical) agents as a product of “mental” preferences of human brains. Neuroimaging studies find that thinking about or praying to God activates brain networks related to social cognition such as Hyper-Agency Detection (HAD) or building Theories of Mind (TOM). The opposite is also true: weaker mentalizing tendencies, more often found among (mostly male) people with autistic tendencies, correlate to lower levels of religiosity (on average). One way to lose (or never find) your religion is the inability to experience it.
Even if you are able to imagine supernatural agents, you might simply be disinterested in believing or even following. A range of international and intercultural studies conclusively show that growing up in an environment offering high levels of existential security, thereby lessens the need for religious communities and a personal God who offers immortality, meaning, external control, social bonding and stability. You might have the religious “muscles” (imagination), but there’s no motivation to train them. While people in peril tend to pray, well-off people simply tend to forget about God(s).
Even if you are able to imagine a supernatural agent and would be ready to do so, there might be a lack of cultural input encouraging respective beliefs. After all, successful religious communities do not thrive primarily on lip service but often rely on costly Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs) such as public rituals, offerings and deeds. Religious beliefs might not take root where people grow up in a cultural context comparatively devoid of cues that others believe in any gods at all.
One might see long-divided Germany as a perfect example of this process: Whereas Western Germans retained the freedom to express CREDs in public, heavy repressions against them took place in soviet controlled Eastern Germany. As sociologists asked Eastern Germans after the reunification whether they were religious, a prominent answer was: “No, I am normal.” For a majority of Eastern Germans growing up without much (if any) CREDs, religion became “inCREDulous”.
Finally, there is a fourth way to suppress intuitive biases towards religious beliefs: to revise or overrule them by more analytic processes. Many of those trying to harmonize religion and science end up as deists, pantheists – or agnostics and atheists. Studies have pointed out that even unconscious primers activating analytic processing such as reading a hard-to-read font or exposure to a thinking pose such as Rodin’s “Thinker” discourage religious beliefs. Thus, it is not very surprising to find people habitually trained in analytic thinking – such as scientists – to be on average less religious than others.
Might Atheism take over? And to what end?
By reviewing those four pathways to atheism, Norenzayan and Gervais are able to explain the low levels of religiosity among the comparatively well-off, secure and educated populations of, say, Scandinavian countries or WASP scientists. In such circumstances, atheism might not be such a “hard sell” as some evolutionary and cognitive theorists of religion have argued.
Understandably, Norenzayan and Gervais are avoiding the discussion whether societies may thrive on the long run without the evolutionary potentials of religious communities such as higher levels of cooperation and higher birth rates. Only time will tell – via Evolution.
Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W.M. (2013): The origins of religious disbelief. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, January 2013, Vol. 17/1, p. 20 – 25