Irrational? I don’t think so.

In an “i’m not crazy; you are!” state, I’ve read the following article three times.  And I still don’t completely agree with the author’s conclusions:  that we atheists are as irrational as xians, to the same degree and for the same reasons.  I suspect my antipathy stems from the “cute” title, which pits us-against-them.

You be the judge.  Title and attribution is below.

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. We have compelling evidence from Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in Sacred and Secular that nations with high existential security, that is the perception that one’s life, well-being and society are secure, exhibit less religious belief and behaviour. But we also have good reasons to doubt the common explanation of this pattern, that religion provides comfort and becomes more convincing in trying times.

Anthropologically, societies in existentially insecure environments actually believe in very non-comforting supernatural agents. In contrast, the most comforting religious ideas, such as New Age spirituality or hell-less Christianity, flourish in the affluent west. Psychologically, we have little to no evidence that our minds will believe in something just because it would be comforting to do so.

So how do we explain the link between existential security and non-theism? Rather than a “comfort” theory, evidence supports a “threat and action” theory. We have an abundance of evidence from psychology and anthropology that feeling under threat increases commitment to in-group ideologies, whether they are religious ideologies or not.

Threats also increase the motivation to participate in religious communities to obtain material benefits. For example, in many contexts, religions are the only game in town for social insurance. Finally, we have evidence that from prayer to psalm recitation, threats increase superstitious behaviour. Increased commitment, participation and superstitious behaviour are all actions, not just words, that testify to religious beliefs.

How important are such actions in producing theism? Crucial. Work by Joseph Henrich from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, myself, and others suggests that humans believe the statements of others to the extent that they back those statements with actions. That is, rather than believing everything authority figures say, we believe to the extent that they “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk”. The implication is that if parents and others believe in supernatural agents but do not show these beliefs through attendance, self-sacrifice, rule obedience and/or emotional displays, they will find their children sceptical of these beliefs and their society less theistic.

This is what happened in Scandinavia in the 20th century as governments instituted extensive welfare policies for ethnically homogenous populations. Fewer economic and social threats meant less religious action and, in the span of a generation, levels of theism fell. The US, on the other hand, instituted comparatively weak social welfare policies for a more divided population. Consequently, it saw little decline in theism.

But what of strong atheism? Counter-intuitively, while I think that a lack of social and economic threat produces non-theism, I believe that higher levels of threat to a particular vision of society help produce strong atheism. Strong atheism is not the absence of an in-group ideology but the defence of one: modern secularism.

Many scholars, including philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, have documented the emergence of a new vision of western societies in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the growth of modern nation states. Societies were no longer seen by most of their citizens as kingdoms under God but as societies of mutual benefit in which citizens use their rational minds to cooperate and improve their lives. When religions stood in the way of this by denying individual liberty and pleasure and by asserting that the purpose of life should be transcendent rather than earthly well-being, religions themselves became anti-social and even immoral.

We can partially explain strong atheist sentiment and activity as the result of religious threats to this secular vision of society. Supporting evidence is chronological and geographical. Chronologically, we find Sam Harris writing The End of Faith as a response to 9/11; strong atheists in the US picking up Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and joining atheist groups after the re-election of George W. Bush; and many Danes joining the Danish Atheist Society after the Muhammad cartoon controversy.

Geographical evidence can be seen in the contrast between the US and Denmark. In the US, where many Christian conservatives make no secret of their desire to govern by “Biblical” principles, we find hundreds of atheist organisations and thousands of people expressing the view that religion is immoral and to be combated through argument. In Denmark and Sweden, with little threat of politicians governing by religious principles, we find fewer atheist organisations and, in organisations that do exist, much less activity.

My account is based on both qualitative and quantitative evidence, but it requires further research. An overall point can be made, however. Our beliefs, behaviours and moral sentiments are not simply the result of dispassionate reason. As psychologists and anthropologists have argued for some time, to understand them involves considering something we might call “human nature” as well as the particular socio-cultural contexts in which people live. This is as true for explaining atheism as it is for religion.

It gets my back up to be lumped, even in an adversarial context, with a group that contains so very many willfully ignorant asshats!  As if there is any equivalency involved!

Okay, I just exhibited that superiority that xians hate.  In truth, I feel I have evolved, that I’m the adult and they’re still childish.  I feel empowered, while they fear so much of modern life.  I feel a freedom they will never know.

The opinion piece is by anthropologist Jonathan Lanman, Oxford College.  The title is “Religion is irrational, but so is atheism.”

If you want to visit the site, New Scientist blog, please do so.  However, they have three levels of transparency:  limited/free look-see; registered/free, with a fixed time-limit of access; and subscription/$ for full access.  I hate pay-walls.

Knowing only some AO readers will click through, to involve everyone, I chose to share it this way, hoping CreativeCommons applies.  Although it might be worth your while to explore the concepts of rebuilding society by design, reforming the clock (metric!) and more.  If you do go, be sure to check out NSTV’s ongoing “Friday Illusions”, where scientists examine and explain why your brain/eye connection fools you.

This entry was posted in Atheism, Education, Free speech, Morality, Psychology, Religion, Separation of church and state, Superstition. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Irrational? I don’t think so.

  1. naomi666 says:

    Off-topic on my self: I just happened upon UnreasonableFaith blog. Check out
    Grammar Nazi Atheists. Better than the post about how “picky” we are about spelling, etc., is the first comment by Custador:

    DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT GOD GAVE ME CAPS LOCK TO MAKE YOU ALL PAY ATTENTION TO MY NEVER ENDING WALL OF TEXT AND THAT THE DEVIL INVENTED PUNCTUATION BECAUSE GOD WANTS YOU TO TAKE A REALLY DEEP BREATH AND TRY TO READ EVERYTHING I WRITE OUT LOUD IN ONE CONTINUOUS SENTENCE WITHOUT PAUSING AS A TEST OF YOUR FAITH BECAUSE IF YOU BELIEVE IN GOD REALLY REALLY HARD HE’LL GIVE YOU MASSIVE LUNGS SO THAT YOU WON’T NEED TO BREATH IN BEFORE YOU GET TO THE END AND IF YOU TURN BLUE AND PASS OUT THEN THAT MEANS YOU’RE GOING TO GO TO HELL WHEN YOU DIE ALTHOUGH OBVIOUSLY I’M NOT AS FUNDAMENTALIST AS SOME PEOPLE BECAUSE THERE AREN’T AS MANY TYPOGRAPHICAL AND SPELLING ERRORS AS THERE WOULD BE IF I WAS A PROPER FUNDAGELICAL BUT THAT’S OKAY THINK OF ME AS A PENTECOSTAL INTERNET SHOUTER BY THE WAY IF ANYBODY HASN’T GOT THIS FAR THEN YOU MUST BE THE DEVIL BECAUSE MY PASTOR TOLD ME THAT’S WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS OH AND I COULD POINT YOU TOWARDS LOADS AND LOADS OF PROOF FOR GOD AND CREATIONISM EXCEPT THAT I WON’T EVEN IF YOU ASK AND ASK AND ASK BECAUSE I’LL JUST IGNORE YOU AND PRETEND I HAVEN’T NOTICED YOUR QUESTIONS AND DEFLECT THE CONVERSATION ONTO UTTERLY IRRELEVANT TOPICS UNTIL YOU PROVE THAT I’M WRONG ABOUT THOSE TOO AND THEN I’LL REVISIT OLDER TOPICS THAT YOU’VE ALREADY PROVEN ME WRONG ABOUT AS IF IT’S AN ENTIRELY NEW SUBJECT THAT YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY PATIENTLY EXPLAINED AND THEN WHEN YOU GET FRUSTRATED AND START INSULTING ME I’LL CALL YOU ALL RUDE AND FLOUNCE OUT CLAIMING VICTORY AND I’LL BOAST ABOUT IT TO ALL OF MY THEIST FRIENDS AND GET FUNDIE KUDOS BECAUSE HAHAHAHAHA I WIN AND YOU FAIL

  2. ChuckA says:

    My apology, Naomi, for brazenly jumping in here right away…

    This kind of overly wrought “pseudo-intellectual bullshit” ticks me off. Maybe I’m just too stupid, or whatever, but…
    Right from the ‘get-go’ RE the opening article notions; my first impulse is to give answers that, in my 71 years on this friggin’ planet, come from sometimes agonizingly dragged out personal experience.

    OK…just taking those few opening ‘salvos’ (titled questions?)
    “Why are some people religious and others atheists?”
    My answer:
    Some people…make that MOST (especially in the USA)…are religious because they were heavily indoctrinated right from birth. Most people…the overwhelming majority, for that matter…DON’T have atheist parents. AND, unlike theists; atheist parents tend NOT to indoctrinate their children; but to teach them to question any and all assumptions; and to use rational, critical thinking. IOW…no dogmas. One should make up their own mind; based on actual Scientific evidence and critical thinking.

    “Do we really know what we mean by atheism?”
    YES!…DEFINITELY! (And, it ain’t that difficult!)
    I’d say, the overwhelming majority of atheists agree with the dictionary definition of atheism as, quite simply…
    the NON-belief in ANY gods.
    Is that too difficult to understand?
    (You fucking brainwashed theist dumb-asses! :shock: )

    “Here is a very paradoxical clue”…
    CLUE?…paradoxical CLUE?…
    Are you that fucking clueless?…
    Does it really take a whole lot of bending one’s self into a literary pretzel to come to a “rational conclusion”?

    How ’bout…just for ONE itzy-bitzy, eenzy-weenzy little item…
    the fact that an astoundingly humongous number of the World’s believers; particularly in the Christian/Islamic Abrahamic crowd…are indoctrinated from birth into the terrifying fear and guilt about the basic doctrinal NOTION of Eternal Hell.
    IOW, if one DOESN’T believe…for essentially no other reason…one will be Eternally Damned to suffer…endlessly…forever…in a burning hell (or “Lake of Fire”!)!
    Is that a clue that is so hard to discover?
    WTF!!!

    AND…absolutely NO atheist…EVER…EVER…condemns ANYONE to that kind of insane visciousness.
    Kapish?

    Sorry, Naomi…I got “carried away” a bit.
    I’ll be alright after I have something sweet to suck on.

  3. Mark says:

    Good point Chuck…”make that MOST (especially in the USA)…are religious because they were heavily indoctrinated right from birth.”
    Look at the Mormon religion and as crazy as it may be most are afraid to leave since one who does will be ostracized from family and friends. This can be a powerful motive to just go along and not make waves.

    I also think there are much more Atheists and Agnostics than are willing to admit, they just choose to not voice an opinion and create debate.

  4. hogarm says:

    I could rant all day on this ignorance.
    Of course there are all kind of “atheists.” Doesn’t he recognize there are all kinds of wildly disparate gods people believe in? From Pat Robertson’s god that controls the movements of the tectonic plates and causes earthquakes to punish “those“ people, to Pope Rat’s god who knows everything, even what I am thinking; to the deists whose god started things and then forgot about us and is now busy doing something else in this universe of 30 billion trillion stars.
    There is a definite correlation between scientific education and non-belief in a god that gives a shit about human kind. From high-school dropouts in Alabama with a negligible percent who are non-believers, to members of the National Academy of Science with 93% non-believers.
    And yes, I am threatened; by fundamentalist voting as a block, insuring that only believers serve in our government, the more fundamentalist the better. Then we get a president who goes on a military crusade against Muslim countries. And legislators who try to deny women their Constitutionally protected liberties, and marginalize gays, and are trying to bankrupt our Treasury, and refuse to address environmental and over-population issues. Who cares about liberty and the future when Jesus is about to re-appear? Actually, appear the first time!

  5. naomi666 says:

    I’m glad that you found his snooty, over-intellectualization to be as annoying as I did. He did say this (but so far into his piece, it was almost buried, so to speak).

    How important are such actions in producing theism? Crucial. Work by…Henrich,..,myself, and others suggests that humans believe the statements of others to the extent that they back those statements with actions. That is, rather than believing everything authority figures say, we believe to the extent that they “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk”. The implication is that if parents and others believe in supernatural agents but do not show these beliefs through attendance, self-sacrifice, rule obedience and/or emotional displays, they will find their children sceptical of these beliefs and their society less theistic.

    At least he didn’t quote the “saint” who invented the brainwashing of children.

  6. Neil says:

    I don’t know…I think there is a grain of truth to the whole thing, but it’s so obvious and common sense that the article is making a mountain out of a molehill and looking to define it’s way into being something more meaningful than it is.
    Shorter version of the above: “Humans, whether religious or not, will often
    unconciously use emotional, rather than intellectual criteria as a guide to action when they percieve that they are threatened.” Wow, really?!? I had no idea!

    Of course there is a tendency to gather together with like-minded people and resisit unwelcome intrusions into one’s way of life. Every species of cooperative animal does this to some degree for that matter, and humans simply have more “layers” of society that may need protecting, including philosophies and common beliefs. And there is certainly an emotional component to that behavior, at least at times…but that’s hardly enough to call the entire process “irrational”, using “irrational” in the same way that it is used to describe fundamentalist religion- flat-out delusion, unwillingness to reason,
    and unstoppable, chronic panic and confrontation as a philosophy, belief system, or way of life.

    I wouldn’t even call it necessarily irrational when various religious cults do it…they may be irrational about selecting the content of their beliefs, they may be irrational in
    how they define a threat, but if they are convinced that they are being attacked, then defending their way of life or beliefs is a “rational” choice in and of itself which may have widely varying degrees of irrationality involved at various points.

    I haven’t read the entire article, just what you posted here-there may well be qualifying statements involved…but it seems to me that the researchers are ignoring glaring differences in the big picture, and trying to force (yet another) false “equivalence of beliefs” onto atheists. Even if they could show that there was
    to some degree a very similar emotional, “irrational” motivation behind the actions
    or attitudes of say, Richard Dawkins and Fred Phelps, it would still be a gross generalization to label them equally irrational, or exactly the same in motivation,
    or anything even close. If nothing else, it would reduce the significance of the similarity to nothing, again only informing us of what we already know…people get less rational under stress, both as individuals and in groups. To see them as equal, one would have to ignore millenia of known history, ignore the different foundations and assumpions of the two worldviews, ignore the different approaches and tools used to
    arrive at and defend one’s view, and ignore the current state of society around the world, pretending that all this is happeneing in a vacuum in some sterile laboratory.
    There may be a small irrational element in the attitudes or motivations of some staunch anti-theists that is trivially comparable to that of religious believers(or any human) but that’s nothing at all compared to even relatively “benign” religious adherents. Atheists grouping together are a reflection of historical, factual, long-standing disapproval, condemnation, and real danger to freedom and safety, whereas even the most mainstream religions have large elements of imagined persecution, martyrdom, separateness from greater society, and hostitlity to outsiders preached as unquestionable truth every single day. They don’t just display normal defensive
    irrationality, but promote it and encourage it as a means to power in society and constant group cohesion-yet it seemes this is overlooked (as usual).

    Even if everything in the article is accurate, I don’t think it means all that much
    and doesn’t address any other underlying issues, such as the “rationality” of the beliefs, the rationality of the threat assessments, or the rationality of the responses to the threat, just that there may be a common “irrational element”, in an unquantifyable amount, shared by humans with different belief systems.

    Sorry to go on so long, but I can’t tell if the article is saying something true but simple, or if it is trying to make that simple truth more encompassing and quantifyable than it really is. Either way….meh. Get back to me when you actually have something to say.
    And the dishonest title alone makes me want to puke on the author’s shoes.

  7. naomi666 says:

    @Neil. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying: how can we be considered “the irrational ones”, when compared, side by side, with fundamentalists/evangelicals? Speaking in tongues? Snake-handling? Zealotry? PuhLEEZE!

    but that’s hardly enough to call the entire process “irrational”, using “irrational” in the same way that it is used to describe fundamentalist religion- flat-out delusion, unwillingness to reason,
    and unstoppable, chronic panic and confrontation as a philosophy, belief system, or way of life.

    Thank you for your rational analysis. Long-windedness is welcome here, so feel free. And a special thanks for this:

    And the dishonest title alone makes me want to puke on the author’s shoes.

    Ramen.

  8. Josh says:

    I’ve always thought that atheism is simply a choice of world view based on specific assumptions. Theism, similarly, is a choice also based on specific assumptions. The former appears to limit the allowable evidence and worldview to only what can be rationally gathered through the scientific process or reasoning. A reductionist approach does not always seem to give an accurate or comprehensive picture of human experience. The latter point of view works on different assumptions; that we can also infer truth from experience.

    It seems like atheism starts, mathematics like, with the most basic equations and assumptions and builds out from there. Only what can be proved is allowable as “true”. Theism (eg, religion generally) takes an approach of looking at the human experience and attempts to build a theory that fits that experience.

    Perhaps, as one theistically inclined (no flaming please) it’s a little brave of me to post in an atheist enclave, but it is interesting to hear differing points of view. I don’t seek to answer the many wrongs of religion. But I do seek dialogue with people who are genuinely interested in understanding other points of view.

    The article itself has some very interesting points, but the focus on “threat” as a basis for atheism does seem overly simplistic. I can understand the several posters who felt that being lumped in to a hegemonic group was inaccurate. That is, however, the nature of intellectual inquiry. It can only discuss things as trends and generalisations or statistical groupings. Similarly, I don’t like being lumped in to the group of “deluded, psychotic, irrational, religious nutjobs”. But I surely will be.

    I think that to the credit of many atheists, there is a desire to have an honest, rational discussion. I have often felt that atheists with whom I have spoken have not had a desire to examine their own biases and why they have chosen to ascribe to atheism. Without an honest examination of ourselves, I think meaningful discussion can be very problematic.

    Perhaps this is all worthless rambling but I still enjoy the process.

  9. HMDK says:

    Speaking as a danish atheist, he is both right and wrong.
    Most of us (danes) aren’t religious (or atheist) in any way that would shape public policy.
    But compare that with the U.S., where churches have actual power.
    It’s sort of funny, but in Denmark we have a state church, we have a monarchy, but both are in name only and would be carved to ribbons if they tried to flex. In the U.S. you have the opposite. You have freedom you can’t enforce because the most apocalyptic believers deliver too huge a chunk of votes.
    It’s “funny” how a supposedly more secular society is actually harder bound to the church.

Comments are closed.