poll: is theism or atheism natural?
I don’t want everyone jumping to instant conclusions on this one:
- 99% of atheists will predictably tell me that atheism is natural because no child is born following a religion but that every person needs to be programmed with a specific religion to follow it
- 99% of theists will predictably tell me that the desire to seek a god is within everyone and that the history of the human race tells us we long for relationships with invisible superbeings
So, to bring new perspectives to the conversation, I hope anyone interested in discussing this will find the time to read this article from Science2.0. Here are some snippets:
Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.
While this idea may seem outlandish—after all, it seems easy to decide not to believe in God—evidence from several disciplines indicates that what you actually believe is not a decision you make for yourself. Your fundamental beliefs are decided by much deeper levels of consciousness, and some may well be more or less set in stone.
This line of thought has led to some scientists claiming that “atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think,” says Graham Lawton, an avowed atheist himself, writing in the New Scientist. “They point to studies showing, for example, that even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as the existence of an immortal soul.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we are born believers, not atheists, scientists say. Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting. “A slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith,” writes Pascal Boyer in Nature, the science journal, adding that people “are only aware of some of their religious ideas”.
If a tendency to believe in the reality of an intangible network is so deeply wired into humanity, the implication is that it must have an evolutionary purpose. Social scientists have long believed that the emotional depth and complexity of the human mind means that mindful, self-aware people necessarily suffer from deep existential dread. Spiritual beliefs evolved over thousands of years as nature’s way to help us balance this out and go on functioning.
If a loved one dies, even many anti-religious people usually feel a need for a farewell ritual, complete with readings from old books and intoned declarations that are not unlike prayers. In war situations, commanders frequently comment that atheist soldiers pray far more than they think they do.
Statistics show that the majority of people who stop being part of organized religious groups don’t become committed atheists, but retain a mental model in which “The Universe” somehow has a purpose for humanity.
There are other, more socially-oriented evolutionary purposes, too. Religious communities grow faster, since people behave better (referring to the general majority over the millennia, as opposed to minority extremists highlighted by the media on any given day).
Why is this so? Religious folk attend weekly lectures on morality, read portions of respected books about the subject on a daily basis and regularly discuss the subject in groups, so it would be inevitable that some of this guidance sinks in.
There is also the notion that the presence of an invisible moralistic presence makes misdemeanors harder to commit. “People who think they are being watched tend to behave themselves and cooperate more,” says the New Scientist’s Lawton. “Societies that chanced on the idea of supernatural surveillance were likely to have been more successful than those that didn’t, further spreading religious ideas.”
Does anyone still want to argue that atheism is natural?