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How to Make a Strong Atheist

Throughout most of our history, mortal concerns were ever-present. While the good life breeds atheists, the good life and a little fear breed strong atheists.
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The good life breeds atheists. The good life and a little fear breed strong atheists.

In a recent issue of New Scientist (March 28), Oxford anthropologist Jonathan Lanman summarizes newly emerging research on the rise of atheism in the West. From the outset, Lanman makes clear that scientific research on non-belief is in its infancy, so any conclusions must be regarded as tentative. With this in mind, however, current results challenge some standard assumptions about why people are religious or not. For example, the assumption that increased education inevitably leads to greater unbelief is at best oversimplified with some evidence actually pointing in the opposite direction. Furthermore, the assumption that atheism is a singular phenomenon is also a vast oversimplification. Instead, Lanman's own research reveals at least two distinct forms of non-belief. One, which he calls "non-theism," is a lack of belief in all supernatural agents. The second, which he calls "strong atheism," goes beyond just non-belief to an active moral opposition to all religion. E. O. Wilson is probably a non-theist but not a strong atheist (at least that's my reading of him). Richard Dawkins is a strong atheist.

What's interesting about strong atheism, non-theism and religious belief, according to Lanman, is that they all have a common sociological origin: perceived threat. Throughout most of our history, mortal concerns were ever-present. Predators, starvation, disease, war, childbirth, foreigners, enemies -- around every corner was something threatening life and health. Religion proved to be an effective response to these threats; and not because it offered supernatural comforts. Indeed, religion often exacerbated fears by positing a host of angry gods and vindictive spirits. Instead, religious beliefs and practices served as effective mechanisms for solidifying group cohesion and cooperation. One could not face lethal dangers alone; but together with kin, clan and tribe, one had a fighting chance.

Modern technology and extensive social welfare have effectively removed many of these threats for affluent Westerners. In the second half of the 20th century, religious belief and practice fell off precipitously in countries such as Sweden and Denmark, where governments enacted social welfare programs making life stable and secure for their (then) largely homogenous populations. Though religion may build quite seamlessly off of some of our natural cognitive tendencies (such as our tendency to see meaningful patterns or to assume agency behind natural events), it is not innate. If children do not see adults expressing religious sentiments or practicing religious behaviors (praying, going to church), then supernatural beliefs become as foreign to them as a different language. This appears to be what happened across much of Western Europe in only a generation or two. The good life made practices designed to enhance within-group solidarity superfluous. Those practices, the most costly of which were probably religious in nature, became increasingly rare and supernatural belief floundered.

This may explain the high rates of non-theism in many European countries, but Lanman finds something even more fascinating: very often, high rates of non-theism are negatively related to the prevalence of strong atheism. For example, while most Danes are non-theists, relatively few are strong atheists. By contrast, American non-theists are a distinct minority but far more likely to be strong atheists than Danes. Why the difference?

Again, Lanman points to perceived threat. In Denmark, there is little concern that politicians are inclined to govern by conservative religious principles. In the U.S., Christian fundamentalists are an active, influential political force. To American secularists, Christian conservatism represents an imminent threat to an enlightened, rational society. They are not just another player on the political landscape; they are a moral evil to be vigorously opposed. While atheist advocacy groups are present in Denmark, they are fewer and less active compared to the U.S. As the threat theory would predict, however, there was a spike in membership in the Danish Atheist Society in the wake of the violent reaction of some Muslims to the Mohammad cartoon controversy. As immigration increasingly transforms European society in ways perceived as threatening, one prediction derived from threat theory is that this would produce either resurgent Christianity or increased atheist activism (or both).

Both religion and atheism would like to lay claim to rational roots; and, indeed, each makes extensive use of rationality as a tool for defending its principles. However, a basic message of Lanman's and others' research is that group psychology, emotional defense and irrationality are inherent, undeniable aspects of both religion and atheism. This should not be surprising. Both are human phenomena and necessarily bear the imprimatur of the human mind. Cool-headed reason is usually inversely proportional to the belligerence with which groups confront each other. If we would like both atheists and religious folks to be more reasonable maybe we should start by turning down the threat levels all around.

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