In our last two articles, we’ve explored one book in the exciting new field of cognitive science of religion. And we’ve seen how one of the findings in this area is that belief in God, or something like God, is natural to us, given the types of minds we have. Of course, this doesn’t show that one ought to believe in God—that would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy. After all, where the theist might reason that we have this predisposition because God wanted us to have it, an atheist might reason just as consistently with their point of view, that cognitive science has revealed yet another irrational bias we have, and that knowing the facts helps us overcome it. It also doesn’t show that God doesn’t exist, because a similar cognitive explanation could be given for literally any belief of any description whatever. They all arise from the brain/mind complex, and they’re all susceptible to scientific explanation, so it’s not as if explaining belief in God explains God away, any more than explaining vision explains that the things I see aren’t really there.
So this finding of cognitive science of religion doesn’t show that God does or doesn’t exist, it just helps us to have a more scientifically informed theism, or atheism, as the case may be. But it does put paid to a common idea in what you might call contemporary folk atheism: namely, the view that people only believe in God because they are told to do so by parents or other authority figures. It seems it would be closer to the truth to say that people believe in God because the kinds of minds we have predispose us to do it, without prejudice to the truth or falsehood of the belief itself. What parental guidance or religious instruction seems to do is not so much create belief, but reinforce it and channel it along certain pathways.
Very well, we’ve made some progress toward explaining belief. What about unbelief? Is there a cognitive process for that? If belief comes naturally to us, given the types of minds we have, then how is it that skepticism ever gets a foothold? According to Barrett, there are external factors at work that can strengthen or weaken our propensity to believe in God, or something like God. In this article I’d like to make good on my earlier promise in this direction, and begin to explore some of this terrain.
One such factor is simply the association and presence of other skeptics. Just as the Muslim may find their faith reinforced by associating with other, like-minded Muslims, and likewise the adherent to any other faith, the atheist is likely to find their point of view reinforced through association with other atheists. Belief, like many other human activities, is social; it takes place in a group context. Even when we are not physically present in that context, we carry with us the values, beliefs, and expectations that we have internalized through those associations. The doubter finds reinforcement for their doubt with other doubters just as the believer does for their belief with other believers.
But it’s not just the subtle weight of consensus that makes doubt, like belief, more powerful in a group context. There is also a reason rooted in the mechanisms that make for belief. We did not have time or space to explore all of the ways in which, according to Barrett, our minds predispose us to belief, but part of the larger case that he makes in his book is that our minds have a way of defaulting toward agent-oriented explanations. We often find it natural to ask the “how” question in the context of “who” and “why” questions, i.e., those that presuppose agency. Because of this predisposition, we also have a way of gravitating toward agent-oriented explanations. They possess intrinsic intuitive appeal. Now, of course, a person can learn to master this appeal, to consistently deny it, and, over the course of a lifetime, become habituated to not thinking in these terms, so this is not to say that consistent atheism is impossible or anything like that. But it is to say that those predispositions are always there, tugging at the mind, so even if one reflectively believes that such questions, when asked in certain contexts, are improper because they presuppose the existence of agents that do not exist. Nevertheless, our nonreflective mental toolkit spontaneously poses such questions, and agent-oriented explanations, to us as candidates for reflective belief. Atheism involves “keeping a lid on,” so to speak, this set of intuitions. (For empirical support, please see Elizabeth King’s discussion of her own experience for the Washington Post. According to a survey of American atheists conducted by Pew Research in 2016, eight percent of self-described atheists believe in God. The real number is, presumably, somewhat higher, as at least some respondents who struggled with lingering belief may have been too embarrassed to admit it, seeing as the literal definition of an atheist is a person who does not believe in God.)
So, to return to the question of why membership in a community of skeptics is likely to increase the strength of one’s skepticism: part of the reason is that the explanations that our nonreflective intuitions propose to us, as candidates for reflective belief, may involve agents that, as a matter of reflective belief, the skeptic does not believe exist. In this situation, it helps to have an alternative candidate for reflective belief that can occupy that space (so to speak), without drawing on such agent-focused intuitions. In other words, suspending belief, or merely denying assent, to agent-oriented explanations is much more difficult when one has no rival, non-agent-oriented belief that one can affirm in its place. And one is more likely to encounter such non-agent-oriented candidates for belief in a community of skeptics, because the problem poses itself to all, or nearly-all, of them alike. So being in this community gives a skeptic access to intellectual resources that might otherwise be unavailable, or more difficult to access, and this in turn can help beat back agent-oriented intuitions, and make skepticism more plausible and attractive. Here we can see how the growth of scientific knowledge, which routinely explains natural processes without presupposing the existence of God or any other such agent, can strengthen skepticism. It’s not so much that science disproves the existence of God, as that it offers alternative candidates for belief in situations where we might otherwise find it natural to invoke God. God might not be squeezed out of the universe by science, but perhaps God can be squeezed out of our cognitive space by a sheer mass of alternate explanations.
It’s not so much that science disproves the existence of God, as that it offers alternative candidates for belief in situations where we might otherwise find it natural to invoke God.
A second factor conducive to skepticism is living in a prosperous, urban environment. The reason for this is two-fold. Recall that one of our mental tools is the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD), which, for sound evolutionary reasons, tends to err in the direction of oversensitivity. If there’s an agent in our immediate environment, like a prey or a predator or another human, it’s important for us to know it, because it directly impacts our ability to survive and to thrive. In other words, HADD is tuned to keep us alive, and to help us respond appropriately in urgent situations. In consequence, environments in which our survival or well-being is continually on the line tend to send HADD into over-drive, where, conversely, environments in which we are relatively secure tend to muffle it. Living in a prosperous environment generally means living in a secure one as well—plenty of food, not very many enemies (at least in the physical sense), and so on. So the more prosperous we are, the more physically comfortable we are likely to be as well, hence the less active our HADD, hence the less powerful the influence it can exert in the direction of belief, and away from skepticism.
In a similar vein, we are less likely to ask the question, “Who made all this?” when we are on a busy urban street, than when looking up at the stars in a clear night sky. In the first case, we know who made all this—other people did—so the belief that God caused all of this has less intuitive appeal, less reason to arise. But humans obviously did not create the stars in the sky, or other natural environments, so in that case the combination of our knowledge that no human agency produced it, and our predisposition to find agency-oriented explanations, makes belief in God or other supernatural agents more attractive.
Another factor that arises in prosperous, urban environments is the opportunity for reflection. Because belief has strong cognitive support in nonreflective aspects of our cognition, which propose agent-oriented explanations of events to us as candidates for reflective belief, the more opportunity one has to reflect on one’s beliefs, the more opportunity one has to find alternatives to the agency-oriented beliefs those non-reflective aspects propose. For these reasons, urban, prosperous environments are more conducive to skepticism than rural or impoverished ones.
Barrett makes several other arguments about the ways in which prosperous, urban environments are conducive to skepticism, but it would be difficult to explain them without going into detail of parts of the book we haven’t discussed. They all point, however, in the same direction: “If religion is the opiate of the masses,” Barrett argues, “atheism is the luxury of the elite.” I can’t help but feel, personally, that there’s also a political and cultural dimension to this that Barrett doesn’t discuss. Every society has political and cultural elites, and what those elites think and say about religious topics, no less than other kinds, plays an important role in shaping broad, public opinions about them. In most societies, historically, political and cultural elites have taken belief of some kind or other for granted, and have encouraged or required certain public and community-based observances of that belief. It’s not hard to see how this can create, not just outward conformity, but actual belief; do and say something often enough, and even if you don’t believe it at first, it’s likely to acquire some force for you. If, for example, everyone in your community is going to synagogue, then for you to not go, regardless of whether you believe in Judaism, would require a certain amount of courage. You would have to be willing to make the transition from private doubt to public, declared unbelief, and that can be pretty tough.
Most of us try not to “rock the boat” where we can help it, so in that case belief is reinforced by our impulse toward conformity. This is no less true in secular societies than in religious. If you live in a society where the cultural and political elites are more or less secular in their outlook, and are continually communicating, through signs both subtle and obvious, a secular point of view, then that’s bound to make secularism more attractive—first for people who live in the nearest proximity and are are the most directly exposed to the official culture (i.e., those living in urban, prosperous environment), and then out to the rest of society. There’s a “follow the leader” element to both. In the second, secular kind of society, the situation with respect to synagogue is reversed: where before it required principled commitment to not attend, under secular conditions it requires principled commitment to attend. So a secular society has its own norms and subtle pressures that are conducive toward skepticism, just as the religious one has that are conducive toward belief.
Daniel Halverson is in the PhD program at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto. His research focuses on the history of evolutionary biology in the Victorian and WWII eras.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: