An outspoken band of atheists has chalked up an impressive record of articles, best-selling books, and wide public recognition. To buttress their arguments against the existence of God, leading anti-religionists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have borrowed the prestige of science. Which makes for a clean and simple dichotomy. Religion is irrational, bound up with superstition, emotions, and wishful thinking. Science is rational, dedicated to data, fact-finding, and impartial objectivity. The problem with such a simple picture is that it isn’t true and never was.
Without a hint of irony, New Scientist magazine has just published an article by Jonathan Lanman entitled “Religion is irrational, but so is atheism.” It’s an eye-opening piece, although by the time one gets to the end, it seems self-evident that atheists are of course emotional, biased, blinded to arguments that don’t fit their world view, and prone to gross over-statement. Lanman, a lecturer in anthropology at Oxford, makes the following points:
To begin, he cites research which questions the popular assumption that the more educated you are, the less likely you will be religious. In fact, the “Enlightenment assumption,” on which atheists lean heavily (equating religious belief with ignorance, to put it bluntly), isn’t proven to be valid. Lanman asserts that we have little real knowledge about why some people believe in God and others don’t. He points to a wealth of evidence that shows how vast the unconscious brain is and how mysterious the forces that shape us. This mystery applies to everyone, not simply the devout.
Instead of claiming that something has gone wrong in the brains of believers — another ploy favored in atheist rhetoric — Lanman suggests that environment has a great deal to do with what we believe. There is abundant evidence for that, too. Yet as a first step, we have to ask what we are studying. There isn’t one atheism but many, according to Lanman’s extensive research in the U.S., U.K., and Europe, ranging “from a lack of belief in God to a lack of belief in all supernatural agents to a moral opposition to all religions.”
In the midst of this confusion, he found that two phenomena leapt out as his studies progressed. The first was that a large number of people don’t believe in any supernatural agents in the universe, despite the fact that religion is worldwide. The second is moral opposition to religious belief. “For many, religions are not just factually wrong but morally harmful and to be opposed.” Looking at these two factors, Lanman notes that “nontheists,” people who have no particular religious beliefs, aren’t the same as “strong atheists,” who judge against and condemn religion. Lanman was intrigued that these two groups, which seem like allies, are negatively correlated. “Denmark and Sweden, for instance, have the highest proportion of non-theists but very little strong atheist sentiment or activity. The U.S., however, has a very low proportion of non-theists but significant levels of strong atheism.” Why?
In a word, threat, he says. There is compelling evidence that societies that rank high in security and well-being are much less religious than insecure societies where life is hard. Presumably, if you feel good about your life and others around you aren’t religious, there’s not much reason to adopt an attitude of moral outrage and condemnation of believers. Yet Pres. Obama wasn’t exactly right that people “cling to guns and religion” when life goes wrong — rather than turning to consoling beliefs, people in distress have negative religious views (as is evident from the hell fire and damnation style of much Bible Belt preaching). In contrast, the most comforting religious ideas, such as New Age spirituality or hell-less Christianity, flourish in the affluent west.
Here Lanman strikes down one of the cherished arguments of strong atheists: “Psychologically, we have little to no evidence that our minds will believe in something just because it would be comforting to do so.” It was always short-sighted — and incredibly condescending — for science-minded atheists to claim that believers are basically children looking for comforting fairy tales. If the comfort thesis is wrong, there’s a better explanation, which Lanman calls “threat and action”: there is strong evidence “that feeling under threat increases commitment to in-group ideologies, whether they are religious ideologies or not.” It should make atheists think twice to realize that their motives for attacking religion are kin to those who defend it. Both in-groups are motivated by emotion, bias, peer pressure, and the habit of “us” versus “them” thinking.
It’s crucial to note that Lanman isn’t defending religion, which he explains as a set of actions and beliefs rooted in many kinds of irrational responses to threat. Belonging to the in-group creates fertile ground for superstition and irrational behavior to grow. Atheists look much the same as viewed by an anthropologist: “Strong atheism is not the absence of an in-group ideology but the defense of one: modern secularism.” The ideology underpinning secularism sprang up in the West after the Reformation, leading to its present secular form, in which “citizens use their rational minds to cooperate and improve their lives.” Thus when religions stubbornly adhered to a belief “that the purpose of life should be transcendent rather than earthly well-being, religions themselves became anti-social and even immoral.”
Lanman has more evidence to cite, but his overall conclusion is simple. Our beliefs and behaviors are not based on dispassionate reason. In hindsight this may seem blindingly obvious, but in fact the cutting edge of brain research delves into the merging of reason and emotion in the brain, following the pathways that connect the two. Neuroscience has concluded that decisions are never devoid of emotion and that “lower” brain responses like emotion have privileged pathways that the higher brain cannot override until time has passed and the cerebral cortex is allowed to enter the picture with its rational faculties (that’s why you jump first when you hear a gunshot and only a few seconds later decide that it was only a car backfiring).
Speaking personally, as an advocate for spirituality but not for organized religion, I have rarely met debaters more disputatious, biased, close-minded, unfair in argument, and blinkered in their certainties than professional atheists. They believe that they are completely rational. Yet experience shows that people who think they have excluded their emotions in reality are unconscious about what emotions are and the power they exert over all of us. Science has much to say about spirituality, and vice versa. They aren’t enemies or natural opposites. What we should be aiming at is an expanded science that reveals the whole person, and using that perspective, we may be able to understand the wholeness of nature. At least we can take the first step, which is to throw out the claim that believers are superstitious and ignorant while atheists are the epitome of rationality. Neither, it turns out, is true.