How To Make God Die A Little More

Scientific American summarizes studies which locate people’s distrust of atheists in their fears that atheists are more likely to act deviously in secret because they fear no god is watching them. We have talked about such research before. Then this article explores other research which gives indications about how to combat this problem:

When we know that somebody believes in the possibility of divine punishment, we seem to assume they are less likely to do something unethical. Based on this logic, Gervais and Norenzayan hypothesized that reminding people about the existence of secular authority figures, such as policemen and judges, might alleviate people’s prejudice towards atheists. In one study, they had people watch either a travel video or a video of a police chief giving an end-of-the-year report. They then asked participants how much they agreed with certain statements about atheists (e.g., “I would be uncomfortable with an atheist teaching my child.”) In addition, they measured participants’ prejudice towards other groups, including Muslims and Jewish people. Their results showed that viewing the video of the police chief resulted in less distrust towards atheists. However, it had no effect on people’s prejudice towards other groups. From a psychological standpoint, God and secular authority figures may be somewhat interchangeable. The existence of either helps us feel more trusting of others.

Gervais and Norenzayan’s findings may shed light on an interesting puzzle: why acceptance towards atheism has grown rapidly in some countries but not others. In many Scandinavian countries, including Norway and Sweden, the number of people who report believing in God has reached an all-time low. This may have something to do with the way these countries have established governments that guarantee a high level of social security for all of their citizens.  Aaron Kay and his colleagues ran a study in Canada which found that political insecurity may push us towards believing in God. They gave participants two versions of a fictitious news story: one describing Canada’s current political situation as stable, the other describing it as potentially unstable. After reading one of the two articles, people’s beliefs in God were measured. People who read the article describing the government as potentially unstable were more likely to agree that God, or some other type of nonhuman entity, is in control of the universe. A common belief in the divine may help people feel more secure. Yet when security is achieved by more secular means, it may remove some of the draw of faith.

The findings on why we distrust atheists also point towards another potential way of reducing such prejudice: by reminding people of charitable and altruistic acts committed in the name of atheism. In recent years, there has been a growing number of virtual communities dedicated to those interested in atheism.

This is a little bit more confirmation for my hypothesis that the dominant religious institutions lose their grips slowly as each of the myriad of psychological and social functions they serve are stably replaced by secular alternatives. Social and political stability with sufficient means of guaranteeing pro-social behavior and punishments for antisocial behavior alleviates the anxieties which keep gods around. Now if atheists can provide outlets for people’s metaphysical wonder and for their longings for identity-shaping community, grounded values, rituals, meaning, and ecstatic and meditative practices, we can take away the last bargaining chips that authoritarian and superstitious faith-based religions use to win human minds in the modern world.

It makes some sense from a pragmatic perspective that the basically conservative human mind generally will not discard any beliefs—no matter how unfounded by evidence—until it is assured that even without them it can get the practical benefits which it used those beliefs for. A great deal of brutal and stupid human beliefs, institutions, and practices have always gained their justification from the fear that the alternative to keeping them was a fate much worse. This is why it is prosperity, stability, and security which grant us the luxury to have increasingly true and increasingly humane ways of behaving and believing. And fortunately, because of our fundamental interconnectedness, on the long run it seems like truthful and humane beliefs and practices in turn further advance the aims of prosperity, stability, and security. Progress seems to me to be a matter of these things mutually reinforcing each other without anyone hitting the panic button at first signs of insecurity.

For more on the typical mind’s naturally tight association between pro-social behavior and belief in gods who are watching, see my post, Pascal Boyer on Imaginary Friends and Supernatural Agents.  I fear it’s going to take quite a bit of social compensation for all the regulating functions that our naturally fictitious thinking serves if we are ever going to get the majority of people to be psychologically reassured enough that they shut it down for good. We need to think constructively about how to thread this psychological needle, against the stubbornness of the essentially conservative and risk-averse brain which fears insecurity far more than falsehood.

Your Thoughts?

I’ve written several times on related themes connected to the struggle between religious and secular institutions, and done so most saliently in the posts below:

The Religious Conservative’s False Choice: “Big Brother” Or “Heavenly Father”

Thoughts On The Ethics Of Private Vs. Publicly-Mediated Generostiy

On The Conflict Over The Meaning And Cultural Influence of Political Secularism

Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Kevin

    Interesting. But if that’s the case, why do religious claims about the origins of man and the universe rarely move over decades?

    I’m not really buying the premise. The US has had a two-party political system since forever, a highly stable society forever, and yet is highly religious. And every so often, there is a resurgence of religiosity (this happened before in the 1800s when the “revival” movements started.)

    One would expect that as poverty goes up, religiosity goes up and vice versa. Yet, when Clinton was in the White House, our economy was cooking on 8 cylinders, and our national debt was a fraction of what it is today, religiosity was about the same as it is today. When Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the economy was in the shitter, religiosity was about the same as it is today.

    No, I think the facts are getting in the way of a good hypothesis.

    Unless you want to hypothesize that health security (ie, government funded health care) results in lower religiosity. I think you might be able to make a specific case there.

    Or constitutional monarchies…see? Correlation without causation. Big problem in any such analysis.

    • Daniel Fincke

      We are secularizing rapidly. You’re not necessarily going to overturn the religiosity of people who were raised decades ago in harsher times. It’s a process. It’s always the next generation and the world they inherit that is going to matter. And, like I indicated, there are serious needs people feel that they see no secular alternative for addressing which leaves a space left for superstitions to get a foothold. And the modern world does not only increase security and stability, it is also destabilizing and increases insecurity for some and hence we have the reactionary arrival of fundamentalism as a uniquely modern phenomenon. Remember, “fundamentalism” is a 20th Century concept developed by Christians scared of liberal Christianity. Wahabi Muslims are a 19th Century phenomenon themselves. These are not deep rooted traditions, they are reactionary romantics trying to stop the march of progress.

      There are a couple of other factors in Western religion and in American religion. The mid-century wars and the rise of totalitarian regimes worldwide were traumatic on the generations that endured them and they encouraged an anti-modern suspicion, and some of this took the form of a reversion to the security blanket of God as the only way to curb a violent human nature that had developed technologies that could wipe out the species or utterly oppress it. Plus in America the Communists’ atheism was plenty incentive to reinforce their fears that humans without gods could not be trusted and double down on the insistence on theistic religion.

    • Sas

      Are you so sure about religiosity being “about the same” during all those times, Kevin? The change in religiosity doesn’t necessarily mean that less people will be religious when everything’s good, it can also mean that the same numbers of people are religious but are less aggressive about it. I remember the Clinton years, and though there were still plenty of religious people, being aggressively in-your-face with religion was less pervasive and less tolerated. Just look at how the “War on Christmas” manufactroversy has exploded in the past seven or eight years.

  • Bret

    I think this explains why Republicans want to undermine public opinion on government. I often sensed it before, when they talk about how churches should be the only group providing for social welfare.

    • Daniel Fincke
    • richardelguru

      And how they try to keep the level of fear as high as possible: fears like the fear of immigrants or of travel are wonderful grist to their mill.

  • dubliner

    I’ve long thought that the difference in state social safety nets between the US and the EU may account for much of the difference in religiousity. People in the US may well be afraid to permit themselves to question their religious beliefs and those of their community since they may well need that community for support if health difficulties or unemployment come knocking. For example perhaps as your healthcare access improves people will be more willing to stand out from the crowd when they no longer perceive they could desperately need that crowd to raise funds to cover cancer treatment at some stage in the future.

  • consciousness razor

    Now if atheists can provide outlets for people’s metaphysical wonder and for their longings for identity-shaping community, grounded values, rituals, meaning, and ecstatic and meditative practices, we can take away the last bargaining chips that authoritarian and superstitious faith-based religions use to win human minds in the modern world.

    We’d need a lot more than just atheists providing such outlets. (I suspect you may have meant secular humanists anyway, but it still applies.) I don’t know if this is what you meant, but we’re not responsible for doing it any more than any other person is. We can use these modern religion-replacements for our benefit and help develop them; but I think it’s important to recognize that most of the work (if it will ever be done) is probably going to be done by theists, though they may not realize what they’re doing.

    We’re a small minority. If you’re correct that many won’t examine their beliefs until they think certain psychological and social needs are secure, we’ll stay a minority until that happens; but securing their needs is almost certainly not something we’re capable of doing competently as such a small minority.

    Think about how little churches and private charities are doing in terms of promoting social welfare, despite being much larger than the current atheist movement. Really look at what they’re doing — don’t just take their word for it that they’re the best thing since sliced communion wafers. Now I will grant that some churches do so little partly by design, since some believe certain kinds of people don’t deserve their help or that suffering in this world somehow allows one to transcend to the next. But the point stands that even if (by some miracle) we could match what they’re doing, it still wouldn’t be enough.

    Of course, that’s assuming these are all genuinely “needs” and that we should be trying to satisfy them. I’m not so sure about that anyway.

  • F

    Now if atheists can provide outlets for people’s metaphysical wonder

    This is already done, and called Science. You just need to redirect attention from crap like religion and metaphysics.

    and for their longings for identity-shaping community

    Again, these already exist, but some people insist on dragging religion in anyway, and “moderates” never say no because they don’t want to offend the nicer religious people.

    Values: Most of these aren’t really religious-attached, excepting for extremists with extreme “values”. Drop the bad values (homosexuals are evil), and there isn’t much else to do. There already are replacement values for these.

    Ecstatic and meditative practices: Go to a rave or something. Most people don’t do any of the above.

  • Rike

    Sometimes I’m wondering: I’m from Germany, where there is no separation of church and state. Churches are never forbidden to set up religious symbols wherever they want (on or off government property). The government even collects your church tithes out of your paycheck – which was a great incentive for me to get myself down to city hall and declare myself an atheist (the money is only collected for the catholic and protestant church). In this country (the US), when christians are not allowed to set up shop on government property, they (being human) almost have no choice but to behave like a bunch of teenagers who are forbidden to buy alcohol. In Germany, nobody cares, so nobody has to “revolt”. It is the forbidden fruit (see Genesis!) that is so highly valued!

  • Marta Layton

    Dan, I think there may be something to this claim about prosperity, fear, emphasizing secular authority figures, etc. But I also don’t think that is the whole story.

    In my experience with religious people who distrust atheists (which I am not, but I grew up around many people who were), there is not just a fear that these people are less moral. People who don’t want their third-grader taught by an atheist aren’t always afraid the atheist will hurt the kid. But they do see atheists as fundamentally different. You want your child influenced by people that reflect your basic values.

    Based on that, I wonder whether it’s really in the atheist’s best interest to frame his charitable acts as atheism. I suspect it would be better to organize around priorities that make religious belief irrelevant, and that both the theist and the atheist would feel comfortable supporting. I think that in many parts of the country and in some social groups this was done pretty well in the past – fraternal organizations, country clubs, neighborhood watches, and so on. These were not organized around religion, and they sent the not so subtle message that you didn’t have to be religious to be a good neighbor.

    Not saying this has to be the only way that atheists can encourage people to trust them. But I think with other minorities, they really gained acceptance not as a separate but equally valid group, but rather when the PTB recognized that they’re kind of like us after all.