Why Are There Atheists?

Connor Wood

Why are there atheists? This isn’t just a rhetorical question – much scientific research into religious belief over the past couple of decades has concluded that religious belief is culturally universal, and arises from cognitive and cultural defaults that are persistent across societies. Many academics, especially in the humanities, might reject such universalizing claims, but the fact remains that religious beliefs and practices are found in all human societies, very nearly without exception. Clearly, there is something basically human about being religious. So does this mean that atheists are freaks? One psychologist says “Nope.” Instead, she gives evidence to show that atheism is a perfectly expectable outcome of basic – and natural – personality differences between individuals.

In an article for Religion, Brain & Behavior, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, an experimental psychologist at Boston University, summarized research spanning decades on the differences between atheists and religious believers. The agglomerated results describe a unique personality profile for atheists, suggesting that certain aspects of personality orientation may naturally lead some people to religious belief and others to nonbelief. Namely, compared with religious believers atheists tend to be less social, more individualistic, and less socially conforming. Atheists also show a tendency to prefer logical rather than intuitive reasoning, to enjoy solving puzzles, and, in Caldwell-Harris’s terms, to prioritize this-worldly ethical concerns over supernatural or transcendent concerns.

The surveys Caldwell-Harris examined ran the gamut: she drew on everything from large-scale demographic studies, to quantitative cognitive and personality measures, to qualitative interviews. Sorting through this mountain of data, a number of important patterns made themselves apparent.

First, atheists tended to have lower levels of social attachment than religious believers. This included both family and friendship attachments; for example, in one large survey atheists rated themselves as significantly less enthusiastic than believers about family gatherings, road trips, cooking dinner with others, and getting together with friends. They also reported fewer social obligations; religious believers were more likely to report that others, including family members, depended on them for help or assistance.

Not coincidentally, single, white males were significantly overrepresented in the ranks of atheists and nonbelievers. Several authors, Caldwell-Harris reported, suggested that this demographic trend may mean that atheism is, at least in part, an indicator of social independence. Single males are much less socially integrated than most other groups, in the senses both of depending on others and having others depend on them. And at least in America, white males have enough social power and leverage that tight relationship networks aren’t always necessary. Religion, many theorists have suggested, is the basic tool for maintaining tight social relationships. Could atheism simply be the expected product of lifestyles in which tight relationships are not needed?

Possibly, but that’s not the only story. Caldwell-Harris also found that atheists tended to be significantly more individualistic, open to new experience, stimulation-seeking, and skeptical of authority than believers. They also were rated in several studies as less conscientious, less extraverted, and less neurotic than believers. These unique traits probably have to do at least as much with basic personality orientation as with demographic status or privilege, suggesting that atheism isn’t fully explained by social independence or lack of need for reciprocal relationships. In fact, atheists seem to share many personality traits with political liberals and artists, including nonconformity, openness to new experience, and sensation-seeking. Atheists were also more likely to endorse hedonism and the achievement of power as important personal goals.

Of course, you could argue that white males and others with less need for tight relationship networks can simply afford to be more sensation-hungry, less conscientious, or more nonconformist – they don’t depend on others’ approval for their well-being. But other research has showed pretty clearly that many of these traits are heritable, which means that regardless of social class, gender, or skin color, there are going to be some people in any community who are more, say, conscientious about fulfilling social obligations, and others who are more interested in finding new experiences and seeing things in novel ways.

What’s more, atheists also tended to be significantly more drawn to analytic and logical reasoning, while religious believers tended more toward intuitive reasoning. In one study, for instance, both Buddhists and Christians reported having had many odd or supernatural experiences, such as sensing a presence even when no one was nearby. Atheists, meanwhile, reported very few such experiences. This might seem like obvious finding, but many models of human religious beliefs claim that everyone is prone to having such supernormal experiences; the famous skeptic Michael Shermer, for example, has essentially built his career on showing how people’s brains are predisposed to see patterns where there aren’t any, and to intuiting the presence of beings where none exist. Since human brains tend toward this kind of “meaning-seeking,” it takes a logical, analytical – and skeptical – thinking style to override these cognitive defaults, and to question the intuitions that tell us there is meaning in, say, a shooting star or a quote on the radio that seems directed personally at us.

In fact, in several studies it was this analytic intellectual orientation that was the single biggest predictor of atheistic beliefs. This finding refutes the long-held assumption that many atheists reject religion for emotional reasons – being angry at God, for instance. Instead, it seems that many atheists come to disbelief simply because they prefer analytic thinking styles, which in turn lead them to question their intuitions and their default cognitive responses.

Finally, atheists’ moral concerns were significantly more focused on the physical world than those of religious believers. These this-worldly concerns included the environment, social equality and justice, and the overcoming of racism and nationalism. (Not many atheists reported being concerned about ensuring that others achieved salvation, or that God was pleased with their actions.) Again, no surprise. But Caldwell-Harris cited Jonathan Haidt to suggest that part of the reason for atheists’ non-transcendent moral attitudes was that atheists tend to live in social milieus, such as big cities, where tight, personal networks just aren’t as necessary for life. In smaller social worlds, transcendent beliefs and moral concerns serve to “glue” people together, forging tight relationships that boost group members’ chances at survival.

Perhaps the most interesting subject Caldwell-Harris’s paper highlighted was the question of whether atheistic personality traits may be adaptive. Many researchers (Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett not included) argue that religious beliefs and traits are adaptive because they help group functioning. But what about atheistic traits? Here’s one researcher’s take on that question:

Religion does indeed provide moral exemplars, legislators, and healers; nevertheless it is other cultural adaptations (e.g., artistic interests, atheist orientations, contesting ideologies) that truly provide the entertainers, creators, rebels, and revolutionaries. Presumably, human societies need both. This may explain why, throughout history, some people are religious and others are not. Both may have been useful, for complementary reasons, in determining what the world is today. (Saroglou 2010)

In other words, while religious personality types may be useful for helping “glue” communities together and keeping society functioning, atheistic types are more likely to be the innovators and problem-solvers.

What’s more, Caldwell-Harris suggested that nonconformity and skepticism – both traits associated with atheism – may be especially advantageous “during rapid environmental change.” This makes intuitive sense: during times when local circumstances are more or less static, relying on tradition and authority can be a good bet. After all, what’s more important than making sure society stays cohesive? But when times are a-changin’ and new problems assert themselves, society can benefit from having nonconformists and anti-authoritarian types in its midst – because it’s their novel perspectives that may generate just the solutions the society needs.

So what does this research mean for atheists in today’s Western societies? Well, a lot. First, it suggests that atheism, or at least the personality traits that seem to underlie it, may be adaptive – even at the cultural level. Second, it suggests that atheism is a perfectly expectable, natural variation within the personality spectrum. Third, it suggests that atheists and the religious may have different strengths – and liabilities. Religious believers are more socially integrated than atheists, tend to report being more satisfied with their family and social lives, and are likely to be more interpersonally agreeable. At the same time, because religious folks tend to value conscientiousness – the regular fulfilling of social obligations – over new experiences and novelty, they may be less well-equipped than atheists to recognize and solve new problems.

Atheists, meanwhile, may struggle to form communities as cohesive and long-lasting as those of religious believers. (A good example is modern Israel, where socialist or secular kibbutzes have generally failed, while those inhabited by Orthodox Jews have largely thrived; the same relationship has been shown for 19th-century religious versus secular American communes.) At the same time, atheists’ characteristic suspicion of authority and skepticism of tradition may make them the natural choice for producing novel and creative solutions to problems, and for generating technological, artistic, or cultural innovations. In other words, there’s a pretty good chance that people at both ends of this pole need each other. It might not be a match made in heaven.* But atheists and believers both have something to offer – even to each other.

Taylor & Francis is offering open access to articles from Religion, Brain & Behavior until January March 1st. If you want to read some of this original research for yourself instead of taking my word for it, sign up for access here.


* Ha!

Animals evolve. People evolve. Can groups evolve?
Religion and evolution, part deux
The culture wars come for public higher education
Simulating Religion
  • Jim

    If you’re talking physical descriptions of how the world works like physics, chemistry, etc, The Bible doesn’t have much to say on the subject.

    What Christianity does provide is a narrative of history that gives purpose and meaning for life. In short, God creates a perfect world where we were designed to serve God and each other. We mess it up and turn selfish and cruel. God becomes a human, Jesus, who dies for us and rises in order to create a new humanity. He will return one day to raise us from the dead. Until that day, we try to live as the new creation- serving God and others.

    I see this proven true all the time when I look at a messed up world, and then I see the power of God do amazing things to bring healing to it. I see it in my life as God has changed me and in the lives of my church community as well. Here’s an article that shows the kind of transforming power that I see.


  • Derek Michaud

    It is also a mistake to think, as apparently some here do, that contradictory positions cannot both be true. Statements or judgments are only ever true in some respect or other. It is only when we assume that all statements are made in the same respect that we see them as necessarily conflicting with each other. There’s an entire religion, Jainism, dedicated to just this idea.

  • Pofarmer

    Regarding the ocregister article. People can vehemently beleive things that aren’t true. I also know people who had the exact opposite reaction in very similaf circjmstances.

  • Pofarmer

    Jim, what do you consider yourself religiously?

  • Christopher R Weiss

    The basis of atheism is empiricism. To say something is “real” it must be verifiable from an empirical perspective. The challenge for events that are supposedly spiritual or supernatural is that these experiences tend to be highly personalized, which means they cannot be verified by a third party.

    Levels of verification is the fundamental difference between religious experiences and science. Scientific claims are not considered “true” unless someone else can confirm them or reproduce the results. “Miracles” are often one time events which cannot be verified by someone else. For non-believers this is basic argument that comes up over and over again.

    Skeptics such as Houdini and the Amazing Randi spent significant portions of their respective lives debunking people who made spiritual claims.

    Consequently, I think it is deeper than just “interpretation.” It comes down to different standards for what is considered true.

  • Christopher R Weiss

    I would say from the anti-theist perspective, your comment is very fair. Not all christians are homosexual hating bigots who believe the earth is only 10k years old. However, Gallup polling does indicate that round 45% of adults believe in young earth creationism, which is truly scary.

  • Christopher R Weiss

    I told my parents when I was 15, when I couldn’t follow through any more with confirmation classes. My father told me I was grounded until I was confirmed. He realized his folly when I said, “Ok. Can you take me to the library? I will have a lot more time to read now until I turn 18.” The grounding lasted two days, and then he relented.

    My parents didn’t share it with anyone outside of the family.

    My wife is a christian, but she has trouble with concepts like hell and the judgmental side of fundamentalism, which is why our marriage works.

  • Jim

    Not sure what you mean, but I’ll give it a go. I’m a Lutheran Pastor. In the spectrum of Christianity, I would be considered pretty conservative, but I react strongly against the Americanized versions of Christianity that tend to be thought of as conservative. I have a strong tie to the history of Christianity through the teachings of the Fathers you mentioned above. Is that what you were looking for?

  • Daniel Warren Brown

    Evidence is evidence. There can be no debate. Revealed truth is conjecture. Pure and simple.

  • Daniel Warren Brown

    Unneeded censorship. Don’t be a censor. We’re not children.

  • Daniel Warren Brown

    You just called believers gullible without name calling. Can I censor you for prevarication?

  • Pofarmer

    Yes, thank you.

  • Jim

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say, “Evidence is Evidence.” By evidence, do you mean only that which is testable and repeatable in a scientific way? Or does evidence mean isolated instances that need to be pieced together into a narrative framework?

  • Jim

    You’re welcome.

  • connorwood

    No, you can’t; you’re not the mod.

    I’m not sure how you got the idea that I was calling believers gullible. The research I cited showed that professional scientists who were believers had more apparently compelling experiences that convinced them of various spiritual realities. Making decisions based on experience does not seem gullible to me, even if one disagrees with their interpretations of their experiences.

  • connorwood

    I appreciate your concern for free speech, but please see the comments guidelines above. We have good reasons to enforce a policy of no insults or personal slurs, and we will continue to do so.

  • Pofarmer

    Well, here’s the deal, Jim. For Christian beliefs to have transformational power, NONE of it needs to be true. Simply believing it can have the effect. Our brains are powerful. There’s a Hitchens quote that I really like, “We are evolved primates, not fallen angels”. I have personally found that, for me, the world makes much more sense from that perspective than through iron age mythology. You see, there is no evidence that there ever was this perfect world. There is no evidence that there ever was any “fall”. Every bit of evidence points to this is the way we are and we’re doing the best we can, and we’re getting BETTER.

  • Jim

    I can respect that you believe one narrative while I believe another. My purpose wasn’t to argue which one is right, but to point out that religious people and atheists both value “The Truth”. i think the Hitchens brothers are perfect examples of our discussion- One an outspoken atheist and one an outspoken Christian. Yet both ardently pursuing “The Truth.”

  • Pofarmer

    Thanks Jim. I think it’s good to have the conversation. But, I do think that he truth that you seek and see is “truth” of action, and not truth as point of fact, but, whatever works for all of us.

  • Pofarmer

    “Beleive one narrative”. O.k. so why should I beleive the Narrative of Adam and Eve and the fall?

  • Jim

    I believe in the narrative of Jesus Christ, who makes us into new creations and gives us eternal life by the power of his death and resurrection delivered by faith in him. That’s the core of it. And I think that you should believe it, too, because I have seen God’s power at work in my life and the lives of others.

  • Pofarmer

    Now cmon Jim, certainly you don’t expect that kind of fallacious appeal to authorithy tocarry any weight? This is a discussion on a thread about “why are their Atheists”. Do you wanna discuss or do you wanna preach?

  • Sporkfighter

    “I don’t plan to start a debate on this, but there are no religious people, anywhere, who would claim not to ‘value truth.’”

    If you are unwilling to discard beliefs that contradict the observed state of the universe, you aren’t looking for any form of truth I recognize.

  • Sporkfighter

    “Because you approach truth from a different angle doesn’t mean that you care more about truth than others or that your search is more valid than others.”

    Wrong. If your search for truth begins and ends in a holy book, and never compares the truths found it your holy book to the universe around you, then your search for truth is not valid in any meaningful way. A search for truth can’t begin and end with the premise that you’ve aready found it.

  • Sporkfighter

    Freedom of the Press only applies to those who own a press. This is Connor’s press. Censorship is the government limiting the speech of citizens. Connor is not the government.

    The owner of the forum sets the rules.

  • Sporkfighter

    I hear this from time to time, but I’m unimpressed. When “moderate” Christians remain silent as their rabid brethren rave and rant, I judge them to be silent accomplices.

  • Jim

    Your understanding about the way the world works and mine also comes from an appeal to authority. I haven’t witnessed the Earth revolving around the sun, but I believe it happens. I’ve never seen an atom or explored the function of mitochondria. Scientists tell me about them. I trust them, because I’ve seen science at work. If you’re not willing to appeal to authority, you have to verify all knowledge by experience.

  • Pofarmer

    Yes, but, i can do the experiments and see the math to explain the movements of the solar system. Chemistry and biology are universally true, It doesn’t matter of you are a buddhist, or a sikh, or an atheist, it works the same. Now, religion on the other hand………….

  • Alrixa

    Well, this a very decent article full of a very decent chain of comments… which will grow the debate to a very decent heights.

    However, I have to say something about the truth. For example, when you find in the “inspired scriptures” statements like “Joshua stopped the sun to win a fight”, you naturally start to ask what this exactly means, which are its implications. Lets go simple, the first implication for a today’s man would be: if Joshua could stop the sun it means he thought the sun moves; he thought the earth, as well, as not moving or the center of the universe. And you can find these kinds of assertions in ALL the inspired scriptures of the great and famous, as well of the small and not very famous, world cultures.

    So, simply as it seems. Are those assertions truthful? Can you possibly see what I mean here by truth? The Noah’s Ark registry of ALL animals to be saved does not include dinosaurs or tepezcuintles (mexican bald dog).

  • Alrixa

    Truthful. It is the same when you ask “what do you mean by god?” YHVH, Jehovah and Ala are exactly the same god, however several centuries ago their followers were killing each other and calling each other “infidels”. Even at the very interior of a specific religion, when Catholics were persecuting protestants they used to love the following prime killing method of infidels: when they got to protestant villages or towns, they look after pregnant women to install them as a barbecue hanged from legs and arms, then they proceeded to cut apart their wombs letting the fetus to fall down alive onto the ground. So nice pic: those women were bleeding to death while watching their babys been eaten by the dogs brought up to that purpose.
    Trust me, I love fundamentalism…

  • Y. A. Warren

    It is all about mind control when belief in things that we can’t see becomes a political system led by people who pretend to understand the unfathomable. One definition of insanity is the ability to hold opposing views simultaneously. We have glorified mass insanity by calling it religion, and justified all manner of atrocity in order to smother individual thought and action.

    In the United States, it has long been a practice to institutionalize as insane, criminal, or both those that buck the system. In today’s America, the little boy in “The Emperor Has No Clothes” would be put on some mind-altering medication to shut him up. I guess this is better than being beaten to death…maybe?

  • connorwood

    > beliefs that contradict the observed state of the universe

    Whose observation? Under which theoretical parameters? You write as if observations are free from interpretation, but literally no philosophers of science think this. One of the most common phrases in the philosophy of science is “all data are theory-laden.” If you can’t address the premises and assumptions that underlie your own observational standpoint, then you can’t successfully argue against observational interpretations that depend on different sets of premises.

    In other words, if you want to argue that religious people are incorrect to interpret their experiences as, say, urges from God to let a homeless family crash on their couch, you cannot just attack their observations. This is the utterly wrong level of analysis. Their observations are perfectly valid under their operative premises. You must challenge their entire interpretive framework and its premises; but the problem with this is that once you begin challenging others’ epistemological premises you also open up your own assumptions to critique, which can be uncomfortable. You have to be willing to have the debate at a more fundamental level of analysis than “your beliefs contradict the observed universe.”

  • Daniel Warren Brown

    I mean simply evidence. The exact same thing as would be recognized in a court of law. Not hearsay, not conjecture, not revealed truth passed down through unknown entities citing anonymous sources. Is there some other form of evidence?

  • Daniel Warren Brown

    You said: analytic people would likely have higher evidentiary thresholds for believing extraordinary things. The inverse of this is that believers are more gullible. You said it by implication. Your use of large, clinical sounding words does not obscure the insult.

  • Daniel Warren Brown

    Of course you’re welcome to do whatever you want with your blog. I only object because I find it shameful and weak. For me, it renders your entire perspective suspect.

    The ideas you’re bandying about will undoubtedly attract commenters whose perspective is aberrant, objectionable and sometime grotesque. But Those people are a significant component of the equation you’re discussing. Squelching them is to reject data relevant to the very discussion you’ve tabled. If their comments are offensive, fold them up so I only have to read them if I want to. If they’re grotesque, I’m sure I’ll survive the experience and I’ll be better informed about what kind of extreme perspectives contribute to the state of humanity you’re discussing.

    Be strong, resist the urge to censor and control. If your community is formidable, which they certainly seem to be, they will have no problem squelching dissent.

    Or, censor if you choose, but this decision betrays you.

  • Daniel Warren Brown

    I said nothing about freedom of the press. This ain’t press.

    1cen·sor noun ˈsen(t)-sər

    : a person who examines books, movies, letters, etc., and removes things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.

    Censorship is censorship regardless of how you might attempt to spin it.

    Suppression of dissent is always a bad idea.

  • Sporkfighter

    Just because somebody refuses to print your letter to the editor doesn’t make them a censor. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you post on somebody else’s forum. Don’t like it? Get your own forum or find one that will post what you write.

  • Daniel Warren Brown

    Nice false correlation. A post is not a letter to the editor. It is an open forum. People of courage and conviction have no need to suppress dissent. But if it suits you, run away.

  • connorwood

    Again, I’ll run this blog the way I see fit. Insults are not allowed, period. If you don’t like it, you are certainly free to go read other blogs!

  • Sporkfighter

    Like any forum (including the Letters to the Editor section of your local paper, it’s as open as the owner wants it to be. And me run away? It ain’t my forum either. Personally, I’m for a bit more toleration, but when you’re trying to foster dialogue on issues, a few idiots who know nothing but ad hom attacks destroy the place.

  • Daniel Warren Brown

    I understand your protectionist attitude. It’s all too familiar. But sadly, the cranks you seek to silence are part of the equation. By censoring them, yes: censoring, you deprive me and others of seeing who they are and what they think. If understanding is the objective, then understanding these unpleasant people is intrinsic to a full understanding. I fail to see how they could possibly ‘destroy the place’.

    Personally, I disagree with them entirely and I greatly enjoyed seeing your community ostracize them intelligently. However, if it’s the preference of your community, or moderator, to preemptively censor that is your privilege, of course.

    For me, the suppression of dissent merely shelters you from reality even as it renders your perspective moot. For me and possibly me alone, it establishes your community as faint hearted. In saying that I have no intention to insult or to call names. I won’t intentionally read Connors blog again. Its perspective is too one sided to render meaningful value. Carry on….