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.

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* Ha!

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    Uhhh… There are atheists for the same reason that as you become an adult you no longer believe in Santa Claus, Ghosts, Aliens or the Easter Bunny…. Or for that matter that the Republican Party is here to help our country…

  • Pofarmer

    As a fairly recent “convert” to atheism, I have to say that what finally turned me was looking for “truth”. I started out looking for the truth in the doctrines of the Catholic Church, and when I found out there really weren’t any, then I went further, until, well, I found folks like Bart Ehrman, and Richard Carrier, and John Spong, and Robert M. Price, et al. It’s not so much as shoehorning into a demographic, as realizing that truth matters.

  • Pofarmer

    You are talking theists, right?

  • Y. A. Warren

    I suspect that if asked for detailed descriptions of their theology, most people would be a-theist in each other’s interpretations of their Theos.

  • ortcutt

    Was this a study of American undergraduates or was it conducted cross-culturally? It would be interesting to see what the findings would be in a society where atheism is less stigmatized than it is in the US, such as France where only 27% of people expressed a belief in God (meaning that 73% of the population are atheists in the broad sense) and 40% expressed no belief in “any sort of spirit, God or life force.”

  • Worthless Beast

    Do any of these studies account for “wild cards?” What I mean is, individuals who fit this, that and the other traits associated with one thing or another, and yet… differ.

    I’m an introverted, non-conformist artist who has never had much luck dealing with authority. I like videogames with puzzles and have very few attachments. While I cannot say for sure what I am exactly, anymore, I’m not an atheist. Conversely, I’ve known atheists with greater social obligations and attachments than I had. In fact, when I first learned of the “atheist church” movement, I was puzzled because I’d rather have the substance of faith without the ritual or the social aspects – and the people running that are the other way around.

    It seems to me that any sociological studies about “the way people are and why” are interesting, but never fully account for just how weird the world is. Some of us are just turbo-weirdos, I guess.

  • James

    That’s cute Frank. Yup, a personal attack is a cracking good way to get people who expect evidence to agree with you when you have none.

  • Thursday1

    These are tendencies, not absolutes. So, yes, every individual will buck the stereotypes applicable to them in one respect or another, but the stereotypes are still stereotypes for a reason.

  • Worthless Beast

    I have to wonder about the definitions of “religion” and “religious behavior” in some these kinds of studies… a lot of the “artistic, bucks authority” stuff can easily apply not just to stereotypical atheists, but also to stereotypical Pagans… and even to Jews and Christians of a certain stripe (“progressive” and “liberal” Christians).

    For instance, while I hate to think in stereotypes, when someone introduces themselves as a Pagan, I kind of expect that they’re an eccentric, non-authoritarian creative person with left-leaning politics (possibly even *moreso* than the “typical” atheists).

  • Thursday1

    when someone introduces themselves as a Pagan, I kind of expect that they’re an eccentric, non-authoritarian creative person with left-leaning politics

    Isn’t this just an artifact of Western society, where the dominant religion is Christianity? Pagans in pagan societies probably have a very different psychological profile.

    Jews and Christians of a certain stripe (“progressive” and “liberal” Christians)

    There is a spectrum with conservative religious folk on one end and liberal secular folk on the other. Lots of people of various permutations in the middle. Progressive/liberal religion = less religious religion. (Notice how they are always banging on about how much doubt they have.)

  • Thursday1

    The best definition of religion seems to something like this: human interaction with supernatural agents. It’s the one thing universal in all the various phenomena we call religion. For a good article on the definition of supernaturalism, see here.

  • Agni Ashwin

    That’s the worst definition…ever. ;-)

  • Agni Ashwin

    I once met an atheeist. He didn’t believe in me.

  • Kathryn Warner

    What about Buddhism? It’s lumped in with religion yet certain forms of it almost wholly eschew the supernatural (depending on whose Buddhism, where, and when of course)

  • MumbleMumble

    *there
    It helps to get the words right when you’re calling people fools.

  • MumbleMumble

    “This finding refutes the long-held assumption that many atheists reject religion for emotional reasons – being angry at God, for instance.”

    If you hold to the belief that people don’t believe in God because they’re angry at God, then no academic study is going to challenge that belief.

  • Thursday1

    Buddhism on the ground is almost always highly theistic and supernatural.

  • b s

    “People who expect scientific evidence for the existence of God will never be satisfied, hence they are fools.”

    What other type of evidence would you recommend?

  • Rick_K

    Well said. Welcome to the community of those who value truth and are not afraid of where it might lead.

  • MumbleMumble

    Wait, seriously, that doesn’t make sense. How does that make them fools? I am genuinely curious about your argument here. I don’t understand how the conclusion follows from the premise. Can you elaborate?

  • Pofarmer

    Problem is, faith without evidence is generally considered a strength.

  • connorwood

    Ortcutt, this research was a meta-analysis – a survey of many different studies. Some of them had American undergraduates as subjects, and others had a more international/non-Western subject pool. In answer to your second question, there are indications that the connection between atheism and iconoclasm or extreme nonconformity is not very robust in Germany, which is, like France, a very secular nation. So the findings Caldwell-Harris reports probably aren’t perfectly universal, but they’re still quite enlightening and I think many of their implications do generalize fairly well.

  • connorwood

    I don’t plan to start a debate on this, but there are no religious people, anywhere, who would claim not to “value truth.” And in fact, many of my religious friends talk very often about having to follow the “truth” (which for them is religious or spiritual) to uncomfortable or even unwelcoming places. One friend recently felt as if God were telling her to open her house to a homeless family for one night, for instance. She didn’t want to do that. It’s a very frightening thing to open your house to a needy family. I sure wouldn’t want to do it. But she felt as if the “truth” left her with no option but to make the offer.

    So I’m not arguing that you need to accept my friend’s version of truth, or any other religious person’s, but saying that only atheists value truth or are willing to follow it to uncomfortable places is not sociologically accurate. Thanks for reading!

  • connorwood

    Frank, I’ve had to delete your comment. Please do not refer to anyone as “fools” at Science On Religion. Thanks, and feel free to comment in the future without using ad hominem attacks or insults.

  • connorwood

    James, I’ve deleted your comment. Don’t refer to anyone as “fools” or “more than mere fools” or “delusional” at Science On Religion. See our Comments Policy (above, in the header) if you’re confused. Thanks.

  • MumbleMumble

    Presumably you’re going to be deleting Frank’s comments as well, yes?

  • Christopher R Weiss

    As an atheist, I get tired of the assumption that I am a hateful angry individual. It is nice to see research that asserts atheism is on the spectrum of “normal.” The problem is one of public perception. The atheists that most people know to be atheists are the loud mouth protester types. It is like the people who judge all LGBT individuals by the drag queens and thong wearing men they see in gay pride parades. Every group has these individuals. Most people don’t go around broadcasting their atheism, which is a PR problem. Only my close friends know that I am an atheist. However, I don’t go around telling people unless they ask because of fear of discrimination. Consequently, it is hard for many believers to see atheists as “normal.” I have several friends who are clearly atheists who attend church for social reasons only.

    Almost everyone I know who is an atheist works in science or technology. However, I see a very black and white dichotomy in the sciences. Some of the most ardent believers I have ever known were engineers. I would wonder about a link between a preference for rational thought and “ordered” thinking and the strength of a person’s perspective – religious or atheism. I think profiles of “rational” highly committed believers would be interesting to see.

  • Christopher R Weiss

    Suggested edit: “He didn’t believe me.”

    I get the joke. However, the basis of atheism is unquestionably one of evidence. Your existence if you met someone would not be in question.

  • Pofarmer

    Connor, I think we are talking about different things. Your friend is talking about the truth of their religion, inside of their religion, while I’m talking about the truth of general religious claims. It’s a different thing to say that you are being true to your beliefs, vs saying that your beliefs are true. I’ll respect your wishes not to have the debate, but, I think it would be a great one to have. I would enjoy it immensely.

  • Pofarmer

    Isn’t it interesting that some of the old world countries that were the very most religious up until, well, maybe a hundred or so years ago, are now the most non-religious? Has that been looked into?

  • connorwood

    An interesting question. But I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the European countries were the “most religious” prior to the 20th century – the entire Middle East and N. Africa were Muslim, the US had already been cited by Tocqueville as a remarkably religious nation, India was, well, India, and East Asia was brimming with Confucianism, Daoism, and ancestor worship. And don’t forget the thousands of small cultures around the world, all of which had spirits, gods, and rituals. I think it’s more accurate to say that everywhere was extremely “religious,” and sometime around the beginning of the 20th century Europe started to go in a different direction.

  • Agni Ashwin

    I would say that part of the basis of atheism is not simply evidence, but interpretation. An out-of-the-ordinary encounter/experience might be interpreted differently by people holding different presumptions about what is truly real.

  • Jim

    I don’t think your comparison holds out. No one is true to beliefs if they don’t think those beliefs are true generally. Atheists believe that their beliefs are true and so they follow those beliefs. Religious people believe that their beliefs are true and so follow those beliefs. No one is willing to follow their beliefs into dangerous and uncomfortable situations unless they believe their beliefs are true.

  • Pofarmer

    Well, thanks for making me think! I suppose what I’m thinking of, is countries like Ireland, who exported Catholicism around the world, is now a higher percent Atheist than the U.S. Countries like Switzerland(and I may get my numbers confused a bit)who were the center of Calvinism, is now something like 69% Atheist. Countries like France, which had Napoleon basically sanctified by the Pope, are now something like 70% secular. It would be interesting to look at the drivers.

  • Pofarmer

    “No one is willing to follow their beliefs into dangerous and uncomfortable situations unless they believe their beliefs are true.”

    Happens all the time. Richard Carrier talks about this extensively in “Not the Impossible Faith.” Baptists, Jehovah’s witnesses, Mormons, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, can’t ALL be right, yet they are all willing to follow their faith into dangerous situations. If you read much of the Church Fathers, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Jerome, etc, what you’ll find, generally, is that they are arguing scripture, and only scripture. They never look to see if what they are arguing has any basis in fact. In other words, they are looking at the “truth” of the scripture, whether there is a basis for it or not. What textual criticism does, or at least did for me, is turn this on it’s head, and say, O.K., what is true about these texts? It’s a whole different outlook and approach. What it all boils down to, is what should have been obvious, and it is, except that, apparently, there is a predisposition to the religious in our species.

  • connorwood

    >I think profiles of “rational” highly committed believers would be interesting to see.

    At least some evidence suggests that believers with highly rational (or, more accurately, analytic) outlooks hold their religious beliefs because of exceptionally compelling religious or unusual experiences. (http://scienceonreligion.org/index.php/news-research/research-updates/307-scientists-who-believe-may-have-more-unusual-experiences) This makes sense intuitively in that highly analytic people would likely have higher evidentiary thresholds for believing extraordinary things; so in general only those who believe they’ve actually HAD extraordinary, confirmatory experiences would rank among believers.

  • Pofarmer

    “Only my close friends know that I am an atheist. However, I don’t go
    around telling people unless they ask because of fear of discrimination.
    Consequently, it is hard for many believers to see atheists as
    “normal.” I have several friends who are clearly atheists who attend
    church for social reasons only.”

    Right there with you. My wife is extremely Catholic, extremely. When I first became Agnostic/Atheist, she threatened to out me to my Mom, so I did it myself. The argument was “What would your parents think?” Heck, I’m 43, why should they think anything? And that’s part of the problem, many religious, and catholicism generally, encourage their adherents not to intellectually mature.

  • Jim

    I agree that opposite beliefs can’t be objectively true at the same time. That doesn’t mean that the individuals who hold them don’t care about finding “The Truth”.

    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. Each person has their own assumptions about what constitutes evidence. I am a Christian. In my experience, the Bible has proven itself true often enough that I believe that it is the word of God. When I discuss “The Truth” with other people who share that assumption, we are discussing what we agree reveals “The Truth.” The Bible is evidence for us as much as (or sometimes more than) evidence gathered from observing the world.

    You, on the other hand, (if I have interpreted your comments correctly) have found that these texts are not as reliable as I have. It means that what counts as evidence for “The Truth” is different.

    I believe that my understanding of “The Truth” is right (or as close as I can get to it) and I think that you believe that your understanding of “The Truth” is right (or as close as a person can get to it). We both care about finding “The Truth”, it’s just that we have different assumptions about what counts as evidence.

  • Jim

    Unfortunately, I think Christians get painted with a broad brush, too. As a very traditional Christian, I am tired of being lumped in with the loud-mouth, angry, anti-intellectual churches that say all sorts of mean things on TV. I will try to help my fellow Christians see atheists as normal people doing their best to understand the world just like us.

  • Pofarmer

    So Jim. Are we talking physical truths, moral truths, or what? Because I have the exact opposite experience. Perhaps an example?

  • 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.

    http://www.ocregister.com/articles/pam-497239-driver-paige.html

  • 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….

  • Matt Davis

    This article doesn’t contain the main reason why most of us became atheists – there simply isn’t a single shred of actual evidence that a god exists. That’s it – no more, no less. Of course we’re more analytical; at the age of 5 I knew the prayers we said in primary school were nonsense – “praying to thin air” so I must have thought about it and reasoned it out in my mind, even at that young age.

  • Discussion

    The long lasting questions about sanity often find their way into the discussions of religion. If the first amendment was not announced in the constitution then most of the religious conformers would not be anything other than mere spooks to the rest of society. Schizophrenia is a common diagnoses to the religious society until a filibuster is fulfilled for the “chosen” one to adapt to “their” new society. If written word was the way for everyone to preach then would anyone even speak with one another without the reality of atheism? In the end of life, from an engineer, there is nothing. One goes into the ground or wherever their final day left them and then that is it. There is no world after this one, and there is no pure extacy after death. Society tries over and over again to prove that there is better after life, but the truth about it is that there is actually happiness to find during their life. The word cult is often implemented into the society of Religion, and it is and can be taken in many different formats. The true definition of cult is the creation of a new religion. Many tend to connect the word cult with an organization that has one leader, a leader that in the end either is in the “game” to rob everyone, extort everyone, or in the end kill everyone. Should everyone be worried about the society that they live in, yes and it is a well manifested idea. The society that we all live in is to be learned and understood. The instability of the human mind can often find it’s way into everyone’s life without warning. Do I think that religion is the problem, yes. It is the idea of their is something greater than us as a human being that pisses me off. I do not think that there is anyone that deserves more chances than me, nor do I think that there is anyone out there that should tell me what to do in order to be good with a religious belief. So, do I care about going to heaven or hell, yes, but I probably won’t ever make it to either one of them being that there is nothing after I die.

  • Discussion

    HaHaHaHa

  • Discussion

    Once I met a religious believer, follower, I convinced them that that religion was nothing more than philosophy. And if they wanted to continue with the quotations then they should go around rambling them out loud.

  • Surprise123

    System 2 logical thinking is not the end all of adulthood. Impulse control, something that religion is often very good at, is also a sign of being an adult.

  • Surprise123

    Perhaps we’re all getting caught up in semantics? Atheists usually value empirically-tested reality, which they call “Truth”; religious people usually value that which provides meaning in their life, which they call ‘Truth.”

  • Surprise123

    The authenticity of evidence can be questioned. And, the interpretation of that evidence, authentic or not, can be questioned.
    Plenty of debate to be had by all.

  • Surprise123

    Observation requires ocular devices, which can malfunction or be fooled. Observation requires a particular perspective, and a particular narrative framework in order to make sense of what is observed.

  • Sporkfighter

    If you can’t trust your eyes and ears, how do you even discuss the issue?

  • Surprise123

    “The basis of atheism is empiricism.” I’m an agnostic. My doubt wasn’t formed through empiricism, but through my understanding of morality – how is it possible that the “loving” father my religion presented as deity was capable of sentencing his “beloved” children to an eternity of torture simply because they did not worship him.
    Amazing Randi did not debunk people who made spiritual claims (indeed, all religious clerics – priests, pastors, rabbis, imans do this), he debunked charlatans who used technology, sleight of hand, and tricks to make spiritual claims seem real for selfish purposes.

  • Christopher R Weiss

    My comment is 3 months old. You are a little late to the party.

    I did not address agnosticism. Also, you need to differentiate between dropping a perspective on god vs. truly questioning whether god exists.

    When someone says “god does not exist,” it is based on their evidence that god most likely does not exist. This is very different than simply leaving a religion.

    I used the word “spiritual” too loosely. I was referring to things like seances, etc. You are correct, but I said the same thing without the needed precision. However, Randi has offered big sums to anyone who can demonstrate anything “miraculous,” which would include claims of healing, etc., by traditional clergy.


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