‘Atheist Overreach’ Asks If God-Belief Is Inevitable

‘Atheist Overreach’ Asks If God-Belief Is Inevitable August 28, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Christian Smith’s 2019 book Atheist Overreach. In it, the author seeks to make the case for the importance of religion in human society. He asks three questions, to that end. We’ve talked about his first and second questions already (Can people be moral without religion dominating their lives? and Does the scientific method PROVE YES PROVE atheists’ claims?) Now we move to Smith’s third question: Is god-belief inevitable, something humans as a whole will never really escape? Today, let’s explore that question.

god-belief fades like everything else
(Mick Haupt.) A ruined church in Ireland. Nothing lasts forever, not even a once-dominant world religion. Just ask the long-dead followers of Utu, a major Mesopotamian god whose worship lasted three millennia before fading out along with that culture. Christianity’s a young’un compared to that!

(Notes: In the book, Smith specifically tries to make it look like he’s talking about all religions generally, not just Christianity. However, the way he talks about “religion” makes it clear that he really means Christianity, and Catholicism in particular. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition of the book. Please check out the “Atheist Overreach” tag for more posts on this topic!)

The Question’s Premises.

Here is how Christian Smith words his third question in Atheist Overreach. This wording will prove to be his own undoing — because if you can’t correctly describe a problem, then it’ll be a lot harder to find its solution. He writes (p. 6-7):

If religion in human minds and societies is not grounded in stubborn human nature, it is instead a mere contingency or dispensable phase of human history. If on the other hand humans possess some natural tendencies to be religious, then the (at least militant) atheist goal of ridding the world of religion faces a serious uphill battle and may be doomed to failure.

He goes into this section assuming that his religion’s claims are completely, true, of course. He writes (p. 7):

I suggest in this chapter that humans are indeed naturally religious, when the meaning of “naturally” is correctly specified, but as a matter of natural capacities and tendencies, not in any deterministic way.

Yes, if you very carefully set the parameters of your question to elicit a certain response, you tend to get that certain response. Who’d’a thunk?

Another Appeal to Consequences.

Yes, Smith presents us with yet another appeal to consequences. Namely, if those mean ole militant straw-atheists in his head succeed in destroying religion worldwide, what oh what will happen to people’s frustrated god-belief needs?

Let’s ignore that movement atheists don’t want religion eradicated. They just want it to be 100% optional for everyone and for religious extremists to stop trying to impose their beliefs and rules on unconsenting others. (You know, like Christian Smith’s own religion, Catholicism, did for centuries.)

Atheists might fantasize about a future world free of religion, sure. But they’re not about to force people to stop being religious. Forcing people, as a tactic, belongs to Christian Smith’s crowd — not to atheists.

So if religion fades entirely from humanity worldwide, then it will happen because people generally have lost the need for god-belief. That doesn’t sound hardwired to me.

The Facts About God-Belief, Lined Up.

Christian Smith begins his official chapter on this question by lining up a few bits of “empirical data.” These are largely correct (paraphrased from p. 108-110):

  1. Plenty of individuals are nonreligious and do just fine, as are entire cultures. Religiosity is hardly a universal thing. Smith is aware that this fact destroys any notion of god-belief being hardwired. He offers no guesses at all that mitigate this fact, either. He just drops it here, forgets about it, and moves on with his list.
  2. Religious affiliation is fading inconsistently in the world. Smith errs in thinking that this fact must mean that god-belief “is just irrepressibly natural to human being” [sic]. In fact, the real reason religion fades is that as people’s lives become more safe and secure, they reach for pie-in-the-sky false promises less and less. The places he names as having trouble repressing religion (“Russia, China, revolutionary France”) were not exactly bastions of freedom and liberty.
  3. Even in places/times when religion seems to be fading, some people create new expressions of religious devotion. Again, he errs here in thinking that this means that humans have an “irrepressibly natural” bent toward god-belief. It may just mean that people trained from birth to beg for help and validation from imaginary friends still want an outlet for doing so, even after realizing that Christianity ain’t it, chief. Strangely, Smith does not count these many practitioners of alternative religions toward his OMG SECULARISM WILL DESTROY US stance.
  4. Religion takes markedly different forms in different cultures. We get a rare for-realsies-head-nod toward other religions here. Smith takes this fact to mean that “whatever it means to be ‘natural’ has to allow for a great deal of variability and contingency” (p. 110). How much does he mean there? Apparently, it means all the slack in the world.

Again, these facts stand as generally correct. However, his interpretations of them — and his attempts to mitigate most of them — veer seriously off-base.

“Natural” God-Belief.

First, Smith tries to explain away the growing number of people and cultures in the world moving toward secularism.

In essence, he thinks all humans share a certain natural, inborn, evolved set of traits and tendencies that lend themselves to religiosity and god-belief (the way he describes “religion” really just sounds like “the expression of god-belief” to me). Again, this basic assertion is true. I simply disagree with him about what those traits and tendencies are, what purposes they served initially in our earliest history, how inevitable their outgrowth to god-belief really is, and exactly how religion interacted with those processes — and continues to do so to this very day.

He writes (p. 114):

All human persons are naturally religious if by that we mean that they possess a complex set of innate features, capacities, powers, limitations, and tendencies that capacitate them to be religious (i.e., to think, perceive, feel, imagine, desire, and act religiously) and that, under the right conditions (which are very common in human experience), strongly tend to predispose and direct them toward practicing and believing religion.

But on the next page, he tells us that he thinks that nonreligious people possess all that stuff too, but they either had those “capacities and tendencies” snuffed out by experiences, or those “capacities and tendencies” never activated in the first place.

He doesn’t tell us how he knows that everyone tends to be religious at heart, nor hazard a guess regarding what triggers might snuff or prevent god-belief from activating. Nor does he ever square this guess (because it sure isn’t a hypothesis) with living examples of numerous happy, high-functioning secular societies and people.

Either way, I think he’s gotten this whole chain of events bass-ackward.

What Those “Capacities and Tendencies” Are (Or Really, Aren’t).

Above, he discusses humanity’s “capacities and tendencies” that lead them to god-belief and religious affiliation. Here’s a short list of what he thinks those are (verbatim, p. 116):

  1. Conceptualize and believe in superhuman powers
  2. Engage in activities designed to seek help from superhuman powers (such as prayer, worship, sacrifice, and obedience)
  3. Anticipate alternative futures related to the superhuman powers, dependent in part on courses of action taken regarding those powers
  4. Subjectively experience communion, union, harmony with or affirmation from superhuman powers
  5. Engage in social relationships that reinforce belief in the reality of the superhuman powers [LOLWUT]
  6. Learn to interpret the larger world and experience in light of the beliefs associated with the superhuman powers

But this list is utter nonsense. First and most importantly, the “superhuman powers” don’t actually exist. Second and almost as importantly, he ain’t going back nearly far enough in time to figure out what those “capacities and tendencies” are. They do not grow out of knowledge of imaginary friends, because again, those don’t exist. Instead, they come from somewhere far more primordial — and far less reality-dependent than he’d like.

Then again, he literally puts science and religion on the same shelf by insisting they’re really the same thing (p. 117):

There is no universal, rational foundation upon which indubitably certain knowledge can be built. All human knowing is built on believing. [. . .] And that means that religious commitment is not fundamentally different, at bottom, from all other human belief commitments, insofar as religion involves trust in and response to believed-in realities that are not objectively verifiable or universally shared by all reasonable people.

Notice that he lumps science-embracers in with religious believers as “believing?” Yes. Except for the major component of objective fact-seeking that marks the scientific method, science is totally just like the purely subjective processes involved in god-belief. Yep. They’re totally exactly the same, except for what they are. (/s)

Smith’s Also Forgetting Something Important.

Christian Smith has all through this book presented religious affiliation and god-belief as these voluntary things people do because they’re just drawn to it.

He’s wrong.

God-belief doesn’t happen because individual otherwise-secular people go WOW, I need god-belief in my life. Nor does it happen because a whole culture goes Hmmm, our impulses must be leading us toward displays of religiosity.

Instead, religious leaders sell religion by telling people Hey, those things you’re hearing and seeing and feeling and thinking? They’re proof of our claims. And those people believe it, because their entire society is geared toward god-belief anyway.

Just consider the whole line of apologetics that evangelicals offer up about “the god-shaped hole” they think everyone has. They can’t offer any support for their god-beliefs, so instead they leap on vulnerable people by offering a faux-explanation for the things they’re feeling and experiencing.

In way too many cases, these marks can’t actually reasonably refuse to play along.

It’s like Christian Smith has completely forgotten that it’s only been in the past few decades that religion was remotely optional for most people. Religion functions as a social control in most societies, and it always has. All those non-religious people he sees these days? Just forty years ago, those heretics would have needed to keep their disbelief way on the down-low. Smith’s own religious leaders saw to that.

And in as many places as they can manage, Christians still do.

How God-Belief Likely Really Evolved.

A while ago, I caught a video by Andy Thomson on YouTube. In this 2009 talk he gave to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Thomson offers us a lecture about why people believe in gods. (Pofarmer recommended it a while back — and for very good reason!)

Here’s the video. It’s worth the hour of your life you’ll spend watching it:

Andy Thomson is a psychiatrist who has been publishing papers and speaking on the topic of evolutionary psychology. I don’t mean the term the way you often hear nowadays, as a justification for misogyny and the like. But I think he’s onto something about how our various mental quirks can lead us humans to beliefs in stuff that is unproven (or, increasingly, false claims that’ve been debunked on the grandest scale).

This lecture — and the science Thomson offers up to support his claims — completely eviscerate Christian Smith’s guesses and hot takes. Here, we learn that certain characteristics of our cognitive evolution simply lend themselves to belief in things-that-ain’t-there.

Understanding those traits can help us to resolve our societal problems — many of which were caused by religion.

God-Belief: Extraordinary Use of Everyday Cognitions.

Belief functions as a by-product of other processes that we evolved over many years. In the same way, writing functions as a by-product of visual and motor skills that we evolved for other purposes. We may have needed those early processes in long-ago times simply to survive in an overwhelmingly hostile world. When we began to conquer that world, we gained the time and energy to turn those processes to other uses.

Religious leaders, and believers who are very good at proselytizing, understand those processes at a core level. Indeed, they can manipulate those processes in a way that makes their untested, unverified ideas sound very persuasive indeed.

As Dr. Thomson puts it, selling a religion isn’t overly different from selling a fast-food meal. People already crave what’s in fast food (its fattiness, sweetness, saltiness, caloric density, etc). Thus, selling them such products doesn’t tend to be difficult.

In the same way, people are already attuned to the fears and hopes contained in religions like Christianity. Selling god-belief to such people doesn’t tend to be very difficult.

Social Adaptations.

Here’s a short list of the cognitive developments that Thomson describes in his video:

Decoupled cognition. We can imagine talking to people who aren’t there right then, or who don’t even exist. We can have one-sided conversations in our heads with those people. Humans can literally think about stuff that hasn’t ever happened, that happened long ago, or that might happen in the future. We can imagine stuff that doesn’t exist — or that doesn’t exist anymore, or simply doesn’t exist yet. In fact, our interactions with nonexistent/pre-existent/post-existent stuff can get really complex. (More info here.)

Hyperactive agency detection. We can mistake minor cues for overt and serious ones, like mistaking a shadow for a burglar; we only rarely mistake something major for something minor, though. Also, we tend to assume that loud noises are human-caused–and often that they are dangerous. Our sense of pattern recognition plays into that thinking as well.

Minimally counterintuitive worlds (MCI). We establish an optimal compromise between the interesting and the ordinary. Things that get our attention are interesting and memorable, while most of the stuff we see is boring and not memorable at all. The notion of godlike beings aren’t all that far outside the bounds of our experience. Indeed, most of them sound fairly human-like. But they embody just enough attention-getting attributes to arouse our interest and memory.

Of Particular Interest.

Thomson discusses, as well, some of the specific evolutionary cognitive processes that religion hijacks:

Attachment system. In the same way that children turn to caretakers, adults turn to the divine to take care of themselves. From an early stage, our ancestors learned to take care of each other–and we deeply fear losing our attachments to our families and loved ones (for good reason). Even Christians know that these attachments would be threatened if they lost their belief in their religion’s supernatural claims.

Theory of mind. We can make very sophisticated guesses about what other people are thinking and experiencing — if we’re paying attention. Other people exist, even if we can’t see them.

Precautionary reasoning. Related to the previous item, we can use our theory of mind to gain information about potential threats around us. As adults, we don’t do this consistently enough regarding our very real environment, but still, we are capable of imagining threats that don’t exist — like Hell.

Child Cognitive Development.

As Thomson’s talk progressed, I caught a theme of religion infantilizing adults by hijacking the phases that young children go through as they mature.

Even babies can distinguish between the visible world and the imaginary one. So it’s quite natural for humans to be able to conceptualize disembodied minds and invisible people. Babies might use that same ability later to create imaginary friends for themselves, as about half of toddlers do. One might even say that our cognitive evolution has created in humans a unique ability to believe in some kind of life totally outside of and separate from a physical body.

Christianity certainly stands very guilty of trying to keep its adherents childlike. It lauds children for their humongous faith, referring to Christians themselves as sheep and children repeatedly. Heck, there’s a whole movement right now in Christianity trying to get the flocks to call the Mad Blood God of the Desert (MBGD) “Daddy God.”

A few of the developments that Andy Thomson describes sound especially interesting. One can easily see how these developments lend themselves to the development of god-belief.

Hijacking Childhood Cognitive Development.

Agency detection. Children go through this phase where they assume everything has agency — a mind of its own. They grow out of it eventually — but religious instructors can encourage those kids to keep that phase going indefinitely. Even in objects that lack heads, very young children go through that phase of thinking that even those objects can move and think on their own.

Imagining the disembodied — as a defaultIn the same way that they assume agency in everything, children can imagine a mind existing without a body. That’s huuuuuuuge. Thomson describes quite a funny experiment where young children (ages 3-6) watch a puppet-alligator eating a puppet-mouse. The children accurately state that the mouse isn’t moving anymore and doesn’t need to eat or drink anymore. But they also think the mouse can still think about things and have opinions! In the experiment, children around age 10 eventually stopped thinking that the dead mouse had thoughts and feelings. So the notion of imaginary friends might just be our default, something we need to (and almost always do) un-learn.

Promiscuous teleology. In the same way, children go through a long phase where they think everything has a big overarching purpose. A river’s purpose might consist of bearing boats. Birds’ purpose might consist of singing or flying. Kids spontaneously generate gods and god-belief at the drop of a hat. Christians, of course, make extensive use of this brief developmental trait.

The Hijacking of Moral Feelings by God-Belief.

Thomson particularly refers to religions as “hijacking” babies’ innate moral systems, which he says “come online” around babies’ first birthdays. These religious leaders are very fond of saying they bestowed the moral system on the infant, but the truth is most infants already have an innate set of moral structures in place that have nothing to do with those religions. Scientific American ran a whole big article on this exact topic in 2013. In it, Gareth Cook writes:

Morality is not just something that people learn, argues Yale psychologist Paul Bloom: It is something we are all born with. At birth, babies are endowed with compassion, with empathy, with the beginnings of a sense of fairness. It is from these beginnings, he argues in his new book Just Babies, that adults develop their sense of right and wrong, their desire to do good — and, at times, their capacity to do terrible things.

So religions do not make humans moral. Moral humans make moral religions moral — if they can. When a child’s innate morality gets warped and twisted by an authoritarian upbringing, a religion can morph very quickly into a terribly immoral system that only immoral people could possibly support.

Back to the video, Thomson talks about religion’s usefulness to groups as well, which I found interesting. As suspected, he goes the purely utilitarian route in his lecture. It’s an approach which seems to annoy Christian Smith to no end.

SO: Is God-Belief Hardwired Into Humans?

Christian Smith emerges from this chapter convinced that humans are hardwired to be religious (p. 122):

We can confidently say that humans are naturally religious or by nature religious — as a matter of real, natural potential, capacity, and tendency — while at the same time acknowledging that many humans and even some cultures are not particularly religious at all.

I would say in response that Christian Smith very profoundly did not support his case here. Thus, he cannot actually confidently state anything. He just argued himself into the answer he liked best.

By contrast, the actual evidence at our disposal suggests a whole other picture. Along the path to modernity, we developed a bunch of cognitive traits. Most people grow out of those traits eventually. But these traits proved very useful to the religious groups that evolved alongside them. It’s likely that almost as soon as the traits developed at all, these groups began to capitalize upon them. It’s likely as well that originally, that hijacking was innocent enough at first, rather than being some cynical thing.

These cognitive traits and developmental phases of ours have nothing to do with actual real gods. Instead, they’re just byproducts of our development (both as humans and as individuals). They’re part of what makes us human. We can enjoy them in small doses while also remembering that they do not in fact describe reality to us.

And best of all, we can learn to spot hucksters trying to manipulate us with them.

NEXT UP: Christian Smith dealt with this question purely to declare that mean ole secularism won’t win this fight for human hearts and minds. I beg to differ. Tomorrow, we’ll check out the chances of “religion” making a grand comeback.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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