Here we go again, and I’m beginning to question the wisdom of taking on atheist-bashing articles. The readership here is nowhere near as large as at the places such articles are published, and, more important, they rarely say anything new. So I constantly recycle my refutations of claims that have been recycled by theists or faitheists. There’s only so many ways you can argue for God or bash atheists.
The piece I’m highlighting today, however, is slightly different, for it makes the astonishing claim that atheists probably don’t even exist. Well, that’s an exaggeration, for it turns out that the author construes as “religious” all manner of things that most people don’t see as religious. And those of us who reject gods will be surprised at the dumb ways the author claims that we’re really religious on some level.
Over at Science 2.0, the piece is “Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke“, by Nury Vittachi.
Here is Nuri’s bio from the site, which leaves it unclear whether he’s a believer or not. But he’s clearly steeped in faith.
And here is Vittachi’s thesis (my emphasis):
Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.
While this idea may seem outlandish—after all, it seems easy to decide not to believe in God—evidence from several disciplines indicates that what you actually believe is not a decision you make for yourself. Your fundamental beliefs are decided by much deeper levels of consciousness, and some may well be more or less set in stone.
This line of thought has led to some scientists claiming that “atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think,” says Graham Lawton, an avowed atheist himself, writing in the New Scientist. “They point to studies showing, for example, that even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as the existence of an immortal soul.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we are born believers, not atheists, scientists say. Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting. “A slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith,” writes Pascal Boyer in Nature, the science journal, adding that people “are only aware of some of their religious ideas”.
In other words, we’re hard-wired for supernaturalism, and even if we aren’t believers, we really are, because we’re only dimly aware of our religious tendencies.
This is a surprise to me. I am not superstitious, have no believe in God or anything metaphysical like “immortal souls”, and know lots of similar people, many who comment on this site. How can atheists not exist when they seem to be all around us? Well, it’s because Vittachi, by stretching the definition of the adjective “religious,” manages to find something numinoous in all of us. Here is a list of the traits that supposedly make us not atheists. (Vittachi’s words are indented in the following.)
1. We tell ourselves narratives about our lives.
Scientists have discovered that “invisible friends” are not something reserved for children. We all have them, and encounter them often in the form of interior monologues. As we experience events, we mentally tell a non-present listener about it.
The imagined listener may be a spouse, it may be Jesus or Buddha or it may be no one in particular. It’s just how the way the human mind processes facts. The identity, tangibility or existence of the listener is irrelevant.
That’s just hogwash. An interior monologue doesn’t mean that it’s directed at someone other than ourselves; it’s just a way of processing what we experience. And to equate that with the “invisible friend” of God is ludicrous. No more need be said.
2. Many people are spiritual.
In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power (Pew Forum, “Religion and the Unaffiliated”, 2012).
While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey by Theos, a think tank, found that very few people—only 13 per cent of adults—agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. For the vast majority of us, unseen realities are very present.
When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.
The implication is that we all believe in a not dissimilar range of tangible and intangible realities. Whether a particular brand of higher consciousness is included in that list (“I believe in God”, “I believe in some sort of higher force”, “I believe in no higher consciousness”) is little more than a detail.
Little more than a detail? And “we all believe in a not dissimilar range of tangible and intangible realities”? (The “not/un” phrase, by the way, reminds me of Orwell’s parody of that usage: “The not unblack dog ran over the not ungreen grass.”) But what on earth does that sentence mean? How “not dissimilar”? And if a reality is tangible, in terms of being discernible through observation and reason, it’s not religious.
Note, too, that if 38% of atheists or agnostics (probably mostly the latter) who believe in a God, that means that 62% don’t—hardly the complete absence of atheism that Vittachi claims. And of course while Reiki and homeopathy are based, like religion, on faith (belief without evidence), they are not the same thing as theism, which accepts a supernatural “being” who is to be proptiated and who generally propounds a moral code. That’s not the same thing as thinking that having needles stuck in your body will cure arthritis.
And this claim is simply stupid as well:
If a tendency to believe in the reality of an intangible network is so deeply wired into humanity, the implication is that it must have an evolutionary purpose. Social scientists have long believed that the emotional depth and complexity of the human mind means that mindful, self-aware people necessarily suffer from deep existential dread. Spiritual beliefs evolved over thousands of years as nature’s way to help us balance this out and go on functioning.
If a loved one dies, even many anti-religious people usually feel a need for a farewell ritual, complete with readings from old books and intoned declarations that are not unlike prayers. In war situations, commanders frequently comment that atheist soldiers pray far more than they think they do.
Really? An evolutionary “purpose”? If Vittachi has read Boyer, as he claims, he’ll know that Boyer, as do many of us, see religion or belief in deities as spandrels: byproducts of an evolved brain but not hard-wired into it. Children, for example, do not come to belief in God without indoctrination.
But religion might well be the byproduct of evolved tendencies: tendencies to see agency (as Boyer thinks), to be credulous when we’re young (it’s adaptive to believe what your elders tell you), or to deal with our unique and dispiriting knowledge of mortality. But we can overcome all these tendencies, and many of us atheists have. Certainly most of the readers of this site go on functioning perfectly well knowing that we’re going to die without an afterlife, and believing pretty confidently that there is no God.
As for funerals, I go to them, but only to have a foregathering of friends with whom I mourn the loss of another. Of course we feel awful when a friend, relative, or loved one dies, and we’re social animals who get solace from the presence of others. Ergo we have wakes, funerals, and whatever “ritual” is involved in burying and mourning the dead. Is that religious? I don’t think so. And I’d like to see the data about “atheists in foxholes” that Vittachi reports.
3. People feel interconnected.
Why is this so? Religious folk attend weekly lectures on morality, read portions of respected books about the subject on a daily basis and regularly discuss the subject in groups, so it would be inevitable that some of this guidance sinks in.
There is also the notion that the presence of an invisible moralistic presence makes misdemeanors harder to commit. “People who think they are being watched tend to behave themselves and cooperate more,” says the New Scientist’s Lawton. “Societies that chanced on the idea of supernatural surveillance were likely to have been more successful than those that didn’t, further spreading religious ideas.”
This is not simply a matter of religious folk having a metaphorical angel on their shoulder, dispensing advice. It is far deeper than that—a sense of interconnectivity between all things. If I commit a sin, it is not an isolated event but will have appropriate repercussions. This idea is common to all large scale faith groups, whether it is called karma or simply God ensuring that you “reap what you sow”.
So what? Religion is a form of social control, and if you do good simply on the grounds that you’ll go to heaven, or that God is watching, I’d call that a pretty superficial basis for morality. Besides, as I said, we’re social animals and feel interconnected, and we have rules for how to behave (probably both evolved and culturally developed) that rest on our behavior having social repercussions. That doesn’t mean we’re religious, or cannot be true atheists. Many of us are moral because we think that our behavior has social consequences, and that we should approve or disapprove of behaviors that have good or bad social consequences.
4. Narratives tend to have “happy endings”.
It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.
In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.
Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.
. . . While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers. Stories without the appropriate outcome mechanism feel incomplete. The purveyor of cosmic justice is not just a cast member, but appears to be the hidden heart of the show.
Again, this is not necessarily an expression of karma, or the working out of divine justice. An atheists’s love of happy endings comes from our inculcated and inherited feelings of fairness. As Paul Bloom and others have shown, we show feelings of inequity from a young age, and animals show them as well (see the wonderful video of capuchin monkeys that Frans de Waal often mentions). If the good is not rewarded, or the bad not punished, that violates our sense of fairness. That makes us unsatisfied, and that’s why we like stories with happy endings. In fact, I think this is a much better explanation than one involving God or karma.
5. We lack the free will to choose atheism.
Of course these findings do not prove that it is impossible to stop believing in God. What they do indicate, quite powerfully, is that we may be fooling ourselves if we think that we are making the key decisions about what we believe, and if we think we know how deeply our views pervade our consciousnesses. It further suggests that the difference between the atheist and the non-atheist viewpoint is much smaller than probably either side perceives. Both groups have consciousnesses which create for themselves realities which include very similar tangible and intangible elements. It may simply be that their awareness levels and interpretations of certain surface details differ.
Well of course “we” don’t make decisions about what we believe: the laws of physics do (those include, of course, the influences of our environment and other people). But so what? Does that mean that people can’t be genuine atheists, lacking belief in God? Of course not!
As for the difference between atheism and non-atheism being small because we’re influenced by forces we don’t understand, that’s just crazy. It’s like saying that the difference between psychopaths and “normal” people is very small because they’re also influenced by such forces. Or the difference between someone like Bill Gates and Bernie Madoff. Different genes and different environments can produce big differences in morphology, in physiology, in culture, and in beliefs.
As for the last two sentences of Vittachi’s paragraph above, they’re simply bafflegab: they don’t say anything, and certainly don’t suggest that differences between atheists and nonatheists are much smaller than we think. For one thing, atheists don’t kill each other over differences in what we think our favorite deity wants us to do.
There’s more to Vittachi’s piece, but it’s equally dire, but I really don’t want to go on. I’m starting to realize that I really don’t need to debunk this stuff, as you readers well know how to do it yourselves, and can do it on your blogs, your Facebook page, or whatever.
Finally, there’s Vittachi’s inevitable ending about how we need to talk to each other, get along, and that the truth is somewhere in the middle:
In the meantime, it might be wise for religious folks to refrain from teasing atheist friends who accidentally say something about their souls. And it might be equally smart for the more militant of today’s atheists to stop teasing religious people at all.
We might all be a little more spiritual than we think.
Yep, that’s the happy ending that journalists all love. But really, religious people “teasing” us for our atheism? I don’t know when I’ve last been “teased” by a believer. “Excoriated” or “vilified” is more like it. On the other side of the religious teasers are the “militant atheists” who, says Vittachi, should stop “teasing religious people” completely. In other words, we should shut the hell up about religion.
Vittachi doesn’t seem to understand that the theist-atheist discourse is a serious one, one that bears not on the most pervasive superstition in the world, but on how we support what we believe, on the malign influences of religion, and on beliefs that have serious consequences—not just for society, but for many people’s conceptions of how to behave and what will happen to them when they die. I see it as the most important intellectual debate of our time, for it’s a debate that has weighty consequences in the real world, and whose resolution will affect what happens to our future. One of the biggest threats to our planet now is religion, particularly the extreme versions of Islam that are violently opposed to secular reason and society. Tell me, Mr. Vittachi, are we supposed to stop “teasing” Muslims?