The Natural Pathways to Atheism: Cognitive Biases, Cultures, and Costs
2. Atheism and the “Unnatural”
3. Naturalizing Culture
4. Paths to Atheism
- Maximal religion-reinforcing cultural scaffolding and minimal religion-fostering cognitive intuitions: ambivalent atheism
- Maximal religion-reinforcing cultural scaffolding and maximal religion-fostering cognitive intuitions: effortful atheism
- Minimal religion-reinforcing cultural scaffolding and maximal religion-fostering cognitive intuitions: vigilant atheism
- Minimal religion-reinforcing cultural scaffolding and minimal religion-fostering cognitive intuitions: uncontested atheism
5. Economics of Atheism
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Conflicts of Interest
See note 7.
McCauley writes, “[f]ocusing on the interaction of maturationally natural systems and culture, instead of on what is innate or what should qualify as a module provides a ready means for highlighting what virtually all of the participants in these debates agree about” (p. 75, 2011).
The logic of vagueness is one of the more overlooked but most helpful aspects of Charles Peirce’s semiotics. The following lines from Peirce offer a brief summary of his characterization of vague signs. “A subject is determinate in respect to any character which inheres in it or is (universally and affirmatively) predicated of it, as well as in respect to the negative of such character, these being the very same respect. In all other respects it is indeterminate [...] A sign (under which designation I place every kind of thought, and not alone external signs), that is in any respect objectively indeterminate (i.e., whose object is undetermined by the sign itself [emphasis added]) is objectively general in so far as it extends to the interpreter the privilege of carrying its determination further [...] A sign that is objectively indeterminate in any respect is objectively vague in so far as it reserves further determination to be made in some other conceivable sign, or at least does not appoint the interpreter as its deputy in this office [...] Usually, an affirmative predication covers generally every essential character of the predicate, while a negative predication vaguely denies some essential character” (Peirce 1935, vol. 5, p. 446). By calling a context bias an open-ended or exceptionally vague content bias, I am merely highlighting the degree to which an interpreter of a bit of information or a sign is reliant upon the further affordances of the environment to specify the informational content of the sign. As biased interpreters, we preferentially pay attention to some signs and packages of information more than others. They “catch our eye” or, better yet, “catch our minds”, but having done so, they may yet provide content over and beyond the content that caused us to attend to them. They may, in Peirce’s words, “further determine” themselves in ways that are beyond the control of the interpreter. A context bias is thus an extension of a content bias, where the bias is often a predisposition to attend to the actions of a particular agent and to subsequently imitate behaviors of that agent.
Daniel Kahneman’s work on heuristics draws on earlier scholarship by Herbert A. Simon on bounded rationality, which entails decision makers pursuing “satisficing” rather than optimizing solutions to problems (see also note 28). Rarely do inquirers attempt to exhaustively explore all avenues of inquiry and pursue all relevant information before making judgements, especially when inquiries happen “online” and in real time, i.e., outside of controlled settings. Most judgements are made with the aid of heuristics, which Kahenman defines as “a simple procedure that helps find adequte, though often imprefect answers to dificult questions” (Kahneman 2011, 98 emphasis added). Heuristics, like biases, are commonly employed as efficient ways of making judgements based on limited time and incomplete information.
Pascal Boyer makes a related argument against the nature/culture binary, suggesting that its persistence may indicate a tendency toward reflective elaboration on some basic intuitions involving separate cultural and natural domains of information (see Boyer 2018, pp. 272–76). It should be noted, however, that these intuitive ontologies appear to be universal.
An anonymous reviewer called my attention to several pieces by Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley from the 1990s written in support of their apporach in Rethinking Religion: Connecting cognition and culture (1990). In these, the authors emphasize the degree to which recognizing the “mutual penetration of mind and culture encourages disciplinary cross-talk” (McCauley and Lawson 1996, p. 188; see also Lawson and McCauley 1993). Supporting such “cross-talk” with regards to religion and atheism is one of the main reasons that a fully naturalized conception of culture is preferable to one in which culture is associated, almost exclusively, with learned (unnatural) aspects of behavior. As I note in several places throughout my argument, McCauley’s work has consistently avoided this mistake through his recognition of both maturational and practiced naturalism.
To avoid turning the rest of my argument into an analysis of McCauley’s text, I point the reader to a collection of short papers on his book and McCauley’s own response (Wildman et al. 2013). Several of these respondents take up the question of essentialism (Cho 2013; Mercier and Heintz 2013; Neville 2013), but Konrad Talmont-Kaminski’s comments are particularly resonant with my own analyses. He writes, “One of the elements of essentialism is to think of the development of an organism in terms of the successive unfolding of an unalterable plan, for all practical purposes totally determined by its internal and invisible essence—much the same error as underlies the idea that there is a human nature” (Talmont-Kaminski 2013, p. 156). How, then, is the error of essentialism related to natural/unnatural and other binaries that I am troubling? Talmont-Kaminski’s illustrative terms are “unalterable” and “totally determined”. The pragmatic distinction between natural cognition, i.e., cognition “that follows from the internal structure of the mind and is therefore not dependent on any particular cultural influence”, and unnatural cognition, i.e., cognition that is dependent on cultural inputs and must be learned, is both unproblematic and a useful tool within CSR (quoting the helpful phrasing of an anonymous reviewer). The problem I am identifying occurs when the distinction is absolutized, so that natural cognition is treated as static, unalterable, and totally determined. To be clear, McCauley is careful not do this in the body of his text. However, when the natural/unnatual binary is deployed to label an entire phenomenon such as atheism or science as unnatural, it is no longer being used merely as a useful tool of fractionation. It is, instead, obscuring the degree to which religion, science, and atheism are all three complex phenomena with components inherited from biological, cultural, and experiential channels of transmission. In sum, the usual deployment of the natural/unnatural binary in CRS does point to something important, but, as I suggest in the concluding section below, an economic lens may capture much that is important in the natural/unnatural distinction without problematically isolating biological channels of inheritance from others.
For similar reasons, Wimsatt and Griesemer call for a “medium viscosity theory” of culture that moves “away from “thick” views of culture that, by definition, rule out human culture as an evolved product from animal ancestors and “thin” views that make culture ubiquitous as mere nongenetic trait transmission” (p. 276, 2007). We share an understanding of culture and biology as reciprocally influential on and responsive to one another, so that bio-cognitive evolution responds to cultural pressures, while cultural evolution also responds to bio-cognitive constraints.
Joseph Henrich’s claim that “[c]ultural evolution is a type of biological evolution; it’s just not a type of genetic evolution” (p. 263, 2016) makes his one of the strongest examples of a fully naturalized conception of culture.
See note 4.
This metaphor is most fully elaborated in Chapter Eight of Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology, where Barrett compares natural religion to an anchor and actual religious expression to an anchored boat, and notes that “under ordinary conditions, the boat will tend to float right above the anchor”. The implication here is that it is only by means of cultural interventions, individual efforts, or extraordinary environmental conditions that actual religious expression will deviate much from natural religion (pp. 131–32, 2011).
This distinction points to one of the more interesting live debates within CSR, regarding both the proximate mechanisms and the ontogeny of apparently universal religious beliefs—beliefs in minimally counterintuitive supernatural agents, for instance. While the older and more dominant position within the field has tended to argue for the existence of distinctive cognitive mechanisms, a hyperactive agency detection device (HADD), for instance, as the best explanation of such human universals, others have more recently made the case that predictive processing can account for the same phenomena while also allowing that such dispositions to predict ‘agents’ might not be based in the evolved architecture of the human mind, but rather emerge from actively engaging the world with prior religious expectations (Andersen 2017). The debate is far from settled, but with regards to my present argument, the predictive processing account is promising because it “leaves more room for (divergent) cultural influences and does more justice to the (limited) flexibility of human minds” (Van Eyghen 2020, p. 187; Szocik and Van Eyghen 2021).
This claim resonates with Charles Peirce’s discussion of habits, dispositions, and instincts. Per Peirce, “If I may be allowed to use the word “habit”, without any implication as to the time or manner in which it took birth, so as to be equivalent to the corrected phrase “habit or disposition”, that is, as some general principle working in a man’s nature to determine how he will act, then an instinct, in the proper sense of the word, is an inherited habit, or in more accurate language, an inherited disposition. But since it is difficult to make sure whether a habit is inherited or is due to infantile training and tradition, I shall ask leave to employ the word “instinct” to cover both cases”. (Peirce 1935, vol. 2, p. 170).
I will, however, bracket individual experience throughout the remainder of the paper and focus almost entirely on the importance of cognitive and cultural inheritance.
Again, for the remainder of this argument, I bracket what might be a fruitful line of inquiry and ignore the question of variability across life history, much like I bracketed the question of individual experience.
The primary weakness of this organizational scheme is that it utilizes the simplifying assumption that cultures are homogeneous in order to generate a managable number of categories. In all largescale cultures, this is empirically false, which is one reason that I discuss “families of pathways” instead of individual pathways; the simplifying assumption looks only at the maximal and minimal ends of the relevant continuua. The actual continuua likely contain numerous middle positions and cultural variations, including, as one reviewer pointed out, pluralistic cultures that host multiple religious communities each with their own levels of religion-supporting scaffolding (Daniel-Hughes 2020). Thus, the position of any individual atheist likely does not fall neatly within any of the preferred families of pathways, which are simplified ideal types and not actual cultures. The position, for instance, of an atheist who exists within a large pluralistic culture with minimal culturally sactioned religion-supporting scaffolding, but who simultaneously belongs to a smaller, minority religious community with robust religion-supporting scaffolding might exist on the border between effortful and vigilant atheism. As I mention below, one of the strengths of this categorical scheme is that it focuses on continuum thinking instead of either/or thinking, and makes room for further examination of such interesting and complex cases.
Here, I am being maximally generous in construing a bias “toward entertaining supernatural agent conceptions” to include any tendency to conceive of events as having a “greater purpose”, meaningfulness, or teleology. See (Heywood and Bering 2014) for a more detailed discussion.
Since Norenzayan and Gervais (2013) adopted “apatheism” from Rauch (2013), I feel relatively free to use the term a bit differently while remaining true to its original usage. Apatheists evince “a disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s” (Rauch 2013, p. 34). For Norenzayan and Gervais, this disinclination “arises from conditions of existential security” because “[w]here life is safe and predictable people are less motivated to turn to gods for succor” (pp. 21–22, 2013). I agree with their characterization, but expand apatheism to include those disinclined atheists who are not motivated to believe because their culture lacks CREDs or other forms of religious scaffolding. Thus, for me, apatheism includes both their understanding of apatheists and inCREDulous atheists.
Hugh Nicholson (2016) provides an excellent example of the integration of these kinds of scholarship. Scholars from either the sciences or the humanities who are suspicious of one another or of robustly interdisciplinary undertakings would do well to examine his work closely. See also (Slingerland 2008) for a thoughtful defense of this kind of “vertical integration”.
It may be that viewing religious and atheist expression through an economic lens is merely a case of adopting the terminology and concepts of economics (a fairly well understood source domain) and applying them to religious belief–behavior complexes (a less well understood target domain) in order to gain some inferential insights and proffer some hypotheses (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). I am not, therefore, making the strong claim that religious cognition and expression is economic all the way down. I am, however, making the weaker case that employing economic analyses of religious cognition offers the kind of cross-domain cognitive fluidity that is often a helpful source of abductive insights.
By differentiating between the “cost” of atheism and its individual “price”, my aim is to highlight the degree to which prices are paid by individual agents at the margins (to believe and behave religiously or not), while costs may be paid by larger social groups or even by means of externalization through environmental energy capture. Receiving a scientific education in a secure, secular society may very much lower the price of atheism for individuals, but those educational, social, and political institutions are costly to build and maintain. So, while the price of atheism may vary widely depending on one’s cognitive profile and cultural context, the costs of various cultural scaffolds are likely less volatile. I am deeply skeptical that the various economic inputs and outputs can ever be measured using a single metric, but it does seem clear that energy capture and output are significant sources of economic value that any functional system (biological or social) will need to maximize and minimize, respectively.
I am, for the purposes of this argument, largely ignoring the plurality of ends. Suffice it to mention that all humans must have shelter, food, water, and individual security.
This reflects the conclusions of the FOReST modeling project, especially the suggestion that “it is difficult to produce and sustain a population in which post-supernatural secular postures are dominant because the relevant conditions require a high level of energy input to the social system” (Wildman et al. 2020, p. 13).
This too-brief mention of the costs of theology elides one of the key distintions in CSR; the distinction between folk theologies that draw on minimally counterintuitive religious ideas, and the more cognitively demanding rationalized theologies of theological specialists that often draw on maximally counterintuitive religious ideas. The former are likely not very costly insofar as they are more intuitive and closer to the COP (Day 2005), while the latter may be quite expensive. The relative costs of atheist expressions would therefore seem to depend on the kinds of religious ideas that one would need to resist. Viewed through an economic lens, it may actually be much easier and therefore cheaper in terms of cognitive effort to consistently resist relatively counterintutiive theological ideas than it is to resist more intuitive kinds of supernatural beliefs that are less in need of cultural scaffolding in the first place.
While there are numerous points of connection between my argument in this final section and the growing field of economics of religion, my basic contention that reflective cognition is one of many “finite resources” means that I cannot view “religious behavior as an instance of rational choice” (Iannaccone 1998, p. 1478). This in no way invalidates the economics of religion, but it does suggest that there is more to the economic story than can be captured using the assumption of rational decision-making (see note 28).
The literature on “bounded rationality” is enormous, but for present purposes, it is best understood as an attempt to correct the assumption of classical economics that agents make optimizing (rational) cost-benefit decisions. Empirically, this is not the case, as agents frequently act within the bounds of limited information, time, and cognitive capacities. The best introduction is found in two of Simon (1955, 1956), which lay out the case for “bounded rationality” with respect to individual (1955) and environmental variables (1956). “Broadly stated”, he writes “the task is to replace the global rationality of economic man with a kind of rational behavior that is compatible with the access to information and the computational capacities that are actually possessed by organisms, including man, in the kinds of environments in which such organisms exist” (p. 99, 1955). However, Simon is also remarkably astute about the need to integrate thinking about culture and biology, writing that “we must be prepared to accept the possibility that what we call “the environment” may lie, in part, within the skin of the biological organism” (p. 101, 1955). Economic rationality is bounded, in part, because it is not a purely mental phenomenon, but rather a product of the interactions of biology, cognition, culture, and experience, all of which are bounded. This work eventually led to a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978.
Though the question posed by Norenzayan and Gervais (2013)—Does analytic thinking inhibit intuitions that make religious cognition attractive or merely allow people to override theistic beliefs encouraged by these intuitions?—demands an empirical answer, I am suggesting that even in cases of broad inhibition of theistic beliefs, we should expect to find that serious expenditures are required to maintain the social institutions that enable such inhibitions.
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|Pathway||Description||Intrapathway Continuum of Atheist Expressions|
|ambivalent atheism||Individuals with minimal religion-fostering cognitive intuitions live in cultures with maximal religion-supporting cultural scaffolding. Atheist practice is challenging to sustain.||While individuals lack intuitions that would make religious representations attractive and might therefore reject culturally normative religious beliefs and actions, the social rewards of religious participation might be sufficient to lead such individuals to engage in the cultural learning of and participation in religious representations and behaviors.|
|effortful atheism||Individuals with maximal religion-fostering cognitive intuitions live in cultures with maximal religion-supporting cultural scaffolding. Atheism of belief or practice is very difficult to sustain.||While both cultural context and individual cognitive intuitions predispose individuals toward religious belief and behavior, the potential for effortful reflective override allows some individuals to reject religious belief and behavior either publicly or privately. Effortful atheists may exist either incognito, clustered around culturally sanctioned roles or professions that reward counterintuitive thinking, or in the open as public gadflies or outcasts.|
|vigilant atheism||Individuals with maximal religion-fostering cognitive intuitions live in cultures with minimal religion-supporting scaffolding. Atheism of belief is challenging to sustain.||The culture does not provide scaffolds for gods or religions and generally lacks CREDs and other cues for religious belief and behavior, thus freeing individuals from any obligations to believe or behave religiously. Atheism may be widely affirmed though intermittently practiced as individuals endogenously generate, entertain, and reproduce a wide array of culturally non-sanctioned but nevertheless intuitive religious or pseudo-religious representations.|
|uncontested atheism||Individuals with minimal religion-fostering intuitions live in cultures with minimal religion-supporting scaffolding. Atheism of belief and practice is easy to sustain.||Most atheists are atheist in both belief and behavior, and it is religion that requires the effortful override of both intuitions and culture.|
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Daniel-Hughes, B. The Natural Pathways to Atheism: Cognitive Biases, Cultures, and Costs. Religions 2021, 12, 867. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100867
Daniel-Hughes B. The Natural Pathways to Atheism: Cognitive Biases, Cultures, and Costs. Religions. 2021; 12(10):867. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100867Chicago/Turabian Style
Daniel-Hughes, Brandon. 2021. "The Natural Pathways to Atheism: Cognitive Biases, Cultures, and Costs" Religions 12, no. 10: 867. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100867