The four modes of atheism

I have mentioned Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict before. It’s worth reading. I’d describe it as a cross between In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Of course, that means I’m not sure I got the maximal utility from reading it since it leans on so much that I already internalized. But it’s a great introduction to the modern scientific study of religion.

But there was one aspect which I found rather novel, because it introduced new data to me. In particular, the author tackled the origin of atheism, and why it might vary as a function of location and time.

There are four causes of atheism that are surveyed in Big Gods:

1) Personality (low social intelligence)
2) Hyper-analytic cognitive style
3) Societal apathy toward religion
4) Lack of strong modeling of religiosity

The first two are straightforward. There has long been a hypothesis that those with lower social intelligence or weaker in ‘theory of mind’ have a more difficult time to find personal gods plausible. In short, theism depends on a relatively normal theory of mind. Looking at people on the autism spectrum who recounted their ideas of religion and god the author confirmed the intuition. Autistic individuals tended to be less religious, and, if religious, presented a model of God that was often highly impersonal and abstract.

One issue that is important to highlight here: I suspect that many great theological “truths” actually derive from individuals who engage in excessive intellectualism around the idea of god. For the average human applying formal logic to theism is probably beside the point, though these sorts of religious intellectuals loom large in the books because…they are the ones writing the books.

This relates to the second issue. The author and his colleagues did research where they primed individuals by engaging them in highly analytic thought. Correcting for background variables they found that this biased respondents toward an impersonal god or atheism appreciably. Again, I think it gets to the fact that for most humans supernatural beliefs are about the synthesis of intuitions and passions. Excessive intellectualization is more likely to engender skepticism, or, a hyper-formal model of religion (which I think has become religion qua religion for some).

The last two elements are related. In Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God he observes that in highly secular Scandinavia many respondents found it difficult to articulate strong feelings toward religion. It was simply not a prominent social institution in the society, though it was still part of the cultural furniture. But like furniture, it didn’t stand out. Societies with strong states, robust institutions, and impartial rule of law, along with some modicum of prosperity, tend to have lower levels of religiosity, and weaker passions about the topic from respondents. Once religiosity becomes less salient in a broad sense, then it becomes less of a concern in general for individuals.

A separate dynamic is that once people stop acting in a way that indicates that religion is important and true, others who take social cues begin to internalize this as evidence that religion isn’t that important. The authors give the example that there is social science that people who are raised Christian by parents who don’t go to church are far more likely to leave Christianity as adults because their parents did not credibly signal that religion was actually important enough to sacrifice any time and effort for. Perhaps another example which works as an analogy is that the vast majority of the children of interfaith Jewish-Christian marriages who were raised as Jews end up marrying non-Jews.

I think the first two factors in the list above explain the low but consistent basal rate of atheists and heterodox thinkers across history. One thousand years ago in Syria the poet Al-Ma’arri made statements such as below:

Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.

Al-Ma’arri was a brilliant eccentric, so he was tolerated. Some of his quips prefigure H. L. Mencken’s, as when he said that “The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

The other two forms of irreligiosity lead to standard models of secularization through increased affluence and decreased social relevance of religion as an institution. The United States was long the exception to this trend, but as recounted in books such as American Grace, it seems that secularization is starting to have its impact on the United States as well. Basically, as social norms shift to relax incentives toward being religious, more marginal believers will start expressing irreligiosity. At some point, some will start to conform to irreligiosity.

Of course, this sort of secularization is fragile. Aside from the sorts of demographic arguments made in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, examples such as post-Soviet Russia (and the post-Soviet nation-states more generally), as well as the progressively more religious nature of the Baathist resistance to American occupation in Iraq, illustrate that religion can bounce back rather fast, even within a generation or severl years. The social contexts for this resurgence are outlined in the book, but they illustrate that in some ways secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate.

Reason with Prose, Not Poetry


One of the insights of the excellent book The Enigma of Reason is that “reason” isn’t some disembodied analytic faculty, but part of a broader cognitive toolkit. And, it doesn’t really have the catbird seat we like to think. This is pretty obvious to many people; at least when it comes to the “reasons” of those with whom they disagree. And some of the basic propositions were explicated rather well by David Hume over 200 years ago.

But if you conceive of reason as a form of argumentation aimed at those who don’t agree with you, then in many cases dense and stolid may be superior to poetic and stirring. If you are looking for reasons to entertain or consider views with which you disagree you need a good argument to chew on. Reasons to align with countervailing intuitions.

To give a concrete example, most people seem to admit that Adolf Hitler was a stirring orator. But I’m pretty sure that few modern Neo-Nazis were immediately converted by watching his speeches. If you don’t already believe in his propositions Hitler’s speeches just seem sinister.

That’s an extreme example of course. But it gets at the point. The conservative thinker William F. Buckley was often praised for his command of the English language, but I know that many liberals find his prose pretentious and tedious. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ pieces elicit almost orgasmic praise from liberal public intellectuals, but non-liberals often judge that he’s simply indulged.

My point here is that reasoned and dense discourse, which nonetheless maintains clarity, may not persuade in one sitting through force of argumentation. But it is far more likely to push the needle with someone who begins at sharp contradiction with the core propositions. In contrast, sermons convince those who are already primed to be carried up the heights. Sermons don’t really make cogent points, because they already take for granted you agree on the points.

Addendum: Please note that the above applies to the small proportion of the population fixated on the necessity of reasoned arguments. Most people are convinced by social cues of what is, and isn’t, acceptable for their ingroup. Basically, the audience that I’m talking about here are the sorts which read political magazines rather than listen to talk radio or watch Samatha Bee. If they are religious they are the sorts who actually read the Nicene creed and attempt to understand the Athanasian formula.

Reason is but a slave of passions as it always has been

David Hume stated that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” I don’t know about the ought part, that’s up for debate. But the is part seems empirically true. The reasons people give for this or that is often just a post hoc rationalization. To give a different twist to this contention, others have argued that reason exists to win arguments, not converge upon truth. Or more precisely in my opinion to give the patina of erudition or abstraction to sentiments which are fundamentally derived from emotion or manners enforced through group norms (ergo, the common practice of ‘educated’ people citing scholars whose work we can’t evaluate to buttress our own preconceptions; we all do it).

One of the reasons I recommend In Gods We Trust, and cognitive anthropology more generally, to atheists and religious skeptics is that it gives a better empirical window into the mental processes that are really at work, as opposed to those which people say are at work (or, more unfortunately, those they think are at work). In In Gods We Trust the author reports on research conducted where religious believers are given a set of factual assertions purportedly from scholarship (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls). These assertions on the face of it flatly contradict their religious beliefs in some deep fundamental way. But when confronted with facts which seem to logically refute the coherency of their beliefs, they often still accept the validity of the scholarship before them. When asked about the impact on their beliefs? Respondents generally asserted that the new facts strengthened their beliefs.

This is one reason that cognitive anthropologists term religious ‘reasoning’ quasi-propositional. It takes the general form of analysis from axioms, but ultimately the rationality is besides the point, it is simply a quiver in the arrow of a broader and deeper cognitive phenomenon.

To give a personal example which illustrates this. Many many years ago I knew a Jewish girl of Modern Orthodox girl background passingly. She once asserted to me that the event of the Holocaust strengthened her belief in her God. I didn’t follow through on this discussion, as it was too disturbing to me. But it brought home to me that in some way the “reasoning” of many religious people leaves me totally befuddled (and no doubt vice versa).

As it happens, while in the course of writing this post, I found out that Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, the authors of the above argument in relation to reason and argumentation, published a book last month, The Enigma of Reason. I encourage readers to get it. I just bought a Kindle copy. Dan Sperber, who I interviewed 12 years ago, is a very deep thinker on the level of Daniel Kahneman. He’s French, and his prose can be somewhat difficult, so I wonder if that’s one reason he’s not nearly as well known).

Ultimately the point of this post actually goes back to genomics and history. Anne Gibbons has an excellent piece in Science, There’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ European—or anyone else. In it she draws on the most recent research in human population genomics to refute antiquated ideas about the purity of any given population. If you have read this blog for the past few years you already know most human populations are complex admixtures; that is, it isn’t a human family tree, but a human family graph.

Gibbons’ piece attacks directly some standard racialist talking points which have been refuted on a factual basis by genetic science:

When the first busloads of migrants from Syria and Iraq rolled into Germany 2 years ago, some small towns were overwhelmed. The village of Sumte, population 102, had to take in 750 asylum seekers. Most villagers swung into action, in keeping with Germany’s strong Willkommenskultur, or “welcome culture.” But one self-described neo-Nazi on the district council told The New York Times that by allowing the influx, the German people faced “the destruction of our genetic heritage” and risked becoming “a gray mishmash.”

In fact, the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect. They—and all other Europeans—are already a mishmash, the children of repeated ancient migrations, according to scientists who study ancient human origins. New studies show that almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.

First, let’s set aside the political question of welcoming on the order of one million refugees to Germany. I will not post comments discussing that.

As a point of fact the truth genetically in relation to Germans is even more complex than what Gibbons’ asserts. When I worked with FamilyTree DNA I had access to their database and presented at their year conference some interesting results from people whose four grandparents were from Germany. In short, Germans tended to fall into three main clusters, one that was strongly skewed toward people from some parts of France, another which was shifted toward Scandinavians, and a third which was very similar to Slavs.

The historical and cultural reasons for this are easy to guess at or make conjectures. The takeaway here is that unlike Finns, or Irish, and to a great extent Scandinavians and Britons, Germany exhibits a lot of population substructure within it because of assimilation or migration in the last ~1,000 years. This is why genetically saying someone is “German” is very difficult when compared to saying someone is Polish or Swedish. By dint of their cultural expansiveness Germans are everyone and no one set next to other Northern Europeans* (with the exception perhaps of the French…I’m sure Germans will appreciate this comparison!).

The conceit of these sort of pieces is that racists will confront refutations which will shatter their racist axioms. But since most of the people who are writing these pieces and read Science are not racists, they won’t have a good intuition on the cognitive processes at work for genuine racists.

This causes problems. As a comparison, many atheists seem to think that refutation of the Athanasian creed will blow Christians away and make them forsake their God (or showing them contradictions in the Bible, admit that you’ve gone through that phase!). Though the Church Father Tertullian’s assertion that he “believed because it is absurd” is more subtle than I often make it out to be, on the face of it it does reflect how outsiders view a normative social group like Christianity.

The emphasis here is on normative. Social or religious movements and sentiments are often about norms, which emerge at the intersection of history, intuition, instinct, and facts. I place facts last in the list, because I think it is a defensible stance to take that facts are the least important variable!

The field of cultural evolution has shown that group cohesion and communal norms have been major drivers of human evolution. Likely there has been gene-cultural coevolution so that group conformity has been selected for as a way to make social units operate more smoothly. Social cognition is a thing; people believe what they believe because other people in their social groups believe something, not because they’ve reasoned to it themselves. Originally reasoning is hard. Letting others derive for you, and plugging and chugging is easy. As Muhammad stated, the Ummah will not agree upon error! The smarter people are, the better they are are reasoning…but the better they are at motivated reasoning, ignorance, and rationalization.

When faced with disconfirming evidence some people can dig in and deny the plain facts. Creationists are a straightforward case of this. Then there are evaders.  From what I have seen on the political Left in the United States at least over the last 15 years (when I’ve been engaging actively with people on the internet) there has been a consistent pattern of obfuscation and dodging the likely reality of sex differences in many quarters. When pinned down on the fundamentals few deny the principle or the possibility, but they almost always impose an extremely high level of skepticism that is not found in other domains, where their epistemology is far less stringent.

But then there is a third case, where facts that seem to refute on first blush to you  only strengthen the beliefs of someone with whom you already disagree. I am generally of the view that the rise of naturalistic science has probably undermined the case for classical supernaturalist theism, which emerged in the pre-modern era. Reasonable people can disagree, as I have smart religious friends who are also scientists. Some of these people, like Francis Collins, will even assert that modern findings which boggle the mind and shock our intuitions confirm and strengthen their belief in pre-modern religious systems!

My point is not to take a strong stance on science and religion. Rather, it is to say that when you present evidence and declare “I refute you thus!”, they may simply respond “Aha! You have proven my point!”

In relation to the Gibbons’ article the writing has been on the wall for at least three years, and probably longer. In Towards a new history and geography of human genes informed by ancient DNA Pickrell and Reich content:

…Implicit in this research is the assumption that the geographic locations of people today are informative about the geographic locations of their ancestors in the distant past. However, it is now clear that long-range migration, admixture and population replacement have been the rule rather than the exception in human history. In light of this, we argue that it is time to critically re-evaluate current views of the peopling of the globe and the importance of natural selection in determining the geographic distribution of phenotypes. We specifically highlight the transformative potential of ancient DNA. By accessing the genetic make-up of populations living at archaeologically-known times and places, ancient DNA makes it possible to directly track migrations and responses to natural selection.

Since this was published in spring of 2014 the evidence has gotten stronger and stronger. That is, the distribution of outcomes is getting more consistent and converging to a high confidence truth.

From this, are we to conclude that white nationalism would decline from marginal to non-existent in the past three years? A review of the empirical data does not seem to support that proposition. Therefore, a naive model that white nationalism is predicated on facts about racial purity may be wrong.

The responses that I have seen (often in the form of comments I don’t publish on this weblog) are denial/rejection, confusion, reinterpretation and vindication (along with standard issue racial insults directed toward me, their colored cognitive inferior). As with the religious case I have a difficult time “putting myself” in the shoes of a racialist of any sort, so I don’t totally understand how they’re getting from A to B, but in their own minds they are.

Let’s reaffirm what’s going on here: white racial consciousness in the United States has exploded on the public scene over the past three years, just as scientists have come to the very strong conclusion that the “white European race” as we understand it is an artifact of the last ~5,000 years or so.**

We need to go back to Hume, and the anthropological understanding of what reason is. Reason is a tool to confirm what you already hold to be true and good. If reason falsifies in some way what you hold to be true and good, that does not mean for most people that reason is where they will stand. Likely there will be some subtle reinterpretation, but magically reason will support their presuppositions. Ask the descendants of the followers of William Miller about falsification.

The fact is that very few people in the world know about David Reich and his research. I know this personally because I’m a voluble evangelist, and many geneticists, even human geneticists, are not aware of the revolution in historical population genetics that ancient DNA has wrought. I do not know any Nazis personally, I suspect that perhaps their knowledge of human phylogenomics is not at the same level as a typical geneticist.

Of course this sort of logic about logic cuts both ways. Before 2010 I actually assumed, as did most human geneticists who took an interest in these topics, that human populations had long been resident in their region of current occupation for tens of thousands of years. When I read Reconstructing Indian Population History by David Reich I was shocked out of my prior model, because the inferences were so ingenious and plausible, and, the updated story of how South Asians came to be actually made a lot of anomalies make a lot more sense. When Lazaridis et al. posted Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans on biorxiv in the December of 2013 I was far more surprised, because I had always assumed that the thesis that most European ancestry dated to the Pleistocene in any given region was a robust one. Both the phylogeography from mtDNA and Y pointed to a Pleistocene origin.

But the data were compelling. It’s one thing to make inferences on present day genetic distribution, it’s another to actually genotype ancient individuals (remember, I can reanalyze the data myself, and have done so numerous times). Lazaridis et al. and Priya Moorjani’s Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India totally changed my personal life. All of a sudden my wife and I were far closer emotionally and spiritually because we understood that the TMRCA of many segments in our autosomal genome was about 5-fold closer than I had assumed!!!***

Actually, the last sentence is a total fiction. The history which changed how I understood my wife and I to be related on a historical population genetic sense had zero impact on our relationship. That’s because we’re not racists, and race doesn’t really impact our relationship too much (the fact that my parents are Muslim, well, that’s a different issue….). Sorry Everyday Feminism. This is not an uncommon view, though perhaps not as common as we’d assumed of late (actually, as someone who has looked at the fascinating interracial dating research, I pretty much understood that what people say is quite different than what they do; anti-racism is the conformist thing to do, so people will play that tune for a while longer).

Just because the state of the world is one particular way, it does not naturally follow that it should be that way, or that it always will be that way. Most ethical religions saw in slavery an aspect of injustice; rational arguments aside, on some level extension of empathy and sympathy makes its injustice self-evident. But they accepted that it was an aspect of the world that was naturally baked into the structure of reality. The de jure abolition of slavery today does not mean it has truly gone away, but its practice has certainly been curtailed, and much of the cruelty diminished. Theories of human nature or necessities of economic production at the end of the day gave way changing mores and values. Facts about the world became less persuasive when we decided to let them no longer dictate tolerance of slavery.

All that I say above in relation to how humans use reason does not leave scientists or journalists untouched. All humans have their own goals, and even though they see through the glass darkly, they see in the visions beyond what they want to see. The cultural and theoretical structure of modern science is such that some of these impulses are dampened and human intuitions are channeled in a manner so that theories and models of the world seem to correspond to reality. But I believe this is deeply unnatural, and also deeply fragile. When moving outside of their domain of specialty scientists can be quite blind and irrational. Even when one steps away at a mild remove in terms of domain knowledge this becomes clear, such as when Linus Pauling promoted Vitamin C. And motivated reasoning can creep into the actions of even the greatest of scientists, such as when R. A. Fisher rejected the causal connection between tobacco and cancer.****

I will end on a frank and depressing note: I believe that the era of public reason and fealty to empirical standards in at least official capacities is fading. Social cognition, tribal logic, is on the rise. But we have to remember that in the historical perspective social cognition and tribal logic ruled the day. They are the norm. This is age when he abide by public reason is the peculiarity in the sea of polemic. Ultimately it may be the fool who fixates on being right or wrong, as opposed to being on the winning team. I hope I’m wrong on this.

Addendum: I have written a form of this post many times.

* The current chancellor of Germany has a Polish paternal grandfather.

** If Middle Easterners are included as white we can extended the time horizon much further back, but that seems to defeat the purpose of white nationalism in the United States….

*** I had assumed that the western affinity in South Asians had diverged from Europeans during the Last Glacial Maximum. In turns out some of it may be as recent as ~4,500 years ago or so.

**** This may have been unconsciously as opposed to malicious, as Fisher was keen on tobacco personally.