Religion and the New Atheism

In recent years, religion has been subjected to a new wave of attack by a group of writers some are calling the “New Atheists”—writers like Sam Harris (2004, 2006), Richard Dawkins (2006), and Christopher Hitchens (2007a, 2007b).[1] Among religion’s demerits, the New Atheists argue, are that it promotes a false view of the world, justifies and often sparks violence and oppression, retards the growth of knowledge, and poisons children’s minds by teaching them such pernicious concepts as “original sin,” “hell-fire,” “damnation,” “martyrdom,” etc. The New Atheists don’t deny that religion can have positive effects, as when it inspires charity and self-sacrifice. But religion’s overall influence, they argue, is pernicious; and they observe, based on evidence, that atheists and agnostics are no less “moral” than the devout. The New Atheists would undoubtedly like to see religion’s influence wane around the globe, as it has in Western Europe in recent decades. Yet the broad trends have been the opposite, as highly assertive, radicalized religiosity has become entrenched in the U.S., the Islamic world, and elsewhere. Religion’s hold on human beings raises the question: could we rid ourselves of religion even if we wanted to?

The New Atheist critique of religion differs somewhat from traditional critiques in that it is a critique not just of religion but of respect for religion. Such respect, accorded by the religious and non-religious alike, gives to the religious, the New Atheists contend, an unfair political advantage over the rest of us. If war, for example, is a “sacred obligation” or abortion a “sin” or homosexuality an “abomination” or certain lands “ours” because a book says they are, then what can the rest of us say? The respect accorded to religion enables religious groups to make claims based not on reason or evidence or fairness, but just belief—belief that in many cases is demonstrably false.[2] This creates a fundamental conflict that, as the world becomes more integrated and cosmopolitan, is bound to intensify.

There are two fundamental questions about religion: What is it? And is it a good or a bad thing? The New Atheists focus mainly on the second, touching only fleetingly on the first. Yet if, as the New Atheists contend, religion is so pernicious that we would do well to rid ourselves of it, questions about what religion is matter. If, for example, religion is of a nature that we can’t rid ourselves of it, then it’s unclear what the New Atheists can hope to achieve by railing against it.

A contribution to the debate that rages in the soul of the individual over faith is a valuable intellectual exercise. But the New Atheists’ program is more ambitious. They wish to eradicate religion. How plausible is such a goal? That would seem to depend on the nature of religion—on whether religion is by nature eradicable or is a deeply ingrained species trait. Religion is complex and can be approached in multiple ways. Here, I’ll focus on three: rational choice theory; Darwinian evolution; and what I shall call a “psychoanalytic” approach. Rational choice theory provides an “economic” view of religion, examining whether there are incentives that compel individuals to engage in religious behavior. A Darwinian or evolutionary approach considers whether religion may be rooted in our evolved psychology. And what I call a “psychoanalytic” approach considers more proximate psychological motives for religious belief—e.g., the confrontation of consciousness with the mysterious and unnerving facts of existence. Very powerful forces, we find, compel religious belief and behavior in all these accounts. The potential social impact of the writings of the New Atheists would thus seem limited.

A Rational Choice Approach

While the starting-point in any field of enquiry may at some level be intuition or “common sense,” intuition typically doesn’t carry us very far. We now know that the earth is round, that it orbits the sun, that the sun is one among millions of stars in one among millions of galaxies, that the universe is expanding, that life-forms evolved through millions of years of evolution by natural selection, that matter is composed of atoms and subatomic particles and is almost entirely empty space, etc. None of these things is remotely intuitive. Yet all are known, thanks to the scientific method: stating hypotheses (formed somewhat intuitively on the basis of prior knowledge) and systematically subjecting them to tests designed to falsify them. Whatever is left unfalsified after repeated trials constitutes our tentative knowledge.

In the social sciences, intuition tends to carry us further than in the natural sciences. In the realm of human behavior, after all, we are the specimens. And we should have at least some insight into why we behave as we do. What would a “common sense” approach to religion be? I believe it would be the “rational choice” approach to human behavior that is the basis of modern economic theory. What seems to be true, especially in a free society like ours, is that people choose to join religious groups. And if they choose to be religious, we can infer that it’s at least in part because they perceive it as in their interest to be so—because they believe that the benefits of church membership outweigh the costs.

The rational choice approach to religion has spawned an impressive body of work, notably the landmark book by Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion, published in 1987. Stark and Bainbridge view the social world as composed of individuals who engage in exchanges with one another to gain “rewards” (goods and services) at minimal cost. They derive religion and all its major aspects from seven axioms, i.e., intuitive, common-sense statements about human behavior, assumed to be true. Among them are:

A2. Humans seek what they perceive to be rewards and avoid what they perceive to be costs.

A3. Rewards vary in kind, value, and generality.

A4. Human action is directed by a complex but finite information-processing system that functions to identify problems and attempt solutions to them.

A5. Some desired rewards are limited in supply, including some that simply do not exist.

From these and three other statements[3], Stark and Bainbridge derive an elaborate set of propositions (344 in all) that they argue state what religion is and predict many of its major features.

So what is religion? Instrumental to gaining rewards are what Stark and Bainbridge call “explanations”—statements “about how and why rewards may be obtained and costs…incurred.” A religion is a type of “explanation,” a method or means of obtaining rewards. As axiom 5 states, rewards, to be desired, need not be plentiful or even existent. But inaccessible rewards, Stark and Bainbridge observe, can be replaced by “compensators,” i.e., substitutes that are treated like actual rewards. An example of a seemingly inaccessible reward for which religion may provide a compensator is eternal life. The promise of eternal life would thus have a market value for which stringent costs in time and sacrifice (as in taking membership in a church) may rationally seem warranted.

Another desired but difficult-to-access reward would be answers to questions about “purpose” and “ultimate meaning.” As axiom 4 states, our cognitive powers function to “identify problems and attempt solutions to them,” a predisposition that fosters an “irrepressible habit of asking why.” This leads “eventually to questions about the fundamental meaning and purpose of human existence.” But since answers to such questions, like that about eternal life, are of ambiguous verifiability, we substitute for them compensators in the form of doctrine that has the aura of religious “truth.”

More generally, churches provide packages of rewards and compensators that it’s rational for consumers to “purchase.” Rewards include status and standing in the community, networks of social relations, participation in social activities, child socialization, etc. Compensators include “divine” guidance in the conduct of life, bolstering of self-esteem through identification as one of the “Elect,” reparations for earthly sufferings in a “Hereafter,” and an outlet for spiritual yearnings, etc.

Stark and Bainbridge distinguish religion from other practices that invoke the supernatural by distinguishing between “general” and “specific” compensators. Religion, they tell us, provides

“general compensators,” i.e., compensators that substitute for rewards of such generality that they’re beyond the range of empirical verifiability. "Specific compensators," by contrast, “substitute for single, specific rewards,” and can, and typically will, be falsified. Examples of the latter would be card tricks, spells that “cure” an illness or change the weather, use of animal parts to promote virility, reading of a crystal ball, etc.

Stark and Bainbridge’s proposition 22 states a universal of religion: that it must invoke the supernatural. Why? Because of the nature of the explanations religion provides. Human beings ask questions like: “Does life have purpose? Why are we here? What can we hope? Is death the end? Why do we suffer? Does justice exist? Why did my child die? Why am I a slave?” Only religion, not art or science or politics, can address these questions. And answers, Stark and Bainbridge say, must invoke purpose or intention—hence, the supernatural. “The word purpose,” they write, “is not compatible with blind chance, but assumes the existence of intentions or motives. These assume a consciousness. For the universe to have a purpose, it must be directed by a conscious agent or agents, for the capacity to form plans or have intentions is to be conscious” (Stark and Bainbridge: 39). Belief in the supernatural is thus rational indeed—an inference about what must be the nature of an agent that could give life “purpose” or “meaning.”

One might suspect that if religion is a “choice,” then it should be possible to rid ourselves of it if we desired to do so, as the New Atheists would like. But that is not in the cards, in Stark and Bainbridge’s analysis. Individuals can choose not to be religious, of course. But we cannot rid ourselves of the behavioral traits of the seven axioms—nor, therefore, of the need for the general compensators provided by religion. “Secularization,” which Stark and Bainbridge define as “the progressive loss of power by religious organizations,” arises from growing cosmopolitanism and the rise of competing “cultural specialties” like politics and science. But the secularization process, they argue, is “self-limiting.” As it occurs, tension develops between religious organizations and their surrounding sociocultural environment, as alternative, non- supernatural explanations chip away at the supernatural assumptions of religion. Church leaders, seeking a respected place in the larger community, respond largely through accommodation and hence water down aspects of church doctrine that conflict most strongly with the new explanations gaining acceptance. People, however, still need religion, so some portion of church congregants rebels, seeking a return to a “higher-tension” relationship[4] with the surrounding culture. New religious organizations emerge in the forms of breakaway sects and cults that are able to provide “more efficacious general compensators” than more traditional churches now can. Ultimately secularization leads not to the death of religion but to its revival. The “main victim” of secularization, say Stark and Bainbridge, is not religion but the traditional church. So religion will not go away. “The ultimate source of religion,” Stark and Bainbridge write, “is

the fact that humans greatly desire rewards which are not to be found in this material world of scarcity, frustration and death. Neither politics nor science gives any convincing promise of freeing our species from its dire limitations any time soon” (Stark and Bainbridge: 312).

The rational choice approach yields some compelling insights about religion. Chief among these may be its prediction of a vibrant religiosity where there’s a “free market” in religion, as in the U.S., where competition between churches for congregants is relatively unfettered. In a “free market,” not only do churches compete vigorously with one another for “market share,” compelling them to provide an attractive product, but they can cater to different “market segments,” e.g., to differing tastes regarding degree of “tension” with the surrounding culture. The result is a far more comprehensive “churching” of the population than would otherwise occur. A “free market” in religion contrasts with a monopolized market in which an established taxpayer-funded church provides almost the sole religious outlet people have. The latter, characteristic of some European countries, is associated (in theory and in fact) with stagnant or declining rates of church membership (Finke and Stark 1992).

The key insight on which the rational choice approach builds is that church membership has characteristics of a market transaction, a situation where two parties voluntarily engage in an exchange of goods, services, time, labor, money, and so on. Thus, it should be possible, as the rational choice approach demonstrates, to model church membership using standard economic modeling methods. I call rational choice a “common sense” approach because it comports in some degree with how we perceive ourselves—as agents who consciously weigh costs and benefits of different choices. If we go to church, we go, we believe, because we want to go— because we feel we gain something thereby. We don’t go, we perceive, because we’re ineluctably driven by some instinct. Instinct is not a factor in conscious decision-making and thus not part of the rational choice story.

In reference to altruism, Stark and Bainbridge write, “as sociobiologists surmise, there might be something like an ‘instinct’ of altruism in humans; without great care given to children, the species would have died out long ago. But our theory does not need to postulate such an instinct. Apparent altruism often makes perfectly good economic sense for the giving individual,” since “then there is one more possible [future] source or rewards through exchange” (Stark and Bainbridge: 99, emphasis added). The test of whether an instinct for altruism should be included in their account, in other words, is whether there is “need” of it to make the model work. But this is a criterion of model-building, not theory construction. An instinct for altruism may have evolved, and hence, natural selection would be part of a correct theory of altruism. But this possibility is excluded from rational choice analysis because instinct isn’t part of conscious decision-making. If altruism is to fit into the rational choice framework, it must be because the “altruist” calculates that he or she will be rewarded for it, not because it’s a behavior in which humans naturally engage. Since altruism seems to often occur without regard to potential rewards, something must be missing from the rational choice account. Rationally, for example, grandparents can expect little in recompense for what they provide to their grandchildren. And one can expect little more than a difficult life and great danger if one vows to avenge the life of a sibling. Exchange relationships in which parties maximize their net benefits don’t encompass these behaviors.

What’s missing from the rational choice account is passion, the seeming irrationality that characterizes people’s commitment to their religion or church. As Daniel Dennett observes (Dennett 2006: 251), this commitment resembles nothing so much as romantic love. People talk about their “love” of Christ, blurt out that Allah is “great,” live lives of sacrifice in “devotion” to the Church, etc. This sort of language suggests that people are driven to religion by an elemental impulse, similar in power to the sexual drive. Thus, it might be fruitful to examine religion, as we generally do with traits that seem deeply ingrained, as part of humans’ evolved nature.

A Darwinian Approach

Indeed, many in the cognitive science community now view religion not as a product of exchange relations but of innate propensities arising from Darwinian processes. Probably the most common view along these lines is the view that religion evolved not as an adaptation itself but a byproduct of a set of independently-evolved adaptations. Among the latter are separate cognitive systems or “modules” for understanding the physical, biological, and social worlds— systems sometimes called “folkmechanics,” “folkbiology,” and “folkpsychology.” One aspect of “folkpsychology” is hypersensitivity to signs of agency. When children are presented with, say, circles following after triangles on a computer screen, they perceive the circles as “chasing” the triangles and the triangles as “fleeing” from the circles. That is, they endow the shapes with intention. It makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, that they should do so. If you hear rustling behind you, it’s better to assume there’s a predator there (an agent with intention) than that it’s wind in grass. If you’re wrong, no matter. If you’re right and take action, you may keep your genes in the gene pool.

Note that intentions are “mental” and thus distinct from material things, which we understand, according to this account, using a different cognitive system, our “folkmechanics” module. As psychologist Paul Bloom (2005) says, we’re “natural-born dualists”: we intuitively divide the world into mental and physical aspects, mind and body. Although the two realms are separable, the mental can act on the physical, as when we will our arm to move an object. Hence, nothing seems odd to us about the idea of supernatural agents that have power to intervene in our lives. Add to this our hypersensitivity to signs of agency, and we may perceive that virtually anything that happens to us is the work of some agent, some god. An extension of this proclivity is belief in Creation.

Other cognitive adaptations fill out the picture. These include a tendency to remember things that are “minimally counterintuitive” (like many religious images) and a concept of exchange relations (utilized when we make sacrifices to the gods in expectation of some recompense, like a good harvest). When we add all these cognitive “gadgets” together, we get, according to byproduct theorists, a propensity to acquire religious belief.[5]

A different view is that religion is itself an adaptation. As psychologists Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta (2008) observe, evolution is opportunistic. The traits identified by byproduct theorists may indeed have evolved to solve specific, relatively mundane, problems, but it’s possible that they were co-opted by a later adaptation, religion, that evolved to solve some other problem encountered by humans in evolution. The relevant questions are (1) whether the traits identified by byproduct theorists account for the universal features of religion and (2) whether there exists a problem humans encountered in evolution that religion is conspicuously well suited to solve. A number of social scientists, including Sosis and Alcorta, Joseph Bulbulia (2004), Dominic Johnson and Jesse Bering (2006), answer the first question no and the second question yes. Let’s address the second question by way of an example.

Near my apartment in New York City some years ago were two Indian restaurants side by side, both accessible by the same set of stairs. Atop the stairs were two men, one to the left and one to the right, each beckoning potential customers into his respective restaurant. Presumably, both would have been better off if, rather than stand outside in the elements (of searing heat and bitter cold, depending on the season), they stayed in their restaurants and devoted their time to serving customers and running their businesses. But neither could do this, since remaining inside, unable to monitor the actions of the other, would allow the other to take a larger share of the customers who ascended the stairs. This is the Prisoners’ Dilemma.

In the standard language of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, the two men can cooperate and both be better off, each retiring to his respective restaurant. Or one can defect, reaping a windfall, garnering a lion’s share of the potential customers. Or both can defect, a better deal for each than if only the other defected but worse than if both cooperated. Rational individuals should choose the latter, since prudence dictates that each must always suspect the other will be tempted by the windfall to be gained from standing alone in front of the restaurants. This sub-optimal situation is a “Nash equilibrium,” a stable state of affairs in which each man pursues his self-interest on the assumption that the other will do likewise.[6] The problem is that it’s impossible to enforce a cooperation agreement between the two men. There’s no third party surveying the scene with the power and willingness to punish defectors.

Suppose, however, the men believe in an omniscient god who has the desire and capability to enforce certain rules of behavior. If the punishment for defection were sufficiently severe (say, burning in hell for eternity), and each man knew the other believed in this god, both might well cooperate, and both would be better off.

Thus, for the men to have such a belief is beneficial to them. We can imagine similar situations—workers tempted to shirk, clerks tempted to steal, business partners tempted to embezzle, spouses tempted to cheat. In all these cases a behavior is typically unobservable and tempting, yet potentially harmful to one’s self-interest (especially if also undertaken by other parties), since it might prevent one from realizing the benefits of cooperation. Religion isn’t the only means of encouraging cooperation. If a behavior is observable, poor reputation and punishment can play that role. But if a behavior is unobservable, an innate moral sense and/or fear of divine retribution must step in, if the behavior is to be controlled at all.

It’s not enough, however, that cooperating individuals believe in the same god. They must also signal this belief, since otherwise, people won’t recognize them as potential partners in cooperative endeavors. How is this done? Through ostentatious public display—by participating in rituals, exhibiting intense emotion, performing heroically in war, body piercing, tattooing, wearing certain garments, preaching, praying, fasting, proselytizing, studying religious teachings, etc.—all costly activities that, because they’re costly, signify commitment. When we see a man sweating in the pulpit as he intones the word of the Lord or monks and nuns living ascetically or people flagellating themselves or youth enduring painful initiation rites, it’s hard not to believe they’re sincere. Of course, fakery is possible. But the more painstaking are the signals required to display faith, the harder fakery is.

So religion may have evolved to help solve a problem that social animals confront generally: how to overcome barriers to trust and realize the benefits of cooperation. Selective trust is adaptive, indiscriminate trust not, since the latter makes us easy prey to exploitation. Religion helps us distinguish those we should trust from those we shouldn’t.[7]

An innatist account also predicts that religion, like other complex cognitive functions, should be “developmental,” i.e., transmitted to individuals during an “experience expectant” sensitive period in childhood or adolescence. And indeed this is what we find. Adolescents the world over undergo ritual initiations that, Alcorta and Sosis (2005) argue, are a means of conditionally associating certain emotions with religious symbols. The effect in many cases is to bind people to their religions for life.

Moreover, recent findings appear to unveil the “raw material” adults have to work with in forming religious beings out of their children. For example, children appear to intuitively understand the concept of omniscience, a mental state they ascribe to select beings, i.e., to “gods.” We see this in false-belief tests. In a false-belief test a child and another observer are shown a box that contains, say, crackerjacks. Then, in view of the child but out of view of the observer, the contents of the box are changed from crackerjacks to, say, pennies. What does the child now believe the observer believes are in the box? Three-year-olds will generally say pennies; four and five-year-olds will say crackerjacks. Thus, around age four, children develop a capacity to recognize false beliefs in others. In one false-belief experiment, children were asked what they believe “God” would believe is in the box. At all ages, children responded like the three-year-olds in the above example, attributing to “God” full knowledge of the contents of the box at all times. Thus, early on, children appear to have a concept of supernatural agency. They conceive of beings that, in contrast to people, are omniscient. This result was found not only with Protestant-raised Western children but also Yukatek Maya children in Mexico (Barrett, Richert, and Driesenga 2001).

Children are also intuitively “creationist” in that they favor creationist over naturalistic accounts of why natural entities exist. Psychologist E. Margaret Evans (2001) found that when children as old as ten and of various religious backgrounds are asked a question like, “How do you think the very first sun-bear got here on earth,” they prefer answers like “God made it” to ones like “it changed from a different kind of animal that used to live on earth” or “it appeared.” In addition, children are “promiscuously teleological” in that they view virtually any entity, human-made or natural, as “for” something. Thus, clouds may be “for raining,” lions "for going to the zoo,” etc. Asked to decide whether prehistoric rocks were “pointy” because of physical forces (“bits of stuff piled up for a long period of time”) or because the rocks could thereby perform some function, children as old as eight favored functional explanations (e.g., “so that animals could scratch on them when they got itchy”) (Kelemen, 1999b). Children maintained this bias even when told that adults favored physical explanations.

Putting these observations together, psychologist Deborah Kelemen (1999a) concludes that children are “intuitive theists,” that is, they are “disposed to view natural phenomena as resulting from non-human design.” This is not to say, of course, that children develop fully-formed religious beliefs in the absence of adult influence, only that the prerequisites for acquisition of religious belief appear to be present early on. Developing a religious identity may be similar to learning a language: each religion is culturally specific, but there appears to be an innate “religious grammar” that facilitates acquisition of the beliefs of one’s culture during an “experience expectant” sensitive period in childhood.

An innatist account also suggests vulnerability of the gullible to manipulation because it implies that a convincing acting job can activate in people an innate belief production system. See the Oscar-winning documentary Marjoe (1972) for a demonstration of how to bilk people of savings by putting on a fairly rudimentary show of “saving” them. Such gullibility is hardly adaptive, yet natural selection wouldn’t have reckoned on the technologies now available to tease people’s sensibilities or the monetary incentives compelling proselytizers to attempt it or the easy access that outsiders now have to other communities to practice their well-honed craft.

This, of course, is where religion is so problematic. In the hands of a charismatic leader, religion is an astonishingly effective tool for harnessing human energies. It can be used to compel people to defend territory, build cathedrals and monuments, care for others, but also oppress people, strap explosives to themselves and blow people up, and drink cyanide and force their children to do likewise. The supply of agents willing to engage in religiously-inspired endeavors is infinite: children, with their freshly formatted templates for acquiring religious beliefs, never stop being born. And the incentives—psychological, social, monetary, political, strategic—to assume religious authority and use religion to achieve ends that people can only achieve collectively are ubiquitous.

A “Psychoanalytic” Approach

There is a vexing problem at the heart of the religion debate. This is the question of the degree of overlap between two kinds of human understanding: scientific fact, on the one hand, and “meaning” or “purpose,” on the other. Stephen Jay Gould famously called these two realms “non-overlapping magisteria” (Gould 1999). Karen Armstrong (2001) uses the terms “logos” and “mythos” to distinguish these two “complementary ways of arriving at truth,” “ways of knowing” that she says were kept separate in “pre-modern” times but now have become mixed together. “Mythos” she describes as “not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning,” as “timeless and constant,” and focused on “the origins of life” and “the deepest levels of the human mind.” We mortals are prone to extreme trauma in our lives, and mythos, through its epic accounts of our origins, our place in the universe, and the struggles of individuals to overcome enormous obstacles, provides a “context” that gives “sense” to our lives. “Logos,” by contrast, is “rational, pragmatic, and scientific.” It must “relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective… We use this logical, discursive reasoning when we have to make things happen, get something done, or persuade other people to adopt a particular course of action” (Armstrong, 2001: xv-xvi).

Armstrong describes an ideal world in which the two kinds of understanding coexist separately:

In the premodern world, both mythos and logos were regarded as indispensable. Each would be impoverished without the other. Yet the two were essentially distinct, and it was held to be dangerous to confuse mythical and rational discourse. They had separate jobs to do. Myth was not reasonable; its narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated empirically. It provided the context of meaning that made our practical activities worthwhile. You were not supposed to make mythos the basis of a pragmatic policy. If you did so, the results could be disastrous, because what worked well in the inner world of the psyche was not readily applicable to the affairs of the external world… Logos had its limitations too. It could not assuage human pain or sorrow. Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy. Logos could not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life. A scientist could make things work more efficiently and discover wonderful new facts about the physical universe, but he could not explain the meaning of life. That was the preserve of myth and cult. (Armstrong, 2001: xvii)

The problem with this account is that the “magisteria” in question are not, and never have been, “non-overlapping.” “Miracles,” for example, are surely an effort to demonstrate mythic stories empirically, i.e., “scientifically.” And the legends of the Bible and other religious texts are presented as having “occurred”—not in any novelistic or fairy-tale sense, but evidently in some real sense.[8] And “mythos,” like “logos,” is used “to make things happen,” as when prayer, ritual, and sacrifice are used to achieve a good harvest or victory in war, etc. In short, religion makes empirical claims—and is thus open to falsification.

As Stark and Bainbridge observe, religious “explanations” are generally of such a scope and nature that they’re not easily falsified. Claims about an afterlife or that invisible agents are watching us or that various events occurred before the beginning of history, and so on, aren’t exactly crafted as testable scientific propositions. Yet they are empirical—they’re either true or not. And though science can’t falsify them conclusively, it can chip away at their plausibility, as it has done dramatically in recent centuries.

In societies that lack a formal discipline of science, the two realms can coexist relatively harmoniously, as Armstrong depicts in “pre-modern” Europe. But this is only because logos, not formally systematized into a machine of knowledge acquisition, is not yet a threat to mythos. We can observe the harmonious coexistence of logos and mythos in some societies of today, for example, the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana and Namibia. The Bushmen live at the edge of survival and so must have a subtle and extensive knowledge of the local ecology, as indeed they have. Louis Liebenberg (1990) describes their knowledge of animal life thus:

When fresh spoor is found, hunters will estimate its age and how fast the animal was moving to decide whether it is worth following up. In thick bush, where there may be no clear footprints, or on hard ground, where only scuff marks may be evident, trackers may not be able to identify the animal. When this happens they will have to follow the trail, looking for signs such as disturbed vegetation and scuff marks, until clear footprints are found. They will reconstruct what the animal was doing and predict where it was going. (Quoted in Wilson 1998: 255)

This is “rational,” “pragmatic” knowledge about how to “make things happen” or “get something done” and so is part of logos. But the Bushmen also exhibit a different kind of “knowledge” about animals. They believe, for example, that a certain kind of eagle knows “when a hunter will be successful” and will “hover over him” as an omen of success, that some steenbok “have magical means of protecting themselves from a hunter’s arrows,” that the duiker practices “sorcery against its animal enemies,” and that baboons “eavesdrop on hunters and…pass on their plans to the intended prey animals” (Wilson: 257).

Such beliefs are plainly in the realm of mythos. But do the Bushmen distinguish this “knowledge” from logos in the way Armstrong claims they were distinguished by pre-modern Europeans? Almost certainly not. Categories of “types” of knowledge could only have arisen with considerable intellectual sophistication, like that of Plato (not to mention considerable leisure to pursue the rather idle preoccupation of sorting out different kinds of knowledge). And more generally, it seems doubtful that ordinary people anywhere anytime—as opposed to philosophers and theologians—would ever make such a distinction. For the Bushmen, “knowledge” of supernatural powers of animals is almost certainly just knowledge on a par with that about footprints, spoor, and scruff marks.[9]

The problem in modern times is not that we fail to keep logos and mythos separate but that one of these “ways of knowing,” logos (science), is relentlessly chipping away at the other, mythos, undermining beliefs that humans value. With the development of science, the writing just seems to be on the wall: everything has a materialistic, naturalistic explanation. This creates a dilemma that may have no solution. But note that the dilemma affects mainly just a small class of people: intellectually-inclined individuals who, somewhat idiosyncratically, seek consistency in their beliefs. For most of us, this is simply not an issue. As with the Bushmen, even a sophisticated understanding of various aspects of science can cohabit easily with religion. Human beings are clearly psychologically motivated to accept religion, whatever the intellectual consequences. The question is why.

Also note that the Bushmen’s survival prospects would be unaffected by the strange beliefs discussed here. Belief, for example, that the duiker practice sorcery against “animal enemies” is unlikely to diminish Bushmen hunting success. If the Bushmen believed, by contrast, that the duiker cast spells on the humans who hunt them (or included humans in the category “animal enemies,” as they actually should), that might discourage hunting, harming the Bushmen’s survival prospects. But they hold no such belief.

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt (2006) distinguishes “three dimensions of social space.” Two of these we readily recognize: “closeness,” i.e., how close people are personally to one another (family and friends at one extreme, strangers at the other) and “hierarchy,” i.e., relative position or status in terms of power, prestige, rung on the “social ladder,” etc. Each of these is a way of sorting people in the social world. But Haidt argues for a third dimension that he calls “divinity”—a “moral dimension” with notions of “purity,” “nobility” or “sacredness” at one end and of “defilement,” “depravity” or “profanity” at the other. “Divinity” has nothing necessarily to do with religion. But Haidt (an atheist) maintains that “divinity” embodies an “ancient truth that devoutly religious people grasp, and that secular thinkers often do not: that by our actions and our thoughts, we move up and down on a vertical dimension” (Haidt 2006: 184). At the “sacred” end of the spectrum are, for example, saints, nobility, and places and objects distinguished by their “holiness” or “purity.” At the “profane” end are people and things seen as “depraved,” “disreputable” or “impure.”

The two ends of the spectrum are associated with opposite emotions: disgust at one end, awe at the other. We’re all familiar with the feeling of disgust and the sorts of things that arouse it (typically associated with contamination or bodily functions). But what about awe? Haidt and colleagues find that people associate awe with an actual physical sensation they describe as occurring in the chest area. And what triggers it? Haidt and a colleague conclude that awe is aroused “when two conditions are met: a person perceives something vast (usually physically vast, but sometimes conceptually vast, such as a grand theory; or socially vast, such as great fame or power); and the vast thing cannot be accommodated by the person’s existing mental structures. Something enormous can’t be processed, and when people are stumped, stopped in their cognitive tracks while in the presence of something vast, they feel small, powerless, passive, and receptive. They often (though not always) feel fear, admiration, elevation, or a sense of beauty as well” (Haidt: 203).

This is an emotion probably experienced by everyone, religious or not, at various times in their lives. It’s the state of passive fascination one might experience when viewing a natural scene or hearing a piece of music that “takes one’s breath away.” It’s commonly experienced when one grapples with certain scientific revelations like the scale of evolution, the size of the universe, the earth’s geological history, the weirdness of quantum mechanics, the implications of relativity theory, etc. In trying to understand these things, one tends, ultimately, to just give up or surrender. The human mind is not structured to grasp them intuitively. But the feeling isn’t one of cognitive dissonance but the opposite—of assimilation of the incomprehensible. As another example, when one beholds “extraordinary” individuals, like celebrities or politicians, the response is curiously similar: passive fascination or awe.

Following Mircea Eliade (1959/1957) in his classic work The Sacred and the Profane, Haidt maintains that a distinction between “sacred” and “profane” is a universal of the human mind. And religion embodies (or exploits) this distinction, delineating all that shall be included in each category. Religion and its embodiments (holy places, relics, etc.), of course, appear at the “divine” end of the spectrum. And all else constitutes the “profane” (though in practice people may perceive “divinity” throughout the secular world, as in the examples noted above). As Haidt observes, “All religions have places (temples, shrines, holy trees), times (holy days, sunrise, solstices), and activities (prayer, special dancing) that allow for contact or communication with something otherworldy and pure. To mark off sacredness, all other times, places, and activities are defined as profane (ordinary, not sacred). The borders between the sacred and the profane must be carefully guarded, and that’s what rules of purity and pollution are all about” (Haidt: 192-3).

If the awe-inspiring functions to enable us to overcome cognitive dissonance and assimilate the incomprehensible, what “incomprehensible” matter does religion help us assimilate? The answer is the struggles and suffering that afflict human life. Religion provides a vast, “awesome” context in which human struggles and suffering take on a kind of “sense.” One’s child dies. The notion that this event was somehow in “God’s plan” can give it a kind of sense, providing clarity and ultimately fostering a degree of acceptance. Or one may face stresses such as financial problems, work-related stress, illness, etc. Epic tales of struggle common in religious texts (the story of David and Goliath, for example) can make one’s own struggles seem small, lessening the stakes and dampening stress, while instilling a sense of cosmic pattern to one’s travails, with triumph the expected outcome.

The key psychological difference between religion and science is God. Religion posits a world that is ultimately a product of will or volition, of personal forces, while science posits one that is strictly naturalistic, a product of impersonal forces. Only the former—a “willed” world—can involve “plan” or “design” and so instill the sort of “sense” that helps address life’s troubles. The death of one’s child may be explainable by science, but in a scientific worldview it’s pointless, not part of any “design” or “plan.” One’s struggles, in a scientific worldview, may or may not succeed (many people’s don’t). But neither the universe, nor any other cosmic entity, cares about that.

It may be, as the byproduct theorists suggest, that we’re bound to religion because of an innate “theory of mind” module that overshoots and causes us to perceive intention where none exists. Or it may be, as adaptation theorists contend, that natural selection has incorporated “theory of mind” into a much more general adaptation, that of religion itself. But either way, the propensity to perceive intention on a cosmic scale is real and, on psychological grounds alone, hard to imagine humankind renouncing. Indeed it’s questionable whether human beings are capable of not perceiving the world “religiously,” even while rejecting religion rationally. Real atheists and nihilists may be figments of their own imaginations.

Though science relentlessly chips away at the plausibility of religious belief, it has not provided—and almost certainly cannot provide—positive proof that religion is false. With powerful emotional reasons to accept religion and no conclusive scientific reason to reject it, religion is unlikely to go away anytime soon, whatever the New Atheists may say.


Perhaps the greatest contributions of rational choice theory to the study of religion are its prediction of a vibrant religiosity where there’s a “free market” in religion and its depiction of secularization as inherently “self-limiting.” Thus, we learn that religion is more likely to flourish under certain institutional configurations than others and that religion will tend to rebound even when avenues for religious expression get blocked. The Darwinian perspective suggests that religion is in our nature, either as a chance byproduct of evolved traits or an adaptation itself. Either way, a propensity to acquire religious belief would be a normal part of human development. A “psychoanalytic” perspective sheds light on the subjective experience of religion and more specifically the likely effects of introducing rational arguments against religion into the arena of the human mind. We find that faced with a choice between religion and skepticism, most people will probably choose religion.

All three approaches to religion conspire to tell us that religion is in us and isn’t going anywhere. So what can the New Atheists and others hope to achieve by arguing against it? Short-term gains, I suspect, at most. They may convince the more intellectually-inclined among us that religion is a “scourge” that must somehow be stopped or controlled. But their arguments lack the kind of traction that their nemesis, religion, enjoys, and so seem unlikely to leave a very lasting mark.

The New Atheists, however, have a strong point. The world would undoubtedly be a better place without suicide bombers or peoples claiming certain lands as “sacred” and thus “theirs” or people viewing with favor an “end of times”—the latter making the prospect of nuclear annihilation seem acceptable and even palatable. These fanatical behaviors trample on the rights of those of us who don’t share the beliefs that motivate them. And the consequences of such beliefs could be dire.

Five centuries after the Enlightenment, the world seems not a bit closer to accepting only universally justifiable criteria of behavior—like evidence, reciprocity, and empathy. But merely exhorting people to see the horrors of religion and “shape up,” which is what the New Atheists’ approach amounts to, is a strategy destined to fail. A different approach—one that recognizes the religious in all of us, whether or not we accept it intellectually—seems a better bet.


1 Often included in this group is Daniel Dennett. But Dennett, in his wide-ranging, engaging Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006), is more concerned with understanding the phenomenon than railing against it. An atheist, yes; on a crusade against religion, no.

2 Such conflicts extend down to more mundane levels. Richard Dawkins cites as examples the advantages Quakers enjoy over the non-religious in claiming “conscientious objection” to military service, a Supreme Court decision allowing a New Mexican church to use a hallucinogenic drug (illegal for the rest of us) because its members “believe” it helps them understand God, and a legal ruling allowing a 12-year-old boy to wear a T-shirt with the words, “Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder,” not on grounds of freedom of speech (since, as “hate speech,” it wouldn’t get such protection) but freedom of religion. Dawkins contrasts the second of these examples with the federal prohibition of medical marijuana, which evidence suggests really does help cancer patients overcome nausea caused by chemotherapy.

3 The remaining axioms, not necessary for an understanding of the theory, are:

A1: Human action and perception take place through time, from the past into the future.

A6: Most rewards sought by humans are destroyed when they are used.

A7: Individual and social attributes which determine power are unequally distributed among persons and groups in any society.

4 An example of a “high-tension” belief would be insistence that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound—high-tension because it clashes with beliefs of the surrounding society.

5 The classic exposition of this approach is probably Boyer (2002). See also Atran (2002).

6 The “currency” in this example and in Prisoners’ Dilemma situations generally—the thing in terms of which one or both men are better or worse off—isn’t money exactly but an amalgam of money and well-being. In principle, the “currency” in a Prisoner’s Dilemma can be anything that’s of value. Also of value to the two men and to all organisms (though we’re less conscious of this) is the Darwinian currency of reproductive success. While money-plus-well-being and reproductive success aren’t the same thing, they’re correlated, since what promotes one generally promotes the other. Thus, it’s not far-fetched to interpret the example as illustrating how belief in a god is adaptive in the Darwinian sense. What’s adaptive isn’t religion itself (which in some ways is maladaptive) but a tendency to trust only select individuals, those who expect divine retribution, should they step out of line.

7 Religion may do other things as well, e.g., forge communities sufficiently close-knit that overt types of social control, like punishment and reputation, can more effectively foster cooperation. In such cases, Sosis (2005) observes, “trust” needn’t be involved, since in cooperating, people aren’t acting altruistically (as is implied by the word “trust”) but merely pursuing their self-interest. Nevertheless, even in close-knit societies, a portion of our behavior is unobservable. And to the extent that this unobservable behavior is harmful to the prospects of beneficial cooperation, “internal” controls, like an innate moral sense and fear of divine retribution, must step in.

8 Though theologians and many educated people may now view these stories as mythic, not so with average people. A May 2008 Gallup poll found that 76 percent of Americans believe the Bible is the “actual” or “inspired” word of God, while a June 2007 Gallup poll found that 66 percent believe that it’s “definitely” or “probably true” “that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years” (

9 As Daniel Dennett observes, “Those who practice a folk religion don’t think of themselves as practicing a religion at all. Their ‘religious’ practices are a seamless part of their practical lives, alongside their hunting and gathering or tilling and harvesting. And one way to tell that they really believe in the deities to which they make their sacrifices is that they aren’t forever talking about how much they believe in their deities—any more than you and I go around assuring each other that we believe in germs and atoms” (Dennett 2006: 160-1).




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Broadening the Frame by Matt Carlson