Why do we have religion?

The vast majority of people believe in some sort of a supernatural agent. Call it God, call it Vishnu, call it Zeus, call it a djinn, call it an ancestor spirit, and this fact remains: We are, and perhaps always have been, a largely religious species. What is it about human evolution, human culture, and human cognition that makes supernatural agent concepts so easy to think about and—often—believe in?

Currently, I’m working with a dual inheritance model of the evolution of religion that seeks to accommodate three basic observations:

1) Ordinary human cognition seems equipped with a number of biases that support supernatural concepts, including folk (mind-body) dualism, a tendency to see purpose and design (“promiscuous teleology”), and a variety of motivational structures that make these concepts attractive

2) We can mentally represent a wide variety of supernatural agents, but most of us only believe in a select few, or none at all

3) The distribution of different types of supernatural agent beliefs (ranging from morally fickle and geographically constrained ancestor spirits to omnipotent and omniscient Big Moralizing Gods) is decidedly nonrandom, and seems to covary with various outcomes for societies.

So my research focuses on the interplay between the representation of gods, the acquisition of beliefs in gods, and the different types of gods that people have. The (very tentative) framework I’m adopting posits that the capacity to represent supernatural agents comes about as a byproduct of cognitive mechanisms that evolved for tracking core domains of knowledge (folk psychology being the prime mover). Yet belief largely comes from cultural transmission: We believe in the gods that people—especially prestigious people—in our cultures endorse. Further, different types of religious beliefs may have downstream cultural consequences that give advantages to some groups over others in intergroup competition.

Why do we have atheists?

If supernatural concepts are so “easy-to-think” and certain religious beliefs have proven phenomenally successful at the cultural level, why are there so many people out there for whom religion holds no appeal? To approach this question, Ara Norenzayan and I developed a model that describes four necessary components that must be in place for a given person to believe in a given god at a given point in time:

1) That person must be able to form mental representations of supernatural agents; this requires a more general ability to easily represent other minds in the world (“theory of mind” or “mentalizing,” in the parlance of developmental and cognitive psychology).

2) That person must be in some way motivated to treat some gods as agents that can in some way meet our existential needs; we know that certain trying life conditions (fear of death, loss of control, uncertainty, or loneliness) motivate people to address these needs, and in many places religious beliefs act as a buffer against hard times.

3) That person needs to “pick” which gods in particular to treat as real, rather than myth; cultural learning is key.

4) Finally, a person’s belief needs to persist over time; certain cognitive dispositions and situational triggers can lead people to overturn their intuitions, motivations, and cultural learning and cease believing in gods.

So, what about atheists? If those four components produce belief, it follows that disruptions to any of them produce disbelief instead. With this model, we’ve tentatively identified four different “brands” of atheists.

Mindblind atheists have a difficult time representing other minds, and thus have a hard time envisioning personal deities.

Apatheists simply do not live in conditions where religious beliefs seem to be a necessary buffer (the paradigmatic example is a country like Denmark, with great public education and healthcare, low endemic pathogen loads, little threat of warfare, and adequate social safety nets; not coincidentally, this is one of the least religious societies in the history of humankind).

InCREDulous atheists do not believe in specific gods simply because they did not receive cultural inputs supporting belief in specific gods. (These inputs include Credibility Enhancing Displays, or CREDs, that convince them others believe in gods.)

Analytic atheists rely on analytic thinking (reflectively or not), rather than intuitive processing of information, and therefore find less support for religious concepts.

How much do these four atheisms contribute to global patterns of atheism? I don’t know, but I’m working on it.


Why are (some) religious beliefs so very, very common across cultures?

There’s a peculiar pattern to religious beliefs worldwide and across history. Most of the religions likely practiced throughout history don’t include an all-powerful, morally concerned god. Yet, most religious believers on earth today believe in exactly this sort of Big Moralizing God. What explains this pattern?

I think one of the best explanations out there right now to explain this pattern goes something like this: People’s supernatural beliefs can have tangible effects on their behavior. People who believe that an all-powerful god is monitoring their behavior, cares about that behavior, and can reward or punish that behavior, might make different choices than do people who believe in a god without this skill set. For example, if people feel like a morally concerned god is monitoring their behavior, they might be more cooperative with others, or resist temptation in other ways. Beyond individuals, societies full of people who check their behavior because they believe in a Big Moralizing God might be more successful than societies full of people who do not. Over time, those groups that were best able to overcome cooperative dilemmas (and other sorts of dilemmas that disrupt the smooth functioning of society) would have a competitive advantage. The result? The most successful religions in the world tend to be those with beliefs and practices that interact to produce stable sets of norms that promote group cohesion and competitiveness.

This example focused primarily on cooperation, but we can imagine all sorts of norms that would be more easily stabilized by certain religious beliefs that would also have interesting long-term consequences for the prosperity of societies. For example, many religions spend a lot of time dealing with mating and marriage systems. Where norms related to mating and marriage yield different reproduction rates across groups with various belief systems, there is again a case for potential competitive advantages. So, the basic idea is that the specific contents of religious systems—including the kind of god a group believes in—can have profound effects on the success of that group. This can produce dynamics where cultural group selection is possible. (For those who are uncomfortable talking about “cultural” or “group” selection, let alone both, feel free to use “differential success of societies based on how norms, beliefs, and practices common with those groups affect the choices of individuals” instead. I’ll stick with “cultural group selection” because it’s shorter.)


What do folks think about atheists?

In religious countries (which describes most countries), atheists are frequent targets of antipathy. Gallup polls repeatedly show that atheists are among the least accepted groups of people in the United States. But atheists don’t really do anything. They’re not a particularly cohesive or visible group (if indeed they can be thought of as a group). As comedian Ricky Gervais (no relation) puts it, “Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby.”

So, what’s the basis for all the negativity? My colleagues and I have been investigating the psychological bases of anti-atheist prejudice by incorporating 1) evolutionary perspectives on prejudice, which highlight the fact that different types of prejudice emerge from the distinct types of functional threats that different groups are seen to pose, and 2) a cultural evolutionary approach to religious prosociality (the idea that some types of religious beliefs make people nice within given societies).

We find that anti-atheist prejudice isn’t about disgust or fear or anger. Rather, it results because, at a fundamental level, believers don’t trust atheists. Because anti-atheist prejudice is about distrust, it means that certain interventions can specifically alleviate distrust of atheists. For example, people are more tolerant of atheists when they are made to realize that there are plenty of reasons, aside from religion, to be nice to one another. When participants think about the police, all of a sudden atheists no longer seem so untrustworthy.

Some musing about methodology

Currently, most of my experiments draw heavily from the methods of social psychology. We use laboratory experimental manipulations to test predictions derived from the big-picture questions highlighted above. I also really like adopting lots of new experimental techniques, and co-opting methods used for other tasks to fit my needs. So you’ll see me doing experiments that utilize priming, heuristic processing, judgment and decision making tasks, implicit and indirect measures of attitudes and beliefs, and—that venerable staple of social psychological research—the Likert scale.

The past few years, social psychology has taken a bit of a beating. Whether it’s the discovery of several fraudsters (which I’m guessing is rare) to broader concerns about how questionable research practices undermine the replicability of our science (which is likely much more common), it’s a very interesting time to be embarking on a career as an assistant professor. With that in mind, here’s my very brief methods manifesto:

As researchers, we like statistically significant results. They lead to publications, jobs, and tenure (plus they just look cooler on graphs). To obtain statistically significant results, we need powerful designs. I’m of the impression that questionable research practices are not primarily used because there are lots of researchers who want to see p < .05, whether it’s likely to be a real effect or not. Instead, I think the use of questionable research practices is nothing more than an attempt to boost power that, as an unfortunate consequence, leads to the publication of (likely) lots and lots of false positive effects. The intention is good. The consequences could be very bad indeed.

Recently, I made a very deliberate decision about how I wanted to conduct my research. There’s one way to boost statistical power without undermining replicability: run bigger studies. Much, much bigger. More participants = more power, plain and simple. So now I run big studies, and simple studies (e.g., we don’t stack up DVs, in order to see “what comes out”). Also, I’m not going to publish an effect I can’t replicate. The upshot of this is that I can be reasonably confident that any positive effects I publish are “real.” It also means (since time, resources, and participants are finite) that I’ll necessarily be conducting and publishing fewer studies. But I think it’s worth the tradeoff.