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.