Blog: A cognitive perspective helps make the scientific study of atheism possible

Jonathan Lanman reflects on how cognitive and evolutionary studies of religion have Jon Lanmancontributed to research on atheism – and suggests how such approaches might advance our understanding of atheism in the future.

After more than a century of development, the cognitive and evolutionary sciences now offer scholars a range of theoretical and methodological tools to better understand religion.  The use of these tools by anthropologists, psychologists, and religious studies scholars has led to the emergence of what has come to be known as the cognitive science of religion or CSR (e.g. Lawson & McCauley, 1990; Boyer 1994; Atran, 2002; Whitehouse, 2004; Barrett, 2004; Sosis, 2006; Norenzayan, 2013).

In 2007, I was convinced that CSR was making progress in explaining the ubiquity of religion but faced a real problem in accounting for atheism: if religion is so well-supported by universal cognitive mechanisms, why are there so many atheists?   Consequently, I began to investigate atheism with the cognitive and evolutionary sciences in mind, conducting fieldwork with atheist and humanist groups in the US, UK, and Denmark and running interviews, surveys, and experiments.

My research has convinced me that there are benefits to examining atheism from a cognitive perspective.  For example, a small but growing body of evidence suggests that evolved cognitive biases can help us explain who becomes a theist and who becomes a non-theist (Lanman & Buhrmester, 2016; Gervais & Najle, 2015; Henrich, Norenzayan, and Willard, forthcoming) and why some nations have higher proportions of non-theists than others (Lanman, 2012; forthcoming).

Yet, I have also been convinced that a cognitive perspective can provide a more substantial benefit to our work. Taking a cognitive perspective, I believe, allows us to escape the post-modern malaise that too-often arises when we recognize the socially-constructed nature of our key objects of analysis.  In short, a cognitive perspective helps make the scientific study of atheism possible.

The Problem: Atheism is not a “thing”

Like “religion” and the “secular”, “atheism” is a word used by a range of individuals with a range of interests, yielding substantial diversity in its definition and deployment (Bullivant, 2013).  For some it has meant a lack of devotion to the Roman deities; for others, a lack of belief in any and all non-physical agents; and for still others, a moral revolt against the Christian God.  There is no objective reason to accept one of these conceptions over another, and the word has been developed for use by social actors, not dispassionate scholars attempting to better understand the human condition.  Consequently, “atheism,” like “religion” (Smith, 1982, Fitzgerald, 2000) and the “secular,” (Asad, 2003) is a social construct.

While social constructs exist in our conceptual schemes, they are not natural kinds, whose causes and effects can be investigated across different environments (Bird & Tobin, 2016). To view “atheism” as a unified object of analysis (a “thing”), and to attempt to scientifically investigate its causes and effects across contexts, is to treat a local concept as a natural kind.  Pursuing a science of  such an “atheism” would be on par with pursuing a science of “weeds” or “trees,” concepts which are relevant for gardeners and landscape architects but not for biologists or geneticists (Boyer, 2015).  We would, like astrologers with their supposed “constellations,” be engaged in folly.

The Solution:  Fractionation

With a cognitive perspective, however, a science of “atheism” becomes possible. This seemingly miraculous trick is a gift from a principle used by cognitive scholars of religion called “fractionation” (Boyer, 1994; Whitehouse & Lanman, 2014) or “reverse engineering” (Taves, 2011). To fractionate or reverse engineer a socially-constructed concept is to break it up into distinct phenomena about whose independent existence we are more confident (though, of course, never certain).

In CSR, for example, scholars recognize that “religion” is a social construct but argue that the word “religion” labels a range of phenomena that may indeed be natural kinds.  These include:  beliefs in the existence of non-physical agents (Boyer, 2001), in the universe as a whole and certain events being designed for a purpose (Kelemen, Rottman & Seston, 2013; Heywood & Bering, 2014), and in the continuation of psychological functioning beyond death (Bering, Blasi, and Bjorklund, 2005), as well as socially-transmitted causally opaque actions (i.e. rituals) (Whitehouse, 2012; Legare et al. 2015) social identities (McElreath, Boyd & Richerson 2003; Park & van Leeuwen, 2015), and sacred values (Tetlock, 2003; Atran & Ginges, 2012). CSR has made progress in understanding religion by examining these phenomena as distinct objects of analysis, as building blocks that comprise the traditions we commonly label as “religions” (Sosis, 2009; Taves, 2015).

In my own research, I fractionate “atheism” into three elements (though there are surely more):

1) The absence of belief in the existence of non-physical agents.

2) Moral judgements of the immorality of “religion.”

3) Social identities that prominently feature the concept “atheism” or other forms of “nonreligion” (Lee 2015).

This fractionation of “atheism” is useful for at least two reasons.

First, we can have a higher level of confidence that each of these fractionated phenomena exists in the world beyond our conceptual schemes.   This confidence comes from the fact that we have progressive research programmes in the cognitive and evolutionary sciences on the causes and effects of beliefs (Boyer 2001; Bell, Halligan, and Ellis, 2006; Lanman, 2008; Farias et al., 2013), moral judgements (Graham, et al., 2012; Curry, 2016; Keane, 2015), and social identities (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; McElreath, Boyd & Richerson 2003; Park & van Leeuwen, 2015).  Thanks to this research, we have good reasons for seeing beliefs, moral judgements, and social identities as causally active, cross-cultural features of human cognition as well as a set of tools for investigating them. And while constructs such as “religion,” “atheism,” and “humanism” are social constructions, they do exist as representations in human minds, and can, consequently, become objects of belief, moral evaluation, and social allegiance.

Second, each of these fractionated phenomena exists in the absence of the others, thereby demonstrating causal independence.  We find, for example, individuals who lack explicit beliefs in the existence of non-physical agents but adhere to a Christian identity (Mountford 2011).  Similarly, we find individuals who believe in some vague non-physical agency but find “religion” immoral and even label themselves as “atheists” (Smith et al., 2015).

To lump beliefs, moral judgements, and identities together under the label “atheism” and then to analyze said “atheism” as a single phenomenon will lead only to confusion and scientific stagnation. By utilizing the cognitive strategy of fractionating “atheism” into distinct phenomena with distinct sets of causes and effects, I believe we can move forward to examine how a range of pan-human cognitive capacities and tendencies interact with particular socio-historical contexts and discourses to produce the various atheisms we study.

Dr Jonathan Lanman is a Lecturer in Cognition and Culture and Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast, and Co-PI on the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief project (John Templeton Foundation).  In his work on atheism, he aims to integrate theories and methodologies from the social, cognitive and evolutionary sciences with ethnographic and historical research to explain why some individuals become theists whilst others become non-theists, why some nations have higher proportions of non-theists than others, and why some non-theists engage in anti-religious social action.  He is also engaged in collaborative research on religious identity, ritual, and self-sacrifice.




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