March 4, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Atheism in a Test Tube

Conflicting views on atheism by scientists show that deducing the intellectual status of atheism is not an exact science.  Are such questions even approachable by the scientific method?  What conclusions could be drawn?
    National Geographic reported Kanazawa’s theory that liberals and atheists are smarter (02/27/2010) without much criticism.  Reporter Maggie Koerth-Baker only said that a new study “suggests” that “liberals, atheists [are] more highly evolved” and “more inclined to nontraditional values,” but the blaring headline and opening bold summary left little doubt about the correct way to approach the question: “Your apelike ancestors probably aren’t top of mind when you enter the polling booth,” she began.  “But a new study suggests that human evolution may have a big influence on whether you’re liberal or conservative—not to mention how smart you are, whether you believe in God, or whether you’ve got a cheatin’ heart” (see 02/27/2010 for critique of Kanazawa’s thesis).  The article did critique Kanazawa’s measure of IQ a little, but did not question the science underlying the notion that intelligence evolved by a Darwinian process: “For instance, other researchers have advanced the theory that intelligence arose as a way of competing for sex,” she said.  “If that’s the case, Kanazawa’s conclusions only make sense if, say, being liberal or atheist also makes you more sexually attractive.”  Then the article invited readers to “Take a Darwin quiz” on the National Geographic website.  It doesn’t measure your sexual prowess, intelligence, or fitness, though; just your knowledge of Darwin trivia.
    New Scientist presented a less privileged view of atheism.  “Where do atheists come from?”, asked Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant.  They started by echoing what seems to be a truism in academia: “where Reason reigns, God retires.”  It seems intuitive.  Isn’t that why atheists predominate at Oxford?  “Of course, things are never quite that simple,” they quickly countered.  In fact, surveys show that postgraduates tend to be less atheistic.  Evidence from elsewhere, they said, shows “there is no straightforward relationship between atheism and education.”  They produced statistics to show this.  One surprise is that more degree-holders are religious than atheists.  “It appears that Enlightenment assumptions about the decline of religion as the population becomes more educated will no longer do – at least, not without considerable qualification.”
    So where do atheists come from?  They discussed a “collective blind spot in research: atheism itself.”  Atheists have put religious people in a test tube without jumping in themselves. 

What we need now is a scientific study not of the theistic, but the atheistic mind.  We need to discover why some people do not “get” the supernatural agency many cognitive scientists argue comes automatically to our brains.  Is this capacity non-existent in the non-religious, or is it rerouted, undermined or overwritten – and under what conditions?
    Psychologically, we need to know how the self functions without theistic belief, and how our emotional resources might be altered by its absence.  Anthropologically, we need to understand how people without religion make sense of their lives, how they find meaning, and how non-theistic systems of thought are embedded in, and shape, the different cultures in which they are present.  Sociologically, we need to know how these alternative meaning-making systems are shared between societies, how they unite or divide us, and whether non-religious groups contain pro-social elements commonly associated with religion itself.

Since nobody has asked such questions, Lee and Bullivant announced that they have set up a “Non-religion and Secularity Research Network” in 2008.  The first problem was getting the vocabulary right: the words atheistic, non-theistic, non-religious, unbelieving and godless do not mean the same things.  What has turned up in the test tube?

Interesting findings have, however, begun to emerge; some providing insight into the relationship between education and atheism.  Voas, also a keynote speaker at the Wolfson conference, says one reason why a greater number of religious people are degree-holders may be that “better educated people have typically reflected on religion and have the self-confidence to come down decisively, on one side or the other’.  The issue is not which idea – atheism or theism – is more stupid than the other, but that education helps us either to work out or simply to communicate our beliefs, no matter what they are.

Their article, surprisingly, said nothing about evolution.  It did not try to describe atheism or theism in terms of selection pressures on primitive ancestors.  And their conclusions had something nice to say to both sides: “The believers may take heart from the fact that the most comprehensive studies no longer suggest the unreligious are cleverer or more lettered than them,” they said.  “But the non-believers might also comfort themselves that they are no longer outside the mainstream.”

Sociology is a peculiar science.  Sociologists think they can scientifically analyze populations of people from some neutral platform.  But some uber-sociologist could decide to analyze the sociologist population from another platform.  An uber-uber-sociologist could do that to the uber-sociologist, and so on.  This infinite regress is a consequence of the Yoda Complex mixed with scientism.  Only God has an unbiased platform; therefore only deductions from his view of the world are solid and rational.  In other words, a theist can put an atheist in a test tube, but not vice versa (reason).
    It seems lost on the Darwinian-style atheists that their position is self-refuting.  They cannot deny that the majority believe in God.  This must mean the majority are more fit.  It follows that they, as non-cooperators, are the mutants.  Mutations are predominantly deleterious.  As atheists, therefore, unless they can defend their atheism mutation as beneficial according to some neutral standard which Darwinism cannot supply, they reduce the health and fitness of the population.  Why?  Because the population has to expend energy to punish the non-cooperators.  This is not a moral judgment, but a strict application of the evolutionary game theory they themselves employ.  Yet if the atheists decided to cooperate to become more fit, they would have to believe in God, and their belief in evolution would implode.  Maintaining non-cooperative status in spite of its irrationality is known as Enlightenment.  Maybe it’s why Richard Dawkins is content to remain an intellectually fool-filled atheist.

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