December 6, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

The Science of Atheism

Science news sites have recently included some unusual articles: reports about the science of atheism.  What can scientists say about atheism without leaving the domain of science altogether?

The science of distrustPhysOrg reported a study from the University of British Columbia about why believers distrust atheists.  A sense of the feelings of the researchers can be seen in their title of their paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice.”  Surveys of 350 American adults and 420 students found that atheists ranked lower in trustworthiness than Christians, Jews, Muslims, gay men and feminists – only rapists ranked comparably low.  “The researchers concluded that religious believer's distrust – rather than dislike or disgust – was the central motivator of prejudice against atheists, adding that these studies offer important clues on how to combat this prejudice,” the article stated, mentioning also a Gallup poll that showed only 45% of Americans would vote for an atheist president.  If it’s a prejudice, it cannot be a well-thought-out position, can it?  Study co-author Ara Norenzayan said, “believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”

Christmas for atheists:  They may feel it grounded in folly, but many atheists still celebrate Christmas.  Science Daily reported on a study by some researchers in Texas and New York why that is.  Some do it because they want to expose their children to a variety of belief systems, including religion.  Some do it to please a spouse.  Some do it because they “want a sense of moral community and behavior, even if they don’t agree with the religious reasoning.”  Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, principal investigator for the paper published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Dec. 2011), wanted to show that atheists do not typically indoctrinate their children one way or another.  “I think that understanding how nonreligious scientists utilize religion in family life demonstrates the important function they have in the U.S.,” she said.

Stephanie Pappias at Live Science elaborated on the study.  “They may not find much meaning in the birth of Jesus Christ, but many atheists embrace religious traditions such as churchgoing for the sake of the children,” she wrote.  A survey of 275 participants from science faculty at 21 elite research universities found that 17% of atheists attend a religious service more than once a year, for “social and personal reasons.”  In fact, according to Pappias, 20% of atheists consider themselves “spiritual” in some sense, if not outwardly religious.

The neurology of religion:  In another Live Science article, “Life’s Extremes: Atheists vs. Believers,” Adam Hadhazy explored what makes religion appealing to so many.  He looked to neuroscience and to evolution for answers.  The fact that religion has been so pervasive in human society since antiquity leads Andrew Newburg, author of a book How God Changes Your Brain to view religion as adaptive or serendipitous.  “This fact has led some researchers to suggest that a tendency toward religion is ‘built’ into our brains, perhaps as a byproduct of the development of complex cognitive abilities,” Hadhazy summarized.

Hadhazy included a chart of religious belief, and then discussed how only a small percentage (around 1%) self-identify as atheists, and another small sliver (1-2%) call themselves agnostics among the religiously unaffiliated.  Then he considered “religious zealots.”  Among those are the 53% of churchgoers who believe the Bible literally, oppose homosexuality and abortion.  The “most zealous of the zealous” turn to violence, he said, implying a matter of degree, not of definition.  “To an extent, atheists and enthusiastic believers are products of their environment, so to speak,” but he didn’t speak to what extent, except in broad terms about “regional cultures” such as the Bible belt.

If the most important point is usually saved for last, then Hadhazy’s emphasis was saved for his last sub-heading, “Religion and lack thereof in the brain.”  Here, he offered equal opportunity predestination: “Beyond regional influences, brain conditioning may also move an individual out of the mainstream of mild and moderate religiosity into atheism or zealotry.”  That final distinction, “atheism or zealotry,” seems instructive into his own bias.  Cannot atheists be zealots?

The discussion degenerated into talk of a “god gene” and other such genetic predispositions to belief: “For both non-religious and religious people, then, reinforcement of a set of beliefs modifies the brain to accept information supportive of that system and reject information that goes against it.”  Hadhazy did not discuss whether similar reinforcement might predispose one to scientism.

Who should analyze whom?  These reporters make a number of slips that reveal their bias.  For one, they speak of distrust of atheism as “prejudice.”  Uninformed conviction is the definition of prejudice.  What if the distrust is informed?  It might be informed, for instance, by knowledge of history.  One only need look back at the 20th century, where bloodbaths followed in the wake of tyrannical atheist regimes.  The French Revolution was another horror story that might engender a modicum of distrust.  One might also learn distrust by logical thinking.  With no ground for morals, can atheists be trusted?

Another bias is where Hadhazy contrasted atheism and zealotry – the either-or fallacy in action.  To anyone who thinks, atheists can be zealots, and sincere believers can be rather passive and easygoing about their faith.  He draws a wrong contrast.  Similarly, Ecklund showed bias by wanting to rehabilitate the atheists’ “important function” in society.  Hadhazy spoke of regional and cultural conditioning without considering all the causes.  That’s poor science.  Maybe the so-called Bible Belt and other regions exists and maintains itself for reasons apart from cultural conditioning.  It might be because of the laws, educational standards, shared norms that are well reasoned, purposeful migration, better contact with nature, and other reasons that have nothing to do with indoctrination.

The worst bias, though, is thinking that science can analyze religion or atheism at all.  Other than surveying, what can science do?  Science is supposed to measure, theorize, explain, predict and falsify.  Only measurement applies to studies like this.  Even then, the measurements are likely to be flawed by surveyor bias, respondent bias, question bias, and sample bias.  The Rice study, for instance, was conducted on university faculty.  What reliable conclusions can be drawn from such an ingrown sample population?  Besides, human minds are too complex to give reliable answers to questions as deep as religion or atheism.  An atheist may feel adamant one day, then acquiescent the next after his wife takes him to a Christmas concert.  A Christian or Muslim or Jew may give different emphasis to his or her answers on Wednesday than on the weekend.  Some may simply lie on surveys regarding such a sensitive topic.  How would you answer a question like, "Do you consider yourself a religious zealot?”

As we have reminded repeatedly, the psychologists and researchers who worked on these surveys could not even do anything without presupposing the validity of the Judeo-Christian worldview.  Only that worldview provides the grounds for honesty, integrity and belief in eternal truth and laws of logic.  Without that ground of understanding, researchers are left with a self-refuting position.  They argue that the mind and brain and human evolution in a mythical prehistory preconditioned us to certain beliefs, but fail to realize that the same argument applies to them: it preconditioned their belief that science provides answers.

The researchers had to assume the validity of Christianity, therefore, in spite of themselves.  A corollary of this proposition is that preachers should analyze scientists, and not vice versa.  If a researcher wants to understand the causes of atheism and belief, let them learn to distrust their own understanding, and trust the word of the living God (Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalm 1, Psalm 14, Matthew 24:27-29, John 1:1-18, John 3:16-20, Romans 1:16-23).  Science seeks knowledge.  Let it come to the fountainhead.

Footnote:  We welcome atheists to read our articles and commentaries, provided they have an open mind.  Some atheists are zealots, but not all.  Some just have unanswered questions.  If you are one who is really seeking truth, and are open to ideas outside your normal beliefs, we urge you to re-read those last two paragraphs and think about them (for independent corroboration, see what Raymond Tallis said on the Wall Street Journal about the inability to account for the human mind from molecules alone).  Can you find the ground of truth, knowledge and explanation in atheism?  Can an evolving universe of particles provide any explanation for anything that can survive a constantly evolving environment?  If the answer is no, then read those Bible references thoughtfully and consider their application to your worldview.

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