Innate atheism & variation across societies

A friend pointed to this massive collation of statistics on atheism across the world. I myself keep track of this literature and most of the values are pretty plausible, or I've seen them before (you can find The World Values Survey publications in any college library). This section caught my attention:

Justin Barret (2004) has argued that belief in God is a result of the "way our minds are structured" (p.viii) and "the way human minds operate" (p.30). He argues that belief in God is "greatly supported by intuitive mental tools"(p.17) and is "an inevitable consequence of the sorts of minds we are born with" (p.91). Belief in God is "natural," resulting from the "natural workings of the human mind," and atheism is thus unnatural (p.108). David Wilson (2002) suggests that religion is part of humanity's naturally evolving adaptive strategy, and that religious belief represents "the healthy functioning of the biologically and culturally well-adapted human mind" (p.228). Michael Persinger (1987) has stressed the role of the hippocampus, the amygdala, temporal lobes, and hormonal processes, in explaining religious belief in God. Ashbrook and Albright (1997) focus on the neural underpinnings and workings of the brain in explaining belief in God. Newberg and D-Aquili (2001) argue that the religious impulse lies in an evolved "neurological process" (p.9), that the roots of belief in God are to be found in "the wiring of the human brain" (p.129), and that "as long as our brains are arranged the way they are," belief in God will remain (p.172).

The data presented in this chapter delivers a heavy blow to this new explanation of theism. First of all, the sheer numbers must be contended with. With between 500,000,000 and 750,000,000 non-theists living on this planet today, any suggestion that belief in God is natural, inborn, or a result of how our brains are wired becomes manifestly untenable. Secondly, anyone who argues that theism has neural roots and is a direct result of the natural way human minds work must then explain the dramatically different rates of belief among similar countries. Consider Britain (31-44% atheist) compared to nearby Ireland (4-5% atheist), the Czech Republic (54-61% atheist) compared to nearby Poland (3-6% atheist), and South Korea (30-52% atheist) compared the Philippines (less than 1% atheist). It is simply unsustainable to argue that these glaring differences in rates of atheism among these nations is due to different biological, neurological or other such brain-related properties. Rather, the differences are better explained by taking into account historical, cultural, economic, political, and sociological factors (Norris and Inglehart, 2004; Grontenhuis and Scheepers, 2001; Verweij, Ester, and Natua, 1997; Zuckerman, 2003).

I object to this characterization of the idea that theism is 'natural' and atheism is 'unnatural.' A minor point is that Justin L. Barrett believes that the growth of atheism is predominantly due to social forces (I asked him). I don't think the above quote would give that impression. But a bigger issue vague and imprecise way that the author above uses the term "innate."

What does "innate" mean? Consider the number of fingers on your hand. You have 5, unless you are a non-human intelligence. Not having 5 fingers is abnormal, pathological even. The number of fingers, and how they develop, are specified purely by a particular genotypic configuration, and that configuration is fixed across our species (there isn't any genetic variation). This is a genetic trait, there is no intrapopulational variance in the character aside from pathologies (e.g., mutations or developmental abnormalities). Now, consider your height. This is a quantitative trait, the population is distributed in a normal fashion, there is a mean value, and a deviation from the mean. Being short or tall is not a pathology, but just part of the range which we expect to see within the population.

So how does the normal distribution of height occur? Via the combined action of a multitude of genetic and non-genetic factors. If all the genes contribute a large "average effect" to the trait, then the individual has a high quantitative value, and if all of the genes contribute a small average effect, then the individual has a low quantitative value. The majority of humans though tend to have quantitative values in the middle because of the average effects...average out. In the United States nearly 90% of the population level variation in height is due to genes. In other words, 10% of the variation is due to environmental factors. In contrast, among Jamaicans the genetically controlled variance is about 75%, and among Nigerians about 60%. Why is this? Are Nigerians and Jamaicans genetically different from each other in regards to the alleles which result in height? And from Americans? No! Actually, the height distributions for black and white males in the United States are about the same (Jamaicans and African Americans derive from West African populations). The two populations differ in many ways, but not so much on height (there are small differences which can be non-trivial at the "tails," but I'm talking overall here). So what's going on? Simple: the way a quantitative trait unfolds in an individual is contingent upon their environmental context. I won't make this complicated, it is simply the fact that even if genes have relevance for a trait, so does environment. In fact, if you change the environment uniformly across the population the proportion of variance due to genes can remain the same even as the distribution shifts considerably. In the United States nutrition is not a limiting factor in how tall you become, the environmental parameter is saturated so the only source of variance is genetic. In contrast, in Jamaica there is environmental variance, the poor eat less than the rich, and in Nigeria this is even more true. This is obviously different from the genetic trait above, which is invariant across these populations and exhibits no intrapopulational variance either.

Why is this relevant to what we are speaking about? A year ago there was a paper out about heritability of political beliefs, which came up with a value of 50% of the intrapopulation variance being due to genes. The important point here is that the variance is being explained, the distribution, not any absolute value. Swedish Americans in Minnesota are more politically conservative than Swedes in Sweden, but this is not due to any genetic difference, likely, Swedish American political attitudes are shaped by the American political environment. Likely the variance explained by genes is going to be about 50% of the total variance in both groups, but the distribution from "Left" to "Right" will be framed by the local environment. In relation to atheism, it then makes sense that religiosity, or belief in supernatural agents, can vary over time and space due to local contingencies even when there are innate cognitive biases. The psychobiological ones are not the only parameters here, so if you weight the values enough you can reshape the mental orientation appropriately. The author above pretty much implied that those those who favor that theism is innate believe it is a genetic trait, like 5 fingers on your hand, or the ability to learn language. So the data above clearly falsifies that hypothesis, but that's not what the proponents of the innate school believe!

No, religious predisposition is conceived of as a tendency which emerges out of a multitude of mental skills and aptitudes.1 This synthesis results in a "byproduct" orientation, the tendency to see supernatural agents in the universe. This tendency is powerful, and combined with particular cultural inputs it leads to a universal bias toward religious orientation, but like a quantitative trait if the various innate parameters are shifted in a particular direction that bias may not exist. Some scholars have proposed that individuals with a weak theory of mind, or attenuated social intelligence, are far more likely to be irreligious or lack the basic "religious sense." And, many quantitative traits have environmental components, when Communism was ascendent many more individuals were professed atheists in what is now Russia. Just because environmental variables are non-trivial does not mean that biological variables are irrelevant, we need to get beyond simplistic models.

Finally, let me offer that the author above really does try to "high ball" the numbers of "atheists and agnostics" a bit in my opinion (I've looked at some of the data, and the phrasing of the questions and the penetration of exactly what "God" means in someone's mind is highly relevant to their response). And yet nonetheless they show that around 90% of humans believe in God. This is a threshold trait with different norms of reaction.

With illustration:
I know from long experience that it is almost impossible to make heritability a basal background assumption, so I'm going to illustrate what I mean....

The three curves represent three normal frequency distributions. That is, the peak is where most people are, and the distribution tails off toward the ends. The x-axis depicts religiosity, ranging from atheism to intense religiosness. Above, I have illustrate three "environments" which the population is placed within,

1) Totalitarian atheism
2) Neutrality in regards to religion
3) Totalitarian theism

The distributions show what I suspect are the normal population level reaction. When there is positive inducement for atheism, there are more atheists, and when there is positive inducement for religion, there are more religionists. When you shift the parameters in such a manner the "die is loaded." But, the variation is remains, and the cognitive innate camp would assert that that underlying variation is due in part to genetic/biological factors. Twin studies and what not tend to show about a 50% heritability for "religious zeal," which suggests that there are some psychologically hard-wired factors which influence susceptibility to religious orientation. Societies which are forced in either direction often enter in a requilibration mode when the social pressures are relaxed. The former Soviet Union is characterized by far more religiosity than during the Communist era, while Spain is far more secular than during the Franco period.

1 - Imagine that each 'mental module' or cognitive aptitude, is a random variable, or the equivalent of a genetic locus with a particular average effect.


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Great post.

Though I'd add something like "cognitive biases" to your list of skills and aptitudes here:

"No, religious predisposition is conceived of as a tendency which emerges out of a multitude of mental skills and aptitudes.1"

I imagine that we still have lots of shorthand cognitive methods that result in weird side-effects in the culturally rich environment we live in now.

These biases, skills and aptitudes sometimes manefest themselves as religion, but not necessarily. Studying the non-religious spirtual attitudes and cognitive biases (tendency toward paranoia?) of aetheists would be interesting. I'd bet that they differ from the religious less than might be expected. (Why? Because of the rise of secularism as something known and semi-acceptable if not popular, people can more easily decalre themsleves to be non-theists. It's more of a choice. 150 years ago, your predilections would have to be pretty strong in the non-theist direction to come out of the closet.)

One thing about innate mental and behavioral tendencies -- they're neither good nor bad, they're just the raw material for culture. Some need to be suppressed or worked around. For example, it's a truism that many of our common-sense estimates of various realities are wildly off. That's why we've developed external, cultural procedures and algorithms for getting accurate answers.

Likewise for innate ethics. It's there, but some innate ethical behavior (like honor killing, revenge killing, wife-beating, and rape of strange women) have to be suppressed. Innate ethics also makes some people reflexively hostile to capitalism and finance.

Yes, I agree, great post.

Another way of slicing the apple you're talking about I think is that many of the secular aren't really so secular, if one takes a broad view of what constitutes "religion".

That is I think most of the self described secular take many of their most fundamental beliefs largely on faith. Even if they are willing to examine them, in form, they usually aren't really willing to examine them with any semblance of open mindedness. The so called secular may not believe in a God or gods, or perhaps the supernatural (though I think many categorized as atheists by world surveys are quite superstitious, take the Chinese of Hong Kong and the widespread belief in the importance of building orientation etc. there). But most do have a faith or two. As well there are good reasons why Communist countries either greatly discourage religion or ban it. They don't regard religious faith as entirely orthogonal to communist belief. They regard it as competitive.

I don't equate all morality with religion. But I do think that largely unexamined secular ideologies have much in common with religion. Not only the obvious grand examples such as communism or fascism, but also much passionate environmentalism, or the PC constellation of avoiding any hint of "racism" or "blaming the victim", and so on.

Of course no belief system is ever completely unexamined by it's believers, including the traditional religious belief systems. Believers nearly always go through some exercise of questioning their faith at some point. But the question is, how rigorous and fair minded has that questioning been? Or was the ending point established before the "questioning" began, because of the strong desire to BELIEVE.

Global warming true believers in Europe and America (and it's a great secular passion in Europe, make no mistake) make a great show of the scientific basis of their cause. And true enough, while once (only a few years ago in fact) there was considerable uncertainty as to whether the world as a whole, as opposed to just some northern hemisphere relative hot spots where more measurements were taken, has warmed up significantly over the last century. There's now very strong evidence that it has, by about .7 degrees C = ~ 1 deg F. It also seems very likely that at least some of that is caused by the increase in greenhouse gases, esp. CO2. So leap the believers, there is now overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, global warming is real, the US must jump onboard, pass Kyoto as a first step, and then rapidly do lots more to stop this impending disaster.

Wait JUST A MINUTE. What impeding disaster? Is change necessarily disaster? Won't many areas see benefits? Would adhering to Kyoto (which almost no place has really done, including European countries, except sometimes by happenstance as a result of changes done for other reasons) make any real difference? Is there anything the enviros are willing to contemplate that would, esp. if China and India and the rest of the LDCs are unwilling to do anything that significantly slows down their economic growth? Would the costs of anything that has any realistic shot at ending or slowing CO2 growth enough to make a real future temperature difference be worth the cost now, as opposed to responding to the problematic changes (e.g. a foot to three higher sea levels) that warming might bring? Would it be wiser to research lots now, and spend later, when we're both techno smarter and lots richer, and thus the changes would be much cheaper, relatively?

My point isn't that the answers to all these questions are crystal clear and all against doing anything about global warming now. (I do think we should do some things. Pebble nuclear reactors for example (which are very weapons proliferation safe), more fusion research, and more seed funding for hydrogen fuel cell transport engines, as a way of making that nuclear energy portable. Also low hanging fruit in increasing energy efficiency, which also reduces foreign energy dependence. But that's my tentative conclusion. It's debatable and I'm open to argument.)

My point is that the Greenhouse Gas Evangelists don't want to dispassionately consider these issues. Just the opposite. They WANT THEIR PASSION, and strong please.

Isn't that a type of religion? Anyway, I think it is a type of blind faith. (Or nearly blind. No faith is entirely blind for most people.)

I think that by now the Gobal Warming Skeptics are in at least as much danger of becoming true-believing fanatics as the Greenhouse Gas Evangelists, especially when their thinking about global warming is dominated by a lot of other pet ideas only loosely related to global warming.


Not exactly persuasive John.

Would you care to move beyond a flag planting declaration?

Because of the rise of secularism as something known and semi-acceptable if not popular, people can more easily decalre themsleves to be non-theists. It's more of a choice. 150 years ago, your predilections would have to be pretty strong in the non-theist direction to come out of the closet.

Good point.

If anything I think you understate the case. In 1855 almost nobody in America openly declared themselves to be an atheist.

It was not uncommon to point in that direction, by calling yourself a Deist or "not very religious" or even "not religious" or by saying you had doubts or "feared you had lost your faith". But forthrightly saying you simply were quite sure there was no God and had no regret about that "feeling" either - that just wasn't done, except very, VERY rarely. To the best of my knowledge anyway.

France in particular was a different case 150 years ago - and the French had much influence throughout progressive circles in Europe (Britain partly excepted), then even more than now. The French Revolution became very aggressively anti-clerical and left lots of room for outright atheism. The French closely associated religion (which was real to them in the form of the Catholic establishment) with the Ancient Regime, and with reactionary social influences, and were aggressive in ridding the political and social sphere not only of favoritism, but of any religious influence. You could practice religion in private as long as you were discrete about it - well, not too much of an exaggeration for awhile in France during the revolutionary period.

Dougjinn, the data are out there, the arguments are out there, and people can read your own overheated declaration and judge it for themselves. The issue isn't going to be decided here at GNXP.

The original topic was religious belief, but you dragged in global warming, making a dig about fanaticism which might have been plausible several years ago. Someone who took your rant seriously would guess that the people talking about global warming, its causes, and the appropriate responses are silly people with a weak case. But they'd be wrong, and fortunately few people will take you seriously who don't already agree with you. There's a pretty serious debate going on and you've just as much as confessed that you aren't willing to take part in it.

chill with the globing warming talk. you could have used sports fanatics as another example, wouldn't have thrown the thread into a tizzy. dougjin, you offer a lot of ideas in your comments. i think you might be served by starting a blogspot blog.

chill with the globing warming talk.

I know what you mean Razib, and why you're saying it or at least why you might be saying it.

But doesn't that tell you that quasi religion is at least partly involved here?

When do people say "chill with the big bang theory talk"?

Note, I'm not saying Global Warming isn't real. I'm not saying that because it's become a religious like passion, it's adherant's can't be scientifically correct. I am saying that there's ABUNDANT reason to be skeptical about the claims of the passionate.

Which doesn't mean don't look at them, and perhaps agree. It means we should realize it's like they're being paid big time (not saying they ARE, saying it's a similar, if not greater, motivator). There are motives involved (quasi religious ones) that are outside dispassionate weighing of evidence, and asking that we do the same.

Oh, enough. Moving on....

But doesn't that tell you that quasi religion is at least partly involved here?<?i>

of course. but a better example of this would be something where the scientific consensus is against it. e.g., "GMO foods being unhealthy." climate talk has been decoupled from science to some extent, but the scientific consensus is what is, right or wrong. i used to be a skeptic but at this point i'd rather not comment on something that i haven't kept track of....

If we plug, for example, Israel (most atheists) Switzerland (middle) and North Korea (least atheists) into the above, suggested distribution, your model doesn't work very well.

In reality, theism, belief in gods, belief in ghosts, belief in the supernatural - these things are taught. No one, to my knowledge is born believing in buddha anymore than they are born believing in jesus.

If we were born belieivng in jesus or god, we would put thousands of evangelicals out of a job and there would be no need to proselytise anyone.

People are born with an ability to believe and learn all sorts of things, but being born with the potential to believe and to learn, is not the same as being born believing in a god.

I don't see how any of us are born with beliefs.
We are born with a potential to learn and or to believe many things. But to suggest that theism is natural, suggests that we are born as either a christian, a buddhist, a muslim or a hindu. Our parents may may be any of these. But unless they can determine a gene for christianity, or a gene for god belief specifically, then I will consider that all beliefs and their resulant systems are learned.

If being able to believe in all sorts of things is a function or a potential of the brain, then all human concepts are natural as the brain is part of the natural world but this doesn't mean that people will, by default, without learning, believe in a god. It certainly doesn't mean that people are born with a specific knowledge of any specific god.

God belief is learned.

By the way, I am sure Zuckerman would agree with the view you attribute to Barrett that "the growth of atheism is predominantly due to social forces." But I'm sure Zuckerman would also argue that the evidence clearly indicates that those "social forces" are not forces that positively socialize people into atheism, but the decline of forces that socalize people into theism. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the decline in the number of children socialized into a religion by their parents. The conditioning of children seems to be one of the key ways in which religions maintain themselves across generations.