Atheism is apparently not anti-evolutionary after all

Last week The Times splashed a claim new research by a British psychologist found belief in God is intuitive and may be hardwired by evolution. The article included quotes from Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, who said his research “shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works.” The article claimed human tendency towards supernatural beliefs explains why many become religious as adults, despite not having been brought up within any faith. It claimed scientists believe the durability of religion is partially because it helps people to bond. (pic adapted from original by stuartpilbrow)

The article was something of a simplification, not least with the words of Bruce Hood. Writing on his own blog two days later, Hood said he was misrepresented. Hood’s point, which he told The Times, was humans are born with brains to seek out patterns and infer hidden mechanisms, forces and entities. “That does not make me either religious or a religious apologist,” he said. But Hood’s statements did not fit in with the “Born to Believe in God” angle the paper was pushing. His words were twisted and The Times’s angle was repeated by the Mail Online and the Telegraph.In the rush to prove religion was hardwired by evolution, the media glossed over what Hood actually said. He did not say humans evolved to believe in God. Instead, he agrees with Richard Dawkins religion is a cultural construct. However he doubts supernatural beliefs can be eradicated by education. The power of beliefs is strong and often is a positive force. Life is a balancing act between trusting our beliefs enough to act on them without being so certain about them that we could never ditch them. That predisposes the idea we act on fallible beliefs. For instance, we cannot wait for all the evidence to come in before we act on global warming.

Nevertheless belief is predicated on assumptions about how the world operates. This construct is central to all major religions and has been so ever since humans prayed for rain or sunshine. Absence of belief has been around just as long even if atheists were usually treated with scorn, or worse (the term comes from the Greek “atheos” meaning “deserted by the gods”). Dawkins says we have all deserted the ancient Gods and atheists have simply gone one God further.

But evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson believes atheism is a stealth religion. He dubbed Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens “the New Atheists” and said the movement forming around Dawkins in particular was a religion without supernatural agents. For the new atheists, faith is a heresy that must be stamped out. They are part of an old tradition that goes back two hundred years to when atheism split between those primarily concerned with the pursuit of truth and those driven by contempt of the faithful. For the latter the fact that citizens could worship their gods in peace supported by the state was an indefensible concession to superstition and prejudice.

Some Christians have gone on the counter-attack and have attempted to demolish atheism’s intellectual credentials. Among the best known is Alistair McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism. McGrath’s book defines atheism not as a suspension of decision but as a principled decision to live and act on the assumption there is no God or any spiritual reality beyond what we know. He says it was inspired by Protestantism which encouraged people to think of a world in which God cannot be experienced. Atheism thrives when Christians get into power and abuse it. But says McGrath, the 20th century godless world of the Soviet Union eroded the imaginative potential of atheism.

Such arguments are unimportant to secular societies like Australia. The nation’s census doesn’t ask about atheism but the numbers of those who admit to “no religion” are low. From 1901 to 1971, the figure was almost negligible. It is rising steadily and is now 18.7 percent. Just 20 percent of adults participated in religious or spiritual groups or organisations in 2006. Materialism rules in this country though people may not admit it in census questions.

One category not on the census list is “soft cock atheist”. This odd category is what the author “Godless Gross” chose to describe himself in when writing in yesterday’s newly revamped National Times (though unnamed, it is reasonable to assume the writer is male). Gross said he represented a “wishy washy” strain of atheism easily swayed into theism if the right faith came along. The author also claims we are “a religious species” with 86 percent of people worldwide believing in some kind of God.

According to Max Wallace, head of the National Secular Society, the defining characteristic of secular government is separation of church and state. He says despite the US’s predisposition for creationism (noted again today by a new British film about Darwin which cannot find an American distributor), its government has a better separation than the constitutional monarchy of Australia. Religions get tax exemptions but atheism does not because it is not a form of supernatural belief. Wallace reminds us our government is a soft theocracy “but with a secular twist according to political contingency.” So which is worse, a soft theocracy or a soft cock atheist? God only knows.

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