Explaining Atheism and Unbelief

In a recent New Scientist editorial, the authors state it is time to accept that atheism — not religion, is odd and that future research should focus on explaining unbelief:

Ironically, sociologists, psychologists, economists and, particularly, cognitive anthropologists have become so skilled at explaining why humans seem to have such a widespread bias towards theistic beliefs that a new question readily presents itself: if religion comes so naturally to us, why are so many people, especially in western Europe, apparently resistant to it?

While this is an important question and one which deserves investigation, I have difficulty with the notion that we have become particularly skilled at explaining supernatural-religious beliefs.  Despite the plethora of books that have been published over the past decade which purport to “explain” religion and account for its origins and persistence, what we currently have are many partial explanations, no single one of which is satisfactory.  These partial explanations have yet to be integrated or synthesized into a convincing whole.  “Religion” is such a complex phenomena with such deep roots that no single explanation or theory is likely to account for it.

Any reasonably complete phylogeny of the supernatural-religious, however, will be much informed by answers to the following questions:

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.

Making sense of one’s life (or the history of life and the universe) without religion is challenging; so challenging, in fact, that very few people in the world are non-religious.  Hopefully, the scholars who have gathered at The Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network will provide us with some insight into these questions.

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