You are here

Beyond belief: irreligion as a natural phenomenon

A basic question that’s attracted surprisingly little discussion in spite of its obvious social importance is why so many people not only let religion slide practically but deny it as a theoretical matter. Their apparent claim is that one part of a universe that arose by chance and means nothing can interpret that universe correctly and so understand it as truly pointless. The theory has a certain perverse elegance as the self-liquidation of thought, but it seems surprising that anyone would actually hold it. Some nonetheless do, to the extent that irreligion in an aggressively explicit form has led to extraordinary widespread violence and irrationality, so much so as to call the continuation of our civilization into question and foreshadow its own self-liquidation. It is nonetheless viewed as something that is simply there. As a first gesture toward improving the state of the discussion, here are some possible naturalistic explanations for the phenomenon:

  • An evo-bio explanation: in the past human beings were often hard-pressed to deal with immediate practical problems. As a result those who discounted general considerations in favor of what would solve the immediate difficulty, and ruthlessly cut out distractions as “unreal,” were often at a survival advantage. In times of war and rapid change, it might be argued, such ways of thinking make a comeback.
  • A memetic explanation: pretty much the same as the evo-bio explanation, except that it relates to software instead of hardware. In a chaotic conflictual environment the irreligion meme maximizes ruthlessness, simplicity and achievement of immediate pragmatic goals.
  • An institutional explanation: another variation on the theme. Markets and bureaucracies, increasingly on a global scale, are the dominant institutions of our time. One of their strengths in a complex global setting that puts everything up for grabs is that they run on clear and simple principles that recognize no limits to their competence. Irreligion justifies their limitless pretensions by doing away with any external source of knowledge and authority. Once you know the expert consensus, the regulatory environment and the state of the markets, the thought is, you know everything worth knowing.
  • Local conceptual stability: if it is assumed that a purely naturalistic world is self-sustaining, for example that it can support knowledge and thus the objectively valid standards of thought and conduct that are necessary for knowledge, the God hypothesis seems superfluous and therefore irrational. For example, one might ask how adding the will of God to the picture makes the good and true better and truer than they would otherwise be. No answer seems possible on the assumption that the good and true can already exist as such without God.

Other suggestions?



Dennett argues that religion is a natural phenomenon (he has to, he’s a naturalist), and thus can be explained by standard naturalist/materialist theories and methods.

It seems you’re pointing here to a theory that irreligion is a natural phenomenon, to be explained along naturalistic (or historical) lines.

Your first sentence—“A basic question that’s attracted surprisingly little discussion in spite of its obvious social importance is why so many people not only let religion slide practically but deny it as a theoretical matter”—reminds me of Voltaire and debates among the Jacobins during the Revolution. Arguments were made that religion, true or false, was an important instrument of social cohesion and therefore shouldn’t be tampered with; anti-clericalism was one thing, religious animus was another. Voltaire noted with alarm that it was one thing for him to doubt Christianity, but he certainly wanted his wife and cobbler to conform.

Your second sentence—“Their apparent claim is that one part of a universe that arose by chance and means nothing can interpret that universe correctly and so understand it as truly pointless”—is an apparent claim, thrown in the face of naturalists by Alvin Plantinga, who raises the question whether it’s probable, on the naturalists’ account, that an adaptation evolved solely to increase reproductive success (the capacities of human reason) is a reliable instrument on which to ground ultimate judgments about origins, or even to develop concepts that are “true.”

Kolakowski made a similar point, that naturalistic explanations of existence lead to an impasse in epistemology—so-called “knowledge” is merely biological behavior:

“Therefore, if the question is nonetheless put, the only possible positivist answer to it is the naturalistic one: knowledge is biological behavior. Such an answer implies the denial of truth in any transcendental sense and paralyzes all possible faith in experience or reason conceived of as capable of disclosing to us something of “the world’s qualities.” All contemporary positivists are convinced that valuational predicates have no experiential counterparts; as for predicates characterizing logical values (“true,” “false”), they are supposed to refer not to things but only to sentences, and hence their situation appears different from the others, for here these predicates are inapplicable (one cannot ask: are things truly true?).”

You inquire after other suggestions for the belief in unbelief. Such a thing is hardly a new phenomenon, and one shouldn’t overemphasize “irreligion.” The irreligion may be, in many cases, merely the worship of idols, and isn’t irrelgion at all. Otherwise, the Old Testament addresses such epochs or ourbursts of irreligion, attributing them to pride, idolatry, or hard heartedness. In other words, it’s an expected and precedented spiritual disease, perhaps clothed in the fashions of the day.

I don’t care much for the “entire peoples as evolutionary units” idea but…

On a civilizational scale, I would think the evo-bio immediacy and ruthlessness idea would have to be balanced by the observation that peoples who are higher-truth deficient don’t last real long?

Also, aren’t you thinking of Christianity and not religion in general? Many religions don’t find much conflict between transcendence and immediacy/ruthlessness. Here I’m thinking of the pagan religions of Northern Europe but I’d guess this applies to most pagan religions and maybe some monotheistic ones. On an evolutionary timescale, we haven’t been Christian that long. Heck, the Scandinavians were Christian for less than 1000 years.

MD makes the OT analogy, but modern technological and materialist understandings seem so novel and different. Have any people wanted to die as bad as we do? Still, the OT comparison offers hope. We all engage in worship but only one type isn’t idolatry.

The proposal is that going to the specific point that makes an immediate concrete difference, ignoring everything else, might be a specific behavioral function that is useful in some settings even though in other settings it might hypertrophy and lead to principled irreligion and other dysfunctional things.

Even among the Vikings I think there would be a distinction between fending off a spear thrust or coming up with winning battle tactics and asking Thor to help you out.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

On the one hand I agree with you, but on the other hand “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

I think technical rationality in more or less peaceful circumstances can lead to an indifference to the transcendent and misplaced faith in one’s own capacities. What happens when technical rationality fails? Kierkegaard, a discerning epistemologist and student of Kant, noted that all knowledge of the world is merely speculative (he often called it “accidental”), that the only actual knowledge that any person can possess is about one’s own existence, and that such knowledge—ethico-religious knowledge about oneself—is in any case the most important knowledge any human being can possess. So in Kierkegaard’s mind, reliance on “technical rationality” as a principle of intelligibility or a standard of existence is in and of itself despair, avoidance of the self, and the blockage of the actual in favor of the conceptual/ideal.

Extreme crisis— the collapse of all familiar principles of intelligibility—presents a whole host of reactions. Some fall into despair, some go mad, some become destructive, and others (like Joan the Maid) rise to the occasion in full faith and confidence.

In peaceful times I think people mostly get slack and self-indulgent. They get into New Age things or maybe play with atheism. I had something more aggressive in mind, in the manner of the current spate of books you’ve touched on.

You’re right that it’s not acute or extreme crisis that leads to a one-sided emphasis on technical rationality. Perhaps more of a rolling centuries-long crisis that puts everything up for grabs and offers opportunities as well as dangers. Maybe something like the Warring States period, that eventually gave the Chinese Hsun Tzu and his students Han Fei Tzu and Li Ssu. I suppose the period that gave us Machiavelli would be another example on a smaller and more local scale.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I think I see your point. After decades of crisis, a significant number of people say: “Enough is enough, let’s get down to business in the here and now, and get practical, and clean up this mess.”

One could interpret the American progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th Century as having this flavor.

The English went through something like this in 1649-1688, rejecting sectarian solutions and finally reaching a workable constitutional settlement.

Machiavelli, whatever one thinks of his diagnosis or solutions, is a good example of reaction to a period of prolonged crisis. Hobbes and Milton also fall into this category.

The Norse at least had belief in the existence of good and evil, the beautiful and the ugly, etc. And good was their ideal. The most beautiful Norse god was also the most gentle and the most beloved of the other gods. Obviously pagan truths were, if not outright reversed, at least vastly inferior to ultimate Christian truth. But at least they believed in something.

The modern understanding of truth seems to be that we’re just sacks of chemicals and nothing more. In Stephen Jay Gould’s treatment, we’re more worthless than bacteria because bacteria are better adapted and less fragile and will outlive us.

That’s why I say the modern worldview seems so novel.