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Sep. 25 2009 - 1:22 pm | 233 views | 1 recommendation | 8 comments

Libertarianism and Atheism: At Odds?

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Is religion built into our brains and into our genes? Or is it merely a human adaptation to deal with the shit-pile-of-suffering that has been human existence for most of our history? That is, does religion simply evaporate when our material conditions get better?

And what does all this have to do with America’s libertarian political tradition?

Those are the questions tackled by Gregory Paul in the current issue of Evolutionary Psychology, in his paper: “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions” (PDF, press release). In it, he argues that modern secularization of 1st world societies shows that religion can’t be that deeply ingrained in us:

If deep religious devotion is either genetically programmed to the same extent as language or materialism, or the result of a supernatural connection with an intelligent creator entity, then religious belief and practice should remain similarly universal in all populations regardless of the environmental conditions they dwell in, unless an atheistic authoritarian government suppresses mass religiosity. Instead, the ease and speed with which hundreds of millions of westerners have voluntarily abandoned dedicated piety in recent decades indicates that religiosity is a standard, albeit not unanimous, psychological response to sufficiently dysfunctional environmental circumstances as outlined above, and is superficial enough to be readily abandoned when conditions improve to the required degree.

In view of the reduced levels of religiosity consistently extant in populations that enjoy secure middle class lives, it can be postulated that if socioeconomic conditions had been similarly benign since humans first appeared it is unlikely that religion would have developed to nearly the degree seen in actual human history, and atheism would have been much more widespread and possibly ubiquitous since the beginning. Materialism and language in contrast would still be omnipresent. Ergo, strong religiosity has all the signs of being a natural invention of human minds in response to a defective habitat, and is neither supernatural, nor genetically preprogrammed to the same extent as are more deeply set language and material desire.

An outline scenario of the origin, evolution and decline of popular religion compatible with the results of this study is as follows. Endowed by the evolution of high level, flexible intelligence with imaginative minds influenced by dreams and perception altering drugs that appeared to provide a connection to alternative worlds, early humans were poorly informed hunter gatherers living impoverished and dangerous lives. These conditions were so ideal for the invention of supernatural entities that could be petitioned for aid and protection that it is difficult to construct a scenario in which primitive cultures would be rationalistic atheists.

That’s the theory. But what does it mean practically? If one were an atheist — or at least concerned with the deleterious effects of religion on our society and our politics — what would one want to see happen to reduce religiosity?

If Paul is right, libertarian atheists, in particular, might have to rethink their worldview.

Essentially, Paul’s argument is that the social and material instability of the American capitalist system (with less of a social safety net than other 1st world nations) is the primary reason the U.S. retains such high levels of religiosity:

America’s high-risk circumstances, the strong variation in economic circumstances, and chronic competitiveness help elevate rates of social pathology, and strongly contribute to high levels of personal stress and anxiety. The majority of Americans are left feeling sufficiently insecure that they perceive a need to seek the aid and protection of a supernatural creator, boosting levels of religious opinion and participation. The nation’s good ratings in life satisfaction and happiness is compatible with a large segment of the population using religion to psychologically compensate for high levels of apprehension; America’s apparently high level mental illness may be in accord with this suggestion. The ultimate expression of this social phenomenon is the large minority who adhere to the evangelical Prosperity Christianity and Rapture cultures whose Bible-based world-view favors belief in the Genesis creation story. The results of this study are therefore compatible with and support the socioeconomic security hypothesis of democratic secularization.

The empirical patterns and theoretical analysis indicate that the relationship between popular religiosity and societal circumstances is both passive and active; a positive socioeconomic environment indirectly negatively influences the level of mass theism and creationism, meanwhile high levels of conservative theism directly contribute to the poor societal circumstances and faith-based charitable work that encourage popular religiosity and creationist opinion.

I’m not sure I buy the argument, on two levels.

One, saying humans don’t need religion as much when they’re economically secure doesn’t mean there’s not a basis for religion in our brains and genes. No one’s arguing that we’re born with a representation of the Christian God in our frontal cortex. The specific form of religiosity arises from culture, but the need for an explanation of our world and some sort of transcendence seems built in. And just because fewer people in some countries identify on surveys as religious doesn’t mean they’re not filling those needs in some other way — like a vague spirituality, social activism, superstition, etc.

Two, I’m not sure creating the most secular society humanly possible should really be our only goal (the paper doesn’t say that exactly, but it comes pretty close). The trade off of economic security for significantly more dynamism in the American economy has always seemed worthwhile to me. We can’t all be complacent Western European strike states.

Regardless, whether libertarians are comfortable with it or not, there’s a reason the world’s freest country is also one of the most religious.

HT: H&R


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  1. collapse expand

    So to boil this down the worse things we, ah, cling to god and guns?

  2. collapse expand

    I’m not sure the entire argument rings true (I need to read the paper), but based on what you’ve quoted here, I do think his point about religion pairing with high levels of anxiety and insecurity is valid. It’s not necesarily the only reason why this country continues to be so ostensibly religious, but I can see the connection and wouldn’t discount it.

    As to religious thinking being hardwired or adaptive, I think there’s another possibility — that religious thinking is an adaptive development of other hardwired traits. We have evidence to suggest that Neanderthals conducted a sort of funeral service for those who died. Did they do that because they perceived a higher power, or because they were mourning loss? Assuming the latter, they were just a step or two away from devising a way to minimize loss, and then just a step or two away from creating gods. Which is to say, I’m not so sure we have a hardwired god template in our brains. I think instead that we have a hardwired social template that yields adaptive beliefs.

    • collapse expand

      “religious thinking is an adaptive development of other hardwired traits”

      Exactly what I was getting at. We don’t have a God spot. But we do have an “explain why it hasn’t rained in three weeks” spot. We have a “what happens when we die?” spot.

      Morality is a whole other ball of wax. We seem to have pro-social behavior quite unconnected to religion. After all, monkeys are pro-social without God.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    “Regardless, whether libertarians are comfortable with it or not, there’s a reason the world’s freest country is also one of the most religious.”

    I believe that reason is known as the Constitution. Many colonists came here looking for religious freedom, and it became obvious that religious freedom requires political liberty. We were set up so that religion couldn’t control the political system, and the political system couldn’t dictate religion.

    As a libertarian agnostic (I’d probably be an atheist if I could take the idea of a provident god seriously enough to argue about), I see all religions starting with the logical fallacy of “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” As for the need for transcendence, it arises from hubris: I am too wonderful not to go on.

    The more out of control reality seems, the more mixed messages we receive, the more need we feel to look beyond it for a solution.

    It would probably take me a book to defend those statements, but I think they cut to the heart of the matter without giving you brain cramps.

  4. collapse expand

    I agree. I don’t have the religious faith to be an athiest.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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