Evolutionary Hypotheses of Atheism by Dominic Johnson
As a starting topic for my new scilogs.com-blog about evolutionary studies of religion, I'd like to start with the exploration of - Atheism. Long regarded as the simple default state from which religiosity emerged, it is now increasingly explored on its own terms.
Dominic Johnson (University of Edinburgh) is one of the most creative scholars in the field of evolutionary studies of religion & group formation and a colleague of mine as an editor (politics) at Evolution - This View of Life. In a startling contribution to the respective issue of Religion, Brain and Behavior, Dominic presented a collection of ten (!) evolutionary hypotheses concerning the evolutionary histories and functions of atheism as a Target Article: "What are atheists for? Hypotheses on the functions of non-belief in the evolution of religion".
Hypothesis 1. There are no atheists
Here, Dominic explores the possibility "that, despite the existence of atheism as a concept and many self-identified atheists, everyone, in fact, believes in some form of supernatural agency, even if they deny it."
Hypothesis 2. Natural variation (null hypothesis)
The (yet) most established hypothesis claims that "although all human brains have mechanisms that make us susceptible to supernatural concepts, there is variation in individuals propensities to hold religious beliefs (due to variation in, and interactions among, genes, physiology, cognition, and environment)."
Hypothesis 3. Unnatural variation
Accounts of atheist movements in antique Greece and India notwithstanding, this hypothesis suggests that "modern philosophical and/or scientific education is the cause of atheism."
Hypothesis 4. Frequency dependence
According to this hypothesis, atheism could be adaptive "as long as it coexists with belief and neither becomes too common (beyond some threshold)."
Hypothesis 5. Exploitation
Here's an hypothesis in the wake of Karl Marx, who argued "that religion was a tool of the elite to control the masses". Atheism could be a way to avoid this controlling by others - or to gain and exploit respective positions.
Hypothesis 6. Ecological contingency
This hypothesis builds on the assumption that "atheism may be adaptive in some socio-ecological settings, while belief may be adaptive in other socio-ecological settings." Therefore, "ecological variation may maintain a mix of atheism and belief in the overall population."
Hypothesis 7. Catalysts
According to this perspective, "the presence of atheists may catalyze the functional advantages of religion in a similar way that the presence of "loners" (non-participants) can enhance the evolution of cooperation."
Hypothesis 8. Bolstering
In close proximity to the Catalyst-hypothesis, this one argues that "the presence of atheists may compel the community to constantly reinforce religious beliefs and behaviors in the face of criticism and scrutiny, boosting religious goals, ideals and commitment in the group as a whole."
Hypothesis 9. Restraint
In contrast to Hypothesis 7 and 8, the opposite could be true: "If a religion becomes too costly, incredible, destructive, or exploitative, then the protestations and arguments of atheists or skeptics may serve to tone down doctrine and prevent disaffection and disinitegration."
And, finally - Hypothesis 10. Atheism is a religion
"The key point is that (many) atheists are a collection of like-minded individuals who identify themselves by certain beliefs about the world, who differentiate themselves from people with different beliefs, and who stick together."
On closer scrutiny, all of those hypotheses are showing strenghts and weaknesses - and those are debated intensely by no less than eight responses from colleagues such as Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Armin Geertz, Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett. The latter point out, for example (as did Dominic in a former article of his own), that the religious tend to have more children, making adaptive scenarios for atheism a little bit more tricky.
Personally, I can only appreciate that evolutionary studies on religion (= belief in superempirical agents) and spirituality (= experiences of unity and transcendence) are supported by a third pillar: Evolutionary studies of Atheism and Non-Belief. I'd be very glad if many colleagues would join the fray.
* See my review on the RBB-issue on Evolution - This View of Life.