Get to know your atheists

Here are some interesting numbers from an article titled, Conjuring up Our Own Gods:

8 in 10 Americans believe in angels
1 in 5 of Americans have experienced ghosts
1 in 7 have seen a psychic
3 in 4 Americans believe in something paranormal
4 in 10 believe houses could be haunted

Holy sh*t. That’s a lot of folks who believe in the supernatural.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at the reason why a few scholars believe that we are hard-wired for believing in things we can’t see:

“….the fear that one would be eaten by a lion, or killed by a man who wanted your stuff, shaped the way our minds evolved. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were more likely to survive if they interpreted ambiguous noise as the sound of a predator. Most of the time it was the wind, of course, but if there really was danger, the people who worried about it were more likely to live. That inclination to search for an agent has evolved into an intuition that an invisible agent, or god, may be there.”

Wait, what? Did I miss something here or does this researcher jump from point A to point D. If I’m a cavewoman who is afraid of being attacked by my neighbor in the next cave, then I’m worried about the physical threat I know. It is a huge stretch to say that this fear of danger (a helpful thing) developed into “an intuition that an invisible agent, or god, may be there” (not a helpful thing). Yes, I’ll buy that only the paranoid survive, but there’s a reason why our presidents are surrounded by armed guards and not ghost-busters.

Like children, the human race has had its developmental milestones. At some point, man looked to the sky to figure out where all the wet stuff came from. We see our children do this when they become aware of the world around them. Perhaps, early man thought, there’s a person up there since people can make water when they cry.  Maybe we can ask that person to please stop dumping all this cold, wet stuff on us.  I use this example because some humans still say this. I have heard a religious mother tell this to her child when it was raining: god is crying because he is sad; he doesn’t like what people are doing.

It would also make sense that humans don’t all develop at the same rates, even though, as a species, we know where rain now comes from. So some of us have outgrown god.  Some of us still need–or just want–god. And some of us continue to use god as a tool to harvest followers. I’d say a certain senator from Texas (ahem, Ted Cruz) is a living, breathing god-king. Maybe he prayed with Rick Perry for rain. Mr. Cruz (looks suspiciously like the devil)

Back to the article, these researchers also found out that, if some folks (like this guy named Jack) work really hard, they can “create thought-forms, or imagined creatures, called tulpas.” You might wonder if this is how Lars and the Real Girl was conceived.

Luhrmann says, “The mere fact that people like Jack find it intuitively possible to have invisible companions who talk back to them supports the claim that the idea of an invisible agent is basic to our psyche.”

Ummm. Not so sure about that.  Isn’t this what many of us did as children? We created imaginary friends or playmates? Yet when we mature to adulthood, we know that our imaginary friends do not exist; they cannot talk to us. We outgrow them. So perhaps these believers haven’t finished developing or perhaps they are mentally ill or perhaps they become writers who realize that they can vividly imagine characters for their stories.

But the following quote from Luhrmann is the reason I sat down to write this. Many people don’t understand what it means to be an atheist: “….just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are atheists who have prayed for parking spots.”

I find this terribly insulting to those who don’t believe. If you reject the god myth, and you understand that praying for trivial things like wins for football games illustrates just how self-centered humans can be, why would you pray for a parking spot? Who does that, for godssake?

To top off her assumptions, Luhrmann writes, “Secular liberals sometimes take evolutionary psychology to mean that believing in God is the lazy option. But many churchgoers will tell you that keeping God real is what’s hard.”

That’s funny, right? I doubt that many churchgoers think they need to work to keep their god real. And I’ve never heard a secularist say that believing in god is lazy. IMO, it takes more work to believe, both physically and emotionally.  You’ve got to groom kids early to believe; you’ve got to constantly refer to your preferred religious text for answers. You’ve got to go to church and Sunday school and watch Fox News every day to continue the reinforcement. There’s a hell of a lot of energy that goes into living fearful lives, trying to please an invisible god and judgmental preachers. But there’s got to be a payoff for the energy expended, and religion does seem to bring comfort to many.

If we were to look at religion from the child development angle, we’d see that religion is delaying development by reinforcing the idea that the world doesn’t exist without us, that we will live forever and ever.  Yes, we disappear after our bodies are gone. The world doesn’t.

While believing in god does take work, living without god, takes courage.

I’m sorry for picking on Luhrmann today–usually I enjoy her writing. I think that she took the lazy way out here: perhaps she should have interviewed some real-live atheists before she wrote this piece.


32 responses to “Get to know your atheists

  1. OMG!:) I just finished reading the same article on NY Times and went on a search for “tulpa”. It sounds like a splitting of the mind, self-induced. I created a tulpa a long time ago playing with the Oujia (sp) board when I was into New Age stuff. Put the fear of god in me. (haha)

  2. If you pray for rain long enough, it eventually does fall. If you pray for floodwaters to abate, they eventually do. The same happens in the absence of prayers. ~ Steve Allen :

  3. PS Deborah, speaking of getting to know your atheists, did you hear/see about Oprah’s comments about atheists to the swimmer lady, Diane Nyad (sp)? Oprah seems to think atheists can’t feel awe and wonder. I think you need to pay her a visit:)

    • @Trishia, Yes, I read that interview (thanks LT and Mel). I see it’s in the Secular Coalition newsletter this morning. She ruffled some feathers. LOL I remember those Ouija boards! They were a big deal when I was growing up–that and trying to find bloody mary in the toilet. Gross!

  4. We have been dealing with cancer in my family – I think that counts as a foxhole. And, when running late, if I mutter “please god, don’t let me catch a train”, it is a figure of speech. I am not really praying/expecting a result.

    I had a coworker who left her house 20 minutes late and yet still made it to work on time thanks to the angel wings god must have put on her car…

  5. Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer.
    Many people need desperately to receive this message:
    I feel and think much as you do,
    care about many of the things you care about,
    although most people do not care about them.
    You are not alone.
    – Kurt Vonnegut

    • @LT Except, really, we are all alone, all just little separate islands, and perhaps the Internet is the way we mix up our thoughts and our minds so that we can become one. The Internet is our collective consciousness.

      • True, we are isolated in the cave of our minds, but we do connect in ways that make us part of the whole. We congregate in ways to better or comfort ourselves, and there is strength in numbers.

        No Man Is An Island

        No man is an island,
        Entire of itself,
        Every man is a piece of the continent,
        A part of the main.
        If a clod be washed away by the sea,
        Europe is the less.
        As well as if a promontory were.
        As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
        Or of thine own were:
        Any man’s death diminishes me,
        Because I am involved in mankind,
        And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
        It tolls for thee.

        ~ John Donne (24 January 1572 – 31 March 1631 / London, England)

  6. Aside from the throwaway line about atheists in foxholes, I actually agree with the article. Her line about keeping god real seemed to be about keeping alive the feeling of his presence much like that of the tulpas, not just a belief in him. Taken that way, I concur wholeheartedly that it’s hard work. Why do you think so many Christians surround themselves with others who also believe? It’s much easier to maintain the illusion that way, even if they don’t see it as such.

    • MichaelB I agree with her as I mentioned that it takes more work to LIVE as a believer. However, it doesn’t take any more work to believe. The majority of us are socialized in this way from birth. (Did you have to convince yourself every day that god was real?) A young child doesn’t know any better and won’t know until she starts to understand and question. So believing does not require additional emotional or mental energy until the believer starts examining and unraveling his beliefs.

      If you are in the minority that starts life off as a nonbeliever, I would imagine it takes great energy to sustain a god myth, just as it would to convince yourself that Santa lives.

      • @Deb,
        I guess it’s just hard for me to remember a time where believing that stuff was easier than not. That’s funny. I didn’t realize I was that far removed from it. All I can recall now is the struggle of maintaining it once I started to doubt, so I’m viewing the argument from that paradigm. I also assume most adult believers struggle with believing more than they let on. So maybe we’re just splitting hairs here.

        • @MichaelB I’m not trying to argue with you. I’m just remembering back to when I believed, and also, you and I live around a ton of believers. (I’m also the only nonbeliever in my family–alive, that is.) I don’t think my brother wants to even start down the road of doubt. Then it will take a lot of energy to think and to remain a believer. It’s much easier to look the other way, don’t you think? You may be different, but it doesn’t seem like most believers require a lot of effort to maintain their belief system. It’s a comfort. And I’m not saying I blame them. If they need that, then I would not want to take that away from anyone.

          • @Deb, I think we’re saying basically the same thing. I’m not arguing either and I wasn’t disagreeing with you in my first comment. I was just trying to see it from a slightly different angle and I think it came off wrong.

            • @MichaelB Sorry. I like a good debate. I do understand what you’re saying.

              There was a great line in that movie Rush…. “A wise man learns more from his enemies then a fool learns from his friends.” I don’t ever want to be that kind of friend who just agrees. And I want my friends to help me learn, too.

              • @Deb,
                If it makes you happy, I do disagree with you on one point: I don’t think her atheist comment was that big of a big deal. Inaccurate and unnecessary, maybe, but it didn’t ruffle my feathers much.

                It’s boring to have friends who always agree with you. Makes you wonder if they’re really your friends or just pretending.

                • Definitely regarding the friend comment!

                  And, truly, it’s all just little stuff. I think lots get misinterpreted, too, like the Oprah comment.

                  I find all religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc.)fascinating though, and the fact that people have believed these myths for so long.

        • The certainty with which a religious belief is held
          is usually in direct proportion to its absurdity.

          — Rev. Donald Morgan, Atheist theologian

    • “The sermon was based on what he claimed was a well-known fact, that there were no Atheists in foxholes. I asked Jack what he thought of the sermon afterwards, and he said, “There’s a chaplain who never visited the front.” -Kurt Vonnegut Hocus Pocus


      “People say there are no atheists in foxholes. A lot of people think this is a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it’s a much better argument against foxholes.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

  7. The statistic that shocked me was that 80% of people in this country believe in angels. I’m not sure why it should, though, since that’s about the percentage of Christians here too. I personally would have thought there would be a stronger contingent of “philosophical” Christians in the overall population, but that shows you how much I know.

    Boyer and Barrett do a good job explaining the evolutionary uses of critical thought and imagination to our distant ancestors, also providing a possible root cause for some psychological issues where hypervigilance is the primary symptom (some flavors of OCD, for example).

    I don’t buy into their idea that our fear of danger is what helped create a belief in the supernatural, but our innate ability to find patterns … even where they don’t exist. Hey, as a hunter gatherer, false positives aren’t that big a deal; one false negative means you’re the main course for a sabre toothed cat. With those odds, it’s no wonder why we see regularity and order when there may not really be any. Combine this with our ancestors’ ignorance of how the world worked, and it makes sense for them to have interpreted natural events through the lens of their own psyches and cultures of the time.

    I also agree with you that Luhrmann is taking the lazy option here, not taking the time or caring enough to understand that maintaining a belief in a personal, loving, biblical god in the face of societal and scientific modernity may actually be kind of hard, depending on how loving your God is and how literally you take the bible. Atheism is actually kind of easy, since all we did was consider the stories, when they were written, and how much we knew about the world at the time, and concluded that they’re just that: stories.

    On a final note, I swear every time I see Ted Cruz I feel like I’m looking at Sid Caesar’s long lost son or something.

    • Jason,
      LOL. I never thought about that, but he does look like Sid Caesar.

      Good point here–every time they prayed for the rain to stop (and it eventually did), it was a reinforcement that someone was answering their chants: “I don’t buy into their idea that our fear of danger is what helped create a belief in the supernatural, but our innate ability to find patterns … even where they don’t exist.”

      I was surprised by the 80 percent number because, as you mentioned, I thought there was, “….a stronger contingent of “philosophical” Christians in the overall population….” (especially among university professors). Maybe there are, but that 80 percent includes those who self-identify as atheists. Yesterday, I was listening to a show on NPR, and this woman said she is atheist, but she also prays and believes in the “spirit world.” That doesn’t seem like the definition of atheist I know, but the meaning of the word does seem to be going through some changes. (I wonder if Sam Harris had anything to do with that.)

  8. Great post! I totally agree that religions likely sprung out of an awareness of our own mortality. At a time when people didn’t understand disease and were more vulnerable to the elements and predators, believing that we continued to live beyond this physical existence would be comforting.

    I don’t comment often, but I love your posts. My wife and I find great encouragement in them as we raise our 3 young children.

    Take care!

  9. Hi Nate–Thanks for taking the time to comment. It is always a comfort to know there are others out there in the “same boat.” Please comment any time.

  10. That is funny timing; I am watching the series Sleepy Hollow and I was wondering if there are any atheists who believe in ghosts / aliens / haunted houses / etc…. I’m sure there are a few, as there are no “rules” to atheism, right? I myself don’t have a strong opinion on the existence of such supernatural things… I have never personally experienced any paranormal event (knock on wood!) but I know rational, intelligent people who are 100% convinced they have. So, I don’t know what I believe… but I suppose I lean to believing such things do exist. Thoughts anyone? Anyone believe in other supernatural elements? Or can you not believe in those without also believing in God?

    • That is a great question, Molly. I personally do not believe in the supernatural, and I don’t see how to reconcile it with atheism. For things I don’t understand, I don’t credit them to a god or other higher intelligence. Maybe someone else has thoughts about this?

  11. If you ever see an angel…. don’t blink. Whatever you do… don’t blink.

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Doctor Who reference 😉

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