The findings of the cognitive sciences enrich our understanding of atheism by providing a more nuanced and empirically grounded concept of ‘belief’ and by problematizing psychological assumptions often employed in theorizing about atheism. Beliefs are diverse not only in content but also level of cognitive processing, and implicit beliefs can and do diverge from explicit beliefs. This is just as true for beliefs about supernatural agents as it is for beliefs about physical objects. Further, findings from the cognitive sciences call into question the notion that human beings are ‘rational’ and the notion that beliefs can be explained by their ability to provide comfort. The cognitive sciences are replacing such assumptions with an empirically grounded vision of mind and belief.
David P. Barash
Although evolution by natural selection does not necessarily disprove the existence of God (thus, it does not ‘prove’ the validity of atheism), it negates two of the more potent pro-religion arguments, here dubbed the ‘Argument from Complexity’ and the ‘Reassurance of Specialness’. In addition, it provides support for one of the strongest challenges to traditional religious belief, by contributing to the ‘Reiteration of Theodicy’.
Victor J. Stenger
While belief in gods was almost universal in the ancient world, Thales of Miletus introduced the notion that observed phenomena could be explained in natural terms without invoking imagined spirits. Leucippus and Democritus, and later Epicurus and Lucretius, proposed that everything was composed of particulate atoms in an otherwise empty void. Any gods that existed played no role in the human world. The universe was infinite, eternal, uncreated, and included many worlds besides our own. These ideas conflicted with the other philosophical schools of the time and were suppressed by the Church during the Dark Ages. Atomism reappeared during the Renaissance and became a crucial ingredient in the scientific revolution that followed. The atomic picture of matter has now been solidly confirmed. Furthermore, the notion of an infinite, eternal, and uncreated ‘multiverse’ is strongly suggested by modern cosmology.
Atheists, conservative theists, and religious liberals often read the history of science in ways that support their own position. Atheists expect continual mutual support between science and nonbelief, conservatives emphasize theistic metaphysical foundations for science; and liberals find a historical development toward separate spheres for science and religion. The rise of science was more complicated than anticipated by any of these stories. Atheism and science have usually developed almost independently, with weak connections. Today, the naturalism of modern scientific descriptions of the world is consonant with an atheistic position. But even now, significant tensions between science and atheism remain.
The last few years have seen a great deal of research on the association between religion, spirituality, and medical outcomes. This research has not been without controversy however, in terms of methodological and analytical issues. One particular under-researched area concerns the increasingly visible sub-population of individuals who identify themselves as ‘nonreligious’, a group that includes atheists, agnostics and individuals who believe in god(s) but do not identify with one particular religion. As a result, relatively little is known about the health and quality of life within this particular group, not only in comparison to religious individuals, but also within nonreligious populations as well. This essay covers three major issues: (1) a brief summary of the controversies concerning religion-health research; (2) what the current research does indicate about the nonreligious, particularly about affirmative atheists (as opposed to simply ‘nonreligious’); and (3) reasons for the neglect of nonreligious individuals to date and reasons for increasing attention to them.
Methodological naturalism is the claim that there is no need to invoke the supernatural, including God or gods, in giving scientific explanations. Metaphysical naturalism is the claim that there is no supernatural, including God or gods. Does methodological naturalism entail metaphysical naturalism? Many seem to think that it does, in practice if not in principle. This essay questions this assumption.
This essay suggests that atheists endorse a range of naturalistic beliefs, such as belief in progress and in science. Social-psychological evidence for this belief replacement hypothesis, where naturalistic beliefs take the place of supernatural ones, is reviewed. Atheists seem to implicitly use their naturalistic beliefs to alleviate feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and stress, a psychological function which, until recently, had only been reported for religious beliefs. The second part of the essay focuses on motivational implications of being an atheist. Here, it is argued that atheists are particularly driven by a desire for self-mastery and, secondarily, by a sensation seeking need to engage in intense and pleasurable activities. A number of sociological, social-psychological, narrative, and sexual-behavioural studies are reviewed to support this idea. The essay concludes by highlighting the human need to believe and the importance of studying the process, rather than the content, of beliefs.