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The Humanist Institute

The Science of Religion:

Why Do People Believe or Disbelieve? [*]

Paul Kurtz

Why people continue to believe in religions is a central issue. Are there cognitive/rational bases or are genetic factors involved? Since beliefs persist for many despite critical rejections, is there some kind of "transcendental temptation" which needs to be analyzed and understood? Any science of religion must operate with the same assumptions and techniques used in the other sciences. Many religious phenomena have been explained naturalistically without significant effects on popular belief levels. Fruitful avenues might also be studying ways that humans come to their disbeliefs. Attitudes toward astronomy and astrology need study, as well as such miraculous beliefs as the Shroud of Turin and personal revelations. We also need to explore the functions of religious beliefs in rendering human tragedies more bearable.


A central issue for humanism is "Why do people believe in religion?" This is a basic question for the science of religion. What role does cognition or reason play? Is belief due to (1) the fact that people have not been exposed to factual criticisms of their faith and there is cognitive misinformation? Or (2) are there noncognitive impulses or genetic explanations at work? Does the "transcendental temptation" have a socio-biological explanation?

We should also ask "Why people disbelieve in religious claims, since there is a significant minority of atheists and agnostics. Are there sociological explanations? Why are religious beliefs so strong in America, yet weakened in Western Europe? What has happened to atheists in former communist countries?" I suggest that we need to answer these questions before we can hope to develop a viable humanism.


What is the relationship between science and religion? The advocates of theistic religion often maintain that religion expresses a mode of truth that is independent of scientific knowledge, and that religious experience presents a form of intuition or knowing that reason cannot comprehend. They claim that there is no conflict between these two domains and that they complement each other.

Can science explain religious behavior in naturalistic terms? Can there be a science of religion? Scientists attempt to account for various forms of human behavior: economic, political, biological, psychological. If we can talk about political science, or economic science, can we also talk about the science of religion?

The answers to this question, I submit, is in the affirmative, at least in principle. Indeed, a great deal of scientific energy has already been expended to account for behavior that is described as "religious." Historians attempt to describe the historical past of religious institutions; sociologists seek to explain their social structures and functions; anthropologists deal with religions in primitive cultures; psychologists of religion seek to account for "religious experience," the role of prayer and ritual, in human behavior. There are any number of scholarly and scientific fields that deal with the historical and archaeological contexts in which of the sacred texts were written and/or engage in philological and comparative analyses. The premise of all these studies is that we should treat the varieties of religious behavior as we would any other forms of human behavior; that is, approach them objectively and dispassionately, attempting to understand what is going on without an a priori evaluative bias.

The participants in this conference will no doubt deal with various aspects of the scientific investigation of religion. I wish in this paper to focus on only one basic question: Why do people believe in religious doctrines, i.e., why do they accept the tenets of a religion and participate in its practices and rituals? Conversely, we may ask, Why do some people disbelieve in the tenets of religion and/or reject its practices? This has been the topic of an ongoing research project that the Center for Inquiry has undertaken over the years. Free Inquiry was founded two decades ago to open religion to careful critical examination, at a time when it was considered by many to be impolite, perhaps even illegitimate or perverse, to undertake such studies.

Religion is one of the most pervasive and enduring characteristics of human culture. Predictions by scientists and rationalists at the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that religion would eventually disappear surely were premature, because as we approach the end of the twentieth century it remains as strong as ever.


Three dramatic religious events illustrate the perennial power of religious faith in human culture. The first is the huge annual assembly of Islamic pilgrims drawn to Mecca. Photographs of an estimated three million devotees who were in Mecca in recent pilgrimages show that they have come from all walks of life and from all classes. The second impressive annual event are the millions of Hindus in India who congregate at the Ganges River in accordance with ancient religious rituals. At the most recent event, an estimated ten million people appeared at the Kumbha Mela festival in the small city of Hardiwar for prayer and purification. And the third is the re‑exhibition at a cathedral in Turin of the shroud that Jesus was allegedly wrapped in and buried. A huge throng of visitors have come from all over the world to view the Shroud of Turin.

Skeptical doubts can surely be raised about the claim that a pilgrimage to Mecca will guarantee Muslim believers entrance to heaven and/or that bathing in the Ganges River will bestow special spiritual benefits. These are sheer acts of faith drawing upon ancient traditions that scientific skeptics would maintain have little basis in empirical fact. There is no evidence that the performance of ritualistic acts of spiritual contrition, either by visiting the Kaaba in Mecca and encircling it three times, or by bathing in the water of the Ganges, will achieve a blessed state of Paradise for Muslims or moksha for Hindus. To point out to the devout disciples of these two ancient religions that the recommended rites are contradictory or have no basis in fact generally fall on deaf ears.

Similarly for the Shroud of Turin, which, according to the best available scientific evidence, was a forgery made in Lirey, France, in the fourteenth century. [1] Interestingly, it was condemned as such at that time by the bishop in the area, for it was used to deceive thousands of pilgrims seeking cures for their illnesses. Walter McCrone, the noted microscopist, has shown that the red color on the Shroud was not human blood, but red ochre and vermilion tempera paint. Joe Nickell has even demonstrated that it is possible to produce a similar image on cloth by a rubbing technique, using the vermilion and ochre pigments that were available at that time in France. Moreover, portions of the Shroud were carbon‑14 dated by three independent laboratories, all of whom reported that it was not nineteen hundred years old, but probably fabricated approximately 700 years ago. These reports were published in the scientific literature and received widespread attention in the press; and skeptical scientists applauded the forensic evidence, which clearly stated that the image on the Shroud was not due to a miracle, but could be given a naturalistic causal explanation.

Yet, much to the surprise of skeptics, who thought that they had decisively refuted the proponents of the faith, the Shroud industry has returned with full force and vigor again and is proclaiming that skeptics were in error. Believers maintain that there were alleged flaws in the carbon‑14 process—all rationalizations in the view of skeptics—and that the Shroud was the burial garment of Jesus Christ.


Why do people believe in the above religious claims? Is it because they have not been exposed to criticisms? Most of the classical religious beliefs emerged in a pre-scientific era before the application of the methods of science. Unfortunately, the origins of the venerated ancient religions are often buried by the sands of historical time—though Biblical critics have endeavored to reconstruct the foundations of these religions by using the best scholarly and scientific methods of inquiry. It is often difficult to engage in impartial scholarly or scientific inquiry into the origins of religious doctrines, particularly when those critically examining the foundations of the revered truths are often placed in jeopardy by their societies. Biblical criticism in the Western world has only relatively recently been freed from prohibiting censorship and/or the power of institutional sanctions brought to bear on freethinkers. Koranic criticism is virtually absent in Islamic lands, or if it is done it is only with great fear of retribution, for questioning the divine authority of Mohammed is considered by the Koran itself to be a form of blasphemy punishable by a fatwa.

The ancient religions of prophecies and revelations—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all claim that God intervened at one time in history, spoke to Moses and the prophets, resurrected Jesus, or communicated through Gabriel to Mohammed. Skeptics maintain that the key claims have never been adequately corroborated by reliable independent  eyewitnesses. The so-called sacred books no doubt incorporate the best theological and metaphysical yearnings of ancient nomadic and agricultural societies, and they often express eloquent moral insights by the people of that time; yet they hardly can withstand the sustained critical examination by objective inquirers. The narratives of alleged supernatural intervention that appear in the Bible and the Koran were at first transmitted by oral traditions after the alleged facts occurred. They were written down by second- or third-hand sources, many years and even decades later. They most likely weave into their parables dramatic renditions bordering on fiction, and written by passionate propagandists for new faiths. These sacred books promise believers another world beyond this vale of tears. Their messages of salvation were attractive to countless generations of poor and struggling souls endeavoring to overcome the blows of existential reality. Believers ever since have accepted them as gospel truth; after centuries they became deeply ingrained in the entire fabric of society. Indeed, the great monotheistic religions were eventually intertwined with the dominant political, military, and economic institutions and were enforced by both priestly and secular authorities.

The religion of the ancient Jews, allegedly inspired by Moses and the Old Testament prophets, came to express the ideological yearnings of the Hebrew nation. Christianity was eventually declared to be the state religion by Constantine. Islam, from its inception, was reinforced by the sword of Mohammed. All these faiths, though shrouded in mystery, claim divine sanctification. There are certain common features which each of these religions manifests—historic claims of revelation by charismatic prophets promising eternal salvation; sacred books detailing their miraculous prophecies, prescribing rituals, prayers, and rites of passage; a priestly class which seeks to enforce religious law; great temples, cathedrals, and mosques where the Lord is present in the mysteries of the sacraments. These ancient religions have persisted in part because they have ostracized or condemned heretics and disbelievers. They have gained adherents over time by policies of selective breeding: marriage could only be by members of the same clan or tribe or church, disowning those who married outside of the faith. They sought to inculcate and transmit the tenets of the faith to the young, so as to ensure the continuity of the tradition. The entire artistic, moral, philosophical, economic, social, and legal structure of ancient societies were rooted in religious institutions.

Many liberal theists would accept the above critique of the historic religions by the "higher criticism," especially since the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann attempted to demythologize the New Testament. Yet they maintain that the alleged historical events are to be read symbolically or metaphorically and if they are accepted it is because they give meaning and purpose to life.

Interestingly, we now have data from recent religious sects that emerged in the nineteenth-century and are not shrouded in historical mystery. And we are close enough to the events to lay bare the factors at work: the historical records of persuasion and conversion on the part of the founders of these new religions, and the willing acceptance of the faith by receptive believers. Thus we may examine the origins of Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, Christian Science, or the Jehovah's Witness movement to discern if there are similar psycho-bio-sociological patterns at work. [2]

Closer still, twentieth-century skeptics have been able to witness first-hand the spinning out of New Age paranormal religions. A good illustration of this is the power of suggestion exercised by psychics and mediums, often through the use of deception or self-deception, and the receptiveness of so many believers, all too willing to accept claims of supernormal powers by abandoning rigorous standards of corroboration. These processes are not only found among ordinary folks but even among sophisticated scientists who are specialists in other fields, but perhaps not in the art of deception. An entire industry claiming to prove another reality transcending this world is flourishing: belief in reincarnation is based on "past-life regressions" and near-death experiences are often appealed to in order to reinforce belief in the separable existence and immortality of the human soul.

The spawning of the space-age religions in the latter half of the twentieth century is especially instructive for the psychobiology of belief. Scientology was invented by Ron Hubbard, who began as a writer of science fiction but then went on to consciously create a new religion. Dianetics and all that it proposes are questionable on empirical grounds, yet countless thousands of people, including famous celebrities, have been persuaded to accept its tenets. UFO mythology is especially fascinating. For Space Age prophets have emerged, rivaling the classical religious prophets, and likewise claiming deliverance to another realm. The deluded believers in Heaven's Gate and the Order of the Solar Temple, who committed suicide in order to be transported to a higher realm, are illustrative of the power that these new religions can have on their devotees. This is the age of the great human adventure of space exploration, and so people are conscious of other planets in our solar system and other galaxies far beyond. It is also a time in which astronomy has made great strides and telescopes have enabled humans to extend the reach of observations. It is also an age in which science fiction ("Star Trek," "The X‑Files," etc.) has soared far beyond verifiable hypotheses and in which the speculative creative imagination is unbounded. Beginning with the premise that it is possible, indeed probable, that life, even intelligent life, exists elsewhere in the universe, there is a leap of faith to the conviction that the planet earth has been visited by extraterrestrial aliens, that some earthlings have been abducted, and that intergalactic biogenetic breeding has occurred. Thus the possible has been converted into the actual, and fiction transposed into reality. Extraterrestrial visitations from on high have the similar contours of alleged early visitations by divine beings and their revelations on Mount Sinai or the caves of Hijra outside of Mecca, or the road to Damascus, or by the Olympian gods of Greek mythology.

Thus the question is raised anew. How do we explain the willingness of so many people—no doubt a majority of humankind—to outstrip the evidence and to weave out fantasies—in which their deepest psychological longings are expressed, and their national mythologies fulfilled? How explain the willingness to believe even the most bizarre tales?

I have had intimate contact over the years with a wide range of latter-day religious gurus and mystics—from Reverend Moon to Ernest Angley and Peter Popoff—and paranormal psychics and seers—from Uri Geller to Jeane Dixon and Ramtha. Skeptics have been challenged to account for the apparent extraordinary feats of their proponents. After detailed investigation their weird claims have been debunked; yet in spite of this, otherwise sensible people have persisted in beliefs that are patently false. Indeed, there seems to be a bizarre kind of logic at work: belief systems for which there is entirely scanty evidence or no evidence, or indeed abundant evidence to the contrary are fervently accepted; indeed, people will devote their entire lives to a groundless creed. This has been heralded in the past as faith in things unseen or things hoped for. The will to believe in spite of negative evidence has been acclaimed as morally praiseworthy. David Hume thought it a "miracle" that people who believe in miracles are willing to subvert all of the evidence of the senses and the processes of rationality in order to accept their beliefs.


There are at least two possible explanations that I wish to focus on. (There are no doubt others, such as the need for identity, the quest for community, the role of indoctrination, the power of tradition, ethnicity, and the like). In answer to the question, "Why do people believe?," the first explanation is that believers have not been exposed to the factual critiques of their faith. These critiques apply to the cognitive basis of their belief. There are alternative naturalistic explanations of the alleged phenomena, cognitivists maintain, and if criticisms of the claims were made available to them, they would abandon their irrational beliefs. This is no doubt true of some people, who are committed to inquiry, but not of all, for processes of rationalization intervene to rescue the faith.

Accordingly, a second explanation for this is that noncognitive tendencies and impulses are at work, tempting believers to accept the "unbelievable." This disposition to believe in spite of insufficient or contrary evidence has deep roots in our biological and social nature.

In the first instance, cognition performs a powerful role in human life, liberating us from false ideas. In the form of common sense, it is essential, at least up to a point, if we are to live and function in the real world. Ordinary men and women constantly appeal to practical reason to refute unwarranted beliefs. They are forced to maintain some cognitive touch with reality if they are to survive in the natural and social environment. Human beings are capable of some rational thought, and this is the most effective capacity that they have for coping with obstacles that are encountered. Critical thinking is the preeminent instrument of human action; it is the most effective means that we have to fulfill our purposes and solve the problems of living. Cognition is the most powerful method for making sense of the world in which we live. From it philosophy and science have emerged, contributing to our understanding of nature and ourselves.

We all know that we need to use practical reason to deal with empirical questions, such as: "Is it raining outside?" Or "How do I cope with my toothache?" And we also apply such methods within the sciences, to deal with issues such as the following: "The dinosaurs were most likely extinguished by an asteroid impact some sixty-five million years ago." Or, "We are unable to cure people by therapeutic touch." Each of these beliefs may be tested by the experimental evidence or by theories accepted as probable or improbable on the basis of these considerations. In addition, an open-minded inquirer may be led to accept or reject any number of propositions, which he or she previously asserted, such as, "There is no evidence that a great flood engulfed the entire globe as related in the Bible."

There is a class of overbeliefs, however, for which no amount of evidence seems to suffice, at least for some people. These generally may be classified as "transcendental beliefs." It is here that faith or the will-to-believe intervenes. By the "transcendental," I mean that which is over and beyond normal observations or rational coherence, and is enhanced by mystery and magic. This surely is what the great mystics have referred to as the "ineffable" depths of Being. Scientific inquiry is naturalistic; that is, it attempts to uncover the natural causes at work. Granted that these are often hidden causes, unseen by unaided observation, such as microbes or atoms; yet such causes can be confirmed by some measure of verification; they fit into a conceptual framework; and their explanatory value can be corroborated by a community of independent inquirers. Transcendental explanations are, by definition, nonnatural; they cannot be confirmed experimentally; they cannot be corroborated objectively.

We may ask, "Why do many people accept unverified occult explanations when they are clothed in religious or paranormal guise?" The answer, I think, in part at least, is because such accounts arouse awe and entice the passionate imagination. I have in my earlier writings labeled this "the transcendental temptation," [3] the temptation to believe in things unseen, because they satisfy felt needs and desires. The transcendental temptation has various dimensions. It was resorted to by primitive men and women, unable to cope with the intractable in nature, unmitigated disasters, unbearable pain or sorrow. It is drawn upon by humans in order to assuage the dread of death—by postulating another dimension to existence, the hope for an afterlife in which the evils and injustices of this world are overcome. The lure of the transcendental temptation appeals to the frail and forlorn. There may not be any evidence for it; but the emotive and intellectual desire to submit to it can provide a source of comfort and consolation. To believe that we will meet in another life those whom we have loved in this life can be immensely satisfying, or at least it can provide some saving grace. It may enable a person to get through the grievous losses that he or she suffers in this life. If I can't be with those I cherish today, I can at least do so in my dreams and fantasies, and if I submit to and propitiate the unseen powers that govern the universe this will miraculously right the wrongs that I have endured in this vale of tears. Thus the transcendental temptation is tempting because it enables human beings to survive the often cruel trials and tribulations that are our constant companion in this life, and it enables us to endure in anticipation of the next. It is the mystery and magic of religion, its incantations and rituals, that fan the passions of overbelief, and nourish illusion and unreality. There is a real and dangerous world out there that primitive and modern humans need to cope with—wild animals and marauding tribes, droughts and famine, lightning and forest fires, calamities and deprivations, accidents, and contingencies. Surely, there is pleasure and satisfaction, achievement, and realization in life, but also tragedy and failure, defeat and bitterness. Our world is a complex tapestry of joy and suffering. The transcendental temptation thus can provide a powerful palliative enabling humans to cope with the unbearable, overcome mortality and finitude; and it does so by creating fanciful systems of religious overbelief in which priests and prophets propitiate the unseen sources of power and thus shield us from the vicissitudes of fortune. Humans tend to corrupt their visions of reality, according to John Schumaker, in order to survive in a world that they cannot fully comprehend. [4]

It is only in recent human history that the species has gradually been able to overcome mythological explanations. Philosophy and metaphysics emerged, attempting to account for the world of change and flux in terms of rational explanations; modern science succeeded where pure speculation failed, by using powerful cognitive methods of experimental verification and mathematical inference. What had been shrouded in mystery was now explicable in terms of natural causes. Diseases did not have Satanic origins, but natural explanations and cures. The weather could be interpreted, not as a product of divine wrath or favor, but in meteorological terms. Nature could be accounted for by locating the natural causes of phenomena. Astrology's heavenly omens and signs were replaced by the regularities discernible by physics and astronomy. Science abandons occult for material causes. It is the foe of magical thinking, and it is able to proceed by refusing to submit to the transcendental temptation, at least in dealing with the empirical world. Thus there has been a continuous retreat of magical thinking under the onslaught of cognitive inquiry. The same methods of inquiry used so successfully in the natural sciences, were extended to biology and the social sciences. Science thus continues to make progress by using rigorous methods of naturalistic inquiry.

Yet there still remained a residue of unanswered questions, and it is here in the swamp of the unknowable that the transcendental temptation festers. This beguiling temptation reaches beyond the natural world by sheer force of habit and passion, and it resists all efforts to contain it. Rather than suspend judgments about those questions for which there is no evidence either way, it leaps in to fill the void and comfort the aching soul. It is the most frequent salve used to calm existential fear and trembling. Why is this so? Because I think that the temptation has its roots in a tendency, and this in a disposition. In other words, there is most likely within the human species a genetic component, which is stronger than temptation and weaker than instinct. The hypothesis that I wish to offer is that the belief in the efficacy of prayer and the submission to divine power persists because it has had some survival value in the infancy of the race; powerful psycho-socio-biological factors are thus at work, predisposing humans to submit to the temptation.

The cognitive explanation for its persistence is that there is cognitive dissonance or misinformation that is the root cause for the fixation on the transcendental and that this can be overcome by rational inquiry. Socrates thought that faith persisted only because of ignorance, and that knowledge would disabuse us of religious myths. This surely continues to play a powerful role in regard to the content of our beliefs. Yet I submit that there is another factor present, which explains the persistence of religiosity, and this is an evolutionary explanation; that is, belief in the transcendental had adaptive value, and those tribes or clans which believed in unseen myths and forces to whom they propitiated by ritual and prayer had a tendency to survive and to pass on this genetic predisposition to their offspring. Thus religiosity is a "heritable" factor within the naked human ape. [5]

What are some of the data in support of a transcendental predisposition? There are the University of Minnesota studies of identical twins, [6] which showed that a significant number of infants who were separated at birth and reared apart under different environmental conditions, nonetheless exhibited similar tastes and preferences, and in this case exhibited a tendency to be religious. This predisposition is not necessarily deterministic in a strict sense, and it is absent in a number of cases. The heritable factor is estimated to be fifty percent. E. O. Wilson [7] also maintains that there is some biological basis for religiosity, though one cannot locate this in a specific gene, there are a multiplicity of genetic factors and epigenetic rules. He argues that theological overbeliefs offer consolation in the face of adversity, and that these religious overbeliefs—whether true or false—provide a functional means of adaptation. Those tribes or clans which possessed a safety net of such beliefs/practices may have been better able to cope with the fear of death, and they were also able to pass along to future generations the tendency to be religious. This proclivity may have had some survival value and thus it was transmitted to future generations. E. O. Wilson maintains that "there is a hereditary selective advantage to members in a powerful group united by devout belief and purpose….Much if not all religious behavior could have arisen from evolution by natural selection." [8]

There is a growing body of scientific research which supports this socio-biological explanation: this includes two components: (a) psycho-biological, which has some genetic basis, and (b) sociological, which has roots in cultural memes and habits. This would involve a coeval gene-meme hypothesis. Evolution is a function of both our genes on the one hand and memes transmitted by culture and inculcated in the young on the other. Thus, both hereditary and environmental factors have an influence on the behavior of individuals. Though there may be a predisposition toward belief in the transcendental, how it is expressed, and the content of the beliefs depends on the culture.


If we are to answer the question, Why do people believe?, we need also to ask, Why do some humans disbelieve?—for there is a minority of people who remain unbelievers, agnostics, or atheists. [9] There are number of important research projects that I think should be undertaken. To ascertain if there is a genetic tendency—or lack of it—we should study the family trees of both believers and unbelievers. Much the same as we can trace the physical characteristics, such as eye or hair color, short or tall stature, and even genetic diseases in some family stocks, so we should be able to trace the religiosity factor, especially in twins and/or siblings who are reared apart. If we can measure musical talent (MQ) or intelligence (IQ), then perhaps we can also measure the religious quotient (RQ). Similarly, we need to trace the family trees of unbelievers and ask, Is the genetic factor absent and if so to what extent and why?

I have met a great number of unbelievers over the years who tell me that they have been atheists for as long as they could remember, that they never could accept the dominant religious creed, even though many were indoctrinated into it from the earliest. Clearly, we need to go beyond anecdotal autobiographical accounts to systematic studies of how and why people become disbelievers. Many atheists, on the other hand, have related that their unbelief was a result of a slow cognitive process of critical reflection.

Bruce Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer, in an important study, [10] have attempted to outline the processes of conversion and deconversion in students that they studied in universities in Canada. Edward Babinsky [11] has published autobiographical accounts of why people abandoned their religiosity. We need to study the processes of deconversion for possible genetic explanations: Why do people who were religiously indoctrinated reject their beliefs, how rapidly did they do so, and for what reasons or causes? Conversely, what processes are involved in moving from a state of unbelief to religious conviction? No doubt there are many causal factors at work; we need to sort them out. Hunsberger and Altemeyer have suggested in their study of students that the process of deconversion was predominantly a slow, cognitive process; and that of conversion a rather rapid emotional transformation.

A number of important sociological studies also need to be undertaken. We need to examine the socio-cultural contexts in which religious ideas appear and disappear. We have an excellent data pool today in Russia and Eastern Europe where atheism was the official doctrine of the state. Here enormous efforts were expended for 50 to 75 years to pursue political policies of indoctrination and propaganda, designed to discourage religious belief and encourage atheism. We may ask, What has happened in these countries since the collapse of communism? Is the past political-social influence of atheism enduring, leaving a permanent residue, or is it dissipating?

Similarly, many Western European countries have seen a rather rapid decline in traditional religion in the post-World War II period, especially under the influence of liberalism and humanism. For example, in the Netherlands before the war approximately half of the population identified with Roman Catholicism and half with Protestantism, with a small percentage of Jews and other minorities. This has changed since World War II where there is now a higher percentage of humanists than either Protestants or Catholics. Similar processes have been observed in Norway, England, France, and elsewhere. Why has this happened? Are the polls reliable?

Curiously, only six to eight percent of the American population may be classified as unbelievers. [12] Can we give an account of why this is so and why American society seems to be anomalous, at least in comparison with Western Europe? Interestingly, some 60 percent of American scientists, according to a recent poll, are classified as unbelievers; and 93 percent of so-called élite scientists. Why does this happen? Are there cognitive factors primarily at work? Or are disbelievers anomalous—lacking the genetic disposition. Or, on the contrary, do they represent an advanced form of the evolution of the species? [13]

A key factor in the growth of religion or atheism undoubtedly is a function of the socio-cultural influences that prevail. Historically, the orthodox religions have sought to punish heresy or blasphemy as high crimes. Infidels have often been excommunicated or burned at the stake. It is only in recent times that democratic societies have recognized, let alone permitted or encouraged religious dissenters to flourish. [14] One might ask, If the condition of tolerance, indeed encouragement, were to prevail, to what extent would religious beliefs wane or be altered? How can this be developed? What are the environmental conditions by which atheism can be induced? What kind of educational curricula would most likely stimulate unbelief?

A key issue that can be raised concerns the difference between the content of the core beliefs and practices of a religion and the function of the beliefs and practices. The content may change over time, and there may be an erosion of traditional beliefs and their modification due to cognitive criticisms; but alternative creed-practices may emerge, satisfying similar psycho-biological-sociological needs and functions. In this regard, I reiterate, we are not dealing with the kind of religion that persists or the status of its truth claims—which may be irrelevant for many believers—but with the power of religious symbols and institutions to provide structure and order, and to give purpose in an otherwise meaningless and perhaps terrifying universe.

If science confirms the hypothesis that there are deep socio-biological forces responsible, at least in part, for religiosity in the species, then we need to ask, What can we do about it, if anything? Cognitivists will say that we still should constantly strive to engage in criticism of outrageous doctrines. At the very least this will help to restrain and temper religious fanaticism, protect the rights of unbelievers, and perhaps develop an ethic of tolerance. If religiosity will most likely be with us in one form or another in the foreseeable future, can we develop secular and naturalistic substitutes or moral equivalents for the passionate longing for meaning? Can we serve up sufficient balm to soothe existential weltschmerz? Can we develop new symbols to inspire meaning and hope? Can we engender the courage to be and to become? In other words, can naturalistic humanism offer a message as potent as theistic mythology? These are the kinds of questions which, hopefully, the science of religion will help us to solve. But they are predicated on our understanding how and why people believe or disbelieve in a religion.

[*] An earlier version appeared in Free Inquiry 19.3 (Summer 1999).


[1] The Shroud of Turin phenomenon is especially intriguing. I have been intimately involved for over two decades in examining the claims of those who maintain that the Shroud is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus as he lay in his tomb; and I have worked closely with Dr. Joe Nickell and others in establishing a subcommittee of scientists and skeptics to carefully analyze the facts of the case. Moreover, there is a huge Shroud of Turin industry, with organizations, publications, bestselling books, and conferences all devoted to propagating the miraculous character of the Shroud. The fact that a three-dimensional scorched image of a bearded person appears on it, it is said, cannot be explained by any known natural means. Of the 500 or more books published on the Shroud only two or three can be called skeptical of its supernatural origin. See Joe Nickell, Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, rev. ed. (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998); Walter McCrone, Judgement Day for the Shroud of Turin (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1999).

[2] In many new religions the historical records are abundant. In all of these religions, critics have pointed out the role of deception or self-deception, such as Joseph Smith's writing of the Book of Mormon and his accounts of the golden plates delivered by the angel Moroni, which were subsequently lost by him. Similarly for the claims of plagiarism made against Mary Ellen White, founder of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, or the questionable claims of miraculous health cures by Mary Baker Eddy and other Christian Scientist practitioners. Invariably, it is difficult to certify their authenticity once the claims to divine revelation are examined by careful historical investigators.

[3] Paul Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).

4 John F. Schumaker, The Corruption of Reality: A Unified Theory of Religion, Hypnosis and Psychopathology (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995.)

[5] If it is the case that there is a genetic predisposition for religiosity, then we need an operational criterion of it. I would define (theistic) "religiosity" behavioristically: "the expression of piety, the veneration of the mysterious beyond ordinary experience, the cherishing of overbeliefs about the transcendental, symbolic acts of submission to a divine figure(s) in expectation of receiving salvation, the engaging in propitiatory prayer and ritual."

[6] N. G. Waller, B. A. Kojetin, Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., David T. Lykken, Matthew McGue, and Auke Tellegen. "Genetics and Environmental Influences on Religious Interests, Attitudes, and Values: A Study of Twins Reared Apart and Together," Psychological Science (1990), 138–142; Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., David T. Lykken, Matthew McGue, Nancy L. Segal, Auke Tellegen, "Sources of Human Psychological Differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart," Science 250:4978 (October 12, 1990) 223–228.

[7] E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). See also John C. Avise, The Genetic Gods: Evolution and Belief in Human Affairs (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).


[8] E. O. Wilson, Consilience, 258.

[9] The readers of Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer magazines provide a large pool of unbelievers, a good source for research. A poll of Free Inquiry readers indicate 91 percent are either atheists, agnostics, or secular humanists, and of Skeptical Inquirer, 77 percent are atheists, agnostics, or secular humanists.

[10] Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith and Others Abandon Religion (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1997).

[11] Edward T. Babinsky, Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994).

[12] "Religious Belief in America: A New Poll," Free Inquiry 16:3 (Summer 1996), 34–40.

[13] If one were to conclude that there was a heritability factor, and if one believed that atheism should be encouraged in the population, then one might wish to encourage atheists to marry atheists and to bring up the children as atheists, so as to increase the number of atheist offspring. Often a minority religion grows not so much by conversion but by outbreeding other sects. Another suggestion perhaps might be taken (with tongue-in-cheek) is that atheists be cloned so as to increase their number.

[14] See the book by David Berman, A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (New York: Routledge, 1990).

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