How Can Atheists Not Believe?

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I would venture a guess that nearly all atheists have at one time or another asked themselves some version of the following question: With all we have learned from science, how can so many people cling to ancient superstitions in this modern age? I have certainly asked the question many times as have most of the atheist bloggers I read (see a recent example from Dangerous Talk). As tempting as the question is to ask, I wonder if it may be the wrong question.

Why do so many people believe such ridiculous stories? Consider the fact that nearly everyone they trust believes the same things, including their families and friends. Also, think about the myriad ways in which the culture surrounding them promotes these stories. It is not merely a matter of a brief period of indoctrination; many people will be surrounded by these social pressures their entire lives. And the stories, no matter how absurd, seem to make many people feel good. These stories appear to be a source of comfort to many, and they may also foster a sense of community among those who believe them (i.e., shared values).

With all this in mind, I wonder if the more interesting question is how some of us have managed to escape the religious component of our cultural heritage. What is it about us - our brains, our personalities, our experience - that has made it possible for us to step outside this system and see the ridiculous stories for what they are. Do our minds work differently? Are we less susceptible to indoctrination or peer pressure? Do we have less of a need for social acceptance? Do we have an anti-authority streak that leads us to question what we have been taught more than others do? Do we have a greater tolerance of ambiguity?

Here in the U.S., some surveys suggest that something like 90% of the population reports belief in god(s). Even if this number is inflated due to social desirability, god-belief is clearly the norm. We atheists are the outliers here. Are there consistent and predictable ways in which we differ from the rest of the population? Can they be quantified and measured? And if so, are these things that could be taught to others?

These are the sorts of questions that could be answered by science. In fact, I imagine that the social sciences will eventually shed some light on such questions. Unfortunately, there have been so few studies published on atheists that it is going to take some time. Until then, we will likely have far more questions than answers.