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When and why do people become atheists? New study uncovers important predictors
The less that parents "walk the walk" about religious beliefs, the more likely their children are to walk away.
In 2009, Joseph Henrich, a professor in the Psychology and Economics departments at the University of British Columbia (now at Harvard), proposed the idea of Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs). He was looking for a term to signify people that “convey one mental representation but actually believe something else.” At the very least, he continues, they fudge their level of commitment.
Henrich coined this term to make sense of manipulability, especially in regards to religious belief. While his focus was on cultural learning through evolutionary history, extrapolating to apply CREDs to politics doesn’t tax our imagination. In fact, he argues that CREDs are an essential component of tribalism; they help you identify with a group and strengthen in-group bonds. Throughout history, this would have been a very useful device, yet evolutionary biology didn’t foresee the development of societies containing hundreds of millions of people. Our minds might move a million miles an hour but deeply ingrained habits do not.
To make his case, Henrich turned to ritualized theater, such as firewalking and animal sacrifice. Such costly displays, he writes, “transmit higher levels of belief commitment and thereby promote cooperation and success in intergroup or interinstitution competition.” The more audacious a display, the more likely we’ll buy into what’s being sold, even if the seller is focused more on your purchase than the item itself.
Though we can spend pages applying this to the American electoral cycle, we’ll instead turn to Joseph Langston, who recently applied CREDs to the onset of atheism. As with everything religion and politics, there is plenty of inherent crossovers.
The Age of Atheism
Langston, a Ph.D. student at New Zealand’s Victoria University and a researcher at the Atheist Research Collaborative, wanted to know when people become atheists. He realized CREDs provided a good means of measuring this, according to his new study, published in Religion, Brain & Behavior. It turns out that parents that talk about religion but fail to practice what they preach are more likely to produce little deniers.
CREDs are not relegated to beliefs in the supernatural. Knowing which mushrooms to eat and what berries to avoid fall within its purview. What Henrich understood, and what Langston reiterates, is that this socially beneficial tool is malleable enough to be co-opted by hucksters. Sure, beliefs are often sincere, yet when a ritualistic display is being exploited, grand theatrics are more likely to secure a potential believer’s emotional investment.
Langston points to previous research that position CREDs as being at least partly influential for intergenerational religious belief, which made him suspect that they would offer insight into what age a person becomes atheistic. He gives special attention to the distance between religious choice and religious conflict: in post-industrial societies, where existential security is common, parents are less likely to rely on supernatural authority for survival—though America is unique in its fundamentalist proclivities.
Religious choice, he writes, is likely to produce greater numbers of atheists in future generations. Yet authoritarian parenting also creates atheistic tendencies through “alienation, personal disappointment, and rebellion.” Not allowing for choice, it appears, increases the likelihood of atheism.
For the study, 5,153 atheists were questioned on two sets of criteria. First, Langston wanted to know if the relationship between CREDs and atheism were influenced by religious importance, religious choice, and religious conflict. Second, he broadened the scope of questioning to include the acquisition and transmission of religious beliefs by studying other familial and social variables. These included questions such as “While you were growing up, would you say your [Mother or Father] was (1) Easy to Talk With, (2) Strict, and (3) Warm and Loving.”
Langston discovered that religious importance predicted a delay in the age which people became atheists, while choice and conflict hastened the process. And, as he initially predicted, CREDs did indeed lead to an earlier onset of atheism. When children hear their parents talk but they don’t walk, it’s the children who end up walking away.
Some people find it difficult to think of belief as fluid, yet humans are generally open to being manipulated. Culture is created through interconnected layers of CREDs; if that weren't the case, consensus in societies would not exist. While there is a tendency to separate religious belief from other forms of social norms, there is nothing sacred or universal about any belief. They are all constructs, open to interpretation, and plastic.
In an interview, Langston admits to several limitations, namely the fact that believers were not included in this study.
If we were to design a study that was superior to ours, then for that study we would have collected a large sample of nonbelievers and believers. Then we would be able to do direct comparisons between those two groups.
Overall, Langston doesn’t see this as a problem, only cause for further research (which he’s already been conducting). In the future, he wants to know if nonreligious identifications are being deliberately transmitted by secular families, and if so, what kind of CREDs are being used; if believers experience different levels of religious choice and religious conflict than nonbelievers; and whether or not authoritarian-leaning religious parents unknowingly cause their child's pivot to atheism.
Shortly after receiving my degree in Religious Studies, I was walking over the Brooklyn Bridge with my father. By that point I had already turned atheist; I studied religion because I was fascinated by why people believe, not necessarily what they believe. I asked my father why I was raised with no religion at all.
His answer was immediate: “Because I was raised with too much of it.” He resented the fact that he had to attend the local Russian Orthodox Church every Sunday while his parents stayed home. By sixth grade, when I said I no longer wanted to go to CCD—a loose Catholicism from my mother's side—my parents were fine with it. The weekly class was more social activity than required training anyway.
I’m not sure what CREDs were being transmitted during my youth, but one thing is certain from Langston’s research: hypocrites rarely produce the results they desire. The theater might at first entrance, but the drugs do eventually wear off.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.