Atheists Do Not Understand Religion

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by Neil Godfrey

Not all atheists. But many. Especially those who, as I myself have done in the past, loathe any form of religion, even in its mild liberal form, as a gateway to extremism, life-destroying fundamentalism, even violence. How many have declared that among Muslims, for example, the truly devout, those who take their religion seriously, are the terrorists. If every religious believer woke up to what their religion really believed and acted on it they would all resort to oppression and cruelty. As one researcher put it:

The very fact that people in a group share this religious ideology and perform important rituals together sharpens their perception that they are indeed a group with clearly marked boundaries. Worshiping the same gods creates a community and by implication gives that extra edge to the feeling that people with different gods or spirits really are potential enemies. Indeed, people who become deeply involved in religion, for whom it is a matter of vital importance that their doctrine is the only source of truth, will not hesitate to massacre the ones who seem not to acknowledge this obvious fact or whose commitment is too lukewarm. The most heinous crimes will be a celebration of the True Faith. This is how gods and spirits lead to group cohesion, which leads to xenophobia, which leads to fanatical hatred.

Does that sound about right?

The same researcher added

Practically everything in this scenario is misguided.

The researcher I quoted is Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and author of Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. The beauty of Boyer’s book is that he gets behind our narrow conceptions of the nature of religion that are limited to our own particular history, technologies and culture finds out what is really going on under the hood, what is it about religion as a generic human experience across all cultures that makes it tick.

Boyer informs us about the ways researchers into religion (other anthropologists and sociologists in particular) have come to explain religion in terms of universals of human nature. What separates the organized religions we are most familiar with (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism) from more primitive types of religion (animism, ancestor worship, shamanism) is technology, especially the technology of literacy that first emerged in highly complex societies.

The earliest preoccupations of the scribal class were recording financial and trade transactions, but as the technology became more sophisticated so that it no longer simply represented objects and numbers but even the sounds of speech itself, that scribal class expanded to become “the literati”, authors and keepers of literature, and even religious beliefs.

In all these places [Sumer, Egypt, China, extending to most Eurasiatic states] literacy appeared in complex states, in polities where people’s decisions were made in the context of large networks and institutions. So literacy and a complex social organization spawned another important development — that of stable associations of religious specialists. This happened in the Middle East, in Egypt, in India and China and finally in all Eurasiatic societies. There were written religious texts, ritual prescriptions, lists and tables of moral prescriptions and prohibitions because religious specialists were transformed into an organized social group, akin to a corporation or guild. This social transformation had profound effects on the nature and organization of the concepts that such specialists produced and diffused.

A religious guild is a group that derives its livelihood, influence and power from the fact that it provides particular services, in particular the performance of rituals. Its members can be compared to other specialized groups, such as craftsmen.

Guilds of any kind, whether involved in the production of jewellery, shoes or religious products like rituals that promise access to gods and protection from evil spirits, generally try to control the market. Craftsmen attempt to establish common prices and common standards to prevent non-guild members from interfering with their livelihoods.

So most people pay a small price for being members of a group that guarantees a minimal share of the market to each of its members.

The problem with the religious guilds, providers of rituals, is that any upstart can rise up to take away sizeable chunks of their market. No special skills are required to claim to offer a ritual that will have some spiritual or health benefit. Too often someone can simply decide they have the ability to impress their neighbours that they can contact the spirits of ancestors or ward off invisible menacing forces. As a result, religious guilds who have formed on the basis of specialist literary skills need political influence to maintain their authority.

Such guilds also need to turn their product into a brand.

[T]hat is, a service that is

(1) distinct from what others could provide,

(2) similar regardless of which member of the guild provides it,

(3) easily recognizable by its particular features and

(4) exclusively provided by one particular organization.

Literate religious guilds provide defining descriptions of the service they provide. They produce texts that become the source of their truths. Outsiders, like those who claim to gain personal contact with spirit forces and allow those powers to speak through them directly, are frowned upon, even sometimes cast out because they potentially undermine the control of the literate guild. The literate religious guild may well write and tell stories of their origins in a time when gods appeared directly to individuals, but those days will always be relegated to the past. They are not general prescriptions for ongoing practices.

But most lay members of the religious ideas dominated by these guilds are not particularly interested in the finer semantic debates and abstract ideas that arise as a result of the production of religious texts. They still live by the same fundamental intuitions as humans universally live by. They will always by “theologically incorrect” to some extent according to the standards of the guild elite. The “ordinary people” will always be fascinated by deep personal experiences, sensory stimulation, vivid imagery, dramatic and meaningful episodes in their lives, more than dry doctrines set out in texts.

In fact, the more wayward or incorrect members of a religion become, the more the religious guilds try to reassert their control by imposing more of the dry textual consistency that the rebels are bucking against.

This point brings us to the question of group cohesion and community identity. What is going on when some members of a religion break out from the mainstream ideas that the dominant part of the literate guild wants to impose? What is it that leads to breakouts of fanaticism? Of going off the rails by channeling the spirits, having hallucinatory visions, and even engaging in violence?

Stay tuned….

Boyer, Pascal. 2002. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Reprint edition. New York: Basic Books. Quotations above from pages 265, 275 and 277.

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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “Atheists Do Not Understand Religion”

  1. That sure sounds about right, to say otherwise is quite an extraordinary claim, I wonder what extraordinary evidence he managed to produce.
    Guess I’ll have to read the book to find out.

  2. It’s an emotive subject. I have seen abundant evidence to falsify the claim about the relationship between the Muslim religion and Islamist terrorism, evidence and studies that I have posted about numerous times. But what anthropological studies into religion more generally are showing me is that the same principles apply to the sorts of mainstream religions we think about most often: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and so forth.

    In some ironical sense I started this blog with the Vridar title based on what I now see was a misunderstanding about religion. I thought I knew it all after my various experiences, and the author of the work whose main character was Vridar, Vardis Fisher, had what I now believe was an erroneous view of the nature of religion.

    I’m not denying the harm that religion and cults can and often do inflict. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m beginning to think that the underlying problem is not so much religion itself but the worse demons of our human makeup.

    Not only demons. Demons manipulating mental processes that tend to remain a mystery to us and that are only dimly understood as intuitions, gut feelings.

  3. As a past member of a cult I can say from personal experience that the first researcher quoted by Boyer is right. Were there economic benefits associated with belonging to the cult? Yes, but these were secondary. There is a big difference between a guild member (your average Anglican) and a cult member (your average JW). And there is and always has been degrees of attachment to the religions of the day. There have always been the fanatics (the literalists) and the lukewarm adherents. The driving force of the cult/religion is the belief system which is taught from childhood and constantly reinforced by regular meetings and the resulting social cohesion-the creation of the ingroup/outgroup mentality. I think atheists who have no personal experience of this force will always struggle to fully understand or appreciate the power of religion.

    1. One interesting thought kept zinging through my head as I read that section by Boyer. He was explaining that in other types of religion (the non literate-guild or “doctrinal” types, what Whitehouse’s called “imagistic” forms of religion) religious leaders or healers are selected or accepted because they are believed to have shown some sign of having some spiritual attribute or essence or “thing” about them that qualifies them. Followers of these religions were taken aback to meet Western religions where anyone could become a leader with a bit of book learning.

      In our cult, I thought, we believed that minister or leaders showed signs of being called by God, usually because of some leadership skills plus public expressed zeal for the cause or other superior demonstrations of appropriate character.

      Yet in other ways our particular cult was very much a “doctrinal” or “literate guild” type of religion. Yet there was also a cult of personality. An unfortunate mix. Costs for defection, though, were high. And that brings us to the next post.

    2. Idon’t even think “Literalist” VS whatever other is a good way to view the Issue. Literal Belief in The Bible, for example, is given a Word We in Our Society have attached Negative Emotions to, “Fundamentalism:. But I’ve met many Literalists who are not the raving fanatics We are told they should be, and it is not because they haven’t Read their own Holy Book or because they don’t take it Seriously.

      I Think the very idea of “Religion” that We hold to is Wrong, and Boyer seems to Agree with me as he says there is no Religion, only Culture.

      We often use Words to define why We are different from Them, and the Us VS Them Tribalism that The New Atheists complained about Religion Creating is also apparent in The New Atheism itself, only because of their own Narrative, their own Mythology if You Will, they can’t see that.

      They also can’t see how their own Ideas can lead to Fanaticism because they are the Rational Ones according to themselves.

      Fanaticism does not emerge from Biblical Literalism. Fanaticism emerges from a desire to assert or reassert dominance or Identity, which i not related to whether or not You believe in a god or Spirit.

      This is why Political Fanaticism Exists, too, and Religious Fanaticism is not different in any way shape or form to Political Fanaticism.

  4. I thought I had done the background reading that Boyer draws upon before doing these posts, but I see there are still a couple of articles I need to catch up on. I’ll postpone the part 2 till I complete those, hopefully in not too many days from now.

  5. Reading the various works by anthropologists trying to figure out why people are religious is one of the reasons I became a bit more tolerant of religion, and more intolerant of atheists who think that getting rid of religion will be some sort of panacea that will usher in a golden age of rationality.

    All of the building blocks of what eventually leads to religious belief are baked into our cognition; we can’t get rid of it. Left to their (our) own devices, people will come together and form new quasi- and sorta- religions, and the process that leads to new fundamentalisms (e.g., witch hunts, science denial) will repeat.

    1. I wouldn’t even call them Quasi-Religions.

      I Think Everyone is Religious. The word Religion serves as an Artificial Dividing Line, that allows us to pretend there is a difference between Atheists like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins and The Religious people they condemn, but in Actuality, Religion is just a Philosophy One Lives by, and the actual conflict between The Knew Atheists and Religion boils down to they do not agree with Our beliefs so they are wrong and must be eliminated. The New Atheists never wanted us to be Rational in the True sense of the Word, and certainly didn’t want us to Think for Ourselves. Their idea of Freethought is agreement with Humanism and their concept of Secular Values.

      It has always been about imposing on set of beliefs and values and defeating rivals.

      I am Right. If You Agree with Me You are Right and My Friend. if You do not Agree with me You are Wrong and You are My Enemy.

      And as We all Know, The Enemy is Vicious and Evil and Cruel and Bad. The Friends are Good and Noble and Just and Moral.

      So, are You Friend or Foe?

  6. “Atheists Do Not Understand Religion”

    POn the contrary, most of us were raised in religions and understood very well why they are based on fallacies and are really social control methods, that’s why we don’t believe any more.

    1. The studies show that religion itself is not a social control tool. Religion itself exists independently of the “literate religion guild” that belongs to one type of cultural environment and that seeks to place controls over expression of religion — but never with complete success.

      1. Religions obviously weren’t invented as a social control tool, in fact they weren’t invented at all , but they do make great social control tools and have been used as such, so it is what it is.

        CSR’s main focus is the cognitive aspect, and the researchers tend to reduce religions to abstractions of cognitive processes. That’s what makes them say things like religious systems, as abstractions can’t have physical effects and can’t be said to cause anything at all.
        This approach also allows to detach these abstractions from the guilds and say they’re not social control tools.

        One must know this approach is not universally accepted, I don’t agree either, religions are much more than that, and the cognitive aspect is not even the most important in explaining the effects of complex social processes that today’s religions really are. That said many things they say is agreeable within that framework, one just has to be aware of all the underlying assumptions in order not to get wrong ideas.
        For example when one says religion causes X, and CSR researcher says it does not, they usually mean different things when they say “religion”.

        1. Dynamite is an explosive whose function is to blow things up. It can be used as a tool for different purposes, one destructive the other constructive. How it is used as a tool in any particular context does not define the nature of dynamite itself.

          1. Not a good analogy, unlike religion dynamite was invented for a specific purpose, but,
            Dynamite is a compound of natural substances and chemicals that themselves exist independently of the “destructive scientific guild” that belongs to one type of cultural environment and that seeks to find new ways of blowing things up.

            As seen above, choice of fundamental level depends on the context, ultimately everything can be reduced to the most fundamental level known to date, which is quantum, where none of human affairs matter.
            Still, religions make excellent social control tools and are used as such, and this is what matters for those who are concerned.

            If in the context where cognitivists operate this is not relevant, and religion as they define it can’t have any effect on the physical world, probably cognitive aspect of religion alone is not the right context to discuss these matters.

            1. Check out Boyer some time. Religion is not universally used as a social control tool. And in cases where it is it is certainly not its only function. In fact, religious people will always be breaking out from the controls as a result of their own religious experiences. So religion per se works both ways in those particular cultures where social control is a factor. And in other places religion has even been involved with those who buck against non-religious social controls (e.g. Euripides’ The Bacchae; Taiping rebellion; various anti-slavery movements, dissident millennial movements through middle ages; Tutu in apartheid South Africa).

              1. Obviously, religion is not universally used as a social control tool, as there are some conditions that must be met before it’s possible.
                However it does not have to be universally used as a social control tool for it to be considered a problem.

    2. All You’re doing is repeating what the Pastors of The Modern Atheist Religion told You o day. You are now told to respond to me calling Atheism a Religion with “Atheism is not a Religion, it is a lack of belief in a god. Atheism is a Religion like Bald is a Hair Colour. Religion is defined in The Dictionary as belief in and reverence of gods and supernatural powers.”

      I didn’t even call Atheism a Religion, but You will insist I did.

      Modern Day Atheism is not Atheism however, it is simply Secular Humanism refusing to Admit what it is.

      You don’;t Know about Religion because You were Raised in Religion. You Know about Religion because Your Atheist Community has told You about it, and all ou Know how to do is Repeat the talking Points You can easily find on places lime Internet Infidels or Atheist Revolution or other such sites.

      You don’t even stop tp realise how silly what You said is.

  7. I’ll be addressing some of this in my next book. My contention is that what I guess you can call phase 2 religions, i.e. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. are very different from earlier religion. In fact I would say that almost everyone misunderstands the way people “naturally think”, because almost everyone interprets human thought through the lends of phase 2 religions.

    But phase 2 religions are much more rigid and impose much more “unnatural” modes of thinking on people.

    What would be called “primitive” religions actually were much more intuitive and compatible with our modern scientific understanding of the world. Primitive religions are very much based on people’s experiences and observations. They are, essentially, empirically driven. They may hold beliefs that are provably false, but they are, by and large, the product of “bad science”, or essentially an incomplete understanding of the world. They are hypotheses about how the world works and how we should behave and operate within it. They are ways of trying to fill in gaps in our data with suppositions and narratives.

    What I’m calling phase 2 religions, however, are much different. Phase 2 religions claim to have divine knowledge about how the world does work and how people must behave. These religions enforce specific worldviews on believers and tell believers to deny their experiences. These religions basically claim to have obtained a full understanding of reality and they posit that claims or beliefs that contradict their model of reality must be false. The narratives of these religions are no longer ways to fill in gaps in our data, they are actually viewed as the only valid data. So these religions compel believers to ignore their own observations, ignore their own intuitions, ignore what seems to be reasonable, if any of that contradicts the model put forward by the religion.

    What we have to understand today is that this type of religion is what dominates the world today, BUT it was actually uncommon or unknown in ancient times. Ancient worldviews were actually far MORE grounded in empiricism and and reason than is widely believed today, because so many people assume that the mode of “phase 2” religions has always been in operation, but this is in-fact not the case.

    When people look at how misguided Western people’s view of the world was 300 years ago, or 1,000 years, the assumption is that there has been a consistent progression of understanding in the world, such that, as misguided as people were 1,000 years ago, they must have been even more misguided 3,000 years ago, and even more superstitious and misguided 10,000 years ago, etc.

    But this is not true at all. Indeed I submit that tribal people could not survive with the types of dogmatic religious beliefs held by people in more advanced civilizations. Phase 2 religions only work in advanced civilizations because of the specialization of labor and collective production that makes it possible for people to hold totally irrational worldviews and still survive, because all they need to do is be able to do a few things successfully and most individuals don’t really need to understand the world because collectively we are able to take care of each other and make it work.

    But in a tribal society, holding completely irrational worldviews doesn’t work, because they will get you killed. So if you look at aboriginal society for example, yes you will find various superstitious beliefs, but most of those are actually grounded in empiricism, they are just cases of poor science, where an exacting methodology hasn’t been used to determine real root causes, but they do correlate to real world experiences.

    You also don’t find that aborigines held dogmatic beliefs or beliefs that they would contend should override your lived experiences. So for example, Christians held that life on other planets was impossible (a belief actually held by ancient Greeks). I don’t know this for certain, but I would assume that Australian natives would not have said that such a thing was impossible if a member of their community threw it out there as a question around the camp fire. Many cultures actually held views of the development of life from an evolutionary process, Australian natives among them. In fact, the concept of evolution is actually intuitive, and is actually pervasive in origin stories from around the world. Even semi-scientific concepts of evolution were developed in multiple cultures, most notably by the ancient Greeks. These were all denied by Christians, and Christian missionaries went around the world telling tribal people who held evolutionary beliefs that they were wrong and exterminated such teachings. Notably, several tribes from Africa believed that humans and apes were related before they were “corrected” on this mater by Christians. The Greeks of put forward many evolutionary explanations for the development of life on earth, including that life originated in the ocean and that eventually fish emerged onto land and developed into land animals, ultimately into people. In fact, the impression we have of many tribal cultures being hopelessly superstitious and uneducated is itself highly biased. Remember that so many of these descriptions come from Christian missionaries! “These primitive fools believe that humans and animals are related, such barbarians!”

    So the point here is that the view that the human worldview has gotten progressively more clear and more reasonable over time is entirely wrong. “Primitive” worldviews and religions were, in many ways, far more reasonable and more “advanced” ones. The idea that the way Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. think about the world and god and the afterlife and and behavior, etc. is “natural” or an “inherent human tendency” is totally and completely wrong. It’s totally unnatural and require significant inculcation.

    1. Boyer’s book is by and large a summary of much of the psychological, anthropological and sociological research into religious concepts and religions themselves. He points out that the research has produced many counter-intuitive understandings, including one common one that a generic function of religion is to “explain things”. One post on this point: Was Religion Invented to Explain Things — or to Compound Mystery? . . . Or. . . ?

    2. [skwilliamsss has responded to r.g. price with three comments extending over 4800 words and 11 pdf pages. I hate to see such dedication go to waste so have wrapped his comments up into a single pdf file that anyone may access at here. Essentialy, skwilliamss argues that the Vridar post is a subtle and devious attack by a blindly bigotted atheist upon Christianity. — Neil]

      1. I have removed skwilliamsss’ comment and placed it along with his two others in a single pdf file. See my note in the above for details and the link.

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