In recent years, we have witnessed one of the most exciting scientific developments of the modern era: the evolutionary study of the belief in supernatural agents and transcendent experiences. In fact, it was Charles Darwin himself, a learned theologian, who founded the evolutionary study of religion and spirituality.

Yet despite all our progress, there is a lingering dissatisfaction that atheism and secularism have not been fully subjected to the same evolutionary analysis. What about all those people who claim not to have any religious or spiritual needs? Is this propensity toward atheism not also a trait, worthy of scrutiny under the same Darwinian microscope? A network was established to address this issue—the “Nonreligious and Secularity Research Network” (NSRN)—but evolutionary perspectives remained far from the norm.

Now, a groundbreaking issue of Religion, Brain and Behavior has been devoted to evolutionary studies of atheism and non-belief. It may represent the opening of a new and unexplored continent.

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In her target article on “Understanding atheism/non-belief as an expected individual-differences variable”, Catherine Caldwell-Harris (Boston University) reveals data showing that atheists tend to be on average more individualistic (and slightly less social), more educated, and more analytical and scientifically oriented than their religious peers. Most atheists are male, and there are links to some dominantly male disorders, such as Asperger’s syndrome and autism. Caldwell-Harris argues that atheism can be seen as the “expected individual-differences variable” that is found in almost all complex character traits. In other words, people exhibit varying degrees of musicality, neuroticism, curiosity, etc.—so we should expect the same range of variance concerning religiosity.

In another article, Caldwell-Harris succinctly fleshes out her perspective on atheism as a “by-product of cognitive styles of independent learning and systemizing”. This opening salvo—later on respectfully named the “null hypothesis”—is debated in no less than seven response articles from scholars such as William Sims, Bainbridge, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ralph W. Hood Jr., Dominic Johnson, Lee Kirkpatrick, Crystal Park and John Shook.

The topics raised range from queries into definitions (is there one style of atheism or a variety of polyatheisms?) to the role of environment and culture, at times reaching into some tentatively adaptationist explanations. The entire issue of Religion, Brain and Behavior would have been worth its cover price just for this discussion!

But there’s more. In another target article, Dominic Johnson (University of Edinburgh) asks “What are atheists for?”, presenting some ten competing evolutionary possibilities for the function of non-belief in the evolution of religion. Among the many responses are contributions from eminent scholars in the field, such as Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Armin Geertz, Jonathan Lanman, Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett, Matt Rossano, Benson Saler and Charles Ziegler, Jeffrey Schloss, Viviana Weekes-Shackelford and Todd Shackelford.

Of particular note are: Armin Geertz’s critique of many cognitive studies of religion that rely too heavily on an early and outdated model of evolutionary psychology; and Matt Rossano’s discussion of the difference between non-observable beliefs and evolutionarily relevant behaviors.

Daniel Dennett and his truly “new atheism”

Personally, I cherish “The sleep of reason: do atheists improve the stock?” by Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett. They begin by accepting the hypothesis that religiosity may be adaptive in the Darwinian sense. They then go on to consider whether atheists, though they may not be able to "extinguish religion,” might be able “to provoke its metamorphosis into more benign forms." According to McKay and Dennett, atheists may have "positive effects" by challenging religious traditions, thereby prompting them to adapt and reform. They concede that the opposite could be true, too: that these positive effects may be "outweighed by the hardening of the attitudes of those who feel threatened.” Think of religious creationists refusing to ponder the rich findings of evolutionists or retreating to a more hard-lined stance when confronted with them. Whether you are a theist, agnostic or atheist, McKay and Dennett offer much to think about!

Religion & Demography

Dominic Johnson, Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett also point to empirical findings showing that religiously affiliated people have (on average) more children than the non-religious. This might amount to greater Darwinian fitness, but the issue isn’t settled yet. We might also ponder the risks of overpopulation and the cultural, educational and scientific contributions of atheists to their societies. Ironically, the potential adaptive benefit of atheism(s) places it squarely in the field of multilevel selection—that theoretical cause célèbre so hotly contested among “new atheist” writers such as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and others.

Within a relatively short period of time, Religion, Brain and Behavior has emerged as the leading magazine for evolutionary studies of religion. With this issue, the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) has demonstrated that evolutionary studies of atheism can contribute significantly to a better understanding, not only of evolutionary religious studies, but of the human condition in general.