The Sputtering Engine of Creator Belief

Gregory S. Paul

This article was stimulated by two articles and a commentary in a recent issue that the author feels insufficiently noted dramatic declines in religious belief. He offers his arguments and analyzes the data on those declines in this article. Following it we present an extended comment from one of our original authors, James E. Alcock. —The Editors

In the September/October 2018 Skeptical Inquirer, three articles made related mistakes. One, by James Alcock, was based on the common belief that religion is highly popular and enduring because it is a natural consequence of the way brains work from childhood on up. Gregg Davidson and company asserted that because little if any progress is being made concerning the popularity of creationist belief versus evolutionary science in the United States, effective methods must be urgently developed and deployed to improve the situation. Third, Lorence Collins stated that nearly half of Americans think our planet is just ten millennia old.

As for the first assertion, to confirm that juvenile-derived cognition plays a big role in the popularity of theism in adult populations, the hypothesis must be compatible with and convincingly explain the large-scale demographics of atheism and theism. Yet Alcock presents no statistical data relevant to the popularity of theism versus atheism either longitudinally over time, or laterally over nations, to confirm or deny his psychology-based hypothesis. It is a hypothesis that would not be taken seriously in, say, Denmark, where most are casual atheists to one degree or another. As for Davidson et al., they failed to cite the survey results showing that support for Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is rising rapidly at the expense of creationism in these United States and is doing so largely because American atheism is growing by leaps and bounds in direct contradiction to the errant idea that religion is the normal human condition. Nor does survey data support Collins’s contention that so many Americans are so profoundly deluded.

There certainly are mental items that are truly universal and natural to at least reasonably healthy adult human minds and necessary for societies to function. These include sophisticated language skills, which all capable adults must and do have to get along in society and which all competent adults must possess if societies are to function on a daily basis. That’s a reason we have really big, complex brains and why we have such sophisticated vocal tracts. Another universal human item is materialism, the desire to create and possess stuff. That is another reason we have such big brains and is why we have opposable thumbs. Also nearly universal is the desire for sex—without that it’s hard to reproduce the species.

The premise that almost all humans are inherently religious stems to a great extent from the thesis that children are highly gullible for assorted reasons, including overactive pattern recognition that leads to unsubstantiated but often ardent belief in undetectable, magical things such as deities, which is true, followed by the assumption that adults are highly prone to retaining juvenile gullibility, which is exaggerated to the point of an unsubstantiated mythology. The reason we don’t allow kids to run societies is because they are too immature to do so. The reason we have mentally competent adults to run societies is because for all our failings most of us are not that gullible. Another problem with the hypothesis that mass religion stems from children being automatically prone to magical and supernatural thinking is that they are taught such notions by adults, so it is more likely that kids are being contaminated by grownups than the reverse.

Scientifically testing the problem is not at all hard to do. For theism of some form or another to be truly universal to human brains like language, materialism, and sex, it must be consistently the near total opinion of all societies over all of time, with atheism being rare and hard to get to. And if juvenile cognition is critical to mass theism, then religiosity should tend to decline with the rising maturity of increasing age. If, on the other hand, the degree of theism is highly variable among societies, then adult atheism tends to be highest among youth, and being an atheist is not all that hard or is even the easy option among many—if not most—in societies where atheism is not imposed by atheistic dictatorships. Religion, then, abjectly cannot be the universal, natural condition for the species, and all theories as to why we are strongly predisposed to be pious—including children as magical thinkers—are automatically false or at least exaggerated.

It’s not like the data are not on hand to determine the reality. We all know these days that levels of atheism and theism vary tremendously in democratic societies, with some being highly atheistic (Norris and Ingelhart 2004; Paul 2009; Paul 2010b; Zuckerman 2008; Rees 2009; Barber 2011; Bruce 2011). Sociologist Phil Zuckerman (2008) spent time in Denmark, where around half are atheists of some sort or another and most of the rest are not ardent believers. His interviews of Danes found that most really did not care all that much about matters theist or atheist; it was of little import to them. Spain and Germany are at least as nonreligious; the Netherlands, France, Japan, and Sweden even more so. Belief in an afterlife is on the wane—all this despite the lack of a major organized atheistic movement and in the face of organized theism. The churches of the developed democracies have largely emptied out, and as Eurosociologist Steven Bruce (2011) has shown, the great majority of those losing their Christianity are not turning to alternative spiritualities.

To the best of my knowledge, brain function is about the same in Spain, Germany, Holland, France, Japan, and Sweden as in, say, the United States. There is no mention by Alcock of the tremendous disparity in popular nonreligiosity in developed democracies that absolutely falsifies the premise that religious supernaturalism is the natural consequence of how human brains work. Also unmentioned is how the popularity of atheism/theism varies tremendously between Manhattan and San Francisco versus Birmingham and Tulsa. There is a long-standing myth that the United States will always be highly religious. This is not true. Surveys were observing a slide in Amerotheism in the late 1900s. Nowadays it is more like an avalanche. In this century, Harris (2013), RedC (2012), PRRI, World Values Survey, Pew (2015a), GSS, Gallup—in surveys titled “American’s Belief in God, Miracles and Heaven Declines,” and “Nones on the Rise”—are all measuring spectacular increases in irreligion, with those who lack religion soaring from around 30 to some 40 percent of the population in just a decade or so. That’s ten percent of the total population losing their religion in just ten years, probably the maximal rate possible! Americans are notoriously reluctant to admit irreligiosity, and Pew (2014) has calculated that half of Americans actually qualify as nonreligious, with two thirds of millennials being such; that young adults are the least religious is not in line with the thesis that the magical thinking of childhood is a primary cause of adult religiosity. Harris (2013) found that those who are at least marginally atheist (in that they are not at least somewhat certain God exists) rose from a fifth to a third in just a decade. A study designed to account for Americans’ tendency to underreport their atheism, as well as modern polling issues that make it harder to sample irreligious youth (Pew 2010), confirms that about a quarter or more are probably atheists of some level (Gervais and Najle 2018). On the corresponding downslope are church membership and attendance, with studies indicating that only a quarter or less of Americans attend church on a regular basis. Alcock makes no mention of this remarkable proof that religion—not language, materialism, or sex—is easy to lose among the masses.

Rising Support for Evolution, Atheism, and Nonreligion

This includes the global masses. According to RedC (2012) as well as World Values Survey stats, the nonreligious rose from around 30 to 40 percent across the globe in about a decade. Don’t be fooled by the ongoing rise of the religious hard Right; that’s a reactionary counteraction to an increasingly secular world (Paul 2012).

It is not just modern nation states that exhibit varying levels of religiosity. Levels of theism vary greatly among surviving hunter-gatherer tribes, with the likes of the Hadza, Mbuti, Aka, Siriono, and Botocudo lacking belief in an afterlife and shamans and not having much in the way of rituals (Paul 2010a; Paul 2012; Peoples et al. 2016). It is possible, if not probable, that many prehistoric tribes were similarly religious minimalists. Lacking major gods popular among the masses and large-scale organized priesthoods, the Chinese civilization has always been much less religious than its deeply theistic Indian counterpart.

The real question is not why adults are not religious but why they so often are—after all, there is no actual compelling evidence that any gods exist. Because being religious is nowhere close to being as universal as the things our brains are actually genetically preprogrammed to do—all that talking, making and getting stuff, and having intercourse—it has to be outside environmental influences that are largely responsible. The main factor is socioeconomics. It is not an accident that the 10 percent of the total population increase in the global nonreligious closely tracks with the planetary rise in the middle class. I and others have published peer-reviewed technical studies showing that the better off the people in a first world nation are in most socioeconomic factors, the less religious they tend to be.

Rising Biblical Skepticism at the Expense of Literalism

That makes real psychosociological sense. When people are chronically stressed and anxious because life is persistently difficult—the status of most people over human history—there is a temptation to mentally self-medicate by appealing to speculative supernatural entities to alleviate that anxiety, in the hope that the extraordinary powers will improve the discontented daily lives and offer a superior afterlife. Conversely, dramatically reduce the chronic anxiety by placing the great majority of a population in a prosperous, secure modern middle class, and most casually lose interest in seeking the aid and comfort of dubious deities that science has removed the intellectual need for (Norris and Inglehart 2004; Paul 2009; Paul 2010b; Paul 2012; Zuckerman 2008; Rees 2009; Barber 2011; Bruce 2011).

To that add how for the past two centuries the corporate-consumer-industrial complex in its constant drive for profits and desire for material things has been working to convert frugal, tithing, church-going, spiritual, square, sexually repressed citizens into hedonistic, hip, sex- and sports-obsessed, materialist consumers who go into interest-generating debt buying stuff rather than spending Sundays in pious contemplation (Paul 2010b). Digital social media are detaching masses of people, especially youth, from the social clubs, including religious ones that try to pressure individuals and populations to be godly. The increasingly aggressive advocacy of explicit atheist opinion is not hurting matters.

The churches—often riven by scandals and lacking the budgets to compete with corporate advertising—are proving unable to cope with these overwhelming forces of modernity. Without deliberately trying to do so, they are exploiting the fact that human brains are not nearly as interested in matters religious as they are in things material, so religion always rapidly implodes in developed democracies and much of the rest of the world.

Indeed, religion is sufficiently weak that it is not always well developed in underdeveloped peoples, as noted earlier. And unlike the human fundamentals of language, materialism, and sex, societies can do fine without the majority succumbing to religious thinking. For religion to thrive requires a combination of seriously suboptimal socioeconomics and substantial organized theopropoganda. The latter includes familial pressure to retain the family faith. However, with rapidly increasing numbers of irreligious parents, many youth are not being sufficiently contaminated by the magical supernaturalism of adults to share the urge to keep said faith; instead they are prone to be more rationally nontheistic.

The data are definitive. There is not a powerful “god engine” inside human minds—juvenile or adult—that is driving the masses to be pious. The magical thinking of juveniles may play some role or may not—we need better information on kids in atheistic democracies to sort that out. Are Danish tykes as supernaturalistic in their thinking as American children and then become more rational or do the former start out as skeptics from early on because of what they learn from irreligious parents?

It follows that religion is not the nearly inevitable result of how the brain works that has to be intellectually beaten out of childishly gullible adults to convince them via hard, science-based thought to become nonreligious. Theism is an optional opinion that often but not always is adopted by mass majorities when their life circumstances are sufficiently dysfunctional and when enough people in leadership positions are exploiting such situations to establish religious power structures. It follows, then, that the discretionary opinion that is theism is easily, inevitably, and usually casually cast off when the life circumstances of the majority are sufficiently pleasant enough for most to no longer feel the need to go to the considerable trouble to petition powers of dubious reality. 

The rise of nontheism is at the increasing expense of an increasingly frantic American religious Right (Dickerson 2013), including creationism. Gallup has been measuring a steady and strong decline in biblical literalism, which used to be about four in ten when Reagan was president, while biblical skepticism has persistently risen from one in ten. Both biblical literalism and biblical skepticism are now about one in four. While those who favor evolutionary science fret with considerable good reason over Ken Ham’s Ark Park, which is not drawing quite the megacrowds he promised, the newest 2017 Gallup poll (Gallup 2017a; Gallup 2017b)—that Davidson et al. do not attend to because they continued to cite an obsolete 2014 Gallup compilation that was the latest available for the original GSA Today version of their article (the later SI edition should have been updated in view of the new data)—titled “In U.S., Belief in Creationist View of Humans at New Low,” found that support for humans being created by God in the past few thousand years has, after slipping over the past ten years, dropped to the upper thirties. Even more important, those who agree with godless evolution have progressively doubled since the turn of the century to one in five. The 2013 Harris survey subtitled “Belief in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Rises” that Davidson et al. missed found that the support for such rose from 42 to 47 percent in a decade. According to a shorter term, more irregular Pew (2015b) sampling, those who think humans evolved in a natural manner rose from 32 to 35 percent in five years. So we have scientific evolution gaining 5 percent of total national opinion each decade.

As for who actually believes what, the oft-cited Gallup result that a very large minority of Americans think humans date back no more than ten millennia does not mean that all said citizens think the planet is that young. It is very probable that many who answer yes to people being that recent are fine with Earth being many millions of years old. With about a quarter claiming to be biblical literalists, and presuming that figure is theoinflated by the polling biases noted above, this suggests that a fifth or less are young-Earth creationists. The number who buy into the entire fundamentalist creationist line regarding the flood, the ark, dinosaurs as historical dragons, etc., is likely to be less than that. That about a quarter to a third of Americans are at least marginal atheists means that at least that many accept entirely naturalistic evolution, but so do a significant number of theists. At the same time, the Harris results indicating even higher support for the Darwinian theory may be somewhat inflated because some respondents did not realize it excludes the involvement of a creator. Therefore, perhaps a third to four tenths are evolutionists, as indicated by the Pew results. The rest of the population is some form of more moderate creationist, including those who accept intelligent design, mixed with those who might believe that humans were created by God in the past few thousand years but think that believing such humans rode dinosaurs that went extinct millions of years before is absurd nonsense.

The reason that bioevolution is quickly becoming more popular in the United States is obvious enough: atheists are automatically not creationists, and with the nontheist cohort soaring so rapidly, it is inevitable that pro-evolution opinion will be pulled up behind it. Irreligion is rising faster than support for bioevolution because many who convert from theism to atheism were already pro-evolution before making the switch to rationality. Only if acceptance of evolution was climbing more rapidly than atheism could the former be attributed mainly to theists becoming evolutionists while remaining theists. Another factor, ironically enough, may be the hardline creationists themselves. The leading fundamentalist of the late 1900s, Duane Gish of the then-predominant Institute for Creation Research, was an avuncular, grandfatherly, middle-of-the-country American able to come across as a man of faith who merely wanted his views on human origins presented to public school students. Ken Ham is a somewhat odd-appearing and odd-sounding Australian who through the aggressive propaganda campaign of his Answers in Genesis has done more than anyone to explain that biblical literalists really are sufficiently delusional to think humans lived with dinosaurs that were killed off by armored knights after departing an Ark. Not that the Discovery Institute’s less deeply bizarre intelligent design movement exemplified by Phillip Johnson’s Wedge Strategy using Michael Behe’s theory of irreducible complexity to make creationism acceptable in academe and then the public at large has been able to stem much less reverse the pro-evolution trend. That the biotech industry has worked to keep such pseudoscience from contaminating the education system has something to do with that.

Therefore, the substantial decrease in the popularity of creationism to the benefit of modern science is a rare—but somewhat underappreciated—success of the proscience skeptical community. Levels of belief in other forms of pseudoscience are apparently fairly static. It’s good news that should be celebrated rather than ignored in the pages of SI. Progress is sufficient that the National Center for Science Education and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have somewhat downplayed their anti-creationist efforts of late in favor of increasing outreach concerning climate change denial. That does not, however, mean that the need to better educate the public, especially students, about the scientific reality of bioevolution as argued by Davidson et al. has ceased. America remains the most pro-creationist Western nation. This is in turn largely a function of the country being the most religious in the West. But the pro-evolution effort is not, as Davidson et al. portrayed, in a state of crisis, with creationism remaining at least as popular as it has long been and with their project needing to at long last begin to effectively address and defeat a well-entrenched pseudoscience. Instead, the pro-evolution effort is a means of trying to accelerate an already winning trend. Whether attempting to boost the popularity of evolution among theists is effective has not been scientifically confirmed and is open to question considering how the growth of atheism can entirely explain the improving situation. But in addition to the ethical necessity, the only way to speed up acceptance of evolution beyond the current rate of 5 percent of the total population per decade is by increasing the support of the science by those theists who do not go atheist. Increasing outright conversion to atheism over its already demographically steep upslope is probably not practical.

Also of concern is the current political resurgence of the religious Right that promises to increase governmental validation of creationist outreach via sympathetic court decisions made by creationism-tolerant judges appointed by theoconservative sympathetic officeholders. The most important reason that the conservative religious minority has so much power in the United States is a major and chronic political failure of the more rational majority, specifically a failure to vote at the same per capita rate as the religious Right. That can be largely solved by secular, proscience voters consistently turning up at the polls, as is the duty and responsibility of full citizens in a democracy.

One reason I wrote this piece is it is of course vital for the skeptical community to always be as up to date as possible. Yet I am observing a chronic failure among many skeptics and evolutionists to be familiar with the latest data. In this case, the ignorance of the Harris results on nonreligion, atheism, and evolution are especially vexing. Far from the state of the evolution versus creationism popularity contest being static in America, science is winning this one. The creationism problem can be expected to further recede as the forces of modernity continue to boost atheist opinion at the expense of theism, but there is a long way to go to victory.


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Gregory S. Paul

Gregory S. Paul is an independent evolutionary scientist and paleontologist with interests in the relationship between science and religion. His books include Dinosaurs of the Air (Johns Hopkins University Press) and Beyond Humanity (coauthor Earl Cox, Charles River Media, 1996).

This article was stimulated by two articles and a commentary in a recent issue that the author feels insufficiently noted dramatic declines in religious belief. He offers his arguments and analyzes the data on those declines in this article. Following it we present an extended comment from one of our original authors, James E. Alcock. …

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