Templeton Foundation Doesn’t Get Atheism

I missed out on answering this question from the Templeton Foundation on whether or not Atheism is a rational stance.

We know well atheistic attempts to explain religion away. Marx, for example, claims that religion is the opiate of the people. Religion, Nietzsche contends, is weakness lying itself into power. According to Freud religion is a defensive illusion created in the face of “the crushingly superior force of nature.” As influential as these ideas are, they are little more than guesses based on utter speculation.

Marx used this not because opiates were considered bad but because they were considered an addictive escapism from the reality. Marx saw religion as a pacifying tool, the best example can be seen in vast tracts of America where religious people vote for a party that only really benefits the rich. Every damn time the debate is not about the bulk of what the GOP can do but rather about (a) god, abortion, gays and what have you.

That people are willing to accept a terrible thing simply because they are told it’s moral.

If we looked at it rationally, we would see “godly” people make choices that are detrimental to their own life. Christians in the USA often vote for a party that harms the poorest. Muslims encourage a social system that pretends that women are first class citizens when they really are faceless. Hindus have a system that literally causes pointless strife and sadness because of the notion that you are born into a career and a life.

And that’s more valid than the observation that religion is addictive, destructive and soothes the pain of poverty. In an unfair system, religion  propped up the status quo.

Times have changed. From the Agency Detection Device (ADD) toTheory of Mind (ToM), the cognitive faculties involved in the production and sustenance of religious belief are now well known. ADD and ToM, when taken together, are sometimes called “the god-faculty.” The god-faculty produces belief in kin, predators, mates, and enemies, and it produces manifestly false beliefs in such things as ghosts, goblins, and even gods. According to philosopher Daniel Dennett, the god-faculty is a “fiction generating contraption.”

ADD here is a bet. An evolutionary bet that an unexplained phenomenon that may require the presence of an entity should always be treated as if there is an entity. The benefit of this is that things that go bump in the night are to be avoided because around 2 Million years ago when we were making our first tentative steps to modern man, the things that went bump in the night were things that could kill us. It was safer to assume “tiger” than to be a sceptic.

The Theory of Mind too is a similar system, designed to allow us to function. Here we not only assume the “tiger” is making the bump in the night but he wants to eat us. This kept us safe too.

Except when we started running out of “tigers” to fear. So we created more things to fear. Things that could avoid our detection but made noises that scared us because we never figured out what was causing them. So we created beings that made those noises and gave them attributes.

We then realised that our world is ordered. So we probably made some entities that ordered our world. And we created more and more of them.

Atheism, however, has not received much attention. I suspect this is due to the following: the vast majority of those who work on these topics are atheists or agnostics who view religious belief as false and even bizarre. Given this assumption, the project of psychological explanations of religion is to explain how otherwise rational people could hold obviously false beliefs. Unlike religious belief, their own beliefs (agnosticism or atheism), so the narrative goes, are products of coolly rational reflection—the triumph of reason over superstition. The project then is to seek out the malfunction that produces religious belief; atheism gets a free pass.

Except the very definition of the mechanisms mentioned are that the beliefs are false and bizarre especially since we keep demonstrating that there are no monsters, no unicorns, no wizards and most importantly “no gods” and yet we still have to listen to people parrot ancient books about magical beings and TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY.

A god is by the definition used here a very elaborate bogeyman for adults. Something that not only went bump in the night but something we fed our children to in order to make it stop going bump in the night. Oh don’t be coy, nearly every major religion is born out of human sacrifice. The three major religions of Abraham all had no qualms about human sacrifices. Does not the Old Testament mention people wiped out enmasse to satiate the hungry god of Abraham? Does not the New Testament demonstrate a convoluted system of human sacrifice of Jesus? Does not Islam sacrifice hundreds if not thousands of it’s young men on the altar of Jihad for a crueller, sadder and more ugly world? By contrast Hinduism’s rather open history of Human Sacrifice is rather more tame.

And we still sacrifice our children to these gods. Just look at Ken Ham, in his debate there are thousands if not millions of people who genuinely stunt the education of their children and their futures through shoddy education. While not as terrible, this is sacrificing possible futures and encouraging parents to ensure their children do not receive the ideal care they need solely to satisfy the perceived whims of something that does not exist.

But if there are primal urges, neuronal impulses, or psychological drives that influence and even cause belief in God, couldn’t there be similar causes of unbelief? Or are only theists neurotic?

No, it can be a acceptable delusion. A lie told to children that becomes the truth through another evolutionary principle. Kids are gullible. It’s why I believed that if I didn’t eat my spinach I would be attacked by goblins.

There are no real goblins.

And there is no real god. Simply growing out of my fear of goblin revenge for the non-consumption of cruciferous vegetables occurred because adults are not invested in maintaining the charade. We do not regularly go burn cabbage and broccoli to the grand high goblin. We don’t dedicate a day to the consumption of vegetables. We don’t enforce the notion through our laws that this Goblin King is real. It is why we don’t believe in Santa or the Tooth Fairy.

But it is why we believe in a god. Because god is an institutionally protected monster. And he must be real, why else would there be a church if he wasn’t? Why would people put all their effort chasing after something that we know is blatantly false. Why would people have the conviction to kill and die for something that is clearly false?

While it would be nice to be able to settle the rationality or irrationality of belief in God in one fell swoop, Dawkins and Dennett have not done so. The god-faculty is not, for the most part, fiction-generating. ADD and ToM are both perfectly ordinary and truth-conducive. Every time you walk through the mall and see a person and make a judgment about them, you are using those faculties. More often than not, ADD and ToM produce true beliefs. ADD and ToM have occasionally produced false beliefs—we see, as Stewart Guthrie argues, faces in clouds and sometimes turn clouds into gods. But unless we wish to proclaim that we are all irrational for thinking there are other people, then we shouldn’t think the faculties involved are fiction generators.

There is a similar system that attracts moths to lights and indeed fire. It’s navigation by the moon gone “wrong”. Now the majority of Moths live happy lives by navigating by the moon. A handful  die by the candle.

In our world the majority of people believe in gods using these systems.

We can prove other people exist. There is no proof for any gods.

If atheism, on the other hand, were the product of a fiction generating mechanism and one were made aware of this fact, one would be irrational in maintaining one’s atheism. Interestingly, recent studies suggest just such an irrationality contraption. Consider the curious case of famed neurologist, Oliver Sacks.

Except it is not. Atheism is a product of rejecting the monsters outside the camp fire. It is a product of enlightenment rather than a fear of the dark. The dark has fewer terrors now that we know that there are no monsters in it. And we have gained so many things by walking into the dark unknown against the orders of those who fear the angering of their gods.

Sacks was once hiking alone in the mountains of Norway when he happened upon an enormous and cantankerous bull. The bull startled him, and as he fled, he fell down a steep cliff landing with his leg twisted beneath him. In excruciating pain, he fashioned a splint for his dislocated knee and began his lonely and painful descent. On the way, believing himself to be near death he began to feel increasingly desperate. His body was screaming, “Give up,” and his mind was beginning to agree. He was just about to stop when he heard “a strong, clear, commanding voice, which said, ‘You can’t rest here — you can’t rest anywhere. You’ve got to go on. Find a pace you can keep up and go on steadily.’” Yielding to the voice, he found the strength to carry on in spite of the crippling pain in his useless leg. He later wrote, “This good voice, this Life voice, braced and resolved me. I stopped trembling and did not falter again.”

Where some might have come to believe they had heard the still, small voice of God, Sacks, instead, claims the voice was an hallucination. He attributes his hallucination to perfectly ordinary and not uncommon cognitive processes.

Yes, in times of stress we often have these hallucinations or indeed “our own brain referring to ourselves”.

But suppose it wasn’t an hallucination.

So a god has nothing better to do than save Oliver Sacks?

Today I saw a man who suffered from a biblical disease.

His hand was clawed, his fingers flexed. His face was coarse and his features rough. His feet were clubbed and his toes were eroded. This man was feared. He sat apart. The only man who touched him was me. I had no fear. I know what he has. He was a leper.

Why was Oliver Sacks worthy of intervention by this god but not my patient? This god of yours seems to let countless others die by not encouraging them.

If there is a God, one who occasionally speaks to people, then in at least some cases of unbelief, there may be a plausible scientific explanation. Autistic individuals lack, to varying degrees, the ability to impute thoughts, feelings, and desires to personal agents. This undergirds their lack of empathy, which hinders, to varying degrees, their ability to enter into normal interpersonal relationships. The loving parent may speak to them, reach out to them, and embrace them, but the autistic child may be incapable of recognizing and responding to them.

Why is it that the voice of god only does good things. 

Are we suggesting that Oliver heard the “Real” voice of god?

If there is a god. Whenever your argument starts as “Assume a magical being of immense power that can break all known laws of physics and is for all intents omnipotent” your argument is bad. It’s an argument of “oh yeah? My gun has infinity bullets and I am wearing invulnerable armour so you cannot kill me!”

In short, some autistic individuals may be incapable of cognizing a personal God (if there is a God): some are as constitutionally incapable of recognizing a personal God as they are of recognizing a friend.

Oh well done! Your argument is not just deeply offensive to the autistic (there is no shame or crime in being autistic) but also just idiotic.

Because all atheists are incapable of demonstrating the normal gamut of human emotions?

Recent studies demonstrate a correlation between atheism and autism—one is vastly more likely to be an atheist or agnostic if one is autistic. The higher up one is on the Autism Spectrum, the more likely one is to be an atheist.

This just shows an incredible lack of understanding of autism.

Autism’s most “severe” manifestations on the spectrum leave many individuals incapable of maintaining a normal life. The higher up on the autism spectrum the more issues people have dealing with the stress and rigours of daily life to worry about the existence of an entirely fictitious life that they should also worry about.

Psychologists Ara Norenzayan, Will Gervais and Kali Trzeniewski contend that “mentalizing deficits”—the inability to “see” the beliefs, feelings and desires of other persons–incline autistic individuals towards atheism. Since people with higher scores on the Autism Spectrum Quotient had a reduced ability to mentalize, they claim that mentalizing deficits mediated increased tendencies towards atheism and agnosticism. As noted, recent work in cognitive science of religion shows the centrality of mentalizing (which we called above “ToM”) to typical religious beliefs. If God is personal, then a properly functioning ToM may be necessary for belief in God; mentalizing deficits, therefore, may hinder or even prevent belief in God.

Sure what ever. This would be an issue if Atheism was something bad except that it’s not and indeed this entire argument hinges on the existence of a middle eastern sky wizard. And indeed if belief in non-existent beings was considered a good thing.

According to a culturally influential narrative, religious beliefs are irrational because they are caused by unreliable cognitive mechanisms, whereas atheism is rational because it is the product of rational reflection on true beliefs. We have debunked a portion of the narrative: atheism, at least in some cases, is correlated with and mediated by a cognitive deficit.

Actually, atheism is rational because there is no evidence for any gods what so ever and indeed religion seems to be entirely human in creation so believing in a human fantasy creature not only seems like a frightful waste of time and effort it also seems to leave one open to irrational ideas.

We should agree, I think, that if one’s atheism were indeed mediated by a mentalizing deficit, then one’s belief would be irrational (if one were apprised of the cause of one’s belief). But we simply have no idea whether or not any particular person’s belief was produced by a malfunctioning ToM; we can’t peer into another person’s mind to determine if they had been prevented from believing something true by virtue of a malfunctioning cognitive faculty. And if we can’t know if a particular person’s belief was mediated by a cognitive defect or by, for example, deep reflection on the problem of evil, we cannot know if any particular person’s atheism is rational or irrational.

Actually this just seems like an effort to label and dismiss atheist arguments as fundamentally faulty by stating that the common state of mankind is to believe in things that are not there. The article itself admits that the belief in a god is probably down to the normal function of our brains ascribing fantastic intent to unknown things. We know that there is no mind controlling the tornado but once people did. To many people the tornado is a gesture of god’s mercy or wrath depending on how it affects them.

And maybe they are right. In a world where everyone believed in a god, to say that there is no god and risk death is illogical. Why would you take a stand on a principle that nets you nothing but sadness, hate and persecution?

Wouldn’t it be easier to believe in the non-existent god of the Templeton Foundation? Maybe we are irrational for trying to hold ourselves to the evidence and by trying to explain how the world works through rational processes rather than the much simpler invocation of ignorance, 2000 year old books and magic.

Even if the atheism-autism connection were indisputably established, we simply cannot know, in any particular case involving any particular individual, the cognitive processes involved. After all, the studies would show general tendencies of groups of people, tendencies which tell us nothing at all about any particular member of the group. Here’s another way of putting it: not all men are from Mars, not all women are from Venus. And another way: not all women are bad at math and not all men are good at math.Related QuestionsAre We Born Believing in God?Do We Have Souls?


Mathematics bias is a learned cultural deviation. Indian kids do not do badly at mathematics despite having a vagina. I am unaware of any biological or physiological mechanism the uterus possesses that makes women bad at mathematics. I am also unaware of the same mechanisms of the testicles that make men bad at multi-tasking.

Women are bad at mathematics because they are told that they are.

Men are bad at multi-tasking because they never had to do chores. Some men are “good” at multi-tasking because they are trained to multi-task while women are given more tasks that involve multi-tasking so they grow up to be good at them.

Consider an analogy. We know that depression mediates sadness. Nonetheless, we cannot know, in any particular case, if a depressed person is perforce sad or if a sad person is perforce depressed. So, too, we can’t know if any particular atheist suffers from autism or if any particular autistic individual is an atheist (in fact, many autistic individuals claim a personal relationship with God). We simply can’t know if any particular person’s belief or unbelief is the result of a cognitive malfunction, rational reflection, or cultural influences (or a combination thereof).

Actually we can know if a depressive state is caused by sadness or vice versa through the cunning use of patient history.

I am sad because my dog died.

I am sad and I don’t know why.

One is a depressive state due to an event and the other is a depressive state that may be pathological.

With respect to the rationality of atheism and agnosticism, Norenzayan, Gervais, and Trzeniewski offer wise counsel: “We emphasize that our data do not suggest that disbelief solely arises through mentalizing deficits; multiple psychological and socio-cultural pathways likely lead to a complex and overdetermined phenomenon such as disbelief in God.”

Again with that capital “G”, there are millions of gods that were created by man. Most don’t exist anymore. They are dead for all intents and purposes.

We do not weep for them.

However this yet again doesn’t realise the most important point. That EVEN if the lack of belief is down to a neurological state that causes a lack of belief, it doesn’t mean that the original belief is right and good and healthy.

Is atheism’s connection with autism the silver bullet that proves once and for all that atheists are irrational? Given the complexities of both the human mind and human culture, it is impossible to tell.

So when a (philosophically reflective) atheist claims herself to be rational because she believes that the arguments for theism are bad and the arguments against theism are good, I suggest we take her at her word.

There is a caveat to delusion.

Religion is excluded from delusion. When I asked why, my professor joked is that it’s the only  delusion that is culturally acceptable.

It’s okay to hear voices in your head if it’s a god rather than Napoleon. Now this humour may not be to everyone’s taste but in effect it’s the similar character assassination through the usage of stigma of autism to invalidate atheist experiences and indeed the rationale of basing your idea on how the world functions through sceptical thought rather than through the invocation of a god.

Discussion Questions:

1. In what ways might belief in God be similar or dissimilar to unbelief in God?

None. One’s based on evidence of which there is a staggering amount and the other is based on a rather convoluted set of beliefs that are forced to jump through hoops in order to be believable.

2. Are any of these similarities or dissimilarities relevant to what might make belief/unbelief in God rational?

No,  it’s trying to turn atheism into a pathological condition and is as offensive as if I pointed out that religion is naught but a culturally accepted delusion and holds all the hallmarks of it .

The original definition of a delusion comes from Jasper’s Criteria which are:

  • certainty (held with absolute conviction)
  • incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary)
  • impossibility or falsity of content (implausible, bizarre or patently untrue)

And if we look into the themes of delusion, the Delusion of Control (belief an external agent controls your life) is pretty much the very ideal of a life under a god.

There are also delusions of sin (a specific delusion of guilt) and grandiose religious delusions.

And last but not least if you think I am out to get you then I should point out that there is a delusion of persecution.

Now if I said this people would be incensed, they would be livid. How dare we regard religious belief a mental illness! We must respect your imaginary beings and beliefs in them!

Yet we must tolerate such nonsensical character assassination?

3. We often make judgments about the rationality of the beliefs of others (and not so much about our own beliefs). This essay suggests that we don’t have access to what might ground another’s rationality (because we can’t peek into their minds). Do you buy this? If you do, what are some consequences of judging the rationality/irrationality of others?

Actually we can peek into their minds. Most atheists today were not born atheists and came from religious background to non-religious ones through events that made them think outside the rather simplistic and limited scope of religion. They may have learnt science and realised that there is more natural causes for events. There are many such reasons from disillusionment to active dislike.

Most atheists are fine with you believing what you want in the comfort of your own home and head without forcing it on others or using such belief to harm others. It is when your beliefs impinge on others that atheists speak out.

We live in a world where bronze age gods are prayed to for their opinion on medical procedures, treatment of individuals and economic policy. And you think we are the ones who have the problem?


  1. says

    Picture a hypothetical alternative scene from the movie Rosemary’s Baby, specifically one in which the devil is on top of a drugged Rosemary in order to impregnate her with Satan’s prophetic offspring.
    “This is no dream; this is really happening!” she declares.
    “You bet it’s happening, baby,” Satan confirms to her smugly, for he perceives himself as the studly devil that many might attribute to such a powerful, feared entity.
    Then in a second cartoon square (or whatever) above which it reads, “About thirty seconds later, Satan climaxes.”
    As the devil appears pleased with his performance, Rosemary, however, looking up at him quite disappointed, says, “What? Is that it?!”

  2. otranreg says

    I’ve looked up the fuller quote by Marx, which is:

    “Die Religion ist der Seufzer der bedrängten Kreatur, das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt, wie sie der Geist geistloser Zustände ist. Sie ist das Opium des Volkes.”

    ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, it is the heart of a heartless world, as it is the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ This way the meaning of escapism, and the role of religion in masking the real causes of oppression, heartlessness and soullessness, is more obvious.

    Although I do think that sometimes it means that religion is ‘Reefer Madness’ waiting to happen. :)

  3. machintelligence says

    One good anecdote deserves another.
    A foolish mountain climber was attempting a solo ascent when one of his anchors pulled loose and he fell to dangle at the end of his safety rope. He had injured his shoulder during the fall, so that he could not climb back up the rope. As he dangled over a deep canyon he cried out “Is there anyone here who can help me?”

    Suddenly the clouds parted and a heavenly light shown down. A mighty voice said “I can help you. Take out your knife and cut the rope.”

    The climber took out his knife. He looked at the rope and then looked at the knife. Then he cried out “Is there anyone else who can help me?”

  4. smrnda says

    I really thought the supposed autism link was absolutely terrible, and attempting to reason anything from there is really misusing causality.

    I personally have no idea about the prevalence of neuro-atypical individuals who are atheists, but I suspect that given the fact that some autistic people prefer online socialization and many atheists encounter other atheists online more often than in person it could just be a factor of autistic persons doing a lot of online socialization.

  5. GuyThroway says

    Yeah! Good stuff. Reject a scientific hypothesis because it offends you! You’re right. There’s no possible way that autism spectrum traits could be associated with atheism. Lets not investigate that because it might be used by mean Christians to be rude. Science is best done by people who formulate a conclusion ahead of the data based on their emotions!

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