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Dec 21 2013

Will Obamacare produce more atheists?

Chris Mooney makes the case that the Affordable Care Act could eventually result in more people becoming atheists. Why?

He looks at the well-studied phenomenon that levels of religious belief tend to be lowest in countries that have the most extensive safety nets. He quotes researcher on the psychology of religion Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia, who finds that atheists tend to differ from believers in three ways.

The first is that atheists do less of something he calls ‘mentalizing’ which is “the idea that we have a basic social cognitive capacity to infer and read the minds of other people”. Mentalizing helps you connect with and relate to others (which is of course a good thing) but it apparently also predisposes one to being religious.

The second feature is that atheists tend to have an analytical thinking style that favors in-depth, purposeful thought as opposed to the intuitive style of the more religious.

The third is the significance of a sense of existential security. Societies that “have access to health care and a strong social safety net, that there is a strong rule of law, but also that they are not facing deadly diseases or natural disasters—tend toward less religion and also more tolerance of atheism.”

It is this last feature that Mooney depends upon heavily to make his case. I find it amusing but a bit of a stretch. There is more to security than health care and in many measures US policies are leading to greater insecurity (less job security, cutting of welfare benefits and unemployment insurance, reduced support for important and even essential public services) that might well swamp any benefits from improved health care.

So Mooney’s main thesis should be taken with a large grain of salt but his description of Norenzayan’s work, that existential security, an analytical style of thinking, and reduced need for connection with others are the conditions conducive to atheism, is interesting. At the very least, it describes me.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    colnago80

    The most outrageous bill that the Rethuglicans propose is the cutting of food stamps, considering that most of the people on them are children. Family values indeed. Not.

  2. 2
    AnotherAnonymouse

    So, religion is what people turn to when they haven’t got a prayer of support? Sorry, I’ll show myself out now…

  3. 3
    PauloOne

    In Europe god has been substituted by the socialist state.
    It hardy makes any sense to pray to a god when most of the things that people used to pray from now fall under the responsibility of the state. Besides, when things don’t go the expected way, it’s much easier to blame a government than an almighty, omniscient invisible entity.

  4. 4
    Nathair

    it’s much easier to blame a government than an almighty, omniscient invisible entity.

    Especially as that government actually exists,

  5. 5
    smrnda

    I agree that if the things you need get delivered by technology, government programs and a social safety net, there’s not much left for gods to do.

    I want to read more about this ‘mentalizing’ process he’s talking about. From what it sounds like, he seems to be making a case that religious people *think* they know what other people are thinking, which does seem consistent with their willingness to say that people who are homosexual are just doing it to disgust Christians and piss off god, that atheists really believe in god but are just angry with the god, and so on. Perhaps it’s that, without a religion that pretends to have all the answers, atheists have to admit they don’t necessarily know what other people think or why?

  6. 6
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    And here I was having a relaxing evening. Why why why did you have to post about Mooney?* This might have to be a multiparter.

    What he’s doing here is largely showing what an obedient Templeton shill he really is. The first two points – and note that Ara Norenzayan is also a Templeton…recipient – show his agenda very clearly. They have nothing logically to do with the ACA, but they serve a few purposes:

    1) They suggest that religious belief is natural, “instinctive,” intuitive, and evolved for some or all people (with the subtext that atheism is not). (This is of course highly silly, since he’s talking about how a social policy could change people’s beliefs dramatically, which wouldn’t be the case if religion were so deeply ingrained.)

    2) They suggest that some of the alleged qualities of religious people are very positive and good. Religious people are more compassionate and empathetic, and so on. (Again, the connection to the ACA is what, exactly?**) Mooney offers:

    On a social level, mentalizing helps you connect with and relate to others; the surprise is that it also predisposes one to religiosity. Religious believers the world over seem to relate personally to a God whose mind they feel they can understand, almost as if that God is a friend or neighbor. “When people enter into a relationship with a supernatural agent, they are basically engaging their mentalizing tendencies,” explains Norenzayan.

    How is this supposed to make sense? People connect and relate to others by inventing a fake god through which they then view real others? Ridiculous.

    He wants to psychologize, and through this naturalize, religious belief, just as he’s tried pathetically to do with conservatism.

    * I hope this isn’t one of those “tests” you mentioned. :)

    ** It would seem like a secular policy of compassion, empathy, and social thinking.

  7. 7
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Also, note the implication of the title of Norenzayan’s book: Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. It’s unwise to judge a book by its title, but some of the comments lead me to think that he’s making the false argument that it’s religion that led to empathy and social consciousness. For example,

    And it’s not just Denmark. There are a number of nonreligious societies in the world, including many Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and China and also most European countries. So what makes them tick? “The way I would put it is that these societies climbed the ladder of religion and then kicked it away,” says Norenzayan. [my emphasis]

    The ladder of religion, indeed.

    What this line of thinking suggests is that passing a major US policy change like Obamacare could, in the long run, produce more atheism by making people’s lives more secure.

    This is hardly an original argument. There have been several studies suggesting it, and I’ve even mentioned it on my blog. Anarchists recognized it a century ago.

  8. 8
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Americans don’t like atheists much.

    Because Americans and atheists are separate categories.

  9. 9
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    The implications for atheists? They are notorious for loving to debate and argue,

    Because anti-faith and pro-science activism is all about our “notorious” love for debating and arguing, and has nothing to do with social justice.

    but perhaps they should focus less on trying to convince people that God doesn’t exist, and more on bettering people’s lives all around them.

    No, I’m going to keep focusing on both, Mooney, since they’re impossible to separate. But nice try.

  10. 10
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Libertarian atheists like Penn Jilette

    Who of course represent all atheists. And as opposed to your sponsors.

  11. 11
    left0ver1under

    Will Obamacare produce more atheists?

    No, it won’t. Many of the rightwingnuts whined loudest about “government handouts”, “welfare queens” and food stamps were those using medicare and government subsidies.

    Anything can be rationalized by the irrationally religious, including the acceptance of “rationed care”.

  12. 12
    John Morales

    From the OP:

    So Mooney’s main thesis should be taken with a large grain of salt but his description of Norenzayan’s work, that existential security, an analytical style of thinking, and reduced need for connection with others are the conditions conducive to atheism, is interesting. At the very least, it describes me.

    It describes a lot of people, but note there is no claim that those factors are sufficient — not even that they are necessary — only that they are conducive.

    [meta]

    SC, you’re not the only one who twitched at the invocation of Mooney.

  13. 13
    TTT

    I heard something about Obama repealing Obamacare

  14. 14
    Nick Gotts

    In Europe god has been substituted by the socialist state. – PauloOne

    There aren’t any socialist states in Europe – so I suppose they make a good substitute for non-existent gods! The economic system in every European state is capitalist; the term you need is welfare state. The welfare state (pensions, education and health and social care free at the point of delivery, sickness and unemployment insurance for all, paid parental leave…) is a set of concessions forced from the capitalist ruling class through generations of struggle – and one which is now being taken away, at varying speeds, in every European state.

    I don’t know about Norenzayan’s first two points, but his third is well-supported.

  15. 15
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    The implications for atheists? They are notorious for loving to debate and argue, but perhaps they should focus less on trying to convince people that God doesn’t exist, and more on bettering people’s lives all around them.

    This line is still making me laugh. It doesn’t seem there’s any issue Mooney could examine that would lead him to a conclusion other than: atheists should shut up about faith and the nonexistence of any gods and do something else. You could of course look at the same data and conclude that the political situation will improve for anti-faith activism – that this presents not just an advance in social justice but an opportunity to reach people about reality-based politics, and so a good moment to redouble our efforts. But no, for people like Mooney and Stedman only one conclusion can follow, leading them to repeat once again the same unsolicited advice: Shut up, atheists, and do something else.*

    *The advice to do something else, as I said, ignores both that anti-faith/pro-science activism is itself an aspect of social justice activism and that plenty of atheists are already doing the things he advises (which are by no means incompatible with epistemic activism). But then it’s not really aimed at vocal atheists, so many of whom have made it very clear that we’re not interested in his obnoxious recommendations. It’s aimed at religious people and his fellow accommodationists, confirming through repetition that their image of gnu atheists is real and true.

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