Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jul/10

12

Atheists may lack essence

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Just listened o Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, on a podcast (mp3). He notes that the chain of possession of items impacts how much pleasure we gain out of ownership, or at least our attachment to them. As an example, it is not unknown for people to be attached to the clothes and other personal items of a loved one who has passed away. The attachment may not derive from any sensory empirical rationale; rather, it is knowing the chain of possession and a sentiment that an essence of the loved one has been imparted (yes, I know that clothes may sometimes retain distinctive scents, but discount those details. The example holds true for objects such as pens which retain no sensory trace).

The strength of this sentiment varies from person to person. Bloom observes that there are individuals who have no sentimental attachment to objects at all. That is, individuals for whom objects are simply means to a bundle of ends, pure utility. So long as the bundle of elements remains invariant objects can be substituted at will. Bloom contends two demographic variables seem to common among this set of individuals who lack any sentiment toward objects:

1) Overwhelmingly male

2) Invariably atheist

(note that this does not entail that most males or atheists are circumscribed by this set!)


As someone who believes that the deep neurobiological root of theism is rooted in sentiment I find this eminently plausible. Perhaps one reason that atheists are unpopular in American society is that atheists are often so psychologically abnormal, and lacking in conventional sentiment and emotional response.

For what it’s worth, I probably lean toward the set who lack sentiment toward objects. In fact, I have difficulty keeping track of the objects which I notionally possess as my private property excluding my books. And even in the case of my books I keep only technical references. Fiction, popular science nonfiction, and nonfiction out of my domain of primary focus (e.g., this scholarly book I reviewed) I have no compunction with throwing away or selling to the used book store, because I never re-read such works.

But, I understand that other humans are imbued with much more sentiment in general. And this understanding has not only given me a better descriptive understanding of modal human psychology, but has somewhat reshaped my prescriptive politics. My conservatism, believe it or not, is rooted in an acknowledgment of the moral sentiments of the majority of humankind which lay outside of the a priori deductions of political philosophers, and the thin individualist ethical framework of libertarians and liberals.

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16 comments

  • Mark E · July 12, 2010 at 7:11 am

    I too “lean toward the set who lack sentiment toward objects.” The link to atheism is interesting. I think of myself as agnostic but am close to atheism – as is a sibling with whom I have disagreements about the disposal of family objects (he tends to be attached to them, me not). This issue also makes me think of the sort of rules and training that religious orders have regarding sentiment – you know, no attachment to things, nor even special attachments to people (i.e. no favorites amongst the community). And (most) monks and nuns etc. are far from being atheists. And plausibly people with minimal sentimental attachments would be the very ones most drawn to the monasteries. No?

  • RandyB · July 12, 2010 at 10:05 am

    I wonder if this is part of the reason that religion is so strong in rural areas. Most ruralites today live on or near land that’s been in their family for a long time, so it feels like part of their genaology.

  • prelevent · July 12, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    I would seem to be an outlier. I am an atheist, but I do tend to have a great capacity for sentimentality. It is most evident in keeping basically worthless items that were part of or instrumental to some kind of an important event in my life. I still have the lighter that my grandfather had in his possession the day he died. I don’t use it, and so its purpose as a lighter ceased to be when it became my possession. It is almost a talisman to remind me of my own mortality (he died of smoking related heart disease).

    However, my sister (half sister) has very little sentimentality. She is also an atheist, but she does not carry attachments for many things, especially things that have no real use or value.

    I wonder if the type or strain of atheism that a person has influences this, or is influenced by it? I think that I am more along the lines of a Nietzschien atheist out of taste reinforced by my interests in science, while my sister is more along the lines of a basic non-religious person (she is also a scientist).

    I wonder how far this concept would extend beyond personal sentiment. For instance, items in a museum. Stone carvings and other such things. Most of these things have no practical value, and they are only demonstrations of what some group of people did or were involved with at some point in history. They are reference points between cultures at different times. In some ways this might be the ultimate example of sentiment.

  • Author comment by David Hume · July 12, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    I would seem to be an outlier

    not necessarily. just because most people of category X are also of category Y, does not mean that most people of category Y are of category X. X may be a small subset of Y.

    concretely, most people who may lack sentimentality toward objects may be atheists. but that does not necessarily mean that most people who are atheists lack sentimentality toward objects.

  • Susan · July 12, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Call me an agnostic packrat. I really think the impulse to keep things that may have no demonstrable or immediately obvious intrinsic/commercial worth may be more related to temperament or even profession than religious belief (or lack of it) and sex. (My brother’s worse than I am.) I have a professional interest in history, which I think has more to do with my desire to preserve bits and pieces of my own past more than does my irreligiosity.

  • John · July 13, 2010 at 12:07 am

    I’m an atheist who is moderate on the sentimentality scale. If you offered me $50 to take my car and replace it with an exact replica, I would have no problem taking the deal, but there is no way I would do that with grandpa’s old liquor bottle.

  • Christoph · July 13, 2010 at 4:17 am

    But, I understand that other humans are imbued with much more sentiment in general. And this understanding has not only given me a better descriptive understanding of modal human psychology, but has somewhat reshaped my prescriptive politics. My conservatism, believe it or not, is rooted in an acknowledgment of the moral sentiments of the majority of humankind which lay outside of the a priori deductions of political philosophers, and the thin individualist ethical framework of libertarians and liberals.

    As a fellow secularist, all I can say is hear and hear.

    A very honest, well written article, and the last part is almost touching.

  • Jim A · July 13, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    As a Christian I always find curious the impulse of atheists in attempting to explain the habits and defining characteristics of theistic believers. To the point of the article, the logical outworking of what Jesus taught for example in regards to “things of this world” (ie “stuff”) would in fact make a consistent Christian and a non sentimental atheist remarkably similar.

    Where the differences end however is in the explanations for moral and ethical frameworks and in defining the love that the article insinuates as the root cause of the sentimentality. There the Christian still remains consistent.

  • Laura · July 13, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I have doubts about this study. I probably don’t know enough atheists to be able to guess which ones are sentimental and which are not towards objects. As for me, I’m female and a Christian and I definitely connect sentimentality to objects. I tend to collect things; books, antique and vintage sewing machines and ephemera. Some of these things have a sort of sentimental value to me because they are like things that my great-grandmother had or that she would have been interested in. I have two items that belonged to her, a cameo brooch and an embroidered handkerchief, and they have probably the least value but the greatest attachment for me. I kept some items of clothing from when my children were babies, too, some of which I made. Definite sentimental value. :)

  • Cynthia · July 13, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    ” atheists are unpopular…atheists are often so psychologically abnormal, and lacking in conventional sentiment and emotional response.”

    What a load of crap!

    Atheists are not psychologically abnormal, at least not because they don’t happen to believe in a higher power. Sentiment and emotional beliefs have nothing to do with atheism and just because some jerks named Bloom and Hume say so, doesn’t make it true.

    We are who we are — good, bad, sentimental, indifferent, loving, cold — you name it. All due to a lot of different factors in life.

    Don’t let these guys cause you to question yourself.

  • perelandra · July 13, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    I am a female, deeply committed, long-term Christian, and I would have no problem letting go of any of my possessions or something belonging to a much-loved one. I have no need of “things” in my life just to “have” them, no matter the reason. It’s funny/odd to me that atheists lack of desire for sentimental objects is truly no different than what Jesus preached to his disciples what their understanding should be about possessions. He specifically said they should keep and carry with them nothing other than the clothes on their backs. He also said that true Christians in other towns to which they traveled would provide all they needed, i.e., a place to sleep and food and even money if they needed it. He also told one of his followers to leave his own father to be buried by the people who were not planning to follow him.

    Jesus life to me is a pure example of how not to hold on to “things.” Because they are truly only that…things.

  • dissident · July 13, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    It’s not proper to speak about sentimentality, atheism, without abortion, no? To the unsentimental, the fetus is just flesh.

  • Hal McCombs · July 13, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Perhaps one reason that atheists are unpopular in American society is that atheists are often so psychologically abnormal, and lacking in conventional sentiment and emotional response.

    Atheists are psychologically abnormal? In what universe is this news?

    Atheists have an incredibly high incidence of depression, which can manifest itself as severe hostility toward “less intelligent” people. If you guys could stand up against that, you just might feel better about being whom you choose to be.

  • Nonmythologist · July 13, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    I am a man that does have sentimential attachment to objects. These range from a fedora that my grandfater wore to pebbles from a beach that i visited. I am a non-mythologist. That is to say that all religions are myth base control structures to control the people through some form of fear. I do not subscribe to that form of mind control.

  • Tim · July 13, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    I would like to point out that correlation does not mean the same as causation.

  • kurt9 · July 13, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    I don’t agree with this attachment to objects argument at all.

    I believe the way to look at the religious vs non-religious issue is to approach it from the standpoint of internal vs. external locus of control. People with strong internal locus of control tend to view religion is superfluous because they don’t need it. In contrast, those with external locus of control place a great deal of importance on religious belief because they believe it necessary to keep people (including themselves) on the “straight and narrow”.

    Transhumanists and libertarians tend to have strong internal locus of control. So do many business leaders and professionals. Such people tend to not be very religious, although there are notable exceptions in the case of business leaders (I’ve known successful business people who are very religious, but they tend to be the exception).

    In contrast, many people who have a more fatalistic attitude towards life often are religious. Most notably, Islam is well-known for its fatalism. But many Christian variants tend to be fatalistic as well. It was the Protestant reformation and the emergence of the protestant work ethic that was an effort to remove fatalism from Christianity and make it into something more accommodating of the pioneer types and movers and shakers that created America. It is this version of Christianity that many American business leaders subscribe to.

    I consider the protestant work ethic to be a very exceptional case of religion and one that is largely unique to the American experience.

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