Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Natural-Born Supernaturalists?

This WSJ piece by Michael Shermer is well worth a look. Some key extracts:

According to Oxford University Press’s “World Christian Encyclopedia,” 84% of the world’s population belongs to some form of organized religion. That equals 5.7 billion people who belong to about 10,000 distinct religions, each of which may be further subdivided and classified. Christians, for example, may be apportioned among over 33,000 different denominations. Among the many binomial designations granted our species (Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, Homo economicus), a strong case could be made for Homo religiosus…
…belief in supernatural agents (God, angels, demons) and commitment to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals) appears to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for authority, traditionalism).
Why did we inherit this tendency? Long, long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far, far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency).


As neologisms go, “patternicity” and “agenticity” are not among the most elegant, but Shermer’s analysis of why the “God gene” came to be is intriguing. Whatever the correct explanation may ultimately prove to be (and I doubt that we will ever know for sure), we can, I think, be certain of one thing: religions will always be with us


  • Lorenzo · April 17, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency).
    Marxism works off many of the same impulses and manifests both of these tendencies. In his excellent What Science Knows, Jim Franklin points out that Marxism is a form of theomachy, a belief in hidden forces driving events.

  • Snippet · April 17, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    I am currently reading, “The Faith Instinct” by Nicholas Wade.

    He is defending the position that religion evolved, but as an adaptation, rather than a “by-product,” which creates in interesting contrast with the dominant view among evolutionary biologists.

    Shermer appears (from this clip) to be taking the “by-product” view – i.e. that religion is a big mistake that came with certain other necessary cognitive processes, and can be discarded like the appendix when we “grow up,” and see the light, as it were.

    The “adaptation” argument is currently in the minority, possibly (speculating here…) because it makes it harder to dismiss religion, and anticipate its hasty departure.

    This view (the adaptation view) suggests that religion evolved because it helped human groups work together, support each other, and make sacrifices in such a way that they were able to dominate their atheistic competitors.

    I suppose as usual the truth is somewhere between. Evolution is nothing if not resourceful, and may very well have co-opted the by-products (patternicity, etc…) of our evolving mental faculties to make us better reproducers and smiters of our enemies.

  • Dick · April 17, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    Since religious belief seems to be ubiquitous and Shermer believes it to be genetic, does that mean that non-believers are genetic mutants? Just asking.

  • Snippet · April 18, 2010 at 5:01 am


    Shermer (I think) would argue that non-believers are “mutants” in much the same way that someone who is immune from cancer might be a “mutant.”

    i.e., someone with a beneficially unusual genetic makeup, and maybe one with a bright future.

  • Mark in Spokane · April 18, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    Or non-believers may be “mutants” in a destructive sense: they have developed a trait which prevents them from passing on their genes. Demographics for atheists do not inspire confidence that atheism is a trait that leads to reproductive robustness across a population.

    The explanation for religiosity in the excerpted story sounds too much to me like a “just so story,” but the basic point is sound. Human beings are inherently religious. As a (perhaps sad) consequence of this is if that religious drive isn’t expressed through a given society’s traditional religious forms, it will be expressed through increasingly wacky, superstitious and anti-intellectual forms. One can have the 1666 Book of Common Prayer or various New Age devotions. One can have Buddhism (and yes, it is a religion) or one can have Falun Gong. Take your pick.

    As someone on this blog once wrote, “better the vicar than Wicca.” Pithy. And true.

  • Snippet · April 19, 2010 at 4:45 am

    Good points!

    Atheism, or even rigorous truth-seeking, may be an evolutionary dead end! The truth-seekiest people I know tend to have really cool condominiums with great views of the river and really white carpets that the kids they don’t have never spill anything on.

    Still, atheis has spread, and in non-Muslim Europe (and China) seems to have become dominant, somehow.

  • Mark in Spokane · April 19, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Europe isn’t atheistic — it isn’t Christian anymore, but that isn’t the same thing as being atheistic. Instead, what one sees is increasingly superstitious “spiritualism,” New Age nonsense, fringe cults, etc. Again, once the traditional, culturally established forms of religiosity decline, people as a whole don’t become less religious. They just become less conventional and more wacky.

    One thing I think that parallels this is the rise of pseduo-science in the old Soviet empire. Since the traditional religious culture of the various Soviet states (Orthodoxy in Eastern European Russia, Islam in the central Asian republics) was suppressed in favor of atheism, and other religious expression was squashed too, people turned to increasingly strange pseudo-scientific theories. And the State was happy to foster these pseudo-scientific cults in order to prop up atheistic socialism.

  • Susan · April 19, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Those are interesting points, Mark, but how do you account for those of us non-believers in traditional religion who DON’T become followers of New Age nonsense, etc? Could it be that there are some people who simply have no spiritual void that needs to be filled? Are they (we) the mutants, with a piece missing?

    I’m genuinely curious about this, since I wasn’t raised in any religion, and as far as I can tell, I’ve never experienced a spiritual moment in my life.

  • Snippet · April 19, 2010 at 11:59 am

    I have no idea how many Europeans are going in for New Agey frufru.

    I do think a lot of them believe in some sort of vaguely defined “higher power” that looks over us from a distance and smiles when we recycle, drive electric cars, end poverty, and advocate tolerance, diversity, social justice, all that good stuff.

    I do think environmentalism and save-the-third-worldism might be replacing that part of their brains that has been emptied of “organized religion.”

  • John · April 19, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Could it be that there are some people who simply have no spiritual void that needs to be filled? Are they (we) the mutants, with a piece missing?

    I think that’s it. Most people have a need for spirituality, and some of don’t. For what it’s worth, I was raised in a religion, and I still have never had a real spiritual moment.

  • Mark in Spokane · April 20, 2010 at 8:37 am


    I think like many traits, religiosity is more or less intense by person. Some people are intensely mystical, others aren’t. Personally, I am religious but I am not mystical. I don’t have peak experiences where I feel oneness with the universe or union with God or whatever. Just not how I’m wired. But in the circles I travel, I am definitely not the norm. Which is probably also indicated by the fact that I am a religious believer who is largely sympathetic (although disagreeing) with agnosticism/atheism!

    My comments about “mutants” was a tongue-in-cheek response to an earlier post on this thread. Personally, I don’t think atheists are mutants. I think that folks are atheists for a variety of reasons. I have also met atheists who are essentially of a religious bent of mind — they are the kind of folks who have experiences of oneness with the universe (that’s how it was described to me by one of my colleagues who is atheist who practices meditation regularly). Also Sprach Zarathustra, as another example, presents the message of atheism as a religious one.

    Which isn’t to say that atheism is by necessity religious, or ideological or any of those things. It is simply to say that it can be religious, ideological, etc.

  • Susan · April 20, 2010 at 8:54 am

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, here and elsewhere, but I do think that what a lot of people call a “spiritual” experience is what I would define as an aesthetic or sensory experience. I have a relative by marriage, an opera conductor, who describes himself as “deeply spiritual.” He doesn’t believe in God; he’s moved by his music. So am I–but that, to me, is an aesthetic experience, not a spiritual one.

  • Narr · April 21, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    My experience parallels what Susan reports: no spiritual quiverings at all. Music (sometimes a book) is as close as I can get to the transcendent, and the feeling of oneness with existence that others find in religion.

  • Mark in Spokane · April 21, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Well, I think that there are many kinds of experiences of the true, the good and the beautiful — some religious, some not.



Theme Design by