Geertz on atheism

Posted on November 20, 2010


The question of whether religion is natural has been discussed in many journal articles and pubs. This is particularly the case since the appearance of New Atheism as a social movement. What has been lacking is an article that brings the various strands of discussion together and explains in what sense atheism and/or religion can be deemed to be natural (a task made all the more difficult by the problems with the concept of naturalness). In a lovely little article Armin Geertz and his coauthor, Guðmundur Ingi Markusson, do just that:

After discussing evidence of irreligion and the rise of the so called ‘‘New Atheism’’, the authors refute the claim that this poses a problem for the cognitive science of religion and its hypothesis that religion is natural. The ‘‘naturalness hypothesis’’ is not deterministic but probabilistic and thus leaves room for atheism. This, the authors maintain, is true of both the by-product and adaptationist stances within the cognitive science of religion. In this context the authors also discuss the memetic or ‘‘unnaturalness’’ hypothesis, i.e. that religion is a ‘‘virus of the mind’’. The authors criticize accounts of atheism offered by cognitive scientists of religion as being based on unfounded assumptions about the psychology of atheists, and object to the notion that the natural aspects of religion by corollary make atheism unnatural. By considering human cognition in a semiotic framework and emphasizing its natural ability to take part in semiotic systems of signs, atheism emerges as a natural, cognitive strategy. The authors argue that to reach a fuller account of religion, the cognitive (naturalness) and memetic (unnaturalness) hypotheses of religion must be merged. Finally, a preliminary analysis of the ‘‘New Atheism’’ is offered in terms of semiotic and cognitive dynamics.

As the abstract should make clear, this is a very rich article and is well worth looking at carefully. And, I am pleased to be able to say, it argues for what I consider a dual inheritance view of religion. It even brings in biosemiotics! What more could a man want?