If the religious instinct is so deeply natural and nonbelief so unnatural, why does research show the lack of religion to be far more sticky and contagious than religion itself?

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A recent article in the Guardian suggested several reasons for the general decline in religion. It may have something to do with the hypocritical moralizing of religious patriarchs and the changing values of a younger generation. The mandatory church closures of the Covid pandemic seem to have accelerated church attrition. But non-religion is not a passing fad. Non-religion is both sticky and contagious. As a critical mass of people come out of the nonreligious closet, others will follow, and will likely stay out. Social scientists suggest that people who become nonreligious tend to stay that way and pass their nonreligion on to the next generation.

If this is true, then our way of understanding religion as a natural function of human experience needs to be revised. Religious belief was once taken for granted as fulfilling a kind of natural human instinct. But as nonbelief is normalized, the assumption that human beings have a natural religious instinct no longer makes sense.

The sociology of non-religion

Sociologists have been studying the rise of the nones for a couple of decades. Studies of “nonversion” (conversion away from religion) remind us that there are lots of individual stories and no single cause for the decline of religion. And yet, non-religion seems to be both contagious and sticky.

To say it is contagious means that it catches on. When people are exposed to non-religion and realize it is an option, they may choose it. To say it is sticky means that once people become nonreligious, they tend to stay that way. Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion, explains the generational stickiness of religion as follows: “For people who say they were raised Christian, there is a 45 percent chance they will end up identifying as nones, but for those raised with ‘no religion’ there is a 95 percent probability that they will stay that way. Thus, ‘no religion’ is currently ‘sticky’ in a way Christianity is not.”

As non-religion grows, it comes to seem normal and unexceptional. Phil Zuckerman concludes his study of why people reject religion as follows. “Obviously many people, from various walks of life, can live without religion—in fact, prefer as much. This bald fact strongly counters the notion that all people—as people—are somehow intrinsically religious or that religion is some sort of necessary, universal, or inextricable component of the human condition.”

People who say they were raised Christian have a 45% chance of ending up identifying as nones. But those raised with ‘no religion’ have a 95% probability of staying that way. Thus, ‘no religion’ is currently ‘sticky’ in a way Christianity is not.


How natural is the religious instinct?

This runs counter to a theory that sees religion as a “natural” feature of human thought and culture. Scholars used to take it for granted that religion was a central and universal aspect of human experience. That assumption was sometimes supplemented by a neuro-physiological and evolutionary approach that claimed that religion is hard-wired in the brain.

Nicholas Wade called this “the faith instinct.” He claimed that even though nonbelief is spreading “the religious instinct, the inherited propensity for ritual and belief, is still wired into the human mind as much as ever before.” Pascal Boyer is another important defender of this idea. He suggests that processes in the brain make religious belief “natural.” Boyer concluded, “Disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.”

But Wade and Boyer seem to ignore the contagious and sticky nature of disbelief. It only really takes “deliberate, effortful work” to break away from religion when religion is taken for granted. Once religion is off the table, disbelief and nonreligion may in fact seem more “natural.” Perhaps some very general disposition toward ritual activity and transcendent experience exists. But these social and cognitive functions need not manifest themselves in “religious” ways.

Behind this claim is the insight that social conditions matter with regard to what we take for granted as normal, natural, or plausible. In a world with increased non-religion—and in a world in which political power is not used to prop up religion—it may turn out that religion is not so natural after all.

The history of nonbelief

Nonbelief has a long but easily-overlooked history. Indeed, the history of religion includes the effort to convince non-believers to believe. The famous Psalm (14:1) about “the fool [who] says in his heart ‘there is no God’” provides a clue. This text only makes sense in a world where such non-believing “fools” exist.

Nonbelief is clearer among the ancient Greeks. Socrates is not exactly an atheist but he was killed for his lack of traditional belief. The Cynics were more explicit in their disdain for religious practice and belief. And there were famous atheists such as “Theodorus The Atheist” who had an influence on the Epicurean school.

Tim Whitmarsh has argued that atheism was not uncommon in the ancient world. One problem in documenting this, however, is that nonbelievers don’t build temples or erect statues commemorating their gods. Ancient religious and political powers built the pyramids and the Parthenon, which can make it look as if religion is pervasive and all-powerful. The same is true of Medieval European art and architecture.

But this may be changing with the democratization of art, architecture, and thought. Today, every atheist with a blog leaves a trace. Artists don’t need church patronage. And cities are no longer organized around a central cathedral.

New forms of nonreligious meaning are easily created and disseminated in our world. Nonreligious people can easily avoid religion. And nonbelievers are not persecuted or killed, as they were in the time of Socrates.

SEE ALSO: Phil Zuckerman, “Is atheism unnatural?

Hope for the future of non-religion

Things are better today for nonbelievers. But it was not always easy to be a nonbeliever. In the U.S., Schools used to teach Bible lessons and lead prayers. The prevailing view until recently was that religion was natural and that nonreligion was aberrant. Things are different now, thanks to the growth of secularism.

Challenges remain. The Supreme Court seems more sympathetic to religion. But nonreligious people need not fear being burned at the stake as they once were. The fact that non-religion is both sticky and contagious explains why. As more people leave religion, it is likely that this change will persist and spread. The current critical mass of nonreligious people makes it easier for other nonbelievers to come out of the closet. Hopefully, this will also make it more difficult to stuff us all back into that pigeonhole.

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Andrew Fiala is Professor of Philosophy and director of the Ethics Center at Cal State Fresno. His published work includes Tyranny from Plato to Trump (2022), Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist/Theist...