Ten years ago, Psychology Professor Justin L. Barrett published a book called Born Believers, arguing that all humans are naturally wired to be religious—that we are literally born with an intrinsic propensity to believe in God. Religious faith for Barrett is therefore not only normal but deeply natural. And, thus, to be a nonbeliever is—you guessed it—abnormal and unnatural. According to Barrett, atheists and agnostics live in conflict with an innate predisposition that is an integral part of our humanity.
Barrett isn’t the only scholar to push this odd view. Leading sociologist of religion Christian Smith describes religion as “irrepressibly natural to being human.” Religious faith is so genuinely, naturally human, he says, that to live secularly is analogous to “crab-walk[ing] backwards.” Sure, it can be done, but it is awkward, untenable, if not downright idiotic. Smith even compares atheists and agnostics to individuals who choose to “repeatedly hit themselves in the head with sharp objects.” That is, we can choose to not believe in God if we really want to, but it is obviously inimical to natural, normal well-being.
Then there’s sociologist Peter Berger, who argued that the “religious impulse” is such a “perennial feature of humanity” that a lack of religiosity would entail a “mutation of the species.” Sociologist Paul Froese claims that “a religious sentiment is deeply ingrained in human nature” and that “a basic demand for a religious worldview is universal.” And economist Laurence Iannaccone recently insisted that religious faith is so naturally fundamental to being human that without it, people would “cease being recognizably human.”
And so forth.
The bottom line from this perspective is that religiosity is normal, irrepressible, and innate, while secularity is artificial, unnatural—almost unhuman.
Except it isn’t.
Religion is no more “natural” to humans than being nonreligious.
As I argue in my new book, Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society (co-authored with Isabella Kasselstrand and Ryan Cragun) evidence shows that: (1) there have always been nonreligious people throughout recorded history, (2) a large number of people today are not religious, (3) a growing number of societies are increasingly secular, and (4) when children are raised without religion, they tend to stay secular as adults. These facts debunk the claim that atheism and agnosticism are abnormal or unnatural.
Secularity in the past
First, there have always been secular people—at least as long as there have been religious people.
The earliest known documentation of irreligiosity comes from the Indian writings of the Carvaka —also referred to as the Lokayata—who lived in India during the 7th century BCE. The Carvaka expressed a naturalistic worldview and rejected the supernaturalism of primordial Hindu religion. They were atheistic materialists who saw no evidence for the existence of gods or karma or an afterlife. “Only the perceived exists,” they argued, and “there is no world other than this.” In ancient China, Xunzi, who lived in the 3rd century BCE, taught that only this natural world exists and that morality is a social construct, with no divine component. Also in ancient China, both Wang Ch’ung and Hsun Tzu were nonbelievers who argued that there is nothing supernatural or spiritual out there. Only natural phenomena.
Early forms of atheism, agnosticism, anti-religiosity, and naturalistic orientations were abundant among the sages of ancient Greece and Rome, including Protagoras, Xenophanes, Carneades, Lucretius, Epicurus, Democritus, Anaxagoras, Prodicus, Critias, Anaximander, Hippo of Samos, Clitomachus, Celsus – and so many others. In ancient Israel, Psalms 14, written sometime around the 3rd or 2nd century BCE, explicitly attests to the existence of atheists, and the ancient Jewish philosopher known as Kohelet, from the 3rd century BCE, voiced existential, skeptical doubt, claiming that all life is ultimately meaningless and that there is no life after death.
In early Islamic civilization, Muhammad Al-Warraq, of the 9th century, doubted the existence of Allah and was skeptical of religious prophets; Muhammad al-Razi, of the 10th century, was a freethinking man who criticized religion; Omar Khayyam, of the 11th century, expressed a decidedly naturalistic worldview; and Averroes, of the 12th century, was known for his secular skepticism.
In short, plenty of historical evidence exists of agnosticism, skepticism, atheism, naturalism, secularism, humanism, and irreligion throughout history, going back thousands of years. Such evidence illustrates that secularity has always been around, and as such, is just as much a normal, natural part of the human condition as religiosity.
High rates of secularity today
Granted, being openly secular was relatively rare in the ancient world. But it certainly isn’t anymore. Today, a massive proportion of humanity is openly secular. The existence of so many secular people in the world renders manifestly absurd the argument that secularity is unnatural.
If we totaled up all unaffiliated, non-practicing, and nonbelieving people in the world, the number of secular humans – according to Pew international data – would be around one billion. For some random global highlights: in China, over 500 million people are explicitly nonreligious, along with about 3.5 million Taiwanese individuals and at least 60 million people in Japan. In the Czech Republic, there are 6 million people alive today who are secular, 10 million in the Netherlands, 30 million in France, around 1.5 million in Argentina, and around 1 million in Uruguay. Given such demographic realities, it is irrational to characterize secularity as somehow unnatural.
To be sure, most humans the world over are religious, and only a minority are secular. No question about that. But just because a minority of humans are left-handed, or have perfect pitch, or are over six feet tall, or monolingual, or illiterate, or homosexual, or vegetarian, or colorblind, or have 20/20 vision, or are secular, does not make any of these traits, characteristics, or orientations unnatural.
And it is crucial to recognize that even though most people in the world are religious, there are now a handful of societies in which it is the other way around: secular people constitute the majority and religious people comprise the minority. The Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Japan, China, Estonia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Uruguay, France, Hungary, and Australia – all have religiously unaffiliated majorities. Scotland bears emphasis: with a population of 5.5 million, at least 58% the population currently has no religion. How can such widespread secularity be described as unnatural, at least with a straight face? Or consider Estonia, a Baltic country of 1.3 million, where widespread indifference towards religious beliefs and practices reigns: only 46% of adults believe in God; only 17% claim that religion is important in their life; nearly 90% never talk about religion with their friends or family; nearly 80% never think about religion; 75% never pray; only 4% engage in daily prayer. Is it accurate to describe the majority of this country as somehow unnatural? No. Their widespread secularity is simply a natural part of human cultural variation.
But haven’t these highly secular nations only had a nonreligious majority in recent years? Isn’t their explosive secularity a new historical phenomenon? Yes and yes. Yet even this indicates that religion is not irrepressibly natural and secularity artificially unnatural. For if religion can be widely abandoned and secularity widely emergent in such a short time period, then this speaks to the former not being so intrinsic to humanity after all, and secularity not being some unnatural beast.
But how is religion widely abandoned in society? One clear mechanism: parents stop socializing their children to be religious.
Socialization is the process whereby we passively, informally, and often unconsciously internalize the norms and values of our culture. Our experience of socialization is most profound and powerful when we are young, as we are growing up. And the people who most potently socialize us are those who raise us, keeping us fed and safe – usually our parents and other immediate family members. But any humans we come into contact with – either in-person or virtually – can socialize us, to varying degrees: neighbors, friends, teachers, coaches, nurses, or those we see in TV shows, movies, on TikTok and on Instagram.
Socialization is fundamental to religion’s maintenance and reproduction. Contrary to Justin Barrett’s claims, babies do not start out religious; they have to be taught religion. The process, in short, goes like this: small children are raised by religious people, who teach them the norms, beliefs, and rituals of their religion. Those children internalize that religious socialization and go on to be religious themselves as they grow up. They accept as true the religious beliefs that have been presented to them as such by their loved ones; they come to practice and value the religious rituals they have been socialized to perform; they come to personally identify with the religious group in which they were raised. And when these kids grow up and have kids of their own, the cycle is repeated.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that parents’ religiosity within the United States is a very strong predictor of people’s religiosity. Of Americans who identify as Protestant Christians, 80 percent of them were raised by two Protestant Christian parents; however, if one parent was a Protestant Christian and the other identified with no religion (“none”), then only 56 percent identify as Protestant Christian, with 34 percent being religiously unaffiliated. Among those who were raised by a Protestant parent and a Catholic parent, 38 percent now identify as Protestant, 29 percent as Catholic, and 26 percent as non-religious. We see similar correlations within Catholicism: of people who were raised by two Catholic parents, 62 percent are Catholic today, but of those who had one parent who was Catholic and one parent who was not, only 32 percent are Catholic today. As for people raised by two non-religious parents, 63 percent are non-religious themselves.
There are more permutations within this Pew study, but the primary finding is obvious: our parents strongly shape our religiosity, or lack thereof. Numerous studies spanning over a century bear these assertions out: people generally adhere to the religion in which they were raised; such is the unparalleled power of religious socialization.
But what is most relevant for our discussion, is that when children are raised secularly, without religion, they generally don’t become religious as adults. For example, Hart Nelsen found – looking at American families back in the 1980s – that if both parents were secular, then about 85 percent of children raised in such homes grew up to be secular themselves. These findings were confirmed in a British context by Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning, who also found that children raised without religion rarely grow up to become religious themselves; only about 5 percent of people raised in secular homes by nonreligious parents ended up being religious themselves later in life.
Clearly, we have an innate, natural propensity to believe what our parents teach us, to accept the reality presented to us by those who care for us, to internalize the worldview of our immediate culture, and to enjoy, value, and despise what we have been socialized to enjoy, value, and despise. If religion is part of our socialization, we will most likely be religious. If it is not, then we will most likely be secular. And thus, if religiosity can evaporate in just one generation – as a result of secular socialization – it is quite erroneous to speak of it as irrepressibly innate. Barrett is mistaken to characterize humans as “born believers,” given the evidence showing that children’s religiosity is something that they get socialized into, and when that socialization is secular, children tend to remain secular.
Secularity is just as normal, natural, and innate to humanity as is religiosity. While it is true that religious beliefs are popular, deep, and widespread, they are no more inborn to us than their absence. Religious faith is no more rooted in our nature than skepticism and rationalism. Maintaining a supernatural worldview is no more inherently human than maintaining a naturalistic worldview. In the strong words of historian Tim Whitmarsh:
“The notion that a human is an essential religious being…is no more cogent than the notion that apples are essentially red. When most of us think of an apple we imagine a rosy glow, because that is the stereotype that we have grown up with…and indeed it is true enough that many apples are tinctured with red. But it would be ludicrous to see a Golden Delicious as any less ‘appley’ just because it is pure green. Yet this is in effect what we do to atheists…we treat them as human beings who are not somehow complete in their humanity, even though they are genetically indistinct from their peers.”
Er, I mean: Hear! Hear!