Blog: A cognitive perspective helps make the scientific study of atheism possible

Jonathan Lanman reflects on how cognitive and evolutionary studies of religion have Jon Lanmancontributed to research on atheism – and suggests how such approaches might advance our understanding of atheism in the future.

After more than a century of development, the cognitive and evolutionary sciences now offer scholars a range of theoretical and methodological tools to better understand religion.  The use of these tools by anthropologists, psychologists, and religious studies scholars has led to the emergence of what has come to be known as the cognitive science of religion or CSR (e.g. Lawson & McCauley, 1990; Boyer 1994; Atran, 2002; Whitehouse, 2004; Barrett, 2004; Sosis, 2006; Norenzayan, 2013).

In 2007, I was convinced that CSR was making progress in explaining the ubiquity of religion but faced a real problem in accounting for atheism: if religion is so well-supported by universal cognitive mechanisms, why are there so many atheists?   Consequently, I began to investigate atheism with the cognitive and evolutionary sciences in mind, conducting fieldwork with atheist and humanist groups in the US, UK, and Denmark and running interviews, surveys, and experiments.

My research has convinced me that there are benefits to examining atheism from a cognitive perspective.  For example, a small but growing body of evidence suggests that evolved cognitive biases can help us explain who becomes a theist and who becomes a non-theist (Lanman & Buhrmester, 2016; Gervais & Najle, 2015; Henrich, Norenzayan, and Willard, forthcoming) and why some nations have higher proportions of non-theists than others (Lanman, 2012; forthcoming).

Yet, I have also been convinced that a cognitive perspective can provide a more substantial benefit to our work. Taking a cognitive perspective, I believe, allows us to escape the post-modern malaise that too-often arises when we recognize the socially-constructed nature of our key objects of analysis.  In short, a cognitive perspective helps make the scientific study of atheism possible.

The Problem: Atheism is not a “thing”

Like “religion” and the “secular”, “atheism” is a word used by a range of individuals with a range of interests, yielding substantial diversity in its definition and deployment (Bullivant, 2013).  For some it has meant a lack of devotion to the Roman deities; for others, a lack of belief in any and all non-physical agents; and for still others, a moral revolt against the Christian God.  There is no objective reason to accept one of these conceptions over another, and the word has been developed for use by social actors, not dispassionate scholars attempting to better understand the human condition.  Consequently, “atheism,” like “religion” (Smith, 1982, Fitzgerald, 2000) and the “secular,” (Asad, 2003) is a social construct.

While social constructs exist in our conceptual schemes, they are not natural kinds, whose causes and effects can be investigated across different environments (Bird & Tobin, 2016). To view “atheism” as a unified object of analysis (a “thing”), and to attempt to scientifically investigate its causes and effects across contexts, is to treat a local concept as a natural kind.  Pursuing a science of  such an “atheism” would be on par with pursuing a science of “weeds” or “trees,” concepts which are relevant for gardeners and landscape architects but not for biologists or geneticists (Boyer, 2015).  We would, like astrologers with their supposed “constellations,” be engaged in folly.

The Solution:  Fractionation

With a cognitive perspective, however, a science of “atheism” becomes possible. This seemingly miraculous trick is a gift from a principle used by cognitive scholars of religion called “fractionation” (Boyer, 1994; Whitehouse & Lanman, 2014) or “reverse engineering” (Taves, 2011). To fractionate or reverse engineer a socially-constructed concept is to break it up into distinct phenomena about whose independent existence we are more confident (though, of course, never certain).

In CSR, for example, scholars recognize that “religion” is a social construct but argue that the word “religion” labels a range of phenomena that may indeed be natural kinds.  These include:  beliefs in the existence of non-physical agents (Boyer, 2001), in the universe as a whole and certain events being designed for a purpose (Kelemen, Rottman & Seston, 2013; Heywood & Bering, 2014), and in the continuation of psychological functioning beyond death (Bering, Blasi, and Bjorklund, 2005), as well as socially-transmitted causally opaque actions (i.e. rituals) (Whitehouse, 2012; Legare et al. 2015) social identities (McElreath, Boyd & Richerson 2003; Park & van Leeuwen, 2015), and sacred values (Tetlock, 2003; Atran & Ginges, 2012). CSR has made progress in understanding religion by examining these phenomena as distinct objects of analysis, as building blocks that comprise the traditions we commonly label as “religions” (Sosis, 2009; Taves, 2015).

In my own research, I fractionate “atheism” into three elements (though there are surely more):

1) The absence of belief in the existence of non-physical agents.

2) Moral judgements of the immorality of “religion.”

3) Social identities that prominently feature the concept “atheism” or other forms of “nonreligion” (Lee 2015).

This fractionation of “atheism” is useful for at least two reasons.

First, we can have a higher level of confidence that each of these fractionated phenomena exists in the world beyond our conceptual schemes.   This confidence comes from the fact that we have progressive research programmes in the cognitive and evolutionary sciences on the causes and effects of beliefs (Boyer 2001; Bell, Halligan, and Ellis, 2006; Lanman, 2008; Farias et al., 2013), moral judgements (Graham, et al., 2012; Curry, 2016; Keane, 2015), and social identities (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; McElreath, Boyd & Richerson 2003; Park & van Leeuwen, 2015).  Thanks to this research, we have good reasons for seeing beliefs, moral judgements, and social identities as causally active, cross-cultural features of human cognition as well as a set of tools for investigating them. And while constructs such as “religion,” “atheism,” and “humanism” are social constructions, they do exist as representations in human minds, and can, consequently, become objects of belief, moral evaluation, and social allegiance.

Second, each of these fractionated phenomena exists in the absence of the others, thereby demonstrating causal independence.  We find, for example, individuals who lack explicit beliefs in the existence of non-physical agents but adhere to a Christian identity (Mountford 2011).  Similarly, we find individuals who believe in some vague non-physical agency but find “religion” immoral and even label themselves as “atheists” (Smith et al., 2015).

To lump beliefs, moral judgements, and identities together under the label “atheism” and then to analyze said “atheism” as a single phenomenon will lead only to confusion and scientific stagnation. By utilizing the cognitive strategy of fractionating “atheism” into distinct phenomena with distinct sets of causes and effects, I believe we can move forward to examine how a range of pan-human cognitive capacities and tendencies interact with particular socio-historical contexts and discourses to produce the various atheisms we study.

Dr Jonathan Lanman is a Lecturer in Cognition and Culture and Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast, and Co-PI on the Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief project (John Templeton Foundation).  In his work on atheism, he aims to integrate theories and methodologies from the social, cognitive and evolutionary sciences with ethnographic and historical research to explain why some individuals become theists whilst others become non-theists, why some nations have higher proportions of non-theists than others, and why some non-theists engage in anti-religious social action.  He is also engaged in collaborative research on religious identity, ritual, and self-sacrifice.




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Blog: Terror Management Theory and Anti-Atheist Prejudice in America

Kyle Thompson examines anti-atheist prejudice in American and argues that they are generallyKyle Thomson seen as threatening ‘other’ including theistic worldviews and even fellow atheists. He suggests comparison among other prejudiced groups will help us understand why atheists are viewed so negatively by the American public.

Although the US presidential election is not until November, Americans are already consumed by the constant campaign coverage (White 2015). As always, citizens are concerned with each candidate’s promises, plans, and scandals as well as his or her identity. In timely conjunction with this election-season fervor, Gallup recently reminded everyone just how salient certain identities are by releasing the results of its latest identity poll, which asks respondents whether they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who is Muslim, or female, or homosexual, etc. (McCarthy 2015). And, for the first time since the 1978 poll, atheists, who saw a 4% improvement in approval from the 2012 poll, don’t find themselves at the bottom of the list (Jones 2012). No, it was the newly added ‘socialist’ category, likely included because of self-described ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders, that had the least approval, at 47% (Ehrenfreund 2015; McCarthy 2015).

But, before atheists start celebrating too much, they must remember that 40% of Americans said they would not vote for a well-qualified candidate based on an identity, atheism, that has nothing (necessarily) to do with his or her policies (McCarthy 2015). And it doesn’t stop there. Atheists are consistently viewed negatively by the American public, not just when running for office (Gervais et al. 2011; Edgell et al. 2006).

So what causes anti-atheist prejudice both inside and outside of the political arena?  Why are atheists viewed so negatively in the United States, even by other atheists (Wright and Nichols 2014)? To help answer these questions, we might consider a new study conducted by psychologists Corey L. Cook, Florette Cohen, and Sheldon Solomon (2015) entitled What If They’re Right About the Afterlife?  Evidence of the Role of Existential Threat on Anti-Atheist Prejudice. Adding to the ever-growing body of research on anti-atheist prejudice, which has already connected such prejudice to concerns about atheists being untrustworthy and threatening to in-group values, this study focused on the existential threat that atheism poses to theistic worldviews (Gervais et al. 2011; Cook et al. 2014). Specifically, the researchers based their hypotheses on terror management theory, originally developed by Solomon himself along with two other psychologists, which posits that “the uniquely human awareness of death gives rise to potentially paralyzing terror that is assuaged by cultural worldviews that afford a sense that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe,” in order to see whether atheists, by holding to a worldview which denies a belief in God or an afterlife, threaten to undermine the terror-buffer that religious worldviews often generate (Greenberg et al. 1986; Cook et al. 2015, p. 840). In brief, the two separate experiments in this study found a significant empirical link between existential concerns and anti-atheist prejudice (Cook et al. 2015).

To establish this empirical link, which Cook, Cohen, and Solomon claim is the first of its kind, the first of the two experiments had participants—236 students from the College of Staten Island—write down their thoughts about either their own death or being in extreme pain before gauging their thoughts and feelings toward either atheists or Quakers (Cook et al. 2015). The key finding here wasn’t that Americans think better of Quakers, which was in fact reflected in the data, but rather that participants who were given the subtle reminder of their deaths, when compared to those primed to think about extreme pain, were more disparaging toward atheists, rated atheists as more untrustworthy, and socially distanced themselves more from atheists (Cook et al. 2015).

For the second experiment, 200 participants from the same college were primed to think about pain, death, or atheism before being tested for the presence of implicit thoughts of death (e.g., the kind of implicit thoughts that would have someone complete “S K       L” with “skull” as opposed to “skill”).  The key finding here was that thinking about atheism or death caused the highest occurrences of implicit death thoughts.

So what exactly do these data mean?  According to Cook, Cohen, and Solomon, these two studies show that “hostility toward and mistrust of atheists is particularly pronounced when existential concerns are aroused and that, for believers, the mere contemplation of atheism can arouse intimations of mortality” (Cook et al. 2015, p. 844).  That is, the connection between death and atheism appears to be a two-way street: thoughts of death increase denigration of atheists and thoughts of atheism cause an increase in implicit death thoughts. And, I think that, given the scientific rigour of this study, the researchers are on solid ground when making this conclusion.  However, given the chosen control conditions in both experiments, this study doesn’t allow one to draw the stronger conclusion that seems to be hinted at, yet never explicitly stated, in the very framing of the publication: that the findings result from unique aspects of atheism, such as the denial of an afterlife and a disbelief in God.

That is, while the title—What If They’re Right About the Afterlife?—implies that atheists’ denial of an afterlife equates to an existential threat to common theistic worldviews, it is entirely possible that atheism disrupts terror management simply because atheists are stereotyped as a generally threatening ‘other,’ even to fellow atheists.  In other words, asking people about Quakers doesn’t tell us enough about why atheists are denigrated after death-priming.  Thus, the first experiment could have benefitted from comparing people’s reactions to atheists to other negatively viewed groups of people, such as Muslims and homosexuals, or even thieves and murderers. This would then provide more insight regarding atheists in particular as a prejudiced group.  Likewise, the second experiment would have been more revelatory had it included negatively viewed groups of people, other than atheists, as primers for implicit death thoughts.  This would have, in my estimation, helped elucidate whether or not anti-atheist prejudice results from a general distrust and dislike or from something specific to atheism, such as a rejection of an afterlife.

While social scientists may never be able to pinpoint exactly what it is about atheists that Americans find so troublesome, this study might be said to make a further contribution. The work of Cook, Cohen, and Solomon demonstrates a clear connection between existential concerns and anti-atheist prejudice while opening up the possibility for future research to examine the specifics of these concerns.  I look forward to seeing more experiments on anti-atheist prejudice, and I encourage researchers to take up the suggestion detailed at the conclusion of this study and help identify “benign ways to parry the existential threat that atheists pose to believers, thus mitigating the hostility and intolerance that they are often subjected to” (Cook et al. 2015, p. 845).  In addition, I hope that more Americans, regardless of their worldviews, will help to reduce anti-atheist prejudice by coming to understand that their fellow atheist citizens are not to be feared so that we can all begin denying presidential candidates votes not because of their views of divinity, but because of their bad ideas and policies.


Cook, CL, Cohen, F & Solomon, S., 2015. What if they’re right about the afterlife? Evidence of the role of existential threat on anti-atheist prejudice, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(7), pp. 840-846.

Cook, CL, Cotrell, CA & Webster GD., 2014. No good without God: Antiatheist prejudice as a function of threats to morals and values, Psychology of Religion & Spirituality, 7(3), pp. 217-226.

Ehrenfreund, M., 2015. Are you a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders? Take the Quiz, The Washington Post 19 November. Available from:  [10 December 2015].

Gervais, WM, Shariff, AF, & Norenzayan, A., 2011. Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), pp. 1198-1206.

Greenberg, J, Pyszczynski T & Solomon S., 1986. The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In: Public Self and Private Self, Edited by Roy F. Baumeister, pp. 189–212. New York: Springer.

Jones, JM., 2012. Atheists, Muslims see most bias as presidential candidates, Gallup 21 June. Available from: [10 December 2015].

McCarthy, J., 2015. In U.S., socialist presidential candidates least appealing, Gallup 22 June. Available from: [10 December 2015].

White, B., 2015. What an anxious America tells us about 2016 election, CNBC 4 August. Available from: [10 December 2015].

Wright, JC & Nichols, R., 2014. The social cost of atheism: How perceived religiosity influences moral appraisal, Journal of Cognition and Culture, 14(1), pp. 93-115.

Kyle Thompson is a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University in the Philosophy program. His interests include atheism, secularism, scientism, not taking life too seriously, exploring the globe and playing music. He lives with his beautiful wife, his two amazing dogs, and his marvelously mischievous cat in Claremont, CA.