Secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

Razib Khan recommends Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict as a cross between In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth — but with the novel addition of these four modes of atheism:

  1. Personality (low social intelligence)
  2. Hyper-analytic cognitive style
  3. Societal apathy toward religion
  4. Lack of strong modeling of religiosity

The first two are straightforward. There has long been a hypothesis that those with lower social intelligence or weaker in ‘theory of mind’ have a more difficult time to find personal gods plausible. In short, theism depends on a relatively normal theory of mind. Looking at people on the autism spectrum who recounted their ideas of religion and god the author confirmed the intuition. Autistic individuals tended to be less religious, and, if religious, presented a model of God that was often highly impersonal and abstract.

One issue that is important to highlight here: I suspect that many great theological “truths” actually derive from individuals who engage in excessive intellectualism around the idea of god. For the average human applying formal logic to theism is probably beside the point, though these sorts of religious intellectuals loom large in the books because…they are the ones writing the books.


Societies with strong states, robust institutions, and impartial rule of law, along with some modicum of prosperity, tend to have lower levels of religiosity, and weaker passions about the topic from respondents. Once religiosity becomes less salient in a broad sense, then it becomes less of a concern in general for individuals.

A separate dynamic is that once people stop acting in a way that indicates that religion is important and true, others who take social cues begin to internalize this as evidence that religion isn’t that important. The authors give the example that there is social science that people who are raised Christian by parents who don’t go to church are far more likely to leave Christianity as adults because their parents did not credibly signal that religion was actually important enough to sacrifice any time and effort for. Perhaps another example which works as an analogy is that the vast majority of the children of interfaith Jewish-Christian marriages who were raised as Jews end up marrying non-Jews.

I think the first two factors in the list above explain the low but consistent basal rate of atheists and heterodox thinkers across history.


Basically, as social norms shift to relax incentives toward being religious, more marginal believers will start expressing irreligiosity. At some point, some will start to conform to irreligiosity.

Of course, this sort of secularization is fragile. Aside from the sorts of demographic arguments made in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, examples such as post-Soviet Russia (and the post-Soviet nation-states more generally), as well as the progressively more religious nature of the Baathist resistance to American occupation in Iraq, illustrate that religion can bounce back rather fast, even within a generation or several years. The social contexts for this resurgence are outlined in the book, but they illustrate that in some ways secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate.


  1. Kirk says:

    I’m going to piss off every militant atheist who reads this, but it needs to be said: Whether or not you like it, the Western world is built upon a Judaeo-Christian substrate that permeates everything from how we think to what we think. To ignore the impact and role of religion on our culture and civilization would be like trying to do biology while ignoring heredity and genetics.

    What this means? In essence, religion–and, a specific religion–informs everything about our shared culture and civilization. Remove it, and you cut yourself off from the wellsprings of it.

    Even an atheist should be familiar with everything about Judaeo-Christianity, because that’s the foundation of it all. To question or deny that fact is to follow the same path as many others who have tried to supplant or replace it all, whose track records ain’t notoriously good. Stalin, Hitler, et al.

  2. Graham says:


    I generally identify as a sort of low-impact non-believer but I quite agree.

    It is impossible to understand Western Civilization without the combined Athens/Rome/Jerusalem axis, so to speak, combining the three traditions as Christianity in all its forms kept doing and recombining. Our philosophy, ethics, political modes [good and bad ones, depending on everyone's mileage] cannot be independently derived from observation of the material world. Not that I claim to be an expert on Kant or such, but there always seems to be some assumption built into even the most secular-leaning Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophy that , on being found, smacks one in the face with the author’s basically Christian assumptions.

    Of course, even the smart ones who disliked and disbelieved in Christianity, and denied it on every level, are its children. What is Marxism [in its original, theoretical form] but an attempt to apply carefully selected Christian dreams and assumptions about Man to the creation of a real-world utopia without need of salvation? With, inevitably, ghastly consequences, but still.

    I see plenty of deleterious consequences of Christianity as we glide through our civilization’s possibly terminal phase, and wonder whether they were inevitable or avoidable features of its teachings.

    I even wonder what the art, literature and music of a never-Christian West would have been like, not least because that likely means there would not have been any Islam to take us over either. It would have been a quite alien world, presuming anything like a comparable successor to classical civilization would have taken root in Europe.

    But what a catastrophic cultural loss it would have been to lose all that Christianity did inspire.

  3. Kirk says:

    One only has to note the ancient’s attitudes towards things like exposing unwanted children on conveniently located hillsides, where they could either be eaten by the wildlife or taken in as slaves, in order to grasp the deep impact that the whole Judaeo-Christian ethos and cultural inputs created. Time was, something like abortion wouldn’t have even merited a second judgmental glance from anyone, and even killing your own living children was seen as a parental right, even into adulthood.

    People who decry the influence of Judaeo-Christian values on our civilization know not of what they speak–What went before? LOL… Those old stories of people masturbating as they watched the killings in the Roman gladiatorial “games” were, shockingly, actually a bit toned down, in order to make them more believable. There’s stuff in the literature that most don’t see, and thus never get to make a comparison with modern times, values, and mores.

  4. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    “the Western world is built upon a Judaeo-Christian substrate”

    Respectfully, the Western world is built on a pagan substrate. The pre-Socratic philosophers did more to build the West than Moses.

    This is deep topic, but the vultureofcritique blog has some permanent pages dedicated to criticism of Judeo-Christian allegations. I tried to link one such page in the “website” field of this comment, and the comment gave an error… possibly I am being filtered.

  5. Kirk says:

    Gaikokumaniakku–If that’s the same site and writer I think it is, I found their arguments on the issue both specious and somewhat delusional.

    The ancients contributed; the Jews and the Christians rewrote, overlaid, and virtually transformed the landscape, for good or ill. Making believe that didn’t take place and hasn’t had strong residual effect? Insane.

    The basis of the argument the pagans and their sympathizers make fails on the analysis of what remains of their cultural contributions and thought, which if it isn’t in accordance with Judaeo-Christian values and mores… Well, it’s gone, isn’t it? Human sacrifice as a routine part of daily religious life? Where’s that, in modern Western practice? The Christians somehow managed to make even slavery go away, which is a fairly unique accomplishment in the history of the human race. What remains of that rather lengthy and well-embedded tradition? Very little, by comparison to what it once was.

    The whole thing is much like air; you don’t notice it while you’re breathing it easily, and times are good. Take it away, and you’re suddenly going to appreciate what all you once had, and all too many of our “intellectual elites” are on that road of discovery, which ain’t going to end somewhere pretty.

  6. John Q. Public says:

    “progressively more religious nature of the Baathist resistance to American occupation in Iraq”

    Or was it the case that the “secularism” of Saddam’s Iraq was just another story told us by the CIA and State Department?

  7. KIrk says:

    ““progressively more religious nature of the Baathist resistance to American occupation in Iraq”

    Or was it the case that the “secularism” of Saddam’s Iraq was just another story told us by the CIA and State Department?”

    The secularism of Saddam’s Iraq was true, as far as it went–It was just that the regime remnants which comprised most of the “resistance” elements found it useful to suborn and coopt the religious revival that was taking place at around the same time.

    For a period, in Iraq, it was positively dangerous to be a religiously observant Sunni Muslim, because they were seen by Saddam and the Ba’ath Party as being unreliable and untrustworthy. The Ba’ath Party was a classic 20th-Century totalitarian package, much like the Communists or the Nazis, who were what they modeled themselves after. It was initially pan-Arabic, and modernist. After that didn’t solve their inherent cultural problems, the populace said “Screw this… We’re going back to that old-time religion…”.

    And, that’s how we got where we are.

    An awful lot of the issues we have within the Muslim world stem from the essentially cargo-cultish way they tried to modernize; they copied the forms and the fashions of the West, expecting power and change, but were unwilling to adopt the actual features of the Western cultures they were aping in order to make fundamental changes. When the surface Westernization didn’t produce immediate results, they felt betrayed and humiliated, and, again, here we are.

    Fixing the Arab and general Islamic world isn’t something that’s going to be imposed from without, and probably won’t be fixed from within until they have no other choice. My guess is that they’re eventually going to drive their neighbors into committing acts of near-genocide, and then, maybe, they’ll start asking themselves “Why…?”, doing the necessary self-reflection, and then fix what needs fixing. How many people die before that happens…? Ya got me, but I don’t see it ending well for anyone. Self-delusion is a common human problem, and it’s probably at its worst in the Islamic world.

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