Do you suppose that psychological predisposition and temperament play large roles in religious and irreligious belief?
Let me suggest a dramatic example: a significant minority of the world’s prison population—perhaps 20%–exhibits psychopathy. Some of these people are, no doubt, atheists, but many more are theists. And no, it doesn’t mean that all, or even most of these—whether atheist or theist—will ever commit, say, a grotesque murder. But there are quite a few people in the world who do match the clinical definition for being psychopaths. And they are probably more than one might first imagine. Steven Pinker, for example, in the notes to his book The Blank Slate, cites a statistic suggesting that 1 out of every 20 adult males properly fits the psychopathic profile. And in the BBC documentary clip that I’ve posted below, the percentage of psychopaths in Britain is estimated at .5% of the population (1 out of every 200 persons).
Either way, that’s a lot of psychopaths. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what their views on religion are? My bet is that they would break down into two extreme camps: they either claim to be atheists or fundamentalists.
Why? Because psychopathy is (in part) characterized by:
- habitually inappropriate or flat emotional registry to awful things; and
- outwardly logical thinking divorced from emotions.
It follows that quite a few atheists probably do take on the appearance of having characteristics consistent with psychopaths. As, of course, do religious fundamentalists. Just as the atheist can absorb God’s death with an equanimity that does not seem proportionate to the news, so the religious fundamentalist absorbs the existence of hell with an inappropriate registry. For most of us, I’d bet that it feels a bit out of kilter to encounter someone who believes that God is dead or that hell really exists and also goes about his or her day with relative calm or indifference to these matters.
But that’s exactly what atheists and fundamentalists generally do, isn’t it?
A lot of atheists and hell-believing fundamentalists appear to be registering the wrong emotion in response to what they believe, and they bring with them a calm logic that seems to have missed the emotional forest for the syllogistic trees. Kant, for example, famously heard a fellow philosopher make a very logical argument for the existence of hell, but on hearing that it would not exclude a child from the consequences of the logic, replied tartly, “My heart rejects it!” Disbelief for Kant, in this instance, was a matter of psychological predisposition and temperament.
Now let’s apply this to atheists. If you really believe that God is dead, it seems that the proper response to this is distress—or at least some level of adult sobriety—for it means, invariably, that the universe can have no larger meaning or purpose than the individual. Whatever else God is, God represents the one hope for human beings that life can have a lasting meaning; that life is not a big nihil—an ultimate nothingness grounded in chance.
And yet there are a lot of atheists—especially among those who call themselves “gnu atheists”—who seem rather pleased in their conclusion that God is dead, and delight in trying to intellectually unsettle and disillusion theists in their religious hopes.
If nothing else, there is a tinge of sadism there.
I’m not saying that, when a person reaches the intellectual conclusion that God is dead, it must lead to permanent sorrow, and displays of sorrow, or else that person is a psychopath. Afterall, the psyche has other ways of coping with bad news beyond the strategy of falling into total emotional flatness. One of those ways is cognitive dissonance: you know something is bad but you just choose not to think about it too much, and try to get on with your life as best you can.
But this isn’t what a lot of atheists do—at least not the evangelical “gnu atheists.” More than a few of them appear quite pleased to have reached the conclusion that God is dead, and it is as if they want it to be so.
Of course, atheists who express evident pleasure in the death of God may do so, not because they are grounding their rejection of God in a desire for meaninglessness, but because they perceive the monotheistic religions as themselves psychopathic—cruel in their affirmations of a sadistic God who tortures people in hell and keeps women and gay people down. There are lots and lots of sensitive atheists who obviously reject God, and take pleasure in that rejection, out of righteous outrage at the sadism inherent in traditional religion.
But there are others who don’t. And it makes me wonder about them, given the enormity of their rejection, why they do not seem appropriately upset. It reminds me of Camus’s The Stranger. In the novel, when Meursault’s mother dies, he is not visibly upset at the funeral, and this leads the attendees to speculation. What does such behavior mean?
Perhaps it just means that he felt what he felt. And so it seems that, whether you arrive at atheism via a lack of emotion (it’s just a logical conclusion that you accept) or you arrive at atheism out of righteous outrage at theists (you cannot stomach the fundamentalist’s callous hell belief or the liberal religionist’s saccharine and Orwellian God-talk), you have arrived at your conclusion, perhaps in large part, because of psychological predisposition and temperament. Likewise, if you are a theist, one of your likely reasons for being so is that you simply cannot stomach atheism’s nihilistic conclusion, and perceive in it a state of utter hopelessness—a secular hell-realm.
In either case, the stomach (or the curious absence of a stomach) plays a role.
This reminds me of what Damon Linker recently wrote about post-9-11 atheists (such as “gnu atheist” Jerry Coyne) v. post-World War II atheists (such as Albert Camus):
The members of the second, more humanistic tradition of atheism understood and accepted that although an individual may settle the question of God to his personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all human beings will settle it in the same way. They recognised that differences in life experience, psychological makeup, social class, intelligence, the capacity for introspection, and temperament will tend to preclude unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Humanistic atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists, including our bestselling new atheists, do not.
Linker, I think, has hit the nail on the head. And I would note that there appears to be a very large genetic and developmental component in adult psychological makeup and temperament. It makes me wonder how angry or impatient we should be with those who do not accept our religious (or irreligious) views and attitudes. And it also makes me wonder whether the way we formulate religious (or antireligious) arguments has to do with unconscious strategies for modifying the behavior of others—others with distinct and inherited psychological predispositions and temperaments.