© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Born this way?

It is an interesting and demonstrable fact that all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so…[T]here is no religion in human nature, nor human nature in religion. It is purely artificial, the result of education, while Atheism is natural, and, were the human mind not perverted and bewildered by the mysteries and follies of superstition, would be universal. —ERNESTINE ROSE, “A Defence of Atheism” (1861)

Boy do we secular parents love us a quote like that. It says my atheism is just a return to my natural condition, a rejection of something artificial that had been blown into my head by human culture. Like!

But in the last few years, I’ve come to think of the idea that we are born atheists as a seriously misleading one, and correcting it as Job One for secular parents.

It’s obviously true that we are born without religious belief. But this equates to what is called weak or negative atheism, the simple absence of belief in a god or gods. But what about the other major assertion there — that without inculcation, that absence would remain?

This gets at the very basic question of what religion is. The Rose quote implies that it’s a cultural construction, pure and simple. But if Ernestine Rose was right and atheism is so damn natural, why is the inculcation of religion received so eagerly and pried loose with such difficulty?

I’ve spent years chasing this question through the work of EO Wilson, Pinker, Boyer, Dennett, Diamond, Shermer and more. The result has made me less angry and frustrated and more empathetic toward the religious impulse, even as I continue to find most religious ideas both incorrect and problematic. It has also deeply informed my secular parenting in a very good way. Yet I’ve never expressed it out loud until a few months ago, when I reworked part of my parenting seminar to include it.

Thinking about religion anthropologically has made me a better proponent of my own worldview, a more effective challenger of toxic religious ideas, and a much better secular parent.

Why (the hell) we are the way we are

If you want to understand why we are the way we are, there’s no better place to look than the Paleolithic Era (2.4 million years ago – 11,000 years ago). Over 99.5 percent of the history of the genus Homo120,000 generations — took place during the Paleolithic. For the last 10,000 of those generations, we were anatomically modern. Same body, same brain. The brain you are carrying around in your head was evolved in response to conditions in that era, not this one. The mere 500 generations that have passed since the Paleolithic ended represent a virtual goose egg in evolutionary time.

To put it simply: we are born in the Stone Age. Childhood is a period during which we are brought — by parenting, experience, and education — into the modern world. Or not.

So if we were evolved for the Paleolithic, it seems worth asking: What was it like then? In short, it sucked to be us.

In the Lower Paleolithic, starting around 2.4 million years ago, there were an estimated 26,000 hominids on Earth. The climate was affected by frequent glacial periods that would lock up global water, leading to severe arid conditions in the temperate zones and scarce plant and animal life, making food hard to come by.

The average hominid life span was about 20 years. We lived in small bands competing for negligible resources. For two million years, our genus was balancing on the edge of extinction.

Then it got worse.

About 77,000 years ago, a supervolcano erupted in what is now Lake Toba in Indonesia. On the Volcanic Explosivity Index, (apparently created by a seven-year-old boy), this eruption was a “mega-colossal” — the highest category. Earth was plunged into a volcanic winter lasting at least a decade. The human population dropped to an estimated 5,000 individuals, each living a terrifying, marginal existence.

Now remember that these humans had the same thirsty and capable brain you and I enjoy, but few reliable methods for filling it up. The most common cause of death was infectious disease. If someone is gored by a mammoth, you can figure out how to avoid that in the future. But most people died for no apparent reason. Just broke out in bloody boils, then keeled over dead.

Imagine how terrifying such a world would be to a mind fully capable of comprehending the situation but utterly lacking in answers, and worse yet, lacking the ability to control it. It’s not hard to picture the human mind simply rebelling against that reality, declaring it unacceptable, and creating an alternate reality in its place, neatly packaged for the grateful relief of subsequent generations.

The first evidence of supernatural religion appears 130,000 years ago.

Religion solves our central problem: that we are human (to quote Jennifer Hecht), and the universe is not. It’s not really about explanation or even comfort, not exactly. It’s about seizing control, or at least imagining we have. To be fully conscious of our frailty and mortality in a hostile and indifferent universe and powerless to do anything about it would have been simply unacceptable to the human mind. So we created powerful beings whom we could ultimately control — through prayer, sacrifice, behavior changes, ritual, spinning around three times, what have you.

Conservative, traditional religion is a natural response to being human in the Paleolithic. Whether it was a good response or not is beside the point — it was the only one we had.

But we’re not in the Paleolithic anymore, you say. You certainly have the calendar on your side. We began to climb out of our situation about 500 generations ago when agriculture made it possible to stand still and live a little longer. Eventually we had the time and security to develop better responses to the problem, better ways of interrogating and controlling the world around us. But the Scientific Revolution, our biggest step forward in that journey, was just 20 generations ago. Think of that. It just happened. Our species is still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of 120,000 generations in hell. And like the battle veteran who hits the dirt when he hears a backfiring car, it takes very little to push the Paleolithic button in our heads.

Yes, your kids are born without religious belief. But they are also born with the problem of being human, which includes a strong tendency to hit the dirt when the universe backfires. One of the best things a secular parent can do is know that the Paleolithic button is there so we can help our kids resist the deeply natural urge to push it.

(Part 1 of 3. Go to Part 2.)

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This was written on Thursday, 08. March 2012 at 14:59 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, death, fear, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more that the goal of parenting is safe guarding our children against our species weaknesses like the hatred of other “tribes”, reacting to stimuli without due reflection, the list goes on and on.

    Comment: Andrew Hall – 08. March 2012 @ 4:09 pm

  2. Perfect post for me to read today. I am currently reading Christopher Hitchens’ book “god is not great:How religion poisons everything” And have been getting sad/angry at all the things I am learning. Somewhere in the back of my mind I think I knew these things had happened,etc. but to see them written down(and verifable) is disturbing. So….this helps me understand “us” a bit better. Thanks!

    Comment: boobahlady – 08. March 2012 @ 6:22 pm

  3. Wonderful text, as always, Dale.

    It is a very interesting fact, that both sides, the religious and the secular, would like to see nature on their side. But this is completely besides the point. The natural is not the good, let alone the better.

    There is ample evidence for the fact that children are born with a propensity towards teleological thinking. That shouldn’t surprise anybody, as ID and creationism are childish ideas, i.e. perfectly ok in childhood and somewhat strange in adults. Science and reason are cultural techniques that have to be learned and fostered. How could it be otherwise?

    Rather than insisting on atheism being natural we should embrace and emphasize the fact that religious belief belongs to the childhood, not only of the individual, but of the species as a whole.

    Science and reason are at a disadvantage in early childhood, quite naturally. Superstitious thinking has a headstart in children. This can and should be turned into an argument for more and better science education.

    Comment: Harald – 09. March 2012 @ 6:21 am

  4. I just read a Carl Sagan quote I imagine you like, “People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. Let us not dismiss pseudoscience or even superstition with contempt.” (from a 1995 CSI article).

    I love this post of yours, and thank you for it. My son has taken to certain religious musings, despite my agnosticism and his dad’s atheism. I’m trying to grin and bear it, hang on for the ride and know that if we promote freethought, he’ll get there (“there” being the concept of freethought, if not atheism or agnosticism).

    I particularly like this bit of your piece, “Religion solves our central problem: that we are human (to quote Jennifer Hecht), and the universe is not. It’s not really about explanation or even comfort, not exactly. It’s about seizing control, or at least imagining we have. To be fully conscious of our frailty and mortality in a hostile and indifferent universe and powerless to do anything about it would have been simply unacceptable to the human mind. So we created powerful beings whom we could ultimately control — through prayer, sacrifice, behavior changes, ritual, spinning around three times, what have you.”

    Thanks again.

    Comment: joley – 09. March 2012 @ 11:31 am

  5. In a corollary, babies are born natural scientists as well.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6037/1524.abstract (paywalled, but the podcast discussing the paper is free)

    Comment: hendric – 12. March 2012 @ 11:52 am

  6. Thank you – Thank you !!

    Reading about how various religious beliefs have hindered our development, caused grief, and dis-empowered or dis-enfranchised groups of people, had left me feeling quite angry and upset at the “religious”.
    And reading various books like Hitchens “God is not great” left me bewildered at how we (yes we) have allowed these things to happen in our societies.

    Your post has helped me put into perspective these thoughts. I also like what @Harald above wrote.

    Looking forward to part 2

    Comment: blinder – 13. March 2012 @ 6:06 pm

  7. Great stuff. Worth the wait (and the daily clicks to make sure I’m not missing the latest and greatest).

    Can you give some citations for your sources used? It’s good to have more info handy when discussing these things with those not wanting to take the leap to the Scientific Age.

    For example, I remember reading evo-biologists that said the human bottleneck never got below 10k.

    edit – one resource gives me a couple figures at different times, one of 10k 3 mil years ago and as low as 1,200 20-40k years ago (this looks like where you got the 5k from since it states the 1200 is underestimated).

    I would like to see the resources for the start of supernatural belief…
    Good stuff Dale!

    Comment: TomZ, a miasma of incandescent plasma – 14. March 2012 @ 3:59 pm

  8. Bottleneck numbers I’ve seen range from 2000 to 15000. Here’s a ref to the low end of that range: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7358868.stm

    An outstanding source for origins of religious thought is Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. One of the best anthropological approaches. I can’t give specific cites — all just sitting in my mental files at this point, but drawn from reading the authors mentioned in the post (EO Wilson, Pinker, Boyer, Dennett, Diamond, Shermer).

    Comment: Dale – 15. March 2012 @ 8:04 am

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