In a recent piece at The Guardian, Tanya Gold argues that secularists need to acknowledge the fact that religion can be a positive psychological force in people’s life. She says:
I know that religion can save. I know plenty of people who are better, and happier, for a belief in God.
As an atheist, I have absolutely no qualms with this statement. In fact, anyone who has studied the cognitive science of religious belief shouldn’t be surprised in the least that religion is psychically soothing for many people. But the interesting question is why. Scientists who study the neurological and evolutionary foundations of religious belief have reached a consensus that in a very real sense the tendency for religiosity and supernatural thinking is hard-wired in the human brain from birth. We are as Justin Barrett argues “Born Believers”. Given our innate dispositions, is it any shocker that Gold knows “plenty of people” who are happier on the basis of their belief in God? From a strictly evolutionary point of view, this statement has a surprise value equivalent to someone saying “I know plenty of cats who are happy chasing mice”. If it is psychologically natural for people to engage in religious and supernatural modes of thinking, then, ceteris paribus, we should expect that it makes people happy to think in a way that is most natural for them.
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that it’s psychologically normal from an evolutionary perspective for parents to treat their step-children differently than their biological children, but it’d be absurd to argue for the maintenance of the psychic status quo if being mean to their step-children provided a dollop of psychic release. I don’t think in the least that the ill treatment of step-children is comparable with religious belief, but the general lesson is that we are not (and should not) be shackled to our evolutionary past simply on the basis that doing what comes natural often makes us feel good. If parents can overcome their genetic programming and lovingly care for adopted children with zero genetic relation without feeling psychic turmoil, then surely it’s possible for people to live nonreligiously without psychic turmoil as well.
The believer might retort that even so, because the majority of humans do in fact receive psychological benefits from their belief atheists are on the losing end of this argumentative strategy. But of course the atheist could simply respond by saying “Give it time!” Just because religion has been a part of our species’ psychological baggage for eons, can anyone be so confident that this will never change? Though the growth of secularism has not been as rapid as was once predicted by our Enlightenment forefathers (who were largely ignorant of our evolutionary past), it would be foolish to nevertheless ignore a slower but steadily increasing trendline towards secularism and humanism, especially in the most well-educated and developed countries. Can anyone confidently assert that human religiosity will be just as strong in 1,000 years as it is today? A million? Given everything we know about natural human dispositions, secularists are undoubtedly playing the long-game when it comes to enacting a momentous sea-change in public opinion towards religion. But as Homer said, “The fates have given mankind a patient soul.”