in Things that make you go "hmm"

Atheism and Belief Systems


Most people don’t think they’re racist, but when it’s actually tested, virtually everyone is. So all of the decisions you make assuming you’re not racist actually have consequences accordingly. However, if you realize how many unconscious beliefs you have regarding race, and that you’re inevitably going to have misleading cognitive biases on the subject, then it helps you to be more careful about your actions.

Everyone has a belief system, and denying it doesn’t make it go away; it just causes you to make decisions and take actions with less awareness of of the process. And I’m not just talking about spaghetti monsters; I’m talking about coming to terms with the set of a priori assumptions you base your decisions on.

Atheism IS a belief system. For starters, as soon as you make the leap from “no, thank you, actually I don’t believe the evidence supports the existence of a deity of any description at this time” to “I believe there is no deity, and I think it’s better for people to realize this” then it becomes a belief rather than the lack thereof. As soon as you use the term “Atheism” then you’re acquiring a belief system whether you embrace it as such or not. And in reality, Atheism is becoming a more and more organized belief system as increasing numbers of people choose to associate themselves with that label. Personally I’ve called it “scientifickism” for several decades–an attempt to map the values of the scientific method to a more global belief system about how to live life and interact with others. But increasingly people are just calling it “Atheism.”

Conversely, the statements many Atheists make about religion show a stark ignorance of the wealth and variety of “religions” around the world. Granted, it can be hard to understand this given that the very word “religion” was coined in English to refer to a Christian perspective on religion, and that this is surely what they have have had the most exposure to. But there’s a lot more to religion than the qualities that draw the most ire from Atheists, which typically aren’t accurate for all religions, just the ones they’re familiar with.

For example, here are some common myths about religion in general:

    • All religions worship deities (not all do)
    • Religion forbids contraception (not all religions even address it one way or another)
    • Religion operates by inventing threats of divine retribution or eternal damnation to keep people in line (true in many cases but not all)
    • Religion causes war (mixing correlation and causation; politics and economics drive war, but belief systems are a powerful tool for leveraging people for purposes including war)
    • Religion is homophobic (perspectives on homosexuality vary widely)
    • All religions forbid abortion (in fact only a few actually do)

Religion is in many ways a way of grouping together the beliefs, laws and practices of a group of people together. What counts as religion for Christians doesn’t actually touch on nearly as many practices and topics as for Muslims, whereas Zen Buddhists have a much more Spartan (if you’ll excuse the wording) approach. In particular, not all religions disallow contraception, not all religions rely on the Manichaeistic “you’re either good or you’re evil” dualism or on threats of eternal damnation. In fact most religions don’t disallow contraception, and many don’t care one way or another. Similarly, the reality is that in day to day life, the main external pressure for religionists to cooperate with the precepts they follow is the same reason why Ruby on Rails developers tend to use TDD, or why Lindy Hoppers like Jazz music and practice swingouts all the time: a combination of their own personal beliefs (they actually believe these preferences and approaches are better) and peer pressure from the community.

Let’s look at correlation and causation with respect to contraception. It’s worth remembering again that religion didn’t originally develop as a meme that expanded beyond a social group. Most religions in the world are still strongly associated with an ethnic group. Whether you call them religious beliefs, mores, taboos, or cultural practices, the set of beliefs and practices of a community evolve to give those communities an advantage. For example, years ago I read a study of sexual taboos across cultures, and it showed how the taboos correlated with the economic necessities of local environments. Some sexual taboos and customs are designed so that they limit the tribe’s expansion in a limited environment by restricting the timing or frequency of sexual encounters, or through polyandry. That kind of system works especially well in remote locations where immediate tribe expansion isn’t an option–such as on a remote island. However most social systems do the opposite, and in surprising ways–such as outlawing copulation during less fertile parts of the woman’s cycle.

This is “surprising” because while limiting sex might seem to universally reduce pregnancies, in fact limiting sex some of the time can serve to increase it at the crucial moments most likely to cause insemination. Most “religions” are designed to ensure orderly increases in population, by ensuring that (almost) everyone gets a mate, that people procreate extensively, and that the resulting children have two parents (or a similarly fault-tolerant family unit) and a supportive community structure.

Of course once we reach high population levels, religions start to adapt, and a social scientist would expect to see changes in the religions themselves to limit population increases, and even the emergence of new religious systems to adapt to that need. And lo and behold, we have some religions changing their perspectives on population-limiting practices such as contraception (and dare I say, homosexuality and gay marriage), and the emergence of vocal Atheists publicly promoting contraception and abortion.

What’s ironic is that today, the people who are the most successful from a societal perspective–highly educated, high income, etc.–are often the least successful from a biological perspective (eg. “how many grandchildren will they have?”). People living in poor areas without ready access to sex education or birth control methods tend to have a lot more offspring than wealthy urban professionals. The only educated, financially successful people having lots of kids today tend to be religious.

Of course, proliferation doesn’t equal happiness. But if you want to know who will populate the next generations on the earth, it’s the offspring of teenage mothers and devout religious people.

And in that sense, by the only meaningful biological metric of success, religion makes people more successful. That’s why it’s still around.

Now the REAL problem at hand is the Problem of the Commons: it’s to the advantage of every individual person, and even every sub-community, to ensure their own proliferation over that of their rivals. But the world can only handle so many people.

So how do you get the whole world to limit their populations? Traditionally there are two methods:

  1. WAR — killing young people at the height of fertility greatly reduces populations.
  2. RELIGION — changes to taboos about sex and procreation could make it socially unacceptable to have a lot of kids; in fact religions could evolve to require contraceptive use except in certain situations.

However there’s a third modern option: people who are well-educated and financially secure have fewer kids. In fact, they have so few kids that many first world countries have negative birth rates even though they don’t necessarily suffer from overpopulation in the first place. So with more education around the world, ironically we could end up with dangerously low populations–where there aren’t enough working-age people to support the older generational cohorts.

Therefore what we need is some kind of balance. What if some people believe in using contraception and some don’t? The groups of people not using contraception will tend to expand faster, but over time some will defect to the contraception-using groups and populations will stabilize. After all, there are two strategies at work here: one is to maximize the number of offspring that you have, and the other is to maximize the resources you invest per child.

(There’s the obvious comment here that not all people “want to have children” at all, but I’m talking about evolution here, not strategies consciously employed by individuals. And in any case, with contraception, the people who really don’t want children will be removing themselves from the gene pool in Darwinian fashion, leaving generations of the children of people who chose to have children or were too lazy to grab a condom.)

So perhaps that’s what we need: some people who have a taboo against contraception, and some people who don’t.


What’s so “meta” about this whole exploration is realizing that Atheism is just another belief system serving new sets of needs in the social ecosystem. From one perspective, the “accuracy” of a set of beliefs isn’t nearly as important as the resulting actions of the believers.

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