Posted by: Dan | January 5, 2009

Counterfactual Beliefs and Religion

Scott Atran, in his book In Gods We Trust, brushed over something that came back to me in a discussion recently – how some religious beliefs are “nuts”, or more precisely, counterfactual (e.g., broad concepts such as Flood Geology, Creationism and especially the Young Earth variety, etc.; and also more specific instances such as talking animals, objects defying gravity, and so on). From the intro to Chapter 4 (page 83), “The Mostly Mundane Nature of Religious Belief” Atran states:

Religous traditions do not consist of cultural “worldviews,” “theories,” “systems,” “codes,” “grammars,” or any such determinant structures. The beliefs current in religious doctrine and liturgy consist of logically unintegrated counterintuitions and anecdotal episodes that evoke a much richer substrate of everyday, commonsense beliefs. These commonsense beliefs, which are usually readily available to everyone, remain implicit and are rarely articulated. Transmission and survival of religious creed and ritual depends, for the most part, on the facility with which explicit religious beliefs and practices are able to elicit, and render relevant, underlying commonsense beliefs.

Fully developed cognitions of folkpsychology and agency involve metarepresentation, which makes deception possible. This threatens social order. But these same metacognitive capacities provide the hope and promise of open-ended solutions through representations of counterintuitive supernatural worlds that cannot be logically or empirically verified or falsified.

Core religious beliefs minimally violate ordinary intuititions about how the world is, with all of its inescapable problems, thus enabling people to imagine minimally impossible worlds that appear to solve existential problems, including death and deception. The dual aspect of supernatural beliefs—commonsensical and counterfactual—renders them intuitively compelling yet fantastic, eminently recognizable but surprising. Such beliefs grab attention, activate intuition, and mobilize inference in ways that greatly facilitate their mnemonic retention, social transmission, cultural selection, and historic survival.


There’s a lot there to sift through, with Atran’s writing being thick with terminology from advanced psychology – and these are only the introductory paragraphs.

What seems to be the case however is that there are problems which the capacity for consciousness has created for the human mind. Moreover, factual understanding of many aspects of the world (e.g., knowledge of natural history; or false beliefs in an afterlife or the power of prayer) are luxuries that do not impact a person’s chances to make a living and raise children, so such factual beliefs can be eschewed.

But this doesn’t explain how many people such as myself have no problem dealing with existential problems of “death and deception,” as Atran writes, while being more successful in minimizing the counterfactual beliefs that I and other atheists hold. I would actually think that counterfactual beliefs and the superstitions that stem from them would make existential fears worse by way of exaggerations, as well as having the effect of eroding capacities for understanding – but then, I’m working on the premise that understanding leads to calmer risk analyses and responses to existential challenges.

Dealing with attention-grabbing ideas that activate intuition isn’t as much of a problem. Science is replete with such things and, as the saying goes, reality is usually stranger than fiction. There is plenty of opportunity for awe and transcendent feelings there, not to mention counterintuitive puzzles, to keep our intellects engaged.

I suspect that the question is best answered by noting the principal qualitative difference between theists and atheists: atheism is becoming possible because many people are finding it possible to make it in society without a “hyperactive agency detector.” [See my post on Agency and Theory of Mind.]

Note: I shouldn’t have to say this, but this isn’t the place for comments arguing for a literal interpretation of Christian, Muslim, or other creation mythologies.


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