People who grew up in a home with relatively little credible displays of faith are more likely to be atheists, according to new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The study indicates that cultural transmission — or the lack thereof — is a stronger predictor of religious disbelief than other factors, such as heightened analytic thinking.
“Researchers have proposed a bunch of different theories about how religion works, why we have it, and such. I think that atheism is an ideal way to evaluate these theories. They tend to predict really different things about what ought to relate to atheism,” explained Will Gervais, a senior lecturer in psychology at Brunel University London.
For the study, Gervais and his colleagues surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,417 U.S. residents. The survey included the Supernatural Beliefs Scale, which assesses the degree to which people hold supernatural beliefs and asked the participants to simply indicate whether they believed in God. The participants also completed psychological assessments of perspective-taking ability, feelings of existential security, exposure to credible cues of religiosity, and reflective versus intuitive cognitive style.
The researchers found evidence that a lack of exposure to credibility-enhancing displays of religious faith was a key predictor of atheism. In other words, those with caregivers who faithfully modeled their religious beliefs, such as going to religious services or acting fairly to others because their religion taught them so, were less likely to be atheists.
“The importance of transmitted culture and context-biased cultural learning as a predictor of belief and disbelief cannot be overstated. Combined, this work suggests that if you are guessing whether or not individuals are believers or atheists, you are better-off knowing how their parents behaved,” the researchers wrote in their article.
Participants with a reflective cognitive style were only slightly more prone to religious disbelief, while those with better perspective-taking abilities were slightly more prone to religious belief. The researchers found no significant relationship between existential security and religious disbelief.
“A lot of people (atheists in particular) like to talk about how atheism comes from rational, effortful thought. This work joins other recent surveys in finding that this isn’t too accurate,” Gervais told PsyPost.
“Our best estimate is that atheism mostly comes down to cultural learning — specific cues we’re exposed to growing up about how sincerely those around us believe in God. Once those cultural inputs are accounted for, individual differences in more analytic cognitive reflection predict a little bit of surface variation, but it’s a pretty small piece of the puzzle.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“Our work only looked at folks in the United States, which in a lot of ways is a peculiar place. And although our results are quite similar to results from places like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how religion and atheism work outside of the Western bubble that makes up most social science research,” Gervais explained.
“Doing this research and also talking to atheist groups, I’m always struck at the mismatch between people’s narratives about their atheism and the research. So many people seem really convinced that they’re atheists because they’re super rational and science minded. But large-scale quantitative research basically never shows that to be a major predictor of atheism. So what’s up here? Are the narratives off, or are our surveys just poorly calibrated wo what’s going on? I mentally chew on this puzzle a lot, and am never all that satisfied by it.”
The study, “The Origins of Religious Disbelief: A Dual Inheritance Approach“, was authored by Will M. Gervais, Maxine B. Najle, and Nava Caluori.