Photo: Quino Al on Unsplash
While many believe that religious belief is a choice, a result of upbringing, or a testament to one’s morality and character, new research suggests that acceptance of a religion stems not only from environmental and social factors but from human biology as well.
“Spiritual struggles,” feelings of futility, and existential crises have been linked to “higher levels of psychological distress, declines in physical health, and even greater risk of mortality.” The ability to cope has been selected for, as it promotes healthy lifestyles and necessary functions; for this reason, we may all have the biology of belief in common.
According to psychology, it is easier for many people to get through life feeling as though an omnipotent being has a plan for them, that everything happens for a reason due to cosmic justice, or that there is a reward of an afterlife or incomprehensible transcendence. It makes us feel as though our inevitable worldly suffering is worth it in the end.
That is not, of course, to claim that any religious beliefs are true or untrue. It’s only to explain why humans are predisposed to believe that they are. However, a growing number of Americans -- around 23 percent – don’t. Interestingly, atheists and agnostics experience more discrimination and oppression worldwide and in the United States than one might think. In fact, an American sociology called them "a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years."
Firstly, Americans are far less likely to vote for an atheist president than for a candidate of any other minority, including Muslim or gay people, and 7 U.S. states even have laws that prohibit atheists and agnostics from running. 53 percent of Americans don’t adhere to the idea that a belief in a god is necessary for morality, but 45 percent do. In other developed countries, fewer people say that belief in a god is necessary for good morals, including just 15 percent in France. In other countries, however, the vast majority believe that a person must believe in a god to be moral, including 99 percent in Indonesia and Ghana and 98 percent in Pakistan. Similarly, 13 countries legally execute those who openly deny a belief in a god: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
American parents who attend church are preferred in custody battles than atheist parents, as many people believe that religious affiliation is an important part of raising a child. Even the Boy Scouts of America follow this belief system; they exclude atheist members and leaders on the grounds that atheists are insufficiently moral and patriotic due to their lack of faith. Students are sometimes initially prevented from starting nonbelievers’ organizations on campus, even when religious groups are allowed to exist and meet at school. Later in life, employers prefer to hire religious interviewers over nonbelievers when the job requires “high trust;” atheists and agnostics are thought to be good fits for “low-trust” jobs such as serving.
Socially, 49 percent of Americans would be unhappy in a family married an atheist. A poorly educated, gun-owning, Christian, Muslim, or African-American son- or daughter-in-law would receive much warmer welcomes. Exactly half of Americans reported in 2013 that atheism “threatened” them, and a small study even suggests that the general public trust atheists about as little as they do rapists.
Most of the bigotry stems from the belief that atheists have no morals. In actuality, atheists display higher levels of altruism, generosity, and tolerance or sensitivity to justice. They are also typically more intelligent, scientifically-minded, self-reliant, and empathetic and exhibit a strengthened ability to problem-solve.
Society needs to remember that not all atheists are "anti-religion" and generally don't spend time attacking other people's beliefs. That's the point, in truth: atheists don't really care about religion. That doesn’t mean they should be silenced.
Emily Rose is 17 years old and from Athens, Georgia. Beginning in fall 2017, she will attend Mercer University. She plans to double major in Journalism and Political Science and to minor in Global Development Studies. She is a writer, musician, activist, and feminist who hopes to use her platforms to inspire positive change by providing different perspectives on the world’s political and social issues.