Skip to main content

This week, Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, two of North America's most prominent atheists, sat around on Mr. Maher's television show "gloating," as they put it themselves, about the latest revelations of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

While one can imagine better ways to talk about such life-destroying tragedies, it seems nearly anything can be fodder for the ongoing, vitriolic war between believers and non-believers.

For the most part, the battleground has been book sales on, but the conflict does reach into other spheres: This week, a U.S. appeals court rejected a lawsuit claiming that the use of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance discriminated against atheists, while a vandal in Detroit this week destroyed bus ads that said, "Don't believe in God? You're not alone."

And now, the brain scientists who have famously sought the wellspring of faith in the grey matter of nuns and monks are turning their attention to the other side. In the past two years, an international scientific network has been formed to collect research on atheism. Pitzer College in Los Angeles is expected to announce the first secular studies department in the world this spring. Last December, social scientists gathered at the University of Oxford for a conference on atheism - a rare academic event, according to one of the organizers, Stephen Bullivant.

They were looking at the natural next challenge in neurotheology: If religion or spiritual belief is the human default position, how does atheism happen?

No clear conclusions were reached, says Dr. Bullivant, a research fellow in theology at Oxford. But here are some of the questions researchers are asking.

Do atheists' brains work differently?

The widespread idea that human brains have a special area that governs spiritual belief - a "God Spot" - has been disputed by scientists such as Jordan Grafman, a neuropsychologist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md.

Doing brain imagining on believers while they prayed and meditated, he found that the areas of the brain involved were the expected areas of memory and feeling; no special section was suddenly activated.

"Maybe we are special in the eyes of God, but God didn't place anything special in our brains - at least as far as we can see," Dr. Grafman says.

Other studies have shown that beliefs about God, for or against, originate in the same part of the brain. Only the interpretation of information is different.

In Rorschach ink-blot studies, for instance, believers tended to see images that weren't there and non-believers tended to miss images that were present.

At the same time, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College who studies atheists, points to people in his research who report growing up in heavily Christian background, but always feeling that they were atheists - with the same conflicted emotions, he suggests, as gay people have growing up.

He also points out gender differences in religious belief, which may suggest something biological is at play. "Men always tend to be more secular than women. And that's in every study, in every country, in every race, for every known measure of religiosity," he says.

Are atheists smarter than people who believe in God?

Historically, atheism has been a position open mainly to educated, upper-class people - a segment of society with the resources and leisure time to ponder life's larger questions, as well as the freedom to break with social norms.

A study released in February using survey data and IQ tests from British teenagers found that the teens with higher intelligence scores were more likely to be atheists.

Todd Shackelford, an evolutionary psychologist at Florida Atlantic University, has reviewed 40 studies on religious and intelligence going back 100 years. He says all but two of them suggested that more educated people tended to be less religious.

"There's no doubt there are people who are extremely intelligent who are also very religious," Dr. Shackelford says. "The question then becomes what is setting them apart."

On the other hand, the 2005 World Values Survey, while generally finding the same trend, also suggested that the number of non-believers was slightly lower among university-educated people. (People with more education were also more likely to have other supernatural beliefs - in telepathy, for instance - than people who had graduated only from high school.)

In another, smaller survey conducted by the London-based Theos Think Tank, while lifelong atheists or non-religious people tended to have more education, people who had changed their minds and adopted religious belief at some point were more heavily represented among the highest education and class levels.

Is religion innate?

"There is a lot of evidence that religious beliefs flow very naturally from the way the mind is designed," Dr. Shackelford says. It has long been believed, he says, that atheism is a harder position to maintain because it goes against the natural instinct to want to attach some kind of meaning to phenomena we can't explain. "Perhaps religion is natural, but not inevitable."

Jesse Bering, the director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University in Belfast, says that even people who say they don't believe in God often unconsciously attach a supernatural meaning to events - for instance, that bad things happen to us in order to teach life lessons.

Evolutionary psychologists also suggest that religion developed in order to establish moral codes and build community among human being.

But studies have shown that people tend to give universal answers to moral questions regardless of their beliefs, though they are likely to articulate them differently.

To study the impact of atheism on community standards, Dr. Zuckerman spent 19 months in Denmark and Sweden, both affluent places where non-believers count for 80 per cent of the population. His research found that, rather than being hostile to religion, non-believers in those countries tended to express indifference or to call themselves "cultural Christians" because they still participated in many rites (baptism, marriages, funerals and holidays) linked to the national church.

In any event, Dr. Zuckerman says, the research on atheism is just getting started. "We'll never fully understand religion until we can understand secularity," he observes. "There are intellectual questions needing to be answered, because they have real-life, political consequences."

Erin Anderssen is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.