Being an atheist is a very lonely business. Although it is difficult to measure the proportion of atheists worldwide, estimates range anywhere between 1% to 7% of the global population. Let’s just assume for simplicity’s sake that 5% of the global population has no belief in a deity, while 95% affirm the existence of some kind of higher power. If that’s right, then there are 19 times as many believers as there are non-believers. If you were to gather 20 random people together for a party, the atheist would find himself sitting alone in the corner: moping, reading a magazine, or possibly playing with the host’s dog. Yes, it is a lonely life.
Any serious atheist should worry about these numbers. After all, if a 97% consensus among climate scientists should motivate us to accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, then a 95% consensus among all human beings ought to count for something. If you’re inclined to think the difference between these two cases is that climate scientists are experts in that field, then you might want to know that around 80% of professional philosophers of religion believe in a god.
Why would agreement count as evidence? The general idea is that if there is a god, then this god would presumably have created us with the cognitive tools necessary for knowing him. On that hypothesis, the numbers are not so very far from what one might expect. Sure, a measly 5% of us may dispute god’s existence, but perhaps this minority is “spiritually blind”. Perhaps they have a cognitive defect that prevents them from knowing god. It may sound harsh, but perhaps the 95% are adult human beings with normally-functioning brains, while the 5%, in contrast, are cognitively malfunctioning, defective, or “missing something”.
Yet funnily enough, atheists often invert this picture. They claim it is the theists who are defective. Richard Dawkins, for instance, famously labelled god a delusion and thereby labelled believers deluded. Dan Dennett compared god-beliefs to brain parasites — infections of the mind. What a peculiar argumentative move! Imagine that 19 people claimed to see a black-tailed godwit on the Thames, while one person failed to see the godwit; it would be pig-headed in the extreme for the loner to claim that the other 19 were all delusional or suffering from brain infections. Of course, the most natural assumption is that the loner is the one who needs to get his eyes checked. And if it’s good enough for the godwit then it’s good enough for god. Numbers do matter. Is it really an option for the atheist to disregard such a widely-held opinion out of hand? To borrow a line from the movie Contact, is it truly reasonable for the atheist to claim that “95% of us suffer from some form of mass delusion”?
The argument put forward above is a very old argument for the existence of God. It is usually called the Common Consent Argument or Consensus Gentium. It traces back to ancient Greece, and was particularly prevalent in the Epicurean school of Greek philosophy. Cicero put the argument most succinctly: “Since a steadfast unanimity continues to prevail amongst all men without exception,” he wrote, “it must be understood that the gods exist.” In other words, widespread agreement is evidence for whatever the agreement concerns. And if that’s right, then since there is widespread agreement concerning the existence of a god, then this counts as evidence that a god exists.
Sure, different religions might disagree about the specifics — whether god is male, female, neither or both, whether he/she/it/ze is the only deity, or sexually active, or up high in the sky on a throne, or loving, or vengeful, or an elephant etc. — but ultimately, once these disagreements are set to one side, the idea goes that they actually all converge on the existence of a very strange kind of thing: a mysterious person or mind that created the universe (and who can, perhaps, meddle in human affairs). All religions, the argument goes, share in common their belief in this higher power. This fact simply must count as some evidence for the claim that a god exists, even if that god is very difficult to describe or fully understand. There is an ancient and famous parable from India, called the Blind Men and the Elephant. You may have encountered it before. For those unfamiliar, several blind men are placed before an elephant. Each seeks to give an account of what the creature is. The first holds the trunk and proclaims it is a massive snake. The second holds the leg and proclaims it is a tree. The third holds the tail and proclaims it is a rope. The men agree there is something there, but its real nature evades them. The analogy is clear enough. The different world religions are like the blind men’s proclamations. They may disagree about precisely what’s there, but they don’t disagree about whether there is anything there.
So then, can we take widespread agreement about gods as evidence for the existence of gods? Most contemporary philosophers (including this writer) are underwhelmed by this argument. The biggest obstacle facing such an argument is the fact that the popularity of god-beliefs has been manufactured over the course of many generations by a deliberate and sustained process of cultural diffusion. Consider the fact that more than half of the world’s population is either Christian or Muslim. This is no accident. Christianity and Islam are proselytising traditions. Their adherents have spent the last couple of millennia relentlessly invading foreign lands and converting Africans, Asians, Europeans, Pacific peoples and Americans with utter zeal. This has seen a major shift away from the traditional faiths once held by these conquered peoples as they progressively adopted the new and updated gods of Abraham.
And let’s not fool ourselves! It was hardly the case that, upon hearing the scriptures, conquered peoples fell to their knees in worship of Jehovah or Allah. They were not suddenly struck with awe, with tears in their eyes, feeling at once the serene clarity and beauty of the new doctrines glowing like a fire of divine truth deep within their very bosoms — What a fairy-tale! The process of conversion of colonised peoples was drawn-out, messy, manipulative, coercive, and sometimes, to put it mildly, sadistically violent. Conversions were hastened by the establishment of a range of pecuniary incentives, such as the following three incentives which were enacted during the expansion of the first Islamic Caliphate (7th-century CE):
1. A pyramid scheme was established, granting earlier converts to Islam a greater share to war spoils than latter converts.
2. Direct payments (or the return of confiscated land, belongings, or family members) were offered in exchange for conversion to Islam.
3. Two separate taxes, the jizya and the kharaj, were imposed on non-muslims, while converts were exempt.
Of course, such incentives provide perfectly good pragmatic reasons to switch religions, but they do not make the newly adopted religion any more likely to be correct. If you change your religion to save a few bucks, this hardly speaks in favour of the new faith.
Unfortunately, the mass conversions of colonised peoples between the first and twenty-first centuries, although producing an extremely widespread belief in some kind of a god, had little if anything to do with a critical evaluation of the evidence. Establishing your religion through acts of war, terror, bribery, theft, rape, breeding, or enslavement might gain you the raw numbers, but it does not grant you any intellectual respectability.
All of this so far only really gestures towards the Common Consent Argument’s biggest hurdle. The problem with the argument is that although the belief in gods is widespread, it did not arise independently in each person. It is not the case that everyone woke up a few weeks ago with the distinct and inexplicable gut-feeling that there must be a god who created the universe. Indeed, Christian missionaries who were tasked with converting conquered nations were often faced with the puzzling fact that the peoples they encountered had no concept at all of a god or gods. The worship of ancestors, for example, was commonly encountered. The belief in sentient mountains and rivers was also commonly found, as was a belief in a soul, or multiple souls, which would leave the body during sleep or travel westwards post mortem. But as for god, well, he had apparently absconded. Yet what these primitive peoples lacked with respect to god-beliefs, they more than made up for with various beliefs about a plethora of lesser spirits and paranormal forces and energies. Missionaries soon realised that far from having to convert these primitive peoples away from false gods, they first had to convince them that there was any such thing as a god at all.
It is therefore apparently not true that every normally-functioning human being is born equipped with beliefs about gods. Nor is it the case that puberty brings with it, in addition to pubic hair and extreme mood swings, a pronounced sense of the reality of a divine being. Typically, god-beliefs are sustained in different communities by social reinforcement, by the transmission and dissemination of shared myths, stories, rituals, and celebrations. For the most part, the spread of religion occurs by word of mouth. And this is just the problem. For if 19 out of 20 people believe in a divine being, this fails to count for much once we learn that the 19 base their shared belief on what one or a couple of other people told them. This is not independent agreement. And without independent agreement, raw numbers don’t count for much.
There is a contemporary philosopher at Princeton, Tom Kelly, who makes the point well. The intellectual case for Islam, he says, would not be any stronger today if birth rates in Muslim countries had been twice as high in past decades as they actually were. We can imagine, however, if Muslim invaders had arrived in distant lands ready to convert infidels, only to find that the native people were already praying five times a day, fasting over Ramadan, and reciting the Shahada. If no common cultural source could be found for this miraculous coincidence, then this uncanny example of independent agreement would clearly speak in favour of the truth of Islam. Almost all philosophers who approach the Common Consent Argument nowadays take its Achilles’ heel to be the fact that there is very little independent agreement surrounding the question of god’s existence. And so, since we can explain the spread of god-beliefs by cultural diffusion, a 95% consensus just isn’t salient evidence for the existence of a god.
But perhaps that’s a bit too quick. Surely there is some independent agreement about the existence of gods. And if so, then how much? What is the prevalence of god-beliefs in human beings when such beliefs cannot be traced to a common cultural origin? Well, that question probable cannot be easily answered: we cannot ask what the typical person believes about gods independent of any culture. I suppose we could ask children raised by wolves whether or not they believed in a god, but I doubt we would understand their answers (one bark for yes, two for no perhaps?). Nevertheless, even if we can’t answer that question, we can answer a closely-related question: what is the prevalence of god-beliefs across a range of deeply isolated religious cultures. With this information in hand, we can understand better what the Common Consent Argument really supports.
So, all we need, then, are some deeply isolated cultures. The trouble is, we live in a globalised world, in which ideas and beliefs are shared more widely and rapidly than ever before. My inbox is full of emails from Englishmen, Indonesians, and even Nigerian princes (and though I may doubt that the latter really are princes, I have little doubt that they are Nigerians). My home in the far south of New Zealand is no longer “isolated” in any meaningful sense; I am plugged in to a global information network that puts at my fingertips more cultural products than I could consume in any number of lifetimes. Technological miracles like Google Translate allow me to read, albeit poorly, almost any newspaper in the world in its newest edition. I could set off for Taiwan this morning, and I’d arrive before dinnertime. How can we possibly find isolated cultures in a world like this?
But all is not lost. There remain a few enclaves of isolation. Hunter-gatherer societies persist, which maintain religious traditions largely untouched by pesky missionaries. So long as we are sure there has been minimal religious influence from outsiders, we can examine how prevalent god-beliefs are among these cultures. If high gods appear often, then we find a way around the Achilles’ heel of the Common Consent Argument. We could find some independent agreement concerning the existence of a god. We just need to keep tally of the number of times gods come along.
But alas, gods fail to appear. Anthropological research since at least the time of the Victorian anthropologist E. B. Tylor has repeatedly shown that isolated hunter-gatherer societies are more inclined to worship their ancestors than they are to worship gods. Indeed, contemporary anthropological research shows that a belief in high gods is relatively uncommon among isolated hunter-gatherer societies. In one study, only 15% of the hunter-gatherer groups surveyed were found to have any beliefs in the kinds of gods who might be capable of, say, answering prayers or curing the sick (an additional 24% accepted some kind of deistic god: one who sets up the universe, but has no interest in meddling with human affairs). On the other hand, 100% of all the religious cultures surveyed attested to the existence of spirits, some of which could be embodied in trees, statues, rivers etc. A belief in the afterlife comes a close second, tied with a belief in the existence of a class of religious specialists such as visionaries and shamans (79%). Trailing a distant third is the belief that the spirits of dead ancestors should be worshipped (45%). Theism is left in the dust.
And so, the Common Consent Argument, in its strongest form, is no argument for a god at all. Oddly enough, if the argument speaks in favour of any religious worldview, it speaks in favour of the animistic belief in such things as river spirits, tree spirits, and wind spirits. Theism, in contrast, struggles to command any independent agreement. So perhaps god is a delusion after all.
The atheist, then, need not feel so lonely. Sure, 95% of the global population may believe in some kind of a god, but this is mostly a historical accident. If we look beyond the raw numbers, and look instead for independent agreement, gods turn out to be a relatively uncommon thing to find in the typical process of human religious thinking. And so, it really doesn’t matter if atheists are outnumbered. Evidence from a broad range of isolated human religious communities shows that atheists are the norm, not the exception. Atheists are not suffering from “defective cognition”; they are not “spiritually blind”. On the contrary, it would appear to be the theists, the god-believers, who need to get their heads checked for delusions, infections, or garden-variety brain gremlins.