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Title: A secular mind : towards a cognitive anthropology of atheism
Author: Lanman, Jonathan Andrew
ISNI:       0000 0004 2695 7695
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2010
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This thesis presents descriptive and explanatory accounts of both non-theism, the lack of belief in the existence of supernatural agents, and strong atheism, the moral opposition to such beliefs on the grounds that they are both harmful and signs of weak character. Based on my fieldwork with non-theist groups and individuals in the United States, United Kingdom, and Denmark, an online survey of over 3,000 non-theists from over 50 countries, and theories from both the social and cognitive sciences, I offer a new account of why nations with low economic and normative threats produce high levels of non-theism. This account is offered in place of the common explanation that religious beliefs provide comfort in threatening circumstances, which I show to be both anthropologically and psychologically problematic. My account centres on the role of threats, both existential and normative, in increasing commitment to ingroup ideologies, many of which are religious, and the important role of witnessing displays of commitment to religious beliefs in producing such beliefs in each new generation. In environments with low levels of personal and normative threat, commitment to religious ideologies decreases, extrinsic reasons for religious participation decrease, and superstitious actions decrease. Given the human tendency to believe the communications of others to the extent that they are backed up by action, such a decrease in displays of commitment to religious beliefs leads to increased non-theism in the span of a generation. In relation to strong atheism, I document a correlation, both geographical and chronological, between strong atheism and the presence of religious beliefs and demands in the public sphere. I then offer an explanation of this correlation based on the effects of threats against a modern normative order characterized by philosopher Charles Taylor as a system of mutual benefit and individual liberty.
Supervisor: Whitehouse, Harvey Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Europe ; History of North America ; Social cognition ; Social influence ; Social psychology ; Stress ; Philosophy,psychology and sociology of religion ; American studies ; Anthropology ; Cognitive anthropology ; Social anthropology ; Human security ; atheism ; cognition ; secularization ; threat ; commitment displays ; existential security ; morality ; non-theism ; strong atheism