Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Fundamentalism Comes Naturally to Atheists Too

Atheists act like religious believers because they’re human

The self-righteousness of atheists always surprises me. I’m an atheist myself, but I’m fascinated when atheists engage in behaviors they disdain in religion: the judgement, the in-group/out-group dynamics, and the insistence that others think like us to be saved.

This is human nature at work. The brain is always making predictions about how the world works in order to feel safe. Each brain builds a mental model for doing "the right thing” and avoiding wrongs that could lead to disaster. Atheism thus ends up with the familiar features of religion: community, scripture, priests, and agonizing over sin, shame, and apocalypse.

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Community
Politics and science are the congregations of atheism. You can belong if you agree with their politics and their scientific conclusions. Their meetings build a shared sense of purpose by focusing on the misguidedness of non-believers, who “don’t get it.” 

Scripture
Quoting the New York Times makes you right among atheists. You can also quote the New England Journal of Medicine or the Huffington Post, depending on which atheist sect you belong to. These sacred texts are infallible so you can trust them for the righteous truth.

Priesthood
You can be a spiritual leader among atheists if you go to grad school and work for a non-profit. It's hard to make a living as an atheist priest; you must compete for followers just like a preacher, imam, or rabbi. Media attention helps, so atheist priests make offerings to the media gods...or join the media and become deities directly.

Prayer
From the brain’s perspective, meditation is the functional equivalent of prayer. You seek peace from the mammalian brain structures inside you instead of from a supreme being outside you.

Sin, Shame and Apocalypse
America has sinned. Capitalism is sinful. You should feel ashamed of yourself for associating with them. But you can redeem yourself by supporting a non-profit that’s saving the world. That makes you holy enough to look down on those still living in sin in capitalist America. It will all go to hell in a handbasket if they don't "get it."

Separation of Church and State
Atheists want to exclude religion from the public forum. That means excluding all belief systems but their own, which makes sense because they know their position is right on each issue. How conveeeeeenient, in the words of The Church Lady. Fortunately, democracy requires atheists to compete in the marketplace of ideas with all other belief systems.

When you were born, your mother was the supreme being. Over time, you broadened that view. If you were exposed to religion, it helped you believe in a power beyond the authority figures in your life. If you were not religious, you found other ways to believe in powers beyond your everyday routine. It's nice to believe in your own power, but it's not nice to think of yourself as the supreme being. The human mind is always trying to figure out who to trust, and it's so hard to find a reliable being that many people end up worshipping Bono, Madonna, Lady Gaga, or Che Guevara.  

More on the marketplace of ideas in my new book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity. That book is dedicated to Robert Ardrey, whose wonderful explanation of in-group/out-group behavior in animals can be found in his book The Social Contract. Our brain's need for social alliances and social dominance is explained in my book I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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