The perspicacious Connor Wood, at Science on Religion, asks Why Are There Atheists?.
That is, since the vast majority of humanity subscribes to one variety of faith or another, how is it that atheists exist at all? Are they some kind of unnatural freaks?
First, atheists tended to have lower levels of social attachment than religious believers. This included both family and friendship attachments; for example, in one large survey atheists rated themselves as significantly less enthusiastic than believers about family gatherings, road trips, cooking dinner with others, and getting together with friends.
Not coincidentally, single, white males were significantly overrepresented in the ranks of atheists and nonbelievers.
What’s more, atheists also tended to be significantly more drawn to analytic and logical reasoning, while religious believers tended more toward intuitive reasoning.
In fact, in several studies it was this analytic intellectual orientation that was the single biggest predictor of atheistic beliefs. This finding refutes the long-held assumption that many atheists reject religion for emotional reasons – being angry at God, for instance.
Typically for Connor Wood, he finds value on both sides of the issue.
So what does this research mean for atheists in today’s Western societies? Well, a lot. First, it suggests that atheism, or at least the personality traits that seem to underlie it, may be adaptive – even at the cultural level. Second, it suggests that atheism is a perfectly expectable, natural variation within the personality spectrum. Third, it suggests that atheists and the religious may have different strengths – and liabilities. Religious believers are more socially integrated than atheists, tend to report being more satisfied with their family and social lives, and are likely to be more interpersonally agreeable. At the same time, because religious folks tend to value conscientiousness – the regularly fulfilling of social obligations – over new experiences and novelty, they may be less well-equipped than atheists to recognize and solve new problems.
This is of course a rather sociological or psychological perspective – not a scientific one, which might be that the atheist perspective is about being more interested in what is really true about the world, about reality, than what beliefs one’s ancestors inherited from their ancestors.