I won an Understanding Unbelief grant in 2017, to investigate the variety of secular worldviews around the world, and what their psychological functions might be. Data collection has now concluded and the data is being analysed and written up.
A global increase in individuals who lack religious faith or do not hold religious beliefs, and a concurrent increase in secular organisations and even secular rituals (e.g., humanist weddings and funerals), begs for a better understanding of what unbelief entails . One could define unbelief as a negative phenomenon, as lacking in religious beliefs, as scoring zero on a continuous religiosity scale (Beit-Hallahmi, 2007).
However, while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they will still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality (Farias, 2013; Lee, 2015). Moreover, such secular beliefs may provide them with sources of meaning or function as coping mechanisms, possibly in a way similar to supernatural beliefs for religious individuals. This idea has been called the Belief Replacement hypothesis (Farias, 2013). The Belief Replacement hypothesis predicts that, like religious beliefs, secular beliefs will have profound effects at cognitive, motivational, and emotional levels.
This project aims to contribute to two main questions within the research on unbelief:
- (i) Do secular beliefs fulfil the same or similar psychological functions as religious beliefs, and what is the range of these functions?
- (ii) Which secular beliefs do non-believers hold (cross-culturally)?
van Mulukom, V., Turpin, H., Purzycki, B. G., Haimila, R., Bendixen, T., Kundtová Klocová, E., Řezníček, D., Coleman, T. J. III, Maraldi, E., Sevinç, K., Schjoedt, U., Rutjens, B., & Farias, M. (manuscript). What do non-religious non-believers believe in? Secular worldviews around the world. https://osf.io/9ma5u/
Press & media
Popular science article: ‘How non-religious worldviews provide solace in times of crisis’, The Conversation, 21 May 2020.
Together with Anne Lundahl Mauritsen (co-I), I have won an Explaining Atheism grant (2022).
Over the last decade, researchers in the cognitive science of religion have started to converge on the idea that religious beliefs are adaptive, and as such, a product of evolved human psychology. This raises the question of how we can explain the presence of atheism around the world — if religious beliefs come naturally and intuitively as an adaptive trait, then whence religious non-belief? We propose, in line with recent evolutionary theories of atheism, that atheistic beliefs, like religious beliefs, are adaptive worldview beliefs made possible by evolved cognitive apparatus, and shaped by one’s local cultural context through cultural learning mechanisms.
In this project, we empirically test this thesis through an examination of the relevant cultural contexts of the Nordic countries. In doing so, we propose new cultural learning mechanisms of belief, and test them together with cognitive factors through a survey with large, representative samples from the Nordic countries, thus providing novel insight into the relative importance of these different transmission factors. Moreover, by employing a worldview approach, atheism will be investigated not just as a lack of belief in God, but also as part of a broader secular worldview. This will further allow us to uncover different types of atheism.
Our research questions are: (1) Given the cultural contexts of the Nordic countries — in particular with regards to religion and atheism — what are the likely cultural transmission mechanisms of Nordic religious belief and nonbelief?; (2) Do these cultural contexts and cultural transmission mechanisms explain atheism in the Nordic countries over and above cognitive antecedents?; (3) Do these pathways consisting of cultural and cognitive predictive factors differ between different types of atheism (i.e., clusters of secular worldview beliefs)?
We will use a ‘natural experiment’ methodology (Willard & Cingl, 2017) to address our research questions, whereby we will compare individual survey responses from the highly secular Nordic countries, which have different levels of belief in God but are highly similar in many respects (e.g., culturally, socioeconomically), and importantly differ on a number of key cultural context variables concerning religion and atheism.
Our research investigates exactly which cultural antecedents — which differ between the examined countries and which are influenced by cultural learning biases — can explain the country differences in religious belief. An example of a cultural antecedent is church service attendance, which encourages religious belief through the cultural learning bias that we learn from people who engage such credibility-enhancing behaviours.
Summarising, we aim to extend recent evolutionary theories of the causes of atheism through:
- (i) the examination of a variety of secular beliefs through a worldview approach,
- (ii) novel measures of cultural learning mechanisms of religious beliefs,
- (iii) measuring cultural learning mechanisms of atheistic worldview beliefs for the first time, and
- (iv) novel cultural contexts, the four Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
Mauritsen, A.L. & van Mulukom, V. (forthcoming) Never mind the Gods: Explaining Unbelief and Non-religion. To appear in: The Minds of Gods: A Cross-Disciplinary Survey (Bloomsbury), editors Benjamin Purzycki & Theiss Bendixen.
Coleman, T.J. III, Messick, K. & van Mulukom, V. (forthcoming) New Cognitive and Evolutionary Approaches on Atheism. In: The Routledge Handbook of Evolutionary Approaches to Religion (Routledge), editors Y. Lior & J.E. Lane. Preprint.