The Psychology of Atheism

Miguel Farias

in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism

Published in print November 2013 | ISBN: 9780199644650
Published online October 2013 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology

The Psychology of Atheism

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  • Religion
  • Alternative Belief Systems
  • Sociology of Religion
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This essay suggests that atheists endorse a range of naturalistic beliefs, such as belief in progress and in science. Social-psychological evidence for this belief replacement hypothesis, where naturalistic beliefs take the place of supernatural ones, is reviewed. Atheists seem to implicitly use their naturalistic beliefs to alleviate feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and stress, a psychological function which, until recently, had only been reported for religious beliefs. The second part of the essay focuses on motivational implications of being an atheist. Here, it is argued that atheists are particularly driven by a desire for self-mastery and, secondarily, by a sensation seeking need to engage in intense and pleasurable activities. A number of sociological, social-psychological, narrative, and sexual-behavioural studies are reviewed to support this idea. The essay concludes by highlighting the human need to believe and the importance of studying the process, rather than the content, of beliefs.

Keywords: belief replacement hypothesis; belief in science; belief in progress; existential anxiety; Gnostic motivation; self-mastery; sensation seeking; psychology; atheism

Article.  7223 words. 

Subjects: Religion ; Alternative Belief Systems ; Sociology of Religion ; Religion and Science

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