Part 11 in 20 atheist answers to questions they supposedly can’t.
How do we account for the nearly universal belief in the supernatural?
Short answer: In a similar way one would account for the majority belief that Christianity is false: widespread error.
Longer answer: Atheism/agnosticism/’nones’ remain a minority of the population in the developed world (albeit one which is growing). If we look worldwide, and across history, we see that almost all people thought there was something supernatural. Is this evidence against naturalism?
One reflex is to say it isn’t. Surely this is no more than an appeal to popularity. The fact most people believe something doesn’t make it right, and we can point to all sorts of beliefs that used be widely held, yet false (heliocentrism, racism, etc.) So there’s nothing to account for.
This isn’t quite right. Although appeals to popularity do not prove something is true, they are still evidence. (Borrowing from de Cruz) if I go outside one morning and find everyone on my street has left their bins out, that is evidence that today is the day of rubbish collection, and I should put my bin out as well. So too, perhaps, with God. If most people are perceiving the supernatural, maybe the right conclusion for someone who doesn’t perceive it is to believe they are missing something.
On further inspection though, the quality of this evidence from common consent does not seem that great.
First, although there might be ‘near universal’ belief in the supernatural, there is profound diversity in what particular sort of supernatural there really is, and these views are (by and large) mutually exclusive. One may want to say we should therefore take the universal belief in the supernatural as evidence for a supernatural ‘core’ of experiences, but alternative naturalistic explanations around people being mistaken do not seem much worse.
Second, looking in a more fine grained way at who doesn’t believe in the supernatural might provide support for naturalism. Naturalists tend to be disproportionately believed by people in modern western societies, amongst academics and those inclined to intellectualism, and (most controversially) among those with a higher IQ. This does not show that supernaturalism is the hallmark of idiots and sufficient intelligence ‘breaks the spell’ of religious indoctrination, but if we take the western environment, intellectualism and IQ to be epistemically ‘good traits’, then the fact they mildly trend with naturalism is good news for naturalism. Taken to one extreme, if all the people believed one thing, but all the experts another, it would seem wise to go with the experts.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the mechanisms where one can come to belief in the supernatural (or a particular sort of supernatural) might be epistemically meritless, and so supernaturalism’s common assent merely shows it is formed from particularly popular methods of irrationality.
As an aside, we see (once again) that Theism (or particularly Christianity) seems to come into trouble here. Given the demographics of belief, it seems odd that a Christian God would be happy that so many ‘miss out’ via the happenstance of their birth, and subsequent accounts along the lines of God ordaining all those who live in christianity-unfriendly places and times would never have believed anyway, or that God allowed this to be so to foster missionary work/the defeat of satan looks pretty implausible and ad hoc. Of course, on atheism, the account one would give is that religious beliefs are like other complicated socio-cultural phenomenon, and wax and wane across space and time in similar sorts of ways. This is broadly what we see.