Post-Supernatural Cultures: There and Back Again

Wesley J. Wildman, F. LeRon Shults, Saikou Diallo, Ross Gore, Justin E. Lane

Secularism and Nonreligion

August 2020

Abstract: The abandonment of supernatural religious beliefs and rituals seems to occur quite easily in some contexts, but post-supernaturalist cultures require a specific set of conditions that are difficult to produce and sustain on a large scale and thus are historically rare. Despite the worldwide resurgence of supernaturalist religion, some subcultures reliably produce people who deny the existence of supernatural entities. This social phenomenon has evoked competing explanations, many of which enjoy empirical support. We synthesize six of the most influential social-science explanations, demonstrating that they provide complementary perspectives on a complex causal architecture. We incorporate this theoretical synthesis into a computer simulation, identifying conditions under which the predominant attitude toward supernaturalism in a population shifts from acceptance to rejection (and vice versa). The model suggests that the conditions for producing widespread rejection of supernatural worldviews are highly specific and difficult to produce and sustain. When those conditions combine, which is historically rare, a stable social equilibrium emerges within which post-supernaturalist worldviews are widespread; however, this equilibrium is easier to disrupt than equilibria whose cohesion is stabilized by supernatural religion due to persistent cognitive tendencies toward supernaturalism in evolved human minds.

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