Inference of Abhorrent Atheism (Maybe) a Bridge Too Far

Three scholars published in Evolutionary Psychology Science have made a claim that the post-industrial world’s muting of the thinning of “fitness-damaging genetic mutations,” that a predisposition to a lack of belief in God (atheism) is associated with “four indicators of [a high] mutational load” (poor genetic health, fluctuating asymmetry, left-handedness, and autism). Going off of the abstract (what I had direct access to) and two media posts (including Newsweek and Christianity Today), the mass-media inference is that Atheists are less healthy (physically and emotionally) and that religious folks greater longevity of happiness and vitality.

The abstract for “The Mutant Says in His Heart, “There Is No God”: the Rejection of Collective Religiosity Centred Around the Worship of Moral Gods Is Associated with High Mutational Load” (Edward Dutton, Guy Madison, and Curtis Dunkel. Evolutionary Psychology Science, 20 Dec. 2017) says:

Industrialisation leads to relaxed selection and thus the accumulation of fitness-damaging genetic mutations. We argue that religion is a selected trait that would be highly sensitive to mutational load. We further argue that a specific form of religiousness was selected for in complex societies up until industrialisation based around the collective worship of moral gods. With the relaxation of selection, we predict the degeneration of this form of religion and diverse deviations from it. These deviations, however, would correlate with the same indicators because they would all be underpinned by mutational load. We test this hypothesis using two very different deviations: atheism and paranormal belief. We examine associations between these deviations and four indicators of mutational load: (1) poor general health, (2) autism, (3) fluctuating asymmetry, and (4) left-handedness. A systematic literature review combined with primary research on handedness demonstrates that atheism and/or paranormal belief is associated with all of these indicators of high mutational load.

Immediate thoughts and questions upon the abstract:

  • The first thing that strikes my mind, is the definition of atheism. If the definition of atheism relates to no participating in the “collective worship of moral gods,” then there are several contentions that I would offer before Dutton, Madison, and Dunkel. First, the worship of “moral” gods (collective or otherwise) is relatively recent in human history. In his arguable finest, and final work, sociologist Robert N. Bellah discusses that gods as moral arbiters is established only in the last few thousands of years in human history (and not all cultures have adopted them during this time) (Religion in Human Evolution from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, 2011).
  • Is this behavior (collective worship) exclusively linked to “good” genetics, or is it the worship of “moral” gods. Looking at the literature on pro-social behavior (i.e., social capital and Robert Putnam). The abstract seems to indicate that atheism is a solitary act. There are communities of atheists that focus on moral goods and collective, prosocial action (e.g., Ethical Culturists and Secular Humanists). Some of these individuals gather in what would appear as church-analogs (i.e., Sunday Assemblies).
  • What about those who portend to the “worship of moral gods,” but as individuals or in smaller sects (cults, etc).
  • Also, I am assuming that this is measured in part by frequency of attendance at religious services. This behavior has fluctuated significantly and at times prior to the industrial revolution (and its presumed “high mutational load” preserving effects) has been significantly lower than it is now. Is this frequency change taken into account?
  • Who were your subjects used and what was the size of your sample? I am rather interested in seeing the data set.

The Christianity Today article:

  • The Christianity Today article cites the study saying that there is a “weak, but significant” link between left-handedness and autism and those who identify as non-religious. It also quotes the study in that “‘Complex pre-industrial societies were strongly selected not merely to be religious in a general sense, but to revere and believe in moral gods who were concerned with people”s moral behaviour and to engage in collective rituals to worship these gods.”

The Newsweek Article:

  • Newsweek also quotes the article, “Maybe the positive relationship between religiousness and health is not causal—it’s not that being religious makes you less stressed so less ill. Rather, religious people are a genetically normal remnant population from preindustrial times, and the rest of us are mutants who’d have died as children back then.” And, “Religiousness makes you more pro-social, and you become more religious when you’re stressed. Religious people would have been sexually selected for because their pro-social, moral, unstressed nature would be attractive.”
  • Newsweek also cites earlier research by Dutton suggesting a link between increased intelligence and ascription to atheism as a potential liability for a society in that when a society becomes more intelligent and atheist, “We will be taken over by a more religious society which is more ethnocentric than us. In that our intelligence is decreasing, I suspect civilization will go backwards, Natural selection will return and we will become more religious once more. This seems to be a rule of history.”

Some final thoughts:

  • It seems that individuals tending to be more inclined to collective, prosocial contemplation tend to be healthier.
  • It seems that lone (‘kooky’) Atheists who may not “fit” into the central group dynamic may be more vocal with their constructs of disbelief and anti-religious discourse, as opposed to those within the flock who are part of the (as yet to be seen discussed) phenomena of “belonging and not believing.” That perhaps as a social organism, natural selection weeds off those who are not active (albeit regardless of shunning) members of the community body through deleterious psycho-physiological effects.
  • I have emailed anthropologist and co-author Edward Dutton for further insight into this interesting new piece. As access to journal articles is expensive if you do not have open access by current institutional affiliation, I am unable to give as deep a critique as I would like on methodology or conclusion.
  • Bellah, Robert N. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Dutton, Edward, Guy Madison, and Curtis Dunkel. 2017. “The Mutant Says in His Heart, ‘There is No God’: Rejection of Collective Religiosity Centered Around Worship of Moral Gods Is Associated with High Mutational Load.” Evolutionary Psychology Science. <>
  • Farley, Harry. 2017. “Atheism is down to a genetic mutation, claims academic study.” Christianity Today. (12/22/17) <>
  • Hignet, Ketherine. 2017. “Religious People Live Healthier, Longer Lives-While Atheists Collect Mutant Genes.” Newsweek. (12/23/17). <>

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