03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are We 'Hard-Wired' for God?

In the Los Angeles Times last week, conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg asserted that religion is a natural, innate component to being human. All people, he claims, have a religious need or spiritual proclivity. Faith, according to Goldberg, is actually an "instinct." Humans are simply "hard-wired" to believe.


While it is usually Goldberg's right-wing, war-loving, earth-hating, greed-adoring, health-care-deploring opinions than I object to, in this particular instance, my problem with Goldberg is strictly factual. He can marshal all the philosophical musing he wants in an attempt to paint faith as a humanly universal, but the social science is clear: hundreds of millions of people are not spiritual or religious. Secularity is an undeniable fact of human existence, rendering the oft-touted declaration that humans are essentially or "naturally" religious manifestly untenable. While empirical reality rarely matters much when religion is the topic, this one particular fact is still important and must be publicly pronounced in response to Goldberg's assertion: many millions of humans are not "hard-wired" for God.

Consider the following truths, all of which sharply refute any assertion that religion is natural or instinctual.

First, many Americans are secular. A 2008 Harris Poll found that approximately 19% of Americans are either atheist or agnostic. The most recent American Religious Identification Survey found that 12% of Americans are atheist or agnostic. Either one - 19% or 12% - that's a lot of Americans. Tens of millions. And the percentage of Americans who claim "none" as their religion has doubled in recent years, from around 8% back in the 1980s to around 15% today.

Second, rates of secularity are even higher in many other countries. For example, a 2005 Eurobarometer study found that 33 percent of the French, 27 percent of the Dutch, 27 percent of Belgians, 25 percent of Germans, and 20 percent of the British do not believe in God or any sort of spirit or life force. That's hundreds of millions of humans living life without religious faith or a spiritual compass.

Other studies have found that a significant majority of Estonians, Czechs, and Swedes are totally irreligious. Add more millions to the pile of secular folk. But wait, there's more! Let's not forget Japan, where the vast majority of people are non-believers. And according to some estimates, almost half of South Koreans are atheist or agnostic. Many Israelis are also secular. And then there's China -- but you get the idea. According to my own tabulations which were published in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007), international survey data indicates that somewhere between 500 million and 750 millions people worldwide do not believe in God.

Faith an instinct? Sure, and there are also weapons of mass destruction buried in the sand in Iraq.

Finally, there is the persistent reality of apostasy. Many millions of people who were raised with religion, or became religious at some point in their lives, have gone on to reject their faith, ultimately deciding to let it go. From Dan Barker (former pastor and now head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation) to comedian Julia Sweeney ("Letting Go of God"), from former Muslim Ayann Hirsi Ali to former L.A. Times reporter and former Evangelical Christian William Lobdell, the world is full of people who were once religious, but are no longer. How does Goldberg explain such cases? Did their "hard-wiring" go kaput? Where did their natrual religious "instinct" go?

The bottom line is that while faith, religion, and spirituality are certainly common and widespread, they are not innate. When it comes to social phenomena, ubiquity must never be mistaken for biology. Yes, most people are religiously inclined. But many are not. Why is this simple truth so hard for the likes of Goldberg to accept?