Post-Supernatural Cultures: There and Back Again

Research Article

Authors: Wesley J. Wildman, F. LeRon Shults , Saikou Y. Diallo, Ross Gore, Justin Lane


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.


In Scandinavian and Northern European nations today, as well as most coastal regions of the United States and many parts of Australia and New Zealand, a growing number of individuals do not believe in supernatural entities and reject religion in general. However, surveys show that supernatural beliefs are on the rise worldwide, an increase driven by resurgent religion in Africa, Asia, and most of the Americas (Berger 1999, Johnson 2010, Pew Research Center 2015). Why is widespread rejection of supernatural worldviews so rare, historically speaking? And what is so unusual about the social contexts within which post-supernaturalism becomes widespread?

Several social theories have attempted to describe pathways through which a culture can shift away from supernatural religiosity and toward post-supernaturalist secularity, many of which enjoy significant empirical support. After an exhaustive literature review, we identified the following six as being (1) the most influential, (2) the most relevant to interpreting the emergence and stabilization of post-supernatural cultures, and (3) the most empirically well supported.

  • The Existential Security Path (e.g. Inglehart, Norris)
  • The Cultural Particularity Path (e.g. Putnam, Campbell)
  • The Human Development Path (e.g. Norris, Inglehart)
  • The Meaning Maintenance Path (e.g. Berger)
  • The Subjectivization Path (e.g. Heelas, Woodhead)
  • The Supply-Side Path (e.g. Stark, Finke, Iannaccone)

Although some champions of these theories view them as inherently competitive or even mutually exclusive, we argue that these mainstream theories offer partial perspectives on a more complex architecture of causal factors driving changes in the religiosity and secularity of human populations. We are not alone. Ruiter and van Tubergen, for example, have attempted to show how (what we are calling) the existential security and supply-side paths can be “taken together” to “provide insights into differences in initial conditions, path dependency, and the reason why religious trends are sometimes reversed” (2009, p. 889). Probably the most ambitious attempt so far to produce a unified theoretical model is Stolz (2009), where correlations between aspects of some of the theories above (and some others) are explored using multi-level multiple regression modeling, though Stolz doesn’t take account of post-supernaturalism as a dependent variable. Such integrative attempts are rare, and none developed to date illustrates concretely how the causal elements of all these theories can function together. It is important to note that we selected these six theories before trying to integrate them, and let the chips fall where they may as to whether integration would be possible and whether the meaning of the resulting synthesis would tell us anything interesting about transitions between supernatural religion and post-supernaturalist secularity.

We synthesize the core elements of these theories into a consistent conceptual architecture and implement the resulting model in a system-dynamics computer simulation. This allows us, first, to demonstrate the coherence of the synthesis, as implementation in a computational simulation imposes demanding requirements of conceptual clarity and consistency. The simulation also allows us to identify plausible conditions under which a population with a majority of individuals embracing supernatural beliefs (we will use supernatural religious to refer to this posture, which explicitly excludes naturalist forms of religion; again, the focus here is on supernaturalism, not religion) changes to a population in which most individuals have learned to contest inbuilt cognitive tendencies toward supernaturalism, thereby becoming “post-supernaturalists” (we will call this posture post-supernatural secular, referring both to personal views and to a corresponding form of socio-political organization where beliefs in and practices related to supernatural agents play no role; the unwieldy name is warranted to avoid confusion). The same simulation also indicates plausible conditions under which a society moves in the opposite direction (i.e. from post-supernaturalist secular to supernaturalist religious). Moreover, our computational model provides insight into the means by which supernatural religious coalitions and secular post-supernaturalist coalitions might inhibit or catalyze social transformation in either direction.

Computational modeling and simulation is a relatively new tool in social science, where it was introduced after it proved its worth in other fields, especially engineering (see a 2005 themed issue (110/4) of American Journal of SociologyIannaccone and Makowsky 2007Squazzoni 2012). Simulation is a fruitful substitute for experimentation when (as with many social issues) experiments are impossible or unethical, the periods concerned are too long, or datasets spanning many decades are not available. Conceptually, computer simulation is not so different from demographic projection: both model a set of hypothetical scenarios by working out the implications of specific assumptions.

We refer to the computer simulation presented here as FOReST (an acronym for the “future of religious and secular transitions”). FOReST indicates that the conditions for producing widespread rejection of supernaturalist religion are highly specific, hard to produce, and difficult to sustain because they are individually necessary. When those necessary conditions combine, which is historically rare, there emerges a stable social equilibrium within which most people can contest maturationally natural cognitive tendencies to embrace supernatural thinking and behaving. Because it requires steady inputs of substantial energy to contest maturationally natural cognition and behavior, this post-supernatural social equilibrium may be easier to destabilize than more common social equilibria that take advantage of maturationally natural cognitive tendencies toward supernatural beliefs and practices.

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