A book to anticipate—with a bit of trepidation

Reader Phil called my attention to a new book by primatologist Frans de Waal that will be published next year, The Bonobo and the Atheist  (March 2013, W. W. Norton, though Amazon says Feb. 25).

The Norton description sounds intriguing:

Drawing on his landmark research, esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal traces the biological roots of human morality.

In this thoroughly engaging book, leading primatologist and thinker Frans de Waal offers a heartening, illuminating new perspective on human nature. Bringing together his pioneering research on primate behavior, the latest findings in evolutionary biology, and insights from moral philosophy, de Waal explains that we don’t need the specters of God or the law in order to act morally. Instead, our moral nature stems from our biology—specifically, our primate social emotions, which include empathy, reciprocity, and fairness. We can glimpse this in the behavior of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom: chimpanzees soothe distressed neighbors, and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to their own food. Building on a wealth of evidence, de Waal reveals that morality is not dictated to us by religion or social strictures. Rather, it is the inevitable product of our biological nature.

The fact that the roots of morality can be seen in some of our closest relatives is a common theme of de Waal’s work.  And the rejection of God-given morality implied by the description is heartening—a good palliative for the “Moral Law” argument of Francis Collins.

What worries me a bit, though, is what Frans posted 24 hours ago on his public Facebook page:

The book is almost done! It is a reflection on religion and the origins of morality. It questions whether we get any closer to the truth by bashing religion, the way neo-atheists have been doing, even though I also believe that morality antedates modern religion. The book is of course heavy on primate behavior, but also covers philosophy, discusses medieval art, and seeks a way of bridging the gap (loved by philosophers) between facts and values. All in one book!

De Waal has gone after New Atheists before, most notably in a New York Times piece I highlighted in October of 2010. There he said this:

Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.

While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

I welcome de Waal’s demonstrations and arguments for the origin of morality as at least a partial inheritance from our primate ancestors.  But the atheist-dissing seems gratuitious, something that doesn’t belong in a book of this type unless de Waal is trying to occupy some nonexistent “middle ground” (“halfway to crazy town,” as P.Z. calls it).  The goal of New Atheism, as I see it, is not mainly to insult religious individuals, but to question the tenets of belief, point out the invidious consequences of unsupported belief, and question the unwarranted privilege that religion has arrogated to itself. Surely that’s something that a scientist like de Waal would approve of.

And what would morality look like without religion? Have a gander at Scandinavia.  That doesn’t look too bad to me; in fact, the region looks more moral than the U.S.   Please, Frans, lay off the gratuitious and incorrect characterizations of New Atheism.

But I will of course read Frans’s book, as I’ve greatly enjoyed his other books on primate behavior. You can order it here.

57 Comments

  1. Egbert
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    It’s not Christian morality that we (atheists) promote, but Enlightenment morality.

    Ironically, it was Enlightenment morality that Christians began to adopt, not the other way around.

    Yes, many Enlightenment philosophers were Christian, but they did not base modernity on the Bible but on reason and consequently some universal principles such as democracy, equality, human rights, secularism and so on.

    • raven
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      Ironically, it was Enlightenment morality that Christians began to adopt, not the other way around.

      This.

      Modern xian morality has little to do with the bible, which is full of rejected and obsolete morality that we wouldn’t recognize as such.

      You can sell your kids as sex slaves for a few bucks, marry as many women as you can chase down, own slaves, stone disobedient children, adulterers, sabbath breakers, false prophets, apostates, nonvirgin brides, and others to death.

      All while not eating pork, shellfish, wearing mixed fabrics, or getting tattoos.

      Anyone following a biblical lifestyle today would be doing multiple life sentences in prison. Warren Jeffs tried it and got life + 20 years.

  2. YourName's notBruce?
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Religion has nothing to offer in terms of moral guidance that cannot be worked out by human thought (which is where religious morality itself comes from). Religion’s pronouncements and claims to knowledge are pernicious because they purport to speak for unanswerable, unchanging and unquestioned authorities. Abrahamic religious morality is like a fly in amber, a relic of barbarous Bronze age mores preserved in the so-called holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

  3. Sastra
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    What would morality look like without wars? What would morality today look like without our shared history of rape, mayhem, torture, atrocities, pograms, and pillage? For good or bad, those things have also shaped how we view right and wrong.

    Putting religion in there is fine, if a bit vacuous. Let’s throw in politics, too. Where would we be if there had been no tyrants abusing power?

    This whole approach of whining about how atheism is fine for the educated, intelligent, and sophisticated but won’t provide the Little People with the comfort and simple answers they need is an old and familiar one — but this time it seems appropriate. De waal is used to studying and concerning himself with “less advanced” primates, I guess.

    Elitist paternalism.

  4. ivo
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately.

    Indeed, “or in opposition”. The fact that so many of our achievements – such as the Enlightenment principles on which modern Western societies are based – had to be obtained in opposition to traditional religious values should make think Frans de Waal a little bit more: why does he think that the Gnus… oppose religion? Oh, I see… he believes they want to have some fun by insulting the religious populace.

  5. Bob Carlson
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    And what would morality look like without religion? Have a gander at Scandinavia.

    I seem to recall, however, that in Society without God Zuckerman makes the point that Danes and Swedes are Christian to the extent that some or many think they derive their morals from Christianity even though they don’t believe in God. Also of interest is an essay published by the late American sociologist, Richard Tomasson, titled How Sweden Became So Secular. Even for a while after he died, a PDF was available on the web site of his university, but it is now gone and seems to be available only behind a paywall. One of the main points was that it was because of the Lutheran clergy themselves, who were among the best educated of Swedes, that the Swedish church itself became increasingly secular.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      But what broke the back of religion in Sweden was philosopher Ingemar Hedenius, who ridiculed its (absence of) intellectual standing:

      “This book started off one of the most wide-ranging cultural debates ever in Sweden. The debate was about the truthfulness of the teachings of Christianity and also about the position of the church in society.”

      “Hedenius was of the opinion that Christianity violates these rules and is therefore irrational. Amongst other things, he proposed that the study of religions and their development should be separated from theology and become a non-religious academic discipline.”

      After that debate, study of religion and theology was separated. But more importantly the religious are laughed out of any public pulpits for claiming ‘knowledge’.

      Waal asks: “what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion?”

      A secular society, for one.

  6. Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    “The goal of New Atheism, as I see it, is not mainly to insult religious individuals, but to question the tenets of belief, point out the invidious consequences of unsupported belief, and question the unwarranted privilege that religion has arrogated to itself.”

    Agreed. I satirize religion, but I don’t call people stupid for falling prey to our species’ weaknesses regarding faith. (OK, I’ll make fun of Pat Robertson and the Pope, but they are exceptions to the rule.)

    • Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Reading a bit about cognitive science definitely made me critical of people who obviously make fun of believers. We all have the same haphazardly kludged human brain, and religious belief seems all but inexorable given the myriad of biases inherent in the imperfect human brain that we are born with.

      But, because of the unwarranted reverence that religion gets, many people see attacks on religion and religious privilege as attacks on religious people, and it’s hard navigating that landscape without offending religious people no matter what you say.

      We’ve all seen how people get “offended” simply by the presence of positive atheism, like billboards that say “Good without god? So are we” etc. The only way to be an atheist and not offend religious people is to learn quiet submission; to be neither seen nor heard.

      • Sunny
        Posted May 15, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        not offend religious people is to learn quiet submission; to be neither seen nor heard.


        Exactly. Someone recently got offended because I made fun of Tebow’s claim that God was helping him on the football field.

        • Posted May 15, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

          I suspect they got offended because they know, deep down, how ridiculous they sound.

      • Filippo
        Posted May 15, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

        “The only way to be an atheist and not offend religious people is to learn quiet submission; to be neither seen nor heard.”

        Yes,verily, freethinking types are apparently supposed to conform to the expectations Christian authoritarian men have of women – wives submit to the authority of their husbands; keep your mouths shut in church.

  7. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    what kind of argument *wouldn’t* be able to negate FC’s circumlocutions on Kant’s “Moral Law argument” (as gleaned from 5 min of FC’s talk on the topic)?

    IK:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/

    FC:

  8. Mike Brady
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Frans de Waal (and many others) make the same two mistakes when they try to understand a post-Darwinian view of ethics. The first was a common public worry soon after the publication of the Origin. If the world is only (small n)nature and there is no “God” then there is no source of absolute normative ethical guidelines. We can see this worry when he hints at the possibility of “Science” replacing religion as the source of a normative ethics (“Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives”). It seems odd that someone who has devoted his life to writing (some great) books on our primate cousins would make this mistake. If all we get is nature (and presumably God did not simply poof out of existence in 1859)then all we ever had is nature. All religious attempts at ethics were simply human attempts at ethics–with some early primate contribution perhaps. Science is not trying to replace the (bad) absolute normative ethics of religion with another absolute ethic that tells us how and why to live. Rather, science is telling us that it was always just us–and we should realize this and act accordingly. There is a powerful responsibility attached to this science-driven realization that was never present in religious ethics.
    The second error arises from the first. No one can possibly say–nor should they say–that religion has made no contribution to our current ethical system. It was a human constructed system that ruled the world (is still ruling?) for many many years. Especially in America this should be blindingly obvious. What post-Darwinian ethicists are saying is that that we can do much better. We can keep 30% of the so-called christian ethics (commandments 6, 8, ans 9 seem pretty good) and discard the rest. Though it is likely that rules against killing, stealing, and lying predate christianity…let them wrongly think we somehow got this from them–so what. The real issue (and one de Waal has missed) is that after we realize that it is truly just us (see first point) there are no more good candidates for new absolute ruler of ethics–nor do we need one. There are structures in place already in our American democracy that can help us decide ethical issues not already decided by no killing, stealing, lying and their corollaries. We just need to push the distractions of religion out of this democratic model. And we can then make a much more humble (fallible) and experimental ethics that realizes–it is just us and nature–and acts accordingly.

    • ivo
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      ++

    • Christian
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      That’s a very good point. It’s a pity that FdW whom I respect very much, just doesn’t seem to get it and instead lashes out at the Gnu Atheists (of better said, a straw man version thereof).

      ——-
      The first was a common public worry soon after the publication of the Origin.

      That worry is best captured by a statement made by Lady Ashley (a contemporary of Darwin) upon hearing of his new theory:

      “Let’s hope that it’s not true; but if it is true, let’s hope that it doesn’t become widely known.”

    • Vivienne
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point. I think both sides often forget that without God religious doctrine was in fact created by people, and therefore does not completely vanish with the notion that it was divinely inspired. Rather it just becomes subject to amendments (a great many at this point), just as with any other secularly based code of law.

  9. Charles Sullivan
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I don’t like the idea of gnu bashing either. However, I’m curious to read what role de Waal thinks reason plays in morality.

  10. DV
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    >>Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality<<

    just so we're on the same page, basic tenets of Christian morality:
    – women are second-class citizens
    – gays/lesbians are abominations
    – the mother of God had a premarital conception; you're not the mother of God.
    – you can't end or prevent life to avoid suffering; suffer with the rest of us!
    – love bin Laden, and turn the other cheek to him
    – it is ok to lie for Jesus

  11. Posted May 15, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    There are too many issues bundled up in there to sort with a quick comment, but I don’t think it’s helpful to treat this as an attempt to strike a middle ground. Rather, there are genuine questions about the relationship between atheist ethics and the larger community.

    I think the quotes you include above do a disservice to new Atheists by treating them as a monolithic group. To describe them, for example as calling themselves ‘brights’ confuses one subgroup within contemporary unbelief as though its agenda were shared by all. That’s not a trivial mistake.

    I think the ties between atheism and religion are complex and subtle, and I certainly do think that we are influenced by religious ethics. Exactly what to make of that? Well that is an interesting question, and I don’t know that it lands us in a middle ground.

    As to whether or not a society exists without religion, at least part of the question there would be whether or not the ceremonial systems and oral traditions of non-literate people could fairly be called religions. They certainly do incorporate elements of religious discourse, but often they do so in profoundly different ways. The failure to distinguish such traditions from religion may illustrate at least one respect in which de waal may have failed to escape religious thought in much the same way that he seems to be suggesting that a lot of us do.

  12. Lyndon
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Another good (and easy) read, if you haven’t read it yet, is Tamler Sommers book A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain. It is a book of interviews dealing with morality, science, psychology, free will, game theory, etc., with a good interview with de Waal.

    There are nine interviews and some of those can be found online at the “Believer” (?) magazine.

  13. Posted May 15, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    “It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.”

    There is actually at least one such culture, the Pirahãs of the Amazon. They are one of the last remaining groups of hunter-gatherers, and Daniel Everett has a wonderful book (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, 2008) describing his failed efforts to persuade them of the Christian religion:

    “They were a sovereign people. And they were in effect telling me to peddle my goods elsewhere. They were telling me that my message had no purchase among them. All the doctrines and faith I had held dear were a glaring irrelevancy in this culture. They were superstition to the Pirahãs. And they began to seem more and more like superstition to me” (p. 270).

    Ultimately, their skepticism had the reverse outcome that he expected when he embarked on his mission to them. They deconverted him.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      That’s quite interesting. I don’t buy, however, that morality in largely atheistic societies like Denmark or Sweden is a residuum of their religious past. That has long since waned in influence, and many children are raised in atheistic homes. That’s like saying that we can’t give up our subjugation of women, or animus toward gays, because that’s will be a perpetual carryover from religion. People can think for themselves, and work out morality for themselves.

      • jose
        Posted May 17, 2012 at 3:08 am | Permalink

        Yes, if they try. If they really sit to think about it. This is the terrible “click” of realization many feminists have when they look at the world under that new perspective for the first time: “Great, now I hate everything”.

        But most people just do things because that’s the way things are done. They go with the flow because it’s so pervasive you don’t notice it’s there. “Why not celebrate Christmas? Jeez, you atheists have to ruin everything, it’s just a nice family time.” “Marriage is between a man and a woman, it’s just the way it is, for gays you should call it something else.” Fate as a secular replacement for the divine plan. My favorite, “you brought this on yourself”, a secular version of divine punishment. I’m sure you can come up with many other instances based on the local religion that people who couldn’t care less about God say everyday. Hell in my country people do civil baptisms, wtf is that? Not to mention all the movies and books about the struggle and redeeming of the hero, or the savior of humanity making a sacrifice, from Faust to The Matrix. That’s gotta leave an imprint on society. It’s not only big social norms that you can spot easily. The roots are much subtler and go down to everyday talk (adiós), to ways of thinking (fate, disguised divine punishment, marriage and monogamy as natural), even body language.

        It’s not that we CAN’T give up on those, it’s just that centuries of dominance permeated culture in general, so now eliminating all the religious metastasis requires a lot of figuring when it comes to the painfully obvious injustices, and the roots may be too deep to even try.

        • jose
          Posted May 17, 2012 at 3:14 am | Permalink

          I knew I had gotten that first paragraph from somewhere. Props.

    • Lyndon
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      I think we have to be careful here. They may not be religious but that does not mean they have very well developed accounts of the world or of human behavior.

      That is, one could falsely believe that rain dances make it rain without having that evolved to the point of a religious system. There beliefs about the world, even if we do not want to label them religious, may be burdened with the same kind of problems as religious thinking.

      (Trying to avoid dismissing their society) But looking to these people for a moral structure that compares with a large, complex society with “modern” human beings may not make much sense or be any kind of comparison of what we normally label “moral.” That’s not to say that primate “morality” and postulating earlier human structures of interaction will not tell us about the structures of much of our behavior and moral structures today. And give us clues as to how to improve such- which I think de Waal may deny to some extent.

      I haven’t read any of Everett’s books, which look good, but I would doubt that the Piraha do not postulate some kind of “spirit” element to other people’s behavior if they go insane, for example. If things like that are true, then the Piraha “moral” code would be effected by a deep confusion about the structures of the world, even if that confusion has not been manifested in religious structures.

      • Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:13 am | Permalink

        From Wikipedia:

        “The Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god[11] and they lost interest in Jesus when they discovered that Everett had never seen him. They require evidence for every claim made. They aren’t interested in things if they don’t know the history behind them, if they haven’t seen it done.[5] However, they do believe in spirits that can sometimes take on the shape of things in the environment. These spirits can be jaguars, trees, or other visible, tangible things including people.[12] Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.[13]“

  14. litchik
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    You can also buy the book from an independent bookseller through here http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780393073775

    As for the ills of religion, consider the possibility that much of what you attribute to religion are merely the ills of our species and religion is just one of the masks we use to hide behind and banners we use to march under. We can and do find others. Not to say that faith is not dangerous but I get so tired of “religion causes wars, religion causes misogyny.” The evidence points me to tribalism, fear and quest for power as causes. Religion is just one of many ways humans are encouraged to let go of reason and beat a drum. And let’s face it, we love a good drum beat. Makes me think music came before language. Definitely before algebra.

    • David Leech
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Though how much tribalism is enforced by a all seeing eternal authority that cannot be questioned?

      • litchik
        Posted May 15, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        I’m not defending religion, just saying that religion is created bu humans. It is a tool of humans that we use for certain purposes but we can use other tools, and do. We don’t need religion to lead good lives and we don’t need religion to wage war. It helps to have institutions that promote blind obedience – but those don’t have to be religious either. I myself am horrified that people refuse to vaccinate their kids but it isn’t religion driving their irrational thinking. The tendency to take comfort in that kind of thinking leads to and supports religion.

        • Notagod
          Posted May 15, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          Sure, christianity is only a tool but it is a particularly potent tool to get people to do stupid things without reason. When in fear of a supernatural creature christians get in the habit of not using their brains.

          As an example the republicans are the party of christianity in the United States. The tactics employed by the republican party are highly immoral. Romney throws lies like cheap trash, constantly. He knows it and he doesn’t apologize for it. The christians that support him don’t care because he is seen as their god’s candidate – whether they like him or not their god must have a reason for wanting him to be president so christians will vote for him. Christians justify their purpose, saying that they promote morality but their actions are often contrary to rational ethics.

          One of the methods used to support the no vaccination propaganda was that prayer was the proper way to cure disease and ailments. Christianity very much is a tool that is used to promote anti-vaccination. Christianity teaches people to believe in irrational ideas. Those methods can then easily be usurped for other purposes as well. Without christianity people would be more inclined to use critical thinking when evaluating choices.

          • litchik
            Posted May 15, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

            Before Christianity people were not more inclined to use reason. I see no evidence to support your argument, only supposition.

            • Notagod
              Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

              It is difficult to know from your short reply, what the nature of your complaint is. However, from your first sentence can I assume that you think that humans were in great turmoil and that you think the introduction of christianity changed that?

              I’ll wait for your reply before responding. However, just as a side note I think the pagans were, overall, equal to the christians in their use of reason. Something to keep in mind is that those people didn’t know what we have learned through the application of scientific methodology. I’m sure we can do better than relying on the methods developed at a time when most people had no idea of the natural causes underlying the mystery of what they could see.

  15. litchik
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    And, of course, it’s dangerous to pretend any culture is less prone to fear and irrational thinking than another. http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2012/01/sweden-still-forcing-sterilization

    • Notagod
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      I don’t think I would support what is described in the article but can you provide information about why those laws were implemented?

      This isn’t specifically related to the article’s topic but, humans are overpopulating the planet. The world population was roughly 3 billion when I was born it is now roughly 7 billion that’s well over a 200% increase in less than one human lifetime. We know that there will be grave consequences if the population isn’t restricted, its the type of thing that gets worse the longer it is ignored, have you had experience with that type of problem in your personal life? It isn’t difficult to imagine the horrific problems that future generations will face if the human population grows beyond the planets ability to sustain it (that won’t take much longer). But, the christian sheep herders are promoting even more growth in human population. What depraved human morality would consider that good?

      • litchik
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        You’d have to ask the Swedes, but as the article mentions sterilization is their go to policy for undesirables. I think, without proof, that it is linked to their difficulties with immigration. They have an idea of what it is to be a Swede and these people don’t fit it. In the case of the mentally ill there are all kinds of arguments about costs to society…. Mainly, though, it seems to come down fear of the “other.”

        This is not part of a campaign to stem population growth. I don’t have figures but I guess Sweden’s is pretty low, given the size of the average family there.

        Other than that not sure why you used this caution against veneration to go off on the population control issue.

        BTW Jewish fundamentalists also press upon the populace the importance of bringing many babies into the world. All fundamentalists do. It serves several purposes for them, all of them not good for society as a whole.

      • microraptor
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        A morality that is incapable of looking beyond a single person’s immediate vicinity and their immediate future and is incapable of anticipating that there are long term consequences to actions.

        In other words, a morality that assumes that everything is going to be held in an idealized stasis where we never run out of room or energy reserves, the water is always clean, the land is always fertile, and ever and ever, the end.

  16. Roz
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I’m sick of the anti-atheist crap from people who are too lazy to pick up a dictionary. Maybe a new word is required because the word atheist has been mangled beyond recognition

    • Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      “People-that-say-Ni!”? ;-)

      /@

  17. Roz
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Another point people miss- the basic tenets of christianity come from a human being, so just get rid of the goddy stuff and listen to someone like Eckhart Tolle if you really need some incentive and guidance not to bash people up and steal

  18. emmageraln
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on emmageraln.

  19. Mark Joseph
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    On the last Elliott Sober thread there appeared this pair of comments:

    Tulse

    0.1. Can you explain why you are using the Christian-associated term “God”, when your argument equally applies to entities such as Quetzacoatl, Azathoth, Ahura Mazda, Odin All-Father, and Xenu?

    0.1.1 Can you also explain why you use the term in the singular, when your argument equally applies to the possibility of multiple entities, such as magic pixies and invisible gnomes?

    Reply

    Kevin

    Just so. I’m amazed at how culture-bound theologians philosophers such as Sober are.

    *

    That is the first thing that struck me here, before reading anything of de Waal’s. His comment, “It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion,” dependent as it is on the preceding half-paragraph, gives the same sort of unconscious pass to christianity that was questioned by the two posters I’ve quoted above. This is problematical, as it is hardly a secret that christianity is not some sort of default position for those who reject science (although a lot of westerners tend to treat it that way, unthinkingly imho). While I agree with a lot of what I’ve read of Stephen Jay Gould, it seems to me that he made that error more than once himself. I don’t know, of course, but I have to wonder if de Waal will treat other religions in other cultures, or only western christianity.

    • litchik
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Good point. I can see the argument for talking about Christianity – it’s easier and it is dominant in the Americas and Europe. Also, religious folks don’t like when their beliefs are grouped together with what they consider either heresy or myth (check out your local bookstore. Religion is usually with philosophy or poetry and myth with literature or history.) I think if you are going to make a clear argument and you want to simplify you go after the big, culturally dominant target.

      And a singular “God” is hardly unique to Christianity, though writing the term such is.

  20. sloanstrife
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I lost almost all respect for De Waal after he completely misunderstood a ridiculously simple premise made by Dawkins, that our GENES are selfish, but they can make ALTRUISTIC organisms.

    From OUR INNER APE 2005(never mind the egocentric sub-title “a LEADING primatologist explains why we are who we are”)

    “Richard Dawkins’s THE SELFISH GENE taught us that since evolution helps those who help themselves, selfishness should be looked at as a driving force for change rather than a flaw that drags us down. We may be nasty apes, but it makes sense that we are, and the world is a better place for it.
    A tiny problem-pointed out to no avail by nitpickers-was the misleading language of this genre of books. Genes that produce successful traits spread in the population and hence promote themselves. But to call this ‘selfish’ is nothing but a metaphor. A snowball rolling down the hill gathering more snow also promotes itself, but we generally don’t call snowballs selfish. Taken to its extreme, the everything-is-selfish position leads to a nightmarish world. Having an excellent nose for shock value, these authors haul us to a Hobbesian arena in which it’s every man for himself, where people show generosity only to trick others. Love is unheard of, sympathy is absent, and goodness is a mere illusion.”

    I’m sure he’s a great ape wrangler, but his misguided interpretation makes him a shitty scientist. Does he really think Dawkins feels apes don’t truly feel love (and hate)? That a selfish gene means a selfish organism? It’s like he’s saying ‘my monkeys are NOT selfish you meanie Dawkins’.

    Alright, rant over… I may have been a little hard on the guy, but it bugged the hell out of me.

    • Charles Sullivan
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

      I was amazed at de Waal’s failure to grasp Dawkins’ point too. Actually, i think he does grasp it, but considers it a useful rhetorical punching bag, so he won’t let it go.

    • microraptor
      Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, that little line caused me to very nearly never read another thing he wrote. Given that Dawkins explained what he meant by the title on the first page of The Selfish Gene, it was a pretty unforgivable mistake and clearly showed that de Waal had never actually read anything but the title.

    • Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      That’s just … dumb.

      /@

  21. Posted May 15, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    This is par for the course for de Waal. He uses his status as a scientist to place himself above the likes of lesser atheists, just as he uses his status of behavioral scientist to place himself above the likes of other great ape researchers. He considers himself more moral than the new atheists, and more moral than the biomedical researchers.

    And yet Dr. Empathy stays silent when his institution (Yerkes) keeps senior chimpanzees in captivity instead of providing them with a decent life end at a sanctuary. This is the man who is going to tell me, an atheist, that my moral compass is the result of christianity? He has no idea of the basis of morality. His utter inhumanity to old and powerless chimpanzees demonstrates a lack of empathy and a dark void where morality normally resides.

    Frans de Waal needs to learn from the great apes, instead of misusing their traits as a foundation for his inane lectures to us lesser beings.

  22. Schenck
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    The other thing that stands out in der Waals statement is, why does he thinks it’s “allowed’ to insult popes, the church as an institution, ayatollahs and rabbis, but not ‘individual believers’?

    I think the same thing is afoot here what makes people say ‘oh I have disdain for organized religion, but I myself am very spiritual’. It’s silly, those bishops and imams and the like are /excessively spiritual/. And al the cults that ever existed started with people who were ‘merely spiritual’. Why make a distinction? If you’re against organized religion, then you should really be against ‘personal spirituality’ too.

  23. Posted May 15, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if someone can help me out. I’d like to read something that covers the issue of morality and “meaning” in a rather comprehensive way.

    every time I read something that has to do with intrinsic meaning or purpose for life my brain spasms a little.

    De Waal says, “Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives.” There’s the spasm.

    In EVERYTHING I read there is this presupposition that 1) Life has meaning, and 2)lives have “purpose.” Obviously, the devout get there’s from delusion. But why, why do atheist even argue their position as if there is some meaning or purpose that science can explain? I facepalm when I hear some dumbshit say, “atheists would have us believe that life has no purpose.” Certainly not, and at a minimum not the purpose the dumbshit has in mind.

    How about, there is no purpose, it just is. Purpose and meaning have NO relevance, and only serve to muddy the waters. We shouldn’t even allow them into the discussion. That is if we really believe in a material universe and is mostly random in nature.

    I offer a quote; “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
    ― Joseph Campbell

    I pity the fools that need something mythical to give life meaning.

    Anyway, anyone have a recommendation to my first question?

  24. wordpressreport
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on WordPress Report.

  25. jose
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 2:20 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Darwin say this in the descent of man? That social animals like the great apes would turn moral as they become smarter, and that other social systems like that of bees would lead to different moralities if evolution increases their intelligence?

    I don’t know what religion has to do with morality tbh.

  26. Celia
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    i dont know that De Waal’s position on new atheism counts as “bashing”. Its just an alternative perception of the movement. I for one welcome the idea of someone criticizing ANY wordview. without scrutiny, the new atheist movement runs the risk of developing problems. Critics will keep us honest.

  27. Mark
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading the book at the moment. I’m a little disappointed..I admire Frans de Waal, his other books have had a big affect on my world view, but some of this just reads like a cheap attack on people he doesn’t agree with, especially Christopher Hitchens. He’s basically saying that the new atheists represent a new type of dogmatism…I don’t think I want to continue reading it…

  28. Mark
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading the book at the moment. I’m a little disappointed..I admire Frans de Waal, his other books have had a big affect on my world view, but some of this just reads like a cheap attack on people he doesn’t agree with, especially Christopher Hitchens. He’s basically saying that the new atheists represent a new type of dogmatism…I don’t think I want to continue reading it…


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