Atran and the Wilsons vs. the rest of us: the Chronicle writes on the “religion wars”

Trust me; you’ll want to read an article by Tom Bartlett in the August 13 Chronicle of Higher Education: Dusting off GOD.” It’s a long piece, but you’ll learn a lot about the opposition to New Atheism in academic circles.

The piece makes three main points:

  • People like Scott Atran and David Sloan Wilson see New Atheists as misguided in their vicious and mindless attacks on faith.  As the article notes, some psychology experiments show that aspects of religion have beneficial effects.  Subjects who, for example, read the word “divine” or other goddy words before they’re given money have a tendency to give more of it away. Further, people like Dawkins, Myers, and I needlessly conflate science and atheism.

To be fair, the article does mention some of the downsides of faith (I mention acid-throwing by the Taliban and P. Z. talks about religion’s horrible treatment of women), but in general it accentuates the positive.

The problem is that we lack any quantitative way to tell for sure if religion increases or decreases what Sam Harris calls “well being.” How do you measure a marginal increase in charity among some Christians against a disfigured Afghan woman? How does one weigh faith-based hospitals in Africa (which often  involve prosyletizing) against the Catholic church’s deliberate promulgation of AIDS by criticizing condoms? How does one balance the group “solidarity” that religions give Americans versus the fact that Islam deliberately disposseses and stifles the ambitions of anyone with two X chromosomes?  And the piece doesn’t even mention creationism, which of course is a direct outgrowth of religion.

I’ve made the judgment, as have other New Atheists, that on balance religion is a negative force. No, I can’t produce data that absolutely prove this, but I’m convinced by what I see.  Further, religion is not only bad in itself, but encourages a climate of superstitious thinking.

If there’s one thing that unites New Atheists (well, most New Atheists), it’s the idea that we need good reasons for our “beliefs.”  Why are people like Atran and D. S. Wilson so soft on religion and don’t go after astrology or homeopathy? It is, of course, because religion is a socially sanctioned form of superstition—though homeopathy is pervasive, and harmful, in much of the Western world.

What galls me about all this is that people like Wilson and Atran are admitted atheists, yet they constantly emphasize the benefits of faith.  Presumably they have good reasons for not accepting God, yet they think that the belief is useful for society. (I’m not so sure it is, since much of Western Europe functions fine though largely atheist; the problem in America is that we don’t provide the social support networks, governmental or otherwise, that make religion superfluous).  This seems a bit hypocritical to me.  After all, if most religious people really thought, as do Atran and Wilson, that there is no god, they’d abandon their faith.

Now I’m not one to disabuse my dying grandmother of the delusion that she’ll go to heaven (I’m making this situation up), but in the main I see religion as a form of delusional thinking that can’t possibly be good on the whole, simply because it’s 1) false and 2) divisive.  But yes, some effects of faith are positive, and some faiths are more benign than others (you won’t see me crusading against Quakers or the Amish).  Even homeopathy has placebo effects, and reading your horoscope may make you feel better (I’ve never read one that says, “You suck and are going to have a lousy day.”) But, like most New Atheists, I think that on principle we should accept truths rather than lies. For truth enables us to make the most rational judgments, even if it is sometimes dispiriting. (Read Sam Harris’s Lying.)

Finally, there’s a reason why science and atheism are associated.  Science is based on tenets of empiricism, skepticism, and rationality. It encourages them in its practitioners, and attracts those who already have these qualities.  And those traits are inimical to faith.  At least in America, scientists are far less religious than the public at large, and the most accomplished scientists are the least religious.

  • The article notes the profound lack of interest that New Atheists have in the origins and spread of religion.  David Sloan Wilson is particularly vociferous on this point, and the article notes this:

In two blog posts, one in March and one in May, Wilson questioned whether Richard Dawkins “might fail to qualify” as an evolutionist for, among other shortcomings, ignoring research on the evolution of religion.

Well, Dan Dennett certainly hasn’t ignored the origins of religion: just read Breaking the Spell. But in the main, we’re not interested in that: I, for one, feel that we’ll never understand how religion came about, whether it has a genetic basis, and so on, and such studies are largely exercises in wheel-spinning.  Now they might produce some interesting results in a few decades, but I’d rather spend my time arguing against faith than understanding its origins. As I say in the piece, had Richard tried to explain the origin of religion in The God Delusion, he not only would have diverted from his aim, but engaged in explaining a lot of conflicting theories that have no resolution.

I would like to contest one sentiment attributed to me:

The substance of Coyne’s criticism is that while Wilson is speculating about religion’s origins, which Coyne sees as a quixotic endeavor, he and other New Atheists are on the front lines battling extremists, and that Wilson would do well to enlist.

I don’t remember saying that—but maybe I did.  I do see the origin of religion as an unproductive area of study, simply because there are so many different theories, theories involving group versus individual selection, genetics versus cultural influences, notions of agency versus intimations of mortality, and so on.  But I don’t think Wilson should enlist in our cause.  He’s too soft on faith and tends to be too excitable.  I’m happy if he stays where he is, though he really should ratchet down his bad-mouthing of fellow atheists. He does himself no good in this endeavor, and comes off as a bit of a prima donna who is peeved because nobody pays attention to him.

  • Finally the article discusses the conflict about group selection between D. S. Wilson and E. O. Wilson on one side and Everyone Else on the other.

I have little to say here that I haven’t before, and this part of the article is the weakest.

I may be overly sensitive, but the piece, although pretty fair to both sides, seems a bit slanted toward people like D. S. Wilson and Atran who take out after New Atheists.  It notes at least twice that the attention garnered by New Atheists comes from their ability to stir up controversy—their “box office.” So I have mixed feelings about the last sentence in this paragraph, though feel a bit of Schadenfreude about the rest:

Homework or no, Breaking the Spell was a best seller, while Darwin’s Cathedralwas not. If the conflict over the best scientific approach to religion is measured in popularity, the New Atheists would win with ease. As of this writing, PZ Myers has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Wilson has around 500. A YouTube clip of Dawkins tying Bill O’Reilly into knots has over four million views, while Wilson interviewing a fellow scholar, Michael Blume, on his findings about religion and fertility has around 300. Skewering God makes for better box office.

Well, I’d like to think that our arguments have something to do with it. Why does skewering God make for good box office in America, while supporting God does not? After all, most Americans are religious.  I think the success of New Atheism is that it has tapped into a vein of doubt and agnosticism that’s been, until recently, buried deep under the skin of America’s.

At any rate, read the piece.  I’d be curious, too, to hear readers’ reaction to the fact that so many academics who are atheists nevertheless promote the benefits of religion.

181 Comments

  1. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    It isn’t just academia that backs away from criticism of religion. It’s also PBS and the New York Times.

    I agree there is an embarrassment of multiple explanations of the origins of religion; it may be for some a higher !*priority*! to debunk it- however, because it is so deep a part of the human heritage- some discussion of its origins seems to me to be a necessity.

    • Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      It seems to me that better understanding the evolution of religion may provide better arguments to persuade people away from religion.

      /@

  2. Posted August 16, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    JAC: “Why are people like Atran and D. S. Wilson so soft on religion and don’t go after astrology or homeopathy? It is, of course, because religion is a socially sanctioned form of superstition…”

    Would it be better worded to ask why DSW defends religion, but not astrology or homeopathy. As it is, it seems you’re saying DSW treats them all the same.

    Do we need to measure religion’s effects? I don’t think we do. Truth should always deserve priority. Not to mention, we can avail ourselves of all religion’s purported beneficial effects without religion. Religion is not necessary for community building, inspiring charity, etc.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      I agree, but for some finding a non-religious basis for virtue is a major gear-shift requiring a good transmission, or environmental shift/transplanting if you will.

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted August 18, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

        And requiring some level of intelligence and capacity for judgment. There’s an article in this week’s New Scientist expressing concern that in the US a convicted murderer’s chance of facing execution depends on an IQ test or some equivalent (and no less fallible) assessment. It is at least arguable that those who lack the intellectual wherewithal are better served by a (non-extremist) religious upbringing. That dimension of the religious-moral question is rarely considered – I can’t remember finding it in Dennett or Harris. Posters here and at RDF generally state that “we” don’t need an auhoritarian code of morals because “we” can use our own judgment. But there is no “we”, just a vast spectrum of intellectual, moral and social capacity or incapacity.

        • Notagod
          Posted August 18, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

          In what way do you think a religious upbringing would better serve someone that lacked intellectual wherewithal?

          A religious upbringing would be more prone to the injection of deception and manipulation, I don’t think that makes anything better for someone that is intellectually disadvantaged already.

        • pulseteresa
          Posted August 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

          Given widespread bigotry about poor cognitive abilities, it may very well be that those individuals with a low IQ were convicted based partially on this fact. I have no idea where religion comes into it, unless you’re suggesting that religion is the only way to instill morality (an evidence-free notion), religious morality has some special power over those with a low IQ, or that religion actually provides a decent and consistent morality (it doesn’t).

  3. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    As the article notes, some psychology experiments show that aspects of religion have beneficial effects.
    .
    As noted in various places, social psychology has been scandalized recently by revelations of sloppy methodology, cherry-picking of data, and even blatant fraud. See also a series of articles by Ed Yonge at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

  4. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Jason Rosenhouse has also written about this Chronicle article:
    New Atheists vs. Evolutionary Religious Studies?

  5. Sigmund
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    I’ve read the piece now and agree with some of his points but find fault with others.
    I tend to disagree with Dawkins notion of religion being like the moth attracted to the candle flame. I find alternative theories – such as it can function to create a sense of community in certain human environments – more convincing.
    That said, I don’t think the basic ‘new atheist’ position has a problem with either of these ‘origin of religion’ stories. ‘New Atheism’ is primarily concerned with applying the principles of scientific skepticism towards current religion.
    Sloan-Wilson’s objections seem misdirected. If religion is the mad dog in the playgound, Sloan-Wilson is the one interested in calmly determining how it got there, in contrast to the New Atheists aim of shooting it down before it devours another child.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      alternative theories on the origins of religion are not always mutually exclusive IMO

  6. Sastra
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I think the conflict here is over what I call the ‘map problem.’

    Every territory can be described by different maps. There can be a map showing precipitation, a map with geographical features, a map of elevation, a map with streets, a map which shows no more than where the pancake houses are. Although the maps can’t conflict (ie you can’t have one map showing a desert and another map saying the same area has 9 feet of rain a year), they don’t have to look the same: they’re used for different purposes.

    “Religion” is a territory which can be described by a lot of different maps. One of the most popular maps is what I call the “Meaning Map.” How does the religion work for the community? How does it involve the individual? Does it foster cohesiveness, commitment, loyalty? Does it give some people a satisfying narrative, motivation, inspiration? How can it be used to support positive values — and when does it fail to do so?

    This is a very academic approach. It would be used by an anthropologist, or a therapist. It would be used by a friend appraising the life of a friend. It could easily be used by an atheist considering the area from those perspectives. The ‘Meaning Map’ is a perfectly legitimate map. It’s valuable. It’s a good map.

    But God damn it, it’s not the ONLY map. And it’s not the ONLY map which atheists are allowed to use.

    There’s also the ‘Truth Map.’ Are the claims which are unique to religion — the supernatural beliefs which actually define ‘religion’ as distinct from philosophy, ethics, a way of life, or a set of values — actually true? Or, rather, likely to be true? Is there any good reason to accept hypotheses such as God, the afterlife, as legitimate models of how reality works? Don’t ask if the Mormon Church helps Janet with her childcare responsibilities — ask whether the Book of Mormon is a realistic history of ancient America. Bring your scientific and rational skills to the question as if it matters. It ought to matter.

    This is a legitimate map, too. And, as Jerry points out, it’s supposed to be the FIRST one every believer is supposed to use. It’s supposed to be primary.

    Yet every time we gnu atheists take it out, we’re criticized for not using another map. Atran and Wilson and about a hundred theologians and a million pious believers come running up screaming “No, No, No — you’re not looking at the MAP. THE map. The Meaning Map. I bet you never thought of that one. I bet you never heard of it. I bet this would soften your stance against religion and allow you to either be genuinely objective or genuinely subjective.”

    Iow, the gnu atheist critics are going into Anthropologist Mode and/or Therapist Mode. And they’re insisting that we need to do the same, or we’re not really understanding religion the way it needs to be understood: it’s about meaning.

    Screw that. Yes, we HAVE heard of the ‘Meaning Map.’ But we think that when you ignore the ‘Truth Map’ all the “meaning” can become very fluid — and good can become evil and evil, good. There’s no way to tell them apart because the rational anchor is GONE — it’s been replaced by finding your ‘identity.’ That’s a dangerous approach for someone who “rejects God” to advocate for.

    Bottom line, then, I think the so-called Religion Wars are cartographical.

    • Roo
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Great analogy Sastra. In a perfect world, I think all the maps can inform one another as well: we look at weather conditions in an area, notice crop output, economic conditions, crime rates, and so on. Odds are good that many of them are interconnected and understanding one (instead of making them non-overlapping map magisteria) can inform how we approach and work with another. Fighting over who owns what map and which map is best, in my opinion, accomplishes little.

    • Tulse
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Great points, Sastra (as always).

      And as others have pointed out, if the Map of Meaning is so damned important, why aren’t these folks believers? Writers such as Atran and Wilson continually fail to see (or at least acknowledge) the implicit profound condescension in their position — “religion is needed for the little people, but not for us smart folks”.

      • Kevin
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Yeah, that was my immediate impression.

        It’s a position born of privilege.

        Religion is OK to keep the stupid little people in check. For us lofty enlightened beings, we’ve evolved far beyond that.

        It drips with condescension.

        • Marta
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          +1

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted August 18, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

            I think it is not just condescension. There is a real issue – see my reply in (2) above.

    • Tim
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Since the truth forests can not extend into the religious deserts, the regions where religious “meaning” flourishes are a large subset of the self-deception barrens. Perhaps the citizens of the confederate states of religious woo are sometimes happier in their religious haze, but the heat of the desert has nevertheless addled their brains.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Sastra, I would give me little finger to have a fraction of the insight and eloquence you have.

      Keep up the good work.

  7. Steve
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    I suppose in this case, Tom Bartlett treats religion and theology as interchangeable concepts.

    But in any case, what this boils down to is expediency. The notion that, “Hey maybe the benefits of religion might trump the untruthfulness at the heart of any of them. And if that is true, well then let’s just keep it a secret that there is/are no god(s); that god(s) is/are a man-made fiction.” And if this is the case, then this also boils down to hubris in the first degree. Atheism is a thing that ought be kept to those special enough to “handle the truth”. (Shades of A Few Good Men!)

    But all along the path of mankind’s advancement there have been milestones of “this truth can not be shared with this masses of humanity, they are better off with the delusion and pretense of which they are accustomed.”

    Over and over, I have come up against this same kind of thinking related to non-free willism. “Sure man doesn’t have free will, but you can’t let anyone else know this. You and I can handle this truth, but not most people. Certainly you can’t let kids know this. And you can’t let those accused of crimes know this. If this get’s out, you’ll have to let all the prisoners go free, and they’ll be running wild in the streets if you let them know.”

    It is up to us who are strident concerning Truth, who must reply back with as much force as we have it in us to muster, “No, no, no, it is not best to pretend as if there is/are god(s). No way in hell is this a better path!”

    Fervently, I suspect that at the heart(or the head if you prefer) of all religions/theologies is leadership that knows just how false the foundational claim of their religion is.

    The Emperor is naked, but let’s pretend he is splendidly clothed because there might be benefits to ourselves if the common man remains hoodwinked into believing so.

    • Posted August 17, 2012 at 4:58 am | Permalink

      As the saying goes, many conservatives and authoritarians of other sorts simply adopt and adapt a line out of Marx – religion is the opium of the masses – by adding – “and that’s a good thing!”

      • gerard26
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

        Very well said.

  8. jay
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    The implied arrogance in Bartlett and Wilson is the view “well of course we’re too smart to buy religious bunk but it does help keep the ignorant masses in line ” so it must be good.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      That was my take as well. If we try to convince the ignorant and succeed then we would no longer be of the elite, would we?

    • MNb
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      Yeah, crap like that makes me feel a New Atheist, even if I’m not sure if I am actually one.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        Personally, I’m a middle-aged atheist.

      • Marta
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        I want to break things when “new” atheism is used as a pejorative.

        It’s fine to be all sciencey and atheist and stuff, but be quiet about it, so that religious people’s feelings don’t get hurt?

        This why accommodationists are so very, very much worse than believers. It’s the hypocrisy and the condescension.

    • John K.
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      I was wondering if others felt the same way. Tricking people into doing good things for bad reasons has its own pitfalls. Sure you can get Dumbo off the ground with a magic feather, but it is a reliance that needs to be gone if you want to avoid a needless death plunge should the feather be lost.

      If good behavior is justifying bad reasoning, there is nothing that can stop other bad behaviors based on the same bad reasoning. The logic required to object has already been abandoned.

  9. jay
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    One thing that Atran and Hairy both make that atheists sometimes underestimate is the psychological significance of religion: just proving beliefs wrong is just the beginning. Necessary but not sufficient.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      I disagree. Many atheists, like me, that were never believers may not understand the mechanisms by which believers maintain such strong commitment to such ridiculous beliefs, but in my experience such atheists understand very well that believers do. This problem is part of almost every discussion atheists have about religious belief.

      And of course, many other atheists were previously devout believers themselves and so have first hand experience of the psychological significance of religious belief.

  10. Jonathan Smith
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    “I think the success of New Atheism is that it has tapped into a vein of doubt and agnosticism that’s been, until recently, buried deep under the skin of America’s.”
    Great quote Dr Coyne

  11. Roo
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of how I (playfully) annoy my mother when we go shopping together. When she tries to sell me on some hideously bedazzled piece that would be most appropriate for a seniors only cruise ship, I always respond with “Um, that’s…nice. For you, I mean, I think that would be a nice top for YOU.” It’s a joke between us, but you see the point – it’s a little insulting to tell someone that something you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole is nice for ‘them’. What does that say about them, exactly?

    That said, I do think that understanding the origins of religion might be very valuable. I say this as a former believer of many years – arguments about the truth claims of religion just bounced off of me almost unheard. No one who has lived in the world and noticed the way it usually works can say they hit upon religion as the most likely explanation for how the world works. I compare it to the wife who won’t leave an abusive husband because “he loves her”, or the child who is acting out because “everyone is a stupid head.” Providing evidence to the contrary is typically remarkably ineffective in these scenarios, because there are underlying factors driving the ‘belief’. The belief won’t change until the wife and child are ready for it to change, and that likely won’t happen until whatever is driving that belief has been addressed.

    What troubles me most about this post is the characterization of the in-fighting among atheist scientists. Saying that there is robust debate and disagreement (and even that people, on a personal level, don’t like each other,) is one thing. Implying that Dawkins views on group selection are driven not by what he believes to be true, but by not wanting to see his book discredited is another, for example. To me, that’s essentially reducing scientific debate to factors like pride, cliquishness, and petty grudges. I’m not a scientist, so I certainly hope this isn’t the case, as much of the argument regarding the scientific method vs. religion highlights why the science is superior in reducing these factors.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      “Looks good on you, though” – Caddyshack

  12. CJ
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    It’s actually really simple. Nothing good that comes out of religion could justify it. Because the evidence is in and it’s really manifest; religion is divisive and we know that just making shit up is a negative force in the world.
    The End.

    • MNb
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Exactly. That’s why I can admire some religious people – Franciscus of Assisi, Martin Luther King – and still remain a convinced atheist.

    • CJ
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Show me a society in human history that (as Sam Harris has said) “…has ever suffered because it’s population became too adherent to reason, too reluctant to embrace dogma, or too demanding of evidence.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        What has always really hilighted the inherent nastiness of religion for me is the fact that religion deliberately conditions its followers to believe that these things, reason, being cautious of dogma, and requiring evidence before believing something, are bad things.

        It is hard to conceive of anything more perniciously destructive to a society than that.

  13. Ludo
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    There might also be some misunderstanding about the term ‘religion studies’?
    Some years ago I spoke with a psychiatrist and neurological researcher who specialized on the role of endorphins, the so-called ‘feel-good hormones’. He told me that research was done with psychiatric patients to discover which external stimuli might promote the release of endorphins. Physical exercise was one of the best promoting factors, and its effect was quite general: it works for everybody.
    But also other factors, cultural ones, can have a releasing effect – but not for everybody. The effect (if any) depends on the life history (and idiosyncrasy) of the patient: ‘music-therapy’, ‘art-therapy’, ‘gardening-therapy’ are only effective if the patient has a positive relationship with music, art or gardening. One of the therapies mentioned was ‘religion-therapy': praying, listening to religious music, and so on. It works, of course, only for a special group of patients, those with a positive relationship with religion. For patients with bad experiences with religion, the effect is strongly negative.
    All this has of course nothing to do with god or magic – it is just plain biochemistry! When someone likes music and playing the piano, then playing the piano will have a soothing effect – by promoting the release of the right endorphins.

  14. George
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Of course Coyne doesn’t have the data to prove that religion is a “negative force.” Coyne is a biologist. Atran, OTOH, has done an extensive research on this topic and is more than justified to say that “New Atheists’ work…tells us [nothing] at all about religion.” He knows what he’s talking about.

    Read Atran’s book on terrorism (instead of just the article Coyne provided a link to) to see for yourself.

    • Sigmund
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      There is plenty of data showing the negative effect of religion. Like most sociological data it has the problem that it is mostly correlative but multiple independent studies do back up the notion that religion, or at least the common religions, have a negative effect on many aspects of modern society (education levels for example, acceptance of evolution, womens health as measured by teenage pregnancies etc.)

      • George
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        Which are these “multiple independent studies”?I imagine Coyne’s “Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America” would be one of them, right? lol

        • Tulse
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          Which are these “multiple independent studies”?

          Iran.
          The Branch Davidians.
          Afghanistan.
          Aum Shinrikyo.
          Saudi Arabia.
          Heaven’s Gate.
          Sabra and Shatila.

          Sorry I don’t have the direct citations handy, but you can probably look them up yourself.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

            Women.

            • George
              Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

              Evidently, both of you, Tulse and truthspeaker, don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation.

              It could very well be that Arabs are by nature on average more violent than secular Europe, and happen to be also religious.

              Try again.

              • David Evans
                Posted August 17, 2012 at 3:11 am | Permalink

                “It could very well be that Arabs are by nature on average more violent than secular Europe, and happen to be also religious.”

                The Crusades
                Witch burning in Europe and the US
                Northern Ireland

              • Tulse
                Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

                I wasn’t aware that the Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, and Heaven’s Gate were “Arabs”.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

                Or the Catholic church, Eastern Orthodox church, or Southern Baptists.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

                Also, if a particular religion’s texts, traditions, and leaders all espouse a message of mistreating women, and many members of that religion mistreat women – then that’s a pretty big hint that there’s some causation involved, not just correlation.

              • Posted August 17, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

                It could very well be that Arabs are by nature on average more violent than secular Europe, and happen to be also religious.
                Isn’t it wonderful when people demanding evidence for negative effects of religion suddenly seem to forget that this requirement applies to them too?

      • curt nelson
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

        What is wrong with you that you don’t think belief in a false model of the world itself is a bad thing?

    • darrelle
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      ” Atran, OTOH, has done an extensive research on this topic and is more than justified to say that “New Atheists’ work…tells us [nothing] at all about religion.”

      This is wrong. I can understand a laymen such as yourself making this claim, but Atran has a responsibility to maintain a certain level of intellectual integrity and should know better than to make a claim that is so wrong. My best guess is that he has an ax to grind and he is letting his emotions get the better of his judgment. Or maybe he just thinks that misrepresenting his opponents is an okay tactic.

      • George
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        You don’t need to guess anything. Read Atran’s book instead.

        • darrelle
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

          I have not read the book you referenced, but I have read excerpts from it, several essays/articles by Atran, and seen several talks/discussions of his. From that sampling I conclude that you and he are wrong regarding this matter, blatantly so.

          And having read and heard all that I have of him I reiterate that I can only guess that he has some ulterior motivations that inspire him to make such trivially refuted claims as the one you quoted.

          • Caroline52
            Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            +1

    • Sastra
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Tell us — would Atran and others who defend the value of religion in general agree that there are real problems caused when religions “go bad?” When proponents use them to justify and implement violence, discrimination, oppression, and ignorance?

      I suspect so. That is, I’d be surprised if they didn’t agree with that. It’s sort of obvious.

      In which case, I wonder how they propose that people (including the believers) sort out the distinction between a true religion which only seems wrong from a worldly perspective — and a false religion which seems wrong because it IS wrong. The religion has “gone bad” according to secular standards. Now get the religious to agree to always measure God by those.

      Atran’s stance is like trying to advocate for astrology because it often inspires reasonable behavior. I mean, read what’s in the newspaper and notice the good advice.

      • Kevin
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        “Someone in your neighborhood is in need of a helping hand, but it too proud to ask. Keep your awareness open. You’ll sense the silent need and offer a hand.”

        Gee. It works!

        Or not.

        • Sastra
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

          Gee, that’s certainly a testable prediction. What are the odds that someone in a “neighborhood” (my block, my street, my city, the world) would appreciate some help with some matter? Such a thing would be very unlikely.

          An astrology accomodationist would now go into Therapy Mode and point out the value of lending a helping hand — as if that was the point under dispute.

          • Caroline52
            Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            Go, Sastra!

    • raven
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      In the USA, fundies score lower in education and IQ. This is a meta- analysis of 46 studies compiled by Dennett and efenced in Stengers anthology on atheism and also in “Breaking the Spell.”

      This only matters if you think being ignorant and dumb is a bad thing.

    • Marta
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      “Of course Coyne doesn’t have the data to prove that religion is a “negative force.” Coyne is a biologist.”

      I don’t know whether Coyne has the data or not, but it doesn’t follow that the reason he doesn’t is because he’s a “biologist”.

    • corio37
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      You can read four years’ worth of postings on the ‘negative value of religion’ at my blog: http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com

      These are some — not by any means all — of the reports that made it into the international press. They add up to about eight thousand deaths a year directly attributable to religious belief, incalculable amounts of suffering, and billions of dollars worth of financial exploitation.

      All you need to do is read the newspapers.

  15. mb
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    I find it amusing that something so allegedly fundamental as religion can be seriously threatened by a few aggressive atheists. The whole concept of God is so fragile that it must be shored up constantly and even demands respect from its detractors lest society’s fabric unravel.

    I was thinking recently about the tendency of orangutans to share their food. It occurred to me that if they suddenly were to develop human-like reason, they might well initially attribute the endorphin rush they get from sharing food as a message from God to be kind one to another and then codify their natural inclination to share as a moral guideline.

    Seems obvious, to me, that religion grew out of our natural need to try to make sense of the world and is informed by the lies our intuition and feelings tell us. The fact that we nurtured it and ordered our civilization around it for centuries is interesting historically, sociologically, and psychologically. But, imo, it doesn’t really say anything big or fundamental about religion itself.

    To me, the fragility of religion, its need to always demand respect, says more about the fundamental nature of religion than its widespread, one might even say, universal influence. Only a fraudulent philosophy would require the kind of careful handling religion demands.

    • DV
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Not only that. You’d think if the religious REALLY believe God is on their side, they wouldn’t feel compelled to be so activist about defending their God or faith. Surely an omnipotent being can defend itself easily without help.

      • corio37
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

        Exactly: if the Grand Supreme Pooh-Bah of the Entire Universe wants something done, then he should come out and say so. Relying on the muddled, the hateful and the ineffective is not the way to achieve his goals.

        But nothing seems to get theists so upset as the suggestion that maybe God should get off his butt and actually DO something now and again.

  16. Tulse
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    the Catholic church’s deliberate promulgation of AIDS by criticizing condoms

    I think this phrase needs to be reconsidered, Jerry — the Vatican is not intending to promulgate AIDs, but rather doesn’t care that increased infection is the price of ideological purity. They are incredibly callous, but not (in this case) intentional murderers.

    • Sajanas
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      I don’t know. I think that you see pretty clearly in the case of the HPV vaccine that various religious groups actually want the STDs as a way for people who have extra marital, not with another virgin sex to be punished.

      I’d also say that if someone gets AIDS while following the Vatican’s advice they should sue the crap out of them… how is it different from them saying that seat belts are ineffective and shouldn’t be used?

    • darrelle
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      I don’t know. There comes a point, I think, when the evidence is so blatantly clear, and so widely known, that callousness or willful ignorance is no longer any defense.

      At this point there is no way that the catholic church could be unaware of the deaths that their policy regarding condoms has contributed to. That they think their cause is righteous because they speak for god does not mean that they don’t understand that their actions are resulting in the deaths of many people that otherwise would not have died.

      “Deliberate” seems perfectly accurate to me in this case.

      • Tulse
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        there is no way that the catholic church could be unaware of the deaths that their policy regarding condoms has contributed to

        But that’s not saying that AIDS infections are their desired goal. If you buy fancy electronics that you know are put together in sweatshops, would it be fair to say that you are deliberately forcing people into servitude?

        • darrelle
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

          I guess I am thinking more of the “done with or marked by full consciousness of the nature and effects” meaning of deliberate rather than the “intentional” meaning.

          I agree that spreading AIDS infections is not their primary motivation. But I am sure that they are fully conscious of the nature and effects of their anti condom policy.

          Regarding the sweatshop analogy, I’m not sure it is a good fit. In short, yes, I would bear some measure of responsibility for the existence of those sweat shops, and both the bad and good things that may come from them.

          But the catholic churches condom policy is quite different. More like a government enacting a law, with serious punishment for those who break it, which will, knowingly, result directly in a significant number of deaths.

      • Posted August 17, 2012 at 5:03 am | Permalink

        This is an interesting case, because it is one instance of one of the large problems that the social debate over religion is about: when are people culpable, if at all, and in what way, for the effects of their ignorance, both on themselves and others. The latter is more crucial, it seems to me.

    • DV
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      That fine distinction is prosecutable. You only need to show that the Vatican knows full well that condoms work against AIDS. Then by working to prevent the use of condoms, the Vatican becomes liable for the promulgation of AIDS.

    • Cliff Melick
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Doesn’t this beg the question “If an action brings about the same result, if the action is intentional, is it somehow worse than if the action is nonintentional?”

      I think that if the church’s action is nonintentional, but still results in the same number of deaths that would occur if their action was intentional, that they are still guilty of murder. Why does intentionality have anything to do with it? Isn’t this a bit like saying “collateral damage” is OK because it wasn’t intentional?

      I don’t pretend to know the answer, but it does provide pause to think about it.

      • Tulse
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        I think that if the church’s action is nonintentional, but still results in the same number of deaths that would occur if their action was intentional, that they are still guilty of murder.

        That’s not typically how the law views it, which is why we have the notion of manslaughter. If someone in a factory dies because of terrible working conditions, and you purchase goods made from that factory knowing about those conditions, are you guilty of murder?

      • Gary W
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

        I think that if the church’s action is nonintentional, but still results in the same number of deaths that would occur if their action was intentional, that they are still guilty of murder.

        In criminal law, intent to kill is crucial. If you intentionally kill someone with your car, that’s murder. If you unintentionally kill someone while driving drunk, that’s manslaughter, or negligent homicide. I have no desire to exculpate the Catholic Church, but I don’t think its anti-condom teaching is the equivalent of murder.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      That’s one possible explanation. Another possible explanation is that they are intentionally promulgating AIDS. I think we need more data to determine which is correct.

  17. Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Greetings,

    I’m speaking as an Agnostic here.

    Part of the problem is that the New Atheists – like Dawkins, Harris, and the late Hitchens – conflate (the dangers of) fanaticism with religion and/or faith.

    In attacking the latter two, they’re not appreciating that they’re doing much the equivalent of conflating pseudo-science with science, and attacking the latter.

    Religion, as part of human cultures, performs a useful social function in bringing people together who would otherwise be divided by ethnicity, etc.

    Equally, personal faith can inspire individuals to be better.

    The book, “How God Changes Your Brain”, explores how faith – regardless whether it’s God-based or secular-ideal-based – has positive effects through physiological changes to the brain, just as Eastern meditation and Western contemplation/contemplative prayer do.

    Personally, I think it arose through the useful ability to associate events with likely danger – a bush rustling, for example, may imply the presence of a predator.

    It would be easy to misapply this – events in one’s life with the position of the planets, etc.

    Beliefs only require that they make sense to the individual – have personal meaning – regardless of their veracity.

    You mentioned Dennett’s interesting book, “Breaking The Spell” – Atran also wrote “In Gods We Trust” (2002), which Harris doesn’t even mention in either “The End Of Faith” (2004) or “The Moral Landscape” (2010).

    In the latter, on page 264n28, he decries the moral relativism of anthropology’s defence of different cultures’ values, and espouses “clear thinking about human well-being” – yet this does not prevent him from displaying a pro-Israeli/anti-Palestinian bias, both in his books and debates, when comparing – for example – the death-toll due to Israeli shelling of Gaza and those due to Palestinian suicide bombers.

    [And others - including PZ Myers - have noted this.]

    I agree with you on the issue of group selection – I believe you dealt with it decisively in a earlier blog post.

    Kindest regards,

    James

    • Sajanas
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      The thing is, none of those good things that religion *can* do requires the supernatural beliefs that religion comes with. There are plenty of non-religious organizations that bring people together, encourage good values, and allow people to relax and meditate. I’d say that non-religious organizations would even do a *better* job than religions, because a religions emphasis (and we’re talking big R Religion here, not just an individual’s personal spirituality), is almost always on its Supernatural Entity. That’s the alpha and omega, and the other concerns will always be secondary.

      Have you ever seen a church not have services so that people could do charity work during that time? Have you ever seen a church sell its trappings and give the proceeds to charity? I imagine that it could happen, but its a very rare occurrence. Likewise, I’ve noticed that when my parents changed churches, they kept only a few of their friends from their old church. And I think the biggest reason is that churches are places to *worship*. Sure, you make friends there, but they are largely conditional on you going to church.

      And I think that focus on the supernatural will always make religions rather dangerous, because it gives normal humans an authority and an absolutism that can make good people corrupt, and give bad people a tremendously dangerous tool. And I think its possible for *any* supernatural religion to become dangerous, even if it seems light and fluffy the rest of the time.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        Moreover, focus on the supernatural encourages fanaticism.

      • Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        Greetings,

        Sajanas, you make some good points, however:

        1)

        The thing is, none of those good things that religion *can* do requires the supernatural beliefs that religion comes with. There are plenty of non-religious organizations that bring people together, encourage good values, and allow people to relax and meditate. I’d say that non-religious organizations would even do a *better* job than religions, because a religions emphasis (and we’re talking big R Religion here, not just an individual’s personal spirituality), is almost always on its Supernatural Entity. That’s the alpha and omega, and the other concerns will always be secondary.

        Yet the concept of “its Supernatural Entity” acts as a inspiration for compassion, charity, etc, and a multitude of actions based on those in a wide variety of areas.

        Although non-religious organisations may also do this, it tends to be one for each area of interest – at least one for the elderly, at least another for children, at least yet another for animals, etc.

        Religion acts like a “one-stop-shop” for bringing people with various interests together, creating a large social network where people can help the elderly AND children AND animals AND etc.

        2.

        And I think that focus on the supernatural will always make religions rather dangerous, because it gives normal humans an authority and an absolutism that can make good people corrupt, and give bad people a tremendously dangerous tool. And I think its possible for *any* supernatural religion to become dangerous, even if it seems light and fluffy the rest of the time.

        Although that can happen with religion – the fanaticism of which I spoke earlier – the same can happen with non-religious organisations. Or, rather, individuals can be just as fanatical about their own interest as a religious person. Look at the extremists within the Animal Liberation movement.

        Having worked with youth organisations, I’ve seen the in-fighting that occurs over funding, whether government or from donations by passers-by on the street when fund-raising: that too can lead to inter-organisational animosity. A religion does away with that as everyone knows they’re working together for the common good.

        I don’t think that opposing “religion” because “it’s religion” or for the sake of it is a good enough reason for doing so.

        By all means oppose aspects of it which are bad: the Church’s handling of paedophilia within its ranks and those who’ve committed abuse, etc.

        In other words, turn “‘bad’ religion(s) into ‘good’ religions”.

        Kindest regards,

        James

        • Sajanas
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          1. I think you over estimate both how much effort religions devote to charity, and how broadly they are involved. Its hard to get exact data, but most religion are giving nowhere near the 90% of funds directed to charity that you get in the Red Cross. A recent article done by a Pro-secular organization found the Mormons gave about 1% per year to charity, and a large Methodist organization did the best, and it only got up to 23%.

          And on a more practical, local churches only have so many people doing stuff…. while over the whole of religion you can do a lot of things, I think individual churches really don’t do as much as you’d think. My own former church participated in maybe a half dozen different programs, and not a lot of people participated in any of them at any given time. And some of it is directed to the church’s own membership (visiting people in the hospital and other forms of help). So, sure you have a variety of service options in a church, but they’re not all directed at the community at large, evenly participated in by the membership, or particularly well funded with money and time. And anyways, like I said before, people don’t choose their religion because of their church’s service records.

          2. I certainly agree that non-religious organizations can get pretty fanatical and crazy. The difference is that when convincing other people of their ideas, they still have to result to reasoned discourse, where as a religious organization can make major policy shifts on the basis of revelation or interpretation. And if you think people don’t fight within religions, you’ve never been to a church budget meeting. I’ve seen plenty of arguing over which program should get funding within my old church, and I was only an adult member for 2 or 3 years. And then you get even more when you deal with the wider ranging interfaith missions, where people have to work together while quietly sniping at each others stupid denomination when they’re at their own churches. And you also see churches working together really well to oppose gay marriage, for instance, such as when the LDS church told its members that they had to oppose gay marriage as a matter of their faith and sent people to their members homes to fundraise. You have to remember, people aren’t just going to church because its a fun community, they are going because they think its what it takes to get to heaven. The ability to manipulate people is very, very high with that kind of authority.

          Anyways, I hope this isn’t too long for JAC… sorry if its tl/dr.

          • Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

            Greetings,

            Sajanas, I agree that there are pros and cons to these issues.

            I think, when one gets right down to it, the real problem is human nature – you’ll get much the same problems whether people are in a religious or a non-religious organisation.

            Which is why I disagree with opposing religions on principle.

            I’d rather oppose the “bad” aspects and promote the “good” aspects: to ameliorate religions rather than simply get rid of them.

            In this I agree with the late Christopher Hitchens.

            Kindest regards,

            James

            • truthspeaker
              Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

              Are you familiar with the expression “polishing a turd”?

              The bad aspects of religion flow from the dishonesty that is at the core of religion. If you get rid of the rotten core, what you have left isn’t religion anymore.

    • Tulse
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      “Santa Claus, as part of human cultures, performs a useful social function in bringing people together who would otherwise be divided by ethnicity, etc.

      Equally, Santa can inspire individuals to be better.

      The book, “How St. Nicholas Changes Your Brain”, explores how believing in Jolly Old Saint Nick has positive effects through physiological changes to the brain.”

      • Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        Greetings,

        You’re agreeing with me, in that the book shows that believing in *something positive* (a compassionate God) can make you a better person; whilst believing in *something negative* (a hell fire and brimstone God) makes you unhealthy.

        Kindest regards,

        James

        • Tulse
          Posted August 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

          And you’re agreeing with me that such beliefs are simply useful lies.

          • Posted August 19, 2012 at 3:53 am | Permalink

            Greetings,

            It depends on whether one is consciously meditating on a positive ideal or not.

            Generally, theists believe that God/Allah/etc is real – in other words, theirs is unconscious.

            Someone who uses an ideal as a consciously chosen image or paragon to guide their actions is using the “lie” in a positive way.

            Kindest regards,

            James

            • Tulse
              Posted August 19, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

              But you do agree that, since gods, demons, sprites, ifrits, pixies, etc. don’t actually exist, believers in such things are believing lies, whether they are conscious of that fact or not, right?

              • Posted August 19, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

                Greetings,

                I wouldn’t apply the word “lie” to, say, a sprinter before a race who visualises himself running the race.

                Nor would I apply it to someone who meditates on a ideal of themselves, to become a better person or even to someone who consciously meditates on the Buddha or Jesus, etc, for the same reason.

                They know that the image they’re using is their own conscious creation.

                I’d only apply it to a believer who doesn’t realise that Buddha/Jesus/etc is not a real person/being yet prays to them as if they were.

                Do you understand the distinction I’m making?

                Kindest regards,

                Jameas

              • Tulse
                Posted August 19, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

                I do indeed understand the distinction you’re making, but you don’t seem to understand that I’m saying it’s irrelevant. Believing things that are false is almost always a bad thing overall, regardless of whether the believer recognizes it.

    • CJ
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Dragon Glas said….”Part of the problem is that the New Atheists – like Dawkins, Harris, and the late Hitchens – conflate (the dangers of) fanaticism with religion and/or faith.”

      If, by faith you make truth claims about the world without sufficient evidence and especially when those claims are demonstrably false; then you are NOT a religious moderate. The problem is, that you accomodate to fundamentalism by showing that you also have beliefs that are not based on evidence.

      As Dawkins has said:

      “How can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn’t have any demonstrable standard to pervert?”

      • Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        Greetings,

        It’s a given that “faith” simply means “belief in something good” (God, for example).

        A “corruption of faith” is taken to mean doing evil in the name of God or whatever ideal in which you believe.

        Religions tend to make “truth claims” – like the Credo for Catholics – which may often be false but may not be verifiably so: life-after-death or the existence or not of a creator.

        And we come back to the same thing: it’s individuals who are fanatics – not religions.

        What are taken to be “fanatical sects” or cults involve a generally sociopathic leader or someone with mental health issues, who has extreme control over his/her followers – like Jim Jones, etc.

        Major religions – “faiths” – don’t tend to be like that, although individuals can become fanatical and act upon that misguided belief.

        Kindest regards,

        James

        • truthspeaker
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          History says otherwise.

        • CJ
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          Does anyone else here recognize Dragon Glas’ definition of Faith?

          • Posted August 16, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

            Greetings,

            CJ, as a former Roman Catholic, I would *never* associate “faith” with anything other than “belief (*in a good God*) without evidence”.

            Most atheists seem to take it to simply mean “belief without evidence” – this is not the case.

            No Catholic would think of faith as “belief (in a Evil Being) without evidence”!

            That is why Dawkins’ comment shows how little he understands about this and why his book, “The God Delusion”, missed the point on so many occasions.

            Kindest regards,

            James

          • Marta
            Posted August 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, that stopped me, too.

            It’s a given that “faith” simply means “belief in something good” (God, for example).

            As far as I know, “faith” is belief without evidence. “Something good” is not given.

            • Posted August 18, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

              Greetings,

              “Faith” is always used by theists in reference to a “good God” – not in any other context, which is something that atheists don’t seem to realise.

              Kindest regards,

              James

              • Tulse
                Posted August 18, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                So no theists believe in Satan, or demons, or evil spirits, or…?

              • Notagod
                Posted August 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

                Priests have faith that their “good doG” won’t convict them of child molestation. Why? Because the christian holey book told them so. They have prior proof from the way Poopy has resigned other molesting Priests to greener pastures with a new flock of child sheep.

                Not so kind regards,

                Notagod

        • Gary W
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

          Dragan Glas,

          It’s a given that “faith” simply means “belief in something good” (God, for example). A “corruption of faith” is taken to mean doing evil in the name of God or whatever ideal in which you believe.

          Since people obviously disagree about what’s good and evil, that’s a useless definition. If someone believes in something that they consider good but someone else considers evil, is their belief “faith” or “corruption of faith?”

    • Sastra
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Dragan Glas #17 wrote:

      Part of the problem is that the New Atheists – like Dawkins, Harris, and the late Hitchens – conflate (the dangers of) fanaticism with religion and/or faith. In attacking the latter two, they’re not appreciating that they’re doing much the equivalent of conflating pseudo-science with science, and attacking the latter.

      I disagree with your analogy. I think a better one would have Dawkins et al. attacking pseudoscience regardless of the “benefits” some people derive from it. Atran et al. are doing much the equivalent of trying to draw lines on who gets to do pseudoscience, how they get to do it, and under what circumstances they can do it — while holding themselves to higher standards.

      The ultimate problem isn’t fanaticism: it’s the encouraged use of a method which cannot distinguish fanaticism from deep piety and strong commitment.

      • Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        Greetings,

        I’d disagree with your counter-analogy, Sastra, although I understand what you’re saying.

        Perhaps if I’d said what if Science were judge on the basis of those individuals who fake their data/research? Or on those who misuse Science – like the Nazis experiments on Jewish children to see how many times the child’s leg could be broken before the body gave up healing itself?

        A veritable “corruption of Science” and its ideals, not to mention medical science – much like the “corruption of faith”, which I mentioned.

        Would this be a reason for opposing – or getting rid of – Science, per se?

        There will always be those who will go to extremes – the financial sector has had its own fair share of it, what with “rogue traders”, etc.

        Kindest regards,

        James

        • truthspeaker
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          There are two major difference

          1 Those people were condemned by other scientists. This is certainly not the case with religion!

          2. Their conclusions didn’t follow from the scientific evidence, and other scientists could use the methods of science to demonstrate that. With religion you can’t do this, because empirical analysis of religious claims is actively discouraged.

          • Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

            Greetings,

            1. “This is certainly not the case with religion!”

            I’m not certain to what this refers, truthspeaker…

            Religions generally condemn those members who act against the ideals of their faith. And you can be certain that one religion condemns another!

            2. “With religion you can’t do this, because empirical analysis of religious claims is actively discouraged.”

            Theologians and philosophers tend to deal with the claims of religions – granted, they may not be able to use “empirical analysis” to verify claims.

            Most religions are tolerant of dissenting voices within their ranks – I grant you, though, that there are those which are not.

            Kindest regards,

            James

            • truthspeaker
              Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              1. “Religions generally condemn those members who act against the ideals of their faith”

              I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve seen that happen.

              2. “Theologians and philosophers tend to deal with the claims of religions – granted, they may not be able to use “empirical analysis” to verify claims.”

              Right. They just make stuff up, and have no way of determining what’s true and what isn’t.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Religion, as part of human cultures, performs a useful social function in bringing people together who would otherwise be divided by ethnicity, etc.
      .
      I don’t follow this. Religion creates a new identity, and in doing so brings people together and tears people apart. The examples of religion doing the opposite of bringing people together are documented in the front pages of newspapers: Muslims vs. Christians in Africa, Jews vs. Muslims in the Middle East, Shia vs. Sunni in many Islamic countries. I do not see how it is better when an enemy kills you and your family because of a religious difference rather than an ethnic difference.

      • Sastra
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

        “Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” – Jon Stewart

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      “Religion, as part of human cultures, performs a useful social function in bringing people together who would otherwise be divided by ethnicity, etc.

      Equally, personal faith can inspire individuals to be better”

      Even if true – and I’d like to see evidence for both those assertions – religion would still be factually false.

      • raven
        Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        “Religion, as part of human cultures, performs a useful social function in bringing people together who would otherwise be divided by ethnicity, etc.

        Actually it is the opposite.

        Religion tears apart families, friends, and societies every day. It’s just tribalism and tribal markers. A few examples:

        1. Northern Ireland, Catholics versus Protestants.

        2. Iraq. Shiites versus Sunnis

        3. India and Pakistan, Hindus versus Moslems.

        4. In the USA, it tears families apart all the time, most of us have seen it, at the least. When you leave a cult like the Mormons, JW’s, or Amish, you usually leave all your friends and family behind.

        5. USA. Fundie xians versus Normal People. We all know the rules. The Catholics hate the Protestants and vice versa. The fundies hate everyone and everyone hates them back. A lot of people hate Jews, Moslems, and atheists.

        6. USA. The Southern Baptists were created to support slavery. They opposed integration.

        Hitchens: Religion poisons everything.

        • Posted August 16, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

          Greetings,

          Raven, your listing of Northern Ireland in the list of conflicts, which you appear to attribute solely to “religion”, indicates a misunderstanding:

          Religion is *not* the sole reason for “The Troubles” – it’s cultural (politics/nationality, social, economic AND religion).

          Kindest regards,

          James

          • Posted August 16, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

            Greetings,

            And despite Hitchens’ book, he didn’t want to do away with religion.

            Why not?

            Because he believed it provided a useful need in society.

            Kindest regards,

            James

            • Tim
              Posted August 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

              Sure he wanted to do away with religion – that was the purpose of his attacking religion. He didn’t want is to do away with religion by coercion; his intent was to do away with religion by persuasion.

            • raven
              Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

              And despite Hitchens’ book, he didn’t want to do away with religion.

              Why not?

              Because he believed it provided a useful need in society.

              You didn’t read the same Hitchen’s that I did.

              He said nothing of the sort.

              Does the good that religion do, outweigh the bad? Hundreds of millions of dead bodies say no.

              The most peaceful and prosperous societies on earth are the least religious, Japan, most of Western Europe, NZ, Australia. The most religious, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the American south are hells on earth.

              It’s not only that we would be better off without religion, for millions it is a matter of survival.

              • Posted August 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

                Greetings,

                In his book (2006) and his debates, he certainly came across as wanting to do away with religion.

                However, in discussion with Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, it’s clear he had a different agenda.

                See the famous “The Four Horsemen” (2009) video – particularly the second part, from about 9-10 minutes in and up to 18 minutes.

                And enjoy Dawkins’ confusion…!

                Kindest regards,

                James

    • Caroline52
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      I read Atran’s book In God’s We Trust in the early 2000s when it came out, a few months after Pascal Boyer’s far superior book on the same topic, Religion Explained, came out. Having just read Boyer,I thought Atran’s book was muddled and atrociously written. I learned nothing from it that I hadn’t learned from Boyer. In addition, while I wasn’t sure what Atran’s agenda was (this was before I knew anything about any academic differences among him and others), his reasoning style was agenda driven, just like David Sloan Wilson’s is. Having an agenda is fine. Reasoning from that agenda is not. Some writers lack credibility because their internal logic is incoherent. Sloan Wilson’s reasoning tends to be along the lines of “I like what it would say about human nature if this is how it works, therefore this must be how it works.” Atran’s tends to be along the lines of, “it’s more respectful of cultural diversity if this is how it works, therefore this must be how it works.”

      • Posted August 17, 2012 at 1:39 am | Permalink

        fair enough if you think IGWT was poorly written, but I have no particular interest in “cultural diversity” or “humanity” per se (other than as curious objects of study). one thing you will find in IGWT is a formal rendition of group selection as a notational variant of individual selection as well as a set of arguments against Sloan Wilson’s view of religion as an evolutionary adaptation

  18. andreschuiteman
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    It all comes down to belief in belief. Schopenhauer already criticised this attitude in his essay Über Religion [On religion].

    It is written in the form of a dialogue between a believer in belief, called Demopheles, and a skeptic, called Philalethes. This is the beginning:

    Demopheles. Between ourselves, my dear fellow, I don’t care about the way you sometimes have of exhibiting your talent for philosophy; you make religion a subject for sarcastic remarks, and even for open ridicule. Every one thinks his religion sacred, and therefore you ought to respect it.

    Philalethes. That doesn’t follow! I don’t see why, because other people are simpletons, I should have any regard for a pack of lies. I respect truth everywhere, and so I can’t respect what is opposed to it.

    The whole dialogue, in an English translation, can be read here.

    I think the following sums up the position of most ‘new’ atheists quite well (it’s Philalethes speaking):

    Religion may be an excellent means of training the perverse, obtuse and ill-disposed members of the biped race: in the eyes of the friend of truth every fraud, even though it be a pious one, is to be condemned. A system of deception, a pack of lies, would be a strange means of inculcating virtue. The flag to which I have taken the oath is truth; I shall remain faithful to it everywhere, and whether I succeed or not, I shall fight for light and truth!

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Bookmarked.

  19. CJ
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I’d imagine that books written by accomodationists would be hugely successful if they were able to clearly show the error of the so called New Atheists movement. I imagine i’ll be waiting for that book for a long time.

  20. MNb
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Once again I am not sure if I’m a New Atheist or not. I’m not soft on religion; it deserves almost all the criticism it gets. At the moment I can’t think of a counterexample; perhaps after three days thinking.
    But I don’t know if religion is a bad force on balance. I have met too many religious people who were inspired by their belief to dedicate themselves to a good cause – and that good cause included fellow-people of other denominations or atheistic ones.
    All in all I don’t think the question if religion is a positive force very interesting or important. It’s how people put their convictions in practice what counts for me.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      If religion is only a positive force when it inspires people to be humanists and a negative force when it doesn’t, then the fact that humanism is non-religious is rather significant.

      It’s like saying you don’t care if someone decides to hire people based on psychic readings of their ‘auras’ as long as it turns out that it makes no difference who gets hired or fired. Well, sure, technically. But that’s a pretty risky thing to support.

      • MNb
        Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:52 am | Permalink

        Indeed I wouldn’t care in that meaning of the word, but it wouldn’t stop me from criticizing the aura thing either.

    • Jamie
      Posted August 18, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      “I have met too many religious people who were inspired by their belief to dedicate themselves to a good cause – and that good cause included fellow-people of other denominations or atheistic ones.”

      You have to consider your premises. If you think that people are “blank slates” it is reasonable to infer that religion causes good behavior. But it is equally possible that those people you reference would be good, and find inspiration, in any possible world. In which case, religion doesn’t cause their good behavior at all, it merely provides them a socially acceptable way to rationalize it in this particular world.

  21. MNb
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    It’s not true that Western Europe is largely atheist. In The Netherlands, one of the most secularized countries in the world, only 14% calls itself atheist; another 26% says to be agnost. Yes baby, the believers still have the majority.
    What’s more, in the States the separation of religion and state is carried through more strictly and consequently than in my home country. Our Head of State is member of the Dutch Reformed Church (mandatory). Our government sponsors Special (religious) Education. No Jessica Ahlquist winning legal procedures for us.
    Don’t draw your conclusions too hastily.

  22. DV
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    No need to attribute some box office envy. It is possible Atran and Wilson do really think religion in non-extreme form is good for the masses. They don’t of course think they themselves need the delusion, but the poor suffering masses, they must have their opium.

    • CJ
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      It’s short sighted and depraved thinking. I sometimes wonder if accomodationists like Atran and Wilson try to placate the religious because in their own minds they think their Atheism is a bleak and hopeless view of the world, and that they wish a sky daddy could give them meaning and purpose as opposed to creating their own. Wouldn’t it all be great if we didn’t have to live in reality and have to contemplate the long term consequences of our actions. It’s time for a moral checkup.

  23. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I can’t help but feel that the ‘evolution of religion’ is a misnomer. You wouldn’t expect the ‘evolution of Morris Dancing’ to be the direct result of genetics would you? Why should religion be privileged?

    The ‘evolution of cognitive traits and how they underpin folkways’ perhaps.

  24. dunstar
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    It may be that atheists like Atran and Wilson have a condescending view of the religious believers. So they see believers as not being able to handle in an adult manner a real unfiltered challenge to their core superstitious beliefs. So they essentially treat believers with kid gloves.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      True. Or, alternatively, they could have a condescending view of religion, seeing it as a set of psychological and aesthetic props for what really counts.

      Probably a bit of both.

    • Marta
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Right. But part of their argument is that everyone else should treat believers with kid gloves, too. Isn’t this their major beef with “New” atheists?

  25. Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    A little (if ever) discussed aspect of why academics (and some others)promote the benefits of religion is the aesthetic angle: they love the musical, visual, and ritualistic parts of religious services but pay little if any attention to religious belief or doctrine. Eg.: I have a friend who is a fanatic about choral music, and most of the most outstanding choral music she loves to sing is religious (Messiah, Bach chorales, etc.). So she sits in the church choir during Sunday services and sneakily reads books such as those by Bart Erhman instead of listening tothe sermon! And would not dare to voice religious doubts because then she couldn’t sing in the choir.

    • Sajanas
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      I know an atheist who none the less sings in a church choir because she loves the music. However, I love the Iliad and the Odyssey, but I don’t feel like I have to defend the beliefs of the ancient Greeks for criticism to enjoy them.

      And I’d also say that the best days of religious music and art are largely past, and that the predominance of religion in Renaissance and later art is as much a reflection of the power and wealth of the church as a patron and censor as it was to the necessity of religion as an inspiration.

    • MNb
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:46 am | Permalink

      There are several classical composers who wrote religious music, but didn’t practice religion in daily life at all. Tchaikovsky is one of them.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      Imagine the artistic expression that would have come from a population with a natural view of the world. What have we missed?

  26. Ken Pidcock
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Atran and the Wilsons vs. the rest of us: the Chronicle writes on the “religion wars”

    And the Wilsons? Is it fair to drag E.O. into the thesis? I don’t know that he’s ever spoken to supposed benefits of religion. Just because he looks and sounds like an old Baptist minister…

  27. winstanley
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    to dissect (i.e understand) religion you have to kill it first

  28. Mary - Canada
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    THIS JUST IN! – Money talks and has social and political power. There’s a lot at stake for those who have invested in the ‘religious stock market’- wealth, prestige, and power. If they can convince the masses that religion is good for them irrespective of whether or not god exists, then they’ll be able to secure future monetary gains.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Cynical, pessimistic, and correct. I like it.

  29. Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Accommodationists and religious believers are both threatened by gnu atheists–that’s their bond. Instead of admitting that, the former insist we are just blind to the knowledge/understanding/tolerance they keep so well and would show us how to do if we would only accept their graciousness, and the latter just want us to know god for our own good.

    However, it is not good will, but fear. Things are changing very fast in general and they know it. Their old ways upon which they relied to calm the waters are not working any more; their roles are no longer needed. They are the frustrated ones because both groups have so much to lose–emotional/time/financial/identity investments. It is fear underneath their smugness, irritation, and envy.

    To the best of my knowledge and memory there is one study that pointed out that religious beliefs are correlated with well being, but that level was actually not the highest level and other secular views also were correlated. However, the highest level of well being was not correlated with religion but with completely secular activities/perspectives. I am sorry that I just don’t have the motivation(super hot and my net connection is v slow) right now to dig up links.

  30. Barry Pearson
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    If religion gradually disappeared, do we think that all the people who are currently doing good in the name of religion would stop doing good?

    No: religion is their current outlet for doing good, but they would find another, perhaps with lots of help. The total amount of good in the world would probably be about the same. But the total amount of bad in the world would be less.

  31. truthspeaker
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    What galls me about all this is that people like Wilson and Atran are admitted atheists, yet they constantly emphasize the benefits of faith. Presumably they have good reasons for not accepting God, yet they think that the belief is useful for society.

    Wilson and Atran don’t need the benefits of belief in gods because they’re enlightened, educated, and intelligent. But think of the little people, the simple folk who are too dim to understand reality. They need faith to make their lives better.

    If that sounds horribly classist and condescending, that’s because it is.

    • Tim
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      I’m inclined to believe you’re right about Wilson and Altran being condescending and elitist. I’ve not read their “work” so I have to admit two other related possibilities:

      (1) They think that the unwashed need religion to do good because, on balance, it is what their data is telling them and, at least for the data they examine, they’re right.

      or

      (2) They just think their data is telling them that, but their elitist attitude, consciously or unconciously, leads to to interpret their data that way. Concurrently, they may overlook or minimize the damage religion does or overlook alternative possible origins of religious people’s positive motivations.

  32. David Leech
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    The origins of religion has already been answered.:-)

    • KP
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Like.

  33. Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    With all this talk about what religion is and isn’t responsible for, have we even bothered to define it?

    I read a lot of atheist blogs, and I am aware of only one blogger (Eric MacDonald) who has made explicit the definition of religion that he uses (and still, it seems to me that he doesn’t always stick to it.) There may be other bloggers who have done the same, but I think it’s safe to say the number is very small. As a result, when I read atheist blogs that blame religion for X, I literally don’t know what they’re saying is to blame for X. You can break “religion” down into many things, such as “adherence to dogma,” or “suppression of doubt,” or “encouraging belief without evidence,” or “performance of rituals” – some of these things are causative factors of the kinds of religious ills that atheists write about, others aren’t. Why don’t more people break “religion” down into its components?

    Take PZ’s claim that religion encourages misogyny, for example. What would falsify that statement? I would think that the existence of believers who are nonetheless progressive and feminist would falsify it. If you say that A causes B, but not all the time, then it’s clearly not A that causes B. So then PZ might modify his statement to say “A tends to cause B.” Ok, great. Why does it happen sometimes, but not other times? How does A cause B? When it comes to misogyny and religion, it probably isn’t the belief in god, or the practicing of rituals, that are to blame. It’s probably the adherence to dogma and suppression of rational thought that are to blame (just to give some likely examples). These are scientific questions to ask, and I agree with the “anti-new atheists” when they say that atheists aren’t always scientific. If you don’t want to break religion down into its atomic parts and understand cause and effect on a more meticulous level, you aren’t being scientific. I understand that atheist bloggers are primarily interested in fighting a battle against religion, not with studying it. But I see no reason to discourage understanding by avoiding defining one’s terms, and by grouping a number of different things under one word, “religion.”

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Belief in the supernatural.

      • Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        That’s fine, if that’s the definition you want to use. But because it’s so broad and so unrelated to the social ills that atheists write about, you will definitely have to be more specific if you want to write intelligently about cause and effect. “Belief in the supernatural causes misogyny”? This isn’t true; it’s falsified by every feminist out there who is also a believer. Or take a boy growing up today in the incredibly misogynist Taliban. Do you think it’s the belief in God that’s going to make him a misogynist? Or is it being surrounded by role models who teach you to hate women?

        I’m happy that you’ve defined your terms, but we still need to be more specific when we talk about what causes what. To re-phrase Christopher Hitchens’ line which Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald so frequently echo, “belief in the supernatural doesn’t actually poison everything.”

        • truthspeaker
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          “But because it’s so broad and so unrelated to the social ills that atheists write about”

          It’s directly related to them.

          Misogyny would exist without religion. But all the world’s major religions preach it, and because they claim to be preaching the will of god, it has more impact.

          • Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

            What if I believe in a god who made women superior to men? In that case, belief in the supernatural has nothing to do with misogyny.

            Misogyny would exist without religion. But all the world’s major religions preach it, and because they claim to be preaching the will of god, it has more impact.

            This I like. This statement already acknowledges more complexity than “Religion causes misogyny.” You’re saying that humans have misogynistic tendencies, and that they teach their misogynistic beliefs to others, and that people tend to believe “the will of god” more than other humans. This is a tremendous improvement. It acknowledges that religious people who attempt to think for themselves will be less prone to accepting dogma. It acknowledges that religious people who are wary of what humans say about god will be less likely to accept others’ misogynistic beliefs. The original statement, “religion causes misogyny,” doesn’t acknowledge any of these things.

            • MNb
              Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:40 am | Permalink

              “What if I believe in a god who made women superior to men?”
              If such a religion existed – or rather, if such religions would exist in significant numbers PZ’s statement would be falsified. In fact I would think it falsified if only 50% of the religions would not grant men privileges above women.
              Now how many religions do you know that stipulate a god who made women superior to men? Or gave them equal rights?
              Exactly.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          Not to mention that belief in the supernatural is a social ill in and of itself.

        • raven
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          “Belief in the supernatural causes misogyny”? This isn’t true; it’s falsified by every feminist out there who is also a believer.

          Most forms of xianity are highly misogynistic. That is just a fact.

          The xian’s magic book, the bible, is full of misogyny from the beginning, where the first woman eats an apple to the end. That is another fact. One of their many rules is that nonvirgin brides should be stoned to death and victims should marry their rapists. Men of course, can have as many wives and sex slaves as they can round up.

          There are religions that aren’t misogynistic, but they are very tiny and have no influence to speak of.

          • MNb
            Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:42 am | Permalink

            Can you name them? I have been thinking of one, but failed.

            • MNb
              Posted August 17, 2012 at 2:43 am | Permalink

              I have tried to think of one, but failes. S**t.

        • Posted August 17, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

          “Belief in the supernatural causes misogyny”? This isn’t true; it’s falsified by every feminist out there who is also a believer.
          No , its only falsified is if the claim is supernatural belief always causes misogyny.

          • Posted August 18, 2012 at 12:09 am | Permalink

            Right, and if getting an abortion caused one woman to become depressed, then it’s true to say “abortions cause depression.”

            • Notagod
              Posted August 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

              Clever! Reducing the demonstrable case of most to a claim of singularity. I’ll bet you and I aren’t the only ones that can see what you did there.

              I agree with you on one point though, that religion is too nebulous a term to apply general statements against. Christianity is a much more definitive demon. I usually use the term christianity in place of religion because it generally contains all the bad bits of any religion while generally lacking any possibly redeeming qualities. Specifying christianity also lets the typical christian understand that they would be included in the term, religion, since christians aren’t generally the brightest balls of moss on the watery rock.

  34. jay
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    There is some research that supports the concept of religion and ritual as an ‘ingroup outgroup’ separator,a kind of cultural brand that we wear. The more irrational the process, the better its power of weeding out interlopers. Is their reaction to atheists who apparently declare themselves outsiders that surprising? We are dealing with some old and irrational,but instinctive behavior.

  35. bear
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    “See also a study that found that religious people were, in some instances, more likely to treat strangers fairly. Or the multiple studies suggesting that people who were prompted to think about an all-seeing supernatural agent were less likely to cheat. Or the study of 300 young adults in Belgium that found that those who were religious were considered more empathetic by their friends.”

    My first thought when I read this was that perhaps these people are acting more fairly, less likely to cheat and more epmpathetic towards their friends because they are afraid they mightn’t end up in heaven, and instead end up in a very special place for bad people?

    Am I the only one to think this? I haven’t read all the comments and perhaps this has already been mentioned.

    I apologize for any grammatical errors, in my defence, I am not a native speaker.

  36. raven
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Cthulhu, how stupid. A bunch of lies strung together.

    1.

    People like Scott Atran and David Sloan Wilson see New Atheists as misguided in their vicious and mindless attacks on faith.

    The attacks are anything but mindless. This is just a lie. As to vicious, that is an opinion, not a fact.

    2.

    The article notes the profound lack of interest that New Atheists have in the origins and spread of religion.

    We know where religions come from. Just look at Smith, Moon, or Hubbard. People just make them up.

    As to how they spread, we would all like to know this. A partial answer is known. Militant religions like xianity and Islam spread by conquest and violence. It’s known that a sword at the throat is highly convincing.

    • Tim
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Just look at Smith, Moon, or Hubbard. People just make them up.

      This is good, and worth fleshing out. We have these three examples – all modern, all very well documented, and the historical record demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that all three were, just made up. The cults of Moon and Smith have bought themselves enough “respectability” (and are offshoots of the dominant Christianity) that they seem likely to persist indefinitely. (Scientology? I’m not so sure.) Moonies and Mormons provide another mechanism spreading: money and coercion (not rising to the level of mass violence).

      Do the virtues of religion discussed by Altran and Wilson apply to Mormons? Moonies? If so, at what stage of a religion’s development does it acquire the positive traits that accomodationists ascribe to it?

  37. KP
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    “Why does skewering God make for good box office in America, while supporting God does not?”

    Don’t forget about how well Mel Gibson’s tripe “The Passion of The Christ” did at the box office.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      So flogging God is also good box office.

  38. asyouwere
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    A well-researched book I found enlightening:

    The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

    by Jesse Bering

  39. Rick Hawkins
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    “What galls me about all this is that people like Wilson and Atran are admitted atheists, yet they constantly emphasize the benefits of faith. Presumably they have good reasons for not accepting God, yet they think that the belief is useful for society.”
    This is one of the disconnected arguments that drive me crazy too. People like this seem to be saying “We smart people know there’s no god but it’s better for the uneducated masses to believe in heaven and hell otherwise it’ll be open slather and they’ll all run riot”.

  40. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 16, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like problem with New Atheism is that it is too successful for Templeton et al.

    As for science of religion, Rees at epiphenom is a reliable source. He analyzes most of what comes around in short and penetrating analysis, and he has tackled the charity papers many times.

    The gist of it is that a) atheists are as generous when you look at the statistics of actual outcome of interactions in society, b) it is the religious environment, not inherent generosity, that drives the responce, and c) the same cues promotes punishing behavior.

    Following the first link through to his article in Free Inquiry, Rees says:

    “When assessed in objective, unprompted conditions, the religious are consistently found to be no more generous, kind, or caring than the nonreligious.”

    “Both religious and nonreligious bid exactly the same—except on Sunday, when the bids from the religious went up while those from the nonreligious went down! A bizarre result but one that provides a vital clue to understanding why charitable giving—but not working with the poor or giving blood—seems to be particularly favored by the religious. Demands for charitable donations are a regular feature of church attendance, and it may be that the church environment, rather than any inherent generosity, drives the response to such appeals.”

    ” For the religious, this is not so important. For them, the utility of charitable giving is increased because they believe that they will be rewarded (either now or in the hereafter) by their god. For atheists, however, the free-rider effect dramatically changes the optimal balance between charity and state-mediated support for the poor.

    There’s good evidence that this is the case. Chen found that support for welfare was inversely related to religious “in-group” giving. On an international scale, welfare programs are strongest in nations where atheists are more common.”

    And from the 2nd link:

    “Overall there was no effect of the primes on the amount of punishment handed out. The religious were no more likely to punish than were the non-religious, and religious primes had no effect on either the religious or the non-religious.

    However, religious primes did affect one group. Those people who had donated to a religious organization in the past year were significantly more likely to punish after they were exposed to religious primes.

    That’s an interesting result, because previous studies had found that religious primes affect everyone (religious and non-religious) and previous researchers have suggested that religious primes work by making people feel that they are being watched by a supernatural observer (and so they behave better).

    What McKay thinks, however, is that these primes are activating the social conditioning among the ‘engaged’ religious. When people attend religious services, ideals of costly punishment (i.e. sacrifice for the good of the group) are drilled into them. The religious primes in this study activated that social conditioning, resulting in heavier levels of punishment.”

    “The problem is with the assumption that costly punishment is a good thing (for the group, if not the individual). Recent research suggests that isn’t actually true. It seems that costly punishment is actually a bad strategy for individuals, and also a bad strategy for the group as a whole (the best strategy for all concerned is actually to turn the other cheek).

    From this perspective, costly punishment doesn’t promote co-operation (since it sets up cycles of retaliation). What it does, however, is allow hierarchies and dominance to be established.

    So that’s the theory. Is there any evidence that this is a problem in real life? Well possibly. You see, it turns out that anti-social punishment (i.e. retaliation against people who engage in ‘costly punishment’ of cheats) seems to be lowest in Westernised, secular cultures. Anti-social punishment is the evil twin of costly punishment, and is the reason costly punishment does not, in fact work too well.

    Could it be that religion reinforces a behaviour which actually lowers group fitness?”

  41. Posted August 17, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    As someone who studies and experiments on religion (among many other aspects of human belief and behavior), I have no particular interest in showing that religious beliefs are good or bad, only in using science to show what they are and what they do.

    As someone who is active in conflict reduction and peace negotiation, I I think that if religious beliefs lead to actions that are particularly stupid, brutal or cruel should be fought where and how it is best to do so (for exmple, it would be counerproductive to try to do so in a hostTe negotiation). To the extent religious beliefs might lead to things beneficial in the sense of helping to make life less stupid, cruel and beneficial they should not be fought.

    • Roo
      Posted August 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Ok, I’ll bite, although I feel a bit like the kid going on a snipe hunt. Are you REALLY Scott Atran, or is that a poster name? Well, either way, I suppose I can address this comment to whoever the above poster is.

      You say that religious beliefs that are not harmful and / or even helpful should not be fought. I certainly agreed with this at one point in my life, and I still say I don’t always like the tone that’s taken in criticizing religion (imagine harmlessly minding your own business writing your list to Santa Claus, and having to deal with angry criticisms of people with a harsh, vested interest in your belief in Santa that had nothing to do with them directly – I felt a bit like that when I first read some of the new atheists’ writing.) I also think it’s easy to criticize religion on paper but a different story when confronted with really kind, wonderful friends whose religion means a lot to them. That certainly diminishes the urge to burst their bubble, and to live and let live.

      I’ll also agree that there’s a time and a place to discuss religion, and that if attacking religious beliefs is a fast way to escalate conflict in a volatile situation – yeah, maybe that’s not the time or place. If careful research shows that the best way to deescalate a spiraling conflict is to table that conversation and make the other group feel as if they’re being heard and not simply attacked, then I see that. Hostage negotiators don’t typically use their phone call to explore the idea that, yes, maybe Carl Crazypants really WAS a mean kid and that’s why no one would eat lunch with him.

      That said, what if you mentally replace a belief in religion with a similar life-shaping belief about Santa Claus? Or fairies and elves? Or aliens who communicate through the weather? EVEN IF there was some evolutionary benefit to this, even if these beliefs did more good than harm on the whole, even if they made people very happy, my moral intuitions just lead me in a different direction here. I can’t in my heart say I’d think it was cool if we lived in a world where everyone in Sweden believed that the spirit of Elvis was leading them through the message left in his songs and structuring their lives around it. Again, that’s not a time to be nasty, but I think it’s a time to say “We need to talk.”

  42. Posted August 17, 2012 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    the garbled world is “hostage,” not “host”

  43. Kevin Anthoney
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    reading your horoscope may make you feel better (I’ve never read one that says, “You suck and are going to have a lousy day.”)

    I have, and it wasn’t even by Psychic Psmith. It went something like “You’re so gullible, you could easily be taken in by a cult leader or con artist. Call my Starline for more details.” Most honest horoscope ever!

    • Posted August 17, 2012 at 4:53 am | Permalink

      Reminds me of a classic horoscope in the Onion-esque satrical news site The Daily Mash which said, ‘That feeling you’ve had since childhood that you were destined for something special will be realised this week when you’re butchered by a notorious serial killer’.

  44. TJR
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    It’s been said before but IMHO it can’t be said often enough:

    All the bad things associated with religion – the dogma, the intolerance, the irrationality – are a *feature*, not a bug.

  45. MAUCH
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the motivations of the new atheists and their fan base could be better understood if we take a twist on a regular New Atheist vs. religion debate topic. Instead of debating on whether science and religion are compatable ask whether religion is beneficial to scientific knowlege. The best that the regions could do is to argue that religion is benign. Perhaps they are right though I doubt it. Perhaps an analogy could be used that religion is a benign tumor waiting at any moment to become malignant and kill its host.

  46. Posted August 17, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    My hunch is that the naturalistic fallacy lurks behind every corner in tis debate. The naturalistic fallacy is the confusion of “is” with “ought”, that is, finding that nature is so and so with claiming that it should be so and so.

    If, for example, some experiments find that a belief makes people more likely to donate or be charitable, that is a finding of what is. Nobody can conclude that people should therefore be religious. Or at least that is my understanding of how not to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

    So, does Wilson commit the fallacy, or do his critics only think he does? Or are “is” and “ought” so entwined in studying the evolution of religion, that the distinction cannot be neatly drawn?

    I don’t have the slightest clue.

  47. Posted August 17, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    First rule of religion: never question religion.

    Second rule: give $

    Third rule: tell all your friends

    Anything involving good/evil/morality is really quaternary and mostly beside the point. Any act can be forgiven if you repent, convert and contribute. Refusing to believe is the only unforgivable sin.

  48. Posted August 19, 2012 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Greetings,

    Tulse
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    So no theists believe in Satan, or demons, or evil spirits, or…?

    Faith and belief are not the same thing.

    One has “faith” in (commitment to) a good God – one “believes” in evil beings, ghosts, etc.

    Faith is “commitment” – not just “belief”.

    This is an all too common misconception.

    Priests have faith that their “good doG” won’t convict them of child molestation. Why? Because the christian holey book told them so. They have prior proof from the way Poopy has resigned other molesting Priests to greener pastures with a new flock of child sheep.

    Not so kind regards,

    Notagod

    No they don’t, Notagod – and, with all due respect, this is a poor response.

    The Chinese have a saying:

    “Good people are bad; bad people are good”.

    Or, as we’d put it:

    “Good people can do bad things; bad people can do good things”.

    In other words, people are people. They’re capable of good and bad.

    I’m not condoning what paedophiles do – regardless of whether they’re deliberately hiding behind positions of authority or not.

    To try and denigrate theists in this way is as inappropriate as denigrating atheists based on one or more examples of immorality.

    Kindest regards,

    James

    • CJ
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      The evidence suggests that the universe is neither good or bad, but indifferent. So
      even by your definition of faith, faith is grounded on a “belief (in something good) without evidence”.

      So my comment above:

      “If, by faith you make truth claims about the world without sufficient evidence and especially when those claims are demonstrably false; then you are NOT a religious moderate. The problem is, that you accommodate to fundamentalism by showing that you also have beliefs that are not based on evidence.”

      ….still stands. And your definition of faith is therefore irrelevant to the discussion.

    • Notagod
      Posted August 19, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      James,

      If the christians have faith that their doGs exist and aren’t impotent then my comment isn’t inappropriate nor wrong.

      Atheism isn’t a claim regarding the behavior or actions of atheists, atheism is a realization that gods don’t exist. However, from the observation of the writings and comments of atheists in general it appears that atheists are generally compassionate regarding other humans and other life as well, which is in contrast to a large portion of the christian population’s lust for blood and uncaring governmental policies.

      Christians do claim that their gods are watching and manipulating the events of the natural world. Christians claim that their priests are representatives, often with special non-human powers, of their gods. There is something very wrong with christian gods that select rapists to represent Them.

  49. Michael French
    Posted August 27, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post…but I am going to nitpick one thing….
    You said…” I, for one, feel that we’ll never understand how religion came about, whether it has a genetic basis, and so on, and such studies are largely exercises in wheel-spinning….I’d rather spend my time arguing against faith than understanding its origins.”
    Ok, but I think, a mistake. Add Robert N Bellah- Religion in Human Evolution- to your reading list.
    I haven’t finished it myself, but I think it is relevant. Understanding that even animals, and I don’t mean just the higher apes, have a sense of morality, fair play and use rituals… undoes a lot of arguments about where these things come from. The religious claim this is their territory, but they pre-date humanity let alone civilization.


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