UPDATE: Reader “GJG” notes that Grayling’s review is available for free here.
I’m not sure what has happened to primatologist Frans de Waal, a man whose work I’ve greatly admired, for he’s been on a bender against New Atheism, using all the familiar tropes about the movement being both militant and “religious” in nature. One would think that if he attacked one side of the faith-vs.-atheism debate, it would be religion, for, more than anyone else, de Waal has discerned and publicized the roots of human morality in our relatives—primate and otherwise. He has frequently argued that human morality did not come from God, but was largely a product of evolution.
But instead of criticizing religion, he’s taken to criticizing atheism. The first signs appeared in a 2010 piece in the New York Times (see my post here) in which he derided New Atheists for, among other things, their stridency. And then there was a note on his public Facebook page last May about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist:
The book is almost done! It is a reflection on religion and the origins of morality. It questions whether we get any closer to the truth by bashing religion, the way neo-atheists have been doing, even though I also believe that morality antedates modern religion.
That worried me, and, sure enough, the worries were valid. In that book, which has just appeared, de Waal devotes a substantial section to bashing “militant” atheists and sticking up for religion. That’s bizarre, for he’s an atheist himself, and his work has begun demolishing one of the last redoubts of religion: God-given morality. My theory for his behavior, which differs from Anthony Grayling’s (see below), is that de Waal, realizing that his conclusions aren’t congenial to the faithful, must take some swipes at atheists to maintain credibility with the public.
Read and weep: de Waal has just published an essay in Salon called “Militant atheism has become a religion” (subtitle: “Prominent non-believers have become as dogmatic as those they deride—and become rich on the lecture circuit”). It is in fact a straight excerpt from his new book. You really have to read the essay (and it’s longish) to see how far off the rails he’s gone, for it’s a disjointed ramble punctuated by gratuitous swipes at atheists and sporadic osculations of the rump of faith. A few quotes:
- “In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?”
de Waal also suffers from the misconception that most atheists are militant because they retain the zeal they once had when they were religious. Unfortunately, most of the militant atheists I know were not once zealous religionists. I certainly was not, and I don’t think any of the “Four Horsemen” were, either.
- “Possibly, the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces. . . I like this analysis better than the usual approach to secularization, which just counts how many people believe and how many don’t. It may one day help to test my thesis that activist atheism reflects trauma. The stricter one’s religious background, the greater the need to go against it and to replace old securities with new ones.”
He then uses Christopher Hitchens as an example of someone who “craved dogma, yet had trouble deciding on its contents,” arguing that Hitchens (who was never really religious) went from Trotskyism to Greek Orthodox faith, to “American neo-Conservatism”, and then to dogmatic atheism. de Waal recounts the atheism/religion debate at Puebla, Mexico, between Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris on one side, and Dinesh D’Souza and Rabbit Shmuley Boteach on the other. (I was at that meeting, but had to leave before the debate.) de Waal argues that such debates change nobody’s mind. He forgets that there are onlookers on YouTube and elsewhere, who do change their minds (or form a previously inchoate opinion) because of such debates. Just read Richard Dawkins’s “Converts’ Corner” to see the effect of strident atheism: hundreds have left their faith.
de Waal, once a Catholic, then spends some time defending that Church as a bulwark of science, and arguing, erroneously, that the Church preserved science during the Dark Ages. He gives the Catholic Church an undeserved pat on the back:
- “When it comes to evolution, too, there is a tendency to point at religion as a solid opponent while ignoring that the Roman Catholic Church never formally condemned Darwin’s theory or put his works on the Index (the list of forbidden books). The Vatican has endorsed evolution as a valid theory compatible with the Christian faith. Admittedly, its endorsement came a bit late, but it is good to realize that resistance to evolution is almost entirely restricted to evangelical Protestants in the American South and Midwest.”
This is wrong in several ways. First, as I noted in my Evolution paper in 2012, Catholics are by no means down with modern theories of evolution:
The Catholic Church, for example, accepts a form of theistic evolution, mostly natural but still guided by God when it comes to the evolution of humans and their supposed souls (John Paul II, 1996). Nevertheless, 27% of American Catholics think that modern species were created instantaneously by God and have remained unchanged ever since, while 8% do not know or refuse to answer (Masci 2009).
The Catholic Church claims that humans are unique in evolution because God inserted a soul at some point in the hominin lineage. Further, it is official Church dogma that Adam and Eve were real people. I don’t call that a “valid theory of evolution”.
And when it comes to Catholicism, de Waal forgets to mention Galileo and Bruno, who were threatened or killed for going against Scripture (I reject the common claim that the Galileo affair “had nothing to do with religious dogma”).
It’s also specious to claim that resistance to evolution “is almost entirely restricted to evangelical Protestants in the American South and Midwest.” That’s not true even for America, where resistance to evolution is geographically widespread. 40% of all Americans are young-earth creationists, and only 12% believe in naturalistic as opposed to theistic evolution. Resistance to evolution is common in other countries as well, and is virtually universal in Islamic countries of the Middle East.
Well, I won’t go on, except to reproduce this very bizarre quote from de Waal’s piece:
- “Given this intertwinement [a supposed history of mutual respect between science and faith], most historians stress dialogue or even integration between science and religion. Neo-atheists keep pitting the two against each other, however. Their audiences pee in their pants with delight when the flat-earth canard gets trotted out.
Pee in our pants with delight?
To be sure, de Waal does offer some criticisms of religion, but repeatedly equates extreme religiosity with extreme atheism, considering the latter to be religious in both nature and fervor. The whole piece is very, very odd—and disappointing. I would have hoped for better from this man. Well, his invective will surely sit well with many readers, and one is tempted to level the same criticism at him that he does against the New Atheists, whom he accuses of using stridency to gain wealth on the lecture circuit.
Fortunately, we have Anthony Grayling to defend New Atheism here. He’s just published a review of de Waal’s book in Prospect Magazine, and in his piece, called “Apes and atheism” (sadly, behind a paywall), pretty much dismantles de Waal’s contentions about atheism. I’ll offer just a few whiffs of Grayling’s pungent prose.
The book is, however, an oddity. Besides the stated aim it is a mixture of memoir, repetition of de Waal’s now familiar views, and hostile discussion of the ‘new atheist’ movement. The result is a somewhat unfocussed ramble one of whose main points for de Waal, apart from rehearsing the already-won ‘apes R us’ argument, appears to be to distance himself from the ‘new atheist’ attack on religion.
The Salon excerpt certainly is unfocussed and rambling; have a look.
Why, [de Waal] asks, are the ‘new atheists’ evangelical about their cause? ‘Why would atheists turn messianic?’ He cannot see why Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett and others attack religion and believers, and why correlatively they robustly and even aggressively argue the case for atheism. He can see why the advocates of religions do it; the more believers, he says, the more money they get. (Here, as a sympathizer, he should perhaps recognize that some religionists sincerely believe they have the Truth that will save us, and might be trying to be helpful; not all of them want money, though doubtless the ranting preachers of the Nigerian megachurches do.)
Well: here is the answer to de Waal’s question. Some atheists are evangelical because religious claims about the universe are false, because children are brain-washed into the ancient superstitions of their parents and communities, because many religious organisations and movements have been and continue to be anti-science, anti-gays, and anti-women, because even if people are no longer burned at the stake they are still stoned to death for adultery, murdered for being ‘witches’ or abortion doctors, blown up in large numbers for being Shias instead of Sunnis…one could go on at considerable length about the divisions, conflicts, falsehoods, coercions, disruptions, miseries and harm done by religion, though the list should be familiar; except, evidently, to de Waal.
He might respond with the usual points: on one side the charity, art and solace inspired by religion, and on the other side Hitler and Stalin as examples of the crimes of atheism. And the usual replies have wearily to be given: non-believers also engage in charity and make great art, and their love and care for others provides solace too; and the totalitarianisms are just alternatives of the great religions at their worst, possessing their own versions of the One Truth to which all must bow down – at risk of severe sanctions otherwise. (Hitler was not an atheist – Gott mit uns said the legend on Wehrmacht belt buckles – and Stalin was educated in a seminary, where evidently he picked up a few tricks.)
As for those benign Catholics, here’s Grayling’s answer:
[de Waal] tells us that the Roman Catholic Church never formally proscribed Darwin’s Origin of Species, as if this exculpated them from every other effort made to resist the march of science, as for example in burning Giordano Bruno at the stake and forcing Galileo to recant on pain of the same fate, both for accepting the Copernican geocentric view. De Waal says that religion’s opponents are wrong to say that if religion had its way, we would still believe that the earth is flat – his reason being that the ancient Greeks already knew that the earth is a sphere. What then does he make of the fact that in 1615 Cardinal Bellarmine warned a scientifically-minded monk against the Copernican view, on the grounds that Psalm 102 explicitly states that God has ‘fixed the foundations of the earth that it might never be moved’?
If de Waal thinks this is all ‘mere history’, let him look around at the creationists and Intelligent Design ‘theorists’ trying to subvert the teaching of biology in today’s schools, opposing stem cell research, preventing girls from going to school in some Muslim countries, persecuting homosexuals – and so on again through the familiar litany. And he still wonders why some atheists are evangelical?
Finally, we have Grayling’s scathing last paragraph:
The chimp and bonobo stories in de Waal’s writings are, as always, entertaining and charming. They make me think that if ideas about reincarnation are true, I suspect that quite a few people would not mind being reborn as bonobos. Their motive would be related to the perversions and limitations of human sexuality that has so successfully been achieved by the religions de Waal defends.
Grayling’s theory for de Waal’s anti-atheism differs from mine: he thinks that de Waal’s view that religion is benign comes from his Catholic upbringing, and from inculcation with “the psychological finesse” of Catholicism, which exercises a permanent hold over one’s mind. And there may be some truth in that: I’ve found that those “faitheists” who are most sympathetic to religion tend to be people who were once deeply religious, but haven’t yet shaken it all off. This contrast with de Waal’s theory that the most strident atheists were once the most religious people—a theory that, I think, is disproven by simply seeing which atheists are most vociferous.
At any rate, I’m disappointed by de Waal’s views (and note that I’ve read the excerpt, Grayling’s comment, and de Waal’s earlier statements, but not yet the whole book)—and in the same way I’m disappointed by E. O. Wilson’s latter-day incursion into group selection. Someone I have respected has gone off the intellectual rails. In Wilson’s case it’s about science; in de Waal’s it’s a gratuitous and misguided attack on atheism. And gratuitous it is: for what conceivable reason would de Waal, in a book on the evolutionary origins of morality (the books’s subtitle is In Search of Humanism Among the Primates), decide to mount an attack on New Atheism? He may have a score to settle, but he should have settled it elsewhere.
h/t: Emily, Barry