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.