I’ve about had it with the mushheaded osculation of faith by New Scientist (see some of my previous criticism here), and if I had a subscription, which I don’t, I’d cancel it this week. (I don’t think it’s a very good magazine anyway.)
For this week’s editorial, “Holy faith?”, Graham Lawton (no free link), executive editor of the magazine, takes up the argument that atheism is “just another religion.” And then Lawton, who says he’s an atheist, defends that claim!
You might remember Lawton as the author of the incredibly misguided article, “Darwin was wrong about the tree of life” (no free link”) in New Scientist‘s “Darwin Was Wrong” issue. My critique of Lawton’s sensationalist tripe was one of the first posts I put up on this website.
Here he’s far more wrong than he said Darwin was (all emphasis is by Lawton):
The “just another religion” claim seems to have arisen around a decade ago in response to the rise of New Atheism, a scientifically motivated critique of religion led by Richard Dawkins and underpinned by his 2006 book The God Delusion. Journalists writing about the movement took to using religious metaphors, calling it “the church of the non-believers” and a “crusade against god”. Religious scholars joined the fray to defend their beliefs. Even some scientists took up the cause. In 2007, evolutionary biologist (and atheist) David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University in New York controversially described the new atheism as a “stealth religion”. His point was that, like many religions, it portrayed itself as the only source of truth and righteousness and its enemies as “bad, bad, bad”.
Well, given Sloan Wilson’s track record of atheist-bashing and religion-praising, and his almost unhinged defense of group selection, it’s rarely a good idea to quote him as an authority, but let’s proceed with Lawton:
To atheists, such accusations might seem easily refuted. The defining feature of religion is belief in god(s). Atheism defines itself as the absence of belief in god. How can it be a religion? That is like saying that “off” is a TV channel, or not-playing-tennis is a sport.
But atheists arguably have not taken the charge seriously enough. “They’d say, the word just means ‘without god’. That is all. We can go home now,” says Jon Lanman who works on the scientific study of religion at Queen’s University Belfast, UK. Perhaps because of this rather aloof response, atheists have failed to dispel the sense that the critics were on to something.
The truth is that atheism is not simply an absence of belief in god, but also a set of alternative beliefs about the origin and nature of reality. Even though these belief systems diverge in their content and level of fact from religious beliefs, perhaps they originate from the same underlying psychological processes, and fulfil similar psychological needs. Religious ideas, for example, provide stability and reassurance in the face of uncertainty. They help to explain events and provide a moral framework. For these reasons, and others, they are intuitively appealing to human brains. Maybe brains that reject supernatural ideas simply soak up naturalistic ones to take their place. “They may work as replacement beliefs, helping alleviate stress and anxiety as religion does,” says Miguel Farias, leader of the brain, belief and behaviour group at Coventry University, UK.
If atheism is a “set of alternative beliefs about the origin and nature of reality,” those beliefs are disbeliefs: there is no evidence for any gods or supernatural beings. End of story. But Lawton disagrees.
What, then, constitutes the atheist belief system? Lawton argues this:
- Atheists “believe” in progress. Lawton’s evidence is that secularists forced to read an essay that progress was illusory became more aware of their own deaths, “as if it were pulling their comfort blanket out from under their feet.” To me this says nothing, particularly because there doesn’t seem to have been a religious control group!
- Atheists believe in science more strongly when they’re stressed. Lawton says this:
Doing the “progress” experiment with people on board an aeroplane, for example, makes them espouse a stronger belief in progress.
For many atheists, scientific ideas have a similar soothing effect. Stressful situations tend to strengthen their belief in science, especially in theories that emphasise orderliness and predictability over randomness and unpredictability. All of which suggests that religious believers and atheists are more psychologically similar than either would like to think.
So? Where’s the control group? And is a psychological reaction the same thing as a “belief system”? Nope, not in my view.
- Some atheists have “spiritual beliefs”:
Proponents of the “psychological impossibility of atheism” argue that supernatural beliefs are so hard-wired into our brains that discarding them altogether is not an option. . . And, sure enough, there is evidence that even hardcore atheists tend to entertain quasi-religious or spiritual ideas such as there being a higher power or that everything happens for a purpose.
Spirituality is not the same thing as religion: for many atheists, it’s simply wonder and awe before the universe—an emotional reaction. I prefer to not use the word at all. And any atheist who believes in a higher power or some “purpose” isn’t an atheist at all, much less a “hardcore atheist.”
- Atheists are just as liable to discard scientific facts when they’re inconvenient. To “prove” this, Lawton simply quotes David Sloan Wilson again:
So, despite some similarity between religious and non-religious beliefs systems, they are not equivalent. Surely that buries the claim that atheism is just another religion?
Maybe not. There is another way in which atheist beliefs make them religion-like, according to Sloan Wilson. It is the way they play fast-and-loose with scientific facts. “Atheists will say that religion is bad for humanity, that it’s not an evolutionary adaptation – which happens not to be true,” he says. “That is how atheism becomes an ideology. It is organised to motivate behaviour. If it uses counterfactual beliefs in order to do it then there’s really very little difference between atheism and a religion.”
We don’t know that Sloan Wilson’s claim is true! Religion could in fact have been a spandrel rather than a social behavior directly installed in the human brain by natural selection. It is GOOD to be dubious of Sloan Wilson’s “natural selection” claim because there’s no good evidence for “god genes.” Religion may, for instance, be a spandrel of other beliefs, whether learned or adaptive. (Read Pascal Boyer for an example of how religion might have hitchhiked on other beliefs that might have been adaptive, but perhaps based more in experience than on natural selection.) We are not “playing fast and loose with the facts” to question Sloan Wilson’s claim, which is just a hypothesis.
To be fair, Lawton then quotes Dan Dennett and others who reject the view that atheism is like religion. But Lawton, whose sympathies are evident (and have been from the magazine’s continuing osculation of faith), ends by agreeing with some parallels:
One conclusion is that religion and atheism do have things in common, sometimes. Both feature sacred values, which are beliefs that people would not trade for material goods. Both have rituals – although atheist ones are rare – and distinct social identities. But the content of these features are very different. An atheist’s sacred value might be that religion should have no place in government, whereas a Muslim’s might be the exact opposite.
I’m not sure what the point of all this is. After all, EVERYONE has some beliefs, many of them passionate, but atheist beliefs are, I contend, not only more evidence-based, but don’t involve gods. Further, everyone has a “social identity.” And, as Lawton notes, atheist “rituals” are rare.
His whole point is a pointless exercise in saying, “Look, atheists are ‘believers’ too, and are thus hypocrites to criticize religion.” He doesn’t realize that by criticizing atheism in this way, he’s also criticizing religion: “Look: we atheists are as bad as believers!”
Time to cancel those subscriptions to New Scientist. I prefer the words of Dan Dennett, who is quoted in the piece as saying this:
“When somebody puts it to me that atheism is just another religion, [Dennett] says: “I ask ‘in what way?’ They usually counter with demonstrably false parallels. We have no rituals, no membership rules, no sacred texts and the small percentage of atheists who belong to specifically atheist organisations are more like people who belong to interest groups like scuba divers or guitar aficionados. And most atheists don’t feel the need to proselytise.”
In light of that, which is true, Lawton’s piece becomes superfluous.