Just recently, New Scientist, which I no longer bother to read (people send me emails me about their articles), published a piece claiming that atheism is much like religion in being a “belief system” (see my critique here). Now the magazine has repeated both its dissing of religion and its osculation of faith in a misguided short article called “Unholy? Scientists should embrace the science of religion.” (It also has a subtitle that further denigrates nonbelievers: “Belief-ologists” are revealing how religion works. Belittling their work does nothing to further the secularists’ cause, but learning from it might.”)
Well, that depends on what the author means by “the science of religion”. I haven’t heard any secularist argue that there’s no merit to understanding the historical, evolutionary, and psychological origins of religion, or why it has such a strong hold on the human psyche. Those are interesting questions. If “the science of religion” is taken to mean buttressing the truth of religious claims through natural theology, then yes, that’s not so good. But in fact the article means the former, which is not problematic. Yet New Scientist still wants to beef, beginning with the obligatory slur on Richard Dawkins. It then proceeds to simply rewrite history:
IT IS just over a decade since Richard Dawkins lit the blue touchpaper with his book The God Delusion. It introduced much of the world to the so-called new atheism – a forceful rejection of religion based on the premise that scientific materialism offers a superior explanation of the universe, while religion is a corrosive influence on society: a pathological meme planted in the minds of defenceless children.
Though a great read and a liberating influence for many closet atheists, The God Delusion largely omitted a new strand of scientific enquiry emerging around the time it was published. Those working on the “science of religion” – a motley crew [JAC: why this slur?] of psychologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists – explained it as a by-product of normal cognition. Thanks to evolution, they argued, our explanation-seeking minds find religious ideas intuitively appealing, gobbling them up as a hungry trout swallows a fishing fly.
To many disciples of the new atheism, this was little more than, well, heresy. They decried it as “accommodationism” – an illogical and often harmful attempt to pretend religion can still serve a purpose now that science rules the roost. Never mind that the cognitive by-product theory does not imply that religious beliefs are true – far from it. Nor does it claim religion and scientific materialism are compatible. It merely attempts to explore religious belief and disbelief using the tools of science, rather than rhetoric.
The new atheists attacked it anyway. In terms of public debate around the appropriate role of religion in society, this was a mistake. It alienated as many people as it won over, leaving the new atheists preaching to the converted, polarising the debate and dissuading moderates of both secular and religious persuasions from getting involved at all.
That’s completely wrong! The arguments about religion’s origins were in fact made by one of the New Atheists, Dan Dennett in Breaking the Spell, as well as by people like Pascal Boyer. This was not accommodationism, but curiosity about why religion came to be, and of course no New Atheist I know criticized these people. In fact, they quoted them. Accommodationism is not the study of the historical origins of faith, but the claim that religion and science are perfectly compatible! I don’t know what in tarnation the author is talking about here, but it’s dead wrong. Many of us are curious about how and why religion came to be. It’s New Scientist, not we, who denigrate those working on the problem as a “motley crew.”
The author then gives a motte to counteract this bailey, saying that (in contrast to the article I mentioned earlier), atheism is not really a faith like religion (duh!), but then ends up going after atheists anyway:
The science of religion challenges core elements of the new atheism: for example, the belief that religion leads on the whole to misery and suffering. Belief-ologists say religion was the “social glue” that held early societies together. That doesn’t mean religion is required to play that role today. But simply ignoring or high-handedly dismissing its power will not abolish its sway or further the secularist cause. And given the rise of religiosity in global affairs, there is much more than a rhetorical joust at stake.
Let us get this straight: yes, religion may have originated because it was a spandrel on some evolved human mentality, or because it was supposed to be a form of social glue (there are many explanations); but that is an entirely different question from asking whether religion was beneficial for the world in the past or is so now.
None of us doubt “the power of religion”; it it were powerless, like flat-earthism, we’d largely ignore it. But it’s not by any means certain that a world without religion would be a worse world, and the example of atheistic Scandinavia argues otherwise. What New Scientist is doing here is conflating two different issues in a confusing way, and simply lying about what New Atheists think. The point of this dreadfully argued piece seems just this: New Atheists are BAD! Yet we’re said to be bad for something we never did.
New Scientist is increasingly defending religion and damning New Atheists, and there’s no reason why a scientific journal should even be publishing articles like this. If I had a subscription to this rag, I’d cancel it now.