New Scientist osculates religion and damns atheists again

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.

h/t: Ivan


  1. eric
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    The irony here is that they’re not even doing a good job of defending religion or being accommodationist. “Atheists bad! Don’t they know religion makes sense as a psychological/social crutch?” isn’t much more than a backhanded whack to religion.

  2. Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    New Scientist says that The God Delusion “largely omitted” the cognitive science of religion. For that read “actually discusses”, and positively. From Chapter 5:

    “The idea of psychological by-products grows naturally out of the important and developing field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that, just as the eye is an evolved organ for seeing, and the wing an evolved organ for flying, so the brain is a collection of organs (or ‘modules’) for dealing with a set of specialist data-processing needs. There is a module for deal- ing with kinship, a module for dealing with reciprocal exchanges, a module for dealing with empathy, and so on. Religion can be seen as a by-product of the misfiring of several of these modules, for example the modules for forming theories of other minds, for form- ing coalitions, and for discriminating in favour of in-group members and against strangers.”

    Why would New Scientist go out of its way to denigrate one of the UK’s leading scientists, in a way that’s so easy to check and refute?

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Maybe their review of The God Delusion was from Wikipedia, and they did not see it there, so…

    • ploubere
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink


  3. ploubere
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Not very scientific for a mag called New Scientist. Not that I was planning to subscribe, but I’m not going to be a reader.

  4. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    The article links to a whole section on Religion. Not all articles in that section seem osculatory of faith, based on their titles, but it still seems odd.

  5. Kiwi Dave
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    A very minor semantic comment: though ‘motley crew’ is sometimes used with negative connotations, its approximate meaning – a group of people from different backgrounds with a common interest or facing the same situation – seems appropriate here and might not be intended as a slur. Like many casual expressions, it’s not a precise term.

    • Posted April 18, 2017 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      I was going to make this point. Motley crew just means different backgrounds and disparate opinions. In other words, real diversity.

      You want to protect a Mexican village or take down a Death Star, you hire a motley crew.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 18, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink



    • Posted April 18, 2017 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      You beat me to it. It’s not a slur. My dictionary: “motley |ˈmätlē|
      adjective (motlier, motliest)
      incongruously varied in appearance or character; disparate”. And then there is a historical definition: “the particolored costume of a jester: life-size mannequins in full motley.” So it’s similar in meaning to “pied”, as in the “pied piper”. And its use here is just saying that one does not often find psychologists, anthropologists, and neuroscientists collaborating; this work is unusually interdisciplinary, in other words.

    • Posted April 18, 2017 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      I disagree. I think “motley” can be used in a disparaging way. I don’t think it comes across as a neutral tone at all.

      • Dave
        Posted April 19, 2017 at 3:04 am | Permalink

        Unless they’re trying to liken the New Atheists to a widely-derided late 80’s Hair Metal band? Now that would be fighting talk!

        Come to think of it, “New Atheists” would make quite a good band name!

        • garman
          Posted April 19, 2017 at 7:39 am | Permalink

          But you’d need an umlaut somewhere. Maybe two.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 19, 2017 at 7:52 am | Permalink

          I think “Gnu Atheists” would be better.

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted April 19, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

            Gnü Ätheists.

            I agree that “motley crew” has a slightly disparaging tone to it. “Diverse group” would have been more neutral.

            • darrelle
              Posted April 20, 2017 at 7:33 am | Permalink

              That’s it!

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 19, 2017 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

            Gnu Theists, on the other hand, believe only in the supremacy of their chosen Operating Sytem and its prophet RMS 😉


            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted April 19, 2017 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

              … an operating system, I might add, which has been created by probably the most motley crew ever assembled…


  6. BJ
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I feel like these articles have become less about defending religion/the religious and more about trashing New Atheism and atheists in general. I feel like this trend started a few years ago — around the same time New Atheism rejected identity politics as unhelpful at best and destructive at worst. Not every article that engages in crap like this is doing it for such reasons, but it feels like a quite a few of the outlets publishing them are.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      When being Islamic was selected as one of the pinnacles of being oppressed – and therefore given terrific rhetorical power by the SJWs – atheists began to be vilified.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted April 20, 2017 at 2:45 am | Permalink

        That’s the line I was thinking too.

    • Zach
      Posted April 18, 2017 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      I think there’s two different trends going on. One, of course, does have to do with identity politics and the designation of Muslims as a marginalized group. Sam Harris rarely talks about Islam anymore—mainly because he’s said everything he’s wanted to and would therefore just be repeating himself, but also, I think, because of the ridiculous flak he catches every time the subject comes up. It must be exasperating.

      I’m not sure most people associate the critique of Islam he and others have made with atheists in general though. In general, people want to take atheists down a peg because they seem them as sneering elitists who are out of touch and unconcerned with mainstream sentiment. And what better way to take down an elitist than to beat them up at their own game, to show that they ignore discomforting research just like everyone else? That seems to be more the tone of this article.

  7. busterggi
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Riding the present wave of reactionary subculture.

  8. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    What a lot of tosh! (New Scientist mean, not PCC’s comments).

    They don’t even know what ‘accomodationism’ means. (As PCC noted).

    “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.” That’s not accommodationism. Pretty much exactly the same instincts lead to all sorts of woo, like ufology or crystal vibrations or whatnot. To identify the causes of such does NOT imply accepting the beliefs themselves in the slightest degree.


  9. FiveGreenLeafs
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    I stopped reading New Scientist 6 or 7 years ago, even if I have access to it for free, and this just reminds me of precisely why.


    It is good that sites like Quillette exists to begin to fill that void.

    But how about Scientific American, are they holding up the science flag, or going the same way as New Scientist?

    • Posted April 18, 2017 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      Scientific American is still good. They have articles based on actual science – and when it changes they address it. Still my favourite magazine to read.
      I’ve abandoned National Geographic after they became a Murdoch rag – and promptly had elements of Catholocism as the cover story for several issues in a row.

      • FiveGreenLeafs
        Posted April 19, 2017 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        “Scientific American is still good.”

        That is very good to hear, I sincerely hope it stays that way.

        But I do wonder if the change in New Scientist is coupled more to a change in (perceived) readership or with the world-view of its authors and editors.

        I sometimes get the feeling that New Scientist has become more of a resource for well educated economist and humanists who would like to feel (or appear) knowledgeable about the natural world, and that the change in content and (Richard Dawkins allergy) are a symptom of that.

        The same category of highly educated (often) well to do people who don’t vaccinate their kids, and are influenced by the postmodern claptrap of (culture) relativism, identity politics and believes that biological sex is a social construction and tries to force their 6y boy not to wrestle about but sit quietly in a corner and play with dolls…

  10. Randy schenck
    Posted April 18, 2017 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    I have to think this is what happens when religion puts it’s stamp on a magazine or on any subject, say science or atheists. When evidence is not available you see religion resort to the tried & true, they make it up.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 3:00 am | Permalink

      My (uncharitable) guess is that the New Scientist and many other publications recruit writers and contributors as cheaply as possible, and this often includes selection from the glut of those trained in humanities rather than those with any science background. They can turn out well written prose but have been trained to accept that anything is just another point of view.

      My bulls**t detector is triggered by particular words and phrases, and the New Scientist article uses one of the ones that irritates me the most – ‘so-called’.

  11. Posted April 18, 2017 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    As Bill Maher once said, atheism is a religion like abstinence a sex position.

  12. Tom
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    This is not a new problem.
    The malady of “New Scientist think” became obvious even to me nearly 40 years ago so I stopped buying it.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 3:03 am | Permalink

      Agreed. When I first started reading the New Scientist (more than 50 years ago) you used to see mathematical formulae and molecular diagrams as part of many articles. Now, hardly ever.

  13. peepuk
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    Atheism is a form of nihilism about God’s; its not a belief system because it doesn’t tell you what to do. Its useful because you don’t have to waste time and energy on a lot of false beliefs.

    The different forms of humanism are clearly belief systems; often without a God.

    The problem all religions have today is that they have no answers in their scriptures for current problems like global warming, overpopulation, tolerance towards gay people, tolerance towards other religions, equal rights for women ….

    Its place has been taken by secular humanism, that doesn’t have holy scriptures, is much more adaptive and therefore can deal with most new problems humans encounter.

    Religious belief systems are simply out of date, they cannot keep up with modern times.

  14. darrelle
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Jesus. That New Scientist article is truly odious. Reading Jerry’s take on it I see that he addressed pretty much everything I made note of when I read the article. Rather than rehash specifics I’ll be more general.

    There isn’t a single fact or representation in the article that is accurate. More succinctly, it is pure bullshit. It’s slander. The author either doesn’t have a clue and is merely regurgitating the wounded self-righteous zeitgeist and ignorant fabrications of some anti-New Atheist echo chamber, or he is just a really nasty, dishonest hack.

    If New Scientist were a respectable establishment they would retract this article with a statement including an explanation of the errors / lies and an apology. Very unlikely I think.

    • phil
      Posted April 20, 2017 at 12:06 am | Permalink

      Don’t beat around the bush, tell us what you really think. 😉

      • darrelle
        Posted April 20, 2017 at 7:32 am | Permalink

        Sorry! That was pretty nasty. Just venting a bit.

  15. Posted April 19, 2017 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Rats, no comments invited at New Scientist. Else I’d say, Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, go read please.

  16. Posted April 19, 2017 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Religion IS harmful and dangerous in many ways and on many levels. It was created by ancient royalty as a form of psychological warfare.

    And those royals used it to keep and maintain their rule over the masses. Today, their descendants still ruler our world as “The Oligarchy” or the 1%, if you prefer.

    This is what everyone needs to know and understand. It is why the world is the way that it is. Please take the time to read what I’ve learned about this and share it with others if you will. Thank you.

    Understanding The Oligarchy

    Understanding The Oligarchy (in PDF form)

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