Evolution for Everyone

My previous post attracted 250 comments, putting atheism right up there with Britney Spears as one of the most newsworthy issues of our day. Seriously, there are important issues at stake with the New Atheism movement, meriting a follow-up blog. One question on my mind concerns the quality of discourse that can be achieved with a blog-and-comment format. Can it rise above the intellectual equivalent of a barroom brawl?

Here are some bullet points to organize the next round of comments:

I am an atheist: Some readers thought that I must be a religious believer attempting to level the playing field by calling atheism a stealth religion. If theism refers to a belief in supernatural agents capable of intervening in natural processes, then I am 100% an atheist and proud of it.

What do I mean by a stealth religion? I clearly define a stealth religion as any belief system that distorts the facts of the real world (yes, there is a real world out there, and it does not include people sitting on clouds) for the purpose of motivating a given suite of behaviors. Beliefs in supernatural agents are a particular distortion of factual reality and I want to broaden the discussion to include all distortions of factual reality. It’s no good quoting dictionary definitions of atheism and religion, when I clearly state what I mean.

What do I mean by factual and practical realism? A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there (e.g., there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world. If you were to ask me for advice about a plan of action, and I replied that your plan is not realistic, you would understand me correctly to mean that your plan is unlikely to work. Thus, the term “practical realism” is fully intuitive, as long as I clearly define its meaning, as I have.


Practical realism is a good thing. Since most atheists are self-described truth lovers, it is easy to conclude that we have a moral obligation to favor factual over practical realism, whenever the two conflict. However, most of us presumably also want to live in happy, healthy, thriving communities. If there is an unavoidable trade-off between factual and practical realism, that would place all of us in a moral dilemma. Atheists such as myself are banking on the possibility that we can have our cake and eat it too; that factual realism can contribute to, rather than detracting from practical realism. We need to be clear about our own articles of faith.

Not all forms of atheism are stealth religions. Some readers jumped to the conclusion that I am branding all forms of atheism as stealth religions. Not in the least. It is perfectly possible to have a belief system that is as factually realistic as possible, which we consult for our plans of action. The question is how well any particular atheistic belief system approaches this ideal.

The flag, the cross…and science and reason. Sinclair Lewis (recently quoted by presidential candidate Ron Paul) said “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag carrying a cross.” To that we can add “and claiming to be supported by science and reason.” No, I am not accusing the New Atheists of having a hidden fascist agenda, but I am making the reasonable point that all forms of authority are vulnerable to abuse, as the sorry history of Social Darwinism attests. We need to be suspicious about arguments cloaked in all forms of authority.

Stealth religions need not be conscious. I am not saying that the New Atheists (or anyone else) see the world clearly and then willfully distort it to suit their purposes. The problem is worse than that. The world we see clearly is often already distorted by mental processes that operate beneath our awareness. That’s why it is important to see the complex relationship between factual and practical realism from an evolutionary perspective, reflected in the deep structure of our brains and cultures.

Environmentalism as a stealth religion. It might help to apply these ideas to an example other than atheism. We are faced with many environmental crises that threaten our long-term welfare. Most of the problems are complex (e.g., chemicals in plastics that mimic hormones) and require accurate scientific understanding to be solved. Yet, people also need to be goaded into action at an unprecedented scale. Many beliefs advanced by environmentalists, including predictions that seem to be supported by volumes of data and sophisticated models, are systematically distorted in the direction of overstating the dangers, as journalist Michael Duffy reports in a recent article. As Duffy puts it ” virtual science is ripe for manipulation, usually unconsciously, by virtuous scientists. Few people are aware of the large element of subjectivity, not only in the design of immensely complicated general circulation models, but in the data that goes into them.” This constitutes a genuine moral dilemma. Should we remain true to factual realism when our uncertainty might be used as an excuse for inaction? Is it justified to inflate the risks and conceal our uncertainty to promote planetary survival? Welcome to the trade-offs between factual and practical realism.

Is the New Atheism a movement? Some readers objected to having atheism called a movement with designated leaders. For them, atheism is just a bunch of independent thinkers who refuse to be herded. That might be true for atheism as a whole, but can there be any doubt that authors such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris are trying to start a movement? They even have their own label — “The Brights”, which thankfully seems to be going nowhere. The term “New Atheists” tends to be used by critics of the fledgling movement, such as myself, but it’s no good trying to raise consciousness and then denying that you are trying to start a movement.

It’s OK to be a carnival barker… I am sometimes chided for criticizing the books of the New Atheists as if they were scientific tomes, when in fact they are designed to attract the attention of the general public in the crowded cultural marketplace. I have no objection to carnival barking — as long as there is something worth seeing inside the tent. If the new atheists are not basing their claims about religion on the best that science has to offer, then they are part of the problem. My complaint about the New Atheism is that it is based on bad science, in the same way that environmentalism is often based on bad science. It doesn’t matter that the intentions of the New Atheists might be virtuous–they have gone the way of stealth religion.

By their language, you shall know them. Some of the comments on my last blog are notable for the frequency of words and phrases expressing certainty and intolerance, such as “counter-rational nonsense (Frederic)”, “atheism never gets in the way of science (ChistopherLib)”, “completely failed at your stated goal (Amolinaro)”, “the symbol would be the back of my hand raised to your face with all fingers in a fist but the center one (GoodwithWood)”, “grow up (Mkaplan)”, and so on. The tone of these comments prompted priscianusjr to write “Most of the pro-atheist comments here actually corroborate your point” and thicky to quip “This is blasphemy! Uh…I mean nonsense!” (where do we bring the kindling for burning Mr. Wilson at the stake?)”

Let’s get real. Everyone who claims to be guided primarily by science and reason has an obligation to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. There are impeccable reasons for distrusting statements cloaked in the authority of science and reason, no less than the flag and the cross. I don’t see how any self-respecting atheist can deny this claim in the abstract, so let’s see if we can put it to work in the quality of our discourse about religion, from world-famous authors to the readers of HuffPost commenting on blogs.

Comments

  1. #1 oarobin
    October 21, 2009

    in your bullet: Environmentalism as a stealth religion
    you state: As Duffy puts it ” virtual science is ripe for manipulation, usually unconsciously, by virtuous scientists. Few people are aware of the large element of subjectivity, not only in the design of immensely complicated general circulation models, but in the data that goes into them.”

    could you please expand on the point about subjectivity in the GCM models and the data. it sounds eerily as if he, duffy, is saying that the GCM models and data that support Global climate change is the subjective opionin of climate scientist?

  2. #2 Jeremy
    October 22, 2009

    Welcome to science blogs. I’ve enjoyed a lot of your writing in the past too, so thanks :)

    Having read your reposts about new atheism as a stealth religion, I have a question;

    Do you think it’s possible that the position you’re putting forward is actually practically realistic rather than factually realistic? I’ve read all the main “new atheist” books and I don’t think they’re actually saying that every aspect of all religions is bad. Indeed Christopher Hitchens gave a great talk in Australia recently (at the history of dangerous ideas) where he conceded in the QandA at the end that there are good things and good people who are religious and some good things may well only occur because of religion.

    My impression is that the argument is not that religion creates out groups etc. I would say the argument is that some aspects of religion are negative, and I’m sure we agree on this, and that many of those aspects are based on their religious beliefs, and indeed if their religious beliefs are true then their actions that we deem negative are actually positive and the correct thing to do. Therefore the only legitimate criticism we can bring is that their religious beliefs are wrong.

    But of course all the reasons we can bring up for why their religious beliefs are wrong apply not just to their religion, but basically all religions. The core problem is faith without evidence and that’s what needs to be addressed. Arguing about whether flying planes into buildings is immoral or not is meaningless, because the people who argue for it have different moral values than us.

  3. #3 Reginald Selkirk
    October 22, 2009

    Some readers thought that I must be a religious believer attempting to level the playing field by calling atheism a stealth religion.

    No, I am aware of your atheism. I just thought you were pimping yourself for a Templeton prize.

  4. #4 becca
    October 22, 2009

    Well, I doubt Lewis would have added the bit about science and reason. There’s a reason Gantry is such a pig compared to Arrowsmith. I mean, who would you rather have as a leader?

    What if the idea that there is a “factually real out there” is the most heavily selected for practical reality? Or is that too much of a post-modern recursive loop?

    Science depends on faith that there is an “out there”. So honestly, I think science trumps religion more impressively on practical reality than it does on factual reality.

  5. #5 bullofthewoods
    October 23, 2009

    Sigh! atheism is not a belief system. It is a lack of belief in god or gods.

  6. #6 Stephen
    October 23, 2009

    Didn’t your pal Michael Shermer coin the whole “Brights” thing?

  7. #7 ivo
    October 23, 2009

    Science depends on faith that there is an “out there”. So honestly, I think science trumps religion more impressively on practical reality than it does on factual reality.

    Becca, that’s not faith: it’s an observed reality. It could have been different: the world could have been as in Borges’ story Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, where objects and places that nobody visits and fall out of fashion simply disappear, and where lost objects can be found many times over again by different people… Or the world could have been a dream-like reality. Instead, it has been found to be very solid and intersubjective.

    Actually, that’s not completely true, as some quantum mechanical measurement appear to depend on the very act of observing them — but even that is an objective, repeatable and “out there” reality.

  8. #8 becca
    October 25, 2009

    ivo- as a scientist, I function as though there is an “out there”, and that science is a fine, perhaps the best, way of understanding it.
    As a feeling human, I’ve noticed how incredibly flawed my perceptions of “out there” is. If your perception of reality is very solid and intersubjective, that’s wonderful. Mine is not consistently so.
    As thinking human, I’ve entertained the Platonic shadows on the wall version of reality. Or the matrix. Or the blind men and the elephant. Or a buttefly’s dream.

  9. #9 Oran Kelley
    October 26, 2009

    I think the way to look at this is operationally rather than theoretically. That is, leaving aside the purely theoretical connection between science and objective truth.

    Why? Because in normal, day-to-day life scientific fact doesn’t play that big a role in how we conduct our lives. Whether or not there are people living in the clouds is really a pretty small issue (except to airline pilots) if those people are not imbued with authority over our decisions. It is only this latter connection that makes them important.

    On what basis, day to day, does one know and decide things? How do you know what time to get up, where to catch your bus, what to say when you pick up the phone, that science is a valuable enterprise, etc, etc.

    This is the sort of knowledge that really shapes people’s reality. Whether or not Jesus Christ lived at some time around 1 AD is trivia. And in fact, ANY bit of trivia can fill its space and it really doesn’t matter whether it is objectively true or not, functionally. It can be that Jesus lived and died on the cross or that Joe Smith found the third testament under a log or e=mc2 or that Vishnu has a number of fraught relationships with other gods.

    Hardly anyone makes any use of this trivia. The fact that e=mc^2 happens to be true, more or less, doesn’t make any difference. To me it is still just a random factoid related to my belief in science as a worthwhile endeavor.

    For religious folk these bits of trivia seem to be places where they can put their moral values that is beyond question. And that, it seems to me to be the role played by “science” for a lot of the new atheists, who seem to think that not only do the facts belie the authority of the arbitrary rules of religion, but they seem to think the facts somehow support their equally arbitrary moral values, which I think is plainly false.

    One thing that the religious have right: it is the moral universe that is really important for most humans most of the time. And they are perfectly willing to distort the facts in order to support their version of the moral universe, because the importance of those facts is mostly trivial EXCEPT insofar as they impact day-to-day decision making.

    Science is an institution built on doubt and uncertainty and producing, largely, doubt and uncertainty. Which is precisely not what most people want not base their day-to-day lives on.

    Which is obvious when looking at a lot of new atheist writings, where science seems to become a great source of existential cocksuredness. Which is about where science becomes the man in the clouds.

  10. #10 Tacroy
    October 28, 2009

    … Many beliefs advanced by environmentalists, including predictions that seem to be supported by volumes of data and sophisticated models, are systematically distorted in the direction of overstating the dangers …

    Funny, that. My fiancee is working on her doctorate in Earth Systems Science, and whenever the subject comes up she maintains that environmental scientists are massively understating the impact of global warming. Consider, for instance, the IPCC report: despite the fact that everything in there must be approved by all members of the panel (a recipe for the understatement of embarrassing facts if there ever was one), the report still predicts millions of deaths attributable to global warming.

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