Sacred texts such as the Bible say so many things that almost any position can be supported by selecting the right passages. So it is with scientific hypotheses. In Stealth III, I listed six plausible scientific hypotheses about the nature of religion. If we are allowed to pick and choose among them, we can support almost any position. If we regard religion as destructive, we can call it a delusion or like the flame that fatally attracts the moth. If we admire religion, we can call it a group-level adaptation that in its purest form promotes universal brotherhood.
Science hasn’t made real progress until it tests among the hypotheses, enabling us to accept some and reject others. Only then can we make factual claims about the nature of religion, leading to practical decisions on the basis of those claims. In Stealth IV, I asserted that the scientific study of religion has advanced to the point where we can make factual claims about the nature of religion. Even though evolution is a messy process and all of the major hypotheses might have a degree of relevance, most enduring religions enable religious groups to function as corporate units, or superorganisms, to use a more flamboyant term. In this respect, religious groups are much like other groups, such as governments and business corporations, whose collective purpose is more obvious. Why some groups become organized by religion and others by cultural systems that we call secular is a great question, but it can only be addressed after we accept the factual claim that religious groups do function as corporate units, in contrast to the radically different conceptions of religions suggested by the other major hypotheses.
That’s where I part company with the new atheists. I claim that science has made progress and that we can use our factual knowledge to address the problems associated with religion, such as why people believe weird things (to borrow the title of Michael Shermer’s book) and why cooperation within groups is often (but not always) accompanied by conflict among groups. Much remains to be discovered, and studying religion from an evolutionary perspective is an especially nascent enterprise, but we can do much better than pick and choose among hypotheses to support our preconceived notions about religion.
In contrast, the authors associated with the new atheism movement begin with a deep antipathy toward religion and select their examples from the text of science like so many parables from the Bible. Not only do they ignore, misrepresent, and selectively report the facts of religion, but their practical recommendations for solving the problems associated with religion are ineffective, silly, and worse.
Ineffective. Daniel Dennett is a world-renown philosopher who also writes about the big questions for a general audience. With Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, he became a major interpreter of evolutionary theory and its philosophical implications. I value Dennett as a colleague and intellectual sparring partner and hope that my disagreement with him on the subject of religion does not damage our relationship. As David Hume said and the evolutionist/philosopher Massimo Pigluicci reminds us at the top of his blog, “truth springs from argument among friends.” Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is notable for the degree to which he treats the scientific study of religion as a task for the future, as if no firm conclusions can be drawn on the basis of current knowledge. This stance gives him maximum elbowroom to interpret religion as primarily a delusion (as implied by the title), like the parasitic worm that commandeers ants by burrowing into their brains (the first example of the book). I have critiqued Breaking the Spell in detail elsewhere. For the purpose of this blog, I want to focus on the solutions that Dennett offers on the basis of his analysis of religion. His primary recommendation is universal religious education. If only religious believers could be introduced to the full panoply of religious belief, they would become less deluded about their own. I doubt that this policy would have a meaningful impact on the worldwide problems associated with religion. In America, for example, fundamentalist religions are immersed in a larger cultural milieu teeming with “memes” from secular life and other religions. Like a cell maintaining osmotic pressure, a given religion is designed to pump out contrary memes and maintain an internal environment containing the appropriate memes. Elsewhere in the world, does Dennett really believe that we’ll solve the problems of the Middle East (for example) by teaching the Palestinians about Judaism and the Israelis about Islam? His policy recommendation might be well-meaning, but it is likely to be ineffective.
Silly. Richard Dawkins is a hero around the world as a champion of rational thought. His website is subtitled “a clear-thinking oasis.” Thousands of people have been turned on to evolutionary theory through his many books. I recommend The Blind Watchmaker as a good tutorial and I even admire the gene’s eye view of evolution, as long as it isn’t taken as an argument against group selection. However, a funny thing happened to Dawkins on his way to becoming a public icon. He no longer regards himself as scientifically accountable for what he says, especially on the subject of religion. Part of the problem is that he has crawled so far out on a limb with respect to group selection and the impossibility of explaining widespread human cooperation from a Darwinian perspective, that the only way to get him down might be to saw off the limb. In this blog, I want to focus on the solutions that Dawkins offers on the basis of his analysis of religion. For example, he regards religious education as a form of child abuse, which will require setting up a vast foster care system staffed by rationalists. In his essay titled “Atheists for Jesus”, he offers as his best solution a slogan with the oxymoronic power to “lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment.” It is unclear whether Dawkins intends these suggestions to be taken seriously, but either way they are just plain silly.
Worse. Whenever Christopher Hitchens and his book God is Not Great are mentioned in the comments to my Stealth blogs, it is usually to say “Why should anyone take him seriously?” As a great provocateur, he will do anything to get a reaction–trashing God on Sunday, Bill Clinton on Monday, bikini-waxing his naughty bits on Tuesday, inviting journalists to have a feel during the National Book Award Ceremonies on Wednesday, and so on. Nevertheless, even a provocateur must play by certain rules. If he doesn’t speak the truth, then his barbs have no sting and he isn’t worth the time of day. In this blog, I am most concerned with the solutions that Hitchens offers on the basis of his analysis of religion. At the very least, we should expect the new atheists to avoid the kind of between-group conflict that Dennett blames on religious believers when they fight over “who has the best imaginary friend.” Yet, in an article titled “The Genocidal Imagination of Christopher Hitchens”, Richard Seymour documents statements such as this one:
We can’t live on the same planet as them and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murders [sic] and rapists and torturers and child abusers. It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it’s also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.
Who needs religious fundamentalists when we have Christopher Hitchens? Few atheists and rationalists would agree with him on this point–certainly not Dan Dennett, who e-mailed me that he finds Hitchens’ views “very troubling indeed.” Yet, this only underscores the larger problem that I am trying to identify with my Stealth blogs. Something has gone terribly wrong with popular intellectual discourse on religion. A few authors have occupied center stage, claiming to base their analysis on science and rational thought, when in fact their views are detached from the serious scientific study of religion and their practical recommendations are ineffective, silly, and worse.
In the final installment of the Stealth series, I will show how popular intellectual discourse on religion can become more enlightening and even more entertaining when anchored more firmly in the serious scientific study of religion.