Evolution Author Goes After “Angry Atheists”

David Sloan Wilson is the author of a book called Evolution for Everyone. Sounds all well and good but at a recent philosophy of biology conference, he made comments against the New Atheists that don’t make much sense.

… As we speak, we are establishing our first consulting relationship with a religious congregation in Binghamton to explore their religion and spirituality and to help them be more effective as an organization [by using evolutionary tools]. I think the benefits we provide will be so great that we will be sought after by other congregations.

[Question:] Does your approach annoy atheists?

I piss off atheists more than any other category, and I am an atheist. One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial of the beneficial aspects of religion. Their beef is not just that there is no evidence for God. They also insist that religion “poisons everything”, as Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book. They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the “secular utility” of religion, as Émile Durkheim put it, even though they wrap themselves in the mantle of science and rationality. Someone needs to call them out on that, and that person is me.

He’s missing the point of what the New Atheists are saying.

No one — including Dawkins — denies that religion offers benefits like community and hope. But these are things that you could get with any group of close friends — without having to believe in supernatural nonsense. That’s what we’re rallying against. In order to be part of that community, you must subscribe to beliefs that are not based in reality, that cherish ignorance, and that preach bigotry against certain groups of people.

Certainly, churches have a better infrastructure than Humanist groups do, but that’s no reason to go running to them. The detriments far outweigh the benefits.

Christopher Hitchens asks a very good question in God is Not Great:

“Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven’t had a reply yet.”

He hasn’t received a reply because there’s no good answer to that. Religion doesn’t offer any benefits you couldn’t find in a good secular alternative.

That’s why we go after religion. The claims are ludicrous, but there is a feeling among millions of people that religion makes people better or more moral. They’re wrong.

The New Atheists support strong communities of people. They don’t support membership being restricted to those who buy into religious mythology.

  • Samiimas

    One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial of the beneficial aspects of religion.

    ‘beneficial aspects’ of religion? Does he mean this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prop_8

    Or this?

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-6162918-504083.html

    Or maybe this?

    http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1883598,00.html

    Or perhaps he meant this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uganda_Anti-Homosexuality_Bill

  • lee spaner

    there are no benefits from religionl… another idiot who puts forth the benefits of burning witches blowing up infidels and not talking to the rest of the world cause you are chosen.

  • PrimeNumbers

    Religion doesn’t provide any practical benefits that cannot be produced by Atheists.

  • Grimalkin

    Not true! Someone totally trumped Hitchens with this zinger: Prayer is a virtue and only religious people pray, therefore only religious people can be truly virtuous.

    HA!

    All joking aside, I agree completely. My local Humanist group has only just been getting started in this community business (rather than the simpler once-a-month social club we had previously), but we’ve already done some tremendous work. We now meet at least every week (on Sundays, no less), we do “good works” as a community and donate collectively to causes we support, and we’re now looking into providing activities and support specifically for families (parents and younger kids).

    It’s great to have all the good stuff from church without having to feel very uncomfortable listening to all the crazy preachy stuff first!

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    I love the bait-and-switch, too. First, complain about Dawkins. Then, provide examples of where Hitchens has said something you don’t like. Keep a tally of how often this happens; it’s a not-so-clever favorite tactic of the anti-”New Atheist” crowd. They make superficial arguments based mostly on the titles of the books without bothering to talk about what Dawkins and Hitchens have actually said or written about.

    I also loved this bit:

    They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the “secular utility” of religion, as Émile Durkheim put it, even though they wrap themselves in the mantle of science and rationality. Someone needs to call them out on that, and that person is me.

    Well, aren’t you a special little cub scout! Ignore for the minute the fact that they do, in fact, discuss the real-world (i.e. ‘secular’) benefits of religion and how they’re achievable through actually entirely secular means. You’ve got some nasty windmills to fight!

  • Bob

    Let’s see. Under the scientific theory, a premise must be observable, testable, and independently repeatable.

    Where is this ‘scientific evidence’ of the benefits of religion? It would seem to me that if there exists a non-religious person who exhibits the same ethical and moral capacity as a religious person, then the ‘scientific evidence’ of the ‘utility’ of religion is utter hogwash.

    Religion is, however, quite useful in controlling the uninformed masses.

  • Neo Cortex

    “Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven’t had a reply yet.”

    The Bible doesn’t say that non-believers cannot make ethical statements or perform ethical actions. In fact it assumes the opposite: men and women are made in God’s image and have a sense of morality and conscience. He probably hasn’t had a reply because no-one disagrees with him.

  • Price

    I am tired of trying to be nice to the people. It is I who should always make the compromise. No more. I am a fan of Heavy Metal and last Sunday, Ronnie James Dio passed away. Now, the Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest his memorial on May 30th in Los Angeles. If these zealots are not stopped, by their own kind, I am done. No longer will I hold my tongue or let them have their say. Vitriol will be met with the same. I am also a Patriot Guard rider and I know how awful and inconsiderate protesters are. They don’t care that you are grieving and in pain. They only care about their agenda. That is about as unscrupulous and contentious as one can be. They haven’t see this Atheist angry yet.

  • NewEnglandBob

    David Sloan Wilson went off the deep end long ago. He is personally out for Richard Dawkins because Dawkins showed that Wilson’s ‘group selection’ is trivial and mostly wrong.

    Wilson recently wrote an angry tirade 15 part series where he rants all about how the world is wrong about ‘group selection’. He is one angry piece of work.

  • Hitch

    I think there is a point here that I have observed in multiple places. And it’s pretty much exactly what you have carved out.

    Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris (and to much lesser extend Dennett) are seen as angry, aggressive, arrogant, dangerous etc exactly
    because they are perceived as denying the social and personal benefits of religions.

    I think in the case of Hitchens that perception is the strongest and I can see that. If you watch his debates he will go out of his way to not mention or allow mentioning positive outcomes by always countering it with his moral action challenge.

    While I agree with Hitchens that we can have a world that is as great as the one with religion in terms of social and personal benefits, we have to show how to get there. How do we get organizational structures in place for example to do relief in disaster areas. Etc.

    So I see how from the outside in it seems unfair to not give credit for the positive, and rather shift it away.

    But you put your finger where the misunderstanding is. Of course there is benefit, but there is no evidence at all that we need religions to have that benefit. Dawkins in fact recognizes this and organizes relieft and other social good programs now. The down side is that they get virtually no visibility so it is easy to keep that “new atheists are nasty” narrative up.

    I do think there is something to learn here and it’s that giving people a partial nod for things that one can sensibly conceed, for example that religion and charitable work might currently serve a positive function, does not detract from the other message. Ultimately I think that is a question of presentation.

    But regardless I think we will have the problem that any vocal criticism of religions will be labeled angry and aggressive as long as there is a belief to defend. Labeling the critics as unreasonable is part of the defense.

    Frankly I am worried about the backlash against atheism. It’s stronger than I anticipated. But I think the narrative needs to persist, but is there a second wave of books coming?

    The stream of counterattacks seems rather endless and some of the counters get lots of visibility such as Eagleton, who of course also misunderstood things exactly along the same dimension.

  • Peregrine

    So what? ‘Angry Atheists’ annoy him sometimes. Big deal! They annoy me sometimes too, and no doubt I annoy them.

    Hell, there’d be no point in having comments on blogs if we didn’t annoy each other from time to time.

  • Hitch

    What would be a good label for folks who bash outspoken atheists but call themselves atheist, while mostly defending the benefits of religion and label any criticism of religion “angry” “aggressive” “islamophobic” etc?

    Ideally a non-aggressive label would be best!

    Because criticism seems to me a quite integral part of atheism. Our very existence is a critique of religions.

  • mkb

    I think that you are misreading his point. He is not saying that you have to thave religion to get the effect but that people who are religious can get the effect through their religion. Very different points. Also, I am very disappointed, Hemant, that you imply that preaching bigotry is part of religion. To be honest, that is a bigoted statement. Some religions preach bigotry, but not all do.

  • http://universalheretic.wordpress.com/ Victor

    I’m surprised at the number of supposedly intelligent people that are hopping on the “angry atheists” bandwagon, yet are completely unable to form a coherent argument to back up their allegations. They misrepresent (or misunderstood) the message, then attack the straw man. It seems most of them are internally conflicted about something.

    The only horseman I’ve seen make extraneous claims would be Harris, but he’s far from the most upfront of the “new atheists”.

  • Hitch

    I am slowly converging to a position that the word bigotry is unhelpful. Is it bigoted to tell parents that their unbaptized children go to limbo. So parents who are unlucky are in agony because they “failed to rescue” their child? Is that bigotry or not?

    Religion is actually by definition bigotry. A certain world view is held without any ability to move it. It’s infallible hence other opinions are uncritically labeled as wrong or bigoted.

    That very much shows how unhelpful bigotry is in a debate. Finally any argument involving bigotry as word is per definition ad hominem because it’s about the person not about the opinion.

  • http://universalheretic.wordpress.com/ Victor

    Pulling out the label “angry atheist” is a tactic that does seem to be working, though. It’s starting to shame people back into the closet. No one wants to be labeled angry, and now you don’t even need to have done anything yourself, you just need to be on the same side as Hitchens/Harris/Dawkins and, presto, you’re angry.

  • JulietEcho

    Re: the bigotry comments

    I think Hemant probably meant that exclusionist religion (only certain paths lead to heaven) is bigotry, and would probably agree that universalism/pluralism isn’t, so long as it allows everyone equal status. Quakers, for instance, believe that everyone has “that of God” in them, and the liberal Quakers don’t think anyone is going to Hell for not sharing their beliefs (or missing out on Heaven).

    A *lot* of religion in the US is exclusionist though, and it’s hard to remember not to equate religion with that attitude, since it’s so prevalent (and gets all the attention).

  • Luther

    I do not consider myself an ANGRY Atheist. I don’t see the so called New Atheists as ANGRY either.

    But I start to get ANGRY when people call them ANGRY. Grrrrr…

  • Hitch

    JulietEcho, very good point. Most atheists I know ultimately are enlightenment humanists. It’s all about granting each other equal right to express our views. We don’t really deny anybody from holding any view. That is pretty much the definition of a non-bigoted stance I think. It’s not about what opinion one holds, but if another opinion is allowable and can be critiqued.

  • http://www.brettbuchanan.com brett

    And I love Hitchens’ follow-up question: if you ask an audience to name a wicked statement or action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example

  • mkb

    JulietEcho, I think that you said it well (and better than I).

  • Karmakin

    Juliet:The problem really is, at least with Christianity, that the exclusionist views are a core part of the religion. I agree that not all Christians believe in those views, but they are part of the core beliefs of most denominations.

  • http://zenoferox.blogspot.com/ Zeno

    As David Sloan Wilson is an atheist, he’s not personally concerned the he’s missing out on “the beneficial aspects of religion.” He’s above that sort of thing and doesn’t need a sectarian security blanket to make himself feel good. However, he’s really quite concerned that some of his fellow atheists are unkind enough to point out that the security blanket is a tissue of myths or lies. Wilson really can’t abide that. He prefers to pat believers on the head and say, “There, there now. I happen to believe that your belief is nonsense, but I respect it.” That surely makes the faithful feel loved and is ever so much nicer a response than that of those supposedly “angry” atheists who campaign against irrationality. Those atheists are just mean to the people Wilson prefers to patronize.

  • http://none Sergio

    I went to Binghamton as an undergrad, and I knew DSW on a semi-personal level. His goals for the Evolutionary Studies program and what he is doing there are great in that he is promoting science and evolutionary thinking to understand all sorts of phenomena, even religion.

    The problem is he seems to like picking fights with what Hitchens, Dawkins, etc are saying by putting up straw man arguments and taking issue with things that are really beside the point. Like Hemant said – nobody disagrees that religion provided some sort of utility during the social development of our species, but to say that its useful NOW and provides some benefit to society is dead wrong. We all see the damage it causes.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    “No one — including Dawkins — denies that religion offers benefits like community and hope.”

    I think you are missing the point when Wilson says, “They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the ‘secular utility’ of religion.” It’s not so much that he’s saying that religion is a good thing, but rather that the New Atheists are letting their biases against religion skew their understanding of what current science has to say about religion. For example, Wilson criticizes Dennett for writing Breaking the Spell for treating “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,” and continues on to say, “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).”

    In other words, Wilson thinks that Dennett has particular ideas about religion that he wants to sell, and avoids the scientific studies that might throw a monkey wrench into those ideas by, for example, showing religion to be adaptive and not just a spandrel. He has similar criticisms of other New Atheists. Now whether those criticisms are accurate is another story, but that’s the gist of what Wilson’s been saying.

  • JulietEcho

    @ Karmakin

    Juliet:The problem really is, at least with Christianity, that the exclusionist views are a core part of the religion. I agree that not all Christians believe in those views, but they are part of the core beliefs of most denominations.

    True, and I come from a family and church that believes that if you *don’t* take an exclusionist view, you aren’t a “real” Christian, which is also a pretty common view in the states. For some reason, people really like the idea of Hell for those who don’t share their beliefs.

    I think that’s how Hemant slipped and generalized – because we’re not often alerted to the existence of Christians who think that everyone is going to be okay in the afterlife (or that maybe there isn’t one, and it doesn’t matter). Even the “moderate” and definitely the “mainstream” Christians in the US will (kindly) tell you that non-beleivers go to Hell.

  • Hitch

    J. J. Ramsey, the problem is that the debate is on the wrong level. The question to be posed is this: Would our world evolve better with or without religion? Isn’t Wilson ignoring the evidence that non-religiousness almost everywhere in modern liberal democracies lifts all desirable dimensions of social life. Lower crime rates, lower abortion rates, higher levels of literacy and so on.

    So if the argument is about evidence, there is plenty of evidence that even today, with an evolutionary perspective one can argue that perhaps a hypothetical history that doesn’t use religious mechanisms would performed equally or perhaps better, and that from now on we can also hold the hypothesis.

    The evidence that religion is benefitial and has contributed to socio-political evolution doesn’t speak at all about valid criticism of religion and the relative merits of how society could evolve best.

    The “secular utility” of religion may well not outway the utility of a purely secular world.

    But that is the problem with social science in general, we do not have a ground truth, we just have one, actual historic evolution. To equate that evolution with the best possible outcome is a fallacy.

  • Ed

    “Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven’t had a reply yet.”

    He hasn’t received a reply because there’s no good answer to that. Religion doesn’t offer any benefits you couldn’t find in a good secular alternative.

    I think the above misses the point many religious people are trying to make- It is not that atheists can’t take an ethical action, it is that often they don’t. (I am thinking here of stats that show the religious donate more/volunteer more than the secular) Religion does confer benefits, a prime one being a highly structured method of influencing behavior and thinking. Sometimes this finds its expression in ways that are good for society like volunteering and charity, and other times in negative ways, like anti science advocacy, genital mutilation or terrorist jihad.

    That’s why we go after religion. The claims are ludicrous, but there is a feeling among millions of people that religion makes people better or more moral. They’re wrong.

    No they are not, at least not entirely. Religion can improve their lives, can help them be more kind, generous or moral. It does it in similar ways the secular versions do for the secular.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    J. J. Ramsey, the problem is that the debate is on the wrong level. The question to be posed is this: Would our world evolve better with or without religion?

    That’s one question, but there are a few others:

    * How the heck did we get religion in the first place?

    * Why are people religious?

    * Heck, what does “religion” mean, exactly? Is it an actual phenomenon or a label we use to describe a mish-mash of phenomena that really aren’t that related?

    If you don’t have good answers to those questions, you’ll have a dog of a time figuring out how to get rid of religion or at least mitigate its more negative effects.

    Isn’t Wilson ignoring the evidence that non-religiousness almost everywhere in modern liberal democracies lifts all desirable dimensions of social life. Lower crime rates, lower abortion rates, higher levels of literacy and so on.

    Judging from what Wilson had to say about the book Sacred and Secular, which discusses the factors leading to a society becoming religious or secular, I’d say no.

  • Gibbon

    But these are things that you could get with any group of close friends — without having to believe in supernatural nonsense.

    No one ever said that you had to have supernatural beliefs to reap the benefits of religion or to be religious.

    In order to be part of that community, you must subscribe to beliefs that are not based in reality,

    Actually they are based in reality, it’s just that they aren’t described using secular or materialistic language; instead the beliefs are framed in the language of transcendence, which is the immaterial that humans place above the material.

    Religion doesn’t offer any benefits you couldn’t find in a good secular alternative.

    Except that religion plays a powerful role in the functioning of a community. First and foremost it brings together all those people who share a common moral code, which it elevates above the material (this is where the divine and the supernatural originate from). Then it provides the tools for maintaining individual commitment to the moral code and hence the rest of the community, which it achieves by holding the individual accountable to the rest of the members. When a person deviates from that moral code they are perceived as disrupting the social order and are therefore punished. Severe enough deviations result in the complete disconnection of the person from the community, which isolates them from the moral, and which from within the group is interpreted as being hell.

    The New Atheists support strong communities of people. They don’t support membership being restricted to those who buy into religious mythology.

    Instead they support communities where membership is restricted to belief in scientific rationalism, contempt of religion, and rejection of it. And they replace the narrative of religious mythology with a scientific narrative. And if they carry down the current path they will end up creating one of the largest secular/scientific religions in the world.

    I’ve said it elsewhere on this blog, and I’ll say it again. Modern atheism is the rejection of group thought and action. But the human condition, while trying to satisfy the self, longs for the company of a group. It is very much a conflict within the human condition: the need to satisfy the self versus the need to belong to a group. It is the exact same debate that has defined roughly the last five hundred years of European history. We are a social species that has an enormous sense of self, hence the internal contradiction in the human condition.

    And I’ll say this, as long as the groups of humans are separated from one another by even just a road, there will always be communities that hold different beliefs to one another. This in turn has the result of producing different religions. It is basically the evolutionary tree of culture.

    I know everyone here is going to disagree with this, so I will simply say that I have developed this view of religion due to the material I have been exposed to in the university courses on Religious Studies and History that I have taken over the last twelve months.

  • plutosdad

    If you don’t have good answers to those questions, you’ll have a dog of a time figuring out how to get rid of religion or at least mitigate its more negative effects

    Exactly how I feel. if we remove religion, the tendency towards idolatry and bowing down to something and oppressing others who disagree is still there. Witness last century which can be interpreted as some making an idol out of their political philosophy and sacrificing others to it. They decided their philosophy was more important than reason, and abandoned reason and even science.

    It is easy to say religion causes this or that, but isn’t it also true we create religion and god in our own image? If so, are we the core problem? Religion didn’t pop into being on its own, we made it, and we had reasons to do so. Maybe it was to control others, maybe to explain things.

    Should the death of religion be our goal? Or should it instead be the adoption of reason and the scientific method? If we do that will not religion end on its own?

  • Jamie

    Religion does confer benefits, a prime one being a highly structured method of influencing behavior and thinking. Sometimes this finds its expression in ways that are good for society like volunteering and charity, and other times in negative ways, like anti science advocacy, genital mutilation or terrorist jihad.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily that religion provides an influence toward good behavior so much as it provides a structure for volunteering and charity.

    When I attended church with my family, every week the collection plate would come around and we’d drop in a little blue envelope with our weekly donation; my family and my friends’ families didn’t ponder for a while about giving or the needy or God’s word, we just remembered to slip a check in the envelope before we left for church, that’s all. On occasion, they’d announce a special collection for one cause or another, and that week you slipped a couple bucks into a little yellow envelope, also because the church said so and not because we were deeply concerned about the cause du jour.

    A few years ago, I attended a Catholic middle school. For my religion classes, everyone had to do X hours of volunteering every semester. No one decided at the end of it “Gee, now I really love volunteering and I want to do it more often!” On the contrary, it was unanimous that it was all a pain in the ass and they never wanted to do it again.

    So it all comes back to the issue that religion has a framework in place and atheists don’t. If all the Catholics I know are anything to go by, the teachings of a religion aren’t the key factor, the requirement to attend services is; if a church closed down for a month for whatever reason, I very much doubt you’d find more than 1% of the congregation, if that, going out of their way to make up for the time and money they aren’t donating (unless they go to another church, of course) and if volunteering were no longer mandatory at parochial schools the students would cheer at its passing.

    I know everyone here is going to disagree with this, so I will simply say that I have developed this view of religion due to the material I have been exposed to in the university courses on Religious Studies and History that I have taken over the last twelve months.

    I’m guessing it was a philosophy course, then, since if you’d taken a sociology course you’d have learned that atheism isn’t about rejection of the group and religion isn’t the only source of morality; morality can come from any moral system, whether that be religion, science, abstract philosophy, or something else. Emile Durkheim and others showed that what matters is the group unity and the rituals they have–the actual contents of that groups’ rituals can be anything from Christian mythology to FSMism, and the social benefits will be the same.

  • Hitch

    That’s one question, but there are a few others:

    * How the heck did we get religion in the first place?

    * Why are people religious?

    * Heck, what does “religion” mean, exactly? Is it an actual phenomenon or a label we use to describe a mish-mash of phenomena that really aren’t that related?

    I’d love to do anthropology of religion, but is that really the debate here? We can start with Feuerbach, I have no problem with that. Feuerbach already gave quite interesting hypothesis what utilitarian reasons promote the adoption of religion and there is a wealth more in the area. None of this proves that religion is essential. In fact better solutions can be found if one understand the actual diverging utilities encoded in religious mandates and optimize them directly.

    Furthermore dogma gets in the way. A utility 2000 years ago may well be mal-adaptive today. If we first have to fight absolute truth to change it, there is a direct hinderance because of religion.

    Judging from what Wilson had to say about the book Sacred and Secular, which discusses the factors leading to a society becoming religious or secular, I’d say no.

    I appreciate the pointer. I’d agree with Wilson in the article, except that rather than comparing wines, he is comparing apples and oranges. Hitchens and Dawkins address something different things.

    I cannot see Wilson’s argument addressing the trends of revisions going in in the US today. See the new christian revisionism and fundamentalism is new. The christian coalition and moral majority, and the “faith” label on politicians is a trend of the last 30 years. I understand Hitchens and Dawkins to be counterreactions to this.

    And these attempts to increase and promote religiosity is real. I see what we see on the Texas school board today as the direct outcome of the christian revival in the 80s. Just check which universities the people on the board went to, and you’ll understand that this isn’t just lunacy.

    To mix that with prediction of long-term transitions in society as is studied and proposed in Sacred and Secular is conflating global religious study and societal development with rather local but socio-politically important US issues.

    Where will “teaching the controversy” go if there is no opposition to it, or people speaking to the root cause for it even existing, religion?

    Hitchens is better compared to Mark Twain, Thomas Paine and George Orwell. He is a social and political comentator with literature as his domain.

    And Dawkins is a somewhat more confrontational version of Carl Sagan and but less outspoken than a Thomas Huxley. He is a defender of scientific method on the popular level.

    They are not Feuerbach, Durkheim or Weber, who are sociologists, and philosophers.

    It’s almost like saying that the promotion of the Theory of Evolution was hindered by Thomas Huxley, rather than critically protected against interlocutor and attempt to remove it as a persistent outcome.

    Hitchens and Dawkins leave a purely secular world there as outcome by defending that option.

    Finally, the hypothesis of gradual change. Is it true? I do not know. But what I know is that some of the most important shifts in belief structure often were sadly associated with drastic events. 30 year war, French revolution, US war of independence. But some chances came about in an invisible backdrop like the emergence of science through Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. These were not revolutions but hidden gradual changes that found ways to be in an intolerant world.

    Which one is right? This is the question. And unlike Wilson my position is, I don’t know. At least I certainly do not have enough evidence to denounce Dawkins or Hitchens as being wrong for promoting a secular world view and overtly criticize what they criticize.

    But ultimately I think that Wilson simply misjudges the role they play and what they actually say.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Hitch:

    None of this proves that religion is essential.

    Did Wilson ever say it was? There’s a huge difference between discussing how religion has had “secular utility,” especially as part of a study on how religion has evolved, and whether it is essential to society, well-being, etc.

    Hitch:

    I’d agree with Wilson in the article, except that rather than comparing wines, he is comparing apples and oranges. Hitchens and Dawkins address something different things.

    I think you are missing the point, which is that the authors of Sacred and Secular were actually using science and reason to deal with religion, while the New Atheists–in Wilson’s opinion at least–weren’t, in spite of their cheerleading for reason.

  • Karmakin

    Truth be told, I think that if there wasn’t such a movement to oppose the study and acceptance of evolution, then Dawkins probably would never have gotten involved in these lines of debate.

    Basically, they went and pissed in his pool, then get all shocked when he’s angry about it.

  • Aj

    Neo Cortex,

    The Bible doesn’t say that non-believers cannot make ethical statements or perform ethical actions. In fact it assumes the opposite: men and women are made in God’s image and have a sense of morality and conscience. He probably hasn’t had a reply because no-one disagrees with him.

    When Richard Dawkins goes on a TV or radio show with a religious audience, it’s almost inevitable that someone who stand up or phone in and say exactly what you are saying no one believes, that you can’t be good without God. Most humorously on Fox radio when a caller said if he didn’t believe in God he would rape and murder, and specifically murder his neighbour right away. Theologians and religious apologists routinely make the claim that it doesn’t make sense to make ethical statements, or be moral, without God.

    Gibbon,

    No one ever said that you had to have supernatural beliefs to reap the benefits of religion or to be religious.

    What defines religion other than supernatural beliefs? If you’re going to call a community of rationalists a “religion”, then basically all communities are “religious”, and almost everyone is “religious”. Yet that’s not what people mean when they say “religious”. People either say something is religious, but actually mean it is like a religion, or something is religious because it’s religious i.e. involving supernatural beliefs. On this site, the vast majority of the time, when people talk about religion they mean the related to supernatural beliefs.

    Actually they are based in reality, it’s just that they aren’t described using secular or materialistic language; instead the beliefs are framed in the language of transcendence, which is the immaterial that humans place above the material.

    Bullshit. Religious people for the most part believe in miracles or some other form of magic. It’s as if you’ve never read theology, scripture, opinion polls, history, or actually stepped outside your bubble. People are superstitious, religion isn’t just the framing of existential problems in colourful metaphors, it’s actual belief in the supernatural.

    Except that religion plays a powerful role in the functioning of a community. First and foremost it brings together all those people who share a common moral code, which it elevates above the material (this is where the divine and the supernatural originate from). Then it provides the tools for maintaining individual commitment to the moral code and hence the rest of the community, which it achieves by holding the individual accountable to the rest of the members. When a person deviates from that moral code they are perceived as disrupting the social order and are therefore punished. Severe enough deviations result in the complete disconnection of the person from the community, which isolates them from the moral, and which from within the group is interpreted as being hell.

    Religions do have moral codes, religions aren’t necessary for moral codes. Hell is a place to people, there’s a long tradition of hell as a place, and scripture implies gnashing of teeth. Hell is also reserved for the afterlife. Belief in hell isn’t falling because they believe it’s “disconnection from the community”, they don’t believe in it because of brimstone.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Gibbon,

    I’ve said it elsewhere on this blog, and I’ll say it again. Modern atheism is the rejection of group thought and action.

    Mate… you’re talking shit. That’s total nonsense.

  • AJPIII

    ‘Atheism” etc., is a completely different strategy of utilizing ones brain output.
    So please do not be angry reactivity both validates and reveals the chink in your armor and their incessant need for assault.
    In part religion may be a vestige in response to the loss of the shared hallucination that kept us warm and feeling safe in the dark caves we inhabited after living in the trees for so long. Atheists, nontheists and secularists should consider that they are not actually in opposition to religion at all. No in fact the differences within that structure are the only thing that can form opposites. Atheism etc., is a completely different strategy of utilizing ones brain output. Religion and spiritualist can no more oppose critical or skeptical thinking then one can oppose the waves from breaking on the shores. Even if you put a wall or levee the waves crash and break nonetheless. Rational thinking is a thing outside their ken and is demonstrated as a lack of understanding by their reactivity. Now anyone can fall into irrationality so take heed and do not let emotions connect to anything that seemingly assails for it is their compartmentalization that your reasoning will crash and break against. Since the ocean of reasoning will reduce their rock of intransigence to sand it is simply a matter of patience and inevitable.
    Now as far as this double edged sword and purported benefit of religon that is certainly open for debate.

  • Hitch

    Sacred and Secular is a sociology and political science book.
    Wilson is right, if you think of Dawkins and Hitchens’ book as texts of sociology of religion they are not great wines. I just reject that there is even a sensible comparison.

    But to your point:

    authors of Sacred and Secular were actually using science and reason to deal with religion

    Let’s actually look at the body of work of Dawkins. No, he doesn’t study religion as an object using science. He is not a sociologist of religion. He counters apologetics by religious people with science. He is a professor of public understanding of science, with his expertise being in natural sciences. These are plainly different domains.

    He uses plenty of science, but on a different plane. He uses science to address misuse of science by religious advocates.

    In a court proceeding that tries to evaluate the merit of ID, would Sacred and Secular help win the case the that ID is not something we should teach to children? I would say no. However Dawkins books directly addresses the point and directly helps that case.

    So let me claim this again: These are different domains!

    Look I disagree with Dawkins on plenty of things. I actually dislike how he treats agnosticism for example. But these blanket attacks against a whole book without going into the details of the position I find as best unfair. And comparing them against genres that they simply never tried to be is unfair as well.

    Wilson wittingly or unwittingly places himself with Eagleton and Craig Lane. All attacking Dawkins on things he doesn’t try to do or positions he doesn’t actually hold.

    As for Hitchens, he is no scientist. By this argument, should we reject the thinking of Orwell and Twain? I reject that motion as plainly silly. Hitchens brings plenty of good reasoning and valuable insights, as did Orwell and Twain.

  • duhsciple

    Look, if you don’t think people need God or organized religion to be good and kind and ethical to your neighbor, then just do it. If churches are currently more mobilized to do good things, then go a mobilize.

    Practice what you preach.

    Show us that you don’t need the supernatural to do good.

    Quite honestly the “new atheists” seem like the fundamentalist version of religion in reverse. I feel beaten down by both “right religion” and “we’re smarter than you atheism”.

    I look for “friendly faith” and “friendly atheism” and find no friends at all. Maybe it is the human condition. I don’t know. But I can go to an atheist blog and a faith blog and find the same thing.

    A hermitage doesn’t sound too bad right about now!

  • Hitch

    Plenty of good is happening from atheists. We get no credit. In fact I volunteer regularly but I do it silently, because I don’t want to do it to boast. I do it to help. I don’t need to solicit donations after all.

    And people forget that some of the most generous philantropes are atheists.

    It’s easy to say that we do not practice what we preach. One people don’t even look at what we practice!

    As for friendship, the deepest friendship is the one you have with someone you disagree with.

  • me

    “Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever. I have since asked this question at every stop and haven’t had a reply yet.”

    -There are plenty of good answers to this question, but they rely wholly on accepting the construct of religion. For example, here’s an ethical statement that could only be made by a person of faith: Do not have any God before the one God. Here’s another: Keep the Sabbath day holy.

    In the context of Judeo-Christian religion, there is zero doubt that those are statements of ethical principles, nor is there any doubt that they are only espoused by people of religion. Indeed, the ethics of faith is the fundamental disconnect between religion and atheism.

  • Hitch

    Not really. The first statement is not a statement of ethics, it’s a statement of jealousy. But here is how an atheist can say this:

    “Do not have any God before anything.”

    But let me give you more. An atheist is perfectly fine to say the following:

    “Do not have any God before the one God. If that one God exists at all.”

    So if the precondition is met, fine, have it. It’s still not an ethical position but one of exclusion. It’s an onthological question of other supposed Gods with respect to “the one God”.

    The second statement has a perfectly secular analogue:

    “Keep one day of the week free of working obligations so people can rest and take care of family”.

    Doesn’t require god at all.

    There is no such thing as the ethics of faith, but there are lots of evidence that in fact the assumption of ethics of faith in practice leads to unethical things.

    Prayer healing for example.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Hitch:

    Let’s actually look at the body of work of Dawkins. No, he doesn’t study religion as an object using science. He is not a sociologist of religion.

    But when he gets into talking about memes or what the religious mindset is supposed to be, he is expounding on the sociology of religion. Now since he is an advocate of science and reason, and he should be aware that he is not an expert on sociology of religion, he should make himself aware of those who are experts and work from their findings, rather than try to roll his own half-baked ideas. Same goes for the other New Atheists. If they don’t do this, then it’s perfectly acceptable to call them on it.

  • Hitch

    Er, it’s half a chapter in the God Delusion on memes and religions. And again Dawkins is a popularizer of memetics. Eminent and expert enough in that he actually coined the very term in 1976. I think he is perfectly clear that he isn’t writing a scientific study but explains how memes might work evolution of religious ideas.

    And he himself has joked that some think that was too much memetics in the book and some thought that was too little.

    If we are arguing if half a chapter of a popular exposition of a book is comparable to a book that is full scholarship on the topic, well I think we are close to silly season.

    Sure one can “call him out” on it, I’m just not going to agree that that’s sensible.

    The standard that you promote I simply cannot justify. By what you state only experts can ever speak. I find that too stringent a criteria.

    By that standard we can never write books that are for popular consumption. All has to be a scientific study. Look if I read Hawking’s Brief History of Time as an authoritative book on cosmology I’m in for disappointment. In fact Hawking does quite a bit of unscientific speculation in that book too! And he talks on theologicals matter without doing theology.

    Hawking’s book is bad, if you look at it the wrong way. You have to judge the book on what it tries to do, not what you think it ought to have done.

    I have lots of issue with Hawking’s book too, but I wouldn’t be found confusing it for Misner, Thorne, Wheeler.

    I stick to my position. You are comparing two things. I’m happy to accept this as a disagreement.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Hitch: “If we are arguing if half a chapter of a popular exposition of a book is comparable to a book that is full scholarship on the topic, well I think we are close to silly season.”

    First, we aren’t just talking about Dawkins’ views on memes, but rather whether Dawkins employs science and reason when he touches on sociology of religion. I don’t think anyone here is saying that Dawkins’ books on religion should be treatises on sociology of religion, not even Wilson. However, if New Atheists are going to expound on sociology of religion (or anything else for that matter), they should do their homework and know what the heck they’re talking about.

  • Hitch

    Ramsey, you are leading me around the block. You bring on memes, I respond, then suddenly it’s not about memes.

    Let me take your charge seriously and go into depth with Wilson.

    Here is the charge:

    “if New Atheists are going to expound on sociology of religion (or anything else for that matter) they should do their homework and know what the heck they’re talking about.”

    So you are saying Dawkins misquoted, misrepresented or undercited something in the God Delusion as a popular book on the subject of atheism? If you do, please cite, or retract.

    I have issues that he doesn’t cite Feuerbach, but that’s about it. Feuerbach is undercited in most anglo-saxon literature on the topic in general so I cannot hold this against him specifically.

    How about Hitchens. What did Hitchens not do, on the topic he covers, that he should have done? Please quote or retract.

    I think you are in mud slinging territory to be honest and let me argue in detail why I think that. Let us look at how Wilon argues, and keep in mind the very standards you have told us to uphold:

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolution/2009/10/atheism_as_a_stealth_religion_4.php

    Most of his analysis of Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens are not scholarly. He quotes the most extreme things by Hitchens (and yes he is a provocateur) and not his most conciliatory.

    In both his blurbs on either Hitchens and Dawkins he has to go to sources outside their main books, God Delusion and god is not Great to find some dirt. And that is justification for dismissing them.

    Scholarly? Scientific? Hardly. Did he do his homework? Well not from the blurbs he wrote he didn’t.

    And yes I happen to think that telling children that there is a hell where they go to if they don’t pray every day is child abuse. But let’s not take my context. So Wilson attacks Dawkins for the child abuse thing. But Wilson twists it when he claims “which will require setting up a vast foster care system staffed by rationalists”.

    As if all foster parents, even the religious ones are in the spectrum where Dawkins placed his concern. For the lack of Wilson’s own scholarship he does not quote where Dawkins actually says it and in which context:

    http://richarddawkins.net/articles/118

    It turns out that he actually quotes psychologist Nicholas Humphrey who actually proposed the idea. Humphrey of course studied in detail the context and has written extensively on the psychology of supernatural beliefs. Dawkins cites this:

    http://www.humphrey.org.uk/papers/1998WhatShallWeTell.pdf

    For Humphrey (not Dawkins) to come to his judgment he in detail discusses actual cases. Enough to tell Amnesty International about it and quality enough to get it published in a peer reviewed journal. Geez, who didn’t do their homework and don’t know what they are talking about?

    We are to belief that Dawkins view on religion as child abuse is unreflected and doesn’t consider context. Really?

    So being ignorant of Dawkins context for his claims, then making exaggerated and unfounded claim about possible impact on the foster system we are to belief that Dawkins is wrong? That is knowing what one is talking about and scientific? I’m sorry. It’s not and Wilson does not engage in a scientific critique of Dawkins’ views. Frankly it is not even clear he read Dawkins article on the matter.

    Wilson basically parrots the charges against Dawkins by his most shallow detractors, without checking context. Scholarship? Hardly.

    With Dennett at least he engages on his main text, but rather than engage with it on Dennett’s term, as primarily a text in the philosophical tradition.

    I disagree with Dennett’s presctiptions too, but I’m not going to be found to think of Wilson’s argument that “I doubt that this policy would have a meaningful impact on the worldwide problems associated with religion.” Is any more scientifically solid than unstudied assumptions by Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett.

    But no, we have to belief that the new atheists are angry, ineffective, silly and dangerous! Yes, and that by taking extreme quotes, pulling things in a different context and so forth. And then we have to buy that really these three authors are unscholarly, ideally without checking the arguments brought against them.

    No you won’t be seeing me nodding my head to this.

    There is too much legitimate criticism of all three to allow that kind of unserious dirt-slinging to stick, let alone be called reason and science.

    But I have to commend Wilson, unlike Eagleton he left enough traces of his opinion that one can actually check if he hold up to his own demands. But he ends up being no better than Eagleton in a stereotypical knee jerk reaction against the New Atheist, charging them in ways that are neither fair nor honest.

  • Hitch

    Last thing on this: Hitchens is quoted out of context as well to make him appear worse than he is. Wilson gives the impression that Hitchens talks about religions believers in the following quote:

    “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.”

    Here is the actual source:

    http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1457374/posts

    Who is “them”? He talks about “aggressive internationalist totalitarian ideologies.” The paragraph that Wilson cites is actually truncated. It begins with:

    “They [Islamist radicals or, as Hitchens calls them, Islamo-fascists] gave us no peace and we shouldn’t give them any.”

    I assume the square brackets are inserted by the editor. So rather than Hitchens seeking the extermination of believers, he seeks the destruction of violent totalitarians who attack us. You can think what you will about Hitchens war stance, but this is simply out of context quoting that makes him look extremer than he is. Well Wilson has cover, because he cited a third party source. Well done!

    I have come to the conclusion that Wilson is happy to use unchecked sources and out of context quotes to discredit people unfairly. Shameful.

  • Scootah

    I don’t for a minute think that the benefits of religious organisations outweigh the flaws.

    So to be clear – if we could disolve the catholic church tomorrow – I’d be all in favour. I might even do a little dance. If we could disolve the Baptists and Islam the following days – I’d probably even do a full choroegraphed dance routine, with jazz hands and tap dancings.

    But if you can’t see that their are some good things come from religions – then you’ve become as blinded by dogma as the religious institutes that are so irritating to sensible people.

    Soup Kitchens? Almost universally run by religious groups. Immunization programs in the third world? Almost universally run by religious groups. Centralized education including litteracy? A concept pioneered by religious groups. The core moral tennets that western culture revovles around? Almost universally derived from religious texts.

    Clearly – some good stuff has come out of religion. Still, the overwhelming majority of charities in the world have some kind of religious kick to them.

    And it’s a damned shame that all those good things come lumped with the virulent stupidity of homophobia and gender bias, and a damned shame that they’ve become so integrally tied to isolationism and cultural insularism and in so many cases racism. It’s horrific that of all the things that people could have used Jesus to group around – strong nuclear armament is such a prevalent choice.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that branding religion as universally negative is ignorant and a product of dogmatic obsession with a cause rather than rational clarity and reasoned purpose.

    And if you think Dawkins isn’t genuinely branding anything that has a religious connoitation as ‘Evil’ – even if it’s something completely benign in practical implementation – or no more harmful then the secular equivalents – then you haven’t read enough of his writing.

    Dawkins says a lot of interesting things, but it’s hard to even try and argue that he’s rational and reasonable in his views on religion.

  • duhsciple

    When a religious person demonizes someone of another faith or no faith, arguing that nothing good can come from them, only evil, then I object.

    When a person of no faith demonizes someone who believes, arguing that only evil and nothing good has come from that faith, then I object.

    When a religious person does something good and credits it to his/her faith, I try to receive his/her perspective, regardless of whether it lines up with my own.

    When an atheist does something good and credits it to his/her non-faith, I also receive his/her perspective, even if I do no share the same interpretation of life.

    During my lifetime, I have been sickened by blow hard preachers who demonize others. When you demonize someone, you often become a demon yourself. How many times has a preacher failed to “practice what he preaches”?

    Now I am becoming aware of “new atheists” who are aggressive with this “evangelism”. I confess that I react to negatively to this tone. I see the same “shadow” that I see in “believers.” I bring a suspicious stance to both sides.

    At the same time, I honor whatever good another does whether it is done in the name of faith or not. This is the kind of friendly engagement I hope for. Let us honor the disagreement and difference in views. And let us refuse to demonize.

  • Hitch

    duhsciple: Quote a statement that you think demonizes and we can talk.

    As you say we should be suspicious of demonization. I happen to suspect that new atheists are blanket demonized as aggressive. So let’s evaluate the evidence.

  • Aj

    Scootah,

    It depends on what you mean by “comes from religion”. If you mean that people are good because of religion, that’s blatantly false. As is the claim that core moral tenets came from religious texts which is total bullshit. If you mean that without religion there would be no soup kitchens, immunization programs, or schools, because religion is an essential part of their development, then I’d say you don’t know that, you only know that’s how it happened.

    Name me five benign things with citations that Dawkins has described as “evil”. Although I suspect you don’t give a shit, because you’re deliberately misrepresenting him. That’s to say I doubt you’re reasonable, sensible, or rational, but not as much as I doubt you have read The God Delusion or 10% of the articles he has written.

  • Aj

    duhsciple,

    Logically, atheism doesn’t motivate anyone to do anything. A lack of a belief can’t motivate anything. At best, lacking a belief would remove motivation to do something bad.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Hitch:

    Who is “them”? He talks about “aggressive internationalist totalitarian ideologies.” The paragraph that Wilson cites is actually truncated. It begins with:

    “They [Islamist radicals or, as Hitchens calls them, Islamo-fascists] gave us no peace and we shouldn’t give them any.”

    I assume the square brackets are inserted by the editor.

    Fair enough, though in the same interview that the quote is from, Hitchens claims that Michael Moore “makes a perfectly good brownshirt [fascist],” which makes it unclear just how broadly Hitchens casts his net when he speaks of “fascists.” Hitchens, even with the context, still comes off as unhinged. Still, Wilson’s quote is at best ambiguous in indicating what Hitchens means by “they.”

    (FWIW, when I read that interview, I was surprised at how much of a wingnut he was. “The Democrat party truly is what some people crudely say: a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Israeli lobby”? Is he kidding me? But that has nothing to do with Wilson.)

    BTW, Hitch, if you want demonization, start here: Hitler Zombie massacre over evolution, part 2: Unexpected victims

  • duhsciple

    I think that there are no forces on this planet more dangerous to us all than the fanaticism of fundamentalism, of all the species: Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as countless smaller infections. Is there a conflict between science and religion here? There most certainly is. [Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea]

    Of course, I am against fanaticism. But is that all there is to these faiths?

  • Aj

    duhsciple,

    But is that all there is to these faiths?

    That’s not what Dennett is saying at all. He’s saying that fundamentalism has had a rebirth in all of those faiths, not that they entirely consist of fundamentalists.

  • Hitch

    It’s off topic but yeah I don’t at all agree with Hitchens on the wars and how he portraits the opponents of the war, including Moore and Sheehan. The Michael Moore quote you mention makes more sense in the context of his longer article: http://www.slate.com/id/2102723

    Hitchens really is an heir of Orwell who also had no sympathy for pacifism. And I’m very much in a different camp than him on that.

    But let me bring that back to the point of demonization. I think that Hitchens does demonize some people he dislikes. But if one is honest in evaluating people we should not do the same. We can agree with some parts of what people say and disagree with others, rather than whole-sale buy all or nothing.

    I happen to agree with most of Hitchens assessment with regards to religion and overall he has been very friendly and kind making his point, points that are harsh for true believers for sure, but fair points regardless. Heck apologist debaters keep inviting him and I have yet to see a debate where he is rude or aggressive (in my definition of those terms).

    So to label Hitchens aggressive in his position is often overreading his rhetoric rather than his actual arguments. So yes, he says he is anti-theistic, but if you listen to the points he makes he is actually pro-coexistence as long as people don’t meddle. He doesn’t have any real issue with moderate enlightened forms of religious beliefs.

    But it’s easy to take the subtitle of his book and his proclaimed anti-theism and surface reading of his spiel on celestial dictatorship and north korea to paint him as aggressive, when a true picture is actually more more sensible.

    With Dawkins it’s even worse. Dawkins is the more gentle person. He loses patience every now and then and he like to be in the spotlight, but he makes some really strong points and usually is solidly researched (at least I don’t know of any serious gaffe).

    I completely disagrees with his probability model of atheism and think he is flat wrong about what agnosticism even means but again we can look at arguments without having to demonize the person.

    Yet he too is demonized over the child abuse thing without people considering the context.

    Take Harris. I literally had people tell me that he wanted to exterminate all believers. It’s an extreme and unjustified interpretation of his book the End of Faith, where he does argue that the world will be better without faith.

    Very often people simply fail to separate faith and the faithful and assume an anti-theist will come out to slaughter them. Yes that would be aggressive or worse.

    And apologists help. D’Souza literally conjures up Holocaust images when arguing against Atheists, amplifying the fear that all atheism leads to totalitarian mass murder. Sure we ought to be afraid of the new atheists!

    There are whole books quoting how bad Hitchens and Dawkins are. Pull a stern quote out of context and it becomes horrifying. This is how that works.

    That doesn’t mean we have to cheer every word of any of these men. Let’s judge their views on their individual merits. That’s what it means to not demonize.

    And with my criticism of Wilson, it only applies to that point. I have not read enough what else he says and his individual points too deserve to be judged on their individual merits.

  • Gibbon

    Jamie

    I’m guessing it was a philosophy course, then, since if you’d taken a sociology course you’d have learned that atheism isn’t about rejection of the group and religion isn’t the only source of morality; morality can come from any moral system, whether that be religion, science, abstract philosophy, or something else.

    It was Religious Studies, which involves not only the philosophy of religion, but also history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and increasingly the cognitive sciences. One lecture in particular focused on nothing more than the cognition and neuro-science of religion, it was very interesting as well, gave me some interesting ideas.

    I stand by my comment about modern atheism involving a rejection of the group, because it seems pretty clear to me that atheists tend to be far more independent minded people than your typical theist/religious person. There is a pattern here: the secular atheist type favours basic rights and freedom of thought, while the religious type, particularly the conservative ones, prefers community participation and group thought. Why else would you have someone like Richard Dawkins making the admission that organising atheists is like herding cats?

    Like virtually everyone here, I’m not willing to agree with the proposition of religious people that religion is the source of morality, I harbour very strong doubts that it is. But as to what the relationship between religion and morality in fact looks like, I think it is the case that the former provides the means to enforcing and perpetuating the latter. I think that if religion was it self a moral force, it would be less likely that people would use their religious scriptures to justify violence or atrocities. Instead the consequences of any particular religion are the result of the peculiarities of the individuals, and not what the books say, because if you have a disposition towards aggression and violence then chances are you are going to see those sorts of themes in scripture. Basically I view religion as being neither a positive or negative force; instead it is benign or neutral, because it is clear that people are capable of using it for great evil AND great good. Where two options are equally as likely, then maybe there is a third option.

    Aj

    What defines religion other than supernatural beliefs? If you’re going to call a community of rationalists a “religion”, then basically all communities are “religious”, and almost everyone is “religious”.

    It may be tempting to reduce religion to nothing more than supernatural beliefs, but in the words of one of my lecturers, “if you want to understand what religion is, forget about the supernatural”. It is also not a realistic definition of religion as it originates with 18th or 19th century Protestant dogma. While those who study religion are not all in agreement as to what it is exactly, they have come to the consensus view that it is not supernatural belief. Just look at the definitions offered by people like Emile Durkheim or Wendy Doniger and you will notice a virtual absence of any mention of the supernatural.

    I’m of the opinion that if you start treating religion as if it is not concerned with matters of the real world, then you’re divorcing it from nature and hence making it more difficult to study as a natural phenomenon. That is why I said it is based in the real world, because any given tenet originates with real world issues. For example, the Qur’an says what it says about polygamy not because of belief in the supernatural, but because it was a common practice in 6th century Arabia, and it was something that Mohammed wanted to place greater restrictions on.

    Mohammed made sweeping reforms that gave dowries and inheritance to females, unlike in pre-Islamic Arabia, and restricted the number of wives a husband could take, because those were issues of concern to him. He actually gave women much greater freedom in Arabic culture than had been afforded to them under the old tradition. Jesus threw the money lenders out of the temple and stated that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, not because of supernatural beliefs, but because he perceived issues of economics in Roman-ruled Judea as problems that needed to be addressed. Jesus was trying to reform Judaism but he ended up producing Christianity, and Mohammed was trying to reform Arabia and he ended up creating Islam. Religious leaders tend to be reformers, and their statements are ninety-nine percent of the time addressing the issues they wish to reform.

    There is a very real debate in the anthropology of religion over whether a religion takes on the form that it does because of culture, or if culture is shaped by the religion. It was discussed in one of my tutorials a couple of weeks ago, and it is obvious that the issue is very complex and difficult to resolve. It’s not something that a bunch of second year students in a fifty minute period or that lay people in an online discussion can answer.

    A lot of people here like to dream of religion being extinct, but I would put to you that it is impossible to know that the world and the human species would be better off without it. There is no guarantee that things would be any better without religion.

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    When people talk about religion they’re talking about things connected to supernatural beliefs. Religion has been about the supernatural for the entirety of history. It might be difficult to study religion, but studying reality often is. You don’t study the oceans but forget about the water.

    I’m sympathetic to the idea that Mohammed was a fraud, he was definitely self-serving and plagiarising enough to be a fraud. Perhaps he was the Joseph Smith of his time. However, while selectively picking out parts of the Qur’an you like, you may want to stop and read all the theology that’s there. Jesus may have been against wealth, but he was also against planning for the future, families, and warned that judgement day was soon. From the same scripture you mention, if you take it seriously, these people were batshit insane. If it’s an elaborate ruse, dressing up reform, then as Jefferson found out when he tried to make his version of the Bible, the gospels contain very little of secular concern.

    There’s no guarantees, but there doesn’t need to be. I’d suggest there’s good reasons and evidence to believe that less religion, and more enlightenment, things would be better. That should be enough.

  • JiveKitty

    “I stand by my comment about modern atheism involving a rejection of the group, because it seems pretty clear to me that atheists tend to be far more independent minded people than your typical theist/religious person. There is a pattern here: the secular atheist type favours basic rights and freedom of thought, while the religious type, particularly the conservative ones, prefers community participation and group thought. Why else would you have someone like Richard Dawkins making the admission that organising atheists is like herding cats?”

    1) Correlation does not necessarily equal causation.
    2) Regarding the admission that organising atheists is like herding cats, did you consider that it could be because atheism is a lack of belief and thus non-prescriptive in traits rather than a belief system containing a set of prescriptive traits?

  • Hitch

    I stand by my comment about modern atheism involving a rejection of the group, because it seems pretty clear to me that atheists tend to be far more independent minded people than your typical theist/religious person. There is a pattern here: the secular atheist type favours basic rights and freedom of thought, while the religious type, particularly the conservative ones, prefers community participation and group thought. Why else would you have someone like Richard Dawkins making the admission that organising atheists is like herding cats?

    No you misunderstand this. Lack of belief simply is no organizing principles. It is much more sensible to organize for a positive cause. Atheists still organize in other groups, habitat for humanity, doctors without border, amnesty interantional, ACLU, … there are many causes to organize around. It’s just that supernatural belief disappears as organizing principle. Dawkins tries but I think it is indeed hard, perhaps too hard to do, but not for the psychology of nonbelievers. We socially organize just fine.

    But yes you do need independence from group think to reject beliefs that a dominant culture brings to you, but that’s something different.

  • Neil Schipper

    Gibbon,

    I know everyone here is going to disagree with this

    That’s not entirely true.

    Did your course touch on how religion tends to swing between tolerant and fundamentalist forms as resource constraints driving inter-community competition wax and wane?

  • Gibbon

    Aj

    When people talk about religion they’re talking about things connected to supernatural beliefs. Religion has been about the supernatural for the entirety of history. It might be difficult to study religion, but studying reality often is. You don’t study the oceans but forget about the water.

    This is an apt demonstration of the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. This idea that supernatural beliefs lie at the heart of religion did not exist before Protestantism. The idea first took form when Protestants made the argument contrary to the Church of Rome that being a Christian was a matter of individual faith and not a matter of ritual practice. Of all the major religions only Protestant Christianity is mostly orthodox, the rest, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism are primarily orthoprax religions. They’re centred more on their practices than on their beliefs.

    The only reason that most people today, outside the community of religious scholars, believe that religion is centred on supernatural belief is because of the importance that Protestant Christianity has played in the shaping of the western world. If those Christian reformers of the 15th century had never argued that faith must come before practice in Christianity, then the Reformation would not have happened and all of European history after that would not have occurred, which would mean that you would not be arguing that religion is about supernatural beliefs.

    If it’s an elaborate ruse, dressing up reform, then as Jefferson found out when he tried to make his version of the Bible, the gospels contain very little of secular concern.

    What Thomas Jefferson attempted was not reform, rather he trimmed the Christian Bible like an arborist would trim a tree. He tried to make relevant only that which could be understood in the language of the Enlightenment, and he did so without any translation of the text while cutting out large chunks of it, and which could not be understand according to Enlightenment philosophy. Any person who desired to understand what scripture said would today approach the text with the full historical context of the document in mind. You can’t understand what the Qur’an says if you don’t take into consideration 6th century Arabia and the events of the period; you have to divorce your self from more recent influences to a considerable extent, which includes ignoring the influences of Protestant Christianity.

    There’s no guarantees, but there doesn’t need to be. I’d suggest there’s good reasons and evidence to believe that less religion, and more enlightenment, things would be better. That should be enough.

    Actually the experiments with Enlightenment philosophy over the last 300 years, and the experiments in the 20th century with zero religion, prove that less religion and more Enlightenment principles is not the answer, and doesn’t even come close.

    Hitch

    Atheists still organize in other groups, habitat for humanity, doctors without border, amnesty interantional, ACLU, … there are many causes to organize around.

    None of which exclude anyone other than atheists, and none of which create a close-knit self-regulating community in the way that religion does.

    Dawkins tries but I think it is indeed hard, perhaps too hard to do, but not for the psychology of nonbelievers. We socially organize just fine.

    And yet atheists have not been able to organise into a social movement nearly as effectively as religious communities have. When was the last time an atheist movement managed to build up huge numbers and take control of one half of government in the first ten years of its history? Note: the Religious Right did that in the latter half of the 1970s. What are the chances that atheists in any western nation will have gained control of a major political party by the year 2016?

    But yes you do need independence from group think to reject beliefs that a dominant culture brings to you, but that’s something different.

    Well it’s not actually. If what you reject is the beliefs that brought the group together, then logically you are rejecting that group. Atheists may be forming their own groups, but that first requires rejection of other groups, ones which are built on the idea that by definition atheists reject.

    Neil Schipper

    Did your course touch on how religion tends to swing between tolerant and fundamentalist forms as resource constraints driving inter-community competition wax and wane?

    Actually, while the Religious Studies courses I have taken so far have not really covered the relationship between resource control and religious conflicts, I have gotten that impression from the first year course on Modern European History, although not quite in those terms.

  • Hitch

    None of which exclude anyone other than atheists, and none of which create a close-knit self-regulating community in the way that religion does.

    That’s just stereotype. Our society is more fragmented than before but there is no evidence that it is due to atheism, but much more to the change in job prospects and dislocated families. Check Bowling Alone for more on this.

    What are the chances that atheists in any western nation will have gained control of a major political party by the year 2016?

    We don’t need political parties. Check out Sweden. Perhaps one could even argue that in Sweden atheists dominate not only the majority of one party but most parties!

    But the atheism is a non-issue. It’s about how to govern.

    Again, atheism is no strong organizing principle. Yet we can still have a majority population country, people just vote liberal, democratic, socialist or whatever. Doesn’t require religion to organize at all.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Wilson is probably campaigning for a Templeton prize.

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    Supernatural beliefs are behind the philosophy, theology, rituals, and actions of religions. The rituals are meaningless without the beliefs. Are you suggesting Muslims don’t believe Mohammed is a prophet? Did the Catholics not make the first commandment “I am the Lord your God”?

    That’s such dishonest bullshit. Scripture is littered with theological nonsense whatever language it’s in. What is of secular concern that cannot be understood in the language of Enlightenment philosophy? Jefferson wasn’t an idiot, he understood scripture. You’re the one reinterpreting scripture, divorcing it from it’s context.

    Take a look around at the states that are most secular, and most influenced by the Enlightenment. Where do people want to live?

  • Mriana

    It’s been a while since I posted here, but I have to agree, there are no benefits to religion. One can get the same thing without religion. You don’t need religion to have a happy, fulfilling, and satisfying life.

  • Gibbon

    Despite several days late, I just have to do this. One last attempt to open Aj’s mind.

    Aj

    Supernatural beliefs are behind the philosophy, theology, rituals, and actions of religions. The rituals are meaningless without the beliefs.

    Again, this idea that supernatural beliefs are at the centre of religion is the product of the events of the modern European period: post 15th century. Prior to Martin Luther, before Protestantism, religions were not ‘belief first’; what mattered most was the practices and actions. The mistake you are making Aj is that you’re assuming that all religions are orthodox despite the fact only Protestantism is; virtually every other religion is predominantly orthoprax. Rituals do not typically become meaningless when the beliefs are lost, often the ritual can continue because it confers some benefit. Either way, supernatural belief is not necessary for religion.

    Are you suggesting Muslims don’t believe Mohammed is a prophet?

    Don’t twist my words. Of course Muslims believe that Mohammed was the Prophet of Allah, but they don’t believe that there was any divine or supernatural quality to him, Sunni’s especially, instead he is regarded as fully human. It is not his nature that is central to Islam, but rather his actions and the life that he both taught and lived, which Muslims try to emulate in following the Qur’an.

    That’s such dishonest bullshit. Scripture is littered with theological nonsense whatever language it’s in. What is of secular concern that cannot be understood in the language of Enlightenment philosophy? Jefferson wasn’t an idiot, he understood scripture.

    No doubt Jefferson was no idiot, but doing what you’re doing by interpreting millennia old scripture from the perspective of Enlightenment philosophy does not make sense of it. That perspective is telling you that religion is all about supernatural belief, but only when one understands the social conditions of Roman ruled Judea or 6th century Arabia without the influence of the Enlightenment hovering over you, can the respective scriptures and what they are saying be understood. Once you do that it quickly becomes apparent that the texts were not the nonsensical ravings of mean trying to create new ideologies, but rather attempts to reform society and the everyday practices of the people in them.

    You’re the one reinterpreting scripture, divorcing it from it’s context.

    So says the person who can’t get his head out of the Enlightenment era and into the 21st century. Or should that be into 6th century Arabia for the Qur’an and 1st Century Judea for the Bible?

    Take a look around at the states that are most secular, and most influenced by the Enlightenment. Where do people want to live?

    Any place that has a decent quality of life as well as the opportunity to make a living, and that is not under the rule of authoritarian regimes; the last of those three being the most important. It has nothing to do with Enlightenment philosophy. The same phenomenon has played out in countless periods throughout history, both prior to and following the Enlightenment; where there was a prosperous and stable state. People in less well off regions tend to migrate to where the best opportunities and living standards can be found for no reason other than to improve their lives. Let’s not forget that in one period in history people who were less well off were migrating away from where the Enlightenment had the strongest influence: the Industrial Revolution. The consequences of it had people migrating to the colonies to escape the destitution and famine that the Revolution had produced.

  • Aj

    Gibbon,

    Despite several days late, I just have to do this. One last attempt to open Aj’s mind.

    By what? Repeating dogma? No persuasion? No reason? I have an open mind, I can be persuaded with evidence and reason. I haven’t opened my mind so much that my brains have fallen out though.

    Rituals do not typically become meaningless when the beliefs are lost, often the ritual can continue because it confers some benefit.

    Meaningless as in no meaning, not as in purposeless. Are your comments some kind of game where you have to fit as much equivocation as possible?

    Don’t twist my words. Of course Muslims believe that Mohammed was the Prophet of Allah, but they don’t believe that there was any divine or supernatural quality to him, Sunni’s especially, instead he is regarded as fully human. It is not his nature that is central to Islam, but rather his actions and the life that he both taught and lived, which Muslims try to emulate in following the Qur’an.

    That’s rich coming from someone who only twists words. I don’t know what you think the prophet of Allah means, but I think it means a supernatural entity called Allah has interacted with you.

    No doubt Jefferson was no idiot, but doing what you’re doing by interpreting millennia old scripture from the perspective of Enlightenment philosophy does not make sense of it. That perspective is telling you that religion is all about supernatural belief, but only when one understands the social conditions of Roman ruled Judea or 6th century Arabia without the influence of the Enlightenment hovering over you, can the respective scriptures and what they are saying be understood. Once you do that it quickly becomes apparent that the texts were not the nonsensical ravings of mean trying to create new ideologies, but rather attempts to reform society and the everyday practices of the people in them.

    If you deny the fields of history and psychology. The social conditions don’t change that people believe in nonsense. If you actually take on the principles of reason from the enlightenment, then you would have to concede scripture was created by people, who like most people are and have been, were superstitious and ignorant of reality. And even of the religious founders that were frauds instead of crazies, their followers still believe in ghosts, aliens, gods, and unicorns. Your claims aren’t backed up by reason or evidence, you might as well be selling the same irrational nonsense as liberation theology that takes what you say on faith not reason. Are you a theist or a marxist?

    Any place that has a decent quality of life as well as the opportunity to make a living, and that is not under the rule of authoritarian regimes; the last of those three being the most important. It has nothing to do with Enlightenment philosophy. The same phenomenon has played out in countless periods throughout history, both prior to and following the Enlightenment; where there was a prosperous and stable state. People in less well off regions tend to migrate to where the best opportunities and living standards can be found for no reason other than to improve their lives. Let’s not forget that in one period in history people who were less well off were migrating away from where the Enlightenment had the strongest influence: the Industrial Revolution. The consequences of it had people migrating to the colonies to escape the destitution and famine that the Revolution had produced.

    Quality of life has nothing to do with the technology, knowledge, wealth, and jobs the Enlightenment brings? The Enlightenment had radical ideals of freedom, of greatest importance was intellectual freedom and freedom of expression, in great contrast to the centuries of religious tyranny. Lets not forget that most migration has been towards industrialized nations with the strongest links to the Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution was key to nearly every societal advancement Western societies enjoy.

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  • steve

    “Samiimas Says:”
    One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial of the beneficial aspects of religion.

    ‘beneficial aspects’ of religion? Does he mean this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prop_8

    Or this?

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-6162918-504083.html

    Or maybe this?

    http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1883598,00.html

    Or perhaps he meant this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uganda_Anti-Homosexuality_Bill

    ******************************************************************

    How about this beneficial aspects of atheism. Do you mean this?:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USSR_Anti-Religious_Campaign_(1928-1941)#Notable_atrocities_and_victims

    or this

    http://commdocs.house.gov/committees/intlrel/hfa77695.000/hfa77695_0f.htm

    or this

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Christians_in_Warsaw_Pact_countries

    We could go back and forth on this, and of course argue the political ideologies of Marxism and Communism, but my point is you cannot label all Christian’s as extremists any more than I can label all atheists as extremists who want to kill theists.

    Justifying your position as Samiimas did is a derivative of the 2 wrongs make a right fallacy.

  • duhsciple

    Grant that I may not seek so much to be understood as to understand.

    I appreciate listening to atheist perspectives. It seems like y’all are a very diverse lot, as are theists.

    Peace!

  • Aj

    steve,

    How about this beneficial aspects of atheism. Do you mean this?:

    Atheism is a lack of belief in god. Any benefits of atheism include lacking the negatives of theism. Anything done by atheists is not because of atheism. Atheists aren’t motivated by their lack of beliefs in gods, as theists aren’t motivated by their lack of belief in unicorns. Think about it, a lack of belief never motivated anyone. Don’t worry though, you will ignore this point because a) you reject things out of hand that break your delusion, or b) it’s too complicated for your tiny mind.

    You cannot say the same about faith. It varies from person to person, but faith often leads to negatives. Prejudice against homosexuality stem from religious beliefs, there’s no denying that. Beliefs like there is a God and he communicated with prophets that told people homosexuality was a sin. Prophets have to be taken on faith. Those writing accounts of prophets have to be taken on faith. Those who decided which accounts were canon have to be taken on faith. Faith is very much guilty of the charges against it.

    You may say that it’s not your faith, and you’re right. However, faith is dangerous like that, if left up to chance all sorts of weird beliefs can spring up, prophets everywhere, starting cults. Don’t worry though, that’s not how it works most of the time. Most religious people are coerced into believing sets of beliefs through brainwashing, group pressure, and fear, that’s “religion”. Sometimes called “tradition” and “culture”, these too are to blame for prejudice against homosexuality.

    You can’t logically reject that atheism didn’t motivate communism’s crimes, and you can’t logically reject that faith motivates many crimes. Theists will not recognise this, they are already adept at living in a fantasy world.

  • Paula

    I think its unfortunate that so many people have commented so vehemently about this topic without even touching on the reasons why an evolution author would be talking about the difference between theists and atheists. Perhaps its more acceptable be an atheist than to suggest that (some) people are fundamentally irrational and have a biological predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomenon.
    In responding on this topic everyone else seems to assume that people are rational and that if you provide the right facts and arguments, a rational person will agree with you. Atheists have been attempting this unsuccessfully for centuries! Without having read “Evolution for Everyone”, I can only suppose that Wilson’s disapproval of “Angry Atheists” is based on the futility of using logic to persuade a believer of the error of their ways.

    If I wanted to take a gods-eye view of evolution (pun intended), I would argue that we probably should want to increase the number of atheists in the population and decrease the number of theists. But natural selection produced different results. It might be interesting to try to find out why, and if the conditions don’t favor theists anymore, take some comfort in the knowledge that they will eventually become extinct.


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