Do the more aggressive skeptics misunderstand religion?

I just got back from a conference on “The Evolution of Religion,” largely devoted to discussing evolutionary and cognitive science-based explanations of human religiosity. There’s some fascinating work being done, and I expect this topic will be of increasing interest to secular people as the field continues to mature. As I pointed out in my talk, current research fits in very well with my expectations as an “ambitious and lazy” physicalist. But the news is not all good for those nonbelievers who would like to see less religion in the world—it appears as if supernatural beliefs are too deep-seated a part of human nature to disappear easily.

For atheists, perhaps the most interesting presentation was by Dan Dennett, who elaborated on some themes in his Breaking the Spell. He ended up with a plea for scientists to be more forthright in their criticism of religion: Dennett thinks that even academics end up being reticent and giving religion a free pass too often.

No doubt there is a good deal of truth there. But it was interesting that the audience didn’t entirely buy it. Most people doing scientific research on religion are either outright nonbelievers or on the very liberal fringes of religiosity. But they tend to distance themselves from calls to a more activist style of nonbelief. Sometimes this has to do with reasons such as not wanting to antagonize religious people who are the subjects of their research. But also they perceive some of the more aggressively anti-religious authors out there as having a rather limited understanding of religions. Dennett received some very critical questions, some of which pointed out that a number of features of “religion” he identified specifically had to do with contemporary conservative Christianity in the United States, and did not generalize to other traditions and other times.

I challenged Dennett as well, drawing a rather testy response. I said that I was disturbed by the way that, along with himself and Richard Dawkins, he was holding up Sam Harris as a model of courageous criticism of religion. Particularly in his attacks on Islam, Harris does not follow even elementary scholarly norms, and produces a pretty nasty misrepresentation. Dennett sort of defended Harris’s listing of disgustingly violent verses from the Quran, but I pointed out that most Muslims do not respond to the Quran the way a stereotypical Protestant fundamentalist responds to a Bible translation. He said he didn’t know that. Fair enough, but why on earth would he trust Harris’s non-existent expertise in the first place?

There have been a bunch of books that have been both aggressively critical of religion and commercial successes recently, which has made a good number of nonbelievers feel better. And no doubt, there is good reason to complain about the immunity from criticism religion enjoys in much public discourse. But that does not mean that the most prominent critics have done a uniformly good job. Their understanding of religions have too often left something to be desired.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Robert

    This strikes me as a fairly standard “Courtier’s Reply.” “You don’t understand religion well enough to criticize it.” In my mind, the question is not whether one has to be a scholar of the minutiae of Islam (or Christianity) in order to criticize, but whether one recognizes these belief systems as sources of harmful dogmatism.

    “Scholarly norms” are not required of a child who by simple inspection proclaims the Emperor has no clothes.

  • CyberKitten

    Interesting post.

    I certainly see the difference between being forceful & being right – even if it sells more books.

  • Austin Cline

    ["Scholarly norms" are not required of a child who by simple inspection proclaims the Emperor has no clothes.]

    What you are saying can be valid when the “criticism” involves something like disagreement about whether any gods exist. I don’t need to know the minutiae of Islam and Islamic theology in order to disagree with the Muslim claim about the existence of a God.

    However, knowledge and understanding of Muslim or Christian theology is necessary if I am going to criticize particular aspects of Muslim or Christian practice and tradition. Edis’ case here is a good example of that. There are nasty things in the Quran, and knowing them gives me a sound basis for being critical of that. I can also be critical of how nasty things in an authoritative text can encourage nasty behavior.

    I cannot, however, use the nasty things in the Quran as a basis for saying that Islam generally or Muslims generally are nasty. The existence of nasty things in an authoritative text (religious or nonreligious) never leads *automatically* to nasty behavior and beliefs. If I am going to criticize Islam generally or Muslims generally and use the Quran, then I have to understand how Muslims generally read the Quran and how Islam generally tells Muslims to read the Quran. This, in turn, requires some understanding of Muslim theology, tradition, and practice.

    If I am going to criticize Islam and Muslims, I must do so on the basis of what Islam really is and what Muslims really do. I cannot do so on the basis of my own personal interpretations of the Quran because Muslims don’t really care how *I* read their book. My interpretation couldn’t be more irrelevant to them. Unless I criticize them on the basis of how they actually behave and what their interpretations actually are, then I’m committing a Straw Man fallacy.

    It’s not a “Courtier’s Reply” to insist that I deal with the reality of what people believe and do rather than a Straw Man of my own creation. The “Courtier’s Reply” objection only works for very general matters, like the existence of a god or the existence of a soul. No one needs to study every religion and every theological system before rejecting gods or souls.

  • Austin Cline

    One more thing: the “Courtier’s Reply” objection also works when critics are expected to go beyond what people actually believe and do. If I become familiar with people’s religious beliefs and am critical of these beliefs, then I’m being fair.

    If a theologian comes along and says that I’m neglecting the more sophisticated conceptions of God and Existence that he uses, then I can respond with “so what” because those “sophisticated conceptions” aren’t the ones being used by the religious believers I’m dealing with. Even if his “sophisticated conceptions” are *correct*, that wouldn’t invalidate my narrow criticisms of what everyone else believes. It is an example of the “Courtier’s Reply” to insist that I cannot criticize people’s actual beliefs without dealing with more esoteric notions that few people actively or consciously bother with.

  • Roy Overmann

    What exactly does Mr. Enis mean by saying that “Muslims do not RESPOND to statements in the Koran like fundamentalists do with the Bible?” If he means they ignore the bad advice I agree. That tells us more about the rationality and morality of the Muslim than it does about the virtue of the doctrine. A good Muslim is a good person to the extent that he ignores the injunctions of the Koran. I agree.

  • Hector Diego

    Obviously, some Muslims ignore the Quranic injunctions to violence, some do not–they make it central to their course of action.

    Unfortunately, moderate Muslims are cowed by radical ones, and who can blame them? The radicals terrorize moderates by threatening to torture their children. And there is no reason to believe that they will not fulfill their word if they can.

    On another note, I find it interesting that the debate about or between religion and science is fairly circumscribed within Western thought; that is, science and the Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    This situation would not give a free pass to the Indic religions, but it seems there is much less contention between, say, Hinduism and science. The percentage of Hindus with doctorates in the hard sciences–Hindus who still believe and practice their religion–is astonishing.

    Just some thoughts, from Hector Diego at The Walrus Speaks. We link to The Secular Outpost.

  • vjack

    You raise some interesting question s in this post. I often get the sense that the popular atheist authors know the contents of the Christian bible better than the vast majority of the Christians who claim to follow it. Still, religion clearly does evolve (especially when prodded by scientific discoveries). Thus, there may be some truth to the claim that atheists are criticizing a form of belief which may no longer be advocated by theologists.

    Regarding Dennett’s comments about academics “giving religion a free pass too often,” he absolutely correct. I say this as an academic who knows all too well how my career would come to a screeching halt if I said most of what I think about religion. As you note, many of us do not want to antagonize believers (after all, we were raised in a culture which prohibits this), but it is more than that. Many of us face very real consequences for speaking out on religion.

  • Brian

    “most Muslims do not respond to the Quran the way a stereotypical Protestant fundamentalist responds to a Bible translation”

    In “End of Faith” Harris wasn’t claiming most Muslims take a literal view of the Quran. But for those fundamentalists that do there are plenty of Quran verses that support extremism for them to to pick and choose from.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    vjack: “I often get the sense that the popular atheist authors know the contents of the Christian bible better than the vast majority of the Christians who claim to follow it.”

    I get almost the opposite impression, but I think that’s because I’ve navigated through apologetics and counter-apologetics, and I’ve seen the junk on both sides.

    For example, when Dawkins wrote in TGD about the discrepancies in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, he was correct as far as he went, but was incomplete enough that a Christian who spent a few minutes Googling for “Quirinius” would think he/she had found apologetics that refuted him. If Dawkins had done a bit of research, he could have anticipated those apologetics and presented a much stronger case, and it wouldn’t have added more than a few paragraphs to his book.

    More egregious was his use of Robert Gillooly’s article from Free Inquiry, which was the usual stretching of pagan myths to force-fit them to the Christian myths. If Dawkins had, say, researched the apologetics against the pagan-copycat stuff in order to anticipate his audience using those apologetics against him, he would have found that they were partially right, and he would have either been more cautious about using Gillooly or not used him at all.

    It’s as if Dawkins underestimated his opposition so much that he thought a cursory job would be sufficient.

  • cica

    ["Scholarly norms" are not required of a child who by simple inspection proclaims the Emperor has no clothes.]

    But it is entirely possible that Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, et al. have even fewer clothes than the religionists whom they criticize. We’ll never know unless we hold everyone to the same standards.

  • Adam Lee

    I think it’s important for freethinkers to recognize that the “you’re not qualified enough to criticize our religion” argument is a clear example of an infinitely high goalpost. As far as most believers are concerned, the fact that a person is not a member of their religion makes them, by definition, unqualified to criticize it.

    It doesn’t matter whether Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, et al. are familiar with the inscrutable minutiae of the various religions they criticize. Even if they were, people would still be slinging mud left and right at their supposed failure to understand. We see examples of this sort of thing all the time. What matters, instead, is whether they’re correct in the points they do make and the arguments they do put forward. I’ve yet to see anyone, apologist or atheist, demonstrate any serious flaw in any of their major points.

  • Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    Direct attacks on religion will not work. Direct attacks trigger a wall-building reflex. Indirect attacks on religion offer the best prospects of success. Dawkins does his best work in his explication of evolution: The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, The Extended Phenotype, The Ancestor’s Tale.

    Napoleon: “You have written this huge book on the system of the world without once mentioning the author of the universe.”
    Laplace: “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”

  • Sheldon

    I find myself on both sides of this debate. And I think it possible to have both popular and overly simplistic critiques of religion alongside more scholarly efforts to understand religion.

    My academic background is in anthropology and I have taken several courses in the anthropology of religion. From that perspective, the truth or false claims of religion are irrelevant. Anthropologists are more concerned with questions of what role religions play in sociocultural systems.

    Within the past two years or so Dawkins had a two part article in Free Inquiry where he offered an evolutionary explanation of the survival value of religion belief. It just seemed silly because he fails to appreciate religion as a sociocultural institution, and quite variable across time and space.

    On the other hand, as an atheist I kind of enjoy these popular critiques against modern and contemporary religion.

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