I have no objection to carnival barking — as long as there is something worth seeing inside the tent. If the new atheists are not basing their claims about religion on the best that science has to offer, then they are part of the problem.
Atheists for Intelligent Design?
My complaint about the New Atheism is that it is based on bad science, in the same way that environmentalism is often based on bad science. By their language, you shall know them. Uh…I mean nonsense! Wilson at the stake? Everyone who claims to be guided primarily by science and reason has an obligation to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. There are impeccable reasons for distrusting statements cloaked in the authority of science and reason, no less than the flag and the cross.
My previous two blog posts stressed that we must be skeptical about atheist beliefs, lest they go the way of stealth religions. Here are four questions:.
Q1 Is there any scientific i. Q2 If not, how can we explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms? Q4 How can we use our understanding of religion to ameliorate its negative effects and advance the goals of secular humanism? For an atheist such as myself, Q1 has already been answered.
Evolutionary theory offers six major hypotheses about religion as a natural phenomenon. Moreover, theories of religion that were formulated without evolution in mind usually fit into these categories. Here they are in their briefest possible form see reference 2 for a more detailed treatment.
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H1 A superorganism. Religions might forge human groups into cooperative units, whose members work together to achieve common goals. H2 A form of exploitation. Religions might be sneaky ways for some members—presumably the leaders—to profit at the expense of other members of their own religion. Perhaps Karl Marx was right when he said that religion is the opium of the masses. H3 A disease. Because culture is transmitted from person to person, it bears an intriguing resemblance to a disease organism.
Just as disease organisms evolve to benefit themselves, often at the expense of their hosts, perhaps religions are highly evolved to facilitate their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups. This possibility was famously suggested by Richard Dawkins, and perhaps he is right. In case Dan Dennett is reading this blog he is fond of accusing me of failing to make this point : virulent parasitism is only one possible outcome for memes, which can also evolve to benefit human individuals and groups.
These other two outcomes are subsumed under H1 and H2. H4 Like a moth to flame. Moths are adapted to navigate by celestial light sources such as the moon and stars, which are so far away that they enable the moths to fly in a straight line. Unfortunately, earthly light sources such as streetlights and candles cause the moths to spiral inward to their deaths. This is an example of a byproduct or what Stephen Jay Gould famously called a spandrel— a trait that has no benefit and can be very costly, but remains in the population by being connected to other traits that do have a benefit.
Perhaps religion is a costly byproduct of psychological traits that function adaptively in non-religious contexts.
Atheist Essay Contest
H5 Like obesity. Perhaps religions were similarly adaptive in the Stone Age, when human groups were small and composed mostly of genetic relatives, but have gone awry in modern life. H6 A roll of the dice. In biological evolution there is something called genetic drift. Traits that we recognize as different have no effect on fitness and therefore increase or decrease in frequency at random.
A neutral trait exists for no other reason than by chance. Few people would propose that all aspects of religion are neutral, but some aspects might be, resulting in the very real possibility of cultural drift. Now that I have described the six evolutionary hypotheses, some readers might have an objection. Where is the deeply felt psychological experience of being religious, such as a close relationship with God? The answer involves one of the most important distinctions in evolutionary theory, between proximate and ultimate causation.
Everything that evolves by natural selection requires two explanations. Why do flowers bloom in spring? One answer is because spring is the best time of year to bloom ultimate causation. Those that bloomed earlier were nipped by frost, those that bloomed later failed to develop their fruits, natural selection did its thing, and we only see the survivors. The second answer is because the survivors have a particular physiological mechanism that causes them to bloom in spring, such as a sensitivity to day length proximate causation. Proximate and ultimate explanations are always complementary and one can never substitute for the other.
It describes, therefore, both the singular vertical relationship between the human being and God and the collective, horizontal relationship of all who join together in common faith and practice. Having outlined our six hypotheses about religion, we are in a position to answer Q2.
All we need to do is consult the facts of religion and decide which of the hypotheses—or which combination, since they are not necessarily mutually exclusive—is correct. Before I tell you the answer, I would like to pose a fifth question for your consideration. Q5 Will the answer to Q2 influence the answers to Q3 and Q4? For example, pretend that H3 turns out to be correct and then try answering Q3 and Q4 for yourself. Now pretend that H4 turns out to be correct and repeat the exercise.
How could it be otherwise? When vervet monkeys see a leopard, they give a special alarm call that instructs everyone to head up into the trees.
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When they see an eagle, they give a different alarm call that instructs everyone to come down from the trees. Different threats require different actions. If religions pose a threat in modern life, we need to know what particular kind of threat, so we can respond appropriately, just as the monkeys need to distinguish between leopards and eagles.
It would be amazing if the six evolutionary hypotheses, which are profoundly different from each other in their conception of religion, resulted in exactly the same plan of action for what to do about religion.
PREVIEW-Episode 44: New Atheist Critiques of Religion
And now for the moment you have been waiting for. Which of our contestants is the winner? The answer is…. Those who are following my Stealth blogs have been on the edge of their seats, waiting to know the true nature of religion see Part III for details. It is a superorganism? A form of exploitation? A disease?
Like a moth to flame? Like obesity? A roll of the dice? And the answer is…. Before I provide a more interesting answer, let me explain the meaning of this one. Biological and cultural evolution are messy processes with lots going on at the same time. Religion is not a single thing but a large collection of traits—what mathematicians call a fuzzy set.
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Insofar as the six major hypotheses are plausible for evolutionary theory as a whole, all of them will be at least partially relevant to the large collection of traits that we associate with religion. Still, some hypotheses can be more relevant than others, allowing a more interesting answer. They promote cooperation within the group and bristle with defenses against the all-important problem of cheating. Using the terms that I introduced in part I, they score high on practical realism, no matter how much they depart from factual realism along the way.
Transformations of the obvious have occurred repeatedly in the history of science. When Darwin was a young man, he went on a fossil-hunting expedition to a valley in Wales with his professor, Adam Sedgwick. There were no fossils because the entire valley had been scoured by glaciers. I claim that a transformation of the obvious is in progress with respect to the secular utility of religion.