Atheist on Atheist

No, it is not some new WWE extravaganza (but I know some who would pay to watch it) it is a surprisingly good Chronicle of Higher Education Article on the war that is raging between the so-called “New Atheists” (now with 40% more bile!) and those atheists and scholars who are researching the evolutionary origins of religion. Does Religion Really Poison Everything?

I rarely wade into these waters because I do not believe that all religion is bad nor that all science is godless. I have witnessed Dawkins debate in person at the Oxford Union and I have to say the quiet RC priest in his 70s sounded much more rational and reasonable. All in all, I have never felt it worth my time and energy. But this article is interesting and worth the few minutes to read it. A few tidbits, highlights mine.

The implication—that religion is basically malevolent, that it “poisons everything,” in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens—is a standard assertion of the New Atheists. Their argument isn’t just that there probably is no God, or that intelligent design is laughable bunk, or that the Bible is far from inerrant. It’s that religion is obviously bad for human beings, condemning them to ignorance, subservience, and endless conflict, and we would be better off without it.

But would we?

Before you can know for sure, you have to figure out what religion does for us in the first place. That’s exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They’re applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more cooperative, kinder. The scholars, many of them atheists themselves, generally look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant, fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific. Dawkins and company have been no more charitable in return.

I think this is a key point that I have often made with my co-religionists who fairly blindly reject evolution as a useful tool for science. They have never bothered to really understand it. So too scientists like Dawkins and pundits like Hitchens simply react (more often than not) to their own past. They also use a brush as wide as a bus.

That includes laying the blame for much of human conflict at the feet of the faithful. In a recent Science article, Atran and Jeremy Ginges, an associate professor of psychology at the New School, cite evidence suggesting that “only a small minority of recorded wars” have been mainly motivated by religious disputes (though making distinctions between religious and political causes is notoriously knotty). They complain in the article that the New Atheists are quick to remind everyone how fundamentalism fuels Al Qaeda but neglect to mention the role of churches in the civil-rights movement. The New Atheists are, according to Atran and Ginges, cherry-picking the horrors. “Science produced a nuclear bomb. Therefore we should throw away science,” says Atran, to illustrate the baby-bathwater logic. “Sometimes it can be really noxious, and other times it can be quite helpful.”

The same can be said about arguments between religions. We have seen Christianity used to justify all sorts of atrocities and oppressions, but it has also been a source of great healing. The same can be said about Islam and so on.  To acknowledge that one group has those who are wicked in it as well as those who are striving to be holy is not to condemn or condone rather it is to offer a realistic assessment. Sadly, it is an assessment that any refuse to make since they far prefer not-even-strawmen but a two-dimensional isosceles triangle of Flatland.
I would only add, that all wars have to be justified and that is done by leaders appealing to the strongest emotions and desires of their people. If we were to live in a truly religion-free world then I have no doubt that we would have wars over other theories and passions. Inventions, tools, and ideas will always have more than one purpose and often purposes distinctly different from those for which they were created.
Finally, if you cannot beat them in content it is best to have style. For example, I recently bought a blue fez. I think it will help me immensely when I present at the next SBL.

The New Atheists have deemed Wilson not only wrong but dull. Coyne writes that if Dawkins took Wilson’s advice and discussed the evolution of religion in detail, it would make for a “long and boring lecture.” Myers compares Wilson’s communication skills with Dawkins’s and finds Wilson sadly wanting. For Wilson, though, it’s the New Atheists who have become a bore. If you’ve seen one video of Dawkins slaying a naïve believer, you’ve seen them all. If you’ve read one New Atheist anti-God tome, you know what the others will say. Wilson insists that trying to discover why we believe is more intriguing than the debate over whether anyone is up there looking down.


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