Dawkins and Wilson and Haidt; A Matter of Religion

In chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt addresses the topic of religion:

In this chapter I continue exploring the third principle of moral psychology:  Morality binds and blinds.  Many scientists misunderstand religion because they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible.  They focus on individuals and their supernatural beliefs, rather than on groups and their binding practices.

Among the “scientists who misunderstand,” Haidt specifically singles out the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.  Group selectionist David Sloan Wilson recently wrote a similar critique of Dawkins in The Skeptic, claiming that Dawkins was “not an evolutionist” when discussing religion.  In Wilson’s words,

Two questions about religion concern: 1) the evidence for supernatural agents that actively intervene in physical processes and the affairs of people; and 2) the nature of religion as a human construction and its effects on human welfare…  How Dawkins addresses the second question is another matter. In my review of The God Delusion published in Skeptic magazine, I criticized him at length for misrepresenting the nature of religion and ignoring the burgeoning literature on religion as a human construction from an evolutionary perspective. In his reply, Dawkins said that he didn’t need to base his critique on evolution any more than Assyrian woodwind instruments or the burrowing behavior of aardvarks, because he was only addressing question one and not question two. That’s bogus. Dawkins holds forth on question two all the time, and when he does he’s not functioning as an evolutionist–by his own account. Atheists can depart from factual reality in their own way, and so it is for Dawkins on the subject of religion as a human construction.

I have some problems of my own with The God Delusion, such as its anti-American tone in general and its obsession with religious fundamentalists in the U.S., usually referred to by Dawkins as the “American Taliban” in particular.  He even went so far as to repeat the old urban myth about how Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.  However, it seemed to me that Dawkins was right as far as Wilson’s criticism was concerned.  My impression was that the book really was concerned mainly with the question of whether or not there actually is a God, and that, as Dawkins said, he was therefore not obligated to digress on the evolutionary origins of religion.  This impression was reinforced by Wilson’s review in The Skeptic, in which he wrote,

For religion, however, he (Dawkins) argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.

I thought when I read this, and still think that the issue of adaptation was beside the point.  Dawkins was addressing the issue of whether God exists, and not the adaptive value of religion.  This impression was reinforced by the fact that, immediately after the passage quoted above, Wilson continued with a long, rambling defense of group selection.  It reminded me of Maslow’s hammer:  “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Wilson was simply betraying a tendency to see everything in terms of his favorite area of expertise, whether it was really germane or not.

Enter Jonathan Haidt, who takes issue with Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists for similar reasons, but does a better job of explaining exactly what it is he’s getting at.  As he puts it,

But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion – and understand its relationship to morality and politics – we must first describe it accurately… Trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball.  You’ve got to broaden the inquiry.  You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.

Now we at least have a better idea of why Wilson and Haidt are rejecting the arguments of the New Atheists.  As Haidt puts it, they are like Plato and other rationalist philosophers who thought that reason should control the passions, as opposed to the view of Hume (and Haidt) that reason is really just a servant of the intuitions.  Beyond that, they are using contrived arguments to explain away the evolutionary origins of religion.  According to Haidt and Wilson, religion exists as a manifestation of evolved mental traits, and those traits were selected because they increased the fitness, not of individuals, but of groups.  In other words, Haidt’s recent comments in favor of group selection are no fluke.  Group selection actually plays a fundamental role in his theoretical understanding of religion as an adaptive trait, and not cultural group selection, but genetic group selection.  Chapter 11 actually includes a spirited defense of Wilson, noting that his,

…great achievement was to merge the ideas of the two most important thinkers in the history of the social sciences:  Darwin and (Emile) Durkheim… In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the ways that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.

At this point, Haidt begins performing some remarkable intellectual double back flips.  If religion really is an adaptive trait, apparently he feels it necessary to demonstrate that it is also really “good”.  For example, we learn that,

 …John Calvin developed a strict and demanding form of Christianity that suppressed free riding and facilitated trust and commerce in sixteenth century Geneva.

There is no mention of Calvin torturing a religious opponent to death in a slow fire made of green wood with a wreath strewn with sulfur around his head.  Haidt tells us that the 911 bombers were really motivated by nationalism, not religion.  (Remember the yarns about how zealots of a secular religion, Communism, such as Ho chi Minh and Castro, were also supposed to be “nationalists.”  And, of course, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, either.)  But, as “the most revealing example” of the benign effects of religion, Haidt cites Wilson’s example of “the case of water temples among Balinese rice farmers in the centuries before Dutch colonization.”

It seems to me that, if the New Atheists are guilty of an error of omission for focusing on the existence of God and ignoring the nature of religion as an evolutionary adaptation, Haidt must also be guilty of an error of omission by focusing on Balinese rice farmers and ignoring the slaughter of the Crusades, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women as “witches,” the brutal military conquest of north Africa, Spain, and large areas of the Middle East and Europe in the name of Islam, pogroms that have resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews over the centuries, the additional hundreds of thousands of dead in the Hussite wars, the constant bloody internal conflicts in numerous medieval states over the minutiae of religious doctrine, and so on and so on and so on.  We can certainly discuss whether such “evils” of religion are outweighed by the “goods” cited by Wilson and others, but if Haidt is really the “man of science” he claims to be, it is not acceptable to ignore them.

One might similarly praise the advantages of war, which is as likely as religion to be a manifestation of evolved human mental traits.  It also fosters within-group charity, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and any number of other “goods,” which are cataloged by German General Friedrich von Bernhardi in his seminal work on the subject, “Germany and the Next War.”  Are not objections to the effect that it is occasionally very bloody and destructive just more instances of “misconceptions” inspired by the thought of Plato and other rationalist philosophers?

Call me an incorrigible rationalist if you like, but it seems to me that it does actually matter whether God exists or not.  What if, as Haidt suggests, religion is not only an evolutionary adaptation, but one that is, on balance, useful and benign?  Does that really render the question of whether God exists or not irrelevant?  Is it really a “rationalist delusion” to consider the evidence for and against that hypothesis without dragging evolution and group selection into the discussion?  Is reality so irrelevant to the human condition that it is acceptable to encourage people to associate in groups and act based on belief in things that are not only palpably untrue, but silly?  If the truth doesn’t matter, what is the point of even writing books about morality?  Would Prof. Haidt have us believe that The Righteous Mind is a mere product of his intuitions?  I suspect that, whatever our goals happen to be, we are more likely to achieve them if we base our actions on that which is true than on that which is not.  I am just as dubious as Haidt about the power of human reason.  However, I prefer continuing to grope for the truth with that reason, however weak it might be, to embracing intuitions that require belief in things that are false, whether they enhanced the fitness of our species in times utterly unlike the present or not.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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