“The Experience of God”: An “Adult Christian” vs. the New Atheists

The latest gambit among the spiritually inclined opponents of such “New Atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris has been to deprecate them as “undergraduate atheists.”  Their unseemly and childish squabbles with equally unenlightened  religious fundamentalists are supposedly just the predictable outcome of their mutual confusion about the real nature of God.   They are in dire need of adult supervision from more sophisticated believers who have troubled themselves to acquire this knowledge.  One such self-appointed guardian of the divine wisdom is David Bentley Hart, whose latest effort to set the New Atheists straight is entitled The Experience of God.  As Hart puts it,

…any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be.  If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one simply has misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  I rather suspect that Dawkins and the rest aren’t quite as ignorant as Hart suggests of the Eastern Philosophy 101 version of God he portrays in his book.  As he claims, it’s a version that’s common to the mystics of Christianity, Islam, and many other religious traditions.  However, the New Atheists have quite reasonably chosen to focus their attention on the God that most people actually believe in rather than the one favored by Hart and the rest of the metaphysicians.  According to Hart, all this amounts to is a pitiful spectacle of equally ignorant atheists and religious fundamentalists chasing each others tails.  Supposedly, by focusing on what most of the faithful actually believe about the nature of God, the New Atheists have removed themselves from the debate.  In reality, Hart is the one who’s not really in the “debate,” because he artificially attempts to lift himself out of it.  He does this by fragmenting God into a “philosophical” God and a “dogmatic” God, as if the latter were irrelevant to the former.  This is supposedly done in order to achieve “clarity,” and to spare the reader “boring arguments.”  In fact, this taking a meat ax to God to chop off the inconvenient bits achieves the very opposite of “clarity.”  What it does do is obfuscate the very real and very sharp incompatibilities between the different religious traditions that Dawkins was referring to when he wrote in the God Delusion,

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.  Some of us just go one god further.

We can assume that, as Hart claims, all the great religious traditions are in broad agreement about the “philosophical” God that he describes at length in his book.  What about the “dogmatic” God that is distinguished in the different religions and sects by how many wills He has, how many natures He has, what His “substance” is, whether or not he is “begotten,” whether he comes in one person or three, etc.  These distinctions are very real, important, and can’t just be dismissed with a wave of the hand to achieve “clarity.”

For example, most Christians believe in the Trinity, and virtually all of them believe that the term “begotten” is associated with God in one way or another.  Moslems beg to differ.  Muhammad said quite plainly that, not only is this Christian version of God wrong, but those who believe in the Trinity, or that Christ was “begotten” as one of God’s persons, will burn in hell forever.  “Forever,” of course, is a very long time, compared to which the supposed 13 plus billion year age of the universe is but the blink of an eye.  Muhammad was also quite explicit about what burning in hell means.  One’s physical body will be immersed in fire, and a new skin will immediately replace each old one as it is consumed by the flames.  One might say that if, as Hart insists, there really is a God, he might be a great deal less “bored” by the distinction between the Trinitarian and Unitarian versions of God after he dies than he is now.  He might end up in a rather more tropical climate than he expected.

It is one of Hart’s favorite conceits, practiced, he assures us, since the days of the earliest fathers of the church, to dismiss all the contradictions and physical absurdities in the Bible as “allegories.”  Unfortunately, one does not have this luxury with the Quran.  Muhammad said quite plainly that he hadn’t written any riddles or allegories, and he meant everything he said.  In fact, the different versions of God are the same only if we allow Hart to perform his “dogmatic” lobotomy on them.  Thus, to the extent that they make any sense at all, such statements in the book as,

…if one is content merely to devise images of God that are self-evidently nonsensical, and then proceed triumphantly to demonstrate just how infuriatingly nonsensical they are, one is not going to accomplish anything interesting.

can make sense only after Hart has carefully denatured God by excising all his “dogmatic” bits.  But what of Hart’s “philosophical” God, this denatured God of the mystics and metaphysicians, about whose nature Christian priests, Moslem mullahs, and Hindu sadhus are supposed to be in such loving agreement?  Predictably, it turns out that He exists up on an intellectual shelf, free from the prying rationality of the atheists.  As Hart puts it,

All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension, hence, much of the language used of Him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence.  All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known:  that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

He then goes on to present us with the terms that, later in the book, are to figure prominently both in his definition of God and the proof of his existence:

The terms in which I have chosen to speak of God, as the title page of the volume announces, are “being,” “consciousness,” and “bliss.”  This is a traditional ternion that I have borrowed from Indian tradition… they are ideal descriptions not only of how various traditions understand the nature of God, but also of how the reality of God can, according to those traditions, be experienced and known by us.  For to say that God is being, consciousness, and bliss is also to say that he is the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and that therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of experience.

I invite those interested in a further explication of these terms to consult Hart’s book, as he devotes a chapter to each of them.  However, for the purposes of this post, I will cut to the chase.  These terms are supposed to constitute a bulletproof rejoinder to the “undergraduate atheists.”  According to Hart, we cannot explain how there is something rather than nothing without a God (being), we cannot explain consciousness without a God, and we cannot explain such things as beauty or the “moral law within” without God (bliss).  I must say that I am in  full agreement with Hart to the extent that I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing.  I have no clue how I can be conscious, and I haven’t the faintest inkling of exactly how my consciousness experiences beauty.  However, the hoary conceit that we are somehow forced to supply a God to explain the things we don’t understand strikes me as rather weak, especially for someone like Hart, who writes in the style of a high school prima donna who people have made such a fuss over that she imagines she’s Meryl Streep.

In reality, Hart’s “proofs” of God’s existence amount to nothing more than the classic non sequitur of supplying something more complicated to explain something less complicated, regardless of whether he chooses to describe God as an object, a subject, a Ground of Being, an Absolute Reality, or whatever.  In the end, that’s really all he’s got.  These three words supply his whole rationalization to himself of why he’s infinitely smarter and wiser than the “undergraduate atheists.”  He would have been better off just stating these “proofs” and leaving it at that, but he couldn’t resist pondering the implications of these three “incontrovertible” truths for science itself, and lecturing the scientists accordingly.  We learn in the process that he’s not only way, way smarter than just the New Atheists, but also such worthies as the physicists Weinberg, Feynman and Hawking, to whom he delivers a stern lecture for daring to violate his metaphysical territory.  Needless to say, he also imagines himself far above such intellectual “lightweights” as Dawkins,

As for Dawkins’ own attempt at an argument against the likelihood of God’s existence, it is so crude and embarrassingly confused as to be germane to nothing at all, perhaps not even to itself.

as for the rest of the New Atheists,

Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as no more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised upon a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith.

Hart presents us with such bluster repeatedly, without accompanying it with a serious attempt to specifically address so much as one of Dawkins’ actual arguments against the existence of God.  In fact, one might say he is the perfect platonic “form” of a Pharisee.  One can just imagine him in the temple, praying to his God,

I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this New Atheist. (Luke 18:11)

One wonders how he squares this flamboyant intellectual hubris with such teachings of Jesus as,

Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 18:3)

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

and

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)

No doubt, like Noah’s ark and the Garden of Eden they are just another lot of “allegories.”  For all his hubris, the self-assurance with which Hart lectures the likes of Hawking and Feynman is based on a level of scientific understanding that is, shall we say, idiosyncratic.  For example,

As a species, we have been shaped evolutionarily, in large part at least, by transcendental ecstasies whose orientation exceeds the whole of nature.  Instead of speaking vacuously of genetic selfishness, then, it would be immeasurably more accurate to say that compassion, generosity, love, and conscience have a unique claim on life.

and

The mystery remains:  the transcendent good, which is invisible to the forces of natural selection, has made a dwelling for itself within the consciousness of rational animals.  A capacity has appeared within nature that, in its very form, is supernatural:  it cannot be accounted for entirely in terms of the economy of advantageous cooperation because it continually and exorbitantly exceeds any sane calculation of evolutionary benefits.  Yet, in the effectual order of evolution, it is precisely this irrepressible excessiveness that, operating as a higher cause, inscribes its logic upon the largely inert substrate of genetic materials, and guides the evolution of rational nature toward an openness to ends that cannot be enclosed within mere physical processes.

No doubt this will inspire some serious rewriting of the mathematical models of the geneticists and evolutionary biologists.  It grieved me to see that, of all the scientific tribes, the evolutionary psychologists were singled out for a double helping of Hart’s disapprobation.  Those ubiquitous whipping boys for ideological and religious zealots of all stripes came in for his particular ire for suggesting that morality might not come from God.  In other words, they sinned against the “bliss” part of his “ternion.”  As Hart somewhat flamboyantly explains,

In the end, the incongruity speaks for itself.  No explanation of ethical desire entirely in terms of evolutionary benefit can ever really account for the sheer exorbitance of the moral passion of which rational minds are capable, or for the transcendentally “ecstatic” structure of moral longing.

In other words, Hart believes in “hard-wired” morality.  He just thinks that God did the wiring.  However, furious at the pretensions of the evolutionary psychologists, he seizes on the nearest rock to throw at them.  As it happens, this is the very same rock that leftist ideologues once fashioned for themselves:

There are now even whole academic disciplines, like evolutionary psychology, that promote themselves as forms of science but that are little more than morasses of metaphor.  (Evolutionary psychologists often become quite indignant when one says this, but a “science” that can explain every possible form of human behavior and organization, however universal or idiosyncratic, and no matter how contradictory of other behaviors, as some kind of practical evolutionary adaptation of the modular brain, clearly has nothing to offer but fabulous narratives – Just So Stories, as it were – disguised as scientific propositions.)

Ludicrously, Hart doesn’t realize that the “Just So Story” gambit makes no sense whatsoever if there really is a “moral law within.”  It was invented by the Blank Slaters to bolster their arguments that all human behavior is a product of culture and experience.  Presumably, if there really is a “moral law within,” the experiments of the evolutionary psychologists would detect it.  If Hart’s God-given version of morality is true, than the notion that what they’re seeing are “Just So Stories” is out of the question.  The poor, dumb boobs just don’t realize who put the morality there to begin with.

Apparently Hart has read so many books of metaphysics that, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote with his books of knight-errantry, his brain has dried up.  It is no longer possible for him to imagine that anyone who doesn’t swallow the ancient conceit that, because there are things that we don’t understand, there must be a God, could possibly be arguing in good faith.  Indeed, they must be evil!  And so, in the spirit of that venerable Christian teaching,

Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.  (Matthew 7:1-2)

Hart gives us a glance at his religious zealot’s teeth, now sadly rotted and dulled since the days of Torquemada and the Inquisition.  For example, anyone who doesn’t believe in God is a collaborator with the Communists and Nazis:

Hence certain distinctively modern contributions to the history of human cruelty:  “scientific” racism, Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, criminological theories about inherited degeneracy, “curative” lobotomies, mandatory sterilizations, and so on – and, in the fullness of time, the racial ideology of the Third Reich (which regarded human nature as a biological technology to be perfected) and the collectivist ideology of the communist totalitarianisms (which regarded human nature as a social and economic technology to be reconstructed)… This is why it is silly to assert (as I have heard two of the famous New Atheists do of late) that the atheism of many of those responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was something entirely incidental to their crimes, or that there is no logical connection between the cultural decline of religious belief at the end of the nineteenth century and the political and social horrors of the first half of the twentieth.

This in spite of the fact that, as Hitler wrote and said repeatedly, he was a firm Christian believer.  For example, from one of his speeches,

My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.  In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the    scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.    How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.

As for Communism, countless pundits have pointed out that socialist ideology was a religion, the essential difference between it and, for example, Christianity and Islam, lying merely in the fact that its devotees worshipped a secular rather than a spiritual God.  Indeed, the great Scotch intellectual Sir James Mackintosh, writing long before the heyday of Marx, correctly predicted its eventual demise because, unlike the traditional spiritual gods, its god could be fact-checked.

Undeterred, and probably innocent of any knowledge of such inconvenient truths, and with the briefest of mentions of the war, slaughter, and oppression that actually have been the direct result of religious belief through the centuries, Hart goes on to explain that atheists are guilty, not only of the sins of the Communists, but of the bourgeoisie as well!

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can.  Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values… In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.

So much for the notion of a “dialogue” between atheists and believers.  In closing, I cannot refrain from quoting a bit from Edward Fitzgerald’s wonderful critique of organized religion in general and Islam in particular, disguised as a “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.

Would you that spangle of Existence spend

About the Secret–Quick about it, Friend!

A Hair perhaps divides the False and True–

And upon what, prithee, may life depend?

A Hair perhaps divides the False and True;

Yes; and a single Alif were the clue–

Could you but find it–to the Treasure-house,

And peradventure to The Master too;

Whose secret Presence, through Creation’s veins

Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;

Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and

They change and perish all–but He remains;

A moment guess’d–then back behind the Fold

Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll’d

Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,

He doth Himself contrive, enact, behold.

Obviously, Fitzgerald knew all about Hart’s metaphysical God and his “quicksilver-like” presence.  There’s a lot more to his poem than “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”

There are Atheists, and then there are Atheists

As an atheist, I tend to be annoyed by prominent public moralistic posing by other atheists. A particularly egregious example thereof were the billboards recently put up around Charlotte, NC mocking Obama’s Christianity and Romney’s Mormonism ahead of the Democratic and Republican Party conventions.  Aside from the fact that “atheist moralist” is an oxymoron, they don’t even seem to serve any utilitarian purpose, such as promoting public acceptance of atheists, or inspiring people to actually reason about their religious beliefs.  Rather, they are the human equivalent of a troop of atheist howler monkeys rushing to the boundaries of their territory and loudly berating the religious howler monkeys on the other side.  All these people, who refer to themselves as American Atheists, really accomplish with such antics is to reinforce the ideological barriers between their ingroup and the ingroups of their religious opponents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should probably use the term “spiritual religious opponents” in place of “religious opponents.”  I suspect most of these atheists are just as religious as the Mormons and Christians they scorn.  Their religion just happens to be secular, with a secular God replacing the spiritual one, but otherwise entirely equivalent to the traditional variety.  The distinction between spiritual and secular religions is entirely artificial.  I strongly doubt that there is any innate wiring in the human brain that somehow distinguishes between the two.  Public atheists do tend to be strongly religious in that way.  I would just prefer that they don’t drag me into their ingroup by implying that, because I, too, am an American atheist, I am also one of them.

Other than being annoying, these billboards are also absurd.  As I pointed out earlier, “atheist moralist” is an oxymoron.  As the proponents of spiritual religions, who never seem to realize they are in the same boat, are fond of pointing out, atheists have no legitimate objective basis for claiming one thing is Good and another Evil whatsoever.  And yet these billboards make just such a claim.  Moral anathemas are hurled down on the Mormons because they are “bigots,” and on the Christians because they “promote hate.”  As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out in his The Righteous Mind, such self-righteous moral judgments are entirely typical of our species.  They are also rationally insupportable.  These atheists are trying to fly without even bothering to don the imaginary spiritual wings of the Christians and Mormons they condemn.

I note in passing that I’m not the only atheist outlier.  For example, while most of the other atheists I know tend to gravitate to the left of the political spectrum, there are conservative atheists as well, and they even have blogs.  The “American Atheists” might want to note in passing the next time they get the itch to launch a billboard campaign that they don’t represent all American atheists.  Meanwhile, no doubt to the relief of right-thinking atheists everywhere, the old ones have been taken down.

Jonathan Haidt and the New Atheists

Will Saletan has written an excellent review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for The New York Times.  It includes the advice, with which I heartily agree, that the book is well worth reading.  Saletan also draws attention to one of the more remarkable features of the book; Haidt’s apparent rejection of rationalism.  As he notes in the review:

Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason.

But to whom is Haidt directing his advice? If intuitions are unreflective, and if reason is self-serving, then what part of us does he expect to regulate and orchestrate these faculties? This is the unspoken tension in Haidt’s book. As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.” But as an author and advocate, Haidt speaks to us rationally and universally, as though we’re capable of something greater. He seems unable to help himself, as though it’s in his nature to call on our capacity for reason and our sense of common humanity — and in our nature to understand it.

The “unspoken tension” is definitely there.  I also found myself asking why, if Haidt really has no faith in reason, he would bother to write a book that appeals to reason.  Nowhere is this rejection of rationalism and embrace of “social intuitionism,” which he portrays as its opposite, more pronounced than in his comments on religion.  He begins by drawing a bead on the New Atheists.  Noting the prominence among them of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, he writes,

These four authors are known as the four horsemen of New Atheism, but I’m going to set Hitchens aside because he is a journalist whose book made no pretense of being anything but a polemical diatribe.  The other three authors, however, are men of science.

My “moral intuition” on reading that was a loud guffaw.  “Men of science” indeed!  Is such unseemly condescension “scientific?”  Were not the legions of behavioral scientists who swallowed the palpably ludicrous orthodoxy of the Blank Slate for several decades also “men of science?”  I certainly didn’t always see eye to eye with Hitchens, occasional Marxist/neocon that he was, but I never doubted his brilliance and originality.  Prof. Haidt is still apparently unaware that things that are both useful and true do not necessarily have to be written in the stolid jargon of academic journals.  Perhaps he would benefit by a re-reading of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience.  In any case, what he objects to in the three remaining authors he deigns to admit into the sacred circle of “men of science” is their rationalism.  As he puts it:

The New Atheist model is based on the Platonic rationalist view of the mind, which I introduced in chapter 2:  Reason is (or at least could be) the charioteer guiding the passions (the horses).  So long as reason has the proper factual beliefs (and has control of the unruly passions), the chariot will go in the right direction… Let us continue the debate between rationalism and social intuitionism (bolding mine) as we examine religion.  To understand the psychology of religion, should we focus on the false beliefs and faulty reasoning of individual believers.  Or should we focus on the automatic (intuitive) processes of people embedded in social groups that are striving to create a moral community.  That depends on what we think religion is, and where we think it came from.

This begs the question of whether such a thing as a “debate” between rationalism and social intuitionism really exists and, if so, in what sense.  If it is true that there is no God, as the New Atheists claim, and it is also true that social intuitionism is an accurate model for describing the origins and continuing existence of religious communities, then there can be no “debate” between them, any more than there can be a “debate” over whether a large, black object is large on the one hand or black on the other.  It makes no more sense to “focus” on one truth or the other, either, if both of them are important and relevant to the human condition.

We must read a bit further to find what it really is that is sticking in Prof. Haidt’s craw.  In a section of Chapter 11 entitled, “A Better Story:  By-Products, then Cultural Group Selection,” he cites the work of anthropologists Scott Atran and Joe Henrich to the effect that religious beliefs originated as “by-products” of the “misfiring” of “a diverse set of cognitive modules and abilities” that “were all in place by the time humans began leaving Africa more than 50,000 years ago.”  As opposed to the New Atheists, Atran and Henrich have many nice things to say about the value of religion in “making groups more cohesive and cooperative,” and “creating moral communities.”  In other words, as Haidt puts it,

The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face:  cooperation without kinship.

He then goes Atran and Henrich one better.  Whereas they claim that religion is a cultural by-product, Haidt insists that it has also been directly shaped by genetic evolution.  Even more intriguing is the type of evolution he claims is responsible; group selection.  In the very next section, Haidt praises the work group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson on the evolutionary origins of religion, noting that,

In his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson catalogs the way that religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper.

It turns out that group selection is essential to the ideas of both Wilson and Haidt on religion.  I was actually somewhat taken aback by a review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion Wilson wrote for The Skeptic back in 2007.  When I read the book I thought it was about the factual question of whether God exists or not.  Obviously, Wilson did not see it that way.  His review didn’t dispute the question of God’s existence.  Rather, it appeared to me at the time to be a long digression on Wilson’s favorite subject, group selection.  Now, I’ll admit to being as pleased as anyone to see Dawkins’ feet held to the fire over group selection.  He made the brash claim that Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, all of whom I happen to admire, were “totally and utterly wrong” because of their advocacy of group selection.  Occasionally it’s nice to see what goes around, come around.  However, I didn’t quite get Wilson’s point about the relevance of group selection to The God Delusion.  Now, having read The Righteous Mind, I get it.

I was looking at “is” when I should have been looking at “ought.”  Where Haidt and Wilson really differ from the New Atheists is in their “moral intuitions” touching on religion.  For them, religion is “good,” because it is ultimately the expression of innate traits that promote the harmony and well-being of groups, selected at the level of the group.  For the New Atheists, who dismiss group selection, and focus on “selfish” genes, it is “evil.”  Haidt makes it quite clear where he stands in the matter of “ought” in the section of Chapter 11 of The Righteous Mind entitled, “Is God a Force for Good or Evil.”  Therein he asserts, “The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil.”  He begs to differ with them, citing the work of political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell to the effect that,

…the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board.  Of course, religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as The American Cancer Society.  They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.

Haidt does admit that religion is “well-suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.”  However, then the equivocating and rationalization begin.  Religion doesn’t really cause bad things like suicide bombing.  Rather, it is a “nationalist response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power.”  Religion is “an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.”  Right, and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, either.  Just ask any Marxist or Southern Heritage zealot.  In keeping with the modern fashion among moralists, Haidt doesn’t trouble himself to establish the legitimacy of his own moral judgments as opposed to those of the New Atheists.  I rather suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s moralizing.  He concludes,

Societies that exclude the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully to what will happen to them over several generations.  We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.  They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

In short, after debunking Plato’s “rationalist” notion of “philosopher kings” earlier in the book, Haidt has now elevated himself to that rank.  Admittedly an atheist himself, he suggests that we must humor the proles with religion, or they won’t be moral or have enough children.  It seems we’ve come full circle.  Virtually the same thing was said by the stalwarts of the established churches in Europe back in the 19th century.  Read the great British quarterlies of the early 1800’s and you’ll find some of Haidt’s conclusions almost word for word, although the authors of that day arrived at them via arguments that didn’t rely on group selection.  I’m not as sanguine as Haidt and Wilson about the virtues of religion, nor as virulent as the New Atheists about its vices.  However, it seems to me we should “reflect carefully” about the wisdom of advocating what Haidt apparently considers white lies in order to promote good behavior and high levels of reproduction.  I am far from optimistic about the power of human reason but, weak reed that it is, it is the only one we have to lean on if we seek to approach the truth.  Haidt, for all his abhorrence of rationalism, has admitted as much by bothering to write his book.

Is Atheism an Evolutionary Adaptation?

Another good title for this post might be, “Over the Top Evolutionary Psychology.”  There can, in fact, be too much of a good thing.  Any lingering doubt I may have had on the matter was dispelled by some links to articles on the “evolution” of atheism at the This View of Life website.  It would seem that a new journal, Religion, Brain and Behavior, has been spawned to “develop, support, and catalyze research initiatives into the manifold functions of religion,” apparently from an evolutionary point of view.  The latest issue focused on “a scientific study of atheism,” a subject of passing interest to me, since I happen to be an atheist.  Reading further in the opening editorial, I found that “Atheism is becoming a topic of fascination for researchers in the scientific study of religion because the naturalness of religion makes atheism unexpected.”

Now it seems to me that I am an atheist because I have devoted some thought to the matter and concluded based on the evidence I am aware of that there is no God.  I think that explanation of atheism should be allowable if one also accepts the fact that the human brain did not evolve merely as a convenient lightweight stuffing material for the skull.  The scientists at Religion, Brain and Behavior, however, are having none of it.  Apparently, rejecting the “moderate” point of view that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is significant, they have gone the Blank Slaters one better.  Dismissing the notion that the ability to reason logically and to distinguish truth from falsehood had anything to do with the evolution of the human brain, they seem to have concluded that everything, or at least everything touching on religion, is a manifestation of “human nature.”  In short, they conclude that both atheism and religious belief are actually evolved traits.

If atheism really is a trait that enhanced fitness, it must have some survival-enhancing function.  In a word, it must be “for” something.  Hence the title of one of the issues main articles, “What are atheists for? Hypotheses on the functions of non-belief in the evolution of religion,” by Dominic Johnson, embellished with a list of no less than 118 citations of other learned authors.  According to Johnson,

Although there was a significant rise in the prominence of atheism after the Reformation in Europe several authors argue that atheists and skeptics were present throughout human history and are common among traditional societies, suggesting that atheism stretches back some way into human evolution.

We are faced, therefore, with the possibility that atheism and atheists have been present throughout human evolutionary history. This sits awkwardly with evolutionary theories that suggest religious beliefs and behaviors are universal, have powerful cognitive underpinnings, and are important to survival and reproduction. How can we square the circle?

Johnson has an elegant answer to this intriguing question:

The key conclusion is that non-belief unambiguously represents our phylogenetic inheritance…

In other words, our primate ancestors were once all too stupid to imagine such things as supernatural beings, so, like lions and tigers and bears, they were all atheists.  Now it seems to me that, besides being unflattering to atheists, this conclusion ignores a rather significant fact.  There is a qualitative difference between lack of belief because of inability of conceive of gods, and lack of belief because of the reasoned conclusion that gods don’t exist.  That distinction apparently hasn’t occurred to Johnson, who charges ahead, citing a laundry list of reasons that atheism may have evolved, such as,

Evolutionary game theory shows that traits often do best when they coexist with other different traits. In many natural systems, this forms an evolutionarily stable equilibrium, with declining fitness returns preventing departures from the right mix of types in the population – so-called “frequency dependent” selection.

The presence of atheists may indirectly improve the fitness of believers by catalyzing their beneficial interactions.

and,

The presence of atheists may force the community to bolster religious doctrine in the face of skepticism.

It seems to me that, if any of these hypotheses are true, atheism must have “evolved” in an awful hurry.  If we exclude the “lions and tigers and bears” variant of atheism for the reasons cited above, the ability to disbelieve in gods must necessarily have followed the ability to conceive of and believe in them in the first place.  Now, unless there were Homo erectus philosophers who discussed these weighty matters around their campfires, one must conclude that atheism “evolved” in a matter of no more than a couple of hundred thousand years, give or take.  For that matter, religious belief itself would have had no greater span of time in which to “evolve.”

Allow me to suggest an alternative to all these interesting adaptive hypotheses.  Religious belief did not “evolve.”  The cognitive abilities of the human brain evolved, until at some point we became capable of wondering how all this stuff around us got here.  When this happened, it must have seemed just as obvious as the fact that the earth didn’t revolve around the sun that it was there because it was created, and by a being or beings much more sophisticated than humans.  Sometime thereafter, deliberate rejection of such beliefs became possible.  Isn’t this, at least, more “parsimonious” than the notion that every human belief must be directly connected with some kind of a “human nature” widget in the brain?

Apparently Johnson doesn’t agree.  As he observes in the conclusion to his article,

Personally, I am skeptical of the main adaptive hypotheses proposed. I favor the null hypothesis of natural variation, in which cognitive mechanisms underpinning religious beliefs vary in whether and how much they generate belief. At one end of this spectrum – one of the tail ends of the distribution – we will have people with very low levels of belief, even atheists, just as we always have extremes of other biological and psychological traits.

In response, I quote a response from one of the commenters at This View of Life.

I suggest that it is essential to distinguish between atheism and anti-theism in this regard. If the object of this evolutionary study is atheism, per se, then we are wasting our time. We may as well study whether or not non-belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth-Fairy is adaptive from an evolutionary point-of-view.  Having said that, if there is an evolutionary basis to non-belief in the super-empirical it lies in the phylogeny / adaptivity of human intelligence and reason.

Rendered into the vernacular, this elegant bit of academic jargon becomes, “Atheism may exist because human heads evolved to serve as something other than ornate hat racks.”  I concur.  I don’t have a particularly high regard for human intelligence, but neither do I have such a low opinion of our powers of reason that I consider them incapable of ever distinguishing truth from falsehood.