Atheism as a sacred belief


The image above is taken from this nice 15 minute video interview of Jonathan Haidt (on left) by David Sloan Wilson (on right). I’m a big fan of Haidt and Wilson, and did a previous post on Haidt’s views on Republican science denialism. A key Haidt insight is a) all groups have sacred beliefs, and b) when sacred beliefs conflict with truth, sacred wins. This is a universal human tendency. It happens to me. It can happen to you. Ironically it can happen to atheists, if they are devout enough.

The New Atheist movement got it’s start from Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. They all published bestselling books advocating atheism shortly after the 9/11 suicide bombings, which gave atheism a fresh urgency. Here’s some reviews and quotes to get perspective:

  • Harris likens religion to a form of mental illness which, he says, “allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.”
  • Hitchens contends that organised religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” and sectarian, and that accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
  • Dennet has based his case in part on work of cognitive anthropologists Atran and Boyer, who in effect have argued that religion is a spandrel—a side effect of certain other cognitive adaptations. The simplest hypothesis is Atran’s idea that religion is a consequence of our tendency to anthropomorphize, to project intentionality onto the world.
  • Dawkins advocates the “theory of religion as an accidental by-product – a misfiring of something useful” as for example the mind’s employment of intentional stance. Dawkins suggests that the theory of memes, and human susceptibility to religious memes in particular, can explain how religions might spread like “mind viruses” across societies.

Where the “Four Horseman of New Atheism” agree is religion is not an evolutionary adaptation, or even beneficial in any way. Instead it’s an accidental byproduct of the mind’s capacity to anthropomorphically perceive nature. And it’s really really bad.

But even within a materialist science context, much less a religious one, there are alternative explanations for religious belief. For example evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson pictured above follows sociologist Émile Durkheim in believing religion is adaptive since it causes group cohesion. You can see why Wilson is compatible with Haidt. Both believe humans are adapted to cooperate around sacred beliefs. This can lead to greatness, such as firemen selflessly sacrificing their lives on 9/11, but can also lead to genocidal fanaticism, which motivated the 9/11 bombers in the first place. In Wilson’s view selflessness (in-group trust) and genocide (out-group mistrust) are oddly paired traits growing from a single evolutionary root. Flip sides of the tribal coin. You only need to visit your local sports stadium to see both in action.

Since New Atheists view religion as a mind infection, they believe removing god will make people saner. A relatively easy fix. But if religious tendencies are much deeper, and tied to tribal cohesion and moral meaning, removing god will merely redirect religious impulses towards secular substitutes. And fanaticism can be just as easy with substitutes, as the horrific results of Communism and Fascism last century showed. One test between these views is to see if New Atheists ironically exhibit the militant tribal tendencies they claim atheism should prevent. Let me quote PZ Myers, a biologist who blogs as Pharyngula, whose atheism follows the mold of Richard Dawkins. I did not have to scroll down far in Myers’ blog to find this recent post:

It’s pathetic what the slymers are up to now: they’re inventing lies, then getting angry at the offenses in the lies, none of which occurred. They keep going around and around on this Ferris wheel of nonsense.

It’s just plain weird. When Brayton and I put this network together, the unifying idea was to encourage diverse voices to speak out for freethought. We had no idea that the warped regressive side of atheism would respond with such sustained petty tantrums, but here we are — still going strong, still growing, and not backing down…and still getting nonstop harassment from fools. I wish they’d grow up and face reality: just as the United States is changing demographically, so is atheism, and the howls and kicks and screams of those privileged obnoxious children are going to be left behind by history.

PZ Myers is ranting about a schism among the atheist faithful (congregation) who follow his freethought website. He is casting out atheists who have committed heresy.

The lesson from people like Jonathan Haidt is not to scoff, but to understand all groups have sacred beliefs to rally around. Global warming. Race. Religion. And yes, atheism. Sacred beliefs are both our glory and our downfall. It’s human nature. The great difficulty is being self aware enough to understand what our own sacred beliefs are, and having some humility when others don’t share them.

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