29 March 2013

Frans de Waal: Has militant atheism become a religion?

Frans de Waal is a powerful voice for the nontheist community, having long advocated that morality is not some sort of veneer plastered over a darker nature of humankind but a fundamental part of our social, cooperative nature. He's often spoken directly against the notion that some sort of deity is needed to provide a grounding for moral values, and he backs up his claims with decades of research on primate behavior. I've read several of his books (Our Inner Ape, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, and The Age of Empathy) and they're all fantastic.

But despite being an outspoken advocate of a naturalistic theory of moral evolution, he's also prone to some peculiar comments deriding the poorly-named "new atheists" like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc., for their outspoken anti-theism. In an otherwise exemplary essay he wrote for the New York Times in 2010 entitled Morals Without God?, he states,
Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.
De Waal isn't the first to misunderstand the use of the word "brights" (it's meant to counter the notion that atheists are miserable, hateful people -- not to deride believers' intelligence), though that's not entirely his fault; it's a stupid and unnecessary label that, since it was so easily misunderstood, quickly fell out of favor. But he continues,
While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion?
He's conflating open criticism with insults; calling an idea delusional, stupid, or absurd is not the same thing as criticizing an individual.  And finally,
And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
There are those (Sam Harris, Michael Shermer) who argue that science can ground moral values. While I think that science can certainly inform and guide moral values, I think morals are ultimately grounded in our common humanism. And in my reading of the popular "new atheist" writers, that's precisely what I've gathered to be the common theme -- not that science in itself provides a grounding for moral values, but that religion is essentially a failed science that must be replaced with a rational, evidential view of morality.

It seems that de Waal has parlayed that article into a full-length book entitled The Bonobo and the Atheist, and while I'll reserve judgment for the whole shebang, an excerpt published for Salon indicates that he'll be repeating and expanding upon some of those misguided views. But rather than just repeat my criticisms, I'll instead highlight some of the areas in which I actually agree with de Waal.

Commenting on atheism in the public forum, he calls out the facade of debates and the contrived antagonism that accompanies them:
As if eager to provide comic relief from this mismatched battle, American television occasionally summarizes it in its own you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up way. “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News invited David Silverman, president of the American Atheist Group, to discuss billboards proclaiming religion a “scam.” Throughout the interview, Silverman kept up a congenial face, claiming that there was absolutely no reason to be troubled, since all that his billboards do is tell the truth: “Everybody knows religion is a scam!” Bill O’Reilly, a Catholic, expressed his disagreement and clarified why religion is not a scam: “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.” This was the first time I had heard the tides being used as proof of God. It looked like a comedy sketch with one smiling actor telling believers that they are too stupid to see that religion is a fraud, but that it would be silly for them to take offense, while the other proposes the rise and fall of the oceans as evidence for a supernatural power, as if gravity and planetary rotation can’t handle the job.
On this, I think de Waal is right: it's a circus. Those kinds of staged, combative arguments are unlikely to persuade anyone. It makes for passable entertainment, but it's hardly the kind of irenic dialogue that we ought to be having. But de Waal loses me on his next point:
All I get out of such exchanges is the confirmation that believers will say anything to defend their faith and that some atheists have turned evangelical. Nothing new about the first, but atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay? In the same way that firefighters are sometimes stealth arsonists and homophobes closet homosexuals, do some atheists secretly long for the certitude of religion?
Whenever I hear criticisms about the tone of anti-theists like this, I don't really ever hear any constructive suggestions on how we ought to approach criticism of religious ideas -- especially ironic here, since de Waal says he doesn't view religion as above criticism. The mindset instead seems to be that we ought to just be extra nice and shut up about it. Let the believers have their beliefs. After all, what does it hurt? I mean, besides the rights of gays, women, and minority religions; besides the teaching of science in public schools; besides gargantuan tax breaks for sprawling churches; besides perpetuating ignorance about sexuality; besides telling children they'll burn in hell if they don't get their theology correct... the list goes on and on.

Dan Dennet once said that there isn't really any nice way to tell someone that their most cherished beliefs are nonsense, and I think he's right. While I do think the staged antagonism can become a bit too theatrical for its own good, to suggest that our indignation isn't justified or that criticism of religion itself is a sort of dogmatism (what creeds does atheism hold about which one can be dogmatic?) is sorely misguided, and disappointing to hear coming from someone who is otherwise a powerful voice against the dogma of religion.

Some more responses to de Waal:
PZ Myers
James Croft
Jerry Coyne

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