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David Sloan Wilson

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Atheism as a Stealth Religion

Posted: 12/14/07 04:50 PM ET

In today's polarized world, the conflict between atheism and religion is shaping up to be the fight of the century. In this corner, the new atheists, flexing their muscles with books such as God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In that corner, the religious fundamentalists, who are responsible for 9/11, the Christian takeover of America, polluting the minds of their children, and numberless other atrocities. It's science and reason against dogmatism and blind faith, making it obvious who the enlightened liberal should root for.

Well, not quite. The truly enlightened liberal should experience a twinge of doubt about the very blackness and whiteness of it. Let me show you how a bit of evolutionary thinking can paint a more interesting picture in shades of gray.

The new atheists hate religion for causing between-group conflict and especially for its wanton disregard of the canons of rational thought. Yet, both of these problems extend far more widely than religion. Between-group conflict pervades the animal world. Ant colonies, lion prides, and chimp troops don't have religion, but they do have between-group conflict. As for the canons of rational thought, to the extent that brains evolved by natural selection, their main purpose is to cause organisms to behave adaptively in the real world--not to directly represent the real world.

This leads to a crucial distinction between what I call factual and practical realism. Consider Hans and Igor, who are mortal enemies. Hans understands that Igor is much like himself, even to the point of competing for the same square of ground. Igor regards Hans as an inhuman monster, completely unlike himself. If Igor's belief makes him fight with greater determination, then it counts as practically realistic, even if it is factually incorrect. Now imagine similar contests among beliefs--and the brains that create beliefs--taking place over thousands of generations of genetic and cultural evolution. Voila! We arrive at a conception of human mentality that is far more nuanced and interesting than the black-and-white cartoon of atheism vs. religion.

Factual and practical realism are not always at odds. To pick an obvious example, a hunter needs to know the exact location of his quarry. The point is that the relationship between the two is complex and that our minds are prepared to massively depart from factual realism, when necessary, in ways that motivate effective action. This is not a sign of mental weakness but a time-tested survival strategy. Moreover, adaptive fictions are not restricted to religions. Patriotic histories of nations have the same distorted and purpose-driven quality as religions, a fact that becomes obvious as soon as we consider the histories of nations other than our own. Intellectual movements such as feminism and postmodernism are often shamelessly open about yoking acceptable truths to perceived consequences. That's what it means to be politically correct. Scientific theories are not immune. Many scientific theories of the past become weirdly implausible with the passage of time, just like religions. When this happens, they are often revealed as not just wrong but as purpose-driven. Scientific theories cannot be expected to approximate factual reality when they are proposed, but only after they have been winnowed by empirical evidence.

These and other belief systems are not classified as religions because they don't invoke supernatural agents, but they are just like religions when they sacrifice factual realism on the altar of practical realism. The presence or absence of supernatural agents--a particular departure from factual realism--is just a detail. It is humbling to contemplate that the concerns typically voiced about religion need to be extended to virtually all forms of human thought. If anything, non-religious belief systems are a greater cause for concern because they do a better job of masquerading as factual reality. Call them stealth religions.

That brings us back to atheism. The discerning liberal (or any intellectual) would be a fool to assume that atheism stands for pure reason, just because it doesn't invoke the gods. We need to give atheism a good hard look to see if it is functioning as a stealth religion. Fortunately, basic design principles enable us to do just that.

The real world is full of messy trade-offs. When behaviors are evaluated for their effects on self and others, for example, some are good for both (++), or bad for both (--), but many are good for some and bad for others (+- or -+). Any belief system that accurately represents the real world will include examples of all four possibilities. The main purpose of a religion or a stealth religion, however, is not to describe the real world but to motivate a given suite of behaviors. One way to do this is by creating a stylized world without tradeoffs, in which the prescribed behaviors are portrayed as good, good, good for everyone and the prohibited behaviors are portrayed as bad, bad, bad for everyone. Behaviors with mixed effects are absent from the stylized world because they do not clearly tell the believer what to do.

Using this simple method, it is easy to show that fundamentalist religions portray a world without trade-offs, very unlike the real world, which propel the believer along a single path toward glory and away from ruin. Unfortunately, at least some version of atheism fare no better.

As exhibit A, consider Ayn Rand, the new atheist of her day who claimed that her philosophy of Objectivism was based entirely on reason and science. She corrected people who called her an individualist by saying that she was a rationalist. Nevertheless, her philosophy portrays a world without tradeoffs, just like religious fundamentalism. The two belief systems motivate different suites of behavior, of course, but in both cases they stuff the believer, like a human cannonball, into an ideological cannon to be shot in the direction of glory and away from ruin.

The Ayn Rand movement was just like religious fundamentalism in other respects. Rand was treated as an infallible oracle--the very opposite of reasoned discourse--and members of the movement spent their time casting out false premises as if they were so many demons. A lifelong smoker, Rand was nevertheless astonished when she contracted lung cancer. How could she get cancer when she had no false premises? She was no more rational about the nature of disease than evangelical Christians lining up to be healed. Even today, Rand's novels sell many thousands of copies a year and the Ayn Rand Institute attempts to lure new members with the following appealing invitation: "Those who have read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged know that the sunlit universe Ayn Rand depicts in her novels is unlike the world that they see around them. How can one achieve the clarity of vision and joyous existence that her fictional heroes achieve?"

How about the new atheism of our day? I wish I could report otherwise, but it has all the hallmarks of a stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad ("how religion poisons everything"), the unquestioned authority of its leaders, and even the portrayal of bad ideas as like demons (parasitic memes) that need to be cast out ("breaking the spell").

One purpose of this blog is to act as a portal for those who like to roll up their sleeves and get dirty with the details. Both I and Michael Shermer, the intrepid editor of Skeptic magazine, have written about Ayn Rand as a stealth-religious zealot in our respective books, Evolution for Everyone and Why People Believe Weird Things. I have critiqued two books by the new atheists (Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins The God Delusion) at length elsewhere. I am also involved in the establishment of evolutionary religious studies as an authentic scientific discipline. One reason that I am passionate about exposing the new atheism as a stealth religion is because it distracts attention from something far more important and interesting--the proper study of religion and all forms of human mentality from an evolutionary perspective.

Finally, the fact that factual realism tends to be subservient to practical realism is a statement about how the mind works, not about how modern beliefs systems should be. We need respect for factual realism as never before to arrive at practical solutions to life's complicated problems. Evolutionary theory tells us that this objective doesn't come naturally and that some clever social engineering will be required, much as enduring religions manage to expand the circle of cooperation more widely than the tiny social groups of our ancestral past. The new atheists will need to display a virtue typically associated with religion--humility--if they wish to join this enterprise.