The New Atheism and Evolutionary Religious Studies: Clarifying Their Relationship

05/17/2012 06:49 pm ET | Updated Jul 17, 2012
  • David Sloan Wilson Author, 'The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time'; Editor-in-Chief, Evolution: This View of Life

Atheism is a disbelief in Gods. "The New Atheism" refers to an exceptionally active group of atheists centered around the work of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens. All four are distinguished intellectuals and scientists. Dawkins and Dennett are especially known as interpreters of evolution for the general public. Legions have become turned on to evolutionary science through their work.

Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS) is the scholarly study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. Religion has been studied from other scholarly perspectives for centuries. Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and James George Frazier were early scholars of religion. Their goal was to explain religion as a purely human phenomenon, in the same way that scholars try to explain any other human phenomenon, such as government or warfare. This is in contrast to theologians, who are more likely to function as religious believers. A few religious scholars try to show that divine interventions actually happen, but the vast majority subscribe to a position known as methodological naturalism, which restricts explanations to naturalistic causes.

ERS is therefore one of the new kids on the block as far as religious studies is concerned. Its bold claim is that modern evolutionary science can go beyond the many other scholarly perspectives in shedding light on the nature of religion. While evolution was never entirely absent as a perspective, the modern version became prominent at the beginning of the 21st century with books such as Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, In Gods We Trust by Scott Atran, and my own Darwin's Cathedral. The field has burgeoned since then; a partial list of prominent names includes Jesse Bering, Michael Blume (ETVOL'S religious editor), Joseph Bulbulia, Joseph Henrich, Dominic Johnson, Ara Norenzayan, Anthony Slingerland, Richard Sosis, and Harvey Whitehouse. If they are not yet household names, they should be for any household interested in religion from a scholarly perspective.

What is the relationship between the New Atheism and ERS? This question is surprisingly complex and needs to be answered in at least three steps.

Step 1: They are alike in their rejection of the "actively intervening god" hypothesis. I am choosing my words carefully here. The concept of supernatural agents that actively intervene in the laws of nature and affairs of people is a perfectly good scientific hypothesis that occupied center stage for centuries. It was rejected so thoroughly that it is no longer taken seriously in scientific circles, although anyone who wishes to spend their money testing it yet again is welcome to do so. The New Atheists are deeply convinced about the nonexistence of actively intervening gods. Religious scholars don't shout their convictions from the rooftops, but their adherence to methodological naturalism amounts to the same thing. Finally, rejecting the "actively intervening god" hypothesis says nothing about other conceptions of divinity and religion, which need to be evaluated on their own terms.

Step 2: As a scholarly discipline, ERS is agnostic about what gets done with the knowledge that is created. The New Atheism is oriented toward action. As someone who is trying to put evolutionary science to practical use for many topics, I regard activism as a good thing, as long as it remains ethically and scientifically accountable. I therefore support some aspects of the New Atheist agenda, such as the need to destigmatize atheism. It's a shame that an atheist doesn't stand a chance of being elected to a public office in America, for example.

Step 3: Whenever New Atheists make claims about religion as a human phenomenon, their claims should respect the authority of empirical evidence. Insofar as the new discipline of ERS has added to empirical knowledge of religion, the New Atheists should be paying close attention to ERS. This is especially true for Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, whose names are so closely associated with evolution.

Step 3 should go without saying and I doubt that anyone would disagree with it in principle. Yet, by my assessment, there is a serious disconnect between the New Atheism and ERS at the level of Step 3. I will illustrate with a single example involving Richard Dawkins, but my point is more general and can be empirically tested, as I will also attempt to show.

In a widely viewed video on YouTube, Richard Dawkins is asked by a member of a packed audience to comment on religion as a product of evolution and what its evolutionary advantage might be. In reply, he gives a mini-lecture on the concept of byproducts -- traits that are not advantageous by themselves but nevertheless evolve by being connected to other traits -- using moths flying into flames as a biological example. Their suicidal behavior is obviously not adaptive by itself, but nevertheless persists because moths are adapted to navigate by orienting toward celestial light sources at optical infinity. Dawkins then states his opinion that religion is analogous to self-immolation by moths, providing the example of children who evolved to learn uncritically from their elders (the adaptation), who are then vulnerable to "stupid advice" such as "sacrifice a mongoose's kidneys at the time of the full moon or the crops will fail" (the maladaptive byproduct).

This is Dawkins at his best, explaining evolutionary concepts in a way that anyone can understand. The problem is that the byproduct hypothesis is only one of six major evolutionary hypotheses that can explain any given aspect of religion. The others explain religion as an adaptation to the current environment (at the group level, the individual level, or only for the cultural trait as a parasite), as an adaptation to past environments that has become mismatched to its current environment, or as a neutral product of drift.

In addition, these hypotheses need to be addressed separately for genetic and cultural evolution. To pick a simple example, our tendency to be altruistic toward genetic relatives is an ancient adaptation found in many species that evolved without reference to religion. The way that it became incorporated into religions during cultural evolution can potentially be explained by any one of the six hypotheses, alone or in combination. One possibility is that kinship terminology became a mechanism for promoting cooperation among non-relatives that evolved by cultural group selection. To make matters even more complex, genetic and cultural evolution are intertwined. Genetic evolution could modify our willingness to treat non-relatives as kin when kinship terminology is invoked, for example.

The whole point of the field of ERS is to answer these questions, using the same toolkit of theoretical and empirical methods that evolutionists apply to other human-related subjects and non-human species. The question is, when Dawkins was asked to comment on religion as a product of evolution, how well did his answer reflect what is currently known, based on the hard work of Dawkins' evolutionist colleagues? Is it indeed the current state of knowledge that religion is like a moth to flame and results primarily in silly counterproductive behaviors? Or did Dawkins distort what is currently known about religion as a product of evolution, either knowingly or unknowingly?

At this point, it is important to leave Dawkins and pose the same questions for the New Atheism movement as a whole. In general, whenever people associated with the movement comment on religion as a human phenomenon (step 3), do they respect the authority of empirical evidence to the best of our current knowledge? Or do they bias their portrayal of religion, selectively emphasizing scientific hypotheses that, if true, would promote their activist objectives (step 2)?

The answers to these questions make the difference between a legitimate science-based activist agenda and an ideology that distorts facts to serve its narrow purpose (knowingly or unknowingly). It has been said that almost any position can be supported by selectively quoting the bible. It is equally true that almost any position can be supported by selectively quoting scientific hypotheses. The only thing that distinguishes science from religion, in this regard, is if scientists and intellectuals restrict themselves to the hypotheses that have received empirical support.

By my reckoning, religious meaning systems are far more adaptive than Dawkins acknowledged in his reply to the audience member's question. One of the best recent reviews, by Scott Atran and Joseph Henrich, is titled "The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions." This article shows how byproduct explanations have become interwoven with adaptationist explanations in the ERS literature, in contrast to the first books that were published a decade ago. I also invite readers of this article to view my recent videocast with Joseph Henrich on the cultural evolution of food taboos on the island of Fiji. These taboos could have been ignorant superstitions of the "sacrifice a mongoose's kidney..." variety, but the data told a different and more interesting story.

My assessment of the disconnect between ERS and the New Atheism movement with respect to step 3 is not based on a systematic review of the New Atheism literature -- but such a review could be conducted and I strongly encourage someone with the time and interest to do it. No one would be happier than me to discover that the New Atheists are basing their activist agenda on the best current knowledge of religion as a human phenomenon. But if this is not the case -- if New Atheists are portraying religion any way they please by selectively quoting scientific hypotheses -- then they're no better than bible thumpers.

I close this essay by countering an argument that some New Atheists have made in the past; that they are only concerned with steps 1 and 2, which do not depend upon knowledge of religion as a human phenomenon (step 3). One way to counter this argument is by imagining what would happen if Dawkins gave an answer to the audience member's question more in line with the current ERS literature. What if he had said that religions are fundamentally about the creation and organization of prosocial communities? That all people require a cultural meaning system to organize their experience, receiving environmental information as input and resulting in effective action as output? That all cultural meaning systems confront a complex tradeoff between the factual content of a given belief and its effect upon action? That secular meaning systems often depart from factual reality in their own ways? The effect upon the audience would have been very different than when they were told that religion is like a moth immolating itself or like a child mindlessly being fed useless information.

Saying that the New Atheist movement can proceed on the basis of steps 1 and 2 without reference to step 3 is like saying that it can be totally detached from factual reality when it comes to the nature of religion. Let us all hope that this is not the case.