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A Little Matter of Science, Superiority, and Racism: New Atheism's Dangerous Waters

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In a widely viewed article on CNN last week, Professor Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics announced the results of a study which he claims proves that atheists are smarter than believers.

Despite the obvious flaws of the study -- that the subjects were all American, that the IQ test was the base of measurement, that the IQ variance between believers and non believers was only 6 points, and that Kanazawa drew startlingly unsubstantiated conclusions from the limited results (wildly asserting that the evolutionary basis of all human religion is paranoia) -- and despite the fact that some members of the scientific and atheist community immediately distanced themselves from Kanazawa's flawed methodologies, the article made the predictable rounds on atheist sites and blogs, along with a lot of self-congratulatory chatter. Many of the comments to my response on Huffington Post last week were from atheists gleefully agreeing with Kanazawa's conclusions.

As I note in all my posts about religion and atheism, I am probably not what most atheists have in mind when they think of a "believer." I was raised in a Buddhist household in an arguably atheist spiritual tradition. I have studied eastern spirituality off and on for most of my life, and am certainly not a religious zealot. I do not believe in an interventionist deity in the traditional Judeo-Christian vein, but I do in fact believe in a greater consciousness and I do follow a specific spiritual path. I have no love for the Palin-esque creationist crowd, I believe in the findings of quantum physics, and I have a great deal of respect for many atheists. In fact, among my social circle, I -- as something of a believer -- am definitely the exception rather than the rule.

Everyone, I hope most atheists would agree, has the right to believe what they believe as long as it does not harm anyone else. Everyone, as long as they are not infringing on the rights of others, is entitled to respect. I do not ridicule the atheist position, even though I do not agree with it. And I certainly don't see myself as smarter than atheists based on a judgment of their worldview. Unfortunately for atheists however, much of their position is based on the negation of other people's belief, which tends to let them drift into the realm of claimed intellectual superiority and ridicule of believers fairly easily. And even more unfortunately, those atheists who do claim such superiority currently occupy the spotlight and shape the debate.

Perhaps no one is a bigger proselytizer of atheism's intellectual superiority than Christopher Hitchens, who has been repeatedly quoted as saying that he has no respect for anyone who believes in God. Bluntly dismissing the worldview of 4+ billion people might be expected from a sensationalist such as Hitchens, but sadly his view seems to be all too common among the atheist community.

I'm all for atheists believing exactly what they want to believe and all of us getting along as friends and colleagues. But when atheists choose to go down the road of intellectual superiority, and choose to ridicule religion while holding science on an untouchable pedestal, they are guilty of the same myopia that they accuse fundamentalist believers of. This view turns a blind eye to the cultural and social factors behind atheism of which they are inheritors, and to the darker side of science's historic claims of superiority. Bluntly, the culture from which modern atheism has sprung -- science and academia -- has a long history of distorted claims of superiority that well-meaning atheists would do best to avoid.

It may shock some people to learn that Satoshi Kanazawa's previous controversial study, which some atheists are certainly aware of, used the exact same inverse logic to draw the conclusion that sub-Saharan Africans are impoverished because... well, because they are dumb.

Kanazawa's predecessor, Richard Lynn, who conducted a similar study on atheism and intelligence in 2008 and whose results were similarly questioned by the scientific community, has made a career in labeling people who don't look or think like him as inferior.

Lynn, a strong proponent of the Bell Curve -- a flawed metric beautifully dismantled in the groundbreaking work The Mismeasure of Man -- is known for his studies on intelligence and its relation to the size of the human head. He has conducted studies that conclude that men are smarter than women, that lighter skinned blacks are smarter than darker skinned blacks, that rich people are smarter than poor people, that equatorial natives are dumber than their northern counterparts, and that pygmies and bushmen are only marginally smarter than the mentally handicapped.

A longtime critic of immigration who leveled his complaints specifically on the African immigrant community because of their intellectual inferiority, Lynn was quoted in 1994 saying: "Who can doubt that the Caucasoids and the Mongoloids are the only two races that have made any significant contributions to civilization?"

Of course, if we want to dig deeper, the scientific community's time-honored tradition of finding supporting data that proves that people just like them are superior to people who look, act, and believe differently is nothing new.

At the height of the British Empire's rape of the African continent, captured natives were studied extensively in order to demonstrate the inherent racial superiority and intelligence of Europeans. Countless scientific papers were written on the subject of European racial supremacy -- both physically and intellectually -- over "primitives." The genetic superiority of whites was an area of study of Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin, who first propounded the idea of eugenics, or selective breeding in order to increase favorable genetic traits.

According to Wikipedia, Eugenics is now "widely regarded as a brutal movement which inflicted massive human rights violations on millions of people. The 'interventions' advocated and practised by eugenicists involved prominently the identification and classification of individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, promiscuous women, homosexuals and entire racial groups--such as the Roma and Jews--as 'degenerate' or 'unfit'; the segregation or institutionalisation of such individuals and groups, their sterilization, euthanasia, and in the extreme case of Nazi Germany, their mass extermination." Extremely controversial due to this sordid history and its post-war categorization as a form of genocide, eugenics is the subject of Richard Lynn's upcoming book.

Darwin himself was not immune to the conclusion that whites were a superior race. In his writings, he speaks repeatedly of the civilized vs. savage races, and surmises that Africans and Aborigines are closer in genetic make up to mountain gorillas than they are to Europeans. Darwin also speaks of the intellectual superiority of the European races and even the genetic superiority of Englishmen to Irish.

"The very poor and reckless, who are often degraded by vice, almost invariably marry early, whilst the careful and frugal, who are generally otherwise virtuous, marry late in life. [Therefore] the reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members. Or as Mr. Greg puts the case: 'The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits.'"

Such assumed superiority among the Western academic and scientific community was not limited to race; it also targeted belief. When British academics first encountered the vast spiritual traditions of the Indian subcontinent -- which they collectively labeled Hinduism -- they unleashed the type of venom that can only come from people who are terrified of what they do not understand.

Stating Hinduism was only fit for "uneducated women and peasants," one British academic quoted in Sir John Woodroffe's treatise on Shakti worship went on to label the Hindu texts "the drivel of madmen" and "nothing but superstition, mummery, idolatry... a mixture of nightmare nonsense and time-wasting rubbish fulfilling no useful purpose" that could not even hold a candle to the "social and intellectual superiority" which Europeans enjoyed.

Such colonial garbage would hardly be worth mentioning, if it didn't read so much like a Christopher Hitchens article on religion.

All of this is merely to say two things: One, that science has no right being placed on an unassailable pedestal. The exact same ridiculously negative lens Hitchens et al apply to religion, when applied to science, yields the same results. And two, that atheists should avoid the superiority argument at all costs.

Unlike Hitchens, who uses religion's atrocities to draw the conclusion that religion is bad, I am not attempting to create a logically flawed argument that says that science is bad or that atheists are racist -- and of course most atheists, who tend on the liberal side as I do -- would be shocked at the suggestion that class or race play any role in their worldview. But there is a sensitivity here that the atheist community would do well to heed. It is a fact that modern day atheism grows out of the academic and scientific community. In America and Western Europe, it is no secret -- and it is even an issue among the community -- that the majority of atheists today are white, are middle or upper class, and are college educated. Of course in and of itself this fact means exactly nothing. However, when atheism's mainly white, mainly upper/middle class, mainly educated adherents start to claim intellectual superiority over believers, that's where the waters get dangerous; that's where they start to drift into Richard Lynn territory. When Chris Hitchens -- a British academic whose sense of superiority is undisguised -- berates a Muslim man for his superstitious and backward belief, well, it sounds... colonial.

If we are going to move to a place of mutual respect between atheists and believers, then both sides need to remove the sensationalist jargon. It is clear that there are vast reforms necessary in many religious institutions. But it in no way behooves the atheist to flaunt his self-perceived superiority in front of believers, particularly when, like it or not, that superiority is born out of a culture and community with a long history of flaunting its superiority -- namely science and academia. As much as the history of science is a history of enlightenment and discovery, it is also a history of gross generalizations, blunders, prejudices and fallacies that are eventually proven wrong. Certainly there is enough self-reflection in this group of intelligent adherents of science to recognize that what they think they know about belief today may not in fact be the whole picture or may be disproven tomorrow?

It is my belief that the positive check on religion that atheism has to offer, and the true spirit of inquiry and wonder that is delivered by science, can be great forces for religious reform. But if it starts from a place of implied superiority and lack of respect, then there's not really anywhere to go. My challenge to the atheist community is this: I know that there are atheists out there, who, like Carl Sagan, revel in the wonder of the manifest universe and can imbue some of that wonder upon all of us. Let's hear the positive voices of your community, lest the dialogue be dominated by those who only are out to pick a fight, to point out the flaws, or claim superiority when none exists.