01/04/2008 01:40 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Atheism as a Stealth Religion II: Let's Get Real

My previous blog attracted 250 comments, putting atheism right up there with Britney Spears as one of the most newsworthy issues of our day. Seriously, there are important issues at stake with the New Atheism movement, meriting a follow-up blog. One question on my mind concerns the quality of discourse that can be achieved with a blog-and-comment format. Can it rise above the intellectual equivalent of a barroom brawl?

Here are some bullet points to organize the next round of comments:

I am an atheist: Some readers thought that I must be a religious believer attempting to level the playing field by calling atheism a stealth religion. If theism refers to a belief in supernatural agents capable of intervening in natural processes, then I am 100% an atheist and proud of it.

What do I mean by a stealth religion? I clearly define a stealth religion as any belief system that distorts the facts of the real world (yes, there is a real world out there, and it does not include people sitting on clouds) for the purpose of motivating a given suite of behaviors. Beliefs in supernatural agents are a particular distortion of factual reality and I want to broaden the discussion to include all distortions of factual reality. It's no good quoting dictionary definitions of atheism and religion, when I clearly state what I mean.

What do I mean by factual and practical realism? A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what's really out there (e.g., there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world. If you were to ask me for advice about a plan of action, and I replied that your plan is not realistic, you would understand me correctly to mean that your plan is unlikely to work. Thus, the term "practical realism" is fully intuitive, as long as I clearly define its meaning, as I have.

Practical realism is a good thing. Since most atheists are self-described truth lovers, it is easy to conclude that we have a moral obligation to favor factual over practical realism, whenever the two conflict. However, most of us presumably also want to live in happy, healthy, thriving communities. If there is an unavoidable trade-off between factual and practical realism, that would place all of us in a moral dilemma. Atheists such as myself are banking on the possibility that we can have our cake and eat it too; that factual realism can contribute to, rather than detracting from practical realism. We need to be clear about our own articles of faith.

Not all forms of atheism are stealth religions. Some readers jumped to the conclusion that I am branding all forms of atheism as stealth religions. Not in the least. It is perfectly possible to have a belief system that is as factually realistic as possible, which we consult for our plans of action. The question is how well any particular atheistic belief system approaches this ideal.

The flag, the cross...and science and reason. Sinclair Lewis (recently quoted by presidential candidate Ron Paul) said "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag carrying a cross." To that we can add "and claiming to be supported by science and reason." No, I am not accusing the New Atheists of having a hidden fascist agenda, but I am making the reasonable point that all forms of authority are vulnerable to abuse, as the sorry history of Social Darwinism attests. We need to be suspicious about arguments cloaked in all forms of authority.

Stealth religions need not be conscious. I am not saying that the New Atheists (or anyone else) see the world clearly and then willfully distort it to suit their purposes. The problem is worse than that. The world we see clearly is often already distorted by mental processes that operate beneath our awareness. That's why it is important to see the complex relationship between factual and practical realism from an evolutionary perspective, reflected in the deep structure of our brains and cultures.

Environmentalism as a stealth religion. It might help to apply these ideas to an example other than atheism. We are faced with many environmental crises that threaten our long-term welfare. Most of the problems are complex (e.g., chemicals in plastics that mimic hormones) and require accurate scientific understanding to be solved. Yet, people also need to be goaded into action at an unprecedented scale. Many beliefs advanced by environmentalists, including predictions that seem to be supported by volumes of data and sophisticated models, are systematically distorted in the direction of overstating the dangers, as journalist Michael Duffy reports in a recent article. As Duffy puts it " virtual science is ripe for manipulation, usually unconsciously, by virtuous scientists. Few people are aware of the large element of subjectivity, not only in the design of immensely complicated general circulation models, but in the data that goes into them." This constitutes a genuine moral dilemma. Should we remain true to factual realism when our uncertainty might be used as an excuse for inaction? Is it justified to inflate the risks and conceal our uncertainty to promote planetary survival? Welcome to the trade-offs between factual and practical realism.

Is the New Atheism a movement? Some readers objected to having atheism called a movement with designated leaders. For them, atheism is just a bunch of independent thinkers who refuse to be herded. That might be true for atheism as a whole, but can there be any doubt that authors such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris are trying to start a movement? They even have their own label -- "The Brights", which thankfully seems to be going nowhere. The term "New Atheists" tends to be used by critics of the fledgling movement, such as myself, but it's no good trying to raise consciousness and then denying that you are trying to start a movement.

It's OK to be a carnival barker... I am sometimes chided for criticizing the books of the New Atheists as if they were scientific tomes, when in fact they are designed to attract the attention of the general public in the crowded cultural marketplace. I have no objection to carnival barking -- as long as there is something worth seeing inside the tent. If the new atheists are not basing their claims about religion on the best that science has to offer, then they are part of the problem. My complaint about the New Atheism is that it is based on bad science, in the same way that environmentalism is often based on bad science. It doesn't matter that the intentions of the New Atheists might be virtuous--they have gone the way of stealth religion.

By their language, you shall know them. Some of the comments on my last blog are notable for the frequency of words and phrases expressing certainty and intolerance, such as "counter-rational nonsense (Frederic)", "atheism never gets in the way of science (ChistopherLib)", "completely failed at your stated goal (Amolinaro)", "the symbol would be the back of my hand raised to your face with all fingers in a fist but the center one (GoodwithWood)", "grow up (Mkaplan)", and so on. The tone of these comments prompted priscianusjr to write "Most of the pro-atheist comments here actually corroborate your point" and thicky to quip "This is blasphemy! Uh...I mean nonsense!" (where do we bring the kindling for burning Mr. Wilson at the stake?)"

Let's get real. Everyone who claims to be guided primarily by science and reason has an obligation to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. There are impeccable reasons for distrusting statements cloaked in the authority of science and reason, no less than the flag and the cross. I don't see how any self-respecting atheist can deny this claim in the abstract, so let's see if we can put it to work in the quality of our discourse about religion, from world-famous authors to the readers of HuffPost commenting on blogs.