Saturday, January 12, 2008

E2.0: David Sloan Wilson: New Atheism a Stealth Religion

This is the ninth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

In David Sloan Wilson’s presentation at Beyond Belief 2, he made the argument that the “new atheism” is a stealth religion. It is a stealth religion because, like all religions, its major proponents and its followers buy into a set of propositions that they hold, not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of . . . well, something less solid than ‘good science’. Yet, they are not willing to concede the fact that they lack good evidence for their beliefs.

Once we take the concept of stealth religions seriously then we can entertain the prospect that there are belief systems that have nothing to do with God . . . not that particular departure from reality . . . but that depart from reality in other ways.

He selected an example of a ‘religious’ form of atheism in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Wilson does not go into details as to how Objectivism departs from reality. However, this is a subject that I have covered in the past, such as Why I Am Not A Libertarian.

Briefly, Objectivists ignore logical gaps between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, equivocate between the concepts of value as a means and value as an end, and invent metaphysical entities such as ‘man qua man’ that do not exist in the real world, all in a tenacious attempt to defend their conclusions that, in spite of protests to the contrary, they could not possibly have reached through a judicious application of reason.

Wilson’s claim now is that the New Atheism, like Objectivism, is another ‘stealth religion’.

More specifically, he is concerned with four propositions that (partially) define the New Atheism.

(1) Is there any scientific evidence for the existence of supernatural agents?

(2) If not, then how can we explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms?

(3) Are the impacts of religion good or bad on human welfare?

(4) How can we use our understanding of religion to ameliorate its negative effects?

On these issues, what he says about the new atheism is, “

My complaint about the New Atheism is that, in the first place, for all of us the answer to question 1 is a no-brainer, so we don’t need to go on and on about it, and that they just get the answer wrong to the other three questions.

I have one immediate complaint about Wilson’s complaint. The ‘New Atheists’ did not write their books for those of us who view the answer to Question 1 as a ‘no brainer’. They wrote their books for people who have not settled on an answer to Question 1, and even for people who insist that the answer to Question 1 is a no-brainer in terms of thinking that supernatural agents definitely exist.

The complaint that, “The problem with your book is that I am not your target audience” is an absurd complaint. It also suggests that the complainer might have other problems understanding the book, because many of the things we say acquire their meaning in context. If Wilson does not understand the intent of the book, then he does not have the right context for understanding its content.

However, Wilson’s more serious objection is that the “New Atheists” give the wrong answer to the other three questions – that they answers that the New Atheists present are not ‘good science’.

I agree with the proposition that the “New Atheists” make false claims and employ leaps of logic that are indefensible. I have raised objections there in the past as well.

However, a lot of people make claims that I hold to be mistakes. In fact, since there is not one single person on the planet who agrees with me on everything, I would have to conclude that everybody holds at least one false belief or makes at least one unjustified leap of logic in defending those beliefs – including me. I have no idea where my false beliefs are to be found, or which of my brilliant logical inferences are, in fact, fallacious, but I know that some do exist.

If the fact that people make mistakes is enough to assert that they are guilty of holding on to a ‘stealth religion’, then the concept of ‘stealth religion’ is so broad that it is a useless term. It does not exclude anything or anybody. In fact, it can only exclude an all-knowing, perfectly logical entity.

It does not even exclude Wilson himself. Wilson says in his speech that he agrees with Dennett that we have a realm of facts on the one hand and a realm of values that is completely distinct and separate from fact. This ‘metaphysical dualism’ – this idea that values represent a ‘different type of entity’ that we cannot study scientifically but that nonetheless has an impact on the real world – I would argue would quality Wilson’s own belief system as a ‘stealth religion’ on his own terms.

I am also puzzled by Wilson’s decision to speak of the New Atheism in terms of a ‘stealth religion’ at all. Here, it would seem that Wilson is intentionally choosing to use an emotionally laden label – one that is almost certainly guaranteed to shut down, rather than support, reasoned debate. It was adopted, it would seem, as much out of a desire to be provocative and insulting as it was out of a desire to educate and enlighten. It would have been wiser to pick a term that would be less likely to cause listeners to respond by going to red alert and raising all shields.

Another issue that puzzles me is that Wilson describes the New Atheism as a ‘stealth religion’, that he seems to be using this in a derogatory way as if this alone is enough to condemn it, and yet at the same time he argues that religion is not necessarily bad.

Here, I found something in Wilson’s presentation that was extremely interesting – the idea that a practical truth is better than a factual truth.

I’m going to try to explain the concept in my own terms, and hope that I get at what Wilson was trying to defend.

Let us accept as a fact that none of us know everything – that there are facts about the universe that each of us are unaware, and that this condition will persist into the indefinite future. This means that the best that any of us can ever have is an approximation of the real world – a model, as it were, constructed to serve practical goals but far from complete.

Think of a computer model that is set up to predict climate change. There is no way that you are going to be able to input the exact location and state of every molecule in the atmosphere and its interaction with every force and particle in space and on Earth to come up with a completely accurate model. The best you are going to be able to create is an approximation of the real world. In coming up with that approximation, one of the things that you might introduce into your model are factors that merely approximate certain aspects of the real climate – certain fudge factors that do not conform to reality but which generate far more accurate predictions with less effort.

In our brains, we have a computer model of the real world – one that is informed through perception but which is not totally and completely accurate. It has been molded through evolution to generate output in real time fast enough to keep the agent evolutionarily fit. In order for this simulation to do its job, it may well use ‘fudge factors’ – variables that refer to things that are not real but which approximate things that are real.

Beliefs and desires may well be two entities of this type. It may well be that beliefs and desires do not refer to anything real. Neuroscientists could well discover systems that better explain and predict human behavior, and the classical concepts of ‘belief’ and ‘desire’ simply are not reducible to these findings in neuroscience. However, these neuroscience concepts are simply not the type that can be programmed into a brain in such a way that they can generate basically reliable output in real time. Though beliefs and desires do not exist, they may well provide a practical value long into the future.

Religion itself might be this type of system. It is a set of propositions that do not reduce to anything real that still have practical value.

In Wilson’s terms:

Basically what we are talking about here are cultural systems as like species in a multiple niche environment. That's the ecological and evolutionary paradigm is to be thinking of cultural systems not as viral-like bits but as systems that are like species and adapted to multiple niches in an economy.

In order to discuss Wilson’s view of religion, we must note that there may be things other than speed and accuracy that are important to include in a simulator meant to generate real-time decision-making data. There are good practical reasons to give up accuracy in exchange for speed. There may also be good practical reasons to give up accuracy in exchange for some other good.

Like, according to Wilson, evolutionary fitness.

Wilson focuses specifically on group selection as an evolutionary force. He talks about colonies of ants, and of how a trait that is bad from the point of view of individual selection can nonetheless be adopted because the colonies where members have those traits out compete colonies that do not have such members. For example, the existence of worker ants (who do not reproduce) may be easier to explain as a product of group selection than kin selection. In fact, Wilson argues, an organism (such as a human body) can be explained in terms of the principles of “group selection” governing the collection of cells that make up human bodies.

Ultimately, Wilson’s argument is that cultural systems (such as religion) may – even though the beliefs deviate from reality – bring about a system of unification and cooperation among individuals that the ‘religion’ itself becomes an organism, where the powers of group selection dominate the powers of individual selection among its members. In a sense, religions help to form colonies – and colonies, in turn, can out-compete individuals.

Wilson seeks to put his group-selection theory of religion up against the ‘parasitic meme’ theory that the ‘New Atheists’ seem to have adopted. Dennett himself, in his presentation the day before, compared religion to a parasite that causes infected ants to climb to the top of a blade of grass. There, the ant can be eaten by a sheep, and the parasite can then infect the sheep. Religion, Dennett argues, is a parasitic meme that infects its host, causing its host to engage in self-destructive behavior, but in doing so perpetuates the reproduction of the meme (by converting new followers into the religion).

In putting these theories up against each other, Wilson accuses the parasitic-meme theorists (the ‘New Atheists’) of ‘bad science’. The New Atheists, he asserts, have done nothing to actually defend their theory – nothing but offer loose anecdotal evidence comparable to the types of evidence that religions offer in defense of their beliefs.

They have not even proved, in a scientifically viable way, that religion is always bad, that it is something that must be done away with.


Andrew said...

It's David Sloan Wilson.

Andrew said...

And have you read his blog posts where he elaborates on his argument?

Anonymous said...

its true that Wilson's concept of a "stealth religion" is way to broad. But it is important to point out that in his objection to the New Atheists he is actually only applying their own very inadequate definition of religion (believing in unproven metaphysical agents) to themselves! his "stealth religion" is more a warning to Dawkins and co. than anything else

Alonzo Fyfe said...

First, sorry about the brain freeze on the name. I know somebody named Edward Sloan so . . . I guess my synapses got confused.


Actually, Wilson's concept of a steath religion applies to anything that departs from factual reality - far broader than the definition of a belief in unproven entities.

And the 'new atheists' do not even use that broad of a definition of religion. Their target was 'faith' - the idea that it is sufficient to merely assert that an unproven entity exists.

Even where the "New Atheists" made mistakes - and they did - none of them wrote that "You must accept my claims on faith and let no reasoned argument persuade you otherwise."

Any long-time reader of this blog knows that I am not a friend to the "New Atheists." Specifically, I have objected to some instances of hasty generalization (these religious beliefs contributed to these bad acts so all religion is bad), and I have called this particular habit 'bigotry' and 'hate-mongering'. I have written on the possibility of 'atheist terrorists' and explained how it is quite possible for somebody to perform a terrorist act in the name of 'no God'. I have warned, as Wilson does, that non-religious groups can be just as violent towards each other as religioius groups. Imagine two 'colonies' - one of Ayn Rand Objectivists and another of Marxian communists, both atheists, and both just as violent towards each other as the Sunni and Shiite Muslims of Iraq.

So, I agree with Wilson on a number of specific issues.

Yet, I still hold that his criticism of the New Atheists is misplaced simply because he interprets the New Atheists as writing for people like him (who do not believe in God and are advocates of the scientific method). When, in fact, they were writing for average voters and policy-makers - people who needed to see arguments for things that Wilson takes for granted.

Anonymous said...

Imagine two 'colonies' - one of Ayn Rand Objectivists and another of Marxian communists, both atheists, and both just as violent towards each other as the Sunni and Shiite Muslims of Iraq.

This strikes me as clumsy. By violence, do you mean irrational behavior; that Objectivists would oppose communists unreasonably? As an Objectivist with an imagination, I'm at a loss here.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Favela Cramshaw

Of course the Objectivists will believe that they are acting reasonably. But, whether they will be reasonable in fact is open to question.

Objectivism depends on a number of questionable propositions.

(1) That something it refers to as 'man qua man' exists. (It does not.)

(2) That moral principles can be derived from facts about this entity. (Those moral facts are as fictitious as the entity from which they are derived).

(3) That there is a right to self-defense (including the use of violence) against any who violate those (fictitious) moral principles derived from this (fictitious) entity.

These elements can, in fact, unreasonably justify a great deal of violence.

Anonymous said...

Have any of the 'New Atheists' proposed the 'parasitic meme' theory as something unquestionable, rather than as a hypothesis to be tested?

Only in the 1st case would the accusation of 'stealth religion' be valid.