Friday 29 March 2013

Are you atheist enough?

One section of Frans De Waal’s latest book The Bonobo and the Atheist has unleashed criticism from certain prominent atheists, including PZ Myers and AC Grayling.

De Waal is a world expert on primate behaviour, CH Chandler Professor of Psychology and Director of the Living Links Centre at Yerkes Primate Research Centre at Emory University.

He is accused of being an apologist for religion and of not taking its malign effects seriously enough. What is worrying is that it appears there may now be only one correct form of atheism.

I interviewed De Waal about the book for the Pod Delusion podcast. The UK publisher has embargoed the interview and a detailed review of the book until late April when it’s released in the UK although it’s already out in the US and parts of Europe. So I can’t go into too much detail, although the section that has caused so much offence is available online.

In Prospect magazine, AC Grayling writes:

‘But he does not like the "new atheists," and takes the view that religion, though false, has a role, and should be left alone.’

This is not what De Waal believes. For example, he has written:

‘While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion?’

In The Bonobo and the Atheist he writes ‘I am all for a reduced role for religion with less emphasis on the almighty God and more on human potentials.’ He also recognizes the major problems any atheist American politician would have in getting elected and that ‘this explains why atheists have become so vocal in demanding their place at the table’.

This may not be a strong enough form of atheism or strident commitment to secularism to please everyone. He points out that there are cultural differences, that his Dutch upbringing gives him a different perspective on religion as the Dutch are generally much more indifferent to it than the British and Americans where the most vocal atheists come from.

It’s true that De Waal doesn’t like what he calls militant atheists or personal attacks on individuals who find comfort in their faith. He doesn’t think that all religious people are somehow defective, or ignorant or inferior thinkers. As a scientist, he is more interested in ‘what good it does for us. Are we born to believe and, if so, why?’ and ‘For me, understanding the need for religion is a far superior goal to bashing it’.

Faith is the proximate, not the ultimate, cause of behaviour. It’s a symptom, not a disease. Remove faith and the behaviours would remain with some other justification. It’s this ultimate cause that interests De Waal and which he is better placed than most to investigate.

In his article, Grayling (rightly) lists some of the many ‘divisions, conflicts, falsehoods, coercions, disruptions, miseries and harm done by religion’. He continues: ‘He might respond with the usual points: on one side the charity, art and solace inspired by religion, and on the other side Hitler and Stalin as examples of the crimes of atheism.’

The problem is that De Waal doesn’t. It’s a very weak argument to attack what someone might have said – but didn’t. There’s no point saying that Hitler was not an atheist when someone isn’t arguing that he is.

Grayling writes: ‘Why, he asks, are the "new atheists" evangelical about their cause? "Why would atheists turn messianic?" He cannot see why Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and others attack religion and believers, and why they robustly and even aggressively argue the case for atheism’.

He continues: ‘In any case he has the nature of the debate wrong. Atheists (…) are mostly not interested in pursuing the metaphysical debate about whether the universe contains or has outside it supernatural entities or agencies of some kind - gods and goddesses, fairies and so forth. (…) Their militancy - for such indeed it sometimes is, (…) is about secularism, not metaphysics.‘

He’s being disingenuous here and this second paragraph contradicts the first. ‘why they robustly and even aggressively argue the case for atheism’ which inevitably involves engaging with the supernatural elements of faith.

Atheism is not the same as secularism although Grayling seems to be using them interchangeably here (and he really should know better). All the arguments he makes for constraining religion are secular arguments, very different from attacking believers or aggressively arguing the case for atheism. Secularism defends the rights of believers to believe without persecution; trying to convert them to atheism or attacking them for their beliefs is, in some respects, anti-secular.

He is being disingenuous because, along with Dawkins, Hitchens et al there are groups and individuals in the UK and US who promote atheism for its own sake – for example, Atheism UK – that Grayling is surely aware of. There are plenty of atheists who do point and laugh at religious beliefs, analyse at length scriptural inconsistencies and attack believers as inferior (for example, even the name of the Brights suggests superiority). There are frequent debates advertised on the existence of god(s) in which non-believers take part. Scientists take on creationists, for example. Grayling is mischaracterizing both atheists and De Waal.

Finally, Grayling writes: 'But one would not want the evolutionary history of all aspects of our psychology to entail that, merely in virtue of that fact, they should all be left as they are. A large part of moral reflection is devoted to overcoming or tempering the evolved capacities for aggression, greed, concupiscence and partiality that disrupt rather than enhance community living'.

De Waal is not saying that anti-social tendencies should be left alone. He is more interested in finding out where they come from. The book is against dualism, against the idea that morals and all pro-social behaviour need to be imposed from above or outside on our anti-social natures. He believes – and proves with considerable evidence - that pro-social behaviour (including altruism, empathy and morality) are evolved and are just as strong in us as less attractive characteristics. We have evolved certain instinctive behaviours that make social living possible and part of that is how we deal with anti-social actions.

De Waal’s position is that while philosophy (and religion) may investigate, codify and universalize morals, they do not invent them. He challenges in detail Dawkins’ argument that we need to ‘throw out Darwinism’ in our social and political life. Perhaps this is why he is attracting so much flak. (I’ll be writing considerably more about this aspect when the embargo on the book is lifted.)

There are elements of the book I would take issue with – for example, De Waal’s speculation that atheism is the result of trauma. This may be the case for some people but others reach atheism through a mental process that leads them to reject belief. Some people never have a belief system in the first place. De Waal’s memories of the religion he grew up with contain no apparent trauma to explain his atheism and support this theory.

De Waal’s laid-back atheism may not be the ‘right’ kind: is there now only one atheism that is acceptable in public figures? He writes that the enemy of thought and science is dogmatism, whether political, religious or otherwise, because it shuts down discussion and sets up prophets who cannot be questioned. Does every scientist need to sing from the same hymn sheet as the arbiters of atheism (all white, middle class, old men)? Do they all need to be Dawkinses to be acceptable?

More to the point, do we all need to hate religion, despise or patronize all believers and ‘aggressively’ promote atheism to be part of the club? Are you atheist enough?

31 March update: De Waal has now responded to his critics here.


  1. Superb. It is good to see someone take on the almighty heavyweights of popular philosophy and
    make the obscure seem obvious! :-)

    It is because 'Atheism' per se has no dogma or 'Leaders' that it is open to some sort of criticism, where one can cherry-pick certain cliques of 'vocal activists' and attack them as being the 'Authoritative Voice of Atheism'.

    My path to non-belief was patchy and without any goal other than to resolve a discomfort with my own self-delusion and cognitive dissonance - something most people would naturally do throughout their formative years. I did not base it on study of scriptural errors or even on the acceptance of scientific endeavour, but really on an inner sense of 'Probably' versus 'Probably Not'. That is what our brains are for.

    I still haven't read any Dawkins or AC Grayling or Darwin and I haven't read the koran or even the whole of the Bible. I really don't need someone to tell me what I had already suspected since I was a small child.

    This is probably my favourite blog on this subject :-D

    1. I agree whole- heartedly...

      An excellent response to the article, and a clear and sensible response to the blog.

      It seems perhaps you guys should have had the opportunity to edit The Bonobo and the Atheist prior to printing :-)

  2. Dawkins is an atheist. De Waal is an atheist. The problem is that one is aggressive and mean about it and it's not de Waal. Dawkins has appointed himself as the angry, hostile spokesperson for atheism at a time when angry hostile anything is maladaptive for our species.

    De Waal's point is that we are, by nature, compassionate, fair, caring, yes...moral creatures. Religion is one way that some people have codified (and in some cases, abused) our innate sense of fairness and caring. Yelling at people who have religious beliefs about how irrational their beliefs are is, in fact, irrational. The world needs more awareness of our hard-wired morality and less yelling. More reconciliation, less rigidity. More love, less war.

    1. Dawkins doesn't strike me as angry or hostile. He challenges people to explain/think about their beliefs and doesn't take "just because" for an answer. We need people like him, just as we need people like De Wall.

  3. Excellent article. I guess I could be described as a quiet atheist,with many christian friends: we get along well and share many common convictions,but agree to differ in other areas.

    After my mum died,in the grief which followed, I soon came to accept that nothing comes after this, and that the buck stops with us: atheism requires us to think carefully about whichever moral precepts we eventually come to live by.

    Atheism should surely be reasonable,both in its practice and response to religion,since it is predicated upon rational thought-one hopes.

  4. Regarding the trauma question, here's the "trauma" that made me an atheist: I was a very young kid standing in line for lunch at school. It had never occurred to me to question religion. Suddenly I hear an argument. There is this kid that is being questioned by two baffled lady members of the staff. They are saying, "you don't believe in God? What a weird thing to say! Why wouldn't you?". And he just shrugs and says quietly, "Why would I?". I thought to myself: "what a weird kid, why doesn't he belie....wait a minute....why do I....". Before I left that line with my lunch on my tray I had become a hopeless atheist. :)

  5. ps: are you sure he claims that? After a quick skim of the book, I got the impression he only claims (or rather speculates, not too seriously) that *militant* atheism is a result of trauma, not atheism itself. Meaning that the really angry atheists are often former altar boys holding a grudge. It's an important distinction.

  6. I came to disbelief early in life. No trauma. Neither of my parents were religious and other than weddings I never set foot in a church. At around nine years old I independently decided to check out Sunday school, and attended for a while. Despite my desire to learn more about Christianity (and being taught the Scriptures in school in the U.K.), I came to the conclusion that religion was just made up stuff that held absolutely no interest for me other than as a historical/cultural reference. I have held that opinion ever since, and while I occasionally experience anti-atheist bias in a tenaciously religious Christian society in the USA, I would consider myself to be a "quiet atheist," since, to me, actions speak much louder than words.
    I don't believe that atheists are in any way necessarily superior to believers; they are simply being open and honest about their non-belief, unlike the millions of "believers" who merely pay lip service to religion in order to conform to society's expectations.
    I also find it disconcerting that many of those who profess to be religious consciously refute "science as fact" (age of the earth, Evolution, etc.) and use Scripture to promote their agenda (anti Gay, abortion, contraception, etc).