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.