A Most Likely Misguided Guide to McElwee's Misguided Take on the New Atheists, Religion, and Science

Do the most prominent New Atheists really believe that atheism will bring about a world utopia?  Sean McElwee seems to think they do.  In a piece published today in Salon.com, McElwee writes:
"The fundamental error in the 'New Atheist' dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:
1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality
2. Religion is irrational
3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering"
McElwee's assertion interests me, although I am not well enough read in Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, and Harris -- the most prominent New Atheists -- to say whether his assertion is substantially true.

I have, however, read enough comments from much less prominent New Atheists -- average joes, as it were -- to know that quite a few do indeed seem to blame religion for most or all human suffering.  And I can agree with McElwee that the notion is ludicrous.

Even if all religions disappeared tomorrow, I am convinced that our impressive species of stick-chucking super-ape would find the means and justifications to inflict suffering upon each other.  We just happen to be that kind of animal.  It's our tragedy.

But beyond agreeing with McElwee in that limited way, I find myself in disagreement with much else that he says in his piece.

To be sure, McElwee strikes me as a decent, empathetic, and intelligent person who is probably not given to any more follies than most of us.  Yet, as I was reading his article, I was taken aback by his notion of religion and its role in human affairs.  His notion struck me as simplistic.  And I wondered whether that was because McElwee really sees religion and its role in such simplistic terms, or rather because he felt a more nuanced view of those things would take up too much space for a short Salon post.

Yet, regardless of the reason, the view of religion and its role that he presents is indeed simplistic.  At least to my admittedly twisted way of thinking.

McElwee seems to believe that religion will never go away because humans will always rely on religion for meaning and purpose in their lives.  And to make that notion work, he defines as "secular religions" such alternatives to religion proper as philosophy and literature.  So, religion, philosophy, and literature will never go away primarily because humans need them to provide meaning and purpose.  And he contrasts the crucial role of these "religions" with science, which will never be able to tell folks the meaning and purpose of their lives.

In that context, McElwee quotes Martin Luther King, jr:
“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”
 All of that sounds good, but it strikes me as a little bit simplistic.

For instance: In the years since King spoke those words, there has arisen two new lines of scientific investigation.  The first is an investigation into the psychological and evolutionary origins of moralities.  The second is an investigation into the psychological and evolutionary origins of religions.

The first investigation seems to provide evidence that some aspects of morality are universal, and therefore, most likely based in our genes.  The implication is that at least some of our values -- such as reciprocity, compassion, and a sense of fairness -- did not at some point in the distant past originate with religions, and they do not need religious, philosophical, or theological justifications for us to express them or hold them dear.   

The second investigation seems to provide evidence that religion itself might have its roots in traits that evolved in us during the course of our development as an impressive species of advanced poo-flingers.  Traits such as agent detection, respect for elders, a predilection for etiology, and a tendency to ascribe minds to other persons or things.  An implication of this line of investigation is that religion -- at least, religion proper -- does not depend on providing us with wisdom, or with meaning and purpose in life, but would most likely be with us in one form or another even if it had nothing to say on those scores.

Put differently, there might well be little or no link between whether a religion grips and moves us, and whatever measure of wisdom, meaning and purpose it contains.  It's true that most of us derive at least some measure of wisdom, meaning and purpose in life from our religions, but is that the most fundamental reason we humans are usually religious?  It seems at least possible that the above mentioned traits, along with other inherent human traits, would predispose most of us to some sort of religiosity even if the measure of wisdom, meaning, and purpose that religion provided us with were lacking or unsatisfactory.  Some deists, for instance, claim to derive no wisdom, meaning or purpose from their deeply held belief in deity.

At any rate, I find myself first in disagreement with McElwee in so far as he thinks religions won't die out because they provide us with wisdom, meaning and purpose, while I think religions won't die out because they are, so to speak, rooted in our genes.

I further disagree with McElwee in so far as he thinks religions are primarily about, "...both a personal search for truth as well as a communal attempt to discern where we fit in the order of things."  To me, religions are primarily a consequence of the traits I've alluded to. 

In the third place, I disagree with both McElwee and King on their notion that religion and science are not rivals.  To be precise, I do not think of religion and science as always rivaling each other.  I've found much in the major, as well as in some of the minor, religions that jives with science.  But much else doesn't.

To me, the notion that science and religion are two "non-overlapping magisteria" is simplistic.  Typically, religions make claims about what is or isn't the case, just as does science.  Most famously, perhaps, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all at least originally claimed the universe was brought into existence in six days.  These days, that claim has been reinterpreted by many people to be merely a metaphor for, say, humanity's place in the cosmos and our relation to deity.  But originally, it was most likely a literal claim.  As such the claim was mainly in conflict with what we have since discovered, or think we have discovered, about the physical origins of the universe.

 Science, at the very least, qualifies religion.  At the very least, it puts a footnote on the Genesis story saying, "For there to be some truth in this, it must first be taken as metaphor because to the best of our current understanding it didn't literally happen that way." So, the two "non-overlapping magisteria" are really over-lapping after all.

My last Grand Bitch with McElwee and with King, too, is with their notion that science is not a source of values.  In fact, science is not a source of categorical imperatives.  It is not a source of "Do this!", or of, "Do that!", without any reason given as to why one should do this or do that.  But I think you can argue that it can be a source of hypothetical imperatives.  That is, a source of, "If you do this, then you will get that."  e.g. If you cause global warming, then you will get flooded coastal cities.

Now, it can be argued that a hypothetical imperative, unlike a categorical one, merely delays or puts off the ultimate question, "Why should I value (disvalue) that?"  Because in the case of a hypothetical, you can always ask a follow up question.  For instance, "Why should I value having dry coastal cities?"

But the same criticism can be made of so many religiously espoused values.  "If I am kind to widows, orphans, fatherless children, and strangers, the Lord will be pleased with me.  But why should I be concerned with whether the Lord is pleased with me?"  Science and religion both can be -- and often are -- a source of hypothetical imperatives.  If something being a hypothetical imperative does not stop religion from claiming its hypotheticals as a source of values, then what should stop science from claiming its own hypotheticals as a source of values, also?

Well, those are my most notable complaints with McElwee's article.  Doubtless, all my complaints are trenchant, meaningful, enlightening, and useful to every human on earth.  But if you happen -- just happen -- to spot anything questionable about them, please speak freely!  I would appreciate your comments.

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Sean McElwee has responded to this post on his blog.  You can find his response here.

8 comments:

  1. Atheism has nothing to offer when it comes to morality and ethics. Some atheists are trying to change this with groups like atheism+. For my wife and I, it is humanism that provides a moral and ethical framework for us. We are comfortable associating with religious and non-religious people who affirm humanistic ideals.

    I am undecided as to what science morally and ethically offers us. I think many of the new atheists speak far more authoratatively than they should. There is much we don't know about whether morality, freewill, the need for religion is hard wired. I am quite skeptical...maybe that's my past exposure to religion that is talking. :)

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    1. I agree with you, Bruce, that atheism doesn't offer a morality or ethical system. I am suspicious about efforts to associate it with such things. I'd rather keep my atheism and my humanism separate.

      I would encourage you to look into the science on morality and religion. I think you would find it rather exciting. Especially with your background.

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  2. Interesting thoughts, Paul, and I must thank you for spotlighting New Atheists (whom I never would have bumped into otherwise, me being the good Christian girl that I am :)).

    Anyway, you asked your loyal readers to point out questionable things that you have written, and here (in my humble opinion) is one:

    "I further disagree with McElwee in so far as he thinks religions are primarily about, "...both a personal search for truth as well as a communal attempt to discern where we fit in the order of things." To me, religions are primarily a consequence of the traits I've alluded to."

    You previously accused the New Athiest(s) of being over simplistic, but here I believe you are guilty of the same sin. To say that "... religions are primarily a consequence of the traits I've alluded to." (I assume you mean genetic traits for 'religious belief' that helped some poo-flingers rise above others in the survival of the fittest), is as simplistic as saying "sex is all about reproduction"- which is true, of course, but I, personally, would never want a lover who did not think that sex held MUCH more complexity than that truth relates.

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    1. That's actually a damn good criticism, Garnet. Thanks! I can't argue with it. I should qualify my statement, then. I mean religions are primarily rooted in human traits. But I agree with you that they have become much more than those traits. Yours is certainly a good point.

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    2. Hmm.... maybe I should have said, originally rooted.

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  3. "Most famously, perhaps, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all at least originally claimed the universe was brought into existence in six days. These days, that claim has been reinterpreted by many people to be merely a metaphor for, say, humanity's place in the cosmos and our relation to deity."

    'These days'? Not exactly, Rabbi Shlomo bar Yitskhaq (better known as Rashi, 1040-1105 AD), comments on Genesis already says that it does not teach us anything about the order in which things were created and his proposed translation of the first 3 verses of the Bible indicates he did not believe the bible starts with creation, just 'around the time of...'

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  4. Hello again Paul
    I largely agree with your points.
    Two challenges:

    (1) I've not met any atheists who really think religion is the root of ALL evil.
    I have met many ranting on-line atheists who feel religion ALWAYS leads to evil, though.
    An important distinction.

    (2) "New Atheist" is an unhelpful term. I think it was developed pejoratively and is loaded with misunderstandings. When I see it, I expect mistake typifications of people to abound.

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If you would prefer to comment in private, you may email me at paul_sunstone@q.com