In addition to being a philosophical movement, The New Atheism is a social phenomenon, a decline of the hold of traditional religion and a seeming growth in irreligiosity, especially in the United States, a place that had been an outlier of religious life among other advanced societies that have long since secularized.
New Atheists take a stance of critical honesty openly professing their unbelief where previously they might have been unwilling to publicly admit their views regarding religion. New Atheists often take an openly confrontational stance towards religion pushing back not only at the social conformity behind much of religious belief, but at what they see as threats to the scientific basis of the truth found in movements such as creationism.
The intellectuals at the heart of the New Atheism are often firebrands directly challenging what they see as the absurdities of religious belief. The late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins being the most famous examples of such polemicists.
In my view, there are plenty of things to like about the New Atheism. The movement has fostered the ability of people to speak openly about their personal beliefs or lack of them, and spoken in the defense of the principle of the separation of church and state. Especially in the realm of science education, the New Atheists promote a common understanding of reality- that evolution is a scientific truth and not some secular humanist conspiracy, that the universe really is billions of years old rather than, as the Bible suggests, hundreds of thousands. This truthful view of the world which science has given us is the basis of our modern society, its technological prowess and the vastly better standard of living it has engendered compared to any civilization that came before. Productive conversations cannot be had unless the world shown to us by science is taken to be closest version of the truth we have yet come up with- the assumptions we need to share are we not to become unmoored from reality itself.
Yet with all that said, The New Atheism has some problems. These problems are clearly on display in a talk last spring by two of the giants of The New Atheism, the sociobiologist, Richard Dawkins, and the philosopher, Daniel Dennett, at Oxford University.
Richard Dawkins is perhaps most famous for his ideas regarding cultural evolution, namely his concept of a “meme”. A meme is another name for an idea, style, or behavior, that in Dawkins’ telling is analogous to a gene in biology in that it is self-replicating and subject to selective pressures.
Daniel Dennett is a philosopher of science who is an advocate of the patient victory of reason over religion. He is both a prolific writer with works such as Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and secular- humanist activist- the brains behind a project for former and current religious clergy to securely and openly discuss their atheism with one another, The Clergy Project.
The conversation between Dawkins and Dennett at Oxford begins reasonably enough, with Dennett stating how scientifically pregnant he finds Dawkins’ idea of the meme as a vector for cultural evolution. The example Dennett gives as an example of the meme concept is an interesting one. Think of the question who was the designer of the canoe?
Yet, when the discussion turns to religion neither Dennett nor Dawkins, for reasons they do not explain, think the idea of memes will do. Instead, religion is described using another biological metaphor that of a parasite or virus which uses its host for its own ends. Dennett has a common sense explanation for why people are vulnerable to this parasite. It is a way for someone, such as the parent of a child lost to death, to deal with the tragedy of life. This is the first cognitive “immunological” vulnerability that religious viruses exploit.
The second vulnerability that the religious virus exploits is ignorance. People don’t know their own religious beliefs, don’t know that other religions hold to equally absurd and seemingly arbitrary beliefs, don’t understand how the world really works- which science tells us.
Dennett sympathizes with persons who succumb to religious explanations as a consequence of personal tragedy. He is much more interested in the hold of religion that is born of ignorance. The problem for religion, in the eyes of Dennett (and he is more than pleased that religion has this problem), is that this veil of ignorance is falling away, and therefore the necessary operating environment for religion disappearing. Knowledge and science are a form of inoculation: people are now literate and can understand the absurdity of their own religious beliefs, they now know about other religions, and they know about science. With the growth of knowledge will come- polio- like- the slow eradication of religion.
The idea that religion should be seen as a sort of cognitive virus is one Dawkins laid out way back in 1993 in his essay Viruses of the Mind. There, Dawkins presented the case that religion was akin to computer viruses seizing the cognitive architecture of their host to further its own ends above all its own propagation. If I can take the testimony of fellow blogger Jonny Scaramanga of Leaving Fundamentalism, this essay has had the important impact of helping individuals free themselves from what is sometimes the iron-grip of religious faith.
The problem, of course, is that religion isn’t a virus or a parasite. We are dealing here merely with an analogy, so the question becomes exactly how scientifically, philosophically or historically robust is this religion as virus analogy?
In terms of science, an objection to be raised is that considering religion as a virus does a great deal of damage to Dawkins’ original theory of cultural evolution through “memes”. Why is religion characterized as virus like when no other sets of cultural memes are understood in such a value-laden way? A meme is a meme whether I “like” it or not. If the meme theory of cultural evolution really does hold some validity, and I for one am not convinced, it does not seem to follow definitively that memes can be clearly separated into “good” memes and “bad” memes, or, if one does except such a categorization one better have some pretty solid criteria for segregating memes into positive and negative groups.
The two criteria Dawkins sets up for segregating “good” memes from “bad” memes are, that bad virus like memes suppresses a person’s Darwinian reproductive drives to serve its own ends, and hold the individual in the spell of an imagined reality.
Yet, there are a host of other factors that suppress the individual’s biological imperative to reproduce. If bad memes are those that negatively impact one’s ability to reproduce, then any law, or code of conduct, or requirement that leads to such a consequence would have to fall under the umbrella of being a bad meme. We might argue over whether a particular example truly constitutes a reduction of an individual’s ability to reproduce, as examples: paying taxes for someone else’s children to attend schooling, serving in the military to protect the rights of non-relatives, but such suppression of an individual’s reproductive needs are well nigh universal, as Sigmund Freud long ago pointed out. Taken together we even have a word for such suppression we call it civilization.
What about Dawkins’ claim that religion is bad virus-like meme in that it induces in the individual a false sense of reality. Again I see no clear way of distinguishing memes of with this feature from nearly all other “normal” memes. The fact of the matter is we are surrounded by such socially created and sustained fictions. I call the one I am living in the United States of America. Indeed, if I wanted a species unique definition of humanity it might our ability to collectively believe and sustain things that aren’t actually there, which would disappear the moment the group that believes in them stopped doing so.
If the idea that religion is a virus is suspect when looked at more closely, it is nevertheless a meme itself. That is what we have now, for many atheists at least, is the Dawkins created meme that “religion is a virus”. What is the effect of this meme? For some, the idea that religion is a virus may, as mentioned, allows them to free themselves from the hold of their own native traditions. A good thing if they so wish, but how does the religion is a virus meme orient its believers to those who, foolishly in their view, continue to cling to religion?
Perhaps the most troubling thing here is that Dawkins appears to be reformulating one of the most sinister and destructive ideas of religion that of possession and using it against the religious themselves. For Dawkins, there are no good reasons why a religious person believes what she does- she is in the grip of a demon.
The meme “religion is a virus” also would appear to blind its adherents to the mixed legacy of religion. By looking at religion as merely a negative form of meme- a virus or parasite- Dawkins and Dennett, and no doubt many of their followers, tend to completely overlook the fact that religion might play some socially productive role that could be of benefit to the individual well beyond the question of dealing with personal tragedy that Dennett raised. The examples I can come up with are legion- say the Muslim requirement of charity, which gives the individual a guaranteed safety net should he fall on hard times, or the use of religious belief to break free from addiction as in AA, which seems to help the individual to override destructive compulsions that originate from their own biology.
Even if we stuck strictly to the religion as virus analogy of Dawkins we would quickly see that biological viruses themselves are not wholly bad or good. While it is true that viruses have killed countless number of human beings it is also true that they comprise 8% of the human genome, and without the proteins some of them produce, such as the virus that makes syncytin- used to make the placenta that protects the fetus- none of us would be here.
The very fact that religion is universal across human societies, and that it has existed for so long, would seem to give a strong indication to the fact that religion is playing some net positive evolutionary role. We can probably see something of this role in the first reason Dennett provided for the attraction of religion- that it allowed persons to deal with extreme personal tragedy. Religion can provide the individual with the capacity for psychological resilience in the face of such events.
No recognition is made by either Dawkins nor Dennett of the how religion, for all its factionalism and the wars that have emerged from it, has been a potent force, perhaps the most potent force behind the expansion of human beings sphere of empathy- the argument Robert Wright makes in his The Evolution of God. Early Judaism united Cana’s twelve tribes, Pauline Christianity spread the gospels to Jews and gentiles alike, Islam united warring Arab tribes and created a religiously tolerant multi-ethnic empire.
So if the idea that religion is a bad virus-like form of meme seems somewhat arbitrary, and if it is the case that even if we stick to the analogy we end up with what is a mixed, and perhaps even net positive role for religion, what about the conditions for these religious memes transmission that Dennett lays out- the “immunological” vulnerability of ignorance?
Dennett appears to have what might characterized as an 18th century atheist’s view of religion. Religion is a form of superstition that will gradually be overcome by forces of reason and enlightenment. Religion is an exploitative activity built on the asymmetries in knowledge between the clerisy and the common believers with two primary components: the lay believers do not know what their supposed faith actually teaches and cling to it out of mere custom, or intellectual laziness. Secondly, the lay believers do not know what other religions actually believe and if they did would find these beliefs both absurd and yet so similar to their own faith that it would call their own beliefs into doubt.
How does the idea of the ignorance of the lay religious as a source for the power of the clerisy hold up? As history, not so well. Take the biggest and bloodiest religious conflict ever- the European Wars of Religion. Before the Reformation and the emergence of Protestant denominations the great mass of the people were not doctrinally literate. They practiced the Christian faith, knew and revered the major characters of its stories, celebrated its feast days, respected its clergy. At the same time even were they able to get their hands on a very rare, and very expensive, copy of the scriptures they couldn’t read them, being overwhelmingly illiterate. Even their most common religious experience, that of the mass, was said in a language- Latin- all but a very educated minority understood. But with the appearance of the printing press all of that changed. There was a huge push among both Catholics and their new Protestant rivals to make sure the masses knew the “true” doctrines of the faith. The common catechism makes its appearance here alongside all sorts of other tools for communicating, educating, and binding the people to a specific doctrine.
Religious minorities that previously were ignored, if not understood, such as Jews or persons who held onto some remnant of the pre-Christian past- witches- became the target of those possessed by the new religious consciousness and the knowledge of the rivals to one’s own faith that came along with this new supercharged identity.
The spread of education, at least at first, seems to increase rather than diminishes commitment to some particular religious identity on behalf of the educated. Much more worrisome, the ability to articulate and spread some particular version of religious truth appears to increase, at least in the short-term, the commitment to dogmatic versions of the faith and to increase friction and outright conflict between different groups of believers.
And perhaps that explains the rise of both fundamentalism and the more militant strands of atheism being circulated today. After all, both fundamentalism and the New Atheism rode atop our own version of Guttenberg’s printing press- the internet. Each seems to create echo chambers in which their sharp views are exchanged between believers, and each seem to address the other in a debate few of us are paying attention to. With religious fundamentalist raving about a secular humanist take over and the New Atheists rallying in defense of the separation of church and state and openly ridiculing the views of their opponents. For both sides much of the conflict is understood in terms of a “war” between science and religion, and the “rise of secular humanism”.
At least in terms of Dennett’s explanation of the conflict between science and religion in his conversation with Dawkins, I think, once again, the quite narrow historical and geographic viewpoint Dennett uses when describing the relationship between these two forms of knowledge ends up in a distorted picture rather than an accurate representation of the current state and probable future of religion.
Dennett takes the very modern and Western conflict between science and religion to be historically and culturally universal forgetting that, except for a very brief period in ancient Greece, and the modern world, knowledge regarding nature was embedded in religious ideas. One simply couldn’t be a serious thinker without speaking in terms of religion. This isn’t the only place where Dennett’s Eurocentrism comes into play. If religion is in decline it does not seem like the Islamic world has heard, or the myriad of other places, such as China or the former Soviet Union that are experiencing religious revivals.
Finally, on the matter of Dennett’s claim that another source of the religious virus’ power is that people are ignorant of other religions, and that if they knew about the absurdities of other faiths they would draw the conclusion that their own religious traditions are equally absurd: It is simply false, as Dennett does, to see in the decline of religion the victory of scientifically based materialism. Rather, what we are witnessing, in the West at least, can better be described as the decline of institutionalized religion and the growth of “spirituality”. At least some of this spirituality can be seen as the mixing and matching of different world religions as individuals become more aware of the diversity of religious traditions. Individuals who learn about other religions seem much less likely to draw the conclusion that all religions are equally ridiculous than to find, sometimes spurious, similarities between religions and to draw things from other religions into their own spiritual practice.
Fundamentalism with its creation museums and Loch Ness Monsters is an easy target for the New Atheism, but the much broader target of spirituality is a more slippery foe. The most notable proponent of the non-literalist view of religion is Karen Armstrong whose views Dawkins attacks as “bizarre” and “nonsense”. Armstrong in her book, The Case for God, had come to the defense of religion against the onslaught on the more militant proponents of the New Atheism, of which Dawkins is the prime example. Armstrong’s point is that fundamentalist and new atheists are in fact not all that different, they are indeed but two sides of the same limited viewpoint that emerged with modernity that views God as a fact- a definable thing- provable or disprovable. Religious thinkers long ago confronted the issue of the divine’s overwhelming scope and decided that the best thing to do in the face of such enormity was to remain humbly silent.
Before the age of text that began with Guttenberg’s printing press, some of whose features were discussed earlier, the predominant religious view, in the eyes of Armstrong, was non-literalists, took a position of silence born of humility toward understanding the nature of God, saw religion less as a belief in the modern sense but as a form of spiritual practice, more akin to something like dance, music, or painting than the logos of philosophy and science, and as a consequence often viewed the scriptures in terms of metaphor and analogy rather than as scientific or historical truth.
What Armstrong thinks is needed today is a return to something like Socratic dialogue which she sees as the mutual exchange of views to obtain a more comprehensive view of reality that is nevertheless conscious and profoundly humble in the face of a fundamental ignorance all of us share.
For both Dawkins and Dennett religion has no future. But, it seems to me, we are not likely to get away from religion or spirituality as the primary way in which we find meaning in the world for the foreseeable future. In non-Western cultures the hold of spiritual practices such as the Muslim religious pilgrimage, the Haj or the Shia Muslim pilgrimages to the holy sites in Iraq that have been opened up as a consequence of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, or the Hindu bathing in the Ganges seem unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
The question is what happens to religion in the West where the gap between the scientific understanding of the world and the “truths” of religion is experienced as a kind of cognitive dissonance that seems to demand resolution? Rather than disappearing science itself seems to be taking on features of religion. Much of the broad public interest in sciences such as physics likely stems from the fact that they appear “religious” that is they seems to address religious themes of origins and ultimate destiny and the popularizers of science are often precisely those able to couch science in religious terms. With something like the Transhumanism and the Singularity Movement we actually see science and technology turning themselves into a religion with the goal of human immortality and god-like powers. We have no idea how this fusion of religion and science will play out, but it does seem to offer not only the possibility a brand new form of religious sensibility and practice, but also a threat to the religious heritage and practices not just the West, but all of humankind.
Thankfully, Dennett ends his conversation with Dawkins on what I thought was a hopeful note. Not all questions can be answered by science and for those that cannot politics in the form of reasoned discourse is our best answer. This is the reasonable Dennett (for Dawkins I see no hope). I only wish Dennett had applied this desire for reasoned discourse to the very religious and philosophical questions- questions regarding meaning and purpose- or lack of both- he falsely claims science can answer.
For my part, I hope that the New Atheism eventually moves away from the mocking condescension, the historical and cultural ignorance and Eurocentrism of figures like Dennett and especially Dawkins. That it, instead, leads to more open discussion between all of us about the rationality or irrationality of our beliefs, the nature of our world and our future within it. That believers, non-believers, and those in between can someday sit at the same table and discuss openly and without apprehension of judgement the question: “what does it all mean?”