Croft Eviscerates De Waal

This is actually a few weeks old, but I just saw it. At the end of March, Frans de Waal wrote an essay at Salon.com that was quite inane and my friend James Croft wrote a typically thoughtful piece in response to it. He begins by quoting this section:

In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?

As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”

This kind of thing is tiresome enough when it comes from Christians — “why do you guys spend so much time fighting against something you don’t believe in?” — but it’s far worse coming from someone like de Waal, who is a justifiably well respected scientist. I’m one of those dreaded “accommodationists” or “appeasers” who thinks that some of our loudest atheist voices often engage in exactly the kind of tribalism that they deplore in Christians and that our critiques of religion are far too often overly simplistic and overwrought, but even I think this is absurd. Croft, who is generally viewed as one of those “soft humanists” rather than a “militant” atheist, had much the same reaction.

The practice of distinguishing between dogmatic and non-dogmatic expressions of belief is a wise one, and the questions de Waal poses here are actually quite interesting, sociologically speaking – but de Waal’s response makes it clear he is interested more in quip than query. Why do (primarily American) atheists wear t-shirts identifying themselves as atheists? What does atheism offer? These questions deserve fuller and more considerate answers than de Waal’s dismissive hand-wave…

De Waal flirts with a good point in positing that “the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces”, presenting the “thesis that activist atheism reflects trauma.” De Waal suggests that “The stricter one’s religious background, the greater the need to go against it and to replace old securities with new ones” – not a bad thesis in itself (though not remotely new: the great Humanist Rabbi Sherwin Wine gave a great talk on “the wounded” at Harvard’s New Humanism conference some time ago), and one which might go some way toward answering the questions he poses at the beginning, but he never develops the thesis with any sensitivity or nuance.

Instead of exploring his thesis with some consideration that atheists might have potentially serious reasons for choosing to act as they do, de Waal settles for a shallow pseudo-psychological diagnosis: “atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay?”

One really has to wonder what reality de Waal has been living in to pretend not to understand why atheists have begun to be “out and proud,” especially in American society. Our problems are not inner demons (though some of us no doubt have them), they are real people in the real world who use religion to justify a vast range of authoritarian policies that are not only bad for us individually but for society as a whole. It would be irresponsible not to be outspoken in opposition to the many ways that religion damages people, both individually and in groups.

26 comments on this post.
  1. doublereed:

    I really don’t like how we seem to throw the word “militant” around so flippantly nowadays. “Militant” is a word that has a pretty serious definition.

  2. Abby Normal:

    I now draw a sharp line

    Sounds like a pretty dogmatic approach, divide people into two groups, good and bad. Once you have your result you can rationalize backward with no need for subtlety or serious analysis. As is so often the case you are what you hate.

  3. Kevin:

    Militant Muslim: Someone who will blow you up without a second thought — even at the expense of his own life.

    Militant Christian: Someone who will blow you up without a second thought — but tries to avoid being caught in the destruction and will attempt to evade capture.

    Militant Jew: Someone who creates country-sized ghettos for nonbelievers and will blow them up without a second thought if they perceive a threat (real or otherwise).

    Militant atheist: Someone who will talk to you — and even (shock!) raise his/her voice to make a point about which they are correct.

  4. Dennis N:

    He’s missing the point on what dogmatism is. It’s the refusal to accept or entertain new evidence. That isn’t what he’s talking about; he’s talking about passion. Show me the prominent atheists that have been provided actual evidence and refused to consider it.

  5. patricksimons:

    Christopher Hitchens had a great take on “militant” atheism. I do not recall his exact words but he said, in effect, “For fifteen hundred years Christians tortured, murdered, and burned us at the stake for asking questions. Today’s atheists do none of that and yet the Christian establishment has the audacity to label atheists as “militant” for demanding answers to our questions.”

  6. Synfandel:

    When I first started reading Free Thought Blogs, I wondered the same thing as Mr. de Waal does: why the stridency? I’ve always been an atheist and been perfectly open about it and it’s never been something that I’ve had to defend. In Southern Ontario I live in a culture in which that’s never been a problem. Reading these blogs—especially Ed’s blog and Greta Christina’s—has opened my eyes to how hard life is for atheists in the United States—especially in the bible belt. I now understand that the strong reaction of ‘new atheists’ is in direct proportion to the egregiousness of the intolerance they encounter every day.

  7. slc1:

    Re Synfandel @ #6

    Things aren’t so hunky dory in Alberta either.

  8. composer99:

    If the vast majority religious organizations in the US – and worldwide – were effectively no more than the equivalent of charity/social clubs with some religious worship & music thrown in (and I dare say many are just that these days) then maybe de Waal would be on to something.

    The rub for de Waal is that, as Ed notes in the OP, a significant number of religious people & organizations in the US – and worldwide – use their beliefs to justify harmful practices and policies (e.g. the Cornwall Alliance and global warming inaction) – or even illegal ones (e.g. in the US, trying to push creationism in public schools).

  9. dingojack:

    SLC – I hear there’s trouble, right there in River City….
    @@
    Dingo

  10. Ulysses:

    I’ll stop being a militant atheist when:

    -Certain Christians stop insisting mythology be taught in schools in place of science.

    -Certain Jews stop insisting they have a right to a piece of land other people were living on because they’re “God’s chosen people.”

    -Certain Muslims stop imprisoning people for not being respectful enough to a man who’s been dead for centuries.

    -Certain Hindus stop insisting the Dalit go back to being “untouchable.”

    -Etc.

  11. Michael Heath:

    If Frans de Waal authentically cared about finding the answers to his rhetorical questions, I suggest he read what I’ve found to be a superb treatment of this topic. That would be Greta Christina’s wonderfully argued, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless.

  12. Raging Bee:

    Or, if he can’t be bothered to read an atheist book, he could…you know…find some actual atheists and ASK THEM what they’re angry about. You’d think a PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY would remember he has that option…

  13. CaitieCat:

    Also, his assertion ignores those of us who were raised atheist. I was never baptised or inducted into any religion, at any age. My parents, tired of the sectarian bullshit in the UK in the 60s, simply put aside their Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, and raised my sister and I to make our own minds up.

    I’ve nothing to be reacting against. I’m not now nor ever was a Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, or Pastafarian. Just an atheist.

    And I rather prefer “shrill” to “strident”. :D

  14. DaveL:

    The reason there are so many militant atheists is very simple: it’s very easy to be a militant atheist. An atheist, to be considered ‘militant’, need do nothing more than point and laugh. Believers aren’t considered ‘militant’ until they kill someone in the name of their religion.

  15. abb3w:

    @12, Raging Bee:

    Or, if he can’t be bothered to read an atheist book, he could…you know…find some actual atheists and ASK THEM what they’re angry about. You’d think a PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY would remember he has that option…

    Or possibly read a book on that by a couple social psychologists who did.

    Though, of course, the data does show atheists aren’t completely non-zealous, nor non-dogmatic, with precise measures given for those. (For example, I’m pretty dogmatic about “2+3=5″ being a theorem under the von Neumann construction of arithmetic from vNBG axioms.) But far too often assertions are backed merely by anecdata.

  16. Gretchen:

    DeWaal is a primatologist. The Salon piece is an excerpt from his new book The Bonobo and the Atheist. I haven’t read it, but I wrote about my misgivings regarding it a few months ago before it was published, and it turns out I apparently had the wrong kind of misgivings entirely.

    DeWaal is also an atheist himself; he’s just one of the kind who sneers at any other atheist who demonstrates any animosity toward religion whatsoever.

    In this passage he demonstrates no knowledge derived from his actual area of expertise. He’s just pontificating, and badly.

  17. Sastra:

    De Waal said something very stupid recently in an interview for a new Templeton Foundation science magazine. In answer to a question about NIH director Francis Collins saying that evolution can’t explain morality, De Waal said:

    He must have read the wrong books. There has been a spate of books, starting with The Selfish Gene, that told us evolution cannot explain morality, that we’re born selfish and we don’t know where our morality comes from. These books are not Darwinian.

    The Selfish Gene? By Richard Dawkins? De Waal thinks the theme of the book was that we’re born selfish and therefore evolution can’t explain morality? Wtf???

    Maybe he misspoke. Because otherwise this guy has written a book bashing the so-called new atheists and he has no clue, no clue at all.

    Ed wrote:

    I’m one of those dreaded “accommodationists” or “appeasers” who thinks that some of our loudest atheist voices often engage in exactly the kind of tribalism that they deplore in Christians and that our critiques of religion are far too often overly simplistic and overwrought …

    That doesn’t make you an “accomodationist” (I’m not sure what qualifies for “appeaser” though.) Plenty of the gnu atheists deplore tribalism and simplistic critiques of religion. To put it briefly, from what I can tell an ‘accomodationist’ is an atheist or freethinker who:

    1.) Sees no conflict between religion and science — science can say nothing about God.
    2.) Deplores attempts to mock, criticize, or treat religion with anything but special respect
    3.) Thinks the problems with religion are restricted to ‘extremists.’
    4.) Insists that the problems which might seem to be caused by religion are really something else entirely.

    An accomodationist would hate the idea of Blasphemy Day — they wouldn’t do a positive post on it.

  18. Pierce R. Butler:

    Uh-oh.

    The head of FreeThoughtBlogs.com openly confesses accommodationism, and declares that demons are real.

    We need somebody to start a real atheist website!

  19. dingojack:

    Sastra – “1.) Sees no conflict between religion and science — science can say nothing about God.”
    Firstly – If you wanna believe in some damn fool thing that’s your right,. You’re an idiot, but it’s your right to be an idiot. Just as long as it doesn’t interfere with my rights, there’s no conflict.
    And secondly, what can science say about god(s), or the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or the Snark or any other totally imaginary being, pray tell?!? I’m all agog with anticipation of science’s wisdom on this subject.
    (Guess that makes me an ”accommodationist’, then. @@).
    Dingo.

  20. Eurasian magpie:

    @Sastra

    De Waal did not misspeak. He has carried a chip on his shoulder for the selfisch gene theory for *years* now. Dawkins has taken the trouble of explaining it to him several times, to no avail. To keep on spouting this straw version of selfish gene (book and theory) shows astonishing dishonesty. I’ve no idea what De Waal’s problem is.

  21. organon:

    Interesting. For decades I self identified as atheist. Then I discovered this blog. If only for the things Ed writes, I would still regard myself as an atheist. But reading other comments I quickly discovered that atheism apparently means something quite different than what I thought it meant. I have no god. I have no use for religion. Religion has no place in my life. I don’t get the concern that De Waal expresses about wearing T-shirts, etc., or why he regards these as militant. But if I’m unwilling to spend the rest of my life debating the non-existence of something there’s no evidence of in the first place, I don’t understand why that’s so troubling to some. That is very different from defending the rights of anyone to believe or not believe whatever they wish. Battling encroachments on the separation of church and state. Keeping the fiction of creationism out of science classes. Standing against government proselytizing. Keeping religious views out of rule of law. Etc. But I don’t care to engage in trying to convert anyone. They can believe what they wish as long as they keep it in their own life and not try to force it into the life of others. And I have no desire to needlessly insult religious persons (very different from insulting persons who are attempting to push their religious views into rule of law). I hold that irrationality is irrationality, and I will not look at something as more rational based on whether someone is atheist. I will continue to be bothered by certain behaviors, again independent of ones religious beliefs. If that is something regarded as tiring, then so be it. I am very much in support of the things Ed writes and of the causes he takes on. I really don’t think Ed is one of those “dreaded” voices. Personally, I would say his is very much one of the more desired and rational voices out there. And I’ve seen him criticize the very tribalism I think should be criticized. So back to life goes this tiresome non-theist. I will not engage in demonizing all religious persons. I will continue to defend the very things Ed does. And I will continue to be offended by offensive behaviors, independent of one’s religious views. Including persecution, which I understand many atheists have suffered much from. Such persecution is wrong, and speaking out against it is correct.

  22. Marcus Ranum:

    And secondly, what can science say about god(s), or the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or the Snark or any other totally imaginary being, pray tell?!?

    Depends on the claims made for that imaginary being. Science tells us reindeer don’t fly. Science tells us that one fat old guy couldn’t give presents to all the kids in the time-slice allocated for the feat, by allowing us to estimate the required top speed for the sleigh. Science tells us the sleigh would get mighty hot at those speeds and we would wonder why nobody notices the glowing trails inmthe air or hears the shockwave. Science tells us the tooth fairy is violating several conservation laws or, if it’s making gold out of thin air, is probably dropping the temperature of the room pretty significantly. I don’t know if I’d want an invisible fairy performing dental material physics under a child’s pillow. Science tells us there’s no tooth fairy because we’d have trapped the fucker and be using it as an energy source (ditto santa’s reindeer, which would probably be hitched to a ballistic missile sub by now). Science tells us not that these things are merely imaginary, but that they are consistently contradicted by physical law and long-term observation. Science tells us they do not exist, and that there is no avenue other than unfounded speculation by which they could exist. Science tells us that “unfounded” in speculation means “it’s not merely imaginary, it’s unimaginable.”

  23. Marcus Ranum:

    Ps – science tells us all kinds of things about hypothetical god properties. Like that infinite love is contradicted by finite spacetime. That crucified jews don’t get up and zoom around. That horses don’t fly. That prayer doesn’t work (any oncologists in the house? Care to comment on the base rate of spontaneous remission in the general population compared to Lourdes?). Oddly, it seems that science tells us that every single claim made about god is apparently wrong, except for the claim that god doesn’t exist. If there was a theory elsewhere in science that had been so consistently blasted by contradicting observation and evidence, it would have been discarded.

  24. dingojack:

    Marcus -
    So what science tells us is that so called ‘supernatural beings’ are – wait for it – supernatural.
    What next? Will science finally tell us that liquid water is a liquid! How amazing.

    Imagine you had never seen a whale. I’m sure you could give a thousand cogent scientific explanations why such a thing is impossible (how could an air-breathing, warm-blooded even-toed ungulate be a sea-going creature?) But nevertheless…

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    Sheeesh.

    Dingo
    ——–
    There is no evidence to demonstrate to me that such things are true, nor any evidence to demonstrate that such things are false. Therefore I haven’t sufficient evidence to believe such things are true, nor sufficient to tell others their belief is false*. (That doesn’t prevent me from criticising idiotic behaviours based on this lack of evidence, however). All that can be said is that, as yet, science (which can tell us a lot about the natural universe) can’t say anything about whether god(s) or other supernatural beings actually exist or not.

    * I’m operating (tentatively) on the simplest null-hypothesis: No gods. Show me the evidence that demonstrates the contrary and I’ll follow the evidence.

  25. organon:

    While it is true that science, and reason, can be used to invalidate arguments for the existence of something, that is a very different thing from proving the nonexistence of something. Dingo makes some compelling arguments. Burden of proof is on the person(s) who claims something exists. Pretty good:

    “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

    “There is no evidence to demonstrate to me that such things are true”

    “Therefore I haven’t sufficient evidence to believe such things are true”

    “* I’m operating (tentatively) on the simplest null-hypothesis: No gods. Show me the evidence that demonstrates the contrary and I’ll follow the evidence.”

  26. dingojack:

    A man much, much smart than I am said of science:

    Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we are always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.
    Dr. Jacob Bronowski Ascent of Man. Episode13. Knowledge or Certainty.

    Dingo

Leave a comment

You must be