David Sloan Wilson does not like the New Atheists. He’s pushing something he labels Evolutionary Religious Studies, which, by his view, attracts all the serious scholars of religion. His definition of “serious”, though, seems to be simply scholars who agree with him, who do not regard religion as harmful as the New Atheists do, and who are willing to plug his group selectionist theory of religion as a prosocial phenomenon.
In a new piece at the HuffPo (I’d rather not link to that place, so read it through Jerry Coyne, who ably deconstructs Wilson), he lays out three points comparing ERS to the New Atheism, and his third point is this: that the New Atheism ignores the scientific evidence.
Whenever New Atheists make claims about religion as a human phenomenon, their claims should respect the authority of empirical evidence. Insofar as the new discipline of ERS has added to empirical knowledge of religion, the New Atheists should be paying close attention to ERS. This is especially true for Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, whose names are so closely associated with evolution. Step 3 should go without saying and I doubt that anyone would disagree with it in principle. Yet, by my assessment, there is a serious disconnect between the New Atheism and ERS at the level of Step 3.
To back this up, he uses an example from Dawkins who clearly explains the byproduct theory of religion, and shorts him because he doesn’t fluff David Sloan Wilson’s pet idea, that “religions are fundamentally about the creation and organization of prosocial communities”. I note that Dawkins also did not seriously discuss the Catholic church’s theory that the one true religion is the product of divine fiat, either.
What if he had said that religions are fundamentally about the creation and organization of prosocial communities? That all people require a cultural meaning system to organize their experience, receiving environmental information as input and resulting in effective action as output? That all cultural meaning systems confront a complex tradeoff between the factual content of a given belief and its effect upon action? That secular meaning systems often depart from factual reality in their own ways? The effect upon the audience would have been very different than when they were told that religion is like a moth immolating itself or like a child mindlessly being fed useless information.
This is why Dawkins has a reputation as an excellent communicator, and David Sloan Wilson does not. That humans process data using a mental model shaped by cultural influences is simply a given, a kind of common property of the substrate that does not say anything about the special status of religion in poisoning (or more charitably, shaping) our cultures. It does not increase understanding. And most importantly, it does not address the problem of religion, or beliefs that lead entire cultures into benighted dead-ends of onanistic inanity.
The feline fanatic has a succinct summary of the New Atheist agenda. I concur with this:
Testing whether the tenets of religion are true. The New Atheist answer is “no.”
Assessing the effects of ungrounded religious belief on the world. The New Atheist conclusion is that, seen as a whole, religions have inflicted far more harm than good on the world.
Getting rid of the unwarranted authority and privilege that religion, established churches, and religious officials have garnered for themselves over the centuries.
Even David Sloan Wilson would agree with the first point: religions teach false dogma about the origin and nature of the world. He is reduced to making pragmatic arguments that false beliefs can have beneficial effects on society.
But I have one word for David Sloan Wilson’s benign view of religion, for his argument that it is a prosocial phenomenon. It represents a huge pile of evidence for our second agenda item that he seems to ignore. That word is…
Whenever I hear that tripe about the beneficial effects of religion on human cultural evolution, it’s useful to note that the world’s dominant faiths all hardcode directly into their core beliefs the idea that women are unclean, inferior, weak, and responsible for the failings of mankind…that even their omnipotent, all-loving god regards women as lesser creatures not fit to be intermediaries with him, and that their cosmic fate is to be subservient slaves to men, just as men are to be subservient slaves to capital-H Him.
David Sloan Wilson can argue all he wants that religion helped promote group survival in our evolutionary history, or that his group selectionist models somehow explain its origins, but it doesn’t matter. Here and now, everywhere, those with eyes to see can see for themselves that religion has for thousands of years perpetuated the oppression of half our species. Half of the great minds our peoples have produced have lived and died unknown and forgotten, their educations neglected, their lives spent doing laundry and other menial tasks for men — their merits unrecognized and buried under lies promulgated by religion, in cultures soaked in the destructive myths of faith which codify misogyny and give it a godly blessing.
Isn’t that reason enough to tear down the cathedrals — that with this one far-reaching, difficult change to our cultures, we double human potential?