“Belief-ologists” are revealing how religion works. Belittling their work does nothing to further the secularists’ cause, but learning from it might...
IT IS just over a decade since Richard Dawkins lit the blue touchpaper with his book The God Delusion. It introduced much of the world to the so-called new atheism – a forceful rejection of religion based on the premise that scientific materialism offers a superior explanation of the universe, while religion is a corrosive influence on society: a pathological meme planted in the minds of defenceless children.
Though a great read and a liberating influence for many closet atheists, The God Delusion largely omitted a new strand of scientific enquiry emerging around the time it was published. Those working on the “science of religion” – a motley crew of psychologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists – explained it as a by-product of normal cognition. Thanks to evolution, they argued, our explanation-seeking minds find religious ideas intuitively appealing, gobbling them up as a hungry trout swallows a fishing fly.
To many disciples of the new atheism, this was little more than, well, heresy. They decried it as “accommodationism” – an illogical and often harmful attempt to pretend religion can still serve a purpose now that science rules the roost. Never mind that the cognitive by-product theory does not imply that religious beliefs are true – far from it. Nor does it claim religion and scientific materialism are compatible. It merely attempts to explore religious belief and disbelief using the tools of science, rather than rhetoric.
The new atheists attacked it anyway. In terms of public debate around the appropriate role of religion in society, this was a mistake. It alienated as many people as it won over, leaving the new atheists preaching to the converted, polarising the debate and dissuading moderates of both secular and religious persuasions from getting involved at all.
Perhaps most damagingly, it fostered an idea already doing the rounds: that atheism is a belief system whose adherents can be as blindly dogmatic as any other. In other words, that it is “just another religion”.
At first glance this has all the sophistication of a playground taunting match: you smell. No, you smell. But as a rhetorical device it is highly effective. Tarring militant atheists with their own brush undermines their claims to the intellectual high ground, and when it came to some of the new atheists, it had the ring of truth to it. But is it really true of all the godless?
Once again, those practising actual science offer answers. The science of atheism, brought to you by the people who brought you the science of religion, says that atheism really isn’t just another religion but something altogether different – although not for the reasons you may think (see “Faith of the faithless: Is atheism just another religion?“). No doubt militant atheists will say “we knew it all along”; but perhaps they will also find some common ground with those they had dismissed as apologists.
Or perhaps not. The science of religion challenges core elements of the new atheism: for example, the belief that religion leads on the whole to misery and suffering. Belief-ologists say religion was the “social glue” that held early societies together. That doesn’t mean religion is required to play that role today. But simply ignoring or high-handedly dismissing its power will not abolish its sway or further the secularist cause. And given the rise of religiosity in global affairs, there is much more than a rhetorical joust at stake.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Holier than thou?”
Magazine issue 3121, published 15 April 2017
Related topic: The Thinking Atheist podcast - The Myth of 'New Atheism'
Read it, dismissed it, but I'll give it another try the next time I swallow a handful of shrooms. Might make more sense that way.
It might. There was a study published this year, 2017, where self-confirmed atheists signed up for a "mystical experience" via psilocybin in a pill. Guess what happened to the atheists? After this event, over 70% of atheists no longer identified with atheism. I believe those numbers are very significant, and explains why this scientific endeavor to understand the mystical experience is ongoing.
I'll link it in a new forum thread and here. However, if you're going to dismiss that, too, wouldn't you need to create your own research that counters the claims of these neuroscientists, then have it peer-reviewed and published so that your criticism is actually valid instead of just arm-chaired half-assed dismissal?