Monday, August 23, 2010

New Atheism and the Evolution of God

I've been basically supportive of the New Atheism, but Robert Wright's new book, the Evolution of God, really made me reconsider. There seem to be three broad pushes in New Atheism. The first is proselytizing, and I think this is perfectly healthy. I think a lot of modern, sensitive atheists have taken "live and let live" too far, and have sought some sort of moral high ground by attempting to not be like the religious folks in trying to convert other people to their beliefs. But this attitude, besides acquiescing to a double standard, implicitly grants religious folks one of their most nefarious weapons, the notion that religion is "special", and off the table for rational discussion. But it should be no more off the table than politics or any other ideology-fraught topic. Of course rules of engagement need apply, namely the Don't be a dick rule.

The second push is PR and consciousness raising, and this is great. From Richard Dawkins' insistence that people stop referring to children as "Catholic" or "Hindu" children to Hemant Mehta's really powerful perceptual tool of replacing "atheist" with "Jew" or "Christian" in any statement about atheists to see if it would still pass muster with common tolerance norms. For instance, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels' statement that "Atheism leads to brutality" does not jar the typical American brain the way "Judaism leads to brutality" does, and this needs consciousness raising.

But the third push of New Atheism is intolerance of believers. Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris especially harp on the idea that in a world of nuclear weapons and means of large scale destruction, we can't afford to tolerate irrational belief systems. Atheists (not just New) spend a lot of time finding ridiculous and/or evil passages in holy texts, passages where the deity in question commits genocide or encourages his (almost always 'his') followers to slaughter a people wholesale in his stead, advocates stoning or other brutal punishment for homosexuality or menstruating on the sabbath or whatever, or describes reality in some way modern science has rendered fanciful, to put it generously. The atheists are obviously right in these criticisms, but they're wrong in the "Ha! I've got you now!" that follows.

This exercise usually seems to be used more to persuade other atheists just how crazy believers are. It would fail to persuade most believers even if they deigned for a moment to listen. One reason, I think, is that they don't believe whatever absurd scriptural story you just regaled. How could they? You've probably just pointed out that they'd never heard it before in an attempt to prove their ignorance of their own revealed Truth. When they see for themselves it really is right there in the scripture (call it the Bible, say), they might claim they believe it, because they think they should (because it's right there in the Bible!), but they won't understand why they should. It will be something like a symbolic belief. And chances are they won't try very hard to integrate these uncomfortable stories into their belief systems, because they like their belief system just the way it is thank you very much, and anyway listening to some atheist isn't their preferred method of learning moral and spiritual truths. 

And do you really want them to incorporate these stories into their worldview? There's a great gotcha here. You've just shown an inconsistency. They say they believe everything in the Bible and you've demonstrated 1) there's something in Bible they've never even heard of and 2) they can't integrate the whole scripture into their worldview. But you already knew this, because you already knew what a hodgepodge, multi-author, contradictory mess the Bible was. What was the point again?

The far more interesting question Robert Wright tackles in his book is why you had to point out the ugly Biblical tale in the first place. These darkest bits of the Bible are left out of sunday school classes, and pastors and priests leave them well alone. In many Christian churches in the west, the ridiculous and awful passages about women are quietly retreating into obscurity. The Roman Catholic church, among others has accepted the reality of biological evolution. (About time, I know). This doesn't excuse anything, certainly not the sexism, homophobia, other bigotries, and anti-science stances that persist in different pockets of the religious world. But clearly progress is possible, and it's interesting to ask how it happens.

This kind of rhetoric coming out of the New Atheism, rhetoric I've been guilty of in the past, suggests a certain scriptural determinism. That is, believers are liable to behave in the ways they do because they take their scriptures literally, just as they claim they do. So whatever darkness dwells within the pages of the holy text will manifest in the actions of the believers. This is suspect in principle, because as atheists unceasingly point out, scriptures offer contradictory advice. Believers simply must project prior preferences onto their religion. But more importantly, empirically it just doesn't seem to be the case that people get their world view from their religious texts.

Wright takes the Judeochristian faiths as his example, and plots out the way the stories, translations, and interpretations evolved against what was happening to real people at the time. He argues, I think persuasively, that people changed their God to fit their experiences down on earth, rather than fitting their experiences to the prior desires of their God. So when the Israelites were incorporated into the Persian empire and began to trade peacefully with similarly subjugated former foes, Yahweh started describing these old enemies as not so bad, even human and worthy of respect and fair treatment. Or now, as more religious people realize they actually know and like a homosexual or two, they're less inclined to persecute them, and consequently their God is much less likely to command such persecution. God evolves to fit circumstances.

The point, finally, of this rambling post is that the intolerance of believers coming from the New Atheists is counterproductive in the extreme. If the vilest excesses of religious belief can be tamed by positive-sum interactions between peoples, as they have in most of the developed world, then such interactions should be pursued. Sowing hostility, as many of the New Atheists do, indeed by dehumanizing believers as shallow zombies capable of any bloody act mentioned in a book, will never change beliefs, because that's by and large just not how beliefs change. Instead, it creates a zero-sum atmosphere between believers and non-believers. God will evolve accordingly. This is not to say that faith and absurd beliefs shouldn't be challenged; they should. But the most effective way to neuter faith, and bring about a world where weapons of mass destruction are less likely to be used regardless of irrational beliefs, is to build bridges, and act in such ways that make it as easy as possible for the faithful to humanize the rest of us. God is infinitely adaptable; steer her in a benign direction.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

the moral imperative of economic growth

I haven't been following the brouhaha over the Cordoba House/Park 51 very closely. In part this is because when the issue came up I thought some people would say some stupid things and then we would all get on with our lives. But people keep talking about it, from Harry Reid and other prominent Democrats opposing its construction to Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin making some shockingly disgusting utterances. And the opposition to mosques and Muslims is not limited to Lower Manhattan, as this Yahoo story discusses:
Public protests against three planned mosques have made news in the past week: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin joined others in opposing the building of a mosque a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. Hundreds demonstrated against a proposed mosque in a small town in Tennessee (pictured above). And some residents of Temecula, California, are opposing the local Muslim community's plan to build a bigger mosque, saying it could become a hotbed of radical Islam.
And something like two-thirds of Americans polled oppose the building of the Cordoba House.

After 09/11/2001 I remember there was a great fear that there would be some dreadful backlash against Muslim-Americans and, at least to my recollection, it just didn't materialize. What's going on now seems like some nine year delayed reaction. One big difference that springs to mind about our relatively enlightened reaction to a terrorist attack (at least in terms of our behavior to Muslims within our borders, if not our foreign policy or surveillance apparatus) nine years ago compared to our current reaction to a building explicitly devoted to interfaith dialogue is the normal state of low unemployment and economic growth then and our high unemployment and stagnant growth now.

Our less-than-generous attitude to immigrants now, in a time of decreased immigration rates, compared to just a few years ago, when prominent politicians from both parties could be found to advocate immigration reform, is another example of the same phenomenon. In times of economic expansion, we appear to be more gracious with one another. In times of stagnation, we're less so. This is the argument Benjamin Friedman apparently makes in his book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (which I would know if I'd read it, but it's reviewed here by Brad DeLong).

It's striking to me how all these issues are related. High unemployment is not just an issue narrowly for the sake of creating employment for those unemployed; it's an issue broadly for the sake of the rest us. We will become better people again when the economy resumes more robust growth and employment returns to normal. And for those of us concerned about the plight of immigrants, about the religious freedoms and property rights of Muslims, and about our moral growth generally, perhaps the surest way to return to sensibility is to return to prosperity.