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.


  1. I am a Christian and I take issue with some of the things that you said in this "rambling post" of yours; insofar as they relate to the Bible.


    The whole of Biblical scripture has been integrated into a coherent whole for quite a while now. And while your average Christian may not be able to defend this point of view all that well it doesn't follow that the task of integrating Biblical scripture is impossible.

    Furthermore, from a critical atheist perspective the Bible is approached as just a bunch of nonsense and never seriously engaged. What people such as yourself like to do is play a game of "Gotcha!", where you look at the Bible just long enough to pick out a few pieces of scripture and then conclude - in a very facile way - that the whole thing is ridiculous. But I can assure that if those arguments really worked then no one would take the Bible anymore seriously than they take Greek mythology seriously (the latter truly being a hopeless mass of contradictions).


    The parts of the Bible that are the most unsavory to modern sensibilities are not sanitized out of the Christian church because they are unsavory (following Robert Wright). Most of those bits are in the Pentateuch and are part of the old Mosaic Law. Christianity has always understood the Mosaic Law as part of a covenant between God and the ancient Hebrews that was completed in the death of Christ. The Pauline epistles make it plain as day that the many rules and regulations pertaining to Jewish tradition don't apply to the New Testament church. Lastly, the fact that such a change would happen and that salvation would be made available to the gentile nations was revealed through the major prophets of Jewish tradition (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) as recorded in the Biblical Old Testament!

  2. Sam

    To the post:

    You have to show that believers view of their religion as fuzzy wuzzy is wrong because they insist that radicals do not truely understand their faith when they often are following parts of it more strictly than the moderates are.

    If no one read those passages, they wouldn't be a problem, but people do and you have 2 kinds of people who consider themselves Christian who believe very different things. You need to make the moderates realize that or they will defend the radicals until the cows come home.

    To anonymous

    "But I can assure that if those arguments really worked then no one would take the Bible anymore seriously than they take Greek mythology seriously (the latter truly being a hopeless mass of contradictions)."

    People did take Greek mythology seriously- it was dumped because it was contradictory, but because people converted to a different religion.

    "Most of those bits are in the Pentateuch and are part of the old Mosaic Law. "

    Genocide is not part of Mosaic law. The problem is how God deals with gentiles in the Old Testament, not how he deals with Jews.

  3. I sent this to the Mormon ex, his reply:

    Interesting read.

    Its funny, 'cause I've seen a big difference in religious people between teenagers and adults, and I've experienced the transition myself. For young people, religion seems to be more about defending their understanding of the world against attackers. I think adulthood is somewhat humbling though, and you start to wuestion the ideas of your parents. For me as an adult, religion isn't about being right, or eliminating doubt, or proving my beliefs to others.

    Taking ego out of religion is crucial. My ego has no bearing on whether my beliefs or right or wrong. Religious people feel an obligation to prosolyte, as they feel that their beliefs can make other people's lives better. However, we too often see people attempting to convert friends in order to help validate their own beliefs. Thus when a friend or family member leaves the faith, we feel threatened, because that validation is gone.

    What this author is describing is simply the same phenomenon happening within an ever increasingly formalized Atheist institution. Atheists attack religious people not because religon is bad (which it may be), but out of insecurity. Most people will always feel threatened that others believe differently. Thus its a battle of egos, where people seek validation by attempting to prove that they are right.

  4. I don't really enjoy the combative tone of new atheism either but I think this post misses the point. Religious beliefs deserve to be mocked because they are based on authority of ancient texts such as the bible, which contain lots of (to a modern sensibility) absurd things as well as some more acceptable things. Theologians think they can reconcile these messes in a way which doesn't undermine the whole faith, but their attempts are just as absurd. Individual religious people take varying stances which may be more or less simplistic, and may have involved thinking through things themselves or accepting what they are told by preachers or theologians. But none of it stands up because it is all a post hoc attempt to patch up an arbitrary set of beliefs into something that makes sense.

    By the way, following the "islamic cultural centre somewhat near ground zero" debacle, I was asking myself whether I would, as an atheist, ever protest the building of a church. The answer is probably not: if people want to build it, it's up to them. I'd never engage with people in such a confrontational way unless they committed some aggression against me first. (Say, if they were knocking down my favourite pub to build the church). I think that's what separates me from new atheism - just not that interested in what other people believe that I want to start a confrontation over it, more interested in how they behave, and doubtful about how far you can change people's deeply held beliefs with argument.

  5. It is wrong to categorize 'atheism', it is the most natural philosophy supported by humanism -

  6. First commenter again.

    I followed the link and found the "contradictions" to be unimpressive, more than half of them I could resolve to my own satisfaction without even needing to look up the relevant verses. What is most telling about these sorts of lists is that they're usually prima facie in spirit and seldom touch on matters of any theological depth.

    "For young people, religion seems to be more about defending their understanding of the world against attackers."

    I am no longer a young person but I certainly don't remember very many people of my generation ever defending their faith in such a manner.