In an extraordinary series of postings at Huffington Post (the first installment is here), David Sloan Wilson has taken aim at many people who have been taking aim at the dogmatism and blind faith encouraged by many religions. Yes, many religions encourage between-group conflicts and many of them disparage rational thought, at least when it comes to looking at their own religious tenets. D.S. Wilson is a careful evolutionary biologist, however, and he takes these common criticisms of religion in a new direction.
D.S. Wilson knows that between-group conflicts aren’t only caused by religion; between-group conflicts are often found in non-human animals such as “ant colonies, lion prides and chimp troops [that] don’t have religion.” As far as rational thought, he asks why brains evolved through natural selection. His answer will be stunning too many and (in my opinion) difficult to refute: the main purpose that brains evolved “is to cause organisms to behave adaptively in the real world–not to directly represent the real world.” What? Human brains are not the way they are in order to allow humans to be objective and rational beings?
It is at this point that D.S. Wilson carefully distinguished factual realism from practical realism. Long ago I concluded that there are beliefs that are important, critically important to survival, but not literally true. It is also clear that the intellect will warp itself to believe something that serves a deep, sometimes ineffable, function even though the belief is literally and demonstrably false. This phenomenon comports with D.S. Wilson’s distinction: A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there (Wilson notes, and I agree, that there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world. Though many of us skeptics love science and long for objective truth, practical realism can also be “a good thing,” because
Most of us presumably also want to live in happy, healthy, thriving communities. If there is an unavoidable trade-off between factual and practical realism, that would place us all in a moral dilemma. Atheists such as myself are banking on the possibility it we can have our cake and eat it too; that factual realism can contribute to rather than detracting from practical realism. We need to be clear about our own articles of faith.
Factual realism is not always at odds with practical realism. A hunter who needs to make a kill in order to eat in order to help his clan survive, also needs to know “the exact location of his quarry.” It is critically important to recognize that
[O]ur minds are prepared to massively depart from factual realism, when necessary, in ways that motivate effective action. This is not a sign of mental weakness but a time-tested survival strategy. Moreover, adaptive fictions are not restricted to religions. Patriotic histories of nations have the same distorted and purpose driven quality as religions, a fact that becomes obvious as soon as we consider the histories of nations other than our own. Intellectual movements such as feminism and postmodernism are often shamelessly open about yoking acceptable truths to perceived consequences. That’s what it means to be politically correct. Scientific theories are not immune. Many scientific theories of the past become weirdly implausible with the passage of time, just like religions. When this happens, they are often revealed is not just wrong but as purpose driven. . . . These and other belief systems are not classified as religions because they don’t invoke supernatural agents, but they are just like religions when they sacrifice factual realism on the altar of practical realism. The presence or absence of supernatural agents–a particular departure from factual realism–is just a detail. It is humbling to contemplate that the concerns typically voiced about religion need to be extended to virtually all forms of human thought. If anything, nonreligious belief systems are a greater cause for concern because they can do a better job of masquerading as factual reality. Call them stealth religions.
I would suggest that Wilson’s factual realism and practical realism line up nicely with Jonathan Haidt’s little lawyer and his elephant.
D.S. Wilson goes on to harshly criticize those who would equate atheism with pure reason simply because it does not invoke a God. “We need to give atheism a hard look to see if it is functioning as a stealth religion. Here’s one of the telltale signs. Any worldview that characterizes its own benefits as perfect, immune to criticism and without trade-offs for anyone should be suspect. Any system of thought that clearly tells the believer what to do should be suspect. Therefore, fundamentalist religions should be recognized as disparaging factual realism for practical realism. Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism is another easy target (a stealth religion) in that she was treated as an “infallible oracle–the very opposite of reasoned discourse–and members of the movement spent their time casting out false premises as if they were so many demons.”
D.S. Wilson also takes aim at New Atheism (but not all forms of atheism), and regrets to report that new atheism “has all the hallmarks of stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad. He is passionate about exposing new atheism as a stealth religion because “it distracts attention from something far more important and interesting–the proper study of religion and all forms of human mentality from an evolutionary perspective. By recognizing that factual realism is often subservient to practical realism, we can see more clearly how the mind actually works and, perhaps, arrive at some solutions to some of life’s conundrums.
In part two of this series, David Sloan Wilson gave further explanation, in response to many attacks he received regarding first posting. First of all, he defined “stealth religion”
A belief system that distorts the facts of the real world (yes, there is a real world out there, and it does not include people sitting on clouds) for the purpose of motivating a given suite of behaviors. Believes in supernatural agents or a particular distortion of the factual reality and I want to broaden the discussion to include all distortions of factual reality.
Another characteristic of stealth religions is that they require authority figures. “We need to be suspicious about arguments cloaked in forms of authority.” He warns that stealth religions “need not be conscious.” The world that seems to be out there might be three distorted by “mental processes that operate beneath our awareness.
Environmentalism often takes the form of a stealth religion, according to D.S. Wilson. Not all environmentalism, he writes, because we really are faced with many environmental challenges. However, many environmentalists overstate the dangers that we are facing and get away with it, because environmentalism relies upon sophisticated models that are “ripe for manipulation, usually unconsciously, by virtuous scientists.”
Should we remain true to factual realism when our uncertainty might be used as excuse for inaction? Is it justified to inflate the risks and conceal our uncertainty to promote planetary survival? Welcome to the trade-offs between factual and practical realism.
Back to the problem of authority:
There are impeccable reasons for distrusting statements cloaked in the authority of science and reason, no less than the flag and the cross. How could any self-respecting atheist deny this claim in the abstract,” he asked. Rather than simply declaring that religion is a “disease,” shouldn’t new atheists take a look at all of the following hypotheses about religion offered by evolutionary theory? Those hypotheses include each of the following:
H1 – Religion is a super organism. Religions might forge human groups into cooperative units, whose members work together to achieve common goals (following the works of Emile Durkheim).
H2 – Religions are sneaky ways for religious leaders to exploit the religious followers.
H3- Religions are diseases that are highly evolved “to facilitate their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups.” This has been advanced by Richard Dawkins.
H4 – Religion is like a moth to a flame. Sometimes, a trait has no benefit and even is costly, but it remains because it is connected to other traits that do have the benefit. In other words, “perhaps religion is a costly byproduct of psychological traits that function adaptively in nonreligious contexts.”
H5- Religion is like obesity. The urges that make us religious might’ve been adaptive in the Stone Age, but they are no longer adaptive in modern life.
H6 – Religion exists because of genetic drift. It came about by chance.
David Sloan Wilson argues that the evidence is overwhelming that there are no supernatural agents that intervene in natural processes and he contends that religious beliefs are 100% human social constructions. But this conclusion does not explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms. This is where Richard Dawkins and others go wrong, according to D.S.Wilson. One cannot simply declare religion to be a disease. One must answer both the proximate and ultimate cause questions regarding religion. Proximate cause looks for particular mechanisms to explain the behavior. Ultimate causation looks to natural selection to explain how the organism evolved to be what it is. The six hypotheses listed above thus need to be taken seriously, because they are profoundly different from each other and one would think that the each suggests a different plan of action for dealing with religion.
I’ll skip ahead just for a moment before wrapping up this post. I will also serve as a spoiler in that each of these six hypotheses are plausible pursuant to evolutionary theory and D.S. Wilson declares that each of them is at least partially relevant to “the large collection of traits that we associate with religion.”
[To be continued]
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
Sites That Link to this Post
- The non-science offered by the new atheists | Dangerous Intersection | March 7, 2011
- Three questions | Dangerous Intersection | March 13, 2011
- Is religion an evolutionary adaptation or a byproduct? | Dangerous Intersection | March 27, 2011
- Perceived prevalance of atheists reduces prejudice against atheists | Dangerous Intersection | April 21, 2011