The non-science offered by the new atheists

| March 7, 2011 | 27 Replies

This article is a continuation of my previous post analyzing Installments I – IV of David Sloan Wilson’s series of articles titled “Atheism As a Stealth Religion” (Here is Installment I).  This article relates to D. S. Wilson’s installments V through VIII.

In Installment IV, D. S. Wilson presented six major hypothesis that have been used as plausible evolutionary explanations for religion. In installment V of his eight-part series of articles on atheism as a stealth religion, he indicates that religion is “a fuzzy set,” and that each of the six hypotheses he previously offered seem to bear on at least some aspect of religion. The only way to pick and choose which hypotheses truly work is to employ the scientific method, strictly speaking. That is the approach D. S. Wilson has claimed to have done in showing that the super organism hypothesis is more relevant and persuasive than the others.

If you could say only one thing about religion, it would be this: most enduring religions have what Emile Durkheim called ‘secular utility.’ They define, motivate and coordinate groups to achieve collective goals in this life. They promote cooperation within the group and bristle with defenses against the all-important problem of cheating.… [T]hey score high on practical realism, no matter how much they depart from factual realism along the way.

Wilson argues that the “byproduct” and “individualistic” accounts of religion can be fully reconciled with the superorganism hypothesis. For instance, the byproduct approach often includes the concept of a “hyperactive agency detection device (HADD)” that refers to our over willingness to explain events in terms of actions of “intentional human-like agents.” To the extent it exists, such a tendency could have come into existence about for reasons having nothing to do with religion. As such, HADD could well be a byproduct (or an exaptation) that currently contributes to our groupish tendencies. D. S. Wilson’s argument reminds me of the concept of “ontological metaphors” offered by Lakoff and Johnson. At bottom, human animals quite often demand intuitive explanatory models for understanding causation with regard to complex phenomena, and a prime method of portraying causation is through some sort of sentient agency. Since there is no evidence of such sentient agency, it becomes a logical move for a motivated individual to argue for a supernatural version of sentient causal power.

What are the consequences of accepting the superorganism hypothesis? By choosing among the hypotheses, we can better devise strategies for dealing with religion. Organisms and super organisms “compete, prey upon each other, coexist without interacting and engage in mutualistic interactions.” In these ways, superorganisms can be seen to be a special type of secular system akin to governments and business corporations. Religious organizations are not exceptions to the rule on how one conceives of and deals with organizational systems. Religions are, rather, merely one type of organizational system. Granted, they are notable to the extent that they “depart so flagrantly from factual realism,” but they are, at bottom, “corporate units.” Because they are essentially corporate units, we should expect that they behave comparably to other corporate units with regard to such things as competition and predation. D. S. Wilson notes that he has done quite a bit of research in this area, and is convinced that

[T]he majority religions… Originated and spread in a non–violent fashion–think of early Christianity and current versions such as Seventh-day Adventist him. I am not claiming that religious groups are biased toward pacifism, only that they are like secular groups in employing the full range of options in their interactions with other groups.

These characteristics of religions also help to set a reasonable research paradigm. D. S. Wilson contrasts this approach to the approach offered by the “new atheists,” who are “issuing false alarms and sending a scurrying in all the wrong directions.” For instance, those who claim to be doing science must always keep in mind that there has not been any real scientific progress until the hypotheses have been carefully tested, enabling the acceptance and rejection of various competing hypotheses. Rather than relying upon real evidence, however, the new atheists are haphazardly picking and choosing from among the alternative hypotheses.

The authors associated with new atheism movement begin with a deep antipathy for religion and selector examples from the text of science like so many parables from the Bible. Not only do they ignore, misrepresent, and selectively report the facts of religion, but their practical recommendations for solving the problems associated with religion are ineffective, silly, and worse.

Rather than rely upon real experiment in real evidence, the new atheists portray religions to be like parasitic worms (Daniel Dennett) or child abuse (Richard Dawkins) or despicable (Christopher Hitchens). D. S. Wilson notes that these views “are detached from the serious scientific study of religion.”

How should one approach the serious study of religion? D. S. Wilson refers to a 2004 book titled Sacred and Secular, written by political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, who have assembled voluminous data demonstrating a connection between existential insecurity and religiosity:

If your life is likely to be disrupted by famine, war, disease and major dislocations of all sorts, then you live in an environment that is low in existential security. Religion thrives in this kind of environment because it provides actual security (basic social services, including protection against other human groups) and also a psychological sense of security.

Norris and Inglehart found that variation in religiosity is strongly correlated with existential security. Further, within nations, “religiosity is stronger in the more vulnerable segments of the population, such as women, poorer households, the less educated and the unskilled working class.” They also found that religiosity has declined in most of the 22 industrial and post industrial nations studied, the United States being one of the few exceptions. They note that the United States “has the highest income inequality of all the postindustrial nations studied,” including overwhelming concerns about such things as job security and health insurance”.

These conclusions of Norris and Inglehart correspond with a comparable analysis conducted by Gregory Paul.

D. S. Wilson describes other pertinent research in his Beginners Guide to Evolutionary Religious Studies, including the tendency of young children, as well as adults, to believe in an afterlife and act on such beliefs (see page 14 here).

How does detailed data like this comparative the types of conclusions drawn by the new atheists? Not well, according to D. S. Wilson:

Take a slug of the new atheism and the primitive centers of your brain are immediately jolted into senseless action. That exciting anyway, like gathering around a bar room brawl, it leads only to injury and calling it science and reason is, well, sacrilege.… We justly disapprove of politicians when they manipulate the primitive centers of our brains, jolting us into senseless action that harms everyone over the long run. Yet popular intellectual discourse is not much better, as we’ve seen in the case of the new atheists.

[Addendum: I should have added in the original post that, in my opinion, D.S. Wilson is being too harsh on Daniel Dennett. I carefully read Breaking the Spell and saw it as a work that recognized both the beauty and danger of religion. It was not a wholesale trashing of religion bereft of thorough scientific inquiry, as one sees with Hitchens, Dawkins and Sam Harris (Wilson did not mention Harris). In my reading, Dennett is calling for a rigorous scientific investigation of religion, with which Wilson certainly agrees.]

[David Sloan Wilson offers an introductory account of his Evolutionary Religious Studies]


Category: Evolution, Religion, Science, scientific method

About the Author ()

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 and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (27)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    The following chart of the Six Hypotheses appears in D.S. Wilson's "Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS): A Beginner's Guide:

  2. Eric Elder says:

    This is academic psycho-babble. I had to read pseudo-intellectual bull shit like this when I was in graduate school.

    Obviously atheism is not a religion. It is freedom from the irrationality of religion.

    Non-believers are a disparate group of people who come together sometimes on issues. There is no organized atheistic religion. The term atheistic religion is an oxymoron.

    Science actually got a push form religion. The ancient priests were suing pulleys, hydraulics and pneumatics to mysteriously open doors, raise platforms and perform other feats of magic to convince their flocks of the power of their deities.

    Christianity is likely one of the most irrational religions of all with its miracles, resurrection of the dead and ascent of prophets into heaven.

    Thomas Jefferson was aware of the voodoo in the Bible and wrote a Christian text devoid of the mysticism of the four evangelicals.

    Of course, most conservatives subscribe to the evangelical branch of Christianity that includes most Baptists, Latter Day Saints and Pentecostals.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I'm amazed at the large number of people out there who will criticize an article without reading it. Eric Elder concludes that David Sloan Wilson is claiming that atheism is a religion. Absolutely wrong. Atheism is not a religion. But some forms of atheism function as a religion in the sense that their adherents are heavy on practical realism (excessive homage to a perceived leader of the movement rather than analyzing the facts themselves) and light on factual realism (claiming to do science when they are, instead, making visceral pronouncement such as "religion is a virus" or "religion is evil.").

      I do think that Wilson has an extremely important point that we ought to be carefully doing real science when we try to understand religion. We shouldn't be merely throwing our own slings and arrows at it. And by all means, if there is a rigorous scientific analysis based on evolutionary biology, we should be pursuing it with vigor and, most of all, scientifically.

  3. Jim Razinha says:

    I'm going to have to set aside time to dig into this, because my initial scan of your first post and Wilson's articles have conclusions which strike me as what I use to refer to as NQR – Not Quite Right.

    But I can't put my finger on what/why.

  4. Jim Razinha says:

    Concur with applying real science. Reading Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Boyer's Religion Explained, and to some extent Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things has taught me that religious belief has a rational, evolutionary basis, and that it does need to be treated as any other phenomena and examined scientifically. I think one of the reasons I'm having a hard time with this is that nearly all atheists I know are individual to the extreme and really cannot be lumped into a single category such as "New Atheists". Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are vocal counterpoints to what they see as a resurgence of fundamentalist Christianity and the associated distrust of all things science. Yes, there are other names and personalities like Dan Barker, but those are the big three. And they have drawn the crosshairs on themselves as well-suited to debate and illuminate that counterpoint. Is religion a virus of the mind? I used to think so after first hearing/reading of such, but after the books I mention above, I no longer consider it so. Nor do I think of it solely as memetic anymore. I do feel condescending dismissal of religious beliefs is just as wrong as condescending dismissal of non-belief (or of other beliefs) – though if in a discussion, I require explanations of beliefs…it's rather simple to gently point out the illogic of a single source being acceptable as prove of itself, even if that is dismissed by the practitioner. If the point of the vocal opposition is to ensure that we don't become a religious state in which anyone not waving the flag is immediately suspect and persecuted, then we need the big three and more. If it is to convince people that they are wrong, well, that will never happen and is a fruitless exercise.

    What I'd like to know is if belief is hard-wired as an evolutionary product, which gene was mutated in me? And in the modern world, which condition – on or off – is best suited to pass on to my children?

  5. Karl says:


    Why is the only science concerning humans you consider as valid being one in which the evolutionary biologist can be trusted?

    If evolutionary biology studies were being done by a open and balanced group of people from varied perspectives in terms of their toleration of religion I might have much more to agree with them. As it is, they have become an Ivory Tower unto themselves where only the atheistic likes of Dawkins and company are given a voice.

    I do agree that "atheism" has taken many forms and can result in all manner of people from noble to abased.

    Not believing in what one religion puts forward as their beliefs does not insulate a person from the tendency to concoct one's own system of beliefs.

    I have come to believe that systems of belief that are not grounded in both historical observations and present reality can lead any group of people to their own destruction.

    The tendency to concoct answers to questions for which either the claims of science or the claims of religion has no definite answers often attracts others to what is basically just another biased way of thinking and or lifestyle.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl: Here are some of the many reasons I trust in the approach of evolutionary biology, even when applied to humans. But we've been through this repeatedly, and this won't be a place where we rehash that issue.

      Thank you for your comment. I cut you a bit short because the second half of your comment was off-topic. You'll want to work on keeping your focus better, please.

  6. Karl says:

    I've looked over the Berkeley site several times and can say this about the materials there.

    Naturalistic science is system of thinking that is founded on what is presently observable and that which is also predictable in the immediate future.

    When biological evolution can explain to me what's up with the direction of the human genome I'll be satisfied that it has a degree of validity.

    Until such time I will continue to believe what actual historical observations from what other humans have said concerning the origins of the species.

    Mankind has witnessed many more extinctions of species than the formations of new ones, that in itself tells me more than I need to know.

  7. Ebonmuse says:

    Atheism is not a religion. But some forms of atheism functions as a religion in the sense that their adherents are heavy on practical realism (excessive homage to a perceived leader of the movement rather than analyzing the facts themselves) and light on factual realism (claiming to do science when they are, instead, making visceral pronouncement such as “religion is a virus” or “religion is evil.”).

    I'd like to see some citations of specific examples of these tendencies, rather than sweeping denunciations presented without supporting evidence.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ebonmuse: I will address this within a day or so, but my day job has me fully occupied (day and night) at the moment. I welcome the discussion.

  8. Jim Razinha says:

    I have to beg forgiveness in advance, but I must ask this question of Karl at risk of the thread deviating further:

    What is the basis of your question to Erich?

    Why is the only science concerning humans you consider as valid being one in which the evolutionary biologist can be trusted?

    In the short time I've been reading and contributing to DI, I see all manner of information on human-related science coming from Erich having nothing to do with evolutionary biology that he obviously considered equally, if not more valid. I have a hard time taking any psychology seriously as anything more than a statistical best guess, with sociological analyses not far behind, but that's me. Now, evolutionary biology? There have been tremendous advances made in deciphering the human genome; when you think of how huge it is and how many vestigial remnants must be examined for function or non-function, there will be much work for many years. And evolutionary biology has done a marvelous job explaining some of those conundrums of vestigiality. I see it as more deductive than inductive, thus it should serve as rather substantial proof of its findings. Or not.

  9. Karl writes:—"Mankind has witnessed many more extinctions of species than the formations of new ones, that in itself tells me more than I need to know."

    Every one of those extinct species was at one time a new species. Every species that did not exist at the time other species went extinct is a new species. The answer to your challenge is in the challenge itself.

    —"Until such time I will continue to believe what actual historical observations from what other humans have said concerning the origins of the species."

    You're referring of course (again) to religious accounts. So which ones do you discount as fabrications? Because there are many and they cannot all be true, but all of them were written down as if someone had been an eye-witness to a historical event. And if only one is acceptable, that means all the rest are fables, which of course brings us directly to question why the one you prefer should not also be discounted as a fable.

  10. Karl says:

    I ask the question because of the nature verses nurture issues that have long been present whenever one tries to connect psychology, sociology and other such human behavioral studies with genetics.

    When a serious researcher of the genome such as Dr. Francis Collins does the science and doesn't find that nature statistically concurs with the findings of various studies, but finds instead that nurture is more of a factor he gets critcized to no end, especially when other studies have already been published that claim to point to things like the "God" gene or the "homesexual" gene.

    Biological Evolutists have flat out no ability to show us how or when any of these of traits might have shown up or when they might disappear either.

    You can look for how nurture of the individual encourages variation in types of human consciousness activities, but looking for how the genes brought these abilities into existence is pure speculation since the statistics will not bear out what you are looking for.

    You can examine, slice, splice and mutate DNA to your hearts content, but trying to describe and study religion, atheism and belief systems in general is not a matter of biology.

    These would be matters of psychological and sociological change over time, not genetics.

  11. Karl says:

    Mark states,

    "Every species that did not exist at the time other species went extinct is a new species."

    Prove to me that these species didn't both exist somewhere on the planet at the same time.

  12. Karl says:


    As for your second question about whose religious texts concerning creation are more fabrications and which are more reliable, that answer lies in the realm of three areas, historical precedent, primary source documents and of course faith in the method by which the material became a part of the canonized text.

    Texts that do not state who was recording and from what vantage point, have to be considered to be capable of being fabrications. Texts that state they are trying to answer a question "scientifically" (i.e. materialistically) when no human observer was present are just as bogus.

    Texts that contain time references, real places and real characters are given more credence in my mind than those that appear to be "Once Upon a Time" story lines.

    Just so stories with no link to specific historical characters are also suspect in my book.

  13. Jim Razinha says:

    Whoa. National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality????? How arrogant. The characteristic is commonly seen in other primates, as well other mammals, birds, lizards, even insects. The only people who need therapy are the ignorant who would cause people to feel that their natural condition is anything other than normal.

    Biological Evolutists have flat out no ability to show us how or when any of these of traits might have shown up or when they might disappear either.

    Not yet. Emphasis on "yet".

  14. Ben says:

    Karl, it seems to me that you are not convinced that (modern science's conception of) Evolution is accurate.

    Is Biology the only branch of science with which you find major faults?

    Or do you also find fault with mainstream Geology? For example modern Geologists have calculated the age of the Earth to be (almost) exactly 4.5 Billion Years. Do you think that modern Geology's estimate of the age of the Earth is a bit on the high side? Be honest.

    How about modern Cosmology and Astronomy? Do you dispute the observation that light takes millions (even billions) of years to reach us from distant galaxies?

    And modern medicine… do you think that prayer is a sufficient substitute for medical care such as antibiotics or chemo-therapy?

    I realize that it isn't just you, many people believe in miracles.

    The problem I encounter is that I cannot take you (creationists) seriously because you seem live in an alternate world where laws (of physics) do not apply. I don't want to consider you intellectually inferior, but I have a hard time overlooking the inconsistencies in your "story" of how we came to be. Science could be wrong, but that still wouldn't make God real.

  15. Karl writes:—"Prove to me that these species didn’t both exist somewhere on the planet at the same time."

    That's facile. You then have to explain why all those hundreds of thousands of extinct species are not here now. If cosurvival were likely, we would have examples of diplodocus and apatosaurus wandering around. The simpler explanation is evolution.

  16. Karl says:

    Well, all I know is that fossils are found on a fairly regular basis in "strata" that once was not their assumed position of extinction. Evolution has a pretty fair record of having to admit to "species" being resurrected from extinction. Are these supernatural matters or is evolution somehow cyclical in how it manages to accomplish this uncanny feat? No, it simply means the presumed time line has errors in it, and we do find that some early Cambrian critters have survived all the way down to today with few or minor micro-evolutionary changes to the characteristics of their species.

    There are examples of species being found in other younger "strata" or even still alive today proving they survived to live many millions of years after their assumed extinction.

    It could very well be that the vast numbers of triolbites we find in the fossil records are actually the younger stages of an animal that regularly grew to be much larger like the apus. Interestingly the Apus of today can apparently have offspring without the requirement of sexual activity, I wonder what loone researched this?

    When biological evolutionists and geological evolutionists stop making assumptions about the presumed ages of the earth and just report the real nature of the fossil record there are ways to explain what is there that is based upon cataclysmic environmental changes and catastrophic destruction and burial of living creature that give the appearance of much different looking climates when actually all it may really amount to are enormous amounts of heat and energy accomplishing the decomposition of soft bodied organism but leaving behind the hard shelled calcium carbonate rich exo-skeletons of marine creatures that weren't totally decomposed to chemical soup.

  17. Karl says:


  18. Jim Razinha says:

    That BurntBranch link is pretty funny.

    I was a charter subscriber to OMNI magazine, but it went fringe fast so I dropped it, and it soon devolved into awful pseudoscience: UFOs, paranormal, psychic nonsense, etc. OMNIology. I see the connection.

  19. Jim,

    I was a nearly subscriber to OMNI and was very saddened at what happened to it. I initially subscribed for the fiction—and when Ben Bova was editor, they published five or six stories per issue. By the time the excellent Ellen Datlow took over, it was down to two and ended up at one. The original science-oriented features were pretty damn good until the woo-woo crowd became the largest demographic. But that failed, too.

    Of, well.

  20. Jim Razinha says:

    Perhaps, the "yet" is not far off?

    (Article is free with limited registration, but the site says it will disappear in 10 days).

  21. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm writing up a rather long and detailed response to the challenges of Ebonmuse. It might still be a day or two before I can punch it into shape.

  22. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    In the same sense that people are unaware of the air they breathe until its not there, most religious people are unaware of the political powers that manipulate religious groups for the benefit of wealthy power elite.

    Non believers dare to step outside that political and religious bubble and try to take on a pragmatic approach to solving problems in opposition to the religious dogmatic approach. Look at history, and you will find, for example, that regulations and oversight of financial institutions that developed pragmatically over many decades to reduce the opportunity for fraud in said institutions improved the economic situations for everyone, while the deregulation of financial industry under the dogma of "free market fundamentalism" has lead to ours crappy economy as rampant fraud by the major benefactors of the deregulation went unchallenged.

    During this same period, we witnessed the rise of "Prosperity gospel" in the American right right-wing factions, associating tithing with personal prosperity. We have also seen the American Christian churches throwing political support behind the right-wing agenda.

    As non-believers are a disrupting influence, we are seen as political enemies to those who wish to be the kings of America, and are portrayed as practitioners of a religion they call "Secular Humanism".

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