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]