Archives for posts with tag: apologetics

In Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2002), David Sloan Wilson presents a case for the utility of religion. He claims that religious beliefs and practices arose and are maintained in human societies because such beliefs and practices are adaptive.

Something as elaborate—as time-, energy-, and thought-consuming—as religion would not exist if it didn’t have secular utility. Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. The mechanisms that enable religious groups to function as adaptive units include the very beliefs and practices that make religion appear enigmatic to so many people who stand outside them. (p. 159–160)

Wilson’s argument depends on a controversial version of Darwinian natural selection, operating at the level of groups. He calls it multilevel selection, and quotes Darwin himself to vouch for its applicability to human cultural practices.

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.

Thus did Darwin speculate, in The Descent of Man (1871), that natural selection, which generally operates through the differential survival of individuals, could operate on the level of groups, with fitter groups out-competing the others. And in the same, widely quoted paragraph, he reckoned that one way for a group to boost its fitness is for its members to be good. Tribes with a “high standard of morality” will be “victorious” over other tribes and therefore “supplant” them. This implies that the proportion of moral to immoral tribes in the world will increase over time, because moral tribes have superior evolutionary fitness.

It’s an appealing idea, but is this prediction true? Do the good guys tend to out-compete the bad guys? Has the average standard of morality in the world’s “tribes” risen over the long term? To test Darwin’s model we would have to understand, even quantify, what he intends by the word morality. On careful reading, the paragraph seems much too vague for this. It runs together altruism (giving aid to others) and self-sacrifice (“for the common good”), which are very different impulses. It seeks the source of these noble impulses in “patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy”: a motley collection of other noble impulses. (Are they all good? Which of them leads to which? Do we have any idea?) It speculates that the combination of those two (or seven) traits will cause the tribe to be “victorious” over other tribes. Is it really true that more “moral” communities tend to wipe out the less “moral” ones? Why? What is the mechanism? And what’s so moral about slaughtering your neighbors?

This all seems especially weak in the light of the theoretical work done a hundred years later by George C. Williams and John Maynard Smith, who showed mathematically that group selection can only work under implausibly constrained conditions.

Also note that Darwin’s account does not mention religion. Darwin himself was an atheist, and certainly did not take for granted the idea that religion is, in general, beneficial. By quoting this passage in the context of an argument for the utility of religion, Wilson is implicitly claiming that if we replaced Darwin’s phrase a high standard of morality with the word religion, the passage would still have the meaning that Darwin intended. Darwin’s model—actually, it’s just a thought experiment, not a model—predicts a positive role for religion, only if religion is responsible for the winning groups’ high standard of morality—that is, only if religion makes people good. To assume that it does is to assume what Wilson wants to convince us of. Thus, his argument is circular.

This isn’t the only problem with Wilson’s argument. There are lots more.

First. That a process is natural does not make it a good idea. Maybe religion does help some tribes wipe out other tribes. Is that good? Is that something we want? Only if we have an independent reason for preferring the religious tribes over the secular-humanist tribes. (I wonder what David Sloan Wilson’s independent reason is.)

Second. Even if communities with lots of morality (or religion or parochial altruism or whatever) tend to defeat communities with less of those things, this does not tell us whether the people in the winning communities are happy. It could be that when it comes to warfare the most effective organization is a totalitarian misery-state where only the people who are not in the army are happy, and only twelve guys are not in the army. There is a difference between a moral society and a happy society, especially if morality is taken to mean following the rules, as it is in so many places—especially the religious ones.

Third. In the most-religious communities in this world, one’s participation is not voluntary, it is required on penalty of expulsion or death. Wilson assumes a quasi-economic model where people are free to choose their affiliations, but religion is in direct conflict with such freedom. The more powerful the religion, the less choice its “adherents” have. If such conditions do not violate Wilson’s assumptions, do we even care whether his model is predictive?

Finally, the model does not distinguish between “religion” and any other kind of strongly normative social structure based on persuasive falsehoods. How does religion come into it? Where does the religion part of his hypothesis come from? I will tell you. First, through the assumption mentioned a moment ago: that people are free to choose; therefore, they choose the religion that most benefits them. (But when religion is in the picture, they are not free to choose.) Second, through the assumption that “belief in God” is probably, in general, a good thing; the assumption that religion fosters both social cohesion and positive morality. This is circular logic, assuming what was supposed to be proved.

The brutal fact, D.S. Wilson’s own “problem of evil” if you will, is that what we see in vivo is nothing like this. We don’t see religion bringing out the best in everyone, or drawing people together in joyful brotherhood. What we see is amoral, charismatic leaders who leverage specialized memes and raw violence to control large populations for selfish reasons. Such leaders benefit from religion; no one else does.

Seemingly unaware of religion’s well-known (and not yet ended!) history of violence and injustice, within groups as well as between them, David Sloan Wilson has carefully built a case for the idea that religion is a Good Thing; that it is Good because it brings folks together; and that it brings them together because it is Good. I’m sure his funders at the Templeton Foundation are delighted.


Robert Wright: Why the “New Atheists” are Right-Wing on Foreign Policy

What the hell happened to Robert Wright? Nonzero was a really interesting book. Now he’s doing apologetics. His new piece in the Huffington Post is awful.

First of all, the title is simply a lie. P.Z. Myers responded very quickly: Uh, we aren’t.

Atheism has little intrinsic ideological bent. (Karl Marx. Ayn Rand. I rest my case.) But things change when you add the key ingredient of the new atheism: the idea that religion is not just mistaken, but evil — that it “poisons everything,” as Hitchens has put it with characteristic nuance.

Consider Dawkins’s assertion, in his book The God Delusion, that if there were no religion then there would be “no Israeli-Palestinian wars.”

For starters, this is just wrong. The initial resistance to the settlements, and to the establishment of Israel, wasn’t essentially religious, and neither was the original establishment of the settlements, or even of Israel.

The problem here is that two ethnic groups disagree about who deserves what land.

No, that is not the problem here. The Palestinians are an ethnic group. They are, by coincidence, from the area that has long been called Palestine. The Jews are not an ethnic group, they are a religious group. Their claim on the land is not historical but literary. Their excuse for living there is that G-d gave it to them. It is true that the dispute is not “essentially religious” — no argument is. Two tribes want the same thing, and they fight over it. One or both of them can give religious reasons for their position, but all religious reduce to “God is on our side”, which is false; therefore, there are no valid religious reasons. Logically speaking, there is no such thing as having a religious reason for your actions. You might believe, or say, that your motivations are religious, but this cannot actually be true. However, having said all that, the proximate reason for the establishment of Israel was that people wanted to do something for a class of people, the Jews, who used scriptural authority for the selection of their “homeland”. If there was not a religion called Judaism, there would not be a conflict over that land now called Israel. That is the notion behind Dawkins’s statement. It is just as simple and obvious as saying that in the absence of Islam no one would have destroyed the Twin Towers. Of course, there is always going to be conflict between human groups. But without religion, these specific conflicts — a “Jewish homeland”, an Islamic terror-cell — would not have occurred. I do not know why Wright wants to take issue with this trivial observation.

And of course Hitchens’s subtitle comes from the same place. This is one of the ways religion “poisons everything”: by motivating or rationalizing conflicts that might otherwise have been avoided. Wright rejects this, and adds a mean-spirited jab: “as Hitchens has put it with characteristic nuance.”

Of course, when religion is handy, special problems can arise. If there were no belief in paradise, there would be few suicide bombers. Then again, there might be less charity.

Oh, really? What an odd thing to say.

Whether belief in posthumous rewards has on balance done more harm than good is an empirical question whose subtlety Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens don’t exactly emphasize.

Another jab! Wright really doesn’t like these guys. Because they are too strongly against religion. What a bizarre development.

I think that this “empirical question” has been adequately tested. Like, for about 5,000 years. True, the experiment has not had a reliable control. But I see no reason to think that “belief in posthumous rewards” has done anyone any good, ever. The only people who think it might are the people who stand to benefit from it. And the only people who benefit from religion are the people who organize it: the imams, popes, and divinely-appointed kings. I think that’s what we’re really talking about here — isn’t it, Mr. Wright? You are an authoritarian. You like religion because it reinforces authority. Have you forgotten that it’s all lies, one hundred percent, from beginning to end? Is that really OK with you? Well, even if it is, please stop lying about us.