Post by Jim Newman
David Sloan Wilson through Huff Post is promoting what he calls a “modern version” or the “new kid on the block” (which is it?) of evolution research, Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS). Why the acronym? Trademark?
There are several puzzling aspects to his article.
“atheism is a disbelief in gods”. And “…new atheists are an exceptionally active group…”.
Atheism is not a disbelief in gods. Atheism is the knowledge, certainty, and trust there are no gods; there is insufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that there are gods. By using the term disbelief Sloan poorly defines atheism. Atheism is not just another belief. To quote Cristina Rad, I am as sure there are no gods as I am sure there aren’t invisible elves living up my ass; I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, there are no elves there. Atheism is the knowledge, certainty, and trust that, due to lack of sufficient evidence, that there are no gods. Unless you wish to support epistemological relativity (no truth), or subjective idealism (no material reality), you’re going to have to admit atheists have knowledge and not belief as best as science can provide.
The Four Horsemen (FH, or Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens) are not exceptionally activist scientists; in the same activist way Sloan and EO Wilson promote their book, “The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time,” they too wish to apply scholarship to public affairs. Einstein and Dr Partho Sarothi Ray were/are exceptionally activist scientists (EAS). Carl Sagan was an EAS. Galileo was an EAS, succumbing to house arrest for years to support his heretical thesis, though he loved the church. Good company these folks.
Shawn Otto in Scientific American’s, “Good Science Always Has Political Ramifications” notes
“Why? Because a scientifically testable claim can be shown to be either most probably true or false, whether the claim is made by a king or a president, a Pope, a Congressperson, or a common citizen.”
The term activist scientist is used pejoratively by conservative groups to beat up climate scientists, who insist they must speak publically because their research is not being accepted.
Sloan asserts the need for a “new” field of study called Evolutionary Religious Studies.
“Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS) is the scholarly study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.”
Sloan mentions Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and himself as the new kids on the block. Yet, he dismisses Dan Dennett (DD or D squared) who famously said in his book that religion should be studied like any other phenomenon and the fact that it isn’t is the problem. Dan famously insists that religion should be taught in public schools.
“It is high time that we subject religion as a global phenomenon to the most intensive multidisciplinary research we can muster calling on the best minds of the planet.”
Indeed, all of the so called activist atheist scientists (AAS or is that EAS?) have asked, demanded, begged, and cajoled for more research, not less. What they contest are current conclusions based on dogma and an incredible lack of credible evidence. What they contest is some obvious stupidity to which people hold dear for what might be politics, ideology, economics, tradition, or some other cognitive biases. But it’s a democracy, go for the Templeton prize, but expect ridicule.
Sloan lists three steps for justifying his “new” field. The first is to accept a personal god as legitimate to research–as if it hadn’t been already, to death. But hey, find the money, get a grant, and have at it. Go for a Templeton prize. But hey try to stay honest.
“They are alike in their rejection of the “actively intervening god” hypothesis. I am choosing my words carefully here. The concept of supernatural agents that actively intervene in the laws of nature and affairs of people is a perfectly good scientific hypothesis that occupied center stage for centuries.”
A PGH (perfectly good hypothesis) is not the issue. Any assertion worded properly is a PGH, I guess. The “world is flat hypothesis” (WFH) is a PGH but is long proven false. No one is saying to absolutely stop studying miracles, parapsychology, personal agency, or faith healing. What we are all tired of is having to prove the world is not flat over and over and over again, or that god cured, talked, appeared to them, because religion so imbues our culture they refuse to accept any material evidence. We’re tired of people insisting that we believe their nonsense when we need to solve bigger issues than a fetus is a person, to support antiabortion. Victor Stenger has long shown that miracles are physically impossible. Having a baby is not a miracle, nor the feeling that god is talking to you. Both are parsimoniously explained by biology and neuroscience.
James Randi, Joe Nickell, and Tom Flynn have long investigated these claims and continue to do so—in spite of the extraordinary amount of evidence showing it to be false. Tarsky and Kahneman solidified the field of Behavioral Economics and showed how heuristic biases are prevalent. Leon Festinger, back in 1956, detailed how cognitive dissonance affects critical thinking negatively.
Sloan negates methodological naturalism (material reality). But the choice then is to endorse a kind of subjective idealism (material things do not exist), which though championed by George Berkley and FH Bradley a long time ago doesn’t work. Pyrrhonis and skeptical empiricism (no truth and it’s only experiential) are as dead as the idea of ether being space. Can’t we better spend our money elsewhere? We have populations issues, wars, resource shortages and we’re busy proving if there is a personal god or not and whether it had evolutionary utility or is collateral? Right now, here and now, belief in a personal god is killing us because we can’t agree on an epistemology that produces evidence we can all follow to success.
The reason we need to decide on these issues is because bad science, pseudo-science, and nonscience are causing us to make egregious decisions concerning personal liberty, group governance, and resolutions to real-world problems. If I had a shred of evidence that praying to god would solve a worldly problem I’d be on my knees every damned day all day long. Insisting that prayer works, is valid, prevents people from doing what does work. If it were harmless, left as personal, and made private we wouldn’t care so much. When a president prays to god he or she might as well cut up a chicken and rorschach its guts.
Sloan then asserts:
“As a scholarly discipline, ERS is agnostic about what gets done with the knowledge that is created. The New Atheism is oriented toward action.
All scholarly research and all science tries to be objective in spite of the fact that all people have biases, positions, and ideologies. All science leads to action. Every publication is an action. Every hypothesis is an assertion to action. That is the entire point. To find the truth no matter where it be and then use it to make our lives better. The more activist you are in this the better.
Sloan says in step 3.
“Whenever New Atheists make claims about religion as a human phenomenon, their claims should respect the authority of empirical evidence. Insofar as the new discipline of ERS has added to empirical knowledge of religion, the New Atheists should be paying close attention to ERS.
The New Atheists are the source of your “new” field. They are the ones that said let’s study evolution (LSE). Let’s see why or what makes people believe in a god, think the world is flat, or use god and church to help in impulse control. Hell, there are some still trying to get why there is a current Flat Earth Society (FES). It’s a trite truism noted by damn near everyone the obvious motivational benefit of thinking an all-powerful god is on your side—until you are crushed for your incorrect assumption, your delusional optimism, and your poor lack of planning, because your depression, fear of defeat, caused you to choose a quick but less effective remedy.
Hell, exceptionally activist atheists (EAA) noted the horrors of postmodernists pouring water on EO Wilson’s head and claiming there is no DNA while the idiot SJ Gould pugnaciously accommodated the pernicious dual magisteria theory (PDMT) to gain traction in his accolades and prestige. His punctuated evolution was easy fodder for the religious to assert a nonsensical godly intervention. It makes more sense that aliens embedded bacteria to start life than god did it.
You, and your “new” ERS, stand on the shoulders of your predecessors and then shit.
Dan Dennett has repeatedly recommended that people read Pascal Boyer “Religion Explained”.
“religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources.”
And Boyer has supported DD. DD is on your side and you don’t get it.
Even the “scholar” so loved by apologists, like Jonathan Haidt, Emil Durkheim, noted the benefits conveyed by religion would be better done by secular institutions and had explanations not requiring the supernatural. From wiki
In this definition, Durkheim avoids references to supernatural or God. Durkheim argued that the concept of supernatural is relatively new, tied to the development of science and separation of supernatural—that which cannot be rationally explained—from natural, that which can. Thus, according to Durkheim, for early humans, everything was supernatural. Similarly, he points out that religions which give little importance to the concept of god exist, such as Buddhism, where the Four Noble Truths is much more important than any individual deity. With that, Durkheim argues, we are left with the following three concepts: the sacred (the ideas that cannot be properly explained, inspire awe and are considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion), the beliefs and practices (which create highly emotional state—collective effervescence—and invest symbols with sacred importance), and the moral community (a group of people sharing a common moral philosophy). Out of those three concepts, Durkheim focused on the sacred, noting that it is at the very core of a religion. He defined sacred things as:
…simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects… they are only collective forces hypostasized, that is to say, moral forces; they are made up of the ideas and sentiments awakened in us by the spectacle of society, and not of sensations coming from the physical world.
This is near synonymous with ideology. It is not a special supernatural sacred. Here sacred doesn’t mean religious, or supernatural, but symbolic attribution. We live by ideologies as convenient means to communicate and gather. Durkheim insists that supernaturalism gives way as societies progress. People like DSW want us to regress and ignore the research of the structuralists 150 years ago, yet claim them as support.
As I have pointed out repeatedly the building of religious concepts requires mental systems and capacities that are there anyway, religious concepts or not. Religious morality uses moral intuitions, religious notions of supernatural agents recruit our intuitions about agency in general, and so on. This is why I said that religious concepts are parasitic upon other mental capacities. Our capacities to play music, paint pictures or even make sense of printed ink-patterns on a page are also parasitic in this sense. This means that we can explain how people play music, paint pictures and learn to read by examining how mental capacities are recruited by these activities. The same goes for religion. Because the concepts require all sorts of specific human capacities (an intuitive psychology, a tendency to attend to some counterintuitive concepts, as well as various social mind adaptations), we can explain religion by describing how these various capacities get recruited, how they contribute to the features of religion that we find in so many different cultures. We do not need to assume that there is a special way of functioning that occurs only when processing religious thoughts.
Sloan effaces himself and says he hasn’t nor is he inclined to review all of the New Atheist literature but looks forward to someone doing it. Perhaps he should do more basic reading then. He spends the next few hundred words claiming that New Atheists aren’t doing legitimate science. This is like claiming Einstein wasn’t a legitimate scientist because he had a hard time accepting Quantum theory as the complete picture (imagine Einstein saying god doesn’t play dice), and that he shouldn’t have pleaded not to use the A bomb because that was too activist.
I had some respect for Sloan and his alliance with EO Wilson and particularly some research into group theory but now I wouldn’t trust him if he told me what time it is. Show me the data. I want to see your watch.
Jim Newman, bright and well
www.brightpride.com and www.frontiersofreason.com