Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On Frans de Waal and "Militant Atheism"

The following essay is in response to an article entitled “Has militant atheism become a religion?” on Salon.com. The article is actually an excerpt from Frans de Waal’s upcoming book “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates;” which—truth be told—I was looking forward to reading until I realized this was an excerpt from it. I should point out that de Waal may or may not have anything to do with the title of the excerpt. That could have been Salon’s doing, but it really doesn’t matter due to the content.*

Look, I have said it before and I will probably always have to say it: Not everyone needs to be the activist type. It’s unrealistic, unsustainable and frankly, it would probably be counter-productive.  Having said that; I really cannot stand people who carelessly and unintelligently bandy about terms like “militant atheism” and “atheism is a religion.” I have to believe that de Waal knows better and that is what really pisses me off. If this article were written by Bill O’Reilly I would simply ignore it. It’s one thing if de Waal wanted to counter the antitheism (not atheism) he sees as too harsh, too abrasive, and maybe even a little too “dogmatic” at times, but he discredits himself instantly by using these buzzwords that reinforce false stereotypes.

Much of this excerpt (I imagine it’s a chapter) is superfluous to the point he is making so I am just going to hit the high notes here. As always, I encourage you to read the original in the link above.

“I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?

As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”

This is the thesis of de Waal’s chapter/excerpt.

I agree that dogmatism is “a far greater threat than religion per se.” While I consider religion to be the expression of the majority of dogmatism in the world—and one of the most virulent—it is only one (i.e. political). He is just seeing one color of it in the spectrum while seemingly insinuating that any vocal opposition to religion is dogmatic.

Dogmatism is defined as: 
1: positiveness in assertion of opinion especially when unwarranted or arrogant2: a viewpoint or system of ideas based on insufficiently examined premises
All humans have this same problem and to greater and lesser degrees we all have the tendency to be dogmatic about something. I would like to think that I have done a somewhat decent job at chipping away at my cognitive biases and can recognize that I and other atheists can be dogmatic. I am on Twitter after all. However, at issue here is what and to what extent are atheists being dogmatic? Well de Waal will tell you. He lists (using “neo-atheists” in a seemingly snide way) atheists as expressing their dogmatism via “media rampages, wear(ing) T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism.” Two out of three of these use charged language right from the Fox News handbook of how to sway an audience using style over substance. I want to know what a “media rampage” is. I can only guess it is the higher profile of non-believers in Western culture as he later cites David Silverman’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. It does not however involve actual atheist rampages, much to the chagrin of every theist that loves to paint atheists (including de Waal, mind you) that way. This leads to the “militant atheism” comment. Please! I implore de Waal to define this. Because unless it is anything other than claiming that he believes some atheists are calling for violence to have our voices heard or to have an agenda forced onto others than it is a chicken shit, intellectually dishonest, scare tactic and he knows there isn’t an ounce of fucking truth to it. It’s pathetic.

T-shirts. T-shirts?

One of the more interesting points de Waal makes is regarding the characteristics of one’s former religion versus their attitude or expression of non-belief. 
“Possibly, the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces. If religion has little grip on one’s life, apostasy is no big deal and there will be few lingering effects.”
He tells stories of his childhood and the care-free Catholics vs. the stern Protestants and how the differing levels of repression and stern worldview influenced his non-belief. I too have thought about that and always found this idea interesting myself, but there are several problems with it. For starters it is anecdotal. Worse; it ignores at a minimum two other groups of atheists: those raised atheist and those atheists whose opinions have evolved due to exposure to the effects of religion. I can explain the latter by using my own anecdotal example (just to provide one). I was raised Lutheran, but it was a very liberal, non-literal version of it. When I discarded my faith in my early teens I wandered about the spiritual landscape, if you will, “finding myself.” I varied between atheist, agnostic, deist, pantheist, pagan, and back before being a good-old fashion “apatheist” for most of my 20s. I was the “good natured” atheist, as a very conservative Christian friend once put it (I came to find out that what he meant was that I never said anything challenging and I suspect that is what de Waal wants). Anecdotally, I fit de Waal’s hypothesis. My quiet atheism mirrored that of my parent’s version of Lutheran Christianity. As the reader may have guessed by now I am no longer in that camp of quiet atheist. I guess I don’t know my place.

Frans de Waal continues by citing the ideas of two Dutch sociologists who describe themselves in such ways that I can only guess makes them feel ever so clever: “too much of a believer to be an atheist” and “too much of a nonbeliever to be an atheist.” I have no clue what that last one is supposed to mean. These sociologists classify atheists into two groups (again with forced dualism!): 
“Those in one group are uninterested in exploring their outlook and even less in defending it. These atheists think that both faith and its absence are private matters. They respect everyone’s choice, and feel no need to bother others with theirs. Those in the other group are vehemently opposed to religion and resent its privileges in society. These atheists don’t think that disbelief should be kept locked up in the closet. They speak of “coming out,” a terminology borrowed from the gay movement, as if their nonreligiousness was a forbidden secret that they now want to share with the world. The difference between the two kinds boils down to the privacy of their outlook.”
De Waal then reiterates “It may one day help to test my thesis that activist atheism reflects trauma. The stricter one’s religious background, the greater the need to go against it and to replace old securities with new ones.”

I have no problem with testing that thesis as I agree there is probably something to it, but it is very much incomplete. Again, I myself break that hypothesis. I am the potential outlier. What is de Waal missing? He is ignoring the effects religions broadly have on people regardless of their own religiosity.

Next—and I love this bit—de Waal discusses religion in the US. He states:

“Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States, to the point that being nonreligious is about the biggest handicap a politician running for office can have, bigger than being gay, unmarried, thrice married, or black. This is upsetting, of course, and explains why atheists have become so vocal in demanding their place at the table. They prod the elephant to see whether they can get it to make some room.”

Yeah. That might have something to do with the “media rampage” and the dogmatic t-shirts! He concludes this thought with a nice piece of deepity: “But the elephant also defines them, because what would be the point of atheism in the absence of religion?”

Indeed. What is the point of atheism if….wait…really? When there is no religion we can ask that question! I, and many other atheists, actually do not like using the word “atheist” to define ourselves. Yes, it means almost nothing. It’s a terrible description of who I am. The problem is exactly that the elephant wants to define us. It has succeeded in doing so and has done this for millennia. The elephant of religion forces itself into the room and by its very nature attempts to push everything out of the room or—failing that—crush it into oblivion. This isn’t a dogmatic view. It’s a realistic one. There’s like examples and everything.

He then continues on lamenting atheists “media rampage” by using the Silverman-O’Reilly “You can’t explain that” episode. De Waal says “All I get out of such exchanges is the confirmation that believers will say anything to defend their faith and that some atheists have turned evangelical.”

Well yeah. Believers will say anything to defend their faith and atheists have turned “evangelical.” We have to. It’s not so much that there is some grand theological imperative to convert people to atheism; but it is necessary for non-believers who are alone and disenfranchised. It is necessary to get people out of the closet when ensuring religion doesn’t gain too much power, or actually, to chip away at the disproportionate power it currently wields. Are there no implications to much of religious belief that is detrimental? Does de Waal not care if religion is, in fact, true? 
“…atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay? In the same way that firefighters are sometimes stealth arsonists and homophobes closet homosexuals, do some atheists secretly long for the certitude of religion?”
Really? I want to ask de Waal to show the logical progression in that statement. How does he get from A to C. Show your work. It seems to me to just be a statement to trivialize atheist anger. There isn’t really any desire to understand atheists by saying this.  Dogmatism, huh?

De Waal then goes on for a few paragraphs criticizing Hitchens and the growing number of public debates between believers and non-believers. I am not going to defend Hitchens and his alleged dogmatism nor will I discuss the debates for a few reasons: 1) in a sense de Wall may be correct about Hitchens, 2) it doesn’t matter if I defend Hitchens. He’s dead, 3) some of these debates are terrible on all sides. About the only thing I will addrsss from this portion of his chapter is his question:

“I’d love to hear the atheist perspective on what makes for a good religion,”

For starters? It should probably be true and if so, not based on faith.

Finally, de Waal addresses the science vs. religion dichotomy. He writes that “there is the persistent myth that science trumps religion in every possible way, and that science distracts from religion, and vice versa, as in a zero-sum game.” I would like de Waal to explain how that is not the case, but alas he does not. He just provides examples of how some of the more famous science vs. religion memes are not totally accurate, which he is correct about. I would take issue with his, and others, pointing out that many people in the Dark Ages knew the earth wasn’t flat and therefore religion wasn’t all bad. That is a non-sequitur. Many people may have known it, but the Church attempted to ensure it wasn’t publically recognized. I think that is more damning than ignorance, personally. Keeping the faith by burning the evidence.

From another angle he presents the “patronage argument” as I’ll call it. 
“The connection between science and religion has always been complex, including both conflict, mutual respect, and the church’s patronage of the sciences. The first copiers of books on which science came to rely were rabbis and monks, and the first universities grew out of cathedral and monastic schools. The papacy actively promoted the establishment and proliferation of universities.”
All true. It could also be reasonably pointed out that much of the science the Church commissioned was in their attempt to prove god was real or at least provide evidence for the scripture. That has never panned out by the way. And just because many universities were extensions of religious institutions says nothing for their reverence of science and critical thought. They wanted to control education and ensure the theological purity from their perspective. I don’t even say that as a criticism. It is only natural for that happen.

I am amazed that de Waal, a scientist, takes such a relativist approach to the science vs. religion (scientific method vs. faith) argument. Faith and religion cannot hold a candle to the scientific method. That is a fact. I am not sure why he even brings this up as the only examples he provides are religionists making wildly ignorant and false statements. What is the converse of that? He is criticizing “neo-atheists” for using this as a trump card, but makes no real argument to say why that is a bad thing. It’s a royal flush!

Ultimately I just spent way too much time writing that de Waal is just taking the accomodationist angle and wagging his finger at antitheists. That is a distinction I think needs to be made more often. There are all kinds of atheists, but there is no such thing as a “militant atheist.” What people refer to as militant atheists are really just antitheists. I feel I need to drive this point home since I am not interested in dragging every atheist to the fight kicking and screaming. All that does is turn people off. Atheists should feel comfortable being open about their disbelief (until such a time as it is not necessary to even think about it) and making them take sides doesn’t help that. However, disingenuously labeling people “militant” has the unintentional or intentional side effect of intimidating people into silence. I am always suspicious of this type of thing.

For the record, if there were true “militant atheists” I would fight them tooth and nail as well.

Frans de Waals makes his criticism from a privileged position (ugh…sorry). He has on his rose-colored, Pollyanna glasses where he just sees everything from an academic perspective and these arguments only exist in the vacuum of best-selling books, debate halls and YouTube. Never mind that religion is daily employed to subjugate and discriminate countless people around the world. Right now on March 26, 2013; the United States Supreme Court is hearing cases on whether or not same sex couples have the right for their relationships to be recognized by a secular government because of the Old Testament. It is absurd. Don’t be so naïve to think that by sitting back and being nice and silent it will all go away. Don’t be so intellectually dishonest that you would use terms like “rampage” and "militant” to criticize those that talk.

*either de Waal or the editor at Salon sensationalized the headline. Nowhere does the article make a case or even mention “militant atheism as a religion.” This is why we all need to read the source material. So go ahead. Go and read the original. Don’t take my word for it. 


lwilshusen said...

thanks for your comments on this book which I found by searching apatheist & frans de waal. I also did a review of this book on my blog, the everyday primate, & had similar feelings that he was taking on the wrong crowd. anyhow, thanks! - Linda Wilshusen