Atheism vs. Theism in Recent News

Afarensis recently posted a short review of the Newsweek article, The New Naysayers . A bit later, PZ Myers posted a more in depth discussion at Pharyngula.

The discussions at these two blogs are well-done and the comments are interesting, so I won’t attempt to duplicate what they’ve already accomplished here. Anything I could say would pale in comparison to either of these gentlemen and I highly recommend both of the links above.

I’d first like to list some videos that can be found on YouTube that have a fair amount of Richard Dawkins’ The Root of All Evil? There may be more, but these are the ones I’ve found and I’ve tried to list them in order: (Pt 1) (Teapot Atheists) (Pt 2.1) (Pt 2.2) (Pt 2.3) (Pt 2.4) (Pt 2.5) (Pt 2.6)

Dawkins was one of several figures that was discussed in the Newsweek article as issuing “bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition.” Other atheistic luminaries mentioned were Daniel C. Dennett and Samuel Harris, authors of Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith, respectively. Dawkins’ The God Delusion is due out in October.

The question (sometimes the accusation) arises in many discussions with atheists, particularly on the Internet, is religion evil? Certainly the very title of Dawkins’ recent BBC series is suggestive of the question, though it should also be noted that Dawkins was against the title, The Root of All Evil? and protested. BBC won, but the inclusion of the question mark was their consolation to Dawkins. As an anthropologist, I find religion a fascinating topic. Clearly, humanity is hardwired to “believe” and to engage in magical thinking. The evidence is abundant to support this hypothesis and found in neurology, biology, and anthropology. That there are so many religions in human culture, both geographically and temporally, is suggestive that there are none which are genuine in their claims of supernatural agency.

But to answer the question of whether or not religion is evil would require two definitions: one of religion and another of evil. To define religion, I agree with Daniel Dennett’s assessment: “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” I won’t attempt to define evil, I think we can all come to some mutual agreement that evil means bad for you and others. But I’m afraid I cannot agree that religion, in the broad term of the word is “evil.” Certainly, there are those within specific religions that are evil and, certainly, there are those religious sects and cults that are evil in their deeds (most cults of Christianity and Islam come to mind). But religion on the whole is a social system and is not capable of being either good or evil.

Weinberg suggested that for man to be truly evil, religion is required, but I think this also gives too much credit to a social system. I do, however, think that religion enables the worst in humanity to come out and religion has traditionally been one of the main points of contention in wars and the justification for the persecution of “others.” Religion inspired civilizations of prehistory to build monumental architecture and develop agriculture. For that, ancient religion should be praised. But, in modern times, that same ancient religion is obsolete and getting in the way of the progress it once inspired. In the United States, the most religious nation in the so-called Developed World, those that consider themselves religious have all the problems they say are immoral: abortion, addiction, crime, adultery, etc. Moreover, religious superstition threatens the advancement of science and world peace. Crime in the United States exceeds that of the rest of the industrialized West -the secular states of Scandinavia, France, Japan and the like.

Sure. This correlation is casual. I admit it. But wouldn’t the religious have more ground to stand on if they were actually able to show that religion works? Instead, the religious act as though science and atheists are actually out to eliminate them and that atheists are organizing into some “movement” that will actively seek to destroy God and his believers. A recent study in the American Sociological Review (vol 71, April 2006) reveals that atheists are America’s least trusted group:

[t]hose surveyed tended to view people who don’t believe in a god as the “ultimate self-interested actor who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves.”

Yes, atheists are self-interested. Einstein gave nothing to the world; Susan B. Anthony’s efforts were only for herself; Carl Sagan made no attempt to share his knowledge; and Abraham Lincoln was obviously only thinking of himself with the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address. The religious of the nation don’t care that atheists aren’t out to get them and refuse to accept that atheism is only about not accepting a god based on critical thought and reason. They want a dichotomy. I’m with PZ, who closed his post linked above with:

Yes, let us choose sides. I’m on the side of enlightenment and knowledge and critical thinking and the rejection of dogma. Which side are you going to be on?


  1. Clearly, humanity is hardwired to “believe” and to engage in magical thinking.

    I have a hard time accepting this. In my opinion we are no more hardwired to engage in magical thinking than we are hardwired to be wrong.

    It is relatively recent, historically speaking, that rules of critical thinking have been formalized. Rules such as “confirmation bias” or “spurious relationship”. It was inevitable that as our earliest ancestors grew into the ability to reason abstractly that they would often make mistakes.

    This is very different that saying that we evolved a religion gene because magical thinking was an evolutionary advantage any more than to say we evolved a mistake gene for the same reason.

    Richard Dawkins commented that earliest man needed a supreme being to explain the rising sun. The fact is that we face mysteries today that baffle us as profoundly such as the origins of the big bang or the causes of the laws of nature. The need for god then was no more than it is now.

    But this mistake is understandable.

    If there are studies that specifically disprove this thesis of mine I would appreciate knowing about them.

  2. Your criticism of my assertion is a fair one, but I base it on a couple of things:

    1) religion is a human activity that finds itself in nearly single culture on the planet. The differences are sometimes stark and opposite, but their are some common attributes, like a perceived notion that the supernatural must be appeased or appealed to and you can almost always find some separation of the sacred and profane (or secular);

    2)Magical thinking is pervasive in every culture regardless of (and sometimes in spite of) religious beliefs.

    It may simply be that magical thinking and credulity are evolutionary adaptations. Perhaps our prehistoric and early hominid ancestors used credulity to survive in the wild. If you’re scavenging or gathering in the Pleistocene and hear a rustling off in the brush, believing that you are about to become the meal of a saber-tooth cat is a belief that may be wrong, but it would be more beneficial in this instance to be credulous rather than rationalizing that there are more herbivores than carnivores in the woods.

    I concede, however, that I’m offering my opinion and speculation, however educated it may or may not be. But I think its hard to argue that magical thinking isn’t “hardwired” given the pervasive nature of it.

  3. I would also add, that its this type of discussion that is great for exploring such notions and formulating and refining opinions. Your comments have certainly been welcome since I hadn’t looked at the perspective you offer in your second paragraph.

    Thanks for commenting!

  4. I’d go along with Boelf that the uniformity of ‘magical thinking’ hardly implies that we are ‘hard-wired’ for it. If we are ‘hard-wired’ for anything, it is curiosity, an attempt to understand the world around us, and, possibly, to find ‘someone to blame’ when things go bad.

    I think you are failing to put yourself in the mindset of the cultures you are talking about. You are forgetting exactly how ignorant — not unintelligent, but ignorant — they were, and how many even elemental scientific discoveries required at least basic instruments.

    They all had nuch the same experiences, a Universe, to them vast, that covered a few hundred miles, those two lights in the sky that appeared in alternation, both apparently small and nearby, one which constantly changed from sliver to circle and back, those other, totally inexplicable little lights that peppered the night sky. All of them experienced weather, and sudden outbreaks of disease. Each of them, in battle, sometimes unexpectedly triumphed, sometimes unexpectedly failed. All of them experienced the growth of crops, and the sudden, unpredictable failures of them, the times when game was prevalent and when it was scarce. They experienced the weirdness of a woman’s menstrual cycle, of births of twins and stillbirths.

    And not one of these things could be explained correctly without clocks and calendars, record-keeping, telescopes, measuring devices, and all the things they did not have yet.

    But they wanted, needed, answers to ‘why.’ They had the experience of lesser animals that they manipulated, for food, work, companionship, why shouldn’t there be greater beings that did what they did to them, for reasons as inexplicable as the tribes actions to oxen? They had tale tellers who could create wonderful worlds of ideas, stories of experiences of places different from home that some traveler may have visited.
    You call their answers ‘magical thinking.’ Yes, top us that is what it was, but we have the tools they did not, the tools that let us understand and test. Their tales of gods and demons, and all the rest were wrong, yes, but they fitted what they knew. And wherever you looked, what the cultures knew was much alike, and the answers they came up with were similar. Analogies to animals, explanations for disease, for birth and death, changes in fortune. We can find better answers, but they came up with the best they could.

    The shame is that once they did, the ideas were fixed in their beliefs so that better information could not purge them, that so often they forced their new discoveries into the framework of their beliefs, rather than changing the framework to represent the new knowledge.

  5. That’s definitely a good point about the ignorance of our ancestors and one that I’m mulling over (and will probably continue to mull over for a while).

    But I keep coming back to the notion that smart people, even today, are willing to believe weird things. Or even things that aren’t so weird. Astrology, channeling, clairvoyance, telepathy, alien abductions, ghosts, demon possessions, and lucky charms are but a very few things that even very smart people in modernity are willing to believe in.

    Even when rational explanations are provided and even when the believer acknowledges that evidence is not forthcoming, these are all things that they are willing to subscribe to.

    Still, your perspective is one that merits consideration.

  6. You say religion is not evil, in and of itself. Then how about ignorance or lying, are they evil? Neither are good; both lean way towards bad.

    Meh, I might say neither are actually evil though (white lies to protect someone; ignorance isn’t evil, it just needs work to correct).

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