Wednesday, 2 January 2008

BB2: Is the "New Atheism" a stealth religion? :David Sloan Wilson

[This is talk 6, session 1 of 2, on the first day of the The Science Network's Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

David Sloan Wilson is Professor in the Biology and Anthropology Departments at Binghamton University and is known for championing the theory of multilevel selection. His latest book is Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. His theme is exploring the idea of stealth religions, including the "New Atheism"!

This is the first speaker who has actual data to support his arguments, unfortunately he did not have time to present them in this talk. Anyway he starts by noting that what has changed since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, is that today that past optimism has been replaced with "a profound sense of pessimism about improving the world", as indicated in the negative connotation of the term "social engineering". Can we re-discover this optimism? Wilson thinks we can.

What has been changing recently is the reaction to the introduction of evolutionary thinking beyond biology and into the humanistic sciences, where previously the status quo was "secular creationism", where evolution was accepted but only in biology and not the humanities. This does not only apply to post-modernist anti-science stance, but also in economics, psychology and politics. This has been changing in the last 20 odd years, but it is still a very recent phenomenon and there is still great resistance to this type of thinking. Wilson then proceeds to introduce the concept of a "stealth religion":
"A belief that departs from factual reality to motivate a given suite of behaviors without invoking supernatural agents, the absence of supernatural agents is a particular departure from factual reality, it is just detail."
When people complain about religion, are they not worried about departures from factual reality and isn't this more difficult to see in a stealth religion, which lacks obvious absurd supernatural claims?

Lets look at applying evolutionary thinking to the social sciences, what are the implications of this? Well Wilson wants to re-introduce the ancient concept of the "society as an organism", but with an evolutionary basis now, of course. He refers to the 1960s legitimate (?) resistance to group selection and states that, now, 40 years later, that "group selection can be important evolutionary force after all". He refers to the joint paper by himself and the other Wilson, E.O, who were antithetical in the 1970s, now getting together to propose a revision to sociobiology - incorporating multi-level selection theory. A good example of scientific progress and error-correction, whether one accepts these revisions are not, which I think is still in debate... Anyway he makes further arguments for multi-level selection but his main points can be analyzed whether one accepts this revision, or not. What he does want to do is use this as in item to support his thesis of "stealth religion". As he concludes this section he wants to savor the irony that
"During the last four decades, it has been heresy to think of a social group as like an organism. Now it turns out that the single organism of today are the social groups of the past!"[My italics]
Accepting Wilson's major transition argument as being applicable to social groups including large unrelated human groups, he argues that co-operation came first and led to Theory of Mind rather than the other way around. This also applies to the success of religion as large unrelated social groups. One of the distinguishing features of religion is that their gold standard is not rationality and empirical validity (factual reality) but "what do religious beliefs cause people to do", that is is it adaptively successful (practical reality)? "These [religious] beliefs, no matter how goofy, are very utilitarian".

Now what about atheism as stealth religion when it does not rely on blind faith but science and reason? He refers to Ayn Rand's Objectivism - which is an atheist system -as a previous form of stealth religion. He has also intimated as much over evolutionary biology, sociobiology, the humanities and also in economics - noting the development of experimental economics (and behaviorally finance) in response to "rational choice theory". Does this apply to the "New Atheism"? He notes two key features
1. "It departs from factual reality to portray religion as bad, bad, bad in every respect"
2. "There is an emerging field of Evolutionary Religious Studies and an enormous amount of scientific and scholarly knowledge about religion from other perspectives. The 'New Atheists' either need to pay close attention to this material or abandon their claim that they are basing their arguments on science and reason "
His main bugbear is not that they are rude or impolite but that their arguments are bad science. However I do not look on these, except Dan Dennett's, as even attempts as works of science or popular science writing but as polemics and very effective they have been too. Still, apart from providing fairly accurate claims and arguments based on well known philosophical challenges on religion, they mostly go beyond this with rhetoric which do make empirical claims such as "religion poisons everything". So I agree that they are not good science but that is besides the point. I would not have made their arguments but someone needed to and they did a good job. Do they overstate their case that religion is "bad in every respect", yes I think they do but that is because just being a religion is not the basis to assume that it is mistaken and I am not sure that Wilson's introduction of "stealth religion" helps clarify anything. I think the message he is making to the "New Atheists" is that if you think religion is dogmatically bad, do not create a new one yourself!

Whilst Wilson is correct to note that false beliefs are not only those that are other worldly, "moral", supernatural or metaphysical, he still does not go far enough and, somewhat confuses the issue, by still referring to the unjustified holding onto of these false beliefs as "religion". This is evolving in to the central question of this session but lets focus purely on the substantive point that the speakers, so far, have been talking around. Any false belief is a fiction, which is a category that can subsume all the others just noted and also include false beliefs about this world, entirely naturalistic but still false. The core question becomes can some fictional beliefs be less harmful than factual beliefs?. This is the specific thrust of the Roy Rapport quote in the preceding talk by Daniel Dennett and one Wilson has being arguing for here over "practical reality" winning against "factual reality".

Lets examine this question with two distinct examples. The first are the famous experiments by Stanley Milgrom in the 1960s over authority and cultural norms. The subject made a "teacher" punishes a "pupil" (the supposed main subject) for their mistakes by using electric shocks under the guidance of an "authority figure" - the experimenter. In reality the "pupils" are all actors who simulate being shocked. With a well designed experiment such as this, the results should be the same whether the pupils were actually shocked or were just actors who are pretending. As an aside this further answers my point in Dennett's lecture over espionage and that it can still be good science. And indeed here a fictional belief - that the teacher is electrocuting the pupil not knowing they are acting- is doing less harm than the factual alternative - they are really getting electrocuted! The second example is that over the issue on informed consent in traditional medicine disabling the ability to harness the placebo effect, which is easily done in alternative medicine where there is no issue over informed consent. This is another case where a fictional belief could do less harm than the factual alternative - knowing the real odds of success in an operation, for example. There is a major difference between these two examples, as in the latter, the result is changed by the adoption one or the other belief and the the harm is in the result itself.

Whilst both these examples are unproblematic under an enlightened worldview (and one can think of plenty of others like these), the real question is whether the latter "informed consent versus placebo" type applies in the content of a worldview - as intrinsic or constitutive of the worldview, that is can operating with some fictional beliefs of this kind be empirically less harmful than the factual alternatives, where changing the beliefs changes the harm? Here the issue gets murkier. Three points spring to mind - the third is the combination of the first two.

The first point to make is my argument over Pseudo-Enlightenment, that is instantiating purported enlightenment values but within a classical framework. The real question here does not apply as it is these other factors that are more significant. Peculiarly, whilst this is somewhat the opposite to Wilson' stealth religion, it can also be said that the Pseudo-Enlightenment is stealth religion too, but I must emphasize the different aspects that I focus on - on the organizations, structures and institutions that are classical and not enlightened.

Next one must realize that built into any enlightened worldview is the idea of error correction. This cannot not assume that all the current content is correct otherwise what errors are there that need correction? At the same time the argument is that an error correcting approach is more likely to produce correct content than an error denial (classical) approach. Anyway given this it should not be surprising that, with hindsight, some earlier incarnation of a scientific discipline was in error to some degree. It should be obvious that this is not sufficient to make the case for some form of stealth religion.

We can combine these two points together to say that one needs to show that some now known error of a discipline was prevented from being corrected through classical rather than enlightened practices. This, for sure, has occurred and maybe some if not all the examples Wilson provides are evidence of such a phenomenon.

Still if I have understood Wilson correctly we now have a dilemma. Wilson has been arguing how practical reality, regardless of any supernatural components, can sometimes have an evolutionary advantage of factual reality, yet all the scientific examples he has given show how these fictional beliefs caused more harm than the factual replacements we now accept! I am sure, for example, if Wilson is correct about his multi-level selection theory, that it would have been accepted earlier than it has, if the single-level selection had not been held onto dogmatically(?) for so long. This is not an example of a fictional belief that caused less harm than the factual alternative. In fact he does not give any in his talk, speculations on "New Atheism" not withstanding! So I find his argument over stealth religion rather weak, considering that he provides no examples of its success!

What about religion itself? The previous talks can be considered in the light of "fictional beliefs doing less harm than the factual alternatives" but so far no-one has presented concrete evidence of this. I would like to see scientific and historical arguments to support this before I can empirically accept what is obviously logically possible, that fictional beliefs can do less harm than factual alternatives as part of a worldview. Lets see what the other speakers have to offer.


Anonymous said...

Did you know that the Milgram experiments have been repeated with cameras rolling?

The result was much the same, which suggests to me that the experiments are not so famous as one might hope.

It seems to be standard operating procedure for social psychologists to lie about the experimental set-up to the participants.

Experimenters do this so that subjects' anticipation of the experimenters' true aims will not become a confounding variable.

I think that had subjects in the repeat experiment been familiar with the original experiments, then they would have known that their obedience, and not the supposed training by electric shock, was the point. I suspect that subjects who knew this would choose to look merciful for the cameras.

martino said...

@arcanum:Did you know that the Milgram experiments have been repeated with cameras rolling?
Yes but isn't this besides the point I am making in this post?

@arcanum:The result was much the same, which suggests to me that the experiments are not so famous as one might hope.
I don't understand this. Because the experiment has been successfully replicated it becomes less famous??

@arcanum:It seems to be standard operating procedure for social psychologists to lie about the experimental set-up to the participants.
Totally agree which is why I disagree with Dennett's "if you are doing espionage, you are not doing science" comment

Anonymous said...

What Wilson is saying is that atheism (BTW, what exactly is "new" about it?) is really just another form of religion, in that it serves the same purposes as religion...which is very similar to charges made by religious persons who don't understand atheism or nonbelief. Of course Wilson has a right to test his hypothesis that atheism is a "stealth religion," but let's review a few of the differences between nonbelief and belief: 1. The nonreligious do not *worship* science, although they may hold scientific method and objective knowledge in high regard. 2. The nonreligious do not have to rely on *belief* in science, as reliable and verifiable evidence unfolds constantly. 3. Scientific methodology is followed for rational purposes, not *ritualistic* purposes (i.e. to comfort or hold to tradition). 4. Believers often claim to have a personal relationship with their deity. Nonbelievers do not *personalize* science or objective knowledge. 5. The standard practices of science are uniform across geography and culture, but the practice of religion is affected by geography and culture. 6. Nonbelievers do not endow science with *supernatural* attributes. 7. Nonbelievers do not *mythologize* the history of science.

There are probably other fundamental distinctions I have forgotten to mention, but it seems obvious to me that the absence of religion is not in itself yet another form of religion. Wilson's idea that atheism is a "stealth religion" doesn't hold up. And I have read he criticizes the utility of science because it "is incapable of delivering the practical directives we crave" (Psychology Today, Jan/Feb 2008), which is ironic, considering his repeated criticism of comparing apples to oranges. Since when do nonbelievers look to science for directives? If you wanted to adopt some external authority's directives you'd subscribe to a religion!

Bottom line: While Wilson has some interesting ideas they seem to contribute to current mischaracterizations of atheism and nonbelief. I think his work may be overrated.

martino said...


There is not much to disagree with in what you say but I was focused on Wilson's specific claim namely the evolutionary benefits of practical realism over factual realism. His questionable definition of a religion is based on that and not the points that you made. Now I say until he can provide clear evidence of where practical realism does less harm than factual realism there is no overall evolutionary benefit and his argument fails.

He has not done so to date and I am requesting that he does. I believe that this is theoretically possible and so would not be surprised if he does provide positive evidence. However it will be far more restricted and so limit his claims in a way he has not done to date.

Hence my point is not fatal to his claims, just weakens them even as he were to reply to them with positive evidence. Regardless I would still dispute that this defines a "religion" and argue that he is playing a rhetorical game.