About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, February 04, 2008
D.S. Wilson on atheism as stealth religion
For instance, Wilson warns that atheism can be just as dogmatic as a religion, something he calls a “stealth religion.” He defines a stealth religion as a “non-religious belief system ... that masquerades as factual reality,” and proposes Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” philosophy as an example. OK, but Wilson has simply rediscovered a well known foe: ideology, a phenomenon for which we don’t need a new term, and which, in fact, does describe very well both standard religions and cult-like movements like Rand’s.
Which brings me to the second problem: Wilson is afraid that Dawkins, Dennett and the like want to start a movement based on unquestioned adherence to their particular doctrine, i.e. they are interested in propagating an ideology, not furthering critical thinking. As I said above, I don’t buy it. I’ve read Dawkins and Dennett, and met them both. They ain’t no Ayn Rand. They may overstate their case, and they may be more assertive than one might like (then again, it’s hard to make a point and to sell books otherwise), but they are not dogmatic. Moreover, a movement isn’t an ideology (or a stealth religion), unless we are prepared to regard, say, the civil rights movement as pernicious as well.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Wilson’s blog so far is his summary of six hypotheses concerning the nature and origin of religion. He suggests that religion can be: a) a super-organism; b) a form of exploitation; c) a disease (in the memetic sense); d) a maladaptive behavior, like moths going to a flame; e) a maladaptive behavior, like the one that results in obesity [yes, I couldn’t see any difference between possibilities (d) and (e)]; f) a result of chance.
This is interesting, though I’m sure he left out other scenarios that, say, a psychologist, a philosopher or a cultural anthropologist may have proposed. But then Wilson tells us at the same time that all of the above are probably true and that he prefers option (a), a super-organism. He doesn’t tell us why the super-organism hypothesis is “more relevant than the others” and he doesn’t present any evidence that would favor that hypothesis over the others. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how most of these could actually be tested, considering they all suffer from the standard problem of evolutionary psychology: we have an abundance of reasonable ideas, but a paucity of data to discriminate among them (if you want to know why I’m skeptical of most claims of evo-psych, though not of the basic idea that some human behaviors evolved by natural selection, see Chapter 7 of my recent book with Jonathan Kaplan, Making Sense of Evolution).
More puzzlingly, I’m not sure what it means to say that something like religion is a super-organism. I understand the metaphor, but in what precise, scientifically relevant sense, can a set of ideas and practices (religion) be thought of as the equivalent of a biological, physical entity? Biologists have enough trouble wrapping their mind around the idea of actual super-organisms, as Wilson knows. The typical examples are colonies of eusocial insects, such as ants, bees and termites. Their members behave more like the organs of a larger entity than like individuals, due to a peculiarity of their genetic system that makes it more advantageous for some members of the colony to give up their reproductive efforts in favor of those of the queen. But what does it mean to think of the reproductive efforts of a set of ideas? In what sense are individual practices within a religious system analogous to the ants in an ant colony? Or is it the practitioners of that religion? Or what?
Finally, Wilson asks the very good question of what do we do with religions. He argues that in order to answer that question we need to have the right idea about what sort of things religions are (again, in his view, super-organisms): “We need to know what kind of threat [we are facing] to take appropriate action.” I’m not convinced of this either. I certainly don’t deny that one is more likely to find a cure for a disease (if you pardon me the clearly non-neutral analogy) when one knows something about its root cause. But if religion truly is the result of currently maladaptive behavior that evolved in a different environment (which covers several of the options listed by Wilson), then we can’t get rid of it short of genetically re-engineering our species (which is possible, but that’s another story). What we should do, instead, is fight the symptoms, such as the ability of religions to take hold and spread whenever there is ignorance and poverty. But we don’t need evolutionary biology to tell us that poverty and ignorance are a bad thing, and that the world would be significantly better without them.
What Wilson calls “the ecological/evolutionary paradigm” of human inter-group interactions may be telling us the right historical narrative about how certain things came about (wars, religions), which is intellectually satisfying, though it may be hard or impossible to test empirically. But to cure the disease -- if it is possible at all -- we need to understand and tinker with the more proximate mechanisms that are the province of the social, not biological, sciences. A good analogy here is provided by so-called Darwinian medicine: evolutionary theory does tell us something about the nature of disease in general and of some specific diseases in particular; but it is molecular biology, by focusing on the currently operating mechanisms of disease, that has provided the most spectacular successes. Unfortunately, religion as a cancer of the mind is much more difficult to understand, not to mention cure, than physical cancer. But such is the nature of the beast.