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

Oh boy, am I gonna get in trouble with this one. I have finally read David Sloan Wilson’s four-part (so far) blog on “atheism as a stealth religion” (you can catch parts I, II, III and IV), and I don’t buy it. Wilson has a lot of interesting things to say, and I sympathize with his criticism of Richard Dawkins and some of the other “new atheists.” I’ve raised several objections to their writings myself. Still, I don’t buy it.

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.


  1. Samuel Skinner
    I don't think religion is innate in people- I think the need for simple answers and the aa easy to understand world and community is inherent in people (except Rube Golberg). Religion just happens to fill the slot.

  2. Massimo, can you provid a link to DS Wilson's blog? Maybe you did in the post, but for whatever reason, my browser isn't seeing one...

  3. John, the links should be active now.

  4. Hey Massimo,

    Great post. I couldn't believe that DS Wilson would separate out d & e, but yup, you're right -- they are both examples of behaviors that are (presumably) adaptive in one set of environments that have become maladaptive given new environmental conditions. What gives?

    One *trivial* point -- I'm inclined to believe Wilson and Wilson's argument (from "Rethinking the Theoretical Foundations of Sociobiology") that the "haplodiploid" hypothesis for eusociality is no longer adequate. W&W point out that more eusocial species with "ordinary" reproductive systems are now known, and that standard measures of genetic relatedness within colonies of haplodiploid organisms reveal "unexceptional" levels (because they are founded by multiple females or by females that mated with multiple males). It seems, I think, very unlikely that eusociality is founded on quirks of reproductive systems. Probably, it isn't based on any one thing, but in each case a combination of factors...

    While Wilson is unforgivably sloppy in his formulation, a kind reading of his blog in the context of his other writings would interpret human social groups as the "super-organisms," humans as the individuals making up the groups, and "religion" as the psychological trait / tendency that enforces semi-eusociality in humans. No, I've no idea how one could test that story, either...

    I must say, too, that I was very disappointed in Wilson's blog -- his article w/ Wilson was for the most part quite careful, and it is painful to see so many mistakes and incoherencies now. Sigh.


  5. I think I understand why Wilson did separate out d & e. In the one case you're dealing with an ancestral trait that has become maladaptive and in the other a byproduct of currently adaptive traits. Is the difference significant here? I don't know. Having said that, my worries about Wilson's article run along similar lines to what Massimo and JK point to. I know that these are only meant to be blog posts but I was seriously disappointed having just recently read Darwin's Cathedral and having really liked it.

  6. "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."

    This is a distortion. Wilson is not saying that Dawkins et al. want to start a movement based on unquestioned adherence, but rather that they seem to be doing it anyway. Indeed, Ayn Rand is given not only as an example of a leader of a "stealth religion" but also as someone who, like Dawkins and company, paid plenty of lip service to rationalism.

  7. I agree with your view Massimo, I'm sorry my post is so late, I got the information from another source. I've noted Shermer's latest revision of his position on the evolution of "religion" - we are supportive inside our own social groups but extremely warlike outside them. I've read them and don't think Dawkins Harris Hitchens or Dennett treat atheism as an alternative religion. I do think Dawkins and Harris views which so strongly make the case for theology as intellectual wasteland are based more on the terrible damage warring religions inflict upon society than any deep philosophical notions.
    Philosophy has no reason to be in this conversation, we can't even reach agreement on definition of terms. And its a waste of time. Religions that posit a one true god should be excluded from a civil society.

  8. I think both religions and atheism are built on axioms.

    "One should only believe in things which there are good reasons to accept" is an axiom.
    I accept it, but with all my examples of why i find reason in the belief in God, you would still not agree with me on the examples.

    It's like two archaeologists debating two views of the origin of a certain artefact. They never seem to agree, although they both accept the same axiom.

    I have a post on this matter

  9. Z,

    believing things in proportion to evidence is not an axiom, it's a reasonable, empirically workable, way of going about things. Which means that not believing in the supernatural is (much) more reasonable than believing.

  10. For me, atheism, even "hard" atheism, is a rejection of a particular category of belief, namely belief in the existence of a god (or gods). So it's not a POSITIVE assertion of a particular belief. It's a rejection of SOMEONE ELSE'S unsupported hypothesis. I have no burden of proof to show that no god(s) exists, because the whole notion of god isn't mine in the first place. I think it was Bertrand Russell who hypothesized the existence of a fine porcelain teapot orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, to demonstrate that it didn't take "faith" in order to not believe it, even though its absence couldn't be proved. The god hypothesis is no different from the teapot hypothesis (barring a special NASA mission anyway), nor is its rejection any more an act of faith.

  11. The post i'm linking to above, is explaining why a God-believer is in no way logically obliged to accept any teapots revolving about the sun, fairies, spaghetti monsters etc.


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