As the “new atheist” movement develops into a hardcore ideology, it begins to fragment into dissident groups. For our purposes, we can distinguish between two such groups:
- The Brights. They assert that science produces objectively true knowledge, and moreover, is the only source of knowledge. They interpret religious claims as equivalent to scientific claims about the empirical world. They then take an often hysterical “moral” stand against those claims under the principle that any belief that is not supported, or at least potentially supportable, by science as immoral.
- Evolutionary Biologists. They take a more nuanced view. Brains evolved to survive in the world, not to create objectively true theories. Furthermore, religions likewise evolved and persist because of their survival value. Hence, it would be incorrect to describe religions as simply immoral.
The Argument from ReasonFirst of all, Wilson undercuts the intellectual basis of the brights:
As for the canons of rational thought, to the extent that brains evolved by natural selection, their main purpose is to cause organisms to behave adaptively in the real world–not to directly represent the real world.Some of you may recognize this as a form of the Argument from Reason made famous by C S Lewis. The fundamental point is that if human reason or rationality arises from nonrational causes, then it has no validity of its own.
Wilson makes a less ambitious distinction between practical and factual realism. A belief is real in the practical sense if it leads to effective action, while a factually real belief corresponds to the external world. There is no question of an independent reason in this distinction. Not just religious, but also ideological and political, beliefs depend on what is practically rather than factually real. For example, what are called “politically correct” beliefs are often practically real, but not factual.
This is actually a very useful distinction and I’m certain that Gornahoor readers can find many examples. A dead giveaway is the repetition of simplistic slogans. I’ve read one prominent political leader who claimed that most people cannot understand something that won’t fit on a placard.
Unfortunately, many debates end up in frustration since one side is committed to a practically real belief and the other to factually real beliefs. However, no quantity of facts will be persuasive in that exchange. Practical realism is usually accompanied with an intense emotional investment which would make a conversion to the factually real quite difficult psychologically.
Nevertheless, Wilson cannot resist making a normative claim:
We need respect for factual realism as never before to arrive at practical solutions to life’s complicated problems.That is a good point with the proviso that esoterism considers the study of inner states of consciousness as fundamental to factual realism. This is what Julius Evola called “metaphysical positivism”.
Another point is that Wilson’s claim has a goal: viz., “practical solutions”. Yet, this gives us pause since most people are committed to practical realism. How would the factual realist motivate the practical realist, if not with the “noble lie”?
Stealth ReligionsWilson defines a stealth religion as a factually incorrect belief system that functions like a religion. Specifically, its main purpose is not to describe the main world but rather to motivate a suite of behaviours. The difference is that a stealth religion does not accept the existence of anything transcendent.
Wilson asserts that the real world involves “messy tradeoffs”; for example, the effects of an action may be beneficial, harmful, or a mix of both for the parties involved. A stealth religion evades those tradeoffs by turning them into absolutes, either good or bad for everyone, anytime.
Now even animals know facts, but what is truly human is the intellectual capacity to grasp the concepts, or eternal ideas, that explain the facts. That is the definition of rationality. The argument from reason denies, then, that rationality per se is a “natural process”. That puts Wilson in an intellectual bind. If legitimate religions are the result of evolutionary forces, then so are the stealth religions. But which intellectual system is not a stealth religion by his definition?
Certainly multiple political theories cannot all be true, i.e., all, or in the best case, all but one, of them are stealth religions because they arose arbitrarily and must be factually incorrect in part or in whole. Just a quick survey of the news today reveals slogans like, “I am a progressive who gets things done,” without specifying any such thing. Or “People will respond to the message of hope,” but hope for what? Nevertheless, they persist, since they are reflect group cohesion, as we shall see later.
So either reason is transcendent to the world, or, as a natural process, it can only create competing and incompatible belief systems. This, however, is not the lesson that the atheists will learn from Wilson.
The Proud AtheistWilson defends himself from being a stealth religionist by claiming to be a “proud” atheist. I have no idea what pride has to do with it. In particular, he is proud because he does not believe in people sitting on clouds intervening in natural processes. If that is his actual view on religious beliefs, then it is impossible to take him seriously as a scientist competent to explain religious phenomena.
Nevertheless, Wilson is even-handed as he points out how pseudo-sciences like the New Atheism, strident forms of environmentalism, and probably other beliefs that he doesn’t dare express, act as stealth religions. By pseudo-science, I mean a belief system that claims to be based strictly on science but is actually a stealth religion.
NOTE: Wilson’s understanding of God is no better than that of folk religion. However, there are more sophisticated versions of folk religion that go by the name of “theistic personalism”. I would agree with Wilson were that the only alternative. However, the Traditional understanding, sometimes called “classical theism”, is the only correct one. For a brief discussion of this, please listen to this lecture by David Bentley Hart.
Proximate and Ultimate CausationWilson makes a distinction between ultimate and proximate causation is evolutionary theory. This is what he means by them, although this is not his own explanation. Neo-Darwinism recognizes two primary factors: one is the characteristics of the organism and the other is the environment which acts as the selector, choosing the winners among the organisms. Both causes are necessary to understand “evolution by natural selection”.
- Ultimate Causation. This refers to the environmental factors. For example, flowers bloom in spring because it is the optimal time. (Any earlier, then frost might kill it, later, then the autumn frost may thwart its development.)
- Proximate Causation. This refers to the organism. To complete the example, the flower has a physiological mechanism that causes it to bloom in the spring.
Religion as a Natural PhenomenaWilson proposes six possible naturalistic explanations, of uneven plausibility, for the origin of religions. He more or less likes them all, but in the end settles on the explanation he calls the “Superorganism Hypothesis”.
If you could say only one thing about religion, it would be this: Most enduring religions have what Emile Durkheim called “secular utility.” They define, motivate, and coordinate groups to achieve collective goals in this life. They promote cooperation within the group and bristle with defenses against the all-important problem of cheating. Using the terms that I introduced in part I, they score high on practical realism, no matter how much they depart from factual realism along the way.So how exactly does the individual benefit? Wilson dares to tell us:
With respect to the individual benefits of religion, suppose that you discover a grand mansion, better than anything that you could have constructed on your own, with a sign on the door that says “Welcome! Move right in!” You would be a fool to refuse, and your decision might be purely selfish, with only your own welfare in mind.Nevertheless, Wilson decides to be a fool, but a “proud” fool.
So the group forms a superorganism that motivates group behavior in beneficial ways, even if its empirical claims are not factually real. The hypothesis explains the horizontal dimension of religion, but Wilson conveniently forgets the vertical dimension. The real problem is specificity: why this religion and not another?
It is one thing to claim that a particular religion arose due to natural processes, but how did it take a particular form? That can only be explained by the vertical dimension, i.e., a revelation from above.
NOTE: We will say more about the “superorganism” in the near future, based on Vladimir Solovyov’s lecture on August Comte.
Religion as Factually RealScientists tend to approach religion as if it were a scientific theory that tries to explain empirical facts. In that respect it must seem to be absurd. That may be true for folk religions, but not for the deeper understanding of religious texts. Gregory of Nyssa explains:
**if one does not read scripture in a “philosophical” fashion one will see only myths and contradictions.
This is the Protestant legacy with its sola scriptura doctrine understood literally. The cultured despisers of religion then rely on the literal interpretation rather than the philosophical, or allegorical, interpretation. For more on this, you can listen to this lecture by David Bentley Hart.
Noble LieWilson is in an odd position. If, as a scientist, he realizes that a religion promotes group identity and mutual cooperation, not to mention individual benefits, then is he morally obliged to remain silent about its real (according to him) origins? What if the promotion of atheism brings about social turmoil and decadence? How can he know that a group commitment to atheism will serve as a new social glue? Given the time spans involved in evolutionary theories, it would take generations for the full effects of a belief system to unfold.
In other words, if all opinions are arbitrary and bigoted, then only a Noble Lie will enforce one of them over the others.