Impious? Atheists should embrace the science of religion
Belief-ologists reveal how religion works. Reducing their work does nothing to advance the cause of the laity, but drawing lessons from it could
April 11, 2017
IT’S BEEN A LITTLE OVER A DECADE SINCE Richard Dawkins lit the blue paper with his book The illusion of God. He ushered much of the world into the so-called New Atheism – a forceful rejection of religion based on the premise that scientific materialism offers a superior explanation of the universe, while religion has a corrosive influence on society. : a pathological meme implanted in minds. helpless children.
Although a great read and a liberating influence for many hidden atheists, The illusion of God largely omitted a new stream of scientific research emerging at the time of its publication. Those working on the “science of religion” – a motley crew of psychologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists – have explained it as a byproduct of normal cognition. Through evolution, they said, our explanatory minds find religious ideas intuitively appealing, gobbling them up like a hungry trout swallows a fishing fly.
For many followers of the new atheism, it was little more than heresy. They called it “accommodationism” – an illogical and often harmful attempt to pretend that religion can still serve a purpose now that science rules. Never mind that the cognitive byproduct theory does not imply that religious beliefs are true – far from it. Nor does he claim that religion and scientific materialism are compatible. It simply attempts to explore religious belief and disbelief using the tools of science, rather than rhetoric.
The new atheists attacked him anyway. In terms of public debate around the proper role of religion in society, this was a mistake. It alienated as many people as it conquered, leaving new atheists to preach to converts, polarizing debate and deterring moderates, both secular and religious, from getting involved.
“Tapping activists with their own brush undermines atheists’ claim to occupy intellectual heights”
Perhaps most damaging is that it fostered an already widespread idea: that atheism is a belief system whose adherents can be as blindly dogmatic as any other. In other words, it’s “just another religion.”
At first glance, this has all the sophistication of a playground taunting match: you feel it. No, you feel. But as a rhetorical device, it is very effective. To smear militant atheists with their own paintbrush undermines their claims to intellectual apex, and when it came to some of the newer atheists, it rang true. But is this really true for all the godless?
Once again, those who practice real science offer answers. The Science of Atheism, brought to you by the people who brought you the science of religion, says that atheism is not just another religion but something quite different – but not for the reasons you might think (see “The faith of the infidels: Is atheism just another religion?“). also common ground with those they had rejected as apologists.
Or maybe not. The science of religion challenges the fundamental elements of the new atheism: for example, the belief that religion leads on the whole to misery and suffering. Believers say that religion was the “social glue” that held early societies together. This does not mean that religion should play this role today. But simply ignoring or authoritatively rejecting its power will not break its hold or advance the secular cause. And given the rise of religiosity in world affairs, there is much more than a rhetorical contest at stake.
This article appeared in print under the title “Holier than you?
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