January 21, 2011
The New Atheists' Narrow Worldview
By Stephen T. Asma
With tongues in cheeks, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett are embracing their reputation as the "Four Horsemen." Lampooning the anxieties of evangelicals, these bestselling atheists are embracing their "dangerous" status and daring believers to match their formidable philosophical acumen.
According to these soldiers of reason, the time for religion is over. It clings like a bad gene replicating in the population, but its usefulness is played out. Sam Harris's most recent book, The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010), is the latest in the continuing battle. As an agnostic, I find much of the horsemen's critiques to be healthy.
But most friends and even enemies of the new atheism have not yet noticed the provincialism of the current debate. If the horsemen left their world of books, conferences, classrooms, and computers to travel more in the developing world for a year, they would find some unfamiliar religious arenas.
Having lived in Cambodia and China, and traveled in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Africa, I have come to appreciate how religion functions quite differently in the developing worldwhere the majority of believers actually live. The Four Horsemen, their fans, and their enemies all fail to factor in their own prosperity when they think about the uses and abuses of religion.
Harris and his colleagues think that religion is mostly concerned with two jobsexplaining nature and guiding morality. Their suggestion that science does these jobs better is pretty convincing. As Harris puts it, "I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should wantand, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible." I agree with Harris here and even spilled significant ink myself, back in 2001, to show that Stephen Jay Gould's popular science/religion diplomacy of "nonoverlapping magisteria" (what many call the fact/value distinction) is incoherent. The horsemen's mistake is not their claim that science can guide morality. Rather, they're wrong in imagining that the primary job of religion is morality. Like cosmology, ethics is barely relevant in nonWestern religions. It is certainly not the main function or lure of devotional life. Science could take over the "morality job" tomorrow in the developing world, and very few religious practitioners would even notice.
Buddhism, for example, is about finding a form of psychological happiness that goes beyond the usual pursuit of fleeting pleasures. With introspection and discipline, Buddhism and other contemplative traditions attempt to find a state of wellbeing that is outside the usual game of desire fulfillment. Buddhism aligns metaphysically with the new atheism and psychologically with the humanistic traditions. Many of the new atheists have recognized that Buddhism doesn't quite belong with the other religious targets, and they reserve a vague respect for its philosophical core. I'm glad. They're right to do so. But two days in any Buddhist country will painfully demonstrate to its Western fans that Buddhism is an elaborate, supernatural, devotional religion as well.
Those who argue that we must do away with all religion to set humanity on the true path generally accept some formulation of Marx's famous argument: "Religion is the opiate of the masses." It is the superstitious aspect of religion that usually warrants the drug metaphor. But the zealous attempt, on the part of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Red Guard in China, to root out this "opiate" also rooted out all the good stuff about Buddhism that I've labeled "psychological." The attempt to do away with all gods or religions always throws the baby out with the bath water. There is much good "medicine" in Buddhism (just as there is much good in other religions), but if the Asian Communists found you practicing it in the 1970s, you were as good as dead. And that form of militant atheism should ring a cautionary note: Religion is not the only ideology with blood on its hands.
But I'd advance a much more radical argument as well. Not only should the more rational and therapeutic elements be distilled from the opiate of religion. But the wacky, superstitious, cloudcuckooland forms of religion, too, should be cherished and preserved, for those forms of religion sometimes do great good for our emotional lives, even when they compromise our morerational lives.
The new debates about the moral value of religion assume monotheism as a central premise. Harris and the other horsemen are wringing their hands primarily about Islam and Christianity, which they think constitute our main combatants in a "zerosum conflict" with science. So far I've mentioned one major alternative religion (nonmonotheistic) by inserting Buddhism into the discussion. So why not veer further from the developed Western perspective and look at the lesserdeveloped world and the variations of animism? It is, after all, the world's biggest religion.
Animistic beliefs dominate the everyday lives of Southeast Asians. Local spirits, called neak ta in Cambodia, inhabit almost every farm, home, river, road, and large tree. The Thais usually refer to these spirits as phii, and the Burmese as nats. Even the shortest visit to this part of the world will make one familiar with the everpresent "spirit houses" that serve these tutelary spirits. When people build a home or open a business, for example, they must make offerings to the local spirits; otherwise these beings may cause misfortune for the humans. The next time you visit a Thai restaurant, notice the spirit house near the cash register or kitchen.
The ubiquitous spirit houses often contain miniature carved people who act as servants to the spirits who take up residence there. The offerings can be incense or flowers or fruit or anything valuable and precious, but the spirits are particularly pleased by shot glasses of whiskey or other liquors. The offerings are designed to please neak ta and phii, but also to distract and pull mischievous spirits into the minihomes, thereby sparing the real homes from malady and misfortune. The mix of animism with Buddhism is so complete in Asia that monks frequently make offerings to these spirits, and Buddhist pagodas actually have spirit shrines built into one corner. The Buddhist religion is built on top of this much older animistic system. Animism was never supplanted by modern beliefs.
The belief that nature is loaded with invisible spirits that live in local flora, fauna, and environmental landmarks is generally characterized by Westerners as "primitive" and highly irrational. Even religious devotees of monotheism in the developed West look down their noses at animism. Animism is the Rodney Dangerfield of religions. But most of the world is made up of animists. The West is naïve when it imagines that the major options are monotheistic. In actual numbers and geographic spread, belief in nature spirits trounces the OneGodders. Almost all of Africa, Southeast Asia, rural China, Tibet, Japan, rural Central and South America, indigenous Pacific Islandspretty much everywhere except Western Europe, the Middle East, and North Americais dominated by animistic beliefs.
Even places where later religions like Buddhism and Roman Catholicism enjoy formal recognition as national faiths, much older forms of animism constitute the daily concerns and rituals of the people. The welltraveled Charles Darwin noted the universality of animism in The Descent of Man, when he wrote: "I am aware that the assumed instinctive belief in God has been used by many persons as an argument for His existence. But this is a rash argument, as we should thus be compelled to believe in the existence of many cruel and malignant spirits, only a little more powerful than man; for the belief in them is far more general than belief in a beneficent Deity."
Most Westerners think that animists are just uneducated and unscientific, and that eventually they will "evolve" (according to theists) toward our scientific view of one Goda rational God of natural laws (who is also omniscient and omnipotent). And eventually (according to the new atheists) these primitives will join the march beyond even monotheism, to the impersonal, secular laws of nature. We all previously believed that storms, floods, bad crops, and diseases were caused by irritated local spirits (invisible persons who were angry with us for one reason or another), but now we know that weather and microbes behave according to predictable laws, with no "intentions" behind them. The view of nature as "lawful" and "predictable" has given those of us in the developed world power, freedom, choice, and selfdetermination. This power is real, and I am sincerely thankful to benefit from dentistry, cell theory, antibiotics, birth control, and anesthesia. I love science.
But here's a radical suggestion: Contrary to the progressbased story the West tells itself, animistic explanations of one's daily experience may be every bit as empirical and rational as Western science, if we take a closer look at life in the developing world.
Consider animism in context. An indirect way to see the geographical distribution of animism is to look at the UN's map of the Human Development Indexa composite statistic for each country that contains data on percapita GDP, life expectancy, and education. There is a striking correlation between animism and the indexes for countries designated "developing" and "underdeveloped."
Animism can be defined as the belief that there are many kinds of persons in this world, only some of whom are human. Your job, as an animist, is to placate and honor these spiritpersons. But it's important to remember that the daily lives of people in the developing world are not filled with the kinds of independence, predictability, and freedom that we in the developed world enjoy. You do not often choose your spouse, your work, your number of childrenin fact, you don't choose much of anything when you are very poor and tied to the survival of your family.
When I lived in Cambodia, some of my college students at the Buddhist Institute, in Phnom Penh, didn't even have homes; they slept at a humble local temple. I regularly watched children on the streets raising their little siblings, while their necessarily absent parents slaved for pittance wages. Many of the kids, like their parents before them, will not get formal educations. Many will not have clean drinking water. Many will die from simple, almost trivially treatable illnesses, or perhaps from landmine explosions. Add the myriad barriers to opportunity, the omnipresence of local corruption, and unpredictable violent political upheavals.
In that world, where life is particularly capricious and more out of individuals' control than it is in the developed world, animism seems quite reasonable. It makes more sense to say that a spiteful spirit is bringing one misery, or that a benevolent ghost is granting favor, than to say that seamless neutral and predictable laws of nature are unfolding according to some invisible logic. Unless you could demonstrate the real advantages of an impersonal, lawful view of nature (e.g., by having a longterm, wellfinanced medical facility in the village), you will never have the experiential data to overcome animism. Our firstworld claim about neutral, predictable laws will be an inferior causal theory for explaining the chaos of everyday thirdworld life. In the developing world, animism literally makes more sense. The new atheists, like Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett have failed to notice that their mechanistic view of nature is in part a product (as well as a cause) of prosperity and stability.
Is animism a mere "opiate," as the atheists argue? Well, yes, but don't underestimate opiates. They can be highly inspirational and consoling. After all, a drunken man is usually a little happier than a sober one. In fact, to continue the metaphor, opposing religion is a lot like prohibitionists' opposing drinka rather cruel project in my view. I'd gladly give my copies of Mao's Little Red Book, and Dawkins's The God Delusion for a sixpack of Grolsch. But if all that is too offensive, we might replace the word "opiate" with "analgesic," and my point may be more agreeable.
Religion, even the wacky, superstitious stuff, is an analgesic survival mechanism and sanctuary in the developing world. Religion provides some order, coherence, respite, peace, and traction against the fates. Perhaps most important, it quells the emotional distress of human vulnerability. I'm an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation, but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously. I'm not naïveI don't think it did a damn thing to heal him. But when people have their backs against the wall, when they are truly helpless and hopeless, then groveling and negotiating with anything more powerful than themselves is a very human response. It is a response that will not go away, and that should not go away if it provides some genuine relief for anxiety and agony. As Roger Scruton says, "The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation."
Religion is not really a path to morality, nor can it substitute for a scientific understanding of nature. Its chief virtue is as a "coping mechanism" for our troubles. Powerless people turn to religion and find a sense of relief, which helps them psychologically to stay afloat. Those who wish to abolish religion seek to pull away the life preserver, mistakenly blaming the device for the drowning.
I am not simply rehearsing the adage "reason for the few, magic for the many." Harris, in The Moral Landscape, thinks he sees my argument coming. "Because there are no easy remedies for social inequality," he states, "many scientists and public intellectuals also believe that the great masses of humanity are best kept sedated by pious delusions. Many assert that, while they can get along just fine without an imaginary friend, most human beings will always need to believe in God." He considers this liveandletlive position to be "condescending" and "pessimistic." His disdain is driven by his characterization of monotheism, which he sees as divisive and exclusionarya bad belief obstructing a good belief.
But unlike Western fundamentalism, animism is not locked in a zerosum battle with science (nor, for that matter, are moderate Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Instead of being exclusionary, animism is highly syncretic, adopting any and all spiritual beliefs and practices as complementary rather than competing options. The more the merrier is how we might characterize animism's promiscuous attitude toward beliefs and rituals. There's not much concern for, or history of, orthodoxy in animism, a trait that can potentially render it liberal and tolerant toward alternatives, including science.
More important, my argumentthat religion soothes emotional vulnerabilitycan't be "condescending" if I'm also applying it to myself. Like Sam Harris, I know a fair share of neuroscience, but that didn't alleviate my anguish and desperation in the emergency room with my son. The old saw "there are no atheists in foxholes" obviously doesn't prove that there is a God. It just proves that highly emotional beings (i.e., humans) are also highly vulnerable beings. Our emotional limbic system seeks homeostasisit tries to reset to calmer functional defaults when it's been riled up. I suspect there are aspects of religion (and art) that go straight into the limbic system and quell the adrenalinbased metabolic overdrive of stress.
So how do we discriminate between dangerous and benign religions? That is the more fruitful question, because it invites the other world religions into the discussion. Both the developed and the developing worlds can profitably examine their unique belief systems in light of larger human values. Like Harris et al., I agree that we should employ the usual criteria of experience to make the necessary discriminations. Religious ideas that encourage dehumanization, violence, and factionalism should be reformed or diminished, while those that humanize, console, and inspire should be fostered.
In 2009, in Brazil, the archbishop excommunicated doctors for performing an abortion on a 9yearold girl who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather. The stepfather had impregnated her with twins. The girl's mother, too, was kicked out of the church, but the rapist was not. That is the kind of dehumanizing and dogmatic religion that should be eliminated. Catholics deserve a better religion than that. But there are still aspects of Catholicism that are humanizing, consoling, and inspirational. Whether it is Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, or animism, the virtues can be retained while the vices are moderated. In short, the reduction of human suffering should be the standard by which we measure every religion.
The Four Horsemen and other new atheists are members of liberal democracies, and they have not appeared to be interested in the socialengineering agendas of the earlier, Communist atheists. With impressive arts of persuasion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, debate, and exchange ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.
But Sam Harris's new book may be a subtle turning point toward a more normative social agenda. If public policy is eventually expected to flow from atheism, then its proponents need to have a more nuanced and global understanding of religion.
Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy and a fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. His latest book is "Why I Am a Buddhist" (Hampton Roads, 2010).