Misunderstanding the New Atheism

Jonathan Haidt in Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion makes some interesting, and basically acceptable points about the psychological impetus for invention of religious systems and the emotional component of moral judgements.

When Haidt turns his sights on New Atheism, he overemphasizes the (American) health benefits and societal impact of religion. Haidt conveniently ignores the blood-spilling aspects of religious fundamentalism while emphasizing the greater blood donating generosity of the religious:



Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood.
I don't consider the generosity of the religious difficult to explain. Those theists of my acquaintance who regularly attend church are expected to donate time and income to the church. These individuals are not necessarily more generous in spirit than atheists but they do experience and respond to peer pressure within the church community, which is organized upon and around expectations of service. Further, these individuals do not see their donations as going solely to other individuals, they actually believe that they are tithing their incomes to God.

Haidt concludes, "A militant form of atheism that claims the backing of science and encourages "brights" to take up arms may perhaps advance atheism. But it may also backfire, polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process."

This strikes me as an unfounded and emotional reaction to the New Atheism. What scientific study of religion? Is Haidt talking of studies that examine the psychology and neural activity that underly moral emotions and religious experience? How could these be undermined by the parallel message that there is no empirical foundation for belief in the supernatural?

Since when, outside religious absolute moralism, are statements about morality to be equated with moral dogma? How are statements about the role of religious violence in history and current affairs and exposure of religiously motivated hypocrisy and bigotry to be taken as moral dogma?

By what mechanism could statements about religious fundamentalism damage the prestige of science? Should we also assume that if scientists among the New Atheists make any comments about Art or the meaning of life then the prestige of science could be damaged?

The prestige of science will only be damaged–further–if religiously motivated anti-science and pseudoscientific nonsense, together with incursions of creationism into science classrooms, are allowed to continue unopposed. Until the recent upsurge of vocal atheism, the efforts of scientists to explain the realities of science have gone unheaded, misunderstood, or attacked by the religiously prejudiced.

Having read more about Haidt's work and blog reactions to Haidt's theories, I think that I was too hasty in accepting his views on morality before moving on to his take on atheism. Read more:

Reactions to Haidt's article: on Edge by Michael Shermer, David Sloan Wilson, Sam Harris, and PZ Myers . Bulldust about atheism and morality . Religion, Atheism, and Morality . Haidt Hype . The Purported Five Pillars . Overextrapolating the Boundaries . NewScientist "If morality is hard wired in the brain - What's the point of Religion?" . Morality Gene? . Evolution of Morality .




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1 comment:

sacred slut said...

The prestige of science will only be damaged–further–if religiously motivated anti-science and pseudoscientific nonsense, together with incursions of creationism into science classrooms, are allowed to continue unopposed.

Hear, hear!