jonathan haidt on the new atheists

While I am an atheist, I think it is an open question what role religion plays in society and whether religious people or atheists think more clearly. These are empirical questions.

I think the New Atheists do a very bad job of reviewing that evidence. Their argument style is polemical. It is that of a lawyer making a case and they make the most negative case possible for religion. In my book, I show that they are simply wrong. They are simply incorrect in many of their statements about religion.

Furthermore, a basic principle of my book is morality binds and blinds. If you are an atheist who treats science as sacred and you call yourself an apostle of science, then you are replicating many of the thinking patterns that you accuse religious people of having, namely, closed-mindedness, blindness to evidence, black and white thinking and attributing the worst motives to your enemies. I think all of these are clearly visible in the writings of the New Atheists.

I am a scientist and an atheist, but I don’t treat science as sacred. I think the empirical facts about religion in America are generally quite positive, and I say that in my book. I’m hoping that my book will give secular people an alternative vision of religion than that offered by the New Atheists.

If the New Atheists were correct, there could be no compromise and we would be in a battle to the death between religion and atheism. But I think they’re not correct and religion and atheism can coexist quite peacefully in this country.

I’m a social scientist. I’m an empiricist, meaning I’m interested in what the evidence says, and the evidence, as collected in particular by Robert Putnam [and David Campbell] in his new book American Grace, the evidence is very consistent and very positive.

Had it turned out that religious people were more violent, racist and selfish, then I would agree with the New Atheists that we should try to reduce the role of religion. But, in fact, that is not the case. Religious people are more generous, more public spirited and happier. So I followed the evidence and the evidence said that religion contributes a great deal to people’s lives and to our nation.

via The Christian Post


12 thoughts on “jonathan haidt on the new atheists

  1. Haidt apparently ignores the evidence at a societal level – which shows that the USA, by far the most religious rich society, is also the most violent and unequal, imprisons a vastly higher proportion of its population than any other, and has higher levels of most social pathologies and problems. For this, see Wilkinson and Pickett The Spirit Level although their focus is on income inequality – the more unequal (and, generally, more religious) states within the USA also have higher levels of social pathology; and, directly on correlations between religiosity and social pathology, Paul 2009). Of course it’s possible that individual and societal-level correlations go in opposite directions, but the findings of Galen and Kloet (2011) do not seem to support Putnam and Campbell, and according to Stroep (2007), the correlations in Denmark and Netherlands are much weaker (although still positive), and not statistically significant.

  2. I’ll take “it’s more complicated than that” for 1000, Alex.

    First, yes, the demonization of religion that has characterized the New Atheism is clearly unproductive at best. As to why, I prefer Scott Atran’s reasons to Haidt’s, mostly because I’m not *quite* sold on multi level selection yet and Haidt’s case for the beneficence of religion depends too strongly on it IMHO. Atran’s critique is much simpler: The New Atheism is *functionally* a religion.

    Anyway, it is quite true that group bonding does have positive effects, though supernatural religion seems to have little to do with it. In the few studies that have been done, committed atheists who attend atheist social groups regularly fare about the same as committed religious people who attend religious social groups regularly, and both better than the uncommitted middle.

    The larger data he is ignoring or glossing over is the terror management theory research on explicit and implicit demonization and bias that comes along with such group membership. Is there some way we can we have it all, getting the benefit of social groups without the downsides of the seemingly inevitable demonizing either explicitly or implicitly of non-group members? I’m not sure, but that’s what I’m fixing to find out. I predict numerous failures before success, if success ever comes. I will be a bit overdramatic in saying I think that exploring that possibility is perhaps one of the most important experiments for the future of our species(but I’m definitely biased ;-). I don’t commit my time lightly.

    • In what sense is New Atheism “functionally a religion”? (Where, for that matter, does Atran make this claim – and given his generally favourable view of religion, did he mean it as a compliment?) It’s really just atheism that isn’t ashamed or apologetic in opposing religion (and that’s really not new, if you actually look at what earlier atheists had to say).


        The whole thing is interesting and related, but 33:00-45:00 is most topical.

        If religion is a social norming community built around transcendentals, the New Atheism is a religion. Of course, like every other religion, they are blind to the fact their transcendentals are in fact contingent, and thinks its angry tirades to enforce their trancendentals are good for the world, while demonizing other groups for the same things they are doing.

        I’m an atheist, and before I started reading cognitive and social science research I fit the “New Atheist” bucket. Based on what I now know, I now agree with Atran. New Atheism espouses trancendentals which are much more contingent and less scientific than they realize, and the way they try to enforce them on others is the same poison they claim to be fighting.

      • Thanks for the link to Atran’s interview. Of course if you make the definition of “functionally a religion” broad enough, just about any social phenomenon turns out to be one. Atran is evidently very knowledgeable about terrorism, and I’d agree with many of his criticisms of what some prominent New Atheists, notably Harris, have said on that issue. But there was a good deal of sloppiness in his broader claims. For example, the claim that the idea that there is a common humanity derives from monotheism. This idea was well-known to the ancient Greeks (polytheists), and to the early Buddhists and Jains (non-theists from a polytheist culture). The claim that the 20th century was the worst for mass violence – the victims of European colonialism and the slave trade from the 16th through 19th century might differ. The claim that the “transcendental value” that advancing rationality at the expense of irrationality and specifically religion improves things can’t be empirically verified. I’ll bet Atran has benefitted from modern medicine, for example, which is a key part of this advance; and it is precisely as the cultural power of religion has declined that such things as democracy, gender equality and personal liberty have advanced – and it is now primarily from religious groups and ideologies that these things are under threat. It’s also interesting that the only group for whose beliefs he uses words like “crazy”, “bizarre” etc. is not jihadis or Nazis, for example, but the New Atheists! So I think that’s more personal animus than anything, and I suspect the motive for claiming that New Atheism is “functionally a religion” is primarily the desire to piss certain people off.

  3. Oh definitions! How about looking in the dictionary? Websters has the following as possible definitions of religion:

    1) the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
    2) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
    3) a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

    Let’s compare that with atheism:
    1) a disbelief in the existence of deity
    2) the doctrine that there is no deity

    Ardor? Certainly.
    Faith? Up for discussion (Critchley would say so)
    Belief? See atheism 1) belief is not equal to disbelief.

    Therefore, assuming the “new atheists” are in fact atheists, they are not religious and the doctrine they hold, not a religion.

    • I haven’t listened to that interview, but some of the criticisms that could be relevant here makes a distinction between “New Atheism” (as a movement with an associated ethos) and plain ole atheism.

    • Yeah, I sort of agree in that that functional definitions of religion aren’t what most people are used to (but you *are* on the Internet, and searching for “functional definitions of religion” really isn’t too hard 😉 .

      Personally, I prefer the terror management theory lingo which better captures what Atran and I are talking about, but most people aren’t familiar with that either.

      • Woah, hulu links are auto-converted to embedded videos on Weird…

        Anyway, you can click the little hulu button to go the the real page if you’re interested. 😉

        It’s an award winning documentary that is probably my favorite film of all time, and explains a powerful and extremely well tested psychological theory.

        Just don’t watch it if there’s no one around you can hug afterward, it’s not a mirthful one.

      • On this topic, you might find Phil Zuckerman’s Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment interesting if you haven’t read it. One of its themes is that people who don’t believe in an afterlife are, if anything, less scared of death, at least in the Danish and Swedish case.

      • Also, many religions that have an afterlife (or reincarnation) don’t make it sound very attractive. To the Greeks and Romans, the afterlife was a pale shadow of this one. To many Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, the aim is to avoid being reincarnated and achieve personal extinction. And a lot of Christian sects deliberately use terror of Hell as a means of social control.

    • I ran into this problem with Hagglund’s “Radical Atheism” – the assumption that to be religious necessarily means some kind of belief or hope in an afterlife. That’s essentially his definition of religion.

      But, that is not true of many – of course not all – religious people. Nor is it a necessary implication of “the religious” (see Caputo’s “On Religion”).

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