Whenever you see an interview or article by David Sloan Wilson these days, you know he’ll be kvetching about one of two things: the horribly unfair neglect of group selection by evolutionary biologists, or the horribly unfair neglect of “evolutionary religious studies” (ERS) by evolutionary biologists. (“Evolutionary religious studies” comprise the efforts of scholars to discern the evolutionary basis of religious behavior. It’s a subset of “religious studies,” which include non-evolutionary reasons for faith.) And just as invariably, you’ll find Wilson making gratuitous swipes at the New Atheists who, he sees, are drawing attention from his own endeavors, criticizing the false beliefs and inimical effects of religion rather than doing what Wilson wants us to do, which is work on why religion evolved. Wilson’s entire oeuvre over the last two decades can be summed up in three words: “I’ve been neglected!” The curious thing is that Wilson is an atheist himself.
In his new piece at PuffHo, “The New Atheism and evolutionary religious studies: clarifying their relationship,” Wilson sings the same tune. In fact, it’s a tune similar to that warbled by Terry Eagleton, who famously complained that Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, didn’t pay enough attention to sophisticated (and often obscure) theologians like Duns Scotus. In Wilson’s piece, he complains that New Atheists (including Dawkins, of course) don’t pay enough attention to sophisticated practitioners of ERS like Wilson himself.
Wilson makes three points about the relationship between ERS and New Atheism. The first two are unexceptionable.
- “They are alike in their rejection of the “actively intervening god” hypothesis. . . The New Atheists are deeply convinced about the nonexistence of actively intervening gods. Religious scholars don’t shout their convictions from the rooftops, but their adherence to methodological naturalism amounts to the same thing.”
- “As a scholarly discipline, ERS is agnostic about what gets done with the knowledge that is created. The New Atheism is oriented toward action.”
The third point is what gets Wilson’s claws out:
- “Whenever New Atheists make claims about religion as a human phenomenon, their claims should respect the authority of empirical evidence. Insofar as the new discipline of ERS has added to empirical knowledge of religion, the New Atheists should be paying close attention to ERS. This is especially true for Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, whose names are so closely associated with evolution. Step 3 should go without saying and I doubt that anyone would disagree with it in principle. Yet, by my assessment, there is a serious disconnect between the New Atheism and ERS at the level of Step 3. I will illustrate with a single example involving Richard Dawkins. . .”
The example? In a talk on YouTube (the six-minute video below), Dawkins answers an audience question about the evolutionary advantage of religion. He floats the idea that religion is a byproduct of other traits that were themselves adaptive (he uses the example of moths flying into candles as a byproduct of their evolved ability to keep a constant angle when using the moon to navigate).
There’s nothing wrong with that answer: it’s one possibility. Others, like Pascal Boyer, have suggested different “byproduct” explanations, in Boyer’s case that religion is a byproduct of humans’ evolved tendency to attribute agency to objects in their environment. So what’s Wilson’s beef? It’s similar to Eagleton’s:
The problem is that the byproduct hypothesis is only one of six major evolutionary hypotheses that can explain any given aspect of religion. The others explain religion as an adaptation to the current environment (at the group level, the individual level, or only for the cultural trait as a parasite), as an adaptation to past environments that has become mismatched to its current environment, or as a neutral product of drift. In addition, these hypotheses need to be addressed separately for genetic and cultural evolution.
Six of them! And Dawkins didn’t even mention the other five!
. . . The question is, when Dawkins was asked to comment on religion as a product of evolution, how well did his answer reflect what is currently known, based on the hard work of Dawkins’ evolutionist colleagues? Is it indeed the current state of knowledge that religion is like a moth to flame and results primarily in silly counterproductive behaviors? Or did Dawkins distort what is currently known about religion as a product of evolution, either knowingly or unknowingly?
In other words, Dawkins neglected the Duns Scotuses (Scoti?) of ERS. Wilson goes on to attack New Atheism as a whole for the same fault:
At this point, it is important to leave Dawkins and pose the same questions for the New Atheism movement as a whole. In general, whenever people associated with the movement comment on religion as a human phenomenon (step 3), do they respect the authority of empirical evidence to the best of our current knowledge? Or do they bias their portrayal of religion, selectively emphasizing scientific hypotheses that, if true, would promote their activist objectives (step 2)?
The answers to these questions make the difference between a legitimate science-based activist agenda and an ideology that distorts facts to serve its narrow purpose (knowingly or unknowingly). . .
No one would be happier than me to discover that the New Atheists are basing their activist agenda on the best current knowledge of religion as a human phenomenon. But if this is not the case — if New Atheists are portraying religion any way they please by selectively quoting scientific hypotheses — then they’re no better than bible thumpers.
And, of course, Wilson finally gets around to his big problem: he’s butthurt because people like Dawkins neglect Wilson’s own brand of ERS: the evolution of religion as a “prosocial” behavior via group selection (see my review of his book on this topic)
. . . [imagine] what would happen if Dawkins gave an answer to the audience member’s question more in line with the current ERS literature. What if he had said that religions are fundamentally about the creation and organization of prosocial communities? That all people require a cultural meaning system to organize their experience, receiving environmental information as input and resulting in effective action as output? That all cultural meaning systems confront a complex tradeoff between the factual content of a given belief and its effect upon action? That secular meaning systems often depart from factual reality in their own ways? The effect upon the audience would have been very different than when they were told that religion is like a moth immolating itself or like a child mindlessly being fed useless information.
I seriously doubt that. The audience didn’t come to hear Richard discourse on the many ways religion might have originally come into being. That would be a long and boring lecture—and one without a conclusion, since we’ll never really know how religion got started in the first place, or whether it evolved via group selection.
What Wilson doesn’t realize, but anybody not blinded by hubris should, is that the agenda of New Atheism is concerned not so much with the origins of religion (though Dan Dennett dealt with it in Breaking the Spell), but with the truth of religious teachings and the effect of those teachings on the world. The agenda is this:
- Testing whether the tenets of religion are true. The New Atheist answer is “no.”
- Assessing the effects of ungrounded religious belief on the world. The New Atheist conclusion is that, seen as a whole, religions have inflicted far more harm than good on the world.
- Getting rid of the unwarranted authority and privilege that religion, established churches, and religious officials have garnered for themselves over the centuries.
Note that none of that depends on the evolutionary origins of religion, indeed, on whether religion even has an evolutionary origin. Points 1 and 2 above have nothing to do with the issue, and point 3 only tangentially.
Perhaps Wilson would argue that if we understand the evolutionary basis of religious belief, it will help us deal with its effects. I have two responses to that: 1) I doubt whether we’ll ever understand the evolutionary basis of religious belief. How could we ever tell, for instance, whether it spread by group selection, or if it is even genetically based? (I’ve proposed bringing up children in a religion-free environment to see if they spontaneously become religious. I doubt it.) 2) As I argued in my review in The New York Times, it’s dubious whether it’s even useful to use knowledge gleaned from ERS to deal with social problems. Wilson’s own Neighborhood Project in Binghamton, which tries to reform his town by using principles of “prosociality” and group selection, hasn’t exactly been a shining success.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t think we shouldn’t study religious beliefs and practices so we can take them on in an informed way. That’s one reason I’m spending a lot of time reading theology. My beef is that understanding how religion works and what it believes can be done independently of how it originated in the first place. We’ll never know much about that origin, but we can learn a lot about how religion works now.
You don’t see many of the New Atheists telling Wilson to drop his crusade for group selection and join them in their fight against religion. We’re content to leave him alone to pursue his lonely agenda, with some of us occasionally pointing out its futility. But Wilson simply can’t shut up about the New Atheists. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it’s because he thinks his ideas deserve more attention than theirs. But ERS is a speculative enterprise, and the harms of religion are real. I’d rather take on the latter than speculate about the former.
Increasingly, Wilson is beginning to resemble those seagulls in the film Finding Nemo, whose only cry, as they fight for scraps of food, is “Mine, mine, mine, mine!”:
Unfortunately, the largesse of the Templeton foundation has given Wilson a big megaphone, so I don’t expect his atheist-bashing to stop any time soon.