Frans de Waal tries to give atheists a good hiding in Salon; Anthony Grayling takes him down

March 26, 2013 • 6:29 am

UPDATE: Reader “GJG” notes that Grayling’s review is available for free here.

I’m not sure what has happened to primatologist Frans de Waal, a man whose work I’ve greatly admired, for he’s been on a bender against New Atheism, using all the familiar tropes about the movement being both militant and “religious” in nature.  One would think that if he attacked one side of the faith-vs.-atheism debate, it would be religion, for, more than anyone else, de Waal has discerned and publicized the roots of human morality in our relatives—primate and otherwise.  He has frequently argued that human morality did not come from God, but was largely a product of evolution.

But instead of criticizing religion, he’s taken to criticizing atheism.  The first signs appeared in a 2010 piece in the New York Times (see my post here) in which he derided New Atheists for, among other things, their stridency. And then there was a note on his public Facebook page last May about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist:

The book is almost done! It is a reflection on religion and the origins of morality. It questions whether we get any closer to the truth by bashing religion, the way neo-atheists have been doing, even though I also believe that morality antedates modern religion.

That worried me, and, sure enough, the worries were valid.  In that book, which has just appeared, de Waal devotes a substantial section to bashing “militant” atheists and sticking up for religion.  That’s bizarre, for he’s an atheist himself, and his work has begun demolishing one of the last redoubts of religion: God-given morality.  My theory for his behavior, which differs from Anthony Grayling’s (see below), is that de Waal, realizing that his conclusions aren’t congenial to the faithful, must take some swipes at atheists to maintain credibility with the public.

Read and weep: de Waal has just published an essay in Salon called “Militant atheism has become a religion” (subtitle: “Prominent non-believers have become as dogmatic as those they deride—and become rich on the lecture circuit”). It is in fact a straight excerpt from his new book. You really have to read the essay (and it’s longish) to see how far off the rails he’s gone, for it’s a disjointed ramble punctuated by gratuitous swipes at atheists and sporadic osculations of the rump of faith. A few quotes:

  • “In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?”

de Waal also suffers from the misconception that most atheists are militant because they retain the zeal they once had when they were religious. Unfortunately, most of the militant atheists I know were not once zealous religionists. I certainly was not, and I don’t think any of the “Four Horsemen” were, either.

  • “Possibly, the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces. . . I like this analysis better than the usual approach to secularization, which just counts how many people believe and how many don’t. It may one day help to test my thesis that activist atheism reflects trauma. The stricter one’s religious background, the greater the need to go against it and to replace old securities with new ones.”

He then uses Christopher Hitchens as an example of someone who “craved dogma, yet had trouble deciding on its contents,” arguing that Hitchens (who was never really religious) went from Trotskyism to Greek Orthodox faith, to “American neo-Conservatism”, and then to dogmatic atheism. de Waal recounts the atheism/religion debate at Puebla, Mexico, between Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris on one side, and Dinesh D’Souza and Rabbit Shmuley Boteach on the other. (I was at that meeting, but had to leave before the debate.) de Waal argues that such debates change nobody’s mind.  He forgets that there are onlookers on YouTube and elsewhere, who do change their minds (or form a previously inchoate opinion) because of such debates. Just read Richard Dawkins’s “Converts’ Corner” to see the effect of strident atheism: hundreds have left their faith.

de Waal, once a Catholic, then spends some time defending that Church as a bulwark of science, and arguing, erroneously, that the Church preserved science during the Dark Ages. He gives the Catholic Church an undeserved pat on the back:

  • “When it comes to evolution, too, there is a tendency to point at religion as a solid opponent while ignoring that the Roman Catholic Church never formally condemned Darwin’s theory or put his works on the Index (the list of forbidden books). The Vatican has endorsed evolution as a valid theory compatible with the Christian faith. Admittedly, its endorsement came a bit late, but it is good to realize that resistance to evolution is almost entirely restricted to evangelical Protestants in the American South and Midwest.”

This is wrong in several ways. First, as I noted in my Evolution paper in 2012, Catholics are by no means down with modern theories of evolution:

The Catholic Church, for example, accepts a form of theistic evolution, mostly natural but still guided by God when it comes to the evolution of humans and their supposed souls (John Paul II, 1996). Nevertheless, 27% of American Catholics think that modern species were created instantaneously by God and have remained unchanged ever since, while 8% do not know or refuse to answer (Masci 2009).

The Catholic Church claims that humans are unique in evolution because God inserted a soul at some point in the hominin lineage. Further, it is official Church dogma that Adam and Eve were real people. I don’t call that a “valid theory of evolution”.

And when it comes to Catholicism, de Waal forgets to mention Galileo and Bruno, who were threatened or killed for going against Scripture (I reject the common claim that the Galileo affair “had nothing to do with religious dogma”).

It’s also specious to claim that resistance to evolution “is almost entirely restricted to evangelical Protestants in the American South and Midwest.” That’s not true even for America, where resistance to evolution is geographically widespread. 40% of all Americans are young-earth creationists, and only 12% believe in naturalistic as opposed to theistic evolution. Resistance to evolution is common in other countries as well, and is virtually universal in Islamic countries of the Middle East.

Well, I won’t go on, except to reproduce this very bizarre quote from de Waal’s piece:

  • “Given this intertwinement [a supposed history of mutual respect between science and faith], most historians stress dialogue or even integration between science and religion. Neo-atheists keep pitting the two against each other, however. Their audiences pee in their pants with delight when the flat-earth canard gets trotted out.

Pee in our pants with delight?

To be sure, de Waal does offer some criticisms of religion, but repeatedly equates extreme religiosity with extreme atheism, considering the latter to be religious in both nature and fervor.  The whole piece is very, very odd—and disappointing. I would have hoped for better from this man. Well, his invective will surely sit well with many readers, and one is tempted to level the same criticism at him that he does against the New Atheists, whom he accuses of using stridency to gain wealth on the lecture circuit.

Fortunately, we have Anthony Grayling to defend New Atheism here. He’s just published a review of de Waal’s book in Prospect Magazine, and in his piece, called “Apes and atheism” (sadly, behind a paywall), pretty much dismantles de Waal’s contentions about atheism. I’ll offer just a few whiffs of Grayling’s pungent prose.

He begins by praising de Waal for the many advances he’s made in understanding the evolution of morality, but then gets down to business, giving an overall appraisal of the book:

The book is, however, an oddity. Besides the stated aim it is a mixture of memoir, repetition of de Waal’s now familiar views, and hostile discussion of the ‘new atheist’ movement. The result is a somewhat unfocussed ramble one of whose main points for de Waal, apart from rehearsing the already-won ‘apes R us’ argument, appears to be to distance himself from the ‘new atheist’ attack on religion.

The Salon excerpt certainly is unfocussed and rambling; have a look.

Why, [de Waal] asks, are the ‘new atheists’ evangelical about their cause? ‘Why would atheists turn messianic?’ He cannot see why Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett and others attack religion and believers, and why correlatively they robustly and even aggressively argue the case for atheism. He can see why the advocates of religions do it; the more believers, he says, the more money they get. (Here, as a sympathizer, he should perhaps recognize that some religionists sincerely believe they have the Truth that will save us, and might be trying to be helpful; not all of them want money, though doubtless the ranting preachers of the Nigerian megachurches do.)

Well: here is the answer to de Waal’s question. Some atheists are evangelical because religious claims about the universe are false, because children are brain-washed into the ancient superstitions of their parents and communities, because many religious organisations and movements have been and continue to be anti-science, anti-gays, and anti-women, because even if people are no longer burned at the stake they are still stoned to death for adultery, murdered for being ‘witches’ or abortion doctors, blown up in large numbers for being Shias instead of Sunnis…one could go on at considerable length about the divisions, conflicts, falsehoods, coercions, disruptions, miseries and harm done by religion, though the list should be familiar; except, evidently, to de Waal.

He might respond with the usual points: on one side the charity, art and solace inspired by religion, and on the other side Hitler and Stalin as examples of the crimes of atheism. And the usual replies have wearily to be given: non-believers also engage in charity and make great art, and their love and care for others provides solace too; and the totalitarianisms are just alternatives of the great religions at their worst, possessing their own versions of the One Truth to which all must bow down – at risk of severe sanctions otherwise. (Hitler was not an atheist – Gott mit uns said the legend on Wehrmacht belt buckles –  and Stalin was educated in a seminary, where evidently he picked up a few tricks.)

As for those benign Catholics, here’s Grayling’s answer:

[de Waal] tells us that the Roman Catholic Church never formally proscribed Darwin’s Origin of Species, as if this exculpated them from every other effort made to resist the march of science, as for example in burning Giordano Bruno at the stake and forcing Galileo to recant on pain of the same fate, both for accepting the Copernican geocentric view. De Waal says that religion’s opponents are wrong to say that if religion had its way, we would still believe that the earth is flat – his reason being that the ancient Greeks already knew that the earth is a sphere. What then does he make of the fact that in 1615 Cardinal Bellarmine warned a scientifically-minded monk against the Copernican view, on the grounds that Psalm 102 explicitly states that God has ‘fixed the foundations of the earth that it might never be moved’?

If de Waal thinks this is all ‘mere history’, let him look around at the creationists and Intelligent Design ‘theorists’ trying to subvert the teaching of biology in today’s schools, opposing stem cell research, preventing girls from going to school in some Muslim countries, persecuting homosexuals – and so on again through the familiar litany. And he still wonders why some atheists are evangelical?

Finally, we have Grayling’s scathing last paragraph:

The chimp and bonobo stories in de Waal’s writings are, as always, entertaining and charming. They make me think that if ideas about reincarnation are true, I suspect that quite a few people would not mind being reborn as bonobos. Their motive would be related to the perversions and limitations of human sexuality that has so successfully been achieved by the religions de Waal defends.

Grayling’s theory for de Waal’s anti-atheism differs from mine: he thinks that de Waal’s view that religion is benign comes from his Catholic upbringing, and from inculcation with “the psychological finesse” of Catholicism, which exercises a permanent hold over one’s mind.  And there may be some truth in that: I’ve found that those “faitheists” who are most sympathetic to religion tend to be people who were once deeply religious, but haven’t yet shaken it all off. This contrast with de Waal’s theory that the most strident atheists were once the most religious people—a theory that, I think, is disproven by simply seeing which atheists are most vociferous.

At any rate, I’m disappointed by de Waal’s views (and note that I’ve read the excerpt, Grayling’s comment, and de Waal’s earlier statements, but not yet the whole book)—and in the same way I’m disappointed by E. O. Wilson’s latter-day incursion into group selection.  Someone I have respected has gone off the intellectual rails. In Wilson’s case it’s about science; in de Waal’s it’s a gratuitous and misguided attack on atheism.  And gratuitous it is: for what conceivable reason would de Waal, in a book on the evolutionary origins of morality (the books’s subtitle is In Search of Humanism Among the Primates), decide to mount an attack on New Atheism? He may have a score to settle, but he should have settled it elsewhere.

h/t: Emily, Barry

121 thoughts on “Frans de Waal tries to give atheists a good hiding in Salon; Anthony Grayling takes him down

    1. Theoretically, Frans de Waal could be cured of his lingering religiousity (or religious sympathy) if he were to spend as much time rehabilitating in Richard Dawkins’ “boot camp” in the future as he was indoctrinated in the Catholic Church in the past.

    2. In one way, even the bonobos may be talking back. It has been suggested by some primatologists that de Waal has exaggerated the behavioral differences between bonobos and chimps, with excessive emphasis on female dominance or matriarchies in bonobo societies and an excessive emphasis on certain forms of sexual behavior (particularly since many observations are from bonobos in captivity). If so, perhaps this tendency toward overzealous interpretations of behavior has spilled over in his analysis of human culture?

  1. lol.

    His motives are easy enough to understand.

    In pejorative terms, it’s called selling out.


    Selling out has nothing to do with intellectual honesty/integrity. It has to do with moving product.

    1. Nah. I think the “grumpy old fart” (I’m one) explanation hits the Occam sweet spot better than $.

  2. “de Waal, once a Catholic” – that says so much. The RC faith clearly inculcates such a basic fear in its followers that it can survive the loss of faith.

    Is it acceptable for an atheist to ‘evangelize’? I ask, is it acceptable to promote & advocate views of the world that are clearly wrong & based on opinion not fact. That is what religions do.

    My answer is ‘No’.

    1. Well, since “evangelize” comes from “evangelium” which means “Good News,” I suppose it is appropriate for atheists to evangelize.

      1. I was unclear – I meant it IS acceptable to ‘evangelize’ atheism but NOT religion, because the latter is based on nonsense while the former is what the default position should be, that there is NO evidence for god/dess

    1. And an argument against dogmatism. De Waal apparently misunderstands what it means — which is ironic considering that he thinks it is the real ‘enemy.’

  3. New atheists are wearing t-shirts proclaiming their atheism. Surely even you, Jerry, can see how militant and strident that is.


  4. lol.

    He ignores the fact that there are people out there exhibiting the same “zeal” in opposing claims for which there is no evidence.

    For example, homeopathy. There are “zealots” of actual scientists that fight this non-sense called homeopathy.

    de Waals conveniently forgets that Religion is a quack claim like any other quack claim.

    1. I’m a strident, dogmatic anti-homeopath because rejecting the unsubstantiated claims of homeopathy is my religion.


  5. De Waaaaaaah appears enamored with the cultural accoutrements left in the wake of Catholic exceptionalism (aka “relics of the apes”). It’s like being a defense attorney for a client you know is both wrong and guilty just because his family comes from nobility.

  6. From the Salon essay, Frans de Waal appears as a typical North European: not religious, not dogmatic, no hang-ups. He has no truc with the contemporary American stridency of both sides of fundamentalist. It would be better to consider seriously what he has to say.
    Northern Europe, occasionally trotted out as a non-religious society, is not atheist: it is just indifferent.

    1. Harder to be indifferent in the USA, because religion is rammed down the throat pretty much constantly. I’m personally indifferent, but use stridency as a defense against non-stop efforts to impose religious dogma as law. I bet at Sandhurst or St Cyr. the military doesn’t allow religious bullying as has been noted at West Point and Air Force Academy. That’s bloody dangerous, in my view to have real “Christian Soldiers”. Perhaps fact the European countries have established religions means people ignore them. Here in US, with official bar to establishment, religion is everywhere in civic life. Obama at a prayer breakfast (disgusting!)

    2. You may want to reread the OP and its linked writings again. As Grayling and others have pointed out de Waal has made no new criticisms. All of his criticisms have been considered and reconsidered many times, seriously. They are actually rather stale and cliche, though he did come up with some pretty good new insults to try and add some flavor. I like and admire de Waal (not personally, I don’t know him personally) but this really is pretty disappointing.

      The stridency you mention is not limited to the Americas but is alive and well in Europe and other parts of the world. Many of the prominent atheists that de Waal is referring to are not American. And, shit, do you not know that the Vatican is in Europe? Fundamentalist mouthings and policies regularly emanate from that bastion of religiosity. Or, do you not think that Adam & Eve, transubstantiation and exorcisms qualify as fundamentalist?

      I would guess that it is likely that you are not American.

    3. Calling atheists “fundamentalists” is straight up bullshit.

      His “what does atheism have to offer” crap makes it really clear that this is not an issue of the substance of anti-theist arguments but about the validity of our saying anything whatsoever.

      What is the sole reason the UN hasn’t passed a declaration in support of the rights of women? Oh yeah, because it’s been consistently blocked by the Vatican and Islamic states. Literally billions of people suffer at the hands of people who claim an authority or justification granted by their god, and de Waal, even as a man who acknowledges that god DOESN’T EXIST, feels fit to insult people with the courage to say so? Seriously, fuck him.

      de Waal is definitely a genius, but genius often requires specialization and a narrowness of focus; these vague, unspecified criticisms against “new atheists” are evidently, by their triteness, a product of hearsay and ignorance of the social issues “new atheists” seek to resolve.

      1. Could you please refrain from such profanity in the future, especially the “fuck him” part? That adds nothing to your substantive points and creates a tone that I really don’t want on this site. Your other points are fine.

  7. As a long-time admirer of “Chimpanzee Politics” and other de Waal research, there is one Templeton research grant I would truly love to see awarded:

    “The Roots of Religion Among the Hominidae.”

  8. Bashing a militant atheist for being “obsessed” with the non-existence of the supernatural is like bashing a militant math teacher for being obsessed with 2+2 actually equaling 4. Silly.

    1. Know what I’m sick of? Militant accomodationists stridently bashing the new atheists. Can’t they just let it drop? Do they have to be so rude, so shrill, so dogmatic? I mean, attacking religion is a private matter, a personal decision. De Waal sounds like he’s obsessed.

      He needs to learn to lay back and live-and-let-live. Respect our choice to be gnu atheists and we’ll respect HIS choice to be some other kind of atheist. We could all get along so well if he would just shut up.

      Hard for him to argue with …

      1. It really is hard to understand what a scientists finds so objectionable about discrediting and disregard a false hypothesis. One would assume that this is something he has engaged in during his career. I, for one, call for all his colleagues to sign on to an open letter condemning his stridency.

  9. DeWaal:

    “Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?”

    Seriously? Where does one begin…

    1. I read an article some months ago about a group of atheists who met from time to time in Atlanta for a bit of freedom.

      They discussed how best to run their lives when being frowned upon by the religious types who could influence their careers and social status.

      It looks to me like the way of any minority group. Hey, what do I know?

  10. I am a Brit, it’s not a confession just a fact.

    I am atheistic, apparently. I don’t put myself into a box. I just positively believe in science generally and biology in particular.

    Actually that’s it.

    The point is – whether there is a god or not does not figure. There is no discussion, no proof, no hypothsesis, nothing to test so nothing to consider. So myself and my colleagues spend no time on the matter. Until challenged by pseudo-science face to face and forced on the defensive. I don’t see those people any more – what’s the point?

    Is it different in the USA?

    1. Fundamentalist Christians have way too much political power in the US. We need to fight them all the time — in the government, in the schools, in our front yards.

  11. “Roman Catholic Church never formally condemned Darwin’s theory or put his works on the Index (the list of forbidden books)”

    Has he never considered that the existence of such a list of banned books is evidence of the anti-science and authoritarian nature of the church?

    Would he find the following a convincing argument: “I am not anti-religious, if you look at my list of religious leaders to be shot you will find that the Pope is not on it…”

  12. Frans de Waal was born in 1948. I’m a little younger, but not much. It seems to me that some old men (I’ve not thought about old women in this context) struggle to simplify their lives, or perhaps give up. I’m not sure if this is cognitive failure, hormonal decline, or some other factor. I’m not sure if this applies to Frans de Waal.

    I am sure the loyal readers can think of examples. Robert Heinlein started writing some weird stuff later in his life. James Watson has become quite forthright about particular matters. Some of the older Popes have become more conservative. Some philosophers have become more Marxist. Anthony Flew appeared to embrace intelligent design. If a Professor says something shocking and contrary to his earlier views, chances are that he is Professor Emeritus.

    When you think that senior religious figures, senior politicians, senior military officers, and senior executives are (mostly) older men… it would explain a great deal.

      1. And some old liberals and atheists can later become more conservative and apologetic to religion. Just anecdotally, my grandparents and parents, all very secular, academic, and democratic in politics, ‘turned’ that way to some degree as they got to advanced age. My mother now regularly brings up dark comments about ‘that man Obama…’. I would not look forward to being like that.

        1. WTF? As I’ve grown older (and I was born before the U.S. entered WWII), I’ve become more “militant,” not more accommodating. Geez. You kids!

    1. And some of us have remained pretty much normal and push the same line as we have done all our lives. Drop the ageist crap

      1. My thought exactly – if anything it lets de Waal off the hook anyway. He’s 64 years old, for crying out loud. I would guess that de Waal is pretty close in age to our host. Are we going to start making ageist excuses for JAC now?

          1. “Their [atheists] militancy-for such indeed it sometimes is, for the good reasons sketched above-is about secularism, not metaphysics; it is about the place of the religious voice in education and the public square where it is at best an irrelevance and at worst a cancer.”

            From Grayling’s article.

            Now me.

            This sums up “militancy”. Mostly the metaphysical ‘argument’ is laughable, but when risible metaphysics is teamed with political influence, I do tend to get my drawers in a twist. Unfortunately, the metaphysics of believers (at least the Chrisitan/Islamic version) includes their form of universalism, which is that theirs is the only proper metaphysics, which they want to cram down our gullets on every public occasion and in every public space. They tend to believe that promoting their beliefs requires them to be omnipresent and unavoidable.

  13. Yes, I suspect that this is a case of a person who is no longer convinced by the basis of religion, but who still sees religion as a good thing, full of nice people. I struggled with that for a while, especially in relation to the Roman Catholic Church. Having encountered only liberal priests, and with media depictions of priests being on the whole positive (Fathers Flanagan (“Boys Town”), Duffy (“The Fighting 69th”), and Kelly (“Guadalcanal Diary”) come to mind, not to mention numerous fictional priests such as Father O’Malley (“Going My Way)), it was easy to say that one should go easy on religion.

    My view is different now, in part due to Hitchens and Dawkins. It seems not only that the bad religions do outweighs the good, but that the potential for bad outweighs the potential for good. Whatever good they do, it seems like we could manage without the baggage.

    If, however, atheism is a religion, I don’t think Brother de Waal’s conversion is very deep. It seems like he might be back-sliding.

    And doesn’t anyone read White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom anymore? It amply displays the effect that the dead hand of religion has had on the growth of science, at least up to the end of the nineteenth century. It’s clear there would be plenty of material for an update (poor White thought victory was in sight).

  14. I understand his ‘dogmatism’ point. There are a lot of atheist bloggers who are dogmatic about many subjects on which they are both unqualified to pontificate AND accept without even the slightest skepticism all while insisting they are skeptical as they troll the Internet and the atheist community with their unsupported horse-shit.

    And it’s also true they do work the lecture circuit. They also make their aggregation sites and suck in lesser known atheist bloggers.

    The striking similarities between the way they argue. They way they troll. The way the seek to enforce their beliefs of others. And they work it like the religious work their flocks it’s become ever so obvious that, for them, it’s about power, prestige and money.

    Now, I’m not putting you (or Sam Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet) in that category, Jerry. You don’t play that poiewr-money-prestige game or try to ‘control’ the movement and its meetings, allowable beliefs, etc.

    But there are a lot of quasi-authoritarians that have risen to the top.

    Which is the nature of movements. Rarely do the honest and sincere get to the top. Rather, the power-hungry, money-grubbing, fame-whore assholes hijack it for their purposes and the movement rots from within.

    Something I’ve seen in the past few years as some of the bigger trolls have captured the ‘atheist market’ as it were.

    1. I think I know who you may be thinking of, but I disagree. This argument I think is well refuted on this site and others pretty regularly.

    2. “There are a lot of atheist bloggers who are dogmatic about many subjects on which they are both unqualified to pontificate…”


      There’s a variant of Sturgeon’s law at work here…


    3. As a lurker, I’m still trying to get the feel for commenting here.

      Is this right: “fuck him” is bad for the tone, but “fame-whore assholes” is OK?

  15. The New Atheism also got very enthusiastic in the wake of the nightmare of the Bush Presidency- a very publicly religious president who needlessly drove America into a war on Iraq that pointlessly killed thousands of American soldiers. Add to this the eruption of the child molesting scandal in the Catholic church, 9/11, the escalation of gay bashing in right-wing circles, etc. It’s no wonder atheists have become so vocal!!

    All movements, even the best, have their extremists. But one should listen to its best representatives before criticizing. I’ve had occasion to feel the same way DeWaal does, but his sweeping generalizations about a diverse and complex movement seem self-evidently silly.

    (However, DeWaal is technically correct about the flat earth. Bellarmine was defending the earth being the center of the universe, not it’s flatness. Bellarmine’s actions remain reprehensible however.)

  16. Reblogged this on Homo economicus' Weblog and commented:
    Not sure whether a religious upbringing of an atheist makes them more pro religions. Not my experience with ex Jehovah’s Witnesses. Would wonder if attitudes to secularism (and religious freedom) may differ between atheists rather than religious background key factor. Polling not done by the Church of England needed.

    Very interested in Bonobo learning difficulties and how group reacted, that Waal mentions in Salon article.

  17. So another article comes out to the general public that bashes atheism, calls atheism a religion, and calls atheists ‘strident’. I do wish to learn about an equal number of articles in these same sources that are about atheism THAT ARE WRITTEN BY THE ATHEISTS. I hope I am wrong, but my impression is that the opposition is gets to put most of the paint on our portrait.

  18. I bought the book after seeing it recommended on a atheist group on facebook, but I died inside as I read the attacks on ‘militant’ atheists and about his fear of a world without religion. Actually EMBARRASSING for a biologist to include it in a book supposedly about the behaviours of chimps and bonobos. I was expecting and wanted a straight forward scientific study of them.
    BTW- I’m very tired of that ‘militant’ label – just made up one day by some nutter and now they have all tagged on to it.

    1. It’s simple though. The more we discover in science the less room they have for manoeuvre.

      They used to be the single source of “credible” truth. Now they are not. You threaten their power base and they fight back. No different to any other struggle for power.

      I love the way they make up their own vocabulary and then seek to redefine established scientific terms.

      Oh yes, did I tell you, I came a across a re-definition of evolution in a book that was thrust upon me by an author called Jonathan Sarfati? It is a book replete with jargon, some his, some ours. If someone with no science background reads it it is impressive. If you have a basic knowledge and sound reasoning the book is laughable on many fronts.

  19. I’ll point out here what I already pointed out on Pharyngula: I think de Waal is taking this position because he is not framing the issue of tolerance and diversity correctly. He is allowing “religion” to pass as a preference and/or lifestyle, treating it as if it was an aspect of the diverse smorgasbord of human differentiation — instead of treating it as one view contending with others to solve a shared human problem: what is the nature of reality?

    That’s a question which is supposed to matter. De Waal should not agree to play along with those who on the one hand insist that God’s existence is the most important fact in the entire universe and on the other hand treat honest critique as if critics must be bullies insulting someone’s private life choice. It can’t be both. What makes religion unique is not the support, community, or psychological props: it’s the supernatural claims which insist they deserve to get a free ride in an armored tank.

    And de Waal should know better than to mistake passion for dogmatism. Dawkins clearly states that he knows what would or could change his mind. Can we say the same for people of faith? Faith itself is the making of a commitment to remain true and loyal to a conclusion as if you were standing by a person, or an ideal, or a value. If the real problem is “dogmatism” then faith is the poster child. It turns “changing your mind” into “losing the war” and entrenches who you are with what you believe. It is not de Waal’s friend no matter how nice he thinks the faithful can be.

    The live-and-let live attitude isn’t only negated when you look at those religions which won’t let us live-and-let live. I think it’s also negated when you look at the central core of how religion explains atheism: it’s an error not of reason, but from the heart. This is not okay. The existence of God is a hypothesis which needs to be taken seriously enough to evaluate in light of modern science. It is not an “identity” which marks you as the right sort of person. It is not a personal “choice.” The minute we let that slide by in the name of tolerance and diversity is the minute we accept a lower status.

    Of course theists like atheists who know how to shut up! Of course they like atheists who know they shouldn’t argue with the “nice” religions! They will “respect” us so much more when we keep quiet about our reasons and act as if nobody would ever change their mind about such a personal, emotional, private issue. And they’ll proudly point at atheists like de Waal who aren’t at all like other atheists.

    I don’t think he’s thought it through well enough. De Waal’s not realizing what it will do to the Diversity Smorgasbord if we include conclusions about fact claims as if they were personal commitments to moral ideals. He doesn’t like dogmatism? Good. That puts him for us — not against us.

    1. Once again, I find myself reading one of Sastra’s comments and finding I have nothing to add except “Ditto”.

      Well written as usual, Sastra.

  20. I did not find de Waal that apologetic towards religion… Okay, perhaps he is a little soft, however, that was not the subject.. I was thrilled to hear him use the term “evangelical atheist”, a term that I have used on more than one occasion. Yes, it’s offensive, and should be used with great caution, I use it only to define recalcitrance. And I do find the likes of Harris and Hitchens somewhat distasteful to my senses, it might be the smug arrogance or perhaps in the latter’s case, just plain old pomposity, that may diminish a well framed and crafted argument.. In both cased I find them somewhat undignified, neither speaks to me… I hope never to see the “white smoke” in the loosely defined atheist community…

    1. When it’s taken out of its Christian context, the term “evangelical” means “marked by ardent or zealous enthusiasm for a cause.” So why talk only about “evangelical atheists?” What about evangelical scientists, evangelical Democrats, evangelical feminists, evangelical environmentalists? What is so wrong about enthusiasm?

      The problem of course isn’t supposed to be with enthusiasm per se: the insult means that the enthusiasm is misapplied and YOU TRY TO CHANGE PEOPLE’S MINDS.

      What is so wrong about changing people’s minds?

      Nothing … till you get to religion. Suddenly, everybody is on goul: they’re in a safe zone where ‘changing my mind’ has turned into ‘changing who I am.’ The gnu atheists are compared to fundamentalist because both of these groups make the error of thinking that it’s okay to convince people their religion is wrong. More than okay: a moral obligation.

      In general I think gnu atheists are not as horrified by “evangelism” as others are. If you think you’re right and the other person is wrong then argue your point and back it up and fight fair. Debate is a win/win situation as long as both sides care more about discovering their errors than protecting their ego. We’ve got no problem with the fundies telling people “you’re wrong about God.”

      Our problem with fundamentalists comes from

      1.) No, they’re wrong about God.

      2.) They don’t fight fair.

    2. Somewhat undignified? No worries on my part if you don’t like them, that’s fine. But what does a dignified manner have to do with accuracy, correctness, truth, or politeness for that matter. It has been my experience that many people are expert at being impolite in a very dignified manner.

  21. Frans de Waal:
    In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism.

    As Sastra noticed above, de Waal confuses passion with dogmatism. This reinforces my suspicion that some accomodationists (Neil deGrasse Tyson possibly being another example) are motivated by psychological rather than intellectual reasons: they feel uncomfortable with an open disagreement and want everybody to “just get along”. In other words, they value being nice to each other over truth. But of course that kind of attitude does nothing for scientific progress (or for any kind of progress, for that matter).

  22. I changed because of Dawkins. I found his strident atheism (and its acceptance by most atheists) so repellent that I stopped calling myself an atheist.

    1. Well that sounds pretty crazy to me. Presumably you had reasons to be an atheist, and how would those be dispelled just because Dawkins was “strident”? Did his “stridency” convince you to go back to God again? That make no sense at all.

      Or was your “change” only in what name you applied to yourself–that is, you’re still an atheist but don’t call yourself one. That, too, is equally weird; it’s like saying that you aren’t a Democrat (when you still have the same beliefs) just because some other Democrat is “strident.”

      1. “Or was your “change” only in what name you applied to yourself–that is, you’re still an atheist but don’t call yourself one. ”

        Yes, that.

        “That, too, is equally weird; it’s like saying that you aren’t a Democrat (when you still have the same beliefs) just because some other Democrat is “strident.””

        If the Democrat leadership became strident and if the members on the whole endorsed it then I’d stop calling myself a Democrat too.

      2. But we have seen that latter attitude I other sim enters on this site in the past; eg, Amelie. It’s another reason to distance yourself from the label “atheism” and “all it’s negative connotations”.


        PS. It’s not a “converts corner” but another “stand up and be counted” list is Faces of Atheists. As it’s tumblr, mostly young people! One of its goals is to dispel the “negative myths associated with being an atheist”.

      1. The usual stuff –

        -Religion is a great evil
        -Religious people are no good
        -We atheists are beacons of truth and goodness.

        The usual quasi-religious we-the-saved vs. them-the-damned nonsense.

        1. Well, religion is a great evil, assuming a non-religious definition of “evil”.

          The other two are silly false accusations.

        2. Well, two of those are blatant straw-men.

          But even if they all were true, why would that make him strident?

          strident |ˈstrīdnt|
          loud and harsh; grating
          • presenting a point of view, esp. a controversial one, in an excessively and unpleasantly forceful way

          He can say all those things (although he doesn’t), without being loud and harsh, without being excessively and unpleasantly forceful.

          Those sentiments in themselves are not strident.

          Stridency is about manner not content.


          1. He says those things. He calls religion great evil. He cites anecdotes and statistics which supposedly show that religious people are depraved and prone to criminality compared to non-believers (e.g. his “red states” analysis in TGD). He claims atheists are better, more moral and more healthy minded than believers.

            It’s a strident position.

            1. Okay, Thomas, enough. You’ve made your point. And you’ve mischaracterized Dawkins. He has NEVER said, for example, that religious people are no good, or that atheists are beacons of truth and goodness.

              Those are in fact willful misrepresentations of Dawkins’s position.

              1. He has said he has religious friends. I have as well, but I really AM strident & unapologetic about it.

            2. No one is obliged to accept the term ‘atheist’, but as far as I am concerned, because the universe is a bottom up system & not a top down one, not believing in ‘higher powers’ should be the default position of the world. That means you might consider religion an irrelevance & whether or not you call yourself an atheist or not to be inconsequential. HOWEVER, religion is not passive – it really IS strident & invasive like japanese knotweed, & it des not tolerate rationality so rooting it out is necessary in my view.

        3. Dawkins has made only one of those statments, that religion is a great evil. And it’s true. The other two are things he’s never said.

          So apparently you stopped calling yourself an atheist because you didn’t want to be associated with Dawkins because of things he never said.

          Sounds legit.

          1. “The other two are things he’s never said. ”

            It’s called paraphrasing, and if you read him you’ll find it reflects his position. He has repeatedly argued that religious people and communities are morally much worse, and that atheists and their communities are better. He gives examples and statitics which supposedly prove it.

            Besides, saying that religion is evil is the same thing as saying that religious people are evil, because what is religion, if not those that practice it?

            Plus he’s made it clear that ALL religious people are part of the problem, not just the fundamentalists and extremists.

            But tell me, if Dawkins isn’t observing that religious people are morally worse, by what means did he divine this information that religion is evil?

            And I didn’t stop calling myself an atheist simply because of Dawkins, I stopped when I realised the majority of the atheist community appears to AGREE with his stident anti-theistic attitudes, and hence I no longer felt it appropriate to share a label with a community of people whose views I disagreed with.

            1. Well, I’ve read a great many of Dawkin’s books. Many aren’t abou religion at all. Those that are clearly distinguish people from religious systems that prey on them. If you can’t tell the difference it isn’t because of his “stridency”.

            2. He has repeatedly argued that religious people and communities are morally much worse, and that atheists and their communities are better. He gives examples and statitics which supposedly prove it.

              He does that to demonstrate that, contrary to the claims of many believers, religion does not make people more moral.

              Besides, saying that religion is evil is the same thing as saying that religious people are evil, because what is religion, if not those that practice it?

              That’s preposterous.

              Plus he’s made it clear that ALL religious people are part of the problem, not just the fundamentalists and extremists.

              And that’s true.

  23. “the Church preserved science during the Dark Ages” Nope – science WASN’T preserved during the Dark Ages! It(re)emerged afterwards. It was mostly (entirely?) Christians who promoted it (the Renaissance etc.) but not BECAUSE they were Christians; they did it in spite of church opposition (brave iconoclasts, they). Science (re)emerged because of Muslims who, unlike Dark Age Christians, had preserved the works of Aristotle (“the father of biology”) and, later, Plato – and Christian intellectuals “discovered” them by visiting Moorish universities, especially Cordoba. See “Aristotle’s Children” by Richard Rubenstein; and later, Plato’s influence on Copernicus and others of his time..

    1. The “Muslims” in the Islamic golden age were not just some kind of passive gatekeepers of ancient and pristine Greek knowledge, as your comment seems to suggest. They were at the forefront of assimilating the scientific discoveries of several cultures (especially Indian, Persian and Greek) and of making big advances on top of these foundations in such diverse fields as mathematics, chemistry, medicine and astronomy. They were, for example, responsible for bringing algebra and the decimal number system (originally developed in India and China) to the rest of the world. They produced stalwarts such as Ibn Sina (often corrupted to Avicenna) who were scientific institutions by themselves.

        1. …and then the Xtians
          BEAT THEM BACK!
          Out of Spain, leaving the Balkans in the shambles which still has its grip on the populace, beginning colonization of the Pacific Islands and the Americas.

          The Muslim rulers considered using their heads and moderation as sure way to loose it all.

          And we the people still suffer from being the pawns on the chessbords of bloody faithheads (plural intended).

    2. It’s worth remembering that the Europeans who rediscovered science during the Renaissance lived in places where it was illegal NOT to be a Christian.

  24. “When it comes to evolution, too, there is a tendency to point at religion as a solid opponent while ignoring that the Roman Catholic Church never formally condemned Darwin’s theory or put his works on the Index (the list of forbidden books).

    Whoa. He tries to claim the Holy Roman Catholic Church is not anti-science while admitting they kept a list of banned books. Which was not discarded until my lifetime.

  25. On the topic of the Holy Roman Catholic Church and evolution, it seems appropriate to mention St. George Jackson Mivart
    St. George Jackson Mivart PhD M.D. FRS (30 November 1827 – 1 April 1900) was an English biologist. He is famous for starting as an ardent believer in natural selection who later became one of its fiercest critics. Mivart attempted to reconcile Darwin’s theory of evolution with the beliefs of the Catholic Church, and finished by being condemned by both parties.

    From 1885 to 1892 five articles in the Nineteenth century brought him into conflict with Church authorities: “Modern Catholics and scientific freedom” (July 1885), “The Catholic Church and biblical criticism” (July 1887), “Catholicity and Reason” (December 1887), “Sins of Belief and Disbelief” (October 1888) and “Happiness in Hell” (December 1892). These articles were placed on the Index Expurgatorius. Later articles in January 1900[10][11] led to his being placed under interdict by Cardinal Vaughan.

  26. I am clearly on the side of the New Atheists (as demonstrated in my book), but in occasional fits of liberality I think that, as the underdogs, atheists of all stripes and intensities ought to join forces rather than fight among themselves on fine points of “orthodoxy” like religious sects. So, what are the ways that de Waal promotes the atheist insurgency?

  27. I read the excerpt from his new book on Salon yesterday. It was a pretty disappointing and dishonest piece. I really don’t get where he was coming from.

  28. “Militant atheists wearing T-shirts”

    I thought “militant” means flying planes into tall buildings, or bombing abortion clinics?

  29. In his otherwise excellent book “Our inner ape”, de Waal includes some throw away comment about how he wasn’t going to have any of that “Selfish Gene” nonsense, and then goes on to write a book wholly consistent with Dawkins actual writing.

  30. I’m interested in what de Waal has to say about the origins of human sentiments of justice and fairness. However his apologetics and NOM are old hat. Claims that religion is needed to enforce morality in larger and larger populations borders on the Neoconservative doctrine of Leo Strauss. Dangerous ground indeed.

  31. Today Dr. Dewaal was interviewed on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC-NY You could listen at But during the interview, he focused mostly on the actual content of his book, and his only comment on what we’re discussing is that he declines to call himself an atheist, but an “apathist” as in he’s indifferent to the existence question. He does say “morality is older than our religions”. But nothing on the order of what’s here quoted. Perhaps he read the Grayling and thought better of taking up the question.

  32. I just got the book, a few weeks ago.
    When I got to the point that he started giving out to atheism and its more prominent advocates I had to stop reading. I could no longer trust any of his bonobo findings. Such a pity, and that from a fellow countryman of his.
    His debate with Dawkins re the selfishness of species (of which he attacks Dawkins) left him in a corner with no way out.

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