The bonobo and the atheist-basher: Frans de Waal disses atheism

August 2, 2014 • 5:41 am

I’m not sure I want to provide a full, free-standing review of Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I can give some excerpts and thoughts, especially because I’m four-fifths of the way through the book. But unless it changes drastically in the last 40 pages, I think I’m on pretty good ground in saying that while the book is interesting, and has some good stuff on animal behavior, not much of it is new (having been covered in de Waal’s previous books). What is new–his repeated attacks on atheism–are jarring, inaccurate, and devalue the book considerably, at least to me.

The strange thing about the book is its lack of a coherent message. Much of it consists of anecdotes about and experiments on primates and other vertebrates, showing that these species have a rudimentary “morality”– that is, they show evidence of caring for strangers, empathy, a sense of fairness, and other aspects of what humans think of as ethical behavior. His point, which is a good one, is that our “innate” feelings of morality and empathy don’t come just from human culture, but are also genetically rooted in our ancestors.  Considering actions that look as if they’re motivated by morality occur in our relatives, as in chimps caring for unrelated chimps that are ill, de Waal argues that the genes behind these behaviors (if there are genes) are homologous: the same genes that cause similar behaviors and feelings in us.

That is, our morality is partly derived from our evolution in small bands of individuals who knew each other intimately. When that was the case, “reciprocal altruism” could evolve, and led to the kind of “innate” moral feelings that people like Francis Collins think can come only from God.  de Waal, admirably, wants to dispel the notion that only religion can make us moral. (He’s an atheist, but was raised as a pretty pious Catholic.)  And he’s not wedded to a purely evolutionary explanation, either, recognizing (as Paul Bloom and Jon Haidt have as well) that human culture acts to both tame and filter out the more inimical behaviors that evolved to keep primate groups in harmony.

Some of the best parts of the book are de Waal’s description of animal behavior in both zoos (he works at Yerkes Primate Center in Georgia) and the wild. With his evolutionary background, he’s one of the best people to raise the evolutionary implications of the behaviors he sees at work every day. For this perspective the book is worth reading.

What is strange about the book , however, is its recurrent focus on atheism, or rather,its  persistent denigration of atheism.  While it’s perfectly proper, given de Waal’s desire to debunk the notion that morality must come from religion, for him to question religious “morality” (he doesn’t do that, by the way), it’s not at all obvious why he has to come down repeatedly–and hard–on atheism. It’s not as if atheism claims that morality comes from the divine. Indeed, most of us, I think, would agree with de Waal: morality comes from some secular combination of evolution and learning, the latter often based on rational consideration.

Nevertheless, the tone of the book is marred by not only the constant dissing of atheism and de Waal’s perception that it’s like religion, but also by his assertion that everyone but he misperceived the nature of animals–mostly seeing it as innately bad. It was not until de Waal came  alone, he implies, that the scales fell from everyone’s eyes and behavioral biologists realize that social species have a core of goodness.  (Of course he studies mostly social primates, precisely the group in which evolution would promote reciprocal altruism and the genetic trappings that could be the nucleus of our own morality. Tigers aren’t so “moral”!)

Further, but I’ll talk more about this tomorrow, de Waal often engages in the form of faitheism that is meant to level the ground between science and faith: pointing out the problems with science and scientists. At times, he almost seems to say that there is little difference between the two.

I am not a psychologist, but Anthony Grayling, in a critical review of this book in Prospect, has imputed some of de Waal’s softness toward religion to his Catholic upbringing. I can’t say I disagree, but that’s speculation.  It also seems that de Waal, like Steve Gould in Rocks of Ages, has a strong desire to be perceived as the “nice guy middle-of-the-roader,” neither hard-line atheist nor religious, but someone who sees more clearly than others, and is sympathetic to both sides. Of course, that’s the point of writing a book: to advance one’s own ideas, but the claim that de Waal saw more clearly than others, both in biology, morality, and the science/religious debates, comes all too often, and is annoying. It’s as if he’s standing on nobody’s shoulders, but reached the heights on his own.

The classic xkcd cartoon is apposite:


Here are a few of de Waal’s quotes on atheists:

(p. 84) “In my interactions with religious and non-religious 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 then 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 nonexsitence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?

As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously?”

That last quote, by the way, was from an interview of Grayling in which he makes fun of the term “militant atheist.” His sentiments were precisely the opposite of de Waal’s.

But what has all the atheist-bashing to do with de Waal’s thesis: the roots of human morality? Exactly nothing. It is meant to show that he’s more perceptive than other people.

As for what atheism has to offer that makes us passionate about something like nonbelief, Grayling lays that out admirably in his own review, and I have little to add:

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 brainwashed 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.

Indeed, de Waal may say a few negative things about faith, but he has far more negative things to say about atheism. A good editor would have prevented these unseemly digressions, but of course atheist-bashing sells (after all, the title is “The Bonobo and the Atheist”). One is still forced to wonder why, exactly de Waal took this tack.

But that’s only one de Waal quote of many. Here’s another, distinguishing “private” versus “public” atheists (there’s no doubt which one de Waal favors:

(p. 87): Those in one group are uninterested in exploring their outlook and even less in defending it. These atheists think that both faith and its absence are private matters. They respect everyone’s choice, and feel no need to bother others with theirs. Those in the other group are vehemently opposed to religion and resent its privileges in society. THese atheists don’t think that disbelief should be locked up in the closet.  The speak of “coming out,” a terminology borrowed from the gay movement, as if their religiousness wa a forbidden secret that they now want to share with the world.

And another:

(pp. 18-19) Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens), or is a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The neo-atheists call themsleves “brights,” thus implying that believers are not as bright. They have replaced St. Paul’s view that nonbelievers live in darkness by its opposite: non-believers are the only ones to have seen the light. Urging trust in science, they wish to root ethics in the naturalistic worldview. [JAC note: so does de Waal!] I do share their skepticism regarding religious institutions and their “primates”–popes, bishops, megapreachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis–but what good could possibly come from insulting the many people who find value in religion?

Hold on, Dr. de Waal: the atheists you mentioned, and most other “militant” ones, don’t spend their time insulting people, but questioning, and yes, sometimes insulting, their misguided and harmful beliefs. I find it hard to believe that de Waal doesn’t recognize the difference between insulting people and questioning their creeds. Believers may see no difference, but academics and rationalists like de Waal should!

But wait! There’s more!:

(p. 102) But all this talk about how science and religion are irreconcilable is not free of consequences. It tells religious people that, however open-minded and undogmatic they may be, worthy of science they are not.  They will first need to jettison all beliefs held dear. I find the neo-atheist insistence on purity curiously religious. All that is lacking is some sort of baptism ceremony at which believers publicly repent before they joint the “rational elite” of nonbelievers. Ironically, the last one to qualify would have been an Augstinian friar growing peas in a monastery garden.

He’s referring to Mendel, of course. de Waal is curiously unreflective here. Even “hard-liners” like me don’t say that one can’t do science and be religious at the same time. Apparently de Waal hasn’t pondered another kind of incompatibility: the incompatibility of discerning truth through reason, experiment, and observation versus through revelation, dogma, and wish-thinking–with the obvious differences in outcome of what one considers “truth.” There is one brand of science with general sets of (provisional) consensus truths in each subfield, while there are thousands of religions, all with different “truths,” many of them diametrically opposed. Presumably there is a reason why de Waal is an atheist, though he never tells us. (He says only that he left religion behind when he went to college.)

And one more:

(p. 204): To insist, as neo-atheists like to do, that all that matters is empirical reality, that facts trump beliefs, is to deny humanity its hopes and dreams. [JAC: Yeah, we just LOVE to do that!] We project our imagination onto everything around us.  We do so in the movies, theater, opera, literature, virtual reality, and yes, religion. Neo-atheists are like people standing around outside a movie theater telling us that Leonardo diCaprio didn’t really go down with the Titanic.  How shocking! Most of us are perfectly comfortable with this duality.

And there you have, it, ladies and gentlemen: the double indictment of scientism and the characterization of scientists as unimaginative, cold, robotic, and eager to destroy the life of romance and emotion.

What all this is doing in a book on the roots of human morality is beyond me. Not only does de Waal take gratuitious swipes at “neo-atheism,” but they’re incorrect.  His characterization of neo-atheism is completely off the mark.  Why de Waal feels compelled to drag this stuff into a book that is largely about chimps bespeaks a not-so-hidden agenda. Where it comes from eludes me; it lies in the real of psychology, psychiatry, and perhaps, as Grayling insists, in the realm of childhood indoctrination with Catholicism. But never mind. The stuff simply doesn’t belong in his book.

Tomorrow, if I can take it, I’ll discuss de Waal’s disquisition on the harms inherent in science.





75 thoughts on “The bonobo and the atheist-basher: Frans de Waal disses atheism

  1. It sounds like de Wall’s major concern isn’t whether he thinks religion is true or not.

    It’s how he thinks it makes people feel.

    Much like a parent telling a child not to tell the other kids that you just learned santa claus ain’t real.

    They’ll get mad at you and by what right do you spoil their fun?

    I guess my question to de Waal is; At what point do we decide that the fact that religion to the best of our knowledge isn’t true comes before belief?

    How much religious evil is needed to outweigh the good religion does and how does de Waal rationally decide when the truth comes first?

    If feelings are this important compared to reality then it is no wonder that we’re having a hard time shaking them off.

  2. Typo in the antepenultimate sentence of the penultimate paragraph: “real” should be “realm”.

    Thank you for your review. I don’t get the motivation of people like de Waal and why they are incapable of seeing the obvious flaws in their arguments.

    1. Jaxkayaker:

      “they are incapable of seeing the obvious flaws in their arguments.”

      Simply because the emotional background of all our ideas, beliefs, is far more powerful than any critical review of them. The idea that “reason” is the paramount factor of brain activity is an illusion that the Enlightenment thinkers fell for.

      You take the outside stand of the critic void of sentimental attachments and cannot empathize with the mind of a person whose memory was loaded in infancy and youth by marvelous dogmatic stories. There’s no way to undo one’s mental past, it remains indelibly anchored in the deepest recesses of our brain. We can only grow new levels of connections and new networks of ideas.

      The fact that a Catholic background is going to influence the rest of any original believer’s subsequent development is undeniable, and can be observed in the case of many other scholars who, like de Waal, started on a Catholic platform.

      Their development cannot escape being affected by a secret tender feeling for their childhood beliefs, or, conversely, veer to a brutal rejection and complete hatred of their past convictions.

      I tend to think, as Jerry Coyne intimates, that de Waal’s softness on Catholic theses, is explained by his religious youth. And I tend to think this is more than a mere speculation.

      I watched the same puzzling phenomenon of (apparently “irrational”) Catholic attachment for instance in the case of a great historian of christianity, R. Joseph Hoffmann, who, for all his sharp thinking and historical criticism, can never forget the sweet nuns who taught him as a child.

  3. I really don’t know the psychology or motivations for bashing atheism, not just being an accommodationist, but out and out bashing atheism by atheists. Is it a form of masochism, a way of fitting in to a wider religious culture, secret guilt for being an atheist, I really just don’t get it at all? I don’t or very rarely see theists bashing theism or other theists except sophisticated theology which explains away the nonsense of fundamentalism by saying it isn’t really what they believe. And this happens so often it’s hard to keep track of. This subject is worthy of a book length treatment. Perhaps it could be an idea for another book by Jerry.

    1. I feel some people view upsetting the status quo as somehow “rude.” These are the sort of people MLK Jr wrote to in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,, and who now say that of *course* we support equal rights for everyone, but if you do it too quickly you’ll make people upset, and we can’t have that now, can we? Revolutions are best when everyone agrees to them, don’t you agree?

  4. Grayling got something half wrong in his defence of atheism: although not burned ‘at the stake’, women are immolated on a regular basis in the name of honour.

  5. Fact does trump belief. Why is that so horrible?

    In any event, it’s not the “neo-atheists” (how pretentious) that insist on it. It’s reality that insists on it. It doesn’t matter how sincerely-held your belief that you can fly is; if you step off that ledge…

    1. Fact does trump belief.

      I wish.

      So women working for Hobby Lobby can get those forms of birth control on their health plan that aren’t aborteficients even though Hobby Lobby believes they are?

      1. People can, of course, believe that belief trumps fact, but no amount of belief will ever actually turn a contraceptive into an abortifacient. The fact, as they say, remains.

        Ironically, the *fact* that so many people think belief can trump fact is one of the things that makes religion so harmful. Good things do not usually happen when you hit the wall of fact at the speed of belief.

  6. Oh, he also wrote The Ape and the Sushi Master (the guy found a title formula he likes and stuck with it). I liked that book a lot. I’ll have to check this out, too. So far as I recall, the other book had no atheist bashing, so maybe you’ll enjoy that one more.

      1. Those damn fundamentalist sushi masters, spending so much time insulting other types of food they don’t even believe exists!

    1. Indeed,’The Ape and the Sushimaster’ was a masterful work. It also highlighted the important contributions of the Japanese primatologists, often not receiving the recognition deserved.
      If I may add my 5 cents: maybe the ‘atheism-bashing’ has something to do with his rivalry/antagonism with/towards Richard Dawkins. They both studied under Niko Tinbergen, but their paths diverged. They both have represented each others conclusions as incorrect (they both attacked straw men IMMO, of course).
      Dawkins is a very active, ‘proselytising’ atheist now, maybe De Waal wants to be the opposite kind of atheist?

      1. De Waal is Dutch but was never a student of Tinbergen’s. That of course is not to say that he was not heavily influenced by Tinbergen’s work.

        1. Yes, you’re right, my apologies. Tinbergen taught in Leiden and de Waal studied in Utrecht (van Hoof?). The traditional rivalry between Leiden and Utrecht is another one of those things, a bit like Oxford and Cambridge it seems….

  7. I have a flimsy psychological speculation:
    On an almost personal level, de Waal has it in for Dawkins.
    And since Dawkins has gone on public about atheism and religion, de Waal is also drawn to go on record in opposition.

      1. Not in my book, Daniel.

        On the contrary you’re brave and perspicacious speak up and to note that personal attachments and antipathies are important factors of any person.
        Only passionate people can devote most of their life time and energies to studying their field and promoting their ideas.

        Again the idea that a scholar, or any other thinking human is a pure reasoning machine is a monumental illusion – perhaps the “rationalist” equivalent of the Christian “soul”, at least promoted by a culture harboring both fictions.

        Any scholar worth our attention is as driven by passions, disgusts, and hatreds as the ordinary mortal, and most likely even more so.

        The idea that we can neglect the whole emotional side of the character, tastes and passions of a scientist, researcher, or scholar, his/her very existential anchorage in time, geography, and culture, is again an ideology promoted by people with very specific agendas.

        To loosely paraphrase the dictum of Edward Hallett Carr about the historian and the meaning of his “facts” (“What is History”, 1961), before you study a scholar’s thesis, study the scholar.

        We have to get rid of the myth that a scientist or a scholar is just another disembodied brain working in an atmospheric sky of “pure ideas”, translated these days into “evidences”: “Show me where the ‘evidence’ leads, and I’ll follow it blindly.” Carr will reply that evidence does not speak, it is always selected and interpreted by the scientist or scholar.
        And he/she usually a person full of passions, loves, and hatreds.

        1. +1

          I was in a jury selection once for a trial about a contract dispute. The lawyers for both sides were asking us about our experiences with developers and contracts. Had we ever been in a contract dispute with a home developer? That sort of thing. One man (a chemist at the local university) said that he had actually been in a contract dispute with a developer once. He said that he was a scientist, however, and as a scientist he would be able to consider the evidence dispassionately. I almost snorted my coffee at the comic level of hubris. He may have been a good chemist for all I know, but he was a truly ignorant human to think that being a scientist rendered him dispassionate.

          Needles to say, the lawyers were rather better students of human nature and he was one of the people struck from the jury pool. In the end, the jury consisted almost entirely of people who, like me at the time, had never bought a home and had no experience whatsoever with developers.

    1. I remember reading the foreword in Our Inner Ape and thinking that it seemed like a very personal (and inaccurate) attack on Dawkins. You might be on to something.

  8. Those in the other group are vehemently opposed to religion and resent its privileges in society. These atheists don’t think that disbelief should be locked up in the closet. They speak of “coming out,” a terminology borrowed from the gay movement, as if their religiousness was a forbidden secret that they now want to share with the world.

    I wonder what Jessica Ahlquist would have to say about de Waal’s mocking tone enumerating the various things religion does to oppress non-believers or those that do not hold Christian beliefs.

    Yes, atheism is a “forbidden secret” both in deeply religious places where you can be threatened or harmed if you declare yourself an atheist. I guess de Waal hasn’t read that atheists are the most distrusted group in America. Even in Canada, where I live, saying your an atheist has its baggage and I often ponder if I hurt my chances in changing careers because I openly declare myself as an atheist and speak about atheism in social media. This doesn’t happen to believers.

    1. Yes! My family often question why I’m outspoken about my atheism. New Zealand is largely secular. We’ve had atheist prime ministers continually since 1999, which is not possible in the US, for example. The moderate protestantism of my family did me no discernible damage and they don’t see it as quite “proper” that I speak out, although they mostly have no argument with what I say. But it’s not for myself that I speak out, it’s for those who can’t.

      A survey published in the last ten days (Pew or Gallup – can’t remember sorry) showed that feelings towards atheists in the US are the lowest of any “religious” group, although on a couple of questions they were beaten to the bottom spot by Muslims. This speaks volumes about the prejudice in that country.

      Much of the prejudice is, imo, due to lack of understanding, and it’s not helped by the kind of anti-atheist rhetoric that comes from those like de Waal with the ability to make a positive difference.

    2. I wonder what Jessica Ahlquist would have to say about de Waal’s mocking tone enumerating the various things religion does to oppress non-believers or those that do not hold Christian beliefs.


      Not to mention Hirsi Ali.

      They speak of “coming out,” a terminology borrowed from the gay movement, as if their religiousness was a forbidden secret that they now want to share with the world.

      (–de Waal)

      This must be a typo. Our “religiousness?”

    3. Yeah, I find that statement pretty telling and not a little offensive. A statement like that clearly reveals someone completely out of touch with the world. It very obviously IS a “forbidden secret” for a very large group of people even in the US. And, of course, in much of the world it is a capital offense. You have to be pretty sealed off from the world not to realize this.

      1. “These atheists don’t think that disbelief should be locked up in the closet.”
        Well, neither does he.

  9. Thanks for the review of the Bonobo book, Dr Coyne, you’re well-known for being open-minded and very patient in scrutinizing the writings of those pompous-sounding authors who can’t help but ingratiating themselves with the religious majority. Another 40 pages to go? I think that’s pretty much all of it, since de Waal’s been sending a few jarring notes to atheists in his other popularized science books and even in some Youtube videos as well. I think I’ll save my money on something else.

  10. “What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?”

    Ok, Franz, I’ll bite… Distinguishing truth from fiction is worth fighting for.

    1. It’s mindless Ivory Tower condescension.

      Atheist groups that fight for things – as in actual formal groups that have an agenda beyond chatting about stuff on the internet – have a lot of things worth fighting for, although their agenda depends on where exactly they are situated.

      In Ireland, for example, they are fighting for the opportunity to get their children into a school where their child won’t be excluded or ostracized because they don’t want to be prepared for First Communion during school hours or included in Catholic worship sessions. Or the right for a woman to get an abortion, which is still banned here even if you were raped or the fetus is non-viable. Or the right for a teacher to be able to choose not to teach Catholicism without having their career seriously compromised.

      Just because he lives a privileged life in Cloud Cuckoo Land doesn’t mean there rest of the world does.

    2. What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for? Well, for one thing, we’re the ones who think it’s worthwhile to argue against blithe and ignorant faith-inducing assertions that morality must come from God because there are no good natural explanations for altruism.

      Why does de Waal have to be so militant and rude, to try to take away the harmless religious belief that God is the best explanation for why we have morals? Leave Collins alone: he’s one of the Good Guys who believes in evolution!

  11. I read the book and found the militant atheist comments irritating. But by the end of the book he makes it clear that he an atheist that thinks the same things. Just not militantly? My thought was he just didn’t want to be included in the atheist group and very much wanted to be included in the OTHER group.

  12. Since there are a sprinkling of professed atheists who are motivated to bash other atheists, I wonder if this phenomenon has a kind of doppelg&#228a&#228nger with religious folks. Are there Catholics who bash other Catholics? Orthodox Jews who take swipes at other Orthodox Jews? I expectation is definitely yes.

    1. I can confirm that there are Catholics who bash other Catholics. A lot of it comes from those who strictly adhere to the dogmas and their terminology for less enthusiastic Catholics, a.k.a. “Cafeteria Catholics. ” I heard much about the problems with these cafeteria types while growing up.

    2. Just before you have any religious schism, you have X’s who criticize other X’s about how to be an X. All the schism does is make some of them Y’s and some of them X’s (or some X’s and some Y’s, depending on which side of it one is on). It’s how religions speciate.

  13. I guess I wasn’t as offended by his comments about atheism as everyone else on here was; I really enjoyed his book. I hadn’t planned on reading it, but found myself strolling along the library shelves and was immediately hooked by it. I disagreed with him on several points but it didn’t ruin the book for me unlike, for example, reading PZ’s blog and book was constantly ruined by his comments and attitude.

    but, I must correct the idea behind the militant atheist and “sleeping furiously”. Anyone, like myself, who is a single parent, working, and in University knows EXACTLY what it’s like to “sleep furiously”! often, after stealing a 30 minute nap, fully clothed, on top of the blankets, within seconds of walking in the door, I’d wake up with a start and a gasp as if coming up for air from deep under water and with the feeling that I had not so much as fallen into bed as plummeted. That is sleeping furiously!

  14. “He’s referring to Mendel, of course. ”

    The Catholic Church was slow to recognize the threat that science posed to its worldview; by the time it did, the genie was out of the bottle. I suspect that if it could get a do-over, it would try to smother scientific inquiry in its infancy.

    1. Historians have noted that Darwin may have missed the boat because he never read Mendel. However, Mendel DID read The Origin (at least the parts on plant hybridization), but the relevance of his own experiments to Darwin’s theory seems to have gone right over his head. Moreover, although no one mentions it, Mendel observed and commentd on continuous variation (in flower color) in his famous paper. I think a good case could be made that Mendel, had he been a good secularist and not a Catholic priest, might have launched evolutionary genetics in the mid-1800s, rather than having it emerge during the 1920s.

  15. “What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?”

    Dunno. Truth? Freedom from credulity? The absence of a history full of devotees murdering each other over points of dogma small and large? Yeah, not much. [Why does this remind me of, “What have the Roman’s every done for us?”]

    The failure of the militant atheist trope is that we are only dogmatic on one point: There are no gods. Of course, religion (except for that fashioned by professors at social hours) is dogmatic about the existence of god. But it is also dogmatic about many other things that devotees claim stems from the existence of these beings. When this translates into their insistence that people other than themselves must live under the same strictures that they do, this is intolerable. The desire for religion to be a neutral or non-existent force in society is different from the exhortation to eliminate religion. That call for the imposition of a single truth is unique to religion in this discussion.

    1. I don’t think atheists are “dogmatic” on the single point that there is no God. That’s just the definition of ‘atheism,’ same as “belief in God’ defines a theist.

      Dogmatism usually indicates an individual’s inability or refusal to change one’s mind, to consider alternatives, and/or to admit the possibility of error. Most atheists agree that in principle they might be wrong, could learn they are wrong, and would change their mind if so. We can usually come up with hypothetical examples. Theists, on the other hand, often hold an incapacity to do any of that as one of the highest virtues of faith — and one of the happy perks of believing in an infallible God.

  16. “As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously?”

    That last quote, by the way, was from an interview of Grayling in which he makes fun of the term “militant atheist.” His sentiments were precisely the opposite of de Waal’s.”

    Unfortunately, this out of context quotation of atheists, suggesting the opposite of the position they were expressing, is typical of the sub-essay on atheism in The Bonobo and the Atheist. It is almost (almost) like he got his information about atheists and atheism from reading creationist quote mines.

    Consider, for example, his treatment of Dawkins. The first two things de Waal says about Dawkins so misrepresent the man that it seems like deliberate malice. At least to me.

    He first mentions Dawkins at the top of page 40 where he says:

    “…Richard Dawkins explicitly disavowed Darwin, telling an interviewer in 1997 that “in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism.”

    The interview is available here: The context is clear and unambiguous. The topic being discussed is Social Darwinism, Rockefeller’s burnt earth capitalism, and Hitler’s eugenics program. I suspect none of these are things that de Wall intended to defend.

    Here is the Dawkins quote, with more context. In no way does it repudiate or dismiss Darwin:
    “What I am saying, along with many other people, among them T. H. Huxley, is that in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don’t want to live in a Darwinian world, we might want to live in, say, a socialist world which is very un-Darwinian. We might say: Yes, Darwinism is true, natural selection is the true force that has given rise to life, but we, when we set up our political institu­tions, we might say we are going to base our society on explicit­ly anti-Darwinian principles.”

    Further down the same page, while asserting that the nascent atheist movement treats Francis Collins as a laughing stock who pollutes science with faith, de Waal quotes Dawkins as saying Collins is “not a bright guy”. This happened on Bill Maher’s Real Time, and can easily be found on YouTube. But it is a joke on Dawkins behalf, and he is suppressing laughter at the time. Dawkins has just been dismissing Tony Blair as “not that smart”, and acknowledging Collins contribution to science, and calling him a smart guy. Maher asserts that Collins believes in the talking snake, and Dawkins makes the above, conditional, throw away line.

    Well I have more examples. But this is already too long. I do reluctantly recommend The Bonobo and the Atheist to those that think humans are somehow outside the natural order, and morality can’t have material roots. The anecdotal nature, and de Waal’s obvious engagement with his subjects, become strengths in this context.

    1. Thanks for pointing those out, especially for those of us who may not read the book. Sharing any more misrepresentations that you discover would be appreciated.

      1. Going over them all would risk writing more on it than Dr. Coyne has, and taking more time than I can currently spare. But one more example is his characterisation of Sam Harris : “Harris, for example, biliously goes after the low hanging fruit of Islam, singling it out as the great enemy of the West.”

        You could almost imagine Harris had never written Letter to a Christian Nation.

        De Waal then goes on, while registering his own revulsion, to try and draw a parallel between male circumcision in the USA and the practice of female genital mutilation in parts of the Islamic world, as if there is some natural moral equivalence there. These occur on page 90 of de Waal’s book.

        For an analysis of de Waal’s mis-characterisation of Huxley I strongly recommend Maggie Clark’s review of The Bonobo and the Atheist:

        1. I could have saved myself some effort here if I had waited until I read part two of the review.

          So it goes.

    2. The irony is that those who think we should organise our society based on Darwinism are those least like to accept natural selection. Right wingers hate Darwin but want to organise our society on the basis of might makes right and the weak can just die. Weird.

    3. Actually, a careful reader doesn’t need to know the context to realise that de Waal is very likely misrepresenting the unnamed philosopher. “Sleeping furiously” is clearly intended as an example of an expression that makes no sense (and was originally used by Noam Chomsky as such). So the philosopher is pretty clearly criticising the expression “militant atheism”, not criticising militant atheism. Since de Waal is himself using that expression on his own account, he is himself among those being criticised by Grayling!

      That said, I disagree with Grayling on this point. I see nothing much wrong with the term “militant atheism” in principle, though whether it’s applicable to Dawkins et al is another matter.

  17. Those in one group are uninterested in exploring their outlook and even less in defending it. These atheists think that both faith and its absence are private matters. They respect everyone’s choice, and feel no need to bother others with theirs. Those in the other group are vehemently opposed to religion and resent its privileges in society.

    It seems to me that de Waal’s hostility towards outspoken atheism stems from his acceptance of the cultural meme that faith is a “private matter.” It’s a choice. What people believe about religion is akin to what they believe about beauty or what they believe about love.

    In other words, faith involves identity. A person’s religion reflects who they are as people. Religious truths are subjective truths.

    Therefore, getting into arguments on this issue is rude and intrusive. It’s trying to turn them into you. From the accomodationist perspective telling people they’re wrong about God would be like telling Franz de Waal that he’s wrong to like animals — or that he shouldn’t study primates. Or telling him to his face that he’s wrong to be an atheist. So he can empathize with the religious. Live and let live.

    So here’s how it cashes out. Be respectful of the people … by disrespecting the truth value of the belief. Pretend that nobody really cares. Faith belief is like a preference or lifestyle which really only ought to involve the consenting individuals or groups. It’s not like an objective fact claim which is supposed to matter and apply to everyone. Of course not.

    Oh, how the religious love the atheists when the atheists finally “get” this! How eagerly they join in with this tolerant group of nonbelievers to vilify the “fundamentalists” on both sides who are so less tolerant, saying things to people’s faces and bringing what is private into public.

    And then how quickly the religious turn within themselves to resume the fundamental view that God is real, God is true, and that people who accept God do so out of an open-hearted love for Truth. They learn what it is to be fully human, they partake in life’s purpose, joy, and meaning. And, implicitly, those who do not join in suffer from closed hearts and minds which do not seek Truth, but arrogantly avoid it through subterfuges like ‘reason’ and ‘science.’

    Don’t the accomodationists notice that teeny little glitch in the bedrock of harmony, tolerance, and acceptance? Don’t the theists? Shouldn’t they?

    Okay, I have to say it. I think Franz de Waal is making a Little People Argument (“They can’t handle/don’t care about the truth!”)And I suspect that his background as a working anthropologist may be as significant here as his background as a former Catholic.

    One way to make a Little People Argument is to distance yourself from the matter of truth by going into Therapist or Anthropologist Mode. Let us set aside what’s right or wrong and just look at how a belief works for people. How did it form? What does it do? What are the personal and cultural benefits — and are the believers themselves living happy, healthy, valuable lives?

    If so, then stay back. All is well. Professionals like anthropologists or psychologists don’t try to change the views of the people whom they study or treat: they only seek to understand or help.

    It sounds tolerant. And it certainly is, in certain contexts. IF you are an anthropologist or a psychologist then there is nothing wrong and everything right with going into Anthropologist or Psychologist mode. That is, there’s nothing wrong with it if what you’re doing at the time is academic or therapeutic. Do not interfere with the Little People and their beliefs. That’s professional courtesy.

    But if you’re simply standing on common ground with the Little People and dealing with their claims then they’re NOT “little” — they’re your colleagues and equals. We are truth-seeking together, as human beings, about something which they think is a very big deal when it comes to understanding the nature of reality and how we ought to understand and live in it. And ‘colleagues and equals’ do not need to be patronized and condescended to. They do think God is real, and they do think God matters … and they do think there is something wrong with the people who don’t agree. And they are wrong.

    Screw the dodge of “private matters.” It is time to have the debate. No apologies. Even atheists who are also anthropologists ought to keep in mind that to understand doesn’t have to entail that we disengage and forbear. Forbearance is not the same as respect. When you sincerely get down to it, it’s the opposite.

    1. Sastra:


      Yes, there are two attitudes:
      – the easy-going one: Live and let live, be happy and go on with your own pursuits. Don’t become a pain in the neck to your friends and family.
      – the combative one, driven by overpowering passion: Waving the standard of truth, live and die, or at least suffer the consequences of your activism in a community not ready to accept your new upsetting ideas.

      Interestingly, that is the predicament in which Socrates found himself, as well as subsequent reformers. His zeal to attack the ancient gods for his new gods set him up against his neighbors, with tragic consequences.

      Who said that if you want to push revolutionary ideas and survive, you have to advance camouflaged?

      De Waal is not the type willing to invest time and effort in upsetting the applecart. He wants to be left alone and in peace with his apes.
      It’s up to us to use his findings and go to bat against the Christian establishment.
      Let’s not shoot the piano player.

      1. On the whole I agree, though I have a problem with your description of the two attitudes. It seems too extreme.

        That second “combative” approach lacks nuances. It’s the “overpowering passion” of the ideologue who runs roughshod over friends and family, incapable of distinguishing between times and places when and where a public debate is perfectly acceptable and even necessary — and those times and places when and where it really isn’t. In other words, the gnu atheist sounds like a royal pain in the neck even to me.

        And, in contrast, I’d love to know that easy-going guy who gets along with everyone. So I suspect something is wrong with how my gnu atheist/accomodationist dichotomy is being described.

        I think the issue comes down to where exactly the lines are drawn. As I understand it De Waal isn’t objecting to Richard Dawkins bursting into a seminar on flower arranging or harassing the bereaved at a funeral, thrusting his idee fixe into every possible venue. Dawkins of course doesn’t and wouldn’t do that. No, he apparently doesn’t like the whole idea of someone writing or speaking or saying “your views on religion are wrong … and mine are right.” It has nothing to do with not getting this across tactfully or with sensitivity. It has to do with getting it across at all. It’s combative by nature.

        Sounds more like how de Waal would lay out the divide, though, I think.

    2. Another stab at describing the divide: religion/irreligion as a matter of fact, or a matter of taste.

      When one does not want to have to defend truth values, treating it as a matter of taste is great. When one doesn’t want to have it become a basis of legislation or ideological war, it’s wonderful. That’s one pillar of secularism – it’s kinda shaky, but it’s easy and popular. The other is that these are, or may be, matters of fact, and that it’s not the business of sheer governmental force to settle the issue. That one uncomfortably leaves people in the situation of having to settle issues over matters that their habits and commitments leave them no objective way of settling, wherever they find they cannot simply agree to disagree.

      Unfortunately, people do not settle on that treatment. They’ll be happy enough to let _you_ treat _your_ religion or irreligion as a matter of taste while they want to treat theirs as a matter of fact, and we get an oscillation between the two treatments as needed, even when they’re not actually compatible.

      As I understand it, the point of adopting the Anthropologist Mode – just listening to what people think, without addressing its truth or falsity – is to get the best grasp of what it IS they are thinking. Be sympathetic to understand, and after that, if it’s relevant (and for anthropology, it probably won’t be), _then_ assess truth or falsity, or even if it’s intended to be a judgment of fact at all. But it is vulnerable to the same sort of slip from sympathetic understanding to without regard to truth to being unable or unwilling entirely to consider whether this is a matter of taste or something that really does have a truth value.

  18. De Waal seems to be unable to imagine…

    .. that an atheist can be passionate about her own viewpoint and “respect everyone’s choice” (within limits!) at the same time.

    ..that an atheist can “think that both faith and its absence are (or should be!) private matters” and be “vehemently opposed to religion and resent its privileges in society” at the same time.

    ..that it might depend on the situation whether “faith and its absence” should be seen as “private matters”: This is a point of view which permeates and enables civilized, pluralistic, liberal and above all secularized societies where nearly everyone agrees to “live an let live”. The religious ideas of fundamentalists with theocratic aspirations, on the other hand, are not “private matters”.

    ..that even “private matters” can be discussed openly and in a respectful way. Debate and critique does not equal intolerance. And while faith itself, the decision what to believe and how to live, might be a “private matter”, religious ideas and concepts and institutions are not, nor ar their societal consequences.

  19. I wonder what definition of the word “militant” people like de Waal are using that allows them to apply it to outspoken atheists but not theists. The Pope, for example, is never referred to as a “militant theist”. Why is Richard Dawkins militant, but Francis is not? I’m getting very tired of the double standard.

  20. In a world of materiality, one is not experiencing “atheism” (any more than theism or deism), so asserting or indulging in it/them is a distraction from studying hummingbirds or raptors.

    The way I remember de Waal’s book, it is part science and part reminiscence. His Eurasian familiarity with ambiguity shines through. Eurasia is a place where the lag-time between assertion and blow-back is far shorter.

  21. Was it Shaw who said hatred is the cowards revenge for being intimidated? I think DW prefers the comfort of being perceived as a soft atheist. Whats the harm, postmodern, relativistic, soft headedness. I totally understand. It takes a while to learn how to respect people whilst attacking flawed and often dangerous ideation.

    1. I’ll add, it simply escapes many atheists that not accepting the idiocy of adult make believe isn’t enough. If these things went no further than the minds of individuals it would be a different matter but they do not. It misinforms institutions and professions and that has to be openly identified and opposed as it becomes the basis of anticivilisation.

  22. Those in the other group are vehemently opposed to religion and resent its privileges in society. THese atheists don’t think that disbelief should be locked up in the closet. The speak of “coming out,” a terminology borrowed from the gay movement, as if their religiousness wa a forbidden secret that they now want to share with the world.

    One would think that de Waal should recognize his (unsupported) characterization as “vehement” et cetera as one factor behind speaking of “coming out”. One would think.

  23. I did not read the other comments, so I’m sure these points have been made; but:

    … non-believers are the only ones to have seen the light.

    Well, yes, someone would be pretty stupid to not think their system is correct. What the hell is wrong with that? The religious people do that – and vociferously; and theirs is built on BS.

    Urging trust in science, they wish to root ethics in the naturalistic worldview.

    Um, yeah – what other intelligent choice is there?

    I do share their skepticism regarding religious institutions and their “primates”–popes, bishops, megapreachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis–but what good could possibly come from insulting the many people who find value in religion?

    Once again the trope (Holy Hank I’m tired of this) that if you criticize religion or religious ideas or actions, then you are “insulting” religious people. What a load of fecal material. Grow up and get some mental resilience. If your ideas are so weak that you must play the butt-hurt card when asked to answer for them – maybe it’s time for some better ideas!

    We project our imagination onto everything around us. We do so in the movies, theater, opera, literature, virtual reality, and yes, religion. Neo-atheists are like people standing around outside a movie theater telling us that Leonardo diCaprio didn’t really go down with the Titanic.

    Yes, atheists are coldhearted, uncaring, un-artistic (in fact anti-artistic), can’t enjoy fiction. Why would you want to disabuse those “little people” of their comforting fantasies? As has been said, ad nauseum, if the religious would keep their religion private, stop telling lies to people, stop trying to put nonsense into our schools, stop oppressing women, gays and others, stop blowing each other up, etc., etc., yeah, well then maybe we wouldn’t bother trying to stop all that nonsense.

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