The bonobo and the atheist-basher, part 2

August 3, 2014 • 6:30 am

I’ve now finished Frans de Waal’s book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, and my final evalution is what I said yesterday: it’s a decent disquisition on the evolutionary “roots” of human morality–roots discerned in behaviors like empathy, altruism, and concern for equity in our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. The book is useful reading for its eye-opening tales of ape “morality,” with the creatures evincing forms of compassion that we might not have expected.

Did I learn something from the book? Well, there are anecdotes about chimp compassion and altruism that are new to me, but I had already accepted the proposition that humans evolved an innate set of moral “rules” and emotions based on our millions of years of living in small groups of hunter-gatherers. It’s not at all hard to believe that natural selection would mold not just behaviors, but emotions (which of course underlie many such behaviors) that would impel us to take care of others, and to be better to those who behave better, while punishing “free-riders” and miscreants. And it’s not news to me that other primate groups have “proto-morality,” though it might be to others who haven’t read de Waal’s other books.

I disagree, though, that the behaviors and genes that make chimps and humans compassionate to “in-group” members are homologous–that they are genes inherited from our common ancestors. As I learned at a recent meeting in Oakland University, primate “morality” does not map neatly onto primate phylogeny. Orangutans, for instance, don’t show the sense of equity demonstrated by capuchin monkeys, even though orangs are more closely related to us than are capuchins.

It seems likely, at least to me, that natural selection independently molds behaviors based on how a species lives: orangs are solitary, capuchins gregarious. And other species, distant from us, show behaviors that look altruistic (whales, dolphins, dogs, and so on). So if we’re innately solicitous to members of our in-group, as I think we are, this may have evolved in our own lineage after we separated from the chimp lineage, and chimp and human behaviors are convergent, not homologous. This is supported by the very different forms of altruism and caring shown by bonobos vs. chimps, who diverged only about 1-2 million years ago, versus the 5-6 million years ago that our lineage diverged from that of both species of chimps. Social behavior is evolutionarily malleable. We may be able to learn about the evolution of altruism and cooperation in chimps by studying them, but not necessarily learn much about the evolutionary basis of morality in our own species. Remember that we did not descend from modern chimps or bonobos, but from common ancestors whose social system may have differed from all of ours.

What I learned most forcefully, though, was de Waal’s strong animus against “neo-atheists,” which he appears to define as atheists who actually criticize religion in a public or passionate manner. He sees that as an unseemly disturbance of people’s private behaviors, as an exercise in futility (“religion will always be with us”), and an unnecessary diversion from humanism, which he sees as the “right” way to effect change.  de Waal, apparently, can decry the foolish beliefs of religion but almost never mentions the harm it continues to do to the world. Indeed, he sees even the morality of nonbelievers as being based on that of their religious forbears. I deny that. I come from a long line of people who barely believed in God, and most of my moral education has been secular. That’s just an anecdote, of course, but time will eventually tell. Whatever “moral” influence religion exerts on nonbelievers (and de Waal claims, rightly, that religion is not a source of morality but can help perpetuate it), will wane as society becomes more secular. If you want to say that Danes and Swedes, though largely nonbelievers, are still moral because of their Christian ancestors whose ethos remains in their society, all your work is before you. For humans were, I think, moral long before they were religious.

At any rate, de Waal’s continual dissing of atheists may sit well with the public, but it detracts from the message of his book. After all, atheists largely stand with him on the source of morality. It is the religious people who make the claim that morality comes from God, and that religion is largely a moral enterprise. Why, then, de Waal’s obsession with running down people like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Sam Harris (I also get a swipe)? Who knows?

Things get pretty bad in the book’s last section, itself called “the bonobo and the atheist”. In the last few pages, de Waal imagines what a smart and loquacious bonobo would tell an atheist. It’s the usual blather: religion is with us, tread gently, be an “advocate” rather than a “protester,” and so on. It’s condescending, especially putting de Waal’s own sentiments in the mouths of a bonobo. If a smart bonobo really could talk to an atheist, it would probably say, “Give me some bananas, you heathen!”

Is the book worth buying and reading if you’ve read de Waal’s other works? My final judgement is “no.” de Waal’s earlier books have the same message without the annoying and superfluous atheist-bashing. The book is curiously disconnected and could have used considerable tightening. It is also infused with a kind of hubris that may be more detectable if you’re a scientist, for it’s clear to one in the field  how de Waal holds himself up as the paragon of the insightful and middle-of-the-road scientist, unswayed by extremists about human nature, and a forger of the reigning “consensus” view about human nature. That, too, I found annoying, especially because he takes others to task so often. de Waal has a very high opinion of himself.

But if you want to read nice anecdotes about bonobos, be my guest.  And do remember that my reaction may be conditioned by de Waal’s continually use of what I see as misguided arguments to attack my own form of nonbelief. But, of course, he’s an unbeliever, too! There is fertile material here for a sociologist: why do some atheists love to attack other atheists more than the religious beliefs that all atheists reject?

I close with two quotes from the book that got my dander up. The first is de Waal’s reaction to the television exchange between conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly and David Silverman (president of  the American Atheists); it’s the exchange in which O’Reilly infamously said that the tides could be explained only by God.  But de Waal also sees problems on the atheist side.

(pp. 88-89) All I get out of such exchanges is the confirmation that believers will say anything to defend their faith and that some atheists have turned evangelical. Nothing new about the first, but atheists’ zeal keeps surprising me. Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay. [JAC: in another place, de Waal imputes the zeal of “neo-atheists” to earlier trauma!] In the same way that firefighters are sometimes stealth arsonists  and homophobes closet homosexuals, do some atheists secretly long for the certitude of religion? Take Christopher Hitchens, the late British author of God is not Great. Hitchens was outraged by the dogmatism of religion, yet he himself had moved from Marxism (he was a Trotskyist) to Greek Orthodox Christianity, then to American Neo-Conservatism, followed by an “antitheist” stance that blamed all the worlds troubles on religion. Hitchens thus swung from the left to the right, from anti-Vietnam War to chneerleader of the Iraq War, and for pro to contra God. He ended up favoring Dick Cheney over Mother Teresa.

Some people crave dogma, yet have trouble deciding on its contents. They become serial dogmatists. Hitchens admitted, “There are days when I mis my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb,” thus implying that he had entered a new stage of life marked by doubt and reflection. Yet, all he seemed to have done was sprout a fresh dogmatic limb.”

It is this brand of grandfatherly tut-tutting, equating new causes and changes of mind as “serial dogmatism,” that infuriates me about this book. de Waal, of course, is above it all: never wavering, never wedded to a “dogma” (what we would call a “conviction”)—because, of course, that would make him as bad as both the religionists and atheists he decries.

On the next page he talks about a debate at the Ciudad de los Ideas conference I went to in Puebla, Mexico: Hitchens and Sam Harris debated religion against Dinesh d’Souza and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach:

(p. 90.) The circus-like atmosphere left me with my original question about evangelical atheists. It’s easy to see why religions try to recruit believers. . . But why would atheists turn messianic? And why would they play off one religion against another? Harris, for example, biliously goes after the “low hanging fruit” of Islam, singling it out as the great enemy of the West. Throw in a few pictures of burqas, mention infibulation, and who will argue with your revulsion of religion? I am as sickened as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam? [JAC: Maybe because some religions are more harmful than others? And Harris hardly leaves other religions alone! Remember the title of his second book: Letter to a Christian Nation?] Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent? We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to findf valleys in the moral landscape.”

Note the inflammatory language (“biliously,” “low hanging fruit”) as well as the willfully ignorant claim that all religious harms are equal. If you had the choice to be a Muslim male circumcised at birth or a Muslim female subject to genital mutilation, is it six of one, half-dozen of the other? If you think so, read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. Is Islam no worse than Quakerism? Give me a break. Perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit is the most poisonous fruit, as it was in the Garden of Eden. It is this painting (or rather tarring) atheism with a broad brush, this deliberate mischaracterization of its “militant” opponents, and the deliberate avoidance of New Atheist arguments, that makes de Waal seem less of a scientist and more of a sophist.

But the chimp stories are good, and de Waal’s speculations about the source of morality are worth pondering.



59 thoughts on “The bonobo and the atheist-basher, part 2

  1. ‘Why “sleep furiously” unless there are inner demons to be kept at bay.”

    Sigh. The same bs of a person who has to imagine atheists to be somehow less happy than they are. it gets so boring when I again read more lies about how atheists are somehow more lonely/sad/angry/depressed/nihilistic/etc/etc than those who want to accept or accommodate imaginary friends.

    1. Excellent observation; the rush to demonize atheists goes hand-in-hand with the wish to glorify sectarian belief in the “A Mighty Fortress is our God” tradition.

    2. And there is so much statistics _against_. E.g. average non-religious nations like Denmark and Sweden has high scores on average happiness.

      Why won’t anyone think of the poor facts? Especially a behavioral scientist like de Waal.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the genetics of human and chimp moral behavior being convergent rather than homologous. That seems like a critical point to consider when reading De Waal’s books, and I hadn’t thought about it before.

  3. This was the second book by De Waal that I read (the first being The Ape and the Sushi master), and I liked it overall. Mostly indeed for the stories about altruism in animals other than humans.

    The atheist bashing also bothered me, and I think the book would have been significantly better without esp. chapter 4, if I recall correctly. I don’t recall that many swipes in other parts but maybe I just read them and forgot them.

    I also found that while the stories are really, really interesting (and make the book really worthwhile), there are so many of them that it is often hard to see what the main argument is. Of course it comes down to demonstrating altruism and such in bonobos and chimpanzees which is illustrated by said stories, but it’s not a well-presented case in the sense that it is always clear what the actual point is that is being made.

    I also found it strange that De Waal does not mention or dwell on the evils of religion. I understand that his perspective might be different because he grew up in the Netherlands (and while that country is now mostly secular, there are still religious political parties, and there is a long history of calvinism that has shaped the Dutch mind to a certain extent, which is perhaps his background when he says that religion will be with us for a long time), but he’s been in the US so long that he must be aware of its influence here!

    I also don’t understand his over-simplified explanation for atheist activism: they must have scars from their youth caused by religion. He’s in the psychology department at Emory, isn’t he?!

    Having said all that, I still liked the book. The stories is what will stay with me, and they’re helpful examples to show altruism in animals other than humans. And they’re really great stories. I’m also still interested in reading more of his books – perhaps his earlier ones were less affected by his anti-famous-atheists stance?

    1. Even if someone grew up in a place where the effects of religion have been mitigated, we are living in the era of global citizenship. I mean, get on the freaking internet, for Pete’s sake. Religion is relatively toothless where I live, in more or less liberal Minnesota, yet I’m keenly aware of the atrocities caused by religion in other parts of the world.

      I cannot believe that de Waal is doing anything other than willfully ignoring the real and horrific harm religion perpetrates across the globe.

      Insert Greta Christina’s book here.

      1. Actually, I take that back. Religion is not toothless, even here in the land of Garrison Keillor. The archdiocese of Minneapolis/St. Paul is one if the centers of the Catholic child rape scandal.

    2. I liked your comment on the influence of calvinism on the “Dutch mind”, as it
      has a very special place in the cultural landscape of Europe and the Western world.

      When Europe was in the totalitarian grips of Christian churches, Holland was the only country where iconoclasts and revolutionary thinkers were tolerated and could publish their incendiary books (under pseudonysms or anonymously for imperative personal safety reasons).

      Even if the first serious scholarly attacks of Christian beliefs emerged in 18th c. Germany, they quickly spread to Holland, with its famous “Dutch radicals” who were in the 19th c. the most virulent critics of Christianity, and, amazingly, all held top academic positions. Whereas anti-Christian scholarship led to expulsion from any academic positions in Germany and Britain.

      So de Waal comes from a strong tolerant background. His attacks against New Atheists for their vigorous activism seemed a bit strange to me, since I have been a fervent admirer of de Waal’s findings and stances ever since I was captivated by his studies of chimps in the 1980s. I can still remember the excitement at reading his first book, “Chimpanzee politics”. He wrote it at age 33, and the book is brimming with the excitement of new findings by a young bright brain. I have read most of his books ever since, and have considered him one of my icons in the field of animal psychology and primate sociology.

      So his recent stance came as a bit of a surprise since I cannot remember any similar jabs at atheists in his previous books. Reading his books were always such a refreshing experience after the arid books of so many academic scholars.

      Looking for “causes” is of course an exercise in guesswork. I, for one, can sense a few strands leading de Waal to his public criticism of militant atheists.

      Perhaps his Catholic background played a role, in making him exquisitely sensitive to the abuses of dogmatism on modern brains, and he may be reacting more to the self-sure tone of atheists (their latent dogmatism) than on the contents of their platform. He may spot “dogmatism” in any ideological stance, and “New Atheism” belongs to this category.

      Secondly, perhaps a personal pride in his own achievements as a trail-blazing scholar. He sees himself in the role of leader in the study of primate psychology, and may feel offended by the limelight granted by the media to “strident” atheists who erect themselves as prophets of secular morality and social behavior.
      This would touch to very human traits in scholars related to admiration and professional envy (which can be disguised under various attitudes but remain real in any field of intellectual achievement). Research is a continual competition and race between very bright and opinionated individuals.

      Thirdly, he may look at religion not in its contents, but in its social function as a cement of collective co-existence. So the “harms” of religion is not what retains his attention, but its role in providing a necessary binder in human interactions, which is similar to what atheists see in secular “morality”.
      In that sense de Waal rejoins the founder of modern sociology, the French Emil Durkheim, who in “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” (1912) saw religion as just a social cement within the social group. The contents became secondary to the function, and were dependent on the random geographical and historical factors that determine the specific beliefs and rites of the various religions.

      In this perspective, de Waal’s irritation at the proselytizing activism of New Atheists would be one form of his implicit understanding of religion as a necessary social binding agent.
      If I remember correctly, Christopher Hitchens himself held that scientific rationalism would not extirpate religious leanings, being part of the primitive features of human psychology.

      This said, it remains undeniable that de Waal is one of the giants of modern research in the field of primate and human psychology and cultures. And no giant is perfect.

      1. I think you might be equivocating with the word “tolerant”.

        It’s one thing to tolerate the publishing of “incendiary books” or “scholarly attacks”. Any gnu atheist would also tolerate and, dare I say, promote such things.

        We are all wondering why de Waal seems so willing to tolerate actual criminal behavior (including causing physical harm) in the form of telling us to shut up about religion, or at least wondering why anyone would feel compelled to speak out against religion. That is bad tolerance.

      2. Interesting thoughts on De Waal’s possible motivations. I can definitely imagine something for your numbers 1 and 3 (not to say that 2 could not be an issue; but since he has achieved so much already, you’d think one would be past envy. yeah, I know). That it’s more a reaction to (perceived) dogma, and people not stressing enough the social cement function. But even if religiosity is less of an issue back home in the Netherlands, and even if he takes offense at the tone of the debate, he’s been in the US long enough to experience creation/evolution debates first hand, I would say. I just don’t understand what this bickering against current atheism is supposed to achieve.

        Anyway, good to hear this wasn’t present in his earlier books because I am still very much interested in those.

      3. I can agree on de Waal. But this doesn’t ring true:

        he may be reacting more to the self-sure tone of atheists (their latent dogmatism) than on the contents of their platform. He may spot “dogmatism” in any ideological stance, and “New Atheism” belongs to this category.

        I find “New Atheism” largely in accordance with skepticism today. And strikingly there is another way to be self-sure apart from dogma, namely to have robust facts behind. (E.g. for atheism in general, the several millenniums absence of any observations of magical agencies.)

        That reliance on fact seems to be the case, but less self-assured so, when distinguishing between accommodationists and “stem” atheists. Accommodationism has been tried, unsuccessfully. Atheism is on the rise. I prefer to think of it as a strategy, and a tentative at that.

        If realpolitik is an ideology, so is atheism.
        “Realpolitik (from German: real “realistic”, “practical”, or “actual”; and Politik “politics”, German pronunciation: [ʁeˈaːlpoliˌtɪk]) is politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral or ethical premises.” [ ]

      4. Forgive me, but who cares what Christopher Hitchens might have said?

        De Waal’s problem with militant atheists that, in his view, they don’t understand religion, its development, and its role in human society. They understand that its factual assertions are false. And that’s about it.

        But religion has a long history in our societies. Even in currently very secular countries like Sweden, the heritage and influence of religious institutions and religiously-inspired ways of thinking run quite deep.

        Also, religion plays an important role in many people’s lives that militant atheists seem to feel they can blithely ignore. That you can look at religion as a social phenomenon with certain functions and not as a set of propositions about the world would seemingly come as news to many here. (And, no, I couldn’t really care less how religious people would want it to be considered.)

        Simply: the attitude that the only thing one needs to understand about religion is that it is false is something de Waal despises as incurious at best and bigoted at worst.

        I think rather than wonder why de Waal should be hostile, you ought to turn the question around: As militant atheism seems to be largely about people who do not believe in religion continuously congratulating themselves for their non-belief and condemning the beliefs of others, What is there to like exactly?

        1. Umm. . . I don’t think you have any good idea what militant atheism is about. First of all, how many of us continuously congratulate ourselves for atheism? No more than any Republican or Democrat congratulates themselves for their political views. And we don’t “condemn the beliefs of others” so much as criticize beliefs that we see as inimical in the modern world. If all religions were like Unitarian Universalists, there wouldn’t be much call for atheism.

          Now, could you tell us what there is to like in religously motivated beliefs like withholding medical care from children on medical grounds, treating women as second class citizens, mutilating the genitals of women, terrifying children with thoughts of hell, and killing someone because they’re a Jew or a Sunni versus a Shia Muslim?

          Go back and read Grayling’s criticism. It would be a better world without all those things I mentioned, and I doubt you can deny that. Oh yes, and people are basing much of their lives on the concept of an afterlife in which they receive punishment or reward: a claim for which there’s not a scintilla of evidence. We criticize that, too.

          After rereading your comment, I see you have about zero understanding of what “neo-atheism” is about. Your views will not be credible until you’ve read the Best of Atheism: come back after you’ve read Hermann Philipse and Walter Kaufmann, and then we’ll pay attention to what you have to say.

          1. “If all religions were like Unitarian Universalists, there wouldn’t be much call for ‘militant’ atheism.” I think we might still need atheism as such… 😉


        2. Jerry beat me to most of my points, and stated them better that I would have.

          But this: “religion plays an important role in many people’s lives that militant atheists seem to feel they can blithely ignore”

          Really? Most gnu atheists do pay some attention to this, at least insofar as that is a barrier to people “coming out” as atheists; they are concerned about losing the “social” benefits of religion: the friendship and support of others in their congregation &c.

          Furthermore, some prominent atheists (notably Daniel Dennett) are actively seeking ways in which a naturalistic and/or humanistic worldview and community can play a similar role.

          So, no, it is not something we blithely ignore.


          1. Ha! Ant and Jerry beat me AND did a better job than me.

            I do want to emphasize the point that “neo atheists” do indeed understand religion and the part it plays in society. Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt were both preachers and both suffered great social loss when they left their religion. Further, they both offer a unique perspective into what they felt when they were practising religion; Dan Barker, in particular, describes the feelings believers experience during passionate sermons as completely real. It is short-sighted to claim that atheists only attack religion because it is wrong, without understanding its social benefits. Atheists understand this well, but they believe social benefits can be obtained by other means.

            1. The fact is that “neo atheist” bashers aren’t really bashing Gnus. They are bashing cardboard caricatures they themselves create for the purpose.

              They confuse piñata donkeys with real world animals.

        3. “…who cares what Christopher Hitchens might have said?”

          Someone who would claim to have a clue about what what “militant” atheists actually think?

  4. “… why do some atheists love to attack other atheists more than the religious beliefs that all atheists reject?”

    The psychological effects of reaction formation are manifested for the sake of maintaining some communal notion of proper etiquette (irony at its zenith). “The Maxims of Ptahhotep” and all that jazz. The idea that certain truths are distasteful continues to allow intellectual dishonesty to remain decidedly undetected in the public’s immune system.

  5. I like the new term neo-atheist. It reminds me why people think atheists are on par with rapists in certain parts of the world.

    I live in a Christian nation where religion oxymoronically is largely seen as a private matter. I gather de Waal are talking about these kind of believers as his favourite kind.

    But where does that leave the rest and why on earth should we pretend that their religion isn’t the right kind of religion? To them it is every bit ( if not more ) as true and reasonable as it is to a pragmatic believer and the fact that people through the ages have and continue to justify violence with their particular brand of religion as the truth.

    All religions so far have turned out to be false compared to reality.

    I wonder how long de Waal reckon we should wait before we start telling people?

  6. edit. Supposed to go like this.

    *…the fact that people through the ages have and continue to justify violence with their particular brand of religion as the truth appears to be somewhat less important than the warm fuzzy feeling a believer gets from religion.

    1. I’d go further. Harmless beliefs, such as deism, still rest upon faith-based approaches that contribute little to our knowledge and understanding, and sometimes outright impede it. On sheer intellectual grounds, there should be no objection to challenges and counterarguments from “atheists”. If faith-defenders don’t like it, tough luck.

      I put atheists in quote marks deliberately. The bigger picture conflict is between rationalism and the various brands of wishful thinking, intuitionism, and fideism, and ESPECIALLY the moralism, sloppy ethics, and irksome romanticism and self-congratulatory “you’re dehumanizing people” excuses that go with it.

  7. Perhaps I’m mistaken but… I thought Hitchens’ interest in “Greek Orthodox Christianity” was pretty much confined to marrying his Greek wife in a Greek church.

      1. Wow. This pretty significant (it would seem to me) steak of badly and most likely knowingly misrepresenting individuals and their ideas (cf. ratabago’s comments on yesterday’s de Waal post) does not fill me with confidence about, well, anything de Waal has to say.

  8. Sociologists have made a distinction between
    post-Christian societies/thinkers and
    anti-Christian ones. Personally, I think there’s a whole spectrum between these two, but de Waal seems to be someone who is clearly a post-Christian atheist who has an aversion to (what he perceives as) anti-Christian ones.

    Of course there are atheists suffering from religious trauma and are recovering from religion. Atheist therapist Darrell Ray has a whole website devoted to this, and gives talks about it at atheist conventions. And Berkeley psychotherapist Marlene Winnell specializes in this issue as well. BUT, Sam Harris had no religious upbringing at all!! He’s simply a sensitive outside observer of the harm religion does. The latter situation may have disadvantages of its own re shaping perspective, but SH certainly doesn’t fit de Waal’s paradigm.

    Re JC’s question “why do some atheists love to attack other atheists more than the religious beliefs that all atheists reject?”, I don’t know if someone who insists on the title “agnostic” counts but a (somewhat) happy exception (of which I have posted here before) is Vincent Bugliosi whose book “Divinity of Doubt” contains about 10 times as much material going after Christianity than its single chapter criticizing the new atheism!! (This is the same Bugliosi who prosecuted Charles Manson and wrote the classic account thereof.) And he also clearly understands the differences of opinions between various spokespeople for atheism, thus not creating any generic stereotype of the angry atheist into which all are lumped. These are my two major criteria for whether a critic of new atheism should be taken seriously or not (though one may still vigorously disagree).

    1. I imagine the differences in how Sam Harris and Francis de Waal regard religions – sheer enmity versus benign tolerance – may come down to the sorts of religions each has had going on around them to observe, even if from just outside. Harris has had a ring-side seat for American Christian fundamentalism and a fine media view of Islam, while de Waal’s view has been of a benevolent, easy-going Dutch Christian scene.

      No one would be called upon to be all that stern rejecting the religion de Waal is familiar with. Unfortunately, it’s a tiny part of the whole religious experience of humankind, even now.

        1. No, not unaware. But he may well not have really come to grips with the recognition that the deadly serious religions are what so much of the world has. For him, they could be peculiar outliers, and not the proper basis for a “normal” attitude toward religion.

  9. de wall on Hitchens:
    “…followed by an “antitheist” stance that blamed all the worlds troubles on religion”

    A gross, cheap and lazy misrepresentation.

  10. Turn the question back on him, I think: what demons is he trying to keep at bay by so furiously arguing against more outspoken atheists?

    1. I have absolutely no expertise in this area. Consequently I’m happy to proffer theories:
      1. He’s wracked by Catholic guilt for abandoning the religion his parents gave him.
      2. He’s making excuses to cover up for his lack of courage for not calling out religion for the harm it does.
      3. Deep down he knows he’s no more special than anyone else of equivalent experience, so he’s trying to create a point of difference.
      4. He was personally harmed by religion and is coping via denial.
      5. He’s trying to impress someone who’s religious.
      6. He’s a jerk.

  11. What I learned most forcefully, though, was de Waal’s strong animus against “neo-atheists,” which he appears to define as atheists who actually criticize religion in a public or passionate manner. He sees that as an unseemly disturbance of people’s private behaviors, as an exercise in futility (“religion will always be with us”), and an unnecessary diversion from humanism, which he sees as the “right” way to effect change.

    The fearless pursuit of truth and the application of skepticism to extraordinary claims IS humanism. I’ve no idea why de Waal thinks that when it comes to the most extraordinary of claims and the most important matter of all — the nature and purpose of reality — suddenly humanists are supposed to go all shy and deferential, secure in their superiority over the misguided but uncorrectable believer. Doesn’t truth matter to all humans — the nonreligious and the religious?

    The do-nothing attitude which is coupled with that smug little assurance that “religion will always be with us” because its roots lie in our nature as human beings doesn’t seem to come up when we’re talking about violence, prejudice, sexism, racism, irrationality, or, for that matter, dogmatism. Why fight any of it if we’ll never be able to eradicate it all?

    It seems to me that deWaal’s religiously inspired thirst for Perfection is showing here. Humanism accepts improvement as a reasonable substitute. He’s also being inconsistent.

    Look, people will never ALL accept that nonhumans show any form of morality. They want to feel that humans are special. So why does de Waal bother? It’s a losing battle and just so rude and so forth and so on.

    Don’t think he’d buy that.

    “… why do some atheists love to attack other atheists more than the religious beliefs that all atheists reject?”

    They’re being ‘hipsters.’

    1. Your word perfection, struck me. I’ve thought for a long time the real main religion of America is a form of Puritanism. Puritanism involves the classic Calvinist stuff, we’re sinners and we need to constantly show off our righteousness, lest we are not really saved. But it includes a new component – manifest destiny, the new chosen people. Also in America, all things are new, we are the righteous, the new Adam, hence the long slow extermination of the Amerindians, slavery, myth of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream, and perpetual foreign meddling in all parts of the world to dictate to others supposedly the right way to do democracy. Eternal optimism that Yankee know how will always solve all problems, particularly when a buck or two can be had along the way. Texas school boards and others basically trying to teach children patriotic myths rather than history, etc. I think you can find many of these elements in evangelicalism to this day and unfortunately it is thoroughly saturated in our politics.

  12. . . . time will eventually tell. Whatever “moral” influence religion exerts on nonbelievers (and de Waal claims, rightly, that religion is not a source of morality but can help perpetuate it), will wane as society becomes more secular.

    The fact that there are atheist communities that are doing well on all scales — happiness, fulfillment, and so on — suggests to me that nobody has any justification for saying that “religion will always be with us.” Religion is not necessary for survival, nor for happiness, morality, a healthy society.

  13. de Waal seems to embrace a quasi-group selectionist view of religion, that it is a kind of glue over time that makes us moral. Similar views have been expressed by Nicholas Wade, D.S. Wilson and to a lesser extent even E.O. Wilson. I think it is totally wrong headed from the start, not least the group selection part. I hesitate to put de Waal in this category, because I don’t know his views on group selection, but the sentiments seem similar. The scolding of atheists be quiet, don’t you know religion and morality go together, you don’t want to cut down part of the legs of the stool or the whole thing will fall over and cause chaos over sounds familiar.

    Also if morality is evolved, which no one but creationists deny (of course heavily influenced by culture), then the specific primate social structure has a big effect on the type of morality developed, so it’s hard to make the case that there is an objective morality to be had, since the moral systems will depend to a large extent on the main social systems for a species. Will Self wrote a fictional book several years ago called Great Apes in which Planet of the Apes style, Chimpanzees evolved as the higher primate species on earth, with a polygamous social structure, and a couple of humans found themselves transported to this world treated largely as zoo animals, like we treat chimps. I don’t think Self got all of the biology right, but it made the point that social structures have a large influence both on the culture produced and moral systems that predominate in those societies.

    1. What is your point? Do you believe group-selection doesn’t exist or do you think it is not responsible for the pervasiveness of religion? I have read e.o wilson’s the social conquest of earth, and I don’t see it as much of an endorsement of religion but rather as understanding its nature. Then again, I didn’t like the book that much.

  14. It seems to me that faithiests like de Waal confuse the world as they would like it to be with the world as it is. Gnu atheists exist in reaction to events in the real world. Faithiests seem always to attack Gnus for being disrespectful in our critiques, as if the religion was limited to private moments of reflection by people in there dining rooms. He’s able to both not believe AND criticize the rest of us, but it requires him to make cardboard characterizations while simply ignoring the real world we live in.

  15. I think that one of the most useful points that Sam Harris made in “The End of Faith” was that it isn’t considered polite to notice that different religions do not teach the same things, and do not have equally good ideas. As he said, no one worries about an outbreak of militant Jainism, or bothers to criticize it, because an outbreak would have very minimal bad effect on society.

    Critics of religion most often instance of Islam and Christianity because many of their ideas and doctrines explicitly advocate for violence. And, in fact, although much (not all) of the Christianity-inspired violence occurred in the past, Islamic violence is occurring right now, and needs criticism.

  16. People who describe and discuss how abusive their religious upbringings are the canaries in the coal mine. They are gasping for breath from being subjected to the rotten, stinking air drifting from the foundation underlying religious thinking and beliefs: the deference to authority, the inertia of privilege, and complacency of the status quo.

    Instead, he implies that such people are befuddled because they had the misfortune of stumbling into exceptional circumstances.

    Why is he mixing science and social criticism in one book? Dawkins and other gnu atheists keep the two separate.

    Dennett’s term of ‘murkies’ could also be used for atheists who accommodate religion.

  17. “de Waal imputes the zeal of ‘neo-atheists’ to earlier trauma!”

    Insofar as this is true, this is not a criticism it’s a vindication.

    While this is obviously not true in the case of many lifelong atheists, for former theists I don’t really see that as a criticism. If a large, organized, powerful group of people traumatize, abuse, manipulate, and generally play mind games with you when you are a helpless child, and they do so specifically *because of their false beliefs*, you have every right to have some zeal against those beliefs.

    de Waal just has the privilege of never having been abused as a direct result of religion’s false claims. I’m sorry we’re disturbing your equanimity with our trauma, de Wall, but… sod off.

  18. Indeed, he sees even the morality of nonbelievers as being based on that of their religious forbears.

    So, lemme get this right. His argumentation is as follows:

    (1) Here is a book’s worth of evidence showing that morality was built into primates by evolution.

    (2) It follows that atheists got their morality from religion.

    Is that really how it goes in the book?

  19. Don’t forget how de Waal (willfully, I’d argue) misunderstands Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene as a book that gives a genetic account of (and even endorses) selfish and greedy human behavior.

  20. When I see otherwise unexpected atheist-bashing, my first reaction these days is to ask: “what is this person’s connection to the Templeton foundation?”

  21. It’s not obvious to me that homology vs. convergence has to be an either/or proposition, or that malleability necessarily implies convergence.

    Mammalian dentition, for instance, is evolutionarily malleable, but teeth are clearly homologous in those mammals that have them. It may well be that flat grinding teeth evolved more than once, and are in that sense convergent, but they’re still built from the same genetic toolbox that builds all teeth.

    I don’t see why similar reasoning couldn’t apply to morality. The specific content of, say, a chimp’s moral instincts will be fine-tuned to its particular lifestyle, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a flexible genetic toolbox of moral proclivities inherited from a common primate ancestor.

  22. I would have thought a bonobo would be more concerned about our weird views on sex and homosexuality than making sure we have a ‘proper’ treatment of mythology.

  23. “If a smart bonobo really could talk to an atheist, it would probably say, “Give me some bananas, you heathen!””

    I think a bonobo would tell humans to make love, not war.

  24. About proto-moral or moral capacities being convergent versus homologous. I would think the best course would be to be really cautious about plunking down for one or the other. Certainly primate social patterns are flexible as we adopt different social organizations. But if our common ancestors – humans with chimps and bonobos, chimps and bonobos with one another, the three of us with gorillas – had robust social groups, they probably did have some sort of proto-morality, and if they did, presumably it was the basis for what descendants had and have – barring going through a minimally social bottleneck phase like orangs and having to re-develop the social sentiments later.

    We don’t have fossil moral sentiments or bone structures for them to compare, to show some evidence that different structures with different histories lay beneath similar functions and outward appearances – what you’d want for a really good demonstration of convergence instead of homology. And we don’t have evidence that it must have evolved independently because common ancestors did not have the sentiments or structures: we don’t know that much about the lifestyles of the MRCA of chimps/bonobos, them/humans, us chimp-y sorts/gorillas, or the lot of us and orangs. Certainly our various social patterns have changed a lot: those five apes differ quite a bit. And we couldn’t rule out MRCA’s that are all a lot more like current orangs than the rest of us.

    If we get to the point where we can identify genes or gene groups behind various morally relevant behaviors, and then see if how they are shared or not among apes, we’d be on to something: suspiciously similar or identical genes for similar behaviors favor homology, unrelated genes for similar behaviors favoring convergence. I’m neither an anthropologist nor a geneticist, but my understanding of the state of the art leaves me with no optimism whatever that we’ll be mapping genes onto behavior patterns that well anytime soon to settle this that way, or that the fossil record is going to tell us enough about the social lives and proto-moral behaviors of the most recent common ape ancestors to help much in that direction.

  25. [quote=JAC]
    “Perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit is the most poisonous fruit, as it was in the Garden of Eden.”

    Right on! That ought to squash all the de Waal’s pretentious blabbering aimed at taking a swipe at atheists and, at the same time, boosting a sale in the US whose population is largely religious.

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