It’s a long review on Inference by the well known book critic George Scialabba, it’s called “Good for nothing,” and it’s generally positive. I’ll take what I can get, particularly in view of the rage of theists.
Scialabba makes one point that I hadn’t taken up, or previously encountered:
For all the vigor with which Coyne pursues his bill of indictment against organized religion, he leaves out one important charge. As he says, the conflict between religion and science is “only one battle in a wider war—a war between rationality and superstition.” There are other kinds of superstition. Coyne mentions astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing, but religion “is the most widespread and harmful form.” I’m not so sure. Political forms of superstition, like patriotism, tribalism, and the belief that human nature is unalterably prone to selfishness and violence, seem to me even more destructive. Questioning authority was humankind’s original sin. It is also the first duty of a democratic citizen. It is something of an understatement to say that organized religions do not, on the whole, encourage the questioning of authority. Hence, it is probably not a coincidence that, among developed societies today, the most humane and pacific are the least religious.
I’m not so sure that tribalism is a form of superstitition so much as a spandrel of our evolved tendency to favor our ingroup: a “family” that’s an expanding circle from our family group and then our small cohesive social groups in Africa. But Scialabba’s right: it isn’t necessarily rational to favor your own country over others, and he’s also right about the negative correlation between the functionality of a society and its religiosity, something I highlight repeatedly on this site.
As for Nazism, Stalinism, and Chinese Communism, always cited as the horrible results of atheism, Scialabba says this:
At this point, believers will object strenuously: Don’t blame us! Look at the history of the twentieth century—the worst crimes were committed by unbelievers. Berlinski (a skeptic about both religion and evolution) has put this point with great force and verve. [I omit the Berlinksi quote; go see it for yourself].
. . . This is masterly rhetoric but faulty reasoning. Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism were rank superstitions, no more tolerant of doubt or committed to intellectual freedom than Counter-Reformation Catholicism or contemporary Salafism. They were secular religions.
Scialabba then mentions the useful aspects of religion in fostering solidarity, citing an fictional passage from D. H. Lawrence about a tribe that has a frenetic ritual dance as the sun sets:
Lawrence always called himself a fearfully religious man. This is as close as he ever came to describing his religion. It is indeed terrifying, as collective emotions can be. But a culture without any such instinctually-based communal rituals would probably be imaginatively and emotionally impoverished. [JAC: I disagree!]
IN SAYING THESE few words on behalf of (mostly natural) religion, I don’t mean to gainsay any of Coyne’s criticisms of supernatural religion. The dogmas Coyne derides in Faith Versus Fact are indeed, as James said of their nineteenth-century versions, “fifth wheels to the coach.” Even more valuable is Coyne’s resolute championing of critical thought and intellectual honesty. But his and others’ efforts do, I hope and believe, have dogmatic religion on the run, however long it may take to complete the rout. Meanwhile, it is important to identify and preserve whatever in religion’s vast and varied heritage may be of use to our emancipated descendants.
I appreciate Scialabba’s kind words. But about that last sentence: I wonder what the Danes, Swedes, and Dutch have preserved of “religions’s vast and varied heritage” to buttress their societies. Not much, I suspect. My view has always been that as religion dies a natural death, people will find their own ways to fill the lacuna of its missing social functions, but that those lacunae will be filled in different ways by different people. For example, we have secular churches in the U.S., but they don’t have them in Sweden. Having abandoned faith long ago, Swedes have no need of such activities. We can always find secular ways to celebrate births, marriages, and deaths (Swedes sometimes repair to churches to do this, which is fine with me); but it would be presumptuous of me to suggest how such rituals should be conducted.