Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Evolution of Hating Atheists

The fierceness, passion, dedication, and doggedness of many people’s attachment to their religious beliefs cries out for some sort of biological/evolutionary explanation.  Now evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers are more at liberty to talk about such theses openly in part because of the path that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Boyer, and Atran have forged.   And the thesis that religiousness has an evolutionary foundation has become quite commonplace and widely accepted, at least among academics.  What also strikes me is the soft-heartedness or affection for religiousness that still comes out in people who are otherwise very clear-headed, skeptical, and objective.  Good examples of this can be seen in some of the panel discussions from the Beyond Belief conference in 2006 on Science, Reason, Religion, and Survival.  

What is striking is the reception that Dawkins, and Harris, among others, get when they make a number of thoughtful, calm, and reasonable criticisms of religious believing, faith and the like.  A number of outstanding scholars in their fields respond with hesitation, restraint, and criticism.  But what’s striking is not that their criticisms are astute critiques of the arguments that Harris and Dawkins offer.  The vast majority of the panelists and even the people in the audience seem to agree that religious believing is a childish fantasy with no basis in reality.  What they seem to be more critical of is not flaws in the atheistic arguments, but of the fact that the atheists are openly arguing against religious believing.  They are more critical of engaging in religious criticism than anything else.  Many of the respondents just don’t like it that Harris and Dawkins are openly, and publicly being critical of religion and arguing that believing in God is not reasonable, even though they themselves are similarly critical in private and agree that it is unreasonable. 

This uneasiness about criticizing religious belief erupts in a number of ways.  One comment that atheists commonly get is surprisingly patronizing, even condescending:  “But people need their religious beliefs in order to get by.  It’s cruel of you to want to rob them of something that while false and silly, gives them so much comfort.”  The masses are too foolish and psychologically fragile to be able to handle their lives without religious delusions, so it would be better for everyone if we just let them persist in their happy mistake.  It’s not that the atheist is wrong, per se, it’s just that he’s messing with something that shouldn’t be messed with. 

I think a similar manifestation of this soft heartedness for religious believing can be seen in the rancorous reviews of the popular atheist books and speakers.  Despite its being utterly irrelevant to the point at hand, critics are preoccupied with what they take to be a strident, hostile, angry tone or approach in atheist authors.  (I’ve commented on this before:  Don’t Like My Tone, Am I Being Rude).  If one were to read a stack of reviews of the prominent atheist books and try to generalize about the most common and pointed criticism, it would appear that the worst thing they are doing is openly disliking religiousness to the point of anger and frustration.  (If that’s the most substantial response that an atheist’s arguments are getting, then she’s doing something right in my book.)  Take a look at this recent interview with Sam Harris by an ABC Nightline reporter.  Notice that Harris is calm and reasonable.  He never raises his voice.  He has a sense of humor.  And he’s clearly very smart.  If you turned the sound off, it would never occur to you that he's angry, frustrated, or rancorous.   But also notice that in almost every sentence, the reporter’s discomfort (and disagreement) with Harris is manifest with the inclusion of descriptors like “angry,” “inflammatory,” “infamous,” “fierce,” “harsh,” and “negative.”  
The very existence of people like Harris causes discomfort; we can’t not voice our disapproval, no matter how committed we might be to the principles of reason or journalism.  Even interviews with Osama Bin Laden were conducted with less sneer and backhanded criticism.

A number of social and historical explanations for this affection for religiousness, even among those who aren’t particularly religious (and who should know better), suggest themselves, and I’ve commented on them before.  But I can’t help but speculate about the possible biological origins of it.  The fact that so many people are so religious, and that even those people who aren’t religious work so hard to construct so many convoluted arguments for why religiousness is a good thing, screams out for a biological explanation. 

So here’s an exercise.  If there was a strong tendency or disposition towards a certain set of behaviors that had been written deep into our psyches by evolutionary history, what would it look like in our day to day lives. A candidate springs to mind:  a mother’s fierce or dedicated determination to protect the interests and safety of her children.  Pretty clearly, the disposition to aggressively defend and protect the welfare of one’s children in a species like ours where raising our offspring requires such a substantial effort would be selected for.  (There are other, more shotgun like strategies like the sea turtle who lays hundreds of eggs and then leaves them to fend for themselves.  Lay enough eggs and maybe a few of them will survive long enough to have babies themselves.)  Let’s assume then, for the sake of argument, that evolution did install a powerful mothering urge in us to foster our rare offspring up to the point at least where they can have babies of their own.  If we have that, then how would that manifest itself aside from the obvious ways of a mother protecting, feeding, and caring for her young?  It seems quite plausible that the rest of us, whether we are mothers or not, would be deeply sympathetic with a mother’s love.  We’d look upon it with affection, nostalgia, encouragement, sympathy, and honor.  Manifestations of it would strike us as beautiful, moving, and worthy of praise.  We’d all be less likely to be critical of it, even when a mother’s love goes too far.  When a television reporter interviews that mother of a known serial killer and she still insists that Ted or Henry is good boy who is innocent, we let it slide.  She’s mistaken and misguided, but we understand and are sympathetic  It would be rude, or harsh, or just impolite somehow to call her out on her mistake.    

In general, if evolution has left us with a strong disposition towards it, our ability to think clearly, objectively, and with detachment about it would be compromised.  We’d be less able and likely to see the flaws in it, and we’d be quick to praise, or encourage it.  Our whole set of cognitive skills would be handicapped in its favor.  And on the flip side, consider how difficult it is to think clearly and objectively about a pedophile.  The intense negative emotional and pre-rational reactions we have to it make it that much more difficult to be reasonable in our reactions.  The pedophile who complains about some real injustice in the judicial system, for example, can hardly find a sympathetic ear. 

So now we can see the point about religious belief in this diversion.  If we love religiousness the way we love motherhood, and a substantial part of our love for both has evolutionary roots, then how would you expect people to behave about religion?  You’d expect to see just the sort of inflamed, offended, passionate, and zealous reactions that we see when Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett do their thing.  You’d expect them to be hated or at least disliked and criticized, even by the people who aren’t particularly religious.  You’d expect to see a great deal of resistance to what they are doing, even if there’s not much substance to their objections.  
A deep dislike for homosexuality is similarly widespread, and there’s a similar absence of any real reasons for objecting to it.  Most people’s first reaction is that being gay is just flat wrong—it fills them with revulsion.  And these negative feelings about it come long before they can offer any thoughtful reasons.  (See Stephen Pinker’s piece about the evolutionary origins of those feelings of revulsion and their connection to morality.)  If religiousness evolved in us, then what the atheist is coming up against when she’s trying to talk someone out of it is much deeper and more profound than mere reasoning.  The atheist is striking a sensitive and raw nerve that millions of years deep in our natures, and, predictably, the reactions are visceral, irrational, and passionate. 


Peter Watts said...

Another possibility is that folks are simply afraid of having their windshields smashed, their noses broken, or their contracts terminated if they remark too audibly on the emperor's nudity. I'd proclaim my own faith to the heavens if I'd been alive back in the days of the last Holy Inquisition, but not because I had a hardwired sympathy for religious beliefs. Hell, I'd proclaim an undyling love for the works of Celine Dionne if it kept me off the rack (which, come to think of it, has more than a passing connection with the impact of Dionne's work...)

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Giant Squid. Right, I didn't mean to exclude the explanation that a lot of people are critical of atheism because of the enormous social pressure to do so. Evolutionary disposition, if it's real, would just make it that much easier to fall into line.

BTW, Peter Watts' books are required reading for atheist science fiction fans. This week I've been loving some short stories. Check "A Word for Heathens" for a take on the neurological causes of religious experience and their affects on society.

And The Island" is just brilliant. Watts is one of the very best sci fi writers working today.

Unknown said...

I still think it's important to be out there advocating for atheism though, even if the response is overly negative from most others. You're certainly on to something suggesting that religious disposition is programmed by evolution, but stupidity probably isn't. I think most people, if offered a choice between rational atheists or lunatic doomsday cultist evangelicals, would have to eventually decide they hold views that are far closer to atheists than such christians. The real question is, will they ever actually have to choose?

Anonymous said...

The atheist is striking a sensitive and raw nerve that millions of years deep in our natures, and, predictably, the reactions are visceral, irrational, and passionate. 

People recognize that religion provides a constraint on action. It makes people passive. The atheist is not so constrained. The atheist has a more direct connection to reality, so has more possible moves in the game of life, making the atheist dangerous from their perspective. Evolutionarily, the atheist has a considerable survival advantage since no time is wasted in meaningless ritual and no constrainst are imposed by fear of eternal punishment. Peeople react to atheists like animals trying to kill or maim potential alphas. According to Social Dominance Theory (Jim Sidanius, Felicia Prato, et. al) There is a strong biological tendency to seek to increase and mainain ones position in a heirarchy, with this tendency being particularly strong in males. Think of it as a modern version of the "will to power." Atheists have the tactical advantage evolutionarily, and religious people recognize this. Their position in the grand evolutionary "heirarchy of predation" as i call it is threatened. So they react to us like we're dangerous.