In a painfully acquiescent article for The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof heralds the recent direction of discourse from atheist writers as nigh “reverential” to religion. He cites three recent books, one from Alain de Botton titled Religion for Atheists, Edward O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, and University of Virginia Psychology Professer Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind.
The latest wave of respectful atheist writing strikes me as a healthy step toward nuance. I’ve reported on some of the worst of religion — such as smug, sanctimonious indifference among Christian fundamentalists at the toll of AIDS among gay men — yet I’ve also been awed by nuns and priests risking their lives in war zones. And many studies have found that religious people donate more money and volunteer more time to charity than the nonreligious. Let’s not answer religious fundamentalism with secular fundamentalism, religious intolerance with irreligious intolerance.
I would be quick to remind Mr. Kristof of the many atheists serving in the United States military risking their lives in defense of his right to deliver such pandering prose to his audience. It appears that Kristof doesn’t care one whit about the truth, he just delivers the same tired trope that humans need religion to be good and cooperate. A few accommodating atheists agree, so it must be true. See, can’t we all just play nice now, truth be damned?
Perhaps the Bible-clutching octogenarians Kristof desires to appease will sleep just fine tonight because their self-delusions remain intact, but I want to remind Kristof of a few things: The truth matters. And parroting a few atheists because you don’t want to make waves for your god-fearing neighbors is not nuance, it’s insulting.
According to Kristof:
Haidt cites research showing that a fear of God may make a society more ethical and harmonious. For example, one study found that people were less likely to cheat if they were first given a puzzle that prompted thoughts of God.
Another study cited by Haidt found that of 200 communes founded in the 19th century, only 6 percent of the secular communes survived two decades, compared with 39 percent of the religious ones. Those that survived longest were those that demanded sacrifices of members, like fasting, daily prayer, abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, or adopting new forms of clothing or hairstyle.
As to the first example, the fact that humans can be subliminally “primed” to influence their behavior is nothing new. This phenomena has been known for years. I’d wager people would be less likely to cheat if you prompted thoughts of their mother standing over their shoulder with a flyswatter in her hand, ready to deliver a stinging blow with any sign of impropriety. A subliminal belief in a cosmic, invisible flyswatter-in-the sky doesn’t in any way attest to its truth.
Perhaps religion did benefit our ancestors. The “nuanced” question would now be, “Does the religious view accurately describe our reality,” and, “Is religion an appropriate means of guiding humanity’s future?” The “New Atheists” say no. We need not lie to ourselves in order to build communities, enjoy cultural rituals, be moral and find meaning. I not only find this view “nuanced,” but intelligent – a word that I don’t think Kristof credits his readers with.
There are many problems with the implicit assumptions in Kristof’s column, but the presupposition that we need religion to find morality and meaning is just plain false, and implicitly presents atheism as nihilistic and uncaring, which is also false.
With the risk of sound too (ahem) “fundamentalist,” the truth matters, like it or not. Kristof would do well, in his quest for “nuance,” not to lose sight of this fact.
Rationality & Irrationality
of a Public Lecture by Peter Boghossian
Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University
Sunday, May 6, 2012 at 10:00am
Friendly House Community Center on the southwest corner of
NW 26th and Thurman in Northwest, Portland, OR
Hosted by the Humanists of Greater Portland • More Details to Follow
www.malcontentsgambit.com • @MalcontentsGamb