Prelude: Politics in Mind

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I have evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to thank for my Ph.D.

His influence was admittedly rather indirect, as I never met the man.

But his popular science books The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype really captured my imagination when I was an undergraduate psychology major, and they inspired me to investigate questions about human behavior as it related to biology. As a result, I began to volunteer in a research lab, and soon enough I pursued cognitive neuroscience research as a graduate student.

Dawkins is at his best when he’s waxing ecstatic about the topic he loves: evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, if he’s known at all now, it’s for complaining about things he hates, mostly related to religion. Around the time that I was applying to graduate programs, Dawkins released his book The God Delusion, and was appearing on television alongside fellow authors Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, making cases against the pernicious influence of religion in society.

This was the advent of the New Atheists, and Dawkins was a major force for the movement, one of the so-called Four Horsemen.

Now, I’m someone who escaped an oppressively doctrinaire religious upbringing, and so I can certainly sympathize with the New Atheists to some extent. The fundamentalist culture machine that dominates the world is truly awful, and their bad faith initiatives to teach “intelligent design” in science classes fully deserved some sharp attacks by incensed biologists such as Dawkins. 

What’s more, the fervor of the Christian Right in America had gone through the roof once our country was attacked by Muslim true believers. This was the crusade that many of them had longed for, and so they grew even more jingoistic and authoritarian than they already had been. They were not only openly praising the torture of Muslim “terrorists” (i.e., any young male caught up in a random sweep) but were also seeking to cleanse their own country of perceived enemies within (I remember freezing up as I walked into my sister’s house one day as Sean Hannity chanted from the radio: “Liberal treachery, Liberal hate, Liberal lies, Liberal vehemence!”)

In such a climate, I certainly appreciated a good deal of the pushback coming from Dawkins et al.

But, ultimately, the New Atheists took their attacks on religion way too far.

They declared that all religion was irrational, an unhealthy delusion. Dawkins himself seemed so blinded by his hatred of religion that he failed to see any possible evolutionary value in it whatsoever. Granted, a trait like religiosity doesn’t need to have adaptive evolutionary value in order to survive in the gene pool—it could just be a byproduct of something useful, or something neutral. But Dawkins in fact asserts that religious beliefs are wasteful and dangerous.

That presents a problem for his argument.

If religious traits are indeed so maladaptive, the genes that enable them would not be able to proliferate via natural selection., And yet, it’s a fact that religious beliefs and practices are nearly ubiquitous across human history. It’s like Dawkins wasn’t paying careful attention to the logic of what he was arguing. Despite their seeming worship of human reason, a lot of the New Atheist arguments weren’t in fact very reasonable.

Ah well, I still enjoy Dawkins’ musings on, say, the crucial role of pain in psychological development, and how bats might “hear in color” like how humans see in color.

He just has clear limitations to his talents.

Later, while I was living in Montreal for a postdoctoral research appointment, my brother recommended a different book on reason and religion: The Case for God by Karen Armstrong.

He found this to be a refreshing antidote to The God Delusion. There is a lot to like about The Case for God, particularly how Armstrong waxes ecstatic about religious ecstasy. She argues that religious feeling can be triggered by anyone given the right practices, which made sense to me. However, almost like the opposite of Dawkins, Armstrong simply waves away the fundamentalist and literalist strains of religion as mere “idolatry”—not real religion—and moves on.

This seemed a weak rhetorical gesture in a book on religious history. Unsophisticated this stuff may be, but it’s everywhere, including throughout history! You can’t just wish it away.

Not to mention the book’s title is misleading, as most people won’t interpret it in the way that Armstrong does.

While the New Atheists wanted to damn all religion as dangerous fundamentalism, Armstrong wanted to pretend like fundamentalism (and other “face value” interpretations of scripture) was some rare aberration rather than a rampant mode of religious life. 

Also frustrating was the complete disconnection between these two authors. Armstrong and Dawkins had far more in common than they did differences, and yet they sought no common ground in their arguments. Moreover, it was like they were speaking past each other, rather than contributing to a dialectic. 

Thinking about possible psychological explanations for the disconnect, I surmised that how the authors chose to frame their arguments, and especially the language they used to do so, served to signal their own respective identities in a given moral community. In other words, these were two people from separate congregations, preaching to completely different choirs, rather than to one another. Put another way, Dawkins and Armstrong were rallying two distinct tribes using their own particular signs and signifiers. Their arguments were less about objective reality than about a specific social world they each represented and defended. 

In trying to account for this disconnected dialectic on reason and religion, I felt I had stumbled upon something deeply true about human reasoning in general. It’s kind of akin to what the early psychologist William James called “Pragmatism:” the position that human beliefs and claims are really about the behaviors that they enable, not any real objective truth value per se. This was like a more social, tribal version of that more general idea.

Upon sharing some of my thoughts in the (I kid you not) Amazon book review comment section for The Case for God, a very intelligent and generous commenter noted that I was hitting upon some aspects of human nature laid out by a social psychology book that came out recently. So I readily got a copy of the book and started reading.

Suffice it to say that I was heavily primed to absorb what this book had to say.

But man, I had no idea how much of an impact that book would come to have on me.

It provided threads that tied so much about religion, politics, and human nature together in a way that made sense. But it wasn’t just my understanding of the world and human nature that changed.

This thing changed how I saw myself, and how I would proceed in the world going forward.

But that’s a tale for another time. 🙂

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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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Virgindog
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Virgindog
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July 15, 2022 7:25 am

Nice cliffhanger! I’m already looking forward to E2!

I haven’t read Dawkins, nor even heard of The New Atheists until today, but I saw him interviewed once or twice and thought his mantra of “I’m right! You’re wrong” was exactly the same mantra that fundamentalists chant. We’ll never get anywhere with that attitude.

In reality, we’re all probably wrong about god, the universe, and everything. I think Einstein said that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine. The same is true for god, whatever she is.

cappiethedog
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July 15, 2022 7:26 am

If there is an afterlife, Christopher Hitchens, at this very moment, is waiting for somebody with a ouija board to summon him.

thegue
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thegue
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July 15, 2022 7:42 am
  1. I haven’t read Dawkins either, but he sounds a bit like Bill Maher, which means I wouldn’t be able to stand him.
  2. I love Karen Armstrong’s books on the Middle East, if you ever get a chance.
  3. After watching family members join a cult, and others swept up in the evangelical movement, I SHOULD be an atheist…yet I’m not. I DO think that religion is a very personal, and should be kept as such. Unfortunately I feel like this is becoming a minority position among Christians in America.
lovethisconcept
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July 15, 2022 10:52 am

Yes, as a person of faith, it is those moments of feeling that revive the flagging soul when it all seems impossible to believe anymore.

lovethisconcept
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July 15, 2022 10:53 am
Reply to  thegue

Sooo agree with this. On points 1 and 3, we are aligned. Haven’t read Karen Armstrong, but it looks like I need to.

cappiethedog
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July 15, 2022 9:00 pm
Reply to  thegue

I’m a fan of Marilynne Robinson. I think she’s brilliant. Who am I to say that God doesn’t exist? She won the Pulitzer. She’s a Christian writer who respects secularists. I don’t feel preached to. I loved the Gilead series.

When Jessica Chastain points to the sky and tells her son: “That’s where God lives,” I feel a twinge of jealousy towards the believers. The Tree of Life, like Robinson, and maybe Willie Nelson’s interpretation of Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, puts religion in the best possible light.

JJ Live At Leeds
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July 15, 2022 12:54 pm

Another well written and thoughtful article Phylum.

The God Delusion is the only Richard Dawkins I’ve read, a couple of years ago. It was a tough read and thats coming from me as an atheist. Turns out I’m part of the problem for Dawkins as I’m from the idealistic live and let let live school of thought. Everyone should be free to pursue their own beliefs without prejudice and fear as far as I’m concerned. When it becomes fundamentalism and is used to preach intolerance of others, violence in thought as well as action and actively telling other people they’re wrong is when I have a problem.

For me, atheism is my personal belief (or absence of belief) and I would never presume to tell anyone else I’m right, you’re wrong. If someone wants to know my thoughts I’m happy to talk it through but generally its my belief I don’t see it as relevant to anyone else.

I thought The God Delusion had some good points but the overbearing pompous attitude and dismissal of anyone and any idea that doesn’t fit in with Dawkins point of view wore me down. I’d always thought of him as the head atheist, an evangelist for atheism but after reading it and being overwhelmed by the arrogance I’ve demoted him. Fundamentalist is probably more accurate than evangelist.

Look forward to reading more and finding out what the book is.

Logan Taylor
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July 16, 2022 4:25 pm

I only got halfway through God Delusion not necessarily due to Dawkins’ approach but merely because at that point I’d been an atheist for ten years and was generally familiar with the arguments. As you indicated in the comments, it’s better suited for someone just starting to question faith. I remember being amused at the footnotes he peppers throughout where he seems to have a soft spot for the Anglican instructors of his youth.

I’ll be most curious to see what book you’re referring to! Increasingly I have trouble adhering to pithy one-word labels because they can’t completely encompass the complexity of each person’s belief system. I’d think I’d rather bore someone at length if it means I can communicate better about what and how I believe.

Logan Taylor
Logan Taylor
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July 17, 2022 11:05 am

Not bad! In broad strokes, that’s where I sit.

dutchg8r
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July 18, 2022 12:33 am

This was Renaissance Fair Turkey Leg – meaty reading Phylum, excellent job! I really enjoyed it; I definitely prefer knowledge transfers of information over biased opinions. 🙂

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