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The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 1, 2011

Stephen Asma has written a critique of the new atheists which I want to share. It’s a sociological look at religion, in other words one that places religion it in it’s social context. In particular he argues that animism (the world’s most common religion) makes more sense than a mechanistic world view if one is poor, and that the new atheists completely miss this due to their rich Western lifestyle. He argues they miss the psychological benefits of religion, which are still worthwhile. (He also argues against ‘dangerous’ religion.)

What follows is my distillation of the points that interested me. I recommend reading the whole thing.

“The new atheists, like Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett have failed to notice that their mechanistic view of nature is in part a product (as well as a cause) of prosperity and stability. Most friends and even enemies of the new atheism have not yet noticed the provincialism of the current debate. If the horsemen left their world of books, conferences, classrooms, and computers to travel more in the developing world for a year, they would find some unfamiliar religious arenas.

Having lived in Cambodia and China, and travelled in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Africa, I have come to appreciate how religion functions quite differently in the developing world—where the majority of believers actually live. The Four Horsemen, their fans, and their enemies all fail to factor in their own prosperity when they think about the uses and abuses of religion.

Harris and his colleagues think that religion is mostly concerned with two jobs—explaining nature and guiding morality.

spirit house

Boontham Khuenkaew places a food offering at the ‘spirit house’ in his yard in Thailand.

They’re wrong in imagining that the primary job of religion is morality. Like cosmology, ethics is barely relevant in non-Western religions. It is certainly not the main function or lure of devotional life. Science could take over the “morality job” tomorrow in the developing world, and very few religious practitioners would even notice.

The zealous attempt, on the part of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Red Guard in China, to root out this “opiate” also rooted out all the good stuff about Buddhism that I’ve labelled “psychological.” The attempt to do away with all gods or religions always throws the baby out with the bath water. There is much good “medicine” in Buddhism (just as there is much good in other religions), but if the Asian Communists found you practicing it in the 1970s, you were as good as dead. And that form of militant atheism should ring a cautionary note: Religion is not the only ideology with blood on its hands.

I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation, but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously. I’m not naïve—I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But when people have their backs against the wall, when they are truly helpless and hopeless, then grovelling and negotiating with anything more powerful than themselves is a very human response. It is a response that will not go away, and that should not go away if it provides some genuine relief for anxiety and agony. As Roger Scruton says, “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”

The Four Horsemen and other new atheists are members of liberal democracies, and they have not appeared to be interested in the social-engineering agendas of the earlier, Communist atheists. With impressive arts of persuasion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, debate, and exchange ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.

But Sam Harris’s new book may be a subtle turning point toward a more normative social agenda. If public policy is eventually expected to flow from atheism, then its proponents need to have a more nuanced and global understanding of religion.”


Are Westerners too focused on themselves and on monotheism? What do you think?
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Here are a couple of quotes from Asma which support my contention that Buddhism as practiced is much more “religious” than many Westerners think:

Many of the new atheists have recognized that Buddhism doesn’t quite belong with the other religious targets, and they reserve a vague respect for its philosophical core. I’m glad. They’re right to do so. But two days in any Buddhist country will painfully demonstrate to its Western fans that Buddhism is an elaborate, supernatural, devotional religion as well.

The mix of animism with Buddhism is so complete in Asia that monks frequently make offerings to these spirits, and Buddhist pagodas actually have spirit shrines built into one corner. The Buddhist religion is built on top of this much older animistic system. Animism was never supplanted by modern beliefs.

Thanks to Tracy for passing this article on to me 🙂

6 Responses to “The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview”

  1. I would tend to agree with you to a point, I have often thought about this myself, that we in a privileged position have he time and resources to think about religion as a useless thing. At the same time, however, it doesn’t mean that atheism is wrong. if fact I’d go so far as to say it’s not.

    People do get some advantages from religion, and in lieu of education and water and food and shelter and basic human rights, religion can fill a need that the privileged westerners take for granted.

    For me though this just highlights the importance of education and basic human rights.

  2. SugarPop said

    I agree with what is proposed in the post – that we in the West all too often take for granted the position of priviledge that we come from.

    Having lived and worked in Thailand in the 1990s, I have had first hand experience of animism – there was even a time when I identfied as being an animist myself.

    Belief is belief – whether that is in one or many deities, or none at all.

  3. Iain said

    On balance, I think that Asma isn’t painting an accurate idea of what people like the New Atheists are saying about religion.

    When you look at the NAs work and the literature on the anthropological origins of religion, several adaptive functions of religion are being claimed:

    Comfort – That religion is a system of terror management (bring comfort around the death of yourself and other loved ones).
    Power – That religion is an attempted means of controlling the unknown and usually uncontrollable forces that impact one’s life.
    Morality – That religion provides a way to access an ideal set of moral laws OR provides an ethical reference point.
    Agency – That religion explains patterns of coincidence, whether good or bad, in terms of supernatural agency.

    Leaving Hitchens aside (since he seems to write in an entirely different style), I’m fairly certain that I had seen Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris address all of these topics. Granted, they don’t approach it from the clinical, anthropological angle that I see very clearly in the literature but then they are writing “popularist” books and that is to be expected.

    To be generous, what this article is saying about poverty and need versus western comfort is a good issue to raise. It is easy to major on religion as a system of morality and ignore the other things if you have all of the personal mastery and control over your own life. Think of it in terms of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs: those who have their needs met can make do with a less comprehensive model of religion. If you can’t feed your children and you live in a society that devalues you, the ‘power’ and ‘agency’ qualities of religion will be very significant.

    However, what Asma fails to note is that having more needs and thus requiring a more nuanced model of religion doesn’t say that religion is in any way actually true. When Marx said his oft-misquoted statement about religion being the opiate of the people, what he went on to say was that religion, as a comforting illusion, points to an underlying injustice that must be addressed (and that this problem can only be properly identified once the temporary, illusiory stop-gap of religion is pierced). If religion is only a way to be less afraid of death or to feel more certain in your ability to feed your children in the future, then one must also ask whether it isn’t providing a cognitive roadblock to identifying the “real” problems of mortality anxiety and poverty.

    I think Daniel Dennett would say that Asma is a person who “believes in belief”, as it is obvious that he thinks it provides existential comfort. The real questions should be, “Is it true?”, and, “How can we fix the real world problems that religion ostensibly attempts to solve once and for all?”

    • Being an analytical westerner, i tend to agree with you, that the key question is

      “Is this stuff true?”

      However, to play devil’s advocate i think he is suggesting it is exactly our focus on “is it true” which is the problem. He suggests (I think) that “is it useful” is a better question.

      A probably reply might be, “But if we allow religion because it makes people feel better then we will get all the horrible things that religion causes, like denigration of women”. He does argue in the full article that the negative elements of religion (eg some Catholic practices) should be reformed or dropped.

      I also wonder whether his suggestion that much Animism and Buddhism (and religion in general) is not about morality, is wrong? After all, one could argue the eightfold path is a moral prescription.

      • Iain said

        Yes I think you’re right about Buddhism. Actually, I also agree with his point that local, syncretistic forms of buddhism probably also deal with spheres of life that westerners don’t usually associate with religion. So it goes both ways. Religion is sometimes put forward as a mind-centric philosophical system, other times a system of quite strict and clear morality, and at other times a more grass-roots way of finding simple comfort. All are true… “both-and”, very eastern logic 😉

        If his question is, “Is religion useful?”, then he’s not asking anything that hasn’t already been in the NA debate already. That’s not bad, we always need fresh voices, but the issue of exactly how useful religion is and whether its job can’t be done in a non-supernatural way is very much already an active argument. I think the answer is ultimately an empirical one: certain actions will lead to the objectively greatest increase in human personal wellbeing.

        He also slips a little into the whole ad hominem mess of “whose hands are more bloody, religious or atheist ones?”
        I’d say that’s best avoided, that we’re all human and human history is full of bad choices, and the ideal situation is to move forward proactively in mutual respect.

        Traditionally, or at least stereotypically, he would seem to be on the more popular side. Religion is seen to have done great works of charity and social justice. But things change. The Kiva website’s largest charity group is “Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious” who say they loan because, “We care about the suffering of human beings.”
        Also, it has to be said that many world-class charity/aid NGOs are nonreligious.

        This kind of thing can devolve into an argument about which side has more heart but I think that misses the point. Presumably if we all care about the suffering of other people then we should be able to work with other like-minded individuals regardless of their religious persuasion (and to his credit, this ideal about shared goals is a point that Sam Harris has made). I think it’s possible to be a heartless and ultimately egotistical believer or unbeliever even while being charitable, and too often there is an all too human tendency to team up with AND provide aid to only those who agree with you.

  4. […] was pointed to this article by my mate Jonathan Elliot. It comes from The Chronicle and is titled “The New Atheists’ Worldview“. An […]

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