Monday, December 29, 2008

Hey, Atheists: It's all your Dad's fault!

Atheism Ascendent?

In presumed observance of Boxing Day, Citizen senior writer Robert Sibley gives us one long ad hominem argument against the New Atheists. His screed takes the "Four Horesmen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) to task for their criticism of religion as being irrational, and encouraging of violence, extremism and inhumanity. According to Sibley, they should quit bitching, because in fact atheism has already won (!):
By all appearances atheism is deeply embedded in the contemporary mind. Modern philosophy, natural science and psychology are, more often than not, atheistic in outlook. So, too, are many of our social and political institutions. It is a virtual taboo for a Canadian politician to refer to his or her religious faith in public life. The school system teaches students about sex and drugs, but classroom prayers have largely been cancelled.
First, Sibley seems to confuse "secular" (making no reference to religion) with "atheist" (in the strong sense of denying gods). To a certain school of thought, any statement that does not begin with an invocation and end with a benediction, is ipso facto impious. But let's be honest: the party whose ox is being gored here -- whose prayers are now omitted from school, whose scriptures are no longer taught during "religious instruction" -- is not just some generic "faith", not some non-denominational "spirituality": it is Christianity (and please, don't give me any tokenistic crap about "Judeo-Christianity", just to prove that you're not really a bigot.) And that is what official secularism is for: because inevitably, officially sanctioned observances are always one party's prayer, but not someone else's; it always comes down to the government endorsing one faith over another. Several centuries of blood were spilled in Europe before we finally got the clue that government must be for all the people, not just for one group (or even a loosely-defined coalition of groups). And as for politics: while it's true that Canadians don't seem to like American-style political piety, in which candidates proclaim that they'll do what God wants, it is still the case that more Canadians believe in God than not. We may not be religious enough to suit Sibley -- but neither is atheism "deeply embedded in the contemporary mind".

(I don't at all understand where he's going with the comment about natural science. Sibley certainly isn't a fan of Creationism, as he has previously written:
Science-based evolutionists who seek "mutual understanding" with those who promote creationist doctrine as equally scientific are effectively committing intellectual suicide. The reality is that some ideas, some principles, are mutually exclusive, and to "respect" those who hold unintelligible views is to retreat in the face of fanaticism.
Whatever his motivation, science has been "atheistic" at least since Pierre-Simon Laplace found he "had no need of that hypothesis [ie. God]" to complete his Mécanique Céleste, and will remain so until someone figures out how to weigh and measure God.)

But back to the alleged triumph of atheism. Yes, Western society is far more secular than it used to be: you can no longer be jailed or worse for disagreeing with the state church on a point of doctrine; you're no longer routinely expected to be some sort of Christian (well, at least if you live in many of the large cities in the US or Canada -- there are lots of places where that's still not true); discriminating on the basis of religion is illegal. I assume that Sibley agrees all this is a Good Thing. But it hardly equates to some sort of atheist hegemony. In Sibley's world, apparently are no Christian fundamentalists trying to sneak Creationism in to school science curricula (and coming damned close to succeeding); no fanatical Muslims flying airplanes into buildings (oops -- I see he has an excuse for that, which we'll get to later); no Pentecostals from Alaska capturing the hearts of the Republican, aren't journalists supposed to be better plugged into current events than that?

But never mind that Sibley's opening premise is (to be charitable) grossly overstated: if we atheists are winning, then why are the New Atheists still complaining? In fact, why in general are atheists, atheist?

Father & Son

Apparently, it's all Dad's fault. Alluding to the writings of Christian psychologist Paul Vitz (see here for an sample essay on this topic), Sibley advances the suggestion that the trouble with the New Atheists (and indeed, with atheists in general) is that they had either absentee fathers, or bad relationships with their fathers:
Absent full-scale biographies -- or personal revelations -- it is perhaps presumptuous to apply a psychological approach to the new atheists. Still, there are tantalizing hints that psychological factors are at play in their militancy.
But even self-confessed presumptuousness isn't enough to stop Sibley from charging full steam ahead into some free-wheeling speculation that Dawkins' atheism is caused by his military father's absence during WWII (Dawkins was born in 1941). Really, this is pretty thin gruel, and his attempt to psychoanalyze Hitchens is even weaker:
Christopher Hitchens attributes his atheism to parents who avoided the topic of religion for psychological reasons of their own. "My parents did not try to impose religion," he says, noting that his father "had not especially loved his strict Baptist/Calvinist up-bringing," while his mother "preferred assimilation -- partly for my sake -- to the Judaism of her forebears."
....which says precisely nothing about not getting along with his father, only that his parents did not teach him religion. Sibley seems to have lost sight of his own argument (Vitz's "bad dad" theory) and gone off on a tangent about general parental influence. In response, I must point out that right across the board, children usually end up being of the same persuasion as their parents. While this no doubt tells us something about the psychology of belief formation, as an argument for or against religion it invalidates everyone's opinions equally. I have to wonder what he would make of my experience: raised by agnostic parents, in an intact functional family -- and I became a fundamentalist at age 15, an atheist at 44. Which conversion was in reaction to exactly which aspect of my relationship with my father?

But Sibley's excuse for Islamic terrorism takes Vitz's hypothesis in a bizarre direction. It's not too much religion, or the wrong kind, it's about fatherhood again:
It's worth pointing out that most acts of terrorism, whether the 2001 terrorist strikes on the United States or the recent attacks in Mumbai, involve young men. Is it possible that the violence atheists attribute to religious faith is in fact rooted in psychology? Is Islamist terrorism a pathological response to the weakening of the traditional patriarchal culture in the Muslim world?
OK, I'm sympathetic to explanations of extremism that supplement dogma with social factors and geo-political grievances, but this is simply the nadir of silly. I don't know, Robert -- is it in fact the case that Muslim patriarchal culture is breaking down? Did the 9-11 hijackers have bad relationships with their fathers? Either provide some evidence for your speculations, or admit you're just making it up, OK?

Vitz Fits?

Since Sibley rests so much of his argument on Vitz's ideas, his essay itself is worth a brief perusal. Near the top he lays out terms of reference which explain a lot about the Sibley article:
Before beginning, however, I wish to make two points bearing on the underlying assumption of my remarks. First, I assume that the major barriers to belief in God are not rational but-in a general sense- can be called psychological. I do not wish to offend the many distinguished philosophers-both believers and nonbelievers-in this audience, but I am quite convinced that for every person strongly swayed by rational argument there are many, many more affected by nonrational psychological factors.
This is why Sibley never attempts (beyond invoking John Haught to deliver a predictable Courtier's Reply) to grapple with the first prong of the New Atheists' critique: that religion is irrational. Now in my opinion it is true that everything we believe is some combination of rational and irrational -- even the choice to use rational decision-making cannot itself be rationally justified without peril of circularity. As a matter of personal history, the stimulus which gets an individual thinking seriously about issues like the existence of God, or the reliability of church dogma, may be some entirely contingent stressor like the untimely death of a parent. But this does not constitute a license to ignore one's opponents rational arguments in favour of speculative psychologizing, as Sibley does. To do so is to commit the Ad Hominem fallacy.

To support his claim that most atheists are being irrational, Vitz uses himself as a case study, citing his experience in an academic environment where piety was frowned upon. He confesses: " is now clear to me that my reasons for becoming and for remaining an atheist-skeptic from about age 18 to 38 were superficial, irrational, and largely without intellectual or moral integrity". Feh: just because he was stupid and venal, doesn't mean the rest of us are. There's this thing called projection -- as a psychologist, Vitz may have heard of it.

Vitz goes on to cite specific examples of prominent atheists with paternal issues: Freud, Marx, O'Hair, Nietzsche. But surely this is proof by anecdote? A scientific approach might, say, systematically survey many atheists and believers on their family histories, and attempt to discern correlations, not just cherry-pick a few historical examples. Isn't psychology a science?

Religion as Social Glue

Sibley concludes by citing the work of Rene Girard, who advances the idea that religion (especially its sacrificial rituals) arose as a way of mitigating violent competition among individuals, thus making orderly society possible. Personally, I'm not competent to critique Girard (read: damned if I can make head or tail of him), but he may have a point. In general, I agree with those who argue that religion played a role in expanding the "in-group" beyond the local clan, all of whom were relations by blood or marriage. This is a Good Thing, as far as it goes -- but it must be noted that the process fell short of truly universalizing the in-group; that it ground to a halt at a point where we had larger, mutually hostile groups. It's only in the past few centuries that we've begun to unravel the residue of these old rivalries -- Catholics and Protestants (mostly) kissed and made up, then they allowed that Jews maybe weren't such bad folks after all, and now they're even making nice with the Muslims (not all of whom are returning the favour, but they've got similar issues to work out themselves). And the impetus for this outpouring of tolerant brotherly love was precisely the growth of secularism (oops, "atheism") springing from the Enlightenment -- the determination to bury the theological hatchets, and seek identities beyond the denominational.

However, even if religion enabled the rise of civilization, this does not warrant the conclusion that getting rid of religion will bring back the Stone Age -- history is not so simply reversible. Establishing that thesis would require data from modern society, say on the correlations between religious belief and observance, and violence, across the Western world. And in fact, some data on that topic is available, in a paper in the Journal of Religion and Society. What it shows is that for many reasonable measures of societal health (rates of homicide, young adult suicide, teen pregnancy and STDs), there is little correlation with measures of religiosity -- and where there is correlation, it appears to be negative, ie. higher rates of belief go with worse outcomes (the USA being a prominent outlier among Western democracies -- among the most religious of the bunch, and also by far the most dysfunctional).

Sibley concludes:
So long as the seed of "resentment" remains embedded in the human psyche -- and it will so long as we remain "human" -- uprooting religion is unlikely to produce a peaceful world.
Well, no it probably won't: we humans are a cussed bunch, and have always fought over resources, if nothing else. But eliminating organized and enforced irrationality -- which frequently explicitly encourages violence -- can't really hurt, either.


Update: Dan Gardner, who is AFAIK the sole voice of rationality left at the Citizen, has posted a short-but-delicious smackdown of his colleague's piece. I was not previously aware of Dan's blog, but it's now in my RSS subs. Hat tip: Paul @ Unscrewing the Inscrutable.

1 comment:

AJM said...

I always sorta assumed the main reason Vitz writes such silly stuff was his Daddy never taught him logic.

Poor guy. Scarred for life. His Daddy was a serial abuser of convenient assumptions utterly bereft of hard evidence and only loosely and rhetorically tarring persons critical of his own worldviews as being somehow psychologically damaged...

What chance did he ever have, after all?