Thursday, December 20, 2007

Scott Atran does a disservice to “new atheism”

Anthropologist Scott Atran, an atheist himself and author, most notably of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, but a strong critic of the so-called “New Atheists,” even to the point of approaching talking about the “ineffability” of religious belief, was recently in an extended conversation with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris about their critics of the degree of harm religion causes.

The discussion also included side points on the validity, and degree of validity, of ideas of evolutionary group selection vs. individual selection.

Here’s my take on the whole thing, which is well worth a read.

The “new atheists” are right, in my opinion and empirical observation, that religion is harmful from the standpoint of groups, whether that be individual religious groups, faiths, sects, etc. other social groups, or the largest group of all, Homo sapiens. However, that then said, Atran is right that religion can be very valuable for the groups holding on to it.

That said, religion may well still have value for individuals. The psychological value of greater control that religion appears to give, greater control through its apparent, even if now known to not be real, explanatory value is still strong. But, its value minus its detriments is fading, especially in countries scientifically advanced not named the United States.

That said, the cohesiveness value of religion for groups still appears to offset those detriments in this country. But, as the United States exhausts its natural resources, faith-based stances from a fair amount of more literalist Christians on environmental issues, blank-check defense of Israel, and other items, will certainly grow more costly, especially to individuals within religious groups as individuals.

And, that said, while not dismissing David Sloan Wilson’s ideas on group selection, as many of the Dawkinses of the world do appear to do, and while noting that Darwin himself discussed group selection, ultimately, individual selection trumps group selection. Genes are passed on at the individual level.

So, Atran is somewhat right in an oblique way. Until individuals feel for their own selves the costs of religious belief, especially of a literalist or semi-literalist fashion, at the individual level, individuals won’t break out from the group benefits they get.

But, contra Atran, since at the group level, we have a conflict between in-group value and out-group cost for religion, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., are absolutely right to expose the cost that religion imposes on outgroups.

In the U.S., the amount of tax deductions for religion would be one example. From President Bush on down to school superintendents, the increasing preference given to “faith-based” social organizations to perform government services, the cost religious groups impose on other groups, as well as individuals, across metagroup swaths of society is a big issue.

In other words, not as individuals within a particular group, but religious groups as “individuals” within metagroups, there is a huge, highly legitimate “free rider” issue.

In other words, let David Sloan Wilson talk about group selection with religion. He’s hoisting himself by his own petard.

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