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The New Atheism as a Stealth Religion: Five Years Later
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David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

The world appears to be tiring of the New Atheism movement, which burst upon the scene about five years ago with the so-called Four Horsemen: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. A recent critique by David Hoelscher, which includes a review of two new books on the movement, describes it as “The waywardness of a large chunk of the atheist movement.” Another intelligent analysis centered on Richard Dawkins comes from the philosopher and evolutionary scientist Massimo Pigliucci.

These and other critiques prompted me to revisit my own assessment of the movement, which I published as a six-part series titled “Atheism as a Stealth Religion” in 2011 when I was blogging for the Huffington Post. My assessment reflects my training in evolutionary science and my research on religion from an evolutionary perspective, which therefore complements the current critiques. I am therefore happy to make the series available as a single document on This View of Life.


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I: The Fight of the Century

In today’s polarized world, the conflict between atheism and religion is shaping up to be the fight of the century. In this corner, the new atheists, flexing their muscles with books such as God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In that corner, the religious fundamentalists, who are responsible for 9/11, the Christian takeover of America, polluting the minds of their children, and numberless other atrocities. It’s science and reason against dogmatism and blind faith, making it obvious who the enlightened liberal should root for.

Well, not quite. The truly enlightened liberal should experience a twinge of doubt about the very blackness and whiteness of it. Let me show you how a bit of evolutionary thinking can paint a more interesting picture in shades of gray.

The new atheists hate religion for causing between-group conflict and especially for its wanton disregard of the canons of rational thought. Yet, both of these problems extend far more widely than religion. Between-group conflict pervades the animal world. Ant colonies, lion prides, and chimp troops don’t have religion, but they do have between-group conflict. As for the canons of rational thought, to the extent that brains evolved by natural selection, their main purpose is to cause organisms to behave adaptively in the real world–not to directly represent the real world.

This leads to a crucial distinction between what I call factual and practical realism. Consider Hans and Igor, who are mortal enemies. Hans understands that Igor is much like himself, even to the point of competing for the same square of ground. Igor regards Hans as an inhuman monster, completely unlike himself. If Igor’s belief makes him fight with greater determination, then it counts as practically realistic, even if it is factually incorrect. Now imagine similar contests among beliefs–and the brains that create beliefs–taking place over thousands of generations of genetic and cultural evolution. Voila! We arrive at a conception of human mentality that is far more nuanced and interesting than the black-and-white cartoon of atheism vs. religion.

Factual and practical realism are not always at odds. To pick an obvious example, a hunter needs to know the exact location of his quarry. The point is that the relationship between the two is complex and that our minds are prepared to massively depart from factual realism, when necessary, in ways that motivate effective action. This is not a sign of mental weakness but a time-tested survival strategy. Moreover, adaptive fictions are not restricted to religions. Patriotic histories of nations have the same distorted and purpose-driven quality as religions, a fact that becomes obvious as soon as we consider the histories of nations other than our own. Intellectual movements such as feminism and postmodernism are often shamelessly open about yoking acceptable truths to perceived consequences. That’s what it means to be politically correct. Scientific theories are not immune. Many scientific theories of the past become weirdly implausible with the passage of time, just like religions. When this happens, they are often revealed as not just wrong but as purpose-driven. Scientific theories cannot be expected to approximate factual reality when they are proposed, but only after they have been winnowed by empirical evidence.

These and other belief systems are not classified as religions because they don’t invoke supernatural agents, but they are just like religions when they sacrifice factual realism on the altar of practical realism. The presence or absence of supernatural agents–a particular departure from factual realism–is just a detail. It is humbling to contemplate that the concerns typically voiced about religion need to be extended to virtually all forms of human thought. If anything, non-religious belief systems are a greater cause for concern because they do a better job of masquerading as factual reality. Call them stealth religions.

That brings us back to atheism. The discerning liberal (or any intellectual) would be a fool to assume that atheism stands for pure reason, just because it doesn’t invoke the gods. We need to give atheism a good hard look to see if it is functioning as a stealth religion. Fortunately, basic design principles enable us to do just that.

The real world is full of messy trade-offs. When behaviors are evaluated for their effects on self and others, for example, some are good for both (++), or bad for both (–), but many are good for some and bad for others (+- or -+). Any belief system that accurately represents the real world will include examples of all four possibilities. The main purpose of a religion or a stealth religion, however, is not to describe the real world but to motivate a given suite of behaviors. One way to do this is by creating a stylized world without tradeoffs, in which the prescribed behaviors are portrayed as good, good, good for everyone and the prohibited behaviors are portrayed as bad, bad, bad for everyone. Behaviors with mixed effects are absent from the stylized world because they do not clearly tell the believer what to do.

Using this simple method1, it is easy to show that fundamentalist religions portray a world without trade-offs, very unlike the real world, which propel the believer along a single path toward glory and away from ruin. Unfortunately, at least some version of atheism fare no better.

As exhibit A, consider Ayn Rand, the new atheist of her day who claimed that her philosophy of Objectivism was based entirely on reason and science. She corrected people who called her an individualist by saying that she was a rationalist. Nevertheless, her philosophy portrays a world without tradeoffs, just like religious fundamentalism. The two belief systems motivate different suites of behavior, of course, but in both cases they stuff the believer, like a human cannonball, into an ideological cannon to be shot in the direction of glory and away from ruin.

The Ayn Rand movement was just like religious fundamentalism in other respects. Rand was treated as an infallible oracle–the very opposite of reasoned discourse–and members of the movement spent their time casting out false premises as if they were so many demons. A lifelong smoker, Rand was nevertheless astonished when she contracted lung cancer. How could she get cancer when she had no false premises? She was no more rational about the nature of disease than evangelical Christians lining up to be healed. Even today, Rand’s novels sell many thousands of copies a year and the Ayn Rand Institute attempts to lure new members with the following appealing invitation: “Those who have read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged know that the sunlit universe Ayn Rand depicts in her novels is unlike the world that they see around them. How can one achieve the clarity of vision and joyous existence that her fictional heroes achieve?”

How about the new atheism of our day? I wish I could report otherwise, but it has all the hallmarks of a stealth religion, including a polarized belief system that represents everything as good, good, good or bad, bad, bad (“how religion poisons everything”), the unquestioned authority of its leaders, and even the portrayal of bad ideas as like demons (parasitic memes) that need to be cast out (“breaking the spell”).

One purpose of this blog is to act as a portal for those who like to roll up their sleeves and get dirty with the details. Both I and Michael Shermer, the intrepid editor of Skeptic magazine, have written about Ayn Rand as a stealth-religious zealot in our respective books, Evolution for Everyone and Why People Believe Weird Things. I have critiqued two books by the new atheists (Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins The God Delusion) at length elsewhere. I am also involved in the establishment of evolutionary religious studies an authentic scientific discipline2,3. One reason that I am passionate about exposing the new atheism as a stealth religion is because it distracts attention from something far more important and interesting–the proper study of religion and all forms of human mentality from an evolutionary perspective.

Finally, the fact that factual realism tends to be subservient to practical realism is a statement about how the mind works, not about how modern beliefs systems should be. We need respect for factual realism as never before to arrive at practical solutions to life’s complicated problems. Evolutionary theory tells us that this objective doesn’t come naturally and that some clever social engineering will be required, much as enduring religions manage to expand the circle of cooperation more widely than the tiny social groups of our ancestral past. The new atheists will need to display a virtue typically associated with religion–humility–if they wish to join this enterprise.

II: Let’s Get Real

My previous blog attracted 250 comments, putting atheism right up there with Britney Spears as one of the most newsworthy issues of our day. Seriously, there are important issues at stake with the New Atheism movement, meriting a follow-up blog. One question on my mind concerns the quality of discourse that can be achieved with a blog-and-comment format. Can it rise above the intellectual equivalent of a barroom brawl?

Here are some bullet points to organize the next round of comments:

I am an atheist: Some readers thought that I must be a religious believer attempting to level the playing field by calling atheism a stealth religion. If theism refers to a belief in supernatural agents capable of intervening in natural processes, then I am 100% an atheist and proud of it.

What do I mean by a stealth religion? I clearly define a stealth religion as any belief system that distorts the facts of the real world (yes, there is a real world out there, and it does not include people sitting on clouds) for the purpose of motivating a given suite of behaviors. Beliefs in supernatural agents are a particular distortion of factual reality and I want to broaden the discussion to include all distortions of factual reality. It’s no good quoting dictionary definitions of atheism and religion, when I clearly state what I mean.

What do I mean by factual and practical realism? A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there (e.g., there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world. If you were to ask me for advice about a plan of action, and I replied that your plan is not realistic, you would understand me correctly to mean that your plan is unlikely to work. Thus, the term “practical realism” is fully intuitive, as long as I clearly define its meaning, as I have.

Practical realism is a good thing. Since most atheists are self-described truth lovers, it is easy to conclude that we have a moral obligation to favor factual over practical realism, whenever the two conflict. However, most of us presumably also want to live in happy, healthy, thriving communities. If there is an unavoidable trade-off between factual and practical realism, that would place all of us in a moral dilemma. Atheists such as myself are banking on the possibility that we can have our cake and eat it too; that factual realism can contribute to, rather than detracting from practical realism. We need to be clear about our own articles of faith.

Not all forms of atheism are stealth religions. Some readers jumped to the conclusion that I am branding all forms of atheism as stealth religions. Not in the least. It is perfectly possible to have a belief system that is as factually realistic as possible, which we consult for our plans of action. The question is how well any particular atheistic belief system approaches this ideal.

The flag, the cross…and science and reason. Sinclair Lewis (recently quoted by presidential candidate Ron Paul) said “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag carrying a cross.” To that we can add “and claiming to be supported by science and reason.” No, I am not accusing the New Atheists of having a hidden fascist agenda, but I am making the reasonable point that all forms of authority are vulnerable to abuse, as the sorry history of Social Darwinism attests. We need to be suspicious about arguments cloaked in all forms of authority.

Stealth religions need not be conscious. I am not saying that the New Atheists (or anyone else) see the world clearly and then willfully distort it to suit their purposes. The problem is worse than that. The world we see clearly is often already distorted by mental processes that operate beneath our awareness. That’s why it is important to see the complex relationship between factual and practical realism from an evolutionary perspective, reflected in the deep structure of our brains and cultures.

Environmentalism as a stealth religion. It might help to apply these ideas to an example other than atheism. We are faced with many environmental crises that threaten our long-term welfare. Most of the problems are complex (e.g., chemicals in plastics that mimic hormones) and require accurate scientific understanding to be solved. Yet, people also need to be goaded into action at an unprecedented scale. Many beliefs advanced by environmentalists, including predictions that seem to be supported by volumes of data and sophisticated models, are systematically distorted in the direction of overstating the dangers, as journalist Michael Duffy reports in a recent article. As Duffy puts it “science is ripe for manipulation, usually unconsciously, by virtuous scientists. Few people are aware of the large element of subjectivity, not only in the design of immensely complicated general circulation models, but in the data that goes into them.” This constitutes a genuine moral dilemma. Should we remain true to factual realism when our uncertainty might be used as an excuse for inaction? Is it justified to inflate the risks and conceal our uncertainty to promote planetary survival? Welcome to the trade-offs between factual and practical realism.

Is the New Atheism a movement? Some readers objected to having atheism called a movement with designated leaders. For them, atheism is just a bunch of independent thinkers who refuse to be herded. That might be true for atheism as a whole, but can there be any doubt that authors such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris are trying to start a movement? They even have their own label — “The Brights”, which thankfully seems to be going nowhere. The term “New Atheists” tends to be used by critics of the fledgling movement, such as myself, but it’s no good trying to raise consciousness and then denying that you are trying to start a movement.

It’s OK to be a carnival barker… I am sometimes chided for criticizing the books of the New Atheists as if they were scientific tomes, when in fact they are designed to attract the attention of the general public in the crowded cultural marketplace. I have no objection to carnival barking — as long as there is something worth seeing inside the tent. If the new atheists are not basing their claims about religion on the best that science has to offer, then they are part of the problem. My complaint about the New Atheism is that it is based on bad science, in the same way that environmentalism is often based on bad science. It doesn’t matter that the intentions of the New Atheists might be virtuous–they have gone the way of stealth religion.

By their language, you shall know them. Some of the comments on my last blog are notable for the frequency of words and phrases expressing certainty and intolerance, such as “counter-rational nonsense (Frederic)”, “atheism never gets in the way of science (ChistopherLib)”, “completely failed at your stated goal (Amolinaro)”, “the symbol would be the back of my hand raised to your face with all fingers in a fist but the center one (GoodwithWood)”, “grow up (Mkaplan)”, and so on. The tone of these comments prompted priscianusjr to write “Most of the pro-atheist comments here actually corroborate your point” and thicky to quip “This is blasphemy! Uh…I mean nonsense!” (where do we bring the kindling for burning Mr. Wilson at the stake?)”

Let’s get real. Everyone who claims to be guided primarily by science and reason has an obligation to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. There are impeccable reasons for distrusting statements cloaked in the authority of science and reason, no less than the flag and the cross. I don’t see how any self-respecting atheist can deny this claim in the abstract, so let’s see if we can put it to work in the quality of our discourse about religion, from world-famous authors to the readers of HuffPost commenting on blogs.

III: Four Questions and Six Possible Answers

My previous two blog posts stressed that we must be skeptical about atheist beliefs, lest they go the way of stealth religions. Now let’s roll up our sleeves and see what this means for the study of overt religions. Here are four questions:

Q1) Is there any scientific (i.e., empirically verifiable) evidence for the existence of supernatural agents that intervene in natural processes, especially to alter human affairs?

Q2) If not, how can we explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms?

Q3) What are the impacts of religion, good or bad, on human welfare?

Q4) How can we use our understanding of religion to ameliorate its negative effects and advance the goals of secular humanism?

For an atheist such as myself, Q1 has already been answered. Creationist beliefs have been falsified again and again, even before Darwin’s theory of evolution (e.g., geological discoveries during the early 19th century). I am comfortable regarding religious beliefs as 100% a human social construction, enabling me to proceed to Q2.

Evolutionary theory offers six major hypotheses about religion as a natural phenomenon. Moreover, theories of religion that were formulated without evolution in mind usually fit into these categories. Here they are in their briefest possible form (see reference 2 for a more detailed treatment).

H1) A superorganism. Religions might forge human groups into cooperative units, whose members work together to achieve common goals. Perhaps Emile Durkheim was right when he defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things…which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

H2) A form of exploitation. Religions might be sneaky ways for some members–presumably the leaders–to profit at the expense of other members of their own religion. Perhaps Karl Marx was right when he said that religion is the opium of the masses.

H3) A disease. Because culture is transmitted from person to person, it bears an intriguing resemblance to a disease organism. Just as disease organisms evolve to benefit themselves, often at the expense of their hosts, perhaps religions are highly evolved to facilitate their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups. This possibility was famously suggested by Richard Dawkins, and perhaps he is right. In case Dan Dennett is reading this blog (he is fond of accusing me of failing to make this point): virulent parasitism is only one possible outcome for memes, which can also evolve to benefit human individuals and groups. These other two outcomes are subsumed under H1 and H2.

H4) Like a moth to flame. Moths are adapted to navigate by celestial light sources such as the moon and stars, which are so far away that they enable the moths to fly in a straight line. Unfortunately, earthly light sources such as streetlights and candles cause the moths to spiral inward to their deaths. This is an example of a byproduct or what Stephen Jay Gould famously called a spandrel– a trait that has no benefit and can be very costly, but remains in the population by being connected to other traits that do have a benefit. Perhaps religion is a costly byproduct of psychological traits that function adaptively in non-religious contexts.

H5) Like obesity. Our eating habits are killing us in today’s fast food environment, but they were clearly adaptive in the food poor environments of our ancestors. Perhaps religions were similarly adaptive in the Stone Age, when human groups were small and composed mostly of genetic relatives, but have gone awry in modern life.

H6) A roll of the dice. In biological evolution there is something called genetic drift. Traits that we recognize as different have no effect on fitness and therefore increase or decrease in frequency at random. A neutral trait exists for no other reason than by chance. Few people would propose that all aspects of religion are neutral, but some aspects might be, resulting in the very real possibility of cultural drift.

Now that I have described the six evolutionary hypotheses, some readers might have an objection. Where is the deeply felt psychological experience of being religious, such as a close relationship with God? The answer involves one of the most important distinctions in evolutionary theory, between proximate and ultimate causation. Everything that evolves by natural selection requires two explanations. Why do flowers bloom in spring? One answer is because spring is the best time of year to bloom (ultimate causation). Those that bloomed earlier were nipped by frost, those that bloomed later failed to develop their fruits, natural selection did its thing, and we only see the survivors. The second answer is because the survivors have a particular physiological mechanism that causes them to bloom in spring, such as a sensitivity to day length (proximate causation).

Proximate and ultimate explanations are always complementary and one can never substitute for the other. They are intriguingly similar to a distinction that is often made between the “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions of religion, as in this definition of Islam from an encyclopedia of world religions:

A noun derived from the verb aslama (“to submit or surrender [to God]”), designates the act by which an individual recognizes his or her relationship to the divine and, at the same time, the community of all of those who respond in submission. It describes, therefore, both the singular vertical relationship between the human being and God and the collective, horizontal relationship of all who join together in common faith and practice.

Vertical and horizontal. Proximate and ultimate. Very interesting.

Having outlined our six hypotheses about religion, we are in a position to answer Q2. All we need to do is consult the facts of religion and decide which of the hypotheses–or which combination, since they are not necessarily mutually exclusive–is correct. Before I tell you the answer, I would like to pose a fifth question for your consideration.

Q5) Will the answer to Q2 influence the answers to Q3 and Q4? For example, pretend that H3 turns out to be correct and then try answering Q3 and Q4 for yourself. Now pretend that H4 turns out to be correct and repeat the exercise. I don’t know anything about your two sets of answers, but I’ll bet money that they are different from each other. How could it be otherwise? When vervet monkeys see a leopard, they give a special alarm call that instructs everyone to head up into the trees. When they see an eagle, they give a different alarm call that instructs everyone to come down from the trees. Different threats require different actions. If religions pose a threat in modern life, we need to know what particular kind of threat, so we can respond appropriately, just as the monkeys need to distinguish between leopards and eagles. It would be amazing if the six evolutionary hypotheses, which are profoundly different from each other in their conception of religion, resulted in exactly the same plan of action for what to do about religion.

And now for the moment you have been waiting for. Which of our contestants is the winner? The answer is…

IV: The Transformation of the Obvious

Those who are following my Stealth blogs have been on the edge of their seats, waiting to know the true nature of religion (see Part III for details). It is a superorganism? A form of exploitation? A disease? Like a moth to flame? Like obesity? A roll of the dice? And the answer is…

ALL OF THE ABOVE! Yuk! Yuk! Before I provide a more interesting answer, let me explain the meaning of this one. Biological and cultural evolution are messy processes with lots going on at the same time. Religion is not a single thing but a large collection of traits–what mathematicians call a fuzzy set. Insofar as the six major hypotheses are plausible for evolutionary theory as a whole, all of them will be at least partially relevant to the large collection of traits that we associate with religion. Still, some hypotheses can be more relevant than others, allowing a more interesting answer. And the answer is…

THE SUPERORGANISM HYPOTHESIS! If you could say only one thing about religion, it would be this: Most enduring religions have what Emile Durkheim called “secular utility.” They define, motivate, and coordinate groups to achieve collective goals in this life. They promote cooperation within the group and bristle with defenses against the all-important problem of cheating. Using the terms that I introduced in part I, they score high on practical realism, no matter how much they depart from factual realism along the way.

Not only is this the single most explanatory hypothesis, but I also claim that it will become obvious in retrospect4. Transformations of the obvious have occurred repeatedly in the history of science. When Darwin was a young man, he went on a fossil-hunting expedition to a valley in Wales with his professor, Adam Sedgwick. There were no fossils because the entire valley had been scoured by glaciers. Darwin and Sedgwick couldn’t see the evidence for glaciers because the theory of glaciation had not yet been proposed (by Louis Agassiz in 1837). In retrospect, the evidence for glaciers was so obvious that the glaciers might as well have still been there, as Darwin recounts in his autobiography–but a theory was required to organize the evidence. Lyell’s theory of geology and Darwin’s theory of evolution accomplished a transformation of the obvious at a much larger scale. I claim that a transformation of the obvious is in progress with respect to the secular utility of religion.

Here I can only hint at how byproduct and individualistic accounts of religion can be reconciled with the concept of group-level secular utility. Byproduct theorists claim that the psychological traits associated with religion evolved by genetic evolution for reasons that had nothing to do with religion. An example is the concept of a “hyperactive agency detection device (HADD)” developed by Justin Barrett and others, which makes us prone to explain events as the actions of intentional human-like agents. This tendency could well have evolved by genetic evolution for reasons that have nothing to do with religion, as byproduct theorists claim, but we still need to know how it is employed in religious belief. Evolution has been famously described as a tinkerer, building new structures out of old parts. The adaptations of today were the byproducts and exaptations (to use a bit of evolutionary jargon) of past ages. So, does HADD still qualify as a byproduct when it comes to religion, like a moth to flame, or has it become part of the adaptive machinery of religion that contributes to secular utility?

With respect to the individual benefits of religion, suppose that you discover a grand mansion, better than anything that you could have constructed on your own, with a sign on the door that says “Welcome! Move right in!” You would be a fool to refuse, and your decision might be purely selfish, with only your own welfare in mind. You thrive in the mansion, so does this count as an individual benefit? Perhaps in terms of your decision and welfare, but as evolutionists we are trying to figure out how the mansion got there. That required a collective effort, returning us to group-level secular utility.

That’s the best I can do to convince you of the transformation of the obvious in half a blog. For the second half, I want to focus on the consequences of accepting the superorganism hypothesis. In Part III, I stressed that it isn’t enough to announce that something is a threat. We need to know what kind of threat to take appropriate action. If you’re a monkey and the threat is a leopard, you need to climb a tree. If the threat is an eagle, you need to climb down from the tree. Each major evolutionary hypothesis comes to a different conclusion about the nature of religion, the degree to which it poses a threat in modern life, and what we can do about it. That’s why the debate is so important. We are not engaged in idle philosophizing but making decisions that have important consequences in the real world. Here are a number of conclusions that emerge from the superorganism hypothesis at such an elementary level that they are unlikely to be wrong.

First, viewing religious groups as superorganisms doesn’t make everything nice. If you’re an ecologist, you already know what organisms do to each other. They compete, prey upon each other, coexist without interacting, and engage in mutualistic interactions. No less can be expected of superorganisms, which merely increase the scale at which these interactions take place.

Second, acknowledging the secular utility of religion makes religious systems more like secular systems, such as governments and business corporations, than they previously appeared. Everyone knows that governments and business corporations are supposed to deliver benefits in this world to their members, even when they fail, usually because of corruption from within. Religions appear different only because they depart so flagrantly from factual realism. If it turns out that there is method to religious madness, then we can regard all enduring cultural systems as “corporate units,” as anthropologists were once fond of putting it.

Third, there are no strong theoretical reasons for expecting religious groups to be more biased than secular groups toward negative between-group interactions, such as competition and predation, as opposed to neutral or positive interactions. I’m one of the few people who can address this issue because I have studied a random sample of religions, chosen without any particular hypothesis in mind5. The majority of religions in the sample originated and spread in a non-violent fashion–think of early Christianity and current versions such as 7th Day Adventism. I am not claiming that religious groups are biased toward pacifism, only that they are like secular groups in employing the full range of options in their interactions with other groups.

Finally, once we begin to think of human groups of all sorts as like species interacting with each other in an ecosystem–what I call the ecological/evolutionary paradigm–we can begin to think more constructively about how to manage between-group interactions, religious and otherwise. The distinction between religious and secular remains important and interesting, but is best understood within a larger theoretical framework provided by the ecological/evolutionary paradigm.

That’s the best I can do in half a blog to describe the consequences of accepting the superorganism hypothesis. In the next installment of the Stealth series, I will show how the new atheists, guided primarily by the other major hypotheses, reach conclusions that are ineffective, silly, and worse. They are like monkeys issuing false alarms and sending us scurrying in all the wrong directions.

V: Ineffective, Silly, and Worse

Sacred texts such as the Bible say so many things that almost any position can be supported by selecting the right passages. So it is with scientific hypotheses. In Part III of this series, I listed six plausible scientific hypotheses about the nature of religion. If we are allowed to pick and choose among them, we can support almost any position. If we regard religion as destructive, we can call it a delusion or like the flame that fatally attracts the moth. If we admire religion, we can call it a group-level adaptation that in its purest form promotes universal brotherhood.

Science hasn’t made real progress until it tests among the hypotheses, enabling us to accept some and reject others. Only then can we make factual claims about the nature of religion, leading to practical decisions on the basis of those claims. In the fourth installment of this series, I asserted that the scientific study of religion has advanced to the point where we can make factual claims about the nature of religion. Even though evolution is a messy process and all of the major hypotheses might have a degree of relevance, most enduring religions enable religious groups to function as corporate units, or superorganisms, to use a more flamboyant term. In this respect, religious groups are much like other groups, such as governments and business corporations, whose collective purpose is more obvious. Why some groups become organized by religion and others by cultural systems that we call secular is a great question, but it can only be addressed after we accept the factual claim that religious groups do function as corporate units, in contrast to the radically different conceptions of religions suggested by the other major hypotheses.

That’s where I part company with the new atheists. I claim that science has made progress and that we can use our factual knowledge to address the problems associated with religion, such as why people believe weird things (to borrow the title of Michael Shermer’s book) and why cooperation within groups is often (but not always) accompanied by conflict among groups. Much remains to be discovered, and studying religion from an evolutionary perspective is an especially nascent enterprise, but we can do much better than pick and choose among hypotheses to support our preconceived notions about religion.

In contrast, the authors associated with the new atheism movement begin with a deep antipathy toward religion and select their examples from the text of science like so many parables from the Bible. Not only do they ignore, misrepresent, and selectively report the facts of religion, but their practical recommendations for solving the problems associated with religion are ineffective, silly, and worse.

Ineffective. Daniel Dennett is a world-renown philosopher who also writes about the big questions for a general audience. With Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, he became a major interpreter of evolutionary theory and its philosophical implications. I value Dennett as a colleague and intellectual sparring partner and hope that my disagreement with him on the subject of religion does not damage our relationship. As David Hume said and the evolutionist/philosopher Massimo Pigluicci reminds us at the top of his blog, “truth springs from argument among friends.” Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is notable for the degree to which he treats the scientific study of religion as a task for the future, as if no firm conclusions can be drawn on the basis of current knowledge. This stance gives him maximum elbowroom to interpret religion as primarily a delusion (as implied by the title), like the parasitic worm that commandeers ants by burrowing into their brains (the first example of the book).  For the purpose of this blog, I want to focus on the solutions that Dennett offers on the basis of his analysis of religion. His primary recommendation is universal religious education. If only religious believers could be introduced to the full panoply of religious belief, they would become less deluded about their own. I doubt that this policy would have a meaningful impact on the worldwide problems associated with religion. In America, for example, fundamentalist religions are immersed in a larger cultural milieu teeming with “memes” from secular life and other religions. Like a cell maintaining osmotic pressure, a given religion is designed to pump out contrary memes and maintain an internal environment containing the appropriate memes. Elsewhere in the world, does Dennett really believe that we’ll solve the problems of the Middle East (for example) by teaching the Palestinians about Judaism and the Israelis about Islam? His policy recommendation might be well-meaning, but it is likely to be ineffective.

Silly. Richard Dawkins is a hero around the world as a champion of rational thought. His website is subtitled “a clear-thinking oasis.” Thousands of people have been turned on to evolutionary theory through his many books. I recommend The Blind Watchmaker as a good tutorial and I even admire the gene’s eye view of evolution, as long as it isn’t taken as an argument against group selection. However, a funny thing happened to Dawkins on his way to becoming a public icon. He no longer regards himself as scientifically accountable for what he says, especially on the subject of religion. Part of the problem is that he has crawled so far out on a limb with respect to group selection and the impossibility of explaining widespread human cooperation from a Darwinian perspective, that the only way to get him down might be to saw off the limb. In this blog, I want to focus on the solutions that Dawkins offers on the basis of his analysis of religion. For example, he regards religious education as a form of child abuse, which will require setting up a vast foster care system staffed by rationalists. In his essay titled “Atheists for Jesus”, he offers as his best solution a slogan with the oxymoronic power to “lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment.” It is unclear whether Dawkins intends these suggestions to be taken seriously, but either way they are just plain silly.

Worse. Whenever Christopher Hitchens and his book God Is Not Great are mentioned in the comments to my Stealth blogs, it is usually to say “Why should anyone take him seriously?” As a great provocateur, he will do anything to get a reaction–trashing God on Sunday, Bill Clinton on Monday, bikini-waxing his naughty bits on Tuesday, inviting journalists to have a feel during the National Book Award Ceremonies on Wednesday, and so on. Nevertheless, even a provocateur must play by certain rules. If he doesn’t speak the truth, then his barbs have no sting and he isn’t worth the time of day. In this blog, I am most concerned with the solutions that Hitchens offers on the basis of his analysis of religion. At the very least, we should expect the new atheists to avoid the kind of between-group conflict that Dennett blames on religious believers when they fight over “who has the best imaginary friend.” Yet, in an article titled “The Genocidal Imagination of Christopher Hitchens“, Richard Seymour documents statements such as this one:

We can’t live on the same planet as them and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murders [sic] and rapists and torturers and child abusers. It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it’s also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.

Who needs religious fundamentalists when we have Christopher Hitchens? Few atheists and rationalists would agree with him on this point–certainly not Dan Dennett, who e-mailed me that he finds Hitchens’ views “very troubling indeed.” Yet, this only underscores the larger problem that I am trying to identify with my Stealth blogs. Something has gone terribly wrong with popular intellectual discourse on religion. A few authors have occupied center stage, claiming to base their analysis on science and rational thought, when in fact their views are detached from the serious scientific study of religion and their practical recommendations are ineffective, silly, and worse.

In the final installment of the Stealth series, I will show how popular intellectual discourse on religion can become more enlightening and even more entertaining when anchored more firmly in the serious scientific study of religion.

VI: Let’s Break Out the Good Stuff

Wine connoisseurs on a budget often have a bottle of “the good stuff” that they reserve for special occasions. I feel like celebrating the conclusion of my Stealth series by breaking out the equivalent of a fine bottle of wine: a book that actually does use science to shed light on the nature of religion.

The book that I have decided to open for you is Sacred and Secular, written by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in 2004, a very good year. The authors are political scientists who don’t use the E-word, but their results are highly interpretable from an evolutionary perspective. Their goal is to evaluate the hypothesis that religion can be replaced by secular society. All of the major social theorists of the 19th century, such as Comte, Spencer, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Freud, believed that this would be the case. Yet, here we are in the 21st century and religion seems to be stronger than ever. Does this mean that religion will always be with us? Norris and Inglehart think not. They propose that religion can indeed yield to secularization, but only under certain environmental conditions. That is why they are thinking like evolutionists, even if they don’t use the E-word.

They identify existential security as the key environmental factor that determines whether society will become religious or secular. If your life is likely to be disrupted by famine, war, disease, and major dislocations of all sorts, then you live in an environment that is low in existential security. Religion thrives in this kind of environment because it provides actual security (basic social services, including protection against other human groups) and also a psychological sense of security. If you confidently expect to go to college, start a family in your late 20s, have a job with health care, and live to a ripe old age, then you live in an environment that is high in existential security. Secularization thrives in this environment because religion isn’t required to provide basic services and the psychological comforts aren’t worth the costs imposed by religious membership. Religion stays with us because so much of the world remains wracked by existential insecurity. If we take a closer look, we should be able to see religion and secularization expanding and contracting, like biological species shifting their ranges in response to environmental change.

How might one test such a hypothesis? Whenever I dive into a new subject area, I am often astonished at the sheer volume of research and the effort that was required to gather and analyze the data. Norris and Inglehart base their analysis on The World Values Survey (WVS), a global investigation of political and societal change that includes dozens of nations in four separate waves, beginning in 1981 and most recently in 1999-2001. This massive database allows three different kinds of comparison: 1) between nations at any particular point in time; 2) between time intervals for any particular nation; and 3) between age cohorts for any particular nation. The WVS includes questions that measure religious participation (e.g., “How often to you attend religious services?”), religious values (e.g., “How important Is God in your life?”), and religious beliefs (e.g., “Do you believe in life after death?” It and other international databases also contain voluminous information on the factors that comprise existential security for each nation.

Here are a few of the many results reported in Sacred and Secular:

  • Variation in religiosity across nations is strongly correlated with indicators of existential security, regardless of the region of the world or specific religious tradition. Here is how Norris and Inglehart put it (p 63):

The extent to which sacred or secular orientations are present in a society can be predicted by any of these basic indicators of human development with a remarkable degree of accuracy, even if we know nothing further about the country. To explain or predict the strength and popularity of religion in any country we do not need to understand specific factors such as the activities and role of Pentecostal evangelism in Guatemala and Presbyterian missionaries in South Korea, the specific belief-systems in Buddhism, the impact of madrassa teaching Wahhabism in Pakistan, the fund-raising capacity and organizational strength of the Christian Right in the U.S. South, the philanthropic efforts of Catholic missionaries in West Africa, the crackdown of freedom on worship in China, or divisions over the endorsement of women and homosexual clergy within the Anglican church. What we do need to know, however, are the basic characteristics of a vulnerable society that generate the demand for religion, including factors far removed from the spiritual, exemplified by levels of medical immunization, cases of AIDS/HIV, and access to an improved water source.

  • Within nations, religiosity is stronger in the more vulnerable segments of the population, such as women, poorer households, the less educated, and the unskilled working class.
  • Longitudinal data is available for 22 industrial and post-industrial nations. Religiosity has declined in every one over the last few decades, with the exception of the USA, Ireland, and Italy.
  • Religious values are learned primarily early in life, so that the religiosity of a given age cohort should be determined by the existential security during the period when the cohort was young. There is a strong cohort effect in post-industrial nations with the older cohort (born between the two world wars) more religious than the younger cohorts. There is no cohort effect in the poorest nations and if anything the youngest cohorts are more religious.
  • The USA is the most religious of all the post-industrial nations, which makes it seem anomalous. However, the USA also has the highest income inequality of all the post-industrial nations. When these two variables are plotted against each other on a graph, they fall into a neat line (a strong correlation) with the USA at the top. Thus, the USA isnotanomalous when it comes to the relationship between religiosity and existential security. Increase existential security and religiosity will probably decrease, in the USA no less than Nigeria. Here is how Norris and Inglehart put it (p 108):

Many American families, even in the professional middle classes, face risks of unemployment, the dangers of sudden ill health without adequate private medical insurance, vulnerability to becoming a victim of crime, and the problems of paying for long-term care of the elderly. Americans face greater anxieties than citizens in other advanced industrialized countries about whether they will be covered by health insurance, whether they will be fired arbitrarily, or whether they will be forced to choose between losing their job and devoting themselves to their newborn child.

  • Religiosity and secularization are shifting their geographical distributions, exactly like biological species shifting their ranges in response to environmental change. Secularization is spreading in the postindustrial nations (as noted above), but religiosity is spreading worldwide, in part because the least secure (and most religious) nations also have a much higher rate of population growth than the most secure nations.

For me, reading Sacred and Secular in comparison to books such as The God Delusion or God is Not Great is like a fine Merlot compared to kerosene. True, the Merlot must be sipped slowly to be savored. Sacred and Secular describes the scientific process in detail, but this has the same fascination as watching the construction of a skyscraper, something that can become mesmerizing even if we are not the architect. And when it is finished, look at what has been built!

In contrast, take a slug of the new atheism and the primitive centers of your brain are immediately jolted into senseless action. That’s exciting in a way, like gathering around a barroom brawl, but it leads only to injury and calling it science and reason is, well, sacrilege.

The new atheists defend their lack of scholarship by saying that their purpose is to raise consciousness and goad people into action. I would therefore like to end my Stealth series by issuing a call to action of my own. Science and reason are every bit as important for solving the problems of modern existence as the new atheists say, but they are not making their way into popular intellectual discourse or public policy. We justly disapprove of politicians when they manipulate the primitive centers of our brains, jolting us into senseless action that harms everyone over the long run. Yet, popular intellectual discourse is not much better, as we have seen in the case of the new atheists.

What books such as Sacred and Secular tell us is that the central problem of modern existence is how to increase existential security. That is something that everyone wants and the raison d’etre of religion, but achieving it in modern life on a worldwide scale is very much like building a skyscraper — a collective and consensus effort, careful and methodical, based on scientific knowledge. Somehow, intellectuals and policy makers of all stripes need to focus on this fact. Everyone needs to swear off kerosene and learn to savor good wine. Fortunately, there is an entire wine cellar of books like Sacred and Secular, waiting to be opened. When it comes to the wine of science, we can all live like kings.


  1. Wilson, D. S. (1995). Language as a community of interacting belief systems: a case study involving conduct toward self and others. Biology and Philosophy, 10, 77–97.
  1. Wilson, D. S., & Green, W. S. (2011). Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS): A Beginner’s Guide. In E. Slingerland & M. Collard (Eds.), Creating Consilience: Integrating Science and the Humanities: Interdisciplinary Approaches (pp. 225–242). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  1. Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  1. Wilson, D. S. (2005). Testing major evolutionary hypotheses about religion with a random sample. Human Nature, 16, 382–409.
  1. Wilson, D. S. (2008). Evolution and Religion: The Transformation of the obvious. In J. Bulbulia, R. Sosis, E. Harris, R. Genet, C. Genet, & K. Wyman (Eds.), The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, Critiques (pp. 11–18). Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundaton Press.

Note: For my most recent contribution to evolutionary religious studies, see:  Wilson, D. S., Hartberg, Y., MacDonald, I., Lanman, J. A., & Whitehouse, H. (2016). The Nature of Religious Diversity: A Cultural Ecosystem Approach. Religion, Brain & Behavior, in press.


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  1. Kate says:

    I think you hit on every one of my thoughts and then some. And put them in much greater detail plus many facts I didn’t know. And yes I have yet to finish reading every last bit of it. This is very thought provoking. Same here: I’m an atheist if I had to choose a moniker, which I don’t have to do. But I’m also much more inclined to see the human elements as subjectively bound up in Dunning-Kruger dystopia. Thank you for writing this. Excellent! Totally worth revisiting.

  2. Yarwain says:

    “I am 100% an atheist and proud of it.”
    Shall we make a parade for nihilism too?