The Chronicle Review

The New Atheists' Narrow Worldview

Jerry Redfern,

An offering of rice is left in a “spirit house” in a Laotian town; in a mix of Buddhism and animism in Southeast Asia, local spirits are said to inhabit almost every farm, home, river, road, and large tree.
January 21, 2011

With tongues in cheeks, Rich­ard Daw­kins, Chris­to­pher Hitch­ens, Sam Har­ris, and Dan­iel Dennett are embracing their reputation as the "Four Horsemen." Lampoon­ing the anx­i­eties of evan­geli­cals, these best-sell­ing athe­ists are em­brac­ing their "dan­gerous" sta­tus and dar­ing be­liev­ers to match their for­mi­da­ble philo­soph­i­cal acu­men.

Ac­cord­ing to these sol­diers of rea­son, the time for re­li­gion is over. It clings like a bad gene rep­li­cat­ing in the pop­u­la­tion, but its use­ful­ness is played out. Sam Har­ris's most re­cent book, The Moral Land­scape (Free Press, 2010), is the lat­est in the continuing bat­tle. As an ag­nos­tic, I find much of the horse­men's cri­tiques to be healthy.

But 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 trav­eled 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. Their sug­ges­tion that sci­ence does these jobs bet­ter is pret­ty con­vinc­ing. As Har­ris puts it, "I am ar­gu­ing that sci­ence can, in prin­ci­ple, help us un­der­stand what we should do and should want—and, there­fore, what oth­er people should do and should want in or­der to live the best lives pos­si­ble." I a­gree with Har­ris here and even spilled sig­nif­i­cant ink my­self, back in 2001, to show that Ste­phen Jay Gould's pop­u­lar sci­ence/re­li­gion di­plo­ma­cy of "nonoverlapping mag­is­te­ri­a" (what many call the fact/val­ue dis­tinc­tion) is in­co­her­ent. The horse­men's mis­take is not their claim that sci­ence can guide mo­ral­ity. Rather, 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.

Bud­dhism, for ex­am­ple, is a­bout find­ing a form of psy­cho­log­i­cal hap­pi­ness that goes be­yond the usu­al pur­suit of fleet­ing plea­sures. With in­tro­spec­tion and dis­ci­pline, Bud­dhism and oth­er contem­pla­tive tra­di­tions at­tempt to find a state of well-being that is out­side the usu­al game of desire ful­fill­ment. Bud­dhism aligns meta­physic­al­ly with the new athe­ism and psychologically with the hu­man­is­tic tra­di­tions. 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.

Those who ar­gue that we must do away with all re­li­gion to set hu­man­ity on the true path gener­al­ly ac­cept some for­mu­la­tion of Marx's fa­mous argument: "Re­li­gion is the opi­ate of the masses." It is the su­per­sti­tious as­pect of re­li­gion that usu­al­ly war­rants the drug met­a­phor. But 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 la­beled "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.

But I'd advance a much more rad­i­cal ar­gu­ment as well. Not only should the more rational and therapeutic elements be distilled from the opi­ate of re­li­gion. But the wacky, su­per­sti­tious, cloud-cuck­oo-land forms of re­li­gion, too, should be cherished and preserved, for those forms of religion some­times do great good for our emo­tion­al lives, even when they com­pro­mise our more-rational lives.

The new de­bates a­bout the mor­al val­ue of re­li­gion as­sume mono­the­ism as a cen­tral pre­mise. Har­ris and the oth­er horse­men are wring­ing their hands pri­mar­i­ly a­bout Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity, which they think con­sti­tute our main com­bat­ants in a "zero-sum con­flict" with sci­ence. So far I've men­tioned one ma­jor al­ter­na­tive re­li­gion (nonmono­the­is­tic) by in­sert­ing Bud­dhism into the dis­cus­sion. So why not veer further from the de­vel­oped West­ern per­spec­tive and look at the less­er-de­vel­oped world and the variations of an­i­mism? It is, after all, the world's biggest religion.

An­i­mis­tic be­liefs dom­i­nate the ev­ery­day lives of South­east Asians. Lo­cal spir­its, called neak ta in Cam­bo­di­a, in­hab­it­ al­most every farm, home, riv­er, road, and large tree. The Thais usu­al­ly re­fer to these spir­its as phii, and the Bur­mese as nats. Even the short­est vis­it to this part of the world will make one fa­mil­iar with the ever-pres­ent "spir­it houses" that serve these tu­te­lary spir­its. When peo­ple build a home or open a busi­ness, for ex­am­ple, they must make of­fer­ings to the lo­cal spir­its; oth­er­wise these be­ings may cause mis­for­tune for the hu­mans. The next time you visit a Thai res­tau­rant, no­tice the spir­it house near the cash reg­is­ter or kitch­en.

The ubiq­ui­tous spir­it houses of­ten con­tain min­ia­ture carved peo­ple who act as serv­ants to the spir­its who take up res­i­dence there. The of­fer­ings can be in­cense or flow­ers or fruit or any­thing val­u­a­ble and pre­cious, but the spir­its are par­tic­u­lar­ly pleased by shot glass­es of whis­key or oth­er li­quors. The of­fer­ings are de­signed to please neak ta and phii, but also to dis­tract and pull mischie­vous spir­its into the mini-homes, there­by spar­ing the real homes from mal­a­dy and mis­fortune. 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.

The be­lief that na­ture is load­ed with in­visi­ble spir­its that live in lo­cal flo­ra, fau­na, and environmen­tal land­marks is gen­er­al­ly char­ac­ter­ized by West­ern­ers as "prim­i­tive" and high­ly irration­al. Even re­li­gious dev­o­tees of mono­the­ism in the de­vel­oped West look down their noses at an­i­mism. An­i­mism is the Rod­ney Dan­ger­field of re­li­gions. But most of the world is made up of an­i­mists. The West is naïve when it imag­ines that the ma­jor op­tions are mono­the­istic. In ac­tu­al num­bers and geo­graph­ic spread, be­lief in na­ture spir­its trounces the One-Godders. Al­most all of Af­ri­ca, South­east Asia, ru­ral Chi­na, Ti­bet, Ja­pan, ru­ral Central and South America, indig­e­nous Pa­cif­ic Islands—pret­ty much ev­ery­where ex­cept West­ern Eu­rope, the Mid­dle East, and North America—is dom­i­nat­ed by an­i­mis­tic be­liefs.

Even places where lat­er re­li­gions like Buddhism and Roman Ca­thol­i­cism en­joy for­mal rec­og­ni­tion as na­tion­al faiths, much old­er forms of animism constitute the dai­ly con­cerns and rit­u­als of the peo­ple. The well-trav­eled Charles Darwin not­ed the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of an­i­mism in The De­scent of Man, when he wrote: "I am aware that the as­sumed in­stinc­tive be­lief in God has been used by many per­sons as an ar­gu­ment for His ex­is­tence. But this is a rash ar­gu­ment, as we should thus be com­pelled to be­lieve in the existence of many cru­el and ma­lig­nant spir­its, only a lit­tle more pow­er­ful than man; for the be­lief in them is far more gen­er­al than be­lief in a be­nefi­cent De­ity."

Most West­ern­ers think that an­i­mists are just un­ed­u­cat­ed and un­sci­en­tif­ic, and that even­tu­al­ly they will "evolve" (ac­cord­ing to the­ists) toward our sci­en­tif­ic view of one God—a ra­tional God of nat­u­ral laws (who is also om­ni­scient and om­nip­o­tent). And even­tu­al­ly (ac­cord­ing to the new athe­ists) these prim­i­tives will join the march be­yond even mono­the­ism, to the im­per­son­al, secular laws of na­ture. We all pre­vi­ous­ly be­lieved that storms, floods, bad crops, and dis­eases were caused by ir­ri­tat­ed lo­cal spir­its (in­visi­ble per­sons who were an­gry with us for one rea­son or another), but now we know that weath­er and mi­crobes be­have ac­cord­ing to pre­dict­a­ble laws, with no "in­ten­tions" be­hind them. The view of na­ture as "law­ful" and "pre­dict­a­ble" has giv­en those of us in the de­vel­oped world pow­er, free­dom, choice, and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. This pow­er is real, and I am sin­cere­ly thank­ful to ben­e­fit from den­tist­ry, cell the­o­ry, anti­bi­ot­ics, birth con­trol, and an­es­the­sia. I love sci­ence.

But here's a rad­i­cal sug­ges­tion: Con­trary to the progress-based sto­ry the West tells it­self, an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and ra­tional as West­ern science, if we take a clos­er look at life in the de­vel­op­ing world.

Con­sid­er an­i­mism in con­text. An in­di­rect way to see the geo­graph­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion of an­i­mism is to look at the UN's map of the Hu­man Development Index—a com­pos­ite statistic for each coun­try that con­tains data on per-cap­i­ta GDP, life ex­pec­tan­cy, and edu­ca­tion. There is a strik­ing cor­re­la­tion be­tween an­i­mism and the indexes for coun­tries designated "de­vel­op­ing" and "un­der­de­vel­oped."

An­i­mism can be de­fined as the be­lief that there are many kinds of per­sons in this world, only some of whom are hu­man. Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons. But it's im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the dai­ly lives of peo­ple in the de­vel­op­ing world are not filled with the kinds of in­de­pend­ence, pre­dict­a­bil­i­ty, and free­dom that we in the de­vel­oped world en­joy. You do not often choose your spouse, your work, your num­ber of chil­dren—in fact, you don't choose much of any­thing when you are very poor and tied to the sur­viv­al of your fam­ily.

When I lived in Cam­bo­di­a, some of my col­lege stu­dents at the Bud­dhist Institute, in Phnom Penh, didn't even have homes; they slept at a hum­ble lo­cal tem­ple. I reg­u­lar­ly watched children on the streets rais­ing their lit­tle sib­lings, while their nec­es­sar­i­ly ab­sent par­ents slaved for pit­tance wages. Many of the kids, like their par­ents be­fore them, will not get for­mal edu­ca­tions. Many will not have clean drink­ing wa­ter. Many will die from sim­ple, al­most triv­i­al­ly treat­a­ble illness­es, or perhaps from land­-mi­ne ex­plo­sions. Add the myr­i­ad bar­ri­ers to op­portu­ni­ty, the om­ni­pres­ence of lo­cal cor­rup­tion, and un­pre­dict­a­ble vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal up­heav­als.

In that world, where life is particularly ca­pri­cious and more out of individuals' con­trol than it is in the developed world, an­i­mism seems quite rea­son­a­ble. It makes more sense to say that a spite­ful spir­it is bring­ing one mis­ery, or that a be­nev­o­lent ghost is grant­ing fa­vor, than to say that seam­less neu­tral and pre­dict­a­ble laws of na­ture are un­fold­ing ac­cord­ing to some in­visi­ble log­ic. Un­less you could dem­on­strate the real ad­van­tages of an im­per­son­al, law­ful view of na­ture (e.g., by hav­ing a long-term, well-financ­ed med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ty in the vil­lage), you will nev­er have the ex­pe­ri­en­tial data to over­come an­i­mism. Our first-world claim a­bout neu­tral, pre­dict­a­ble laws will be an in­fe­ri­or caus­al the­o­ry for ex­plain­ing the cha­os of ev­ery­day third-world life. In the de­vel­op­ing world, an­i­mism lit­er­al­ly makes more sense. 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.

Is an­i­mism a mere "opi­ate," as the athe­ists ar­gue? Well, yes, but don't underestimate opi­ates. They can be high­ly in­spi­ra­tion­al and con­sol­ing. Af­ter all, a drunk­en man is usu­al­ly a lit­tle hap­pi­er than a so­ber one. In fact, to con­tin­ue the met­a­phor, op­pos­ing re­li­gion is a lot like pro­hi­bi­tion­ists' oppos­ing drink­—a rath­er cru­el pro­ject in my view. I'd glad­ly give my copies of Mao's Little Red Book, and Daw­kins's The God De­lu­sion for a six-pack of Grolsch. But if all that is too of­fen­sive, we might re­place the word "opi­ate" with "an­al­ge­sic," and my point may be more a­gree­a­ble.

Religion, even the wacky, su­per­sti­tious stuff, is an an­al­ge­sic sur­viv­al mech­a­nism and sanc­tuary in the de­vel­op­ing world. Religion pro­vides some or­der, co­her­ence, re­spite, peace, and trac­tion against the fates. Per­haps most im­por­tant­, it quells the emo­tion­al dis­tress of hu­man vulnerabil­i­ty. 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 grov­el­ing 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."

Religion is not real­ly a path to mo­ral­ity, nor can it sub­sti­tute for a sci­en­tif­ic un­der­stand­ing of na­ture. Its chief vir­tue is as a "cop­ing mech­a­nism" for our trou­bles. Pow­er­less peo­ple turn to religion and find a sense of re­lief, which helps them psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly to stay afloat. Those who wish to a­bol­ish religion seek to pull away the life pre­serv­er, mis­tak­en­ly blam­ing the de­vice for the drown­ing.

I am not sim­ply re­hears­ing the adage "reason for the few, mag­ic for the many." Har­ris, in The Moral Land­scape, thinks he sees my ar­gu­ment com­ing. "Be­cause there are no easy rem­e­dies for so­cial in­equal­ity," he states, "many sci­en­tists and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als also be­lieve that the great masses of hu­man­ity are best kept se­dat­ed by pi­ous de­lu­sions. Many as­sert that, while they can get along just fine with­out an imag­i­nary friend, most hu­man be­ings will al­ways need to be­lieve in God." He con­sid­ers this live-and-let-live po­si­tion to be "con­de­scend­ing" and "pes­si­mis­tic." His dis­dain is driv­en by his characterization of mono­the­ism, which he sees as di­vi­sive and ex­clu­sion­ary—a bad be­lief ob­struct­ing a good be­lief.

But un­like West­ern fundamentalism, animism is not locked in a zero-sum bat­tle with sci­ence (nor, for that mat­ter, are mod­er­ate Christianity, Judaism, and Is­lam). In­stead of be­ing ex­clu­sion­ary, an­i­mism is high­ly syncretic, adopt­ing any and all spir­i­tu­al be­liefs and prac­tices as com­ple­men­tary rath­er than compet­ing op­tions. The more the mer­ri­er is how we might char­ac­ter­ize animism's pro­mis­cu­ous atti­tude toward be­liefs and rit­u­als. There's not much con­cern for, or his­tory of, or­tho­doxy in animism, a trait that can po­ten­tial­ly ren­der it lib­er­al and tol­er­ant toward al­ter­na­tives, in­clud­ing science.

More im­por­tant­, my ar­gu­ment—that re­li­gion soothes emo­tion­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty—can't be "conde­scend­ing" if I'm also ap­ply­ing it to my­self. Like Sam Har­ris, I know a fair share of neu­ro­sci­ence, but that didn't al­le­vi­ate my an­guish and des­per­a­tion in the emer­gen­cy room with my son. The old saw "there are no athe­ists in fox­holes" ob­vi­ous­ly doesn't prove that there is a God. It just proves that high­ly emo­tion­al be­ings (i.e., hu­mans) are also high­ly vul­ner­a­ble be­ings. Our emotional limbic system seeks homeostasis—it tries to reset to calmer functional defaults when it's been riled up. I suspect there are aspects of religion (and art) that go straight into the limbic system and quell the adrenalin-based metabolic overdrive of stress.

So how do we dis­crim­i­nate be­tween dan­ger­ous and be­nign re­li­gions? That is the more fruit­ful ques­tion, be­cause it in­vites the oth­er world re­li­gions into the dis­cus­sion. Both the de­vel­oped and the de­vel­op­ing worlds can prof­it­ably ex­am­ine their unique be­lief sys­tems in light of larg­er hu­man val­ues. Like Har­ris et al., I a­gree that we should em­ploy the usu­al cri­te­ria of ex­pe­ri­ence to make the nec­es­sary dis­crim­i­na­tions. Re­li­gious ideas that en­cour­age de­hu­man­iza­tion, vi­o­lence, and fac­tion­al­ism should be re­formed or di­min­ished, while those that hu­man­ize, con­sole, and in­spire should be fos­tered.

In 2009, in Bra­zil, the arch­bish­op ex­com­mu­ni­cat­ed doc­tors for per­form­ing an a­bor­tion on a 9-year-old girl who had been re­peat­ed­ly raped by her step­fa­ther. The step­fa­ther had impregnated her with twins. The girl's moth­er, too, was kicked out of the church, but the rap­ist was not. That is the kind of de­hu­man­iz­ing and dog­mat­ic re­li­gion that should be elim­i­nat­ed. Cath­olics de­serve a better re­li­gion than that. But there are still as­pects of Ca­thol­i­cism that are hu­man­iz­ing, consol­ing, and in­spi­ra­tion­al. Wheth­er it is Ca­thol­i­cism, Protestantism, Is­lam, Bud­dhism, or animism, the vir­tues can be re­tained while the vices are mod­er­at­ed. In short, the re­duc­tion of human suf­fer­ing should be the stand­ard by which we meas­ure ev­ery re­li­gion.

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.

Ste­phen T. Asma is a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and a fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Co­lum­bi­a College Chi­ca­go. His lat­est book is "Why I Am a Bud­dhist" (Hamp­ton Roads, 2010).