Questionable Motives

May 31, 2010

What has David Sloan Wilson misplaced?

I get tired of the same old crap from religious apologists who claim to be atheists but respectful of religion. The two notions, like so many other notions snuggled up against religion, are simply incompatible. Be that as it may, the religious apologist tends to miss the point of their own atheism: non belief. And one maintains non belief because the reasons and justifications for the belief are held by the atheist to be insufficient to be considered probably true, probably correct, probably accurate.Wilson seems to have misplaced that notion regarding other atheists.

Most of us don’t apologize if we think the followers of astrology are wrong in their beliefs about the effects of stars and planets guiding our destinies. Most of us don’t grant respect to the idea that because some people believe lead can be made into gold by the incantation of magic words, the idea has merit simply by the fact that these folk find comfort in believing in transubstantiation. Most of us don’t lend credence to dowsing because of the utility the belief brings to those who wish to dig to the water table and who – miracle! – find water. Yet there is a veritable army of people who use this kind of flimsy thinking to excuse those who wish to maintain their religious beliefs and enter them into guiding public policies that directly affect the rights and freedoms of others.

One such apologist is David Sloan Wilson who proposes that that natural selection can operate on traits that improve the success of groups rather than individuals. Groupthink is a sociologist’s wet dream and I have always found those who construct mental definitions based on selected group criteria who then in turn define the ‘group’ behaviour as an explanation for that common group criteria to be sloppy thinkers. Sloan does not disappoint me. He responds to a question about why those like he is who argue the evolutionary utility of religion helps to explain its value in terms of group advantages are treated with less deference in the scientific world of biology than he believes they ought. The entire article is here, but the part that pisses me off is his answer to the question:

Does your approach annoy atheists?

I piss off atheists more than any other category, and I am an atheist. One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial of the beneficial aspects of religion. Their beef is not just that there is no evidence for God. They also insist that religion “poisons everything”, as Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book. They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the “secular utility” of religion, as Émile Durkheim put it, even though they wrap themselves in the mantle of science and rationality. Someone needs to call them out on that, and that person is me.

Angry atheists? We deny benefit to those who share religious belief? Our beef? Ignore secular utility? Wrap ourselves in science and rationality? What nonsense.

How does this intentional gross misrepresentation of some of the New Atheists deal with what matters most to honest atheists: is the notion being brought forth as a truth claim actually true, and if so, based on what good reasons with evidential support? Sloan doesn’t tackle this point because he can’t; instead, he call more famous atheists names. Yes, what a champion of the droll.

Put another way, Sloan is undermining exactly that approach concerned about inquiring into what is true and focuses on these piddling caricatures of those who do so with more groupthink that has no bearing on truth claims. For example, he seems to think that the inquiry into what is true needs to lend some weighted value to a ‘happy’ factor. He thinks if a belief has some benefit, that must increase it’s truth value. Surely if an idea has utility, he insists, that has to grant some weight to its truth value. And obviously those who insist that truth be determined in as objective way as possible must do so out of some hidden egoism. Regarding what is true, what atheists actually care about, Wilson shoots off his mouth well wide of the mark and thinks himself a real champion of the religious underclass for doing so.

What bunk.

With willing minions like Wilson to tackle the job of undermining atheism by intentional misrepresentations and really stupid and weak arguments like these, David Sloan Wilson becomes just another religious apologist aiding and abetting those who don’t care about what’s true. Although I have no doubt that in Wilson’s mind he has ‘called out’ these atheists who own up to caring about what is true, all he has really accomplished is called into question his own intellectual integrity with such proud prattle. But that will happen when you disconnect from your own higher faculties.

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