26 January 2011

Apologist for religion misunderstands atheism

Philosophy professor Stephen T. Asma thinks that atheists are too easily dismissive of religion, or at least the Big Three monotheisms with which they appear to be obsessed. He chides atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett for their ‘provincialism’, reminding them that a great, if not the greatest, part of humanity follow non-monotheistic religions like Buddhism and animism.

Having lived in Cambodia and China, and travelled 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.

Asma’s anthropological anecdotes aside, his endorsement of animist belief in spirits and ghosts is at odds with his admission that “the view of nature as "lawful" and "predictable" has given those of us in the developed world power, freedom, choice, and self-determination” and his claim to love science and to be “sincerely thankful to benefit from dentistry, cell theory, antibiotics, birth control, and anesthesia.” So irrational, superstitious beliefs are ok even if they prevent people from acquiring power, freedom, choice and self-determination? Asma clearly sympathises with those in the poor, developing world, yet he fails to draw any connection between their irrational beliefs and their lack of scientific progress and material advancement.

Now, I’m not saying that irrational beliefs are solely responsible for the poverty and underdevelopment of societies. Economic, political and social systems obviously play a significant part. But by Asma’s own account, those societies where animism and other irrational beliefs predominate are also those with a high proportion of uneducated, fatalistic people and a corresponding lack of sophisticated technology, robust scientific institutions, efficient medical infrastructure and a vibrant intellectual culture. Put simply, irrationalism is bad for society, because it stunts its development.

The following paragraph by Asma is quite revealing. Basically, he argues that animism is a ‘reasonable’ belief system for poor, unstable societies to adopt because it helps them cope with their difficult circumstances.

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.

Asma has gotten it back to front. A large part of why societies become prosperous and stable (and so provide fertile ground for atheists like Hitchens et al to emerge) is because they discard their superstitions and replace an irrational worldview with a rational one. The ‘long-term, well-financed medical facility’ Asma mentions can come into existence in villages and towns only when that society has largely come to accept the efficacy of modern medicine and to prefer it over unscientific ‘treatments’. But Asma confuses cause with effect (although he acknowledges that a mechanistic view of nature can be a cause of prosperity and stability). This is why he thinks that it’s ok for a society to believe in spirits because they are poor and undeveloped, when in fact one reason why they are poor and undeveloped is because of their irrational beliefs in the first place. Of course, irrational superstitions are not the sole preserve of the poor and underprivileged.

P Z Myers has written a fierce criticism of Asma’s apologist argument. Myers’ main gripe is that Asma has misunderstood – or deliberately misrepresented – the core value and guiding motivation of atheists. According to Myers, atheists ask only one question of any belief system: is it true?

The Gnu Atheism is a positive movement that emphasizes the truth of a claim as paramount; it is our number one value. This is why you're finding so many scientists who consider themselves in this movement — it's because that's how we're trained to think about hypotheses. Also, because there are many scientists and philosophers behind this idea, I should also emphasize that we're also well aware that "truth" is not some magic absolute, but something we can only approach by trial and error, and that truth is something you have to work towards, not simply accept dogmatically as given by some unquestionable source... which is another difference between us and religion. A scientific truth is more complex than a colloquial truth, its requirements being that it is free of contradiction with logic and reality and supported by reason and evidence.

Asma's big mistake is assuming that our central question is, "Is it good for us?", which leads him into all these pointless anecdotes about how praying makes him feel better, and how animism helps impoverished people cope with their circumstances. [Myers’ emphasis]

As for Asma’s claims that animism is a beneficial tool to help people in poor societies cope with their less than ideal circumstances, Myers has this riposte:

Asma does go on at length about the virtues of animism in the third world, where it is a coping mechanism to live with difficult lives and high-risk environments, but I think he's also wearing those rosy glasses that transmit lies to his nervous system. It makes them happier, he claims, but African animists still die of starvation, thirst, and disease, and African animists are using their faiths to accuse children of witchcraft to justify setting them on fire, or butchering unfortunate albinos to use their body parts in magical rituals. So even his examples of a benign religion don't hold up unless we close our eyes to much of what's done in their name.

Of all the major religions, Buddhism could be said to be the least religious, since it was originally – and still is in some manifestations – a system of philosophy, more akin to the rational, humanistic thought of the Classical Greeks than to the oppressive dogma of the monotheisms. Asma is an agnostic Buddhist, so his perspective on the whole ‘rational atheism versus irrational religion’ issue is understandably influenced by his beliefs. And to be fair to him, he does give credit to rationality and its children, science and progress, for greatly benefiting humanity.

But Buddhism is not without its dark side. An article in the January 17 issue of The New Yorker by Jon Lee Anderson (‘Death of the Tiger’) details the brutal victory of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Sinhalese government over the Tamil Tigers insurgents. After reading of the (supposedly Buddhist) Sinhalese savagery in hunting down and wiping out the Hindu rebels, a conflict for which key Sinhalese military leaders are now under investigation for possible war crimes, I can no longer view Buddhism as the innocent, virtuous sibling in the family of religion. To be sure, Sinhalese Buddhism is not the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama, or of Aung San Suu Kyi, but its hypocrisy only demonstrates how vulnerable man-made belief systems are to corruption and abuse despite their claims of divinely inspired infallibility.

I have no doubt that Asma has a lot in common with atheists like the Four Horsemen when it comes to the promotion of the good; to the fostering of compassion, understanding and ethical progress. Pity though that he feels the need to defend irrationality when reason, science and knowledge are so crucial to attaining such worthy goals.


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