Magazine | May 6, 2013, Issue

The New Anti-Atheists

(Vanessa Woods)
Believers are getting some reinforcements

 Proselytizers of atheism seem to have concluded that if they’re big enough jerks, they will seduce the faithful into abandoning God. It’s sort of like asking Don Rickles to run your customer-service desk. Christopher Hitchens was a friend, but when he talked about religion, he could be — to use a technical term — a Grade-A Schmuck. Likewise, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the other champions of a soulless, antiseptic world have all the charm of a toothache when they lecture people to kick the habit of the opiate of the masses. And then there are their shock troops. When pastor Rick Warren’s depressed son committed suicide recently, an army of the unfaithful took to Twitter to assure the grief-stricken father that there was no heaven, God was a myth, and his son was gone forever. When USA Today wrote about the mind-bogglingly hateful attacks, one commenter on that article counseled that Warren should “abandon primitive superstitions and accept the universe for what it is — a place that is utterly indifferent to us.”

One reason the atheistic horde has grown so aggressive and nasty is that they feel the wind at their backs. The pews are emptying and science is declaring, more and more loudly, that it has Figured Everything Out. Another reason is that conservatives, mostly conservative Christians, have been pretty much the only ones fighting back.

Perhaps just in time, some allies seem to be walking onto the field. Thomas Nagel — no Christian conservative — recently published Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. It generated an enormous controversy because the (once) respected philosopher has come to the conclusion that boiling all life, all existence, down to a bunch of atoms and molecules bumping around doesn’t make much sense. He doesn’t come right out and embrace God or anything wacky like that. But he says there’s just got to be something more to things than what the materialists can measure and quantify. Predictably, the discrediting has begun. Expect Nagel to be paraded around in a dunce cap any day now.

Another quasi ally is Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist who studies, among other things, how political attitudes are formed and who has come to the apparently controversial conclusion that conservatives are not crazy. Indeed, Haidt argues that conservatives tend to be more morally sophisticated than liberals, in part because we are better at understanding the liberals’ position than liberals are at understanding ours.

The latest entrant to the fray, and probably an unwitting one, is Frans de Waal, the world’s foremost primatologist and a heavyweight in the neo-Darwinist camp. A big chunk of his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: The Search for Humanism Among the Primates, is aimed at telling the atheists to chill out.

“What good,” de Waal asks, “could possibly come from insulting the many people who find value in religion?” While a nonbeliever himself, he respects people of faith and is quite simply bored by efforts to disprove the existence of God. (Imagine how bored God is.) He rejects the importance of the question posed by Nietzsche, “Is man only a blunder of God? Or is God only a blunder of man?” If forced to choose, de Waal would answer yes to the latter. But he thinks little will be gained by forcing everyone to accept that God is dead.

#page# The way to cut through the knot, according to de Waal, is to accept that morality originates from within. De Waal persuasively argues that morality is part of our factory-installed software. In the chicken-or-egg argument about which comes first, morality or religion, de Waal argues it is morality by a mile. It entered our genetic software “at least a hundred millennia” before anything recognizable as modern religion manifested itself (though I’m not sure how he knows what religion looked like 100,000 years ago). He believes his findings refute what he calls “veneer theory” — the idea that morality is simply a thin overlay of words and laws that we need to keep us from doing terrible things. As Ivan Karamazov says, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

And here we have something of a problem, and I think it would be helpful for conservatives and perhaps our newfound allies to flesh it out a bit. De Waal seems to think that religious people, social conservatives, traditionalists, and philosophers “reason [themselves] toward moral truths. Even if they don’t invoke God, they’re still proposing a top-down process in which we formulate the principles and then impose them on human conduct.” He seems to think that by demonstrating that morality comes from below, that we — and by “we” he means not just humans but all primates, and many other animals — are born with moral sentiments, he can move both sides to common ground. Morality for De Waal isn’t an abstraction, it is in effect a bodily function.

I’m not sure he’ll succeed. A. C. Grayling, an ardent atheist who claims to be polite about it, has nonetheless poured scorn on de Waal. On the other hand, conservatives would have a short trip to common ground with de Waal. The parts of his book aimed at traditionalists and believers are likely to elicit a “Yeah, so what?” It may be — or have been — controversial among scientists to say that apes and some other animals have feelings, but I don’t think anyone at this point doubts it, particularly dog owners.

More important, using studies of chimps to prove that morality has a genetic component in humans too, while interesting, will have exactly zero effect on how most traditionalists view morality, because most traditionalists would not object to the assertion that humans are endowed by their creator with moral sentiments, although they might find it incomplete. As far as I know, there’s nothing in Christianity or Judaism — never mind generic conservatism — that would cause adherents to recoil at the news that we’re born with an instinct to do good. You will look in vain to find a Christian conservative denouncing Adam Smith’s assertion that we are endowed with moral sentiments. Almost 20 years ago, James Q. Wilson wrote a wonderful book demonstrating that humans are born with a moral sense. (The book was called, fittingly enough, “The Moral Sense.”)

But saying that we are born with a moral instinct is not to say that we always instinctually know what is moral. Not everyone believes in Original Sin, but most traditionalists believe we are built from crooked timber. We are flawed creatures, vulnerable to temptation. Moreover, life is complicated and confusing, and as a result we sometimes need help finding our way in the darkness. Men aren’t angels, which is why, Jews believe, God gave us the Torah — so we could understand what God wants from us. (Angels don’t need instruction: They know right from wrong from Day One.) And Christianity teaches that man has the capacity to know right from wrong. He has a sense of repugnance, the sense that some things are wrong, but also has the faculty of reason. The Church tries to use reason to help people rightly form their consciences.

#page# In interviews and in the book, de Waal puts a lot of emphasis on experiments that show that primates have a sense of fairness. If you feed two chimpanzees slices of cucumbers to get them to do a task — put pegs in holes, identify the right object, write Tom Friedman’s column, whatever — they will happily do it. But if you suddenly start rewarding one chimp with grapes while continuing to pay the other with cucumber wages, the cucumber-eater will throw a fit and stop working. De Waal and his fellow researchers call this “inequity aversion.” The same phenomenon has been documented in dogs, which surprises me not in the least.

But is this really about inequity? Isn’t it more about what we traditionalists might call “envy” (which is a sin)? Even if it’s also true that the grape-eater would be admirably altruistic if he shared his higher wages? This is a nice illustration of much of what was wrong with Occupy Wall Street: Some of these howler monkeys were ooo-ooo-eee-ahh-ing over not getting grapes from the government; their complaints about bailouts were focused on how unfair it was that they didn’t get bailouts, too. People and chimpanzees alike may shout their version of “No fair!” when they don’t get what they want, but that doesn’t show that they have been treated unfairly.

Of course, sometimes they have been. Which is why religion, philosophy, and traditional morality are so vital — because they help us think about and if necessary revise our immediate moral reactions.

In other words, the claim that we have moral instincts is great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. What is fascinating about not just de Waal’s work, but aspects of Haidt’s and Nagel’s as well, is the degree to which it cries out for conservatives to say, “We told you so.” In the language of social science, conservatives have been saying this sort of thing for generations. A half-century ago, Will Herberg had already described man as Homo religiosus in these pages and elsewhere. Similarly, Robert Nisbet was writing about man’s innate need for community long before the neo-Darwinists got in on the action. And of course F. A. Hayek was warning of the perils of scientism — the smuggling of scientific concepts and language into the realms of politics and morality as a means to claim objective authority for subjective value judgments — decades ago.

And then there was Eric Voegelin, who warned that man’s religious nature cannot be denied. But we can deny, or at least forget about, the existence of God. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.” This might explain why the New Atheists behave like the old zealots of yore: They are firebrands for a new faith, and their god is a jealous one.

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