October 29, 2008

Psychologist Scolds Atheists, Shows Misunderstanding of Atheism

Stone dedicated to Carl Sagan at Brooklyn Bota...Image via WikipediaBy presenting case after case of the most vile examples of Christian extremism, atheists are ignoring the greater good religion brings to most people. This is the claim of psychology professor David G. Myers. According to Dr. Myers, focusing on anecdotes while neglecting large scale data from the social sciences obscures the picture and deepens America's cultural divide. I think he may have a point, but I also think that his analysis is missing something of critical importance.

Here is the crux of Dr. Myers' argument in his own words:
But mocking religious "nut cases" is cheap and easy. By heaping scorn on the worst examples of anything, including medicine, law, politics, or even atheism, one can make it look evil. But the culture war of competing anecdotes becomes a standoff. One person counters religion-inspired 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta with religion-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. Another counters the genocidal crusades with the genocidal atheists, Stalin and Mao. But as we social scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data.
Perhaps we should call Dr. Myers out on his misunderstanding of what motivated Stalin, Mao, and others (hint: it wasn't atheism). After all, the difference between the anecdotes of religious extremists and atheists is that the former is fairly clear-cut and rarely disputed while the latter is based on ignorance and misinterpretation of facts. Fair enough, but let's set this aside for now.

What Dr. Myers is claiming is that while religious belief can be destructive in individual cases, it is a positive social force if we focus on group data. Perhaps we should take him to task for apparently forgetting that correlation does not equal causation. Nothing in his data can be interpreted as suggesting that religious belief causes charitable behavior. That someone who has authored reputable introductory psychology texts would forget this is suspicious to say the least. But let's also set this aside for now.

Instead, I want us to take Dr. Myers at his word that religious belief is positively correlated with "human happiness, health, and altruism." How does this cast any doubt on the claims of the so-called "new atheists" Myers seeks to scold? The atheistic objection to religion centers on two claims:
  1. Religious belief is irrational.
  2. The harm caused by religious belief outweighs the good that comes from religious belief.
The first claim is rarely disputed today, even by theists. I have addressed this extensively in countless posts and will thus present only a brief summary here. As Carl Sagan reminded us, the sort of evidence needed to verify a claim is proportional to the nature of the claim. Religious claims have nothing approaching the sort of evidence needed for verification. Theists know this and resort to faith instead. In fact, they make faith into a virtue and praise each other for their willingness to take the leap of faith necessary to believe religious claims. But believing things without evidence and on the basis of faith is the very definition of irrationality.

Unlike the first claim (i.e., religious belief is irrational), which enjoys wide acceptance among theists and atheists alike, the second is a source of great controversy. Unfortunately, this claim is precisely what Dr. Myers seems to have misunderstood, intentionally or otherwise. No atheist author I have encountered claims that no good whatsoever can come from religious belief. No atheist author Myers cites has claimed that in any of their books, and I have read them all. What they claim is that the bad outweighs the good. At no point is the good denied. Most atheists are fully aware of the data Dr. Myers presents. We just don't find it sufficiently compelling that we're willing to ignore the other side.

I've read enough of Dr. Myers' work to be familiar with his data on religion and happiness. There are many positive correlates of religious belief and religious practices. I've yet to meet an informed atheist who would deny this. The straw man Myers has constructed for this article is hollow indeed. By making precisely the sort of error of which he accuses the "new atheists," Myers reveals that he is motivated by something other than scientific understanding or healing the cultural divide.

Nevertheless, Myers must be commended for this admission:
These indications of the personal and social benefits of faith don't speak to its truth claims. And truth ultimately is what matters. (If religious claims were shown to be untrue, though comforting and adaptive, what honest person would choose to believe? And if religious claims were shown to be true, though discomfiting, what honest person would choose to disbelieve?)
If only he had stopped there. But he continues the preceding paragraph in such a way that his motives and misunderstanding of atheism are once again revealed:
But they do challenge the anecdote-based new atheist argument that religion is generally a force for evil. Moreover, they help point us toward a humble spirituality that worships God with open minds as well as open hearts, toward an alternative to purposeless scientism and dogmatic fundamentalism, toward a faith that helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.
Again, the claim is not that "religion is generally a force for evil" but that the harm caused by religion outweighs the benefits. Science is anything but purposeless, and if Dr. Myers really feels this way, one can only wonder why he chose a scientific career. I had sincerely hoped that he would dig himself out of the hole of his own making, but I was disappointed in this regard.

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