Wilson’s stealth religion

Posted on February 8, 2008


I think that Wilson’s calling the New Atheism a stealth religion is just another example of the central limitation of commitment theories of religion such as Wilson’s that has been identified by Scott Atran. Atran writes:

They cannot in principle distinguish Marxism from monotheism, ideology from religious belief. They cannot explain why people can be more steadfast in their commitment to admittedly counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs – that Mary is both a mother and a virgin, and God is sentient but bodiless – than to the most politically, economically, or scientifically persuasive account of the ways things are or should be.

So, at least in part, it is the limitations of Wilson’s theory that lead him to make the claims against the New Atheists. Wilson is aware of these limitations and in Chapter 7 of Darwin’s Cathedral tries to distinguish between religion and other ideologies but the attempt is less than satisfactory.

A much harder to explain aspect of Wilson’s attitude to Dawkins and the others is that Wilson tends to be quite positive about religion while expending a lot of energy to fight New Atheism. If what Dawkins is doing is creating a new religion, as Wilson claims, this would be highly inconsistent. What is more, Wilson’s positive attitude to religion is not justified by his theory. Assuming that Wilson is right and religions do make communities into superorganisms, what are we, the individuals to think about them? According to Wilson religions ensure cooperation between in-group members. But what form does this co-operation take? China is often presented as an example of a harmonious society but it is certainly not one that I, as a liberal European, would wish to be a part of. When some cells in a human body cease to co-operate we call them cancerous and cut them out. When societies act in the same way against individuals we call those societies totalitarian. Group level selection is not necessarily something the individual ought to be happy to accept. Why does Wilson present it as uniformly positive for the ingroup individuals?