"The Bonobo and the Atheist" by Frans de Waals (Review of Chapter 4 by Alex Routh)

I take it for granted that other apes have similar emotions and empathy that humans do in ways that aren’t identical to what we might experience, but are recognizable. This is what one would expect given that these creatures are our closest genetic kin and common heritage. Darwin himself observed apes in cages and came to the same conclusion. I can still remember being at an old fashioned jail type zoo as a child and seeing the keeper give a gorilla a white mug of something to drink through the bars and was shocked to see a black hand reach out to take it!

The book details ape behavior at length related to emotions and empathy. At several points in the book De Waals expresses an opinion about what this tells us about the debate between religion and science mostly in Chapter 4. His arguments made me angry and I couldn’t disagree more.

He classifies Atheists in two ways, those that treat their atheism as a private matter, and those that are militant, as if they have come out of the closet making an analogy with the gay movement. The thesis he agrees with is that active atheism reflects trauma, the stricter one’s religious background, the more likely they will be militant atheists. I can’t disagree with this analysis except militant atheism is not necessarily motivated only by rejection of harsh religious indoctrination, it can also be motivated by a rejection of false belief systems that have really bad consequences and or the simple affirmation of truth independently of any trauma.

He expresses agreement with an opinion that being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously” and then asks the question: “What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?” He answers his own question by telling us that when he was young and brought up a Catholic, this religion did come with restrictions, contraception being one of them. Well I have news for you Frans, the Catholic Church still bans contraception, and it is worth fighting against that policy!

He fails to mention that contraception is the single greatest scientific advance empowering women by giving them control over their fertility. Atheists think this is an important issue and the world would be better off without religion because not only is there no evidence for it, in this case it interferes in the personal choice of women to use contraception, or to prevent disease by using condoms thus causing great harm. Militancy is appropriate in opposing religious policies in the face of the harm being done to humans and the misery caused. If you don’t think that fighting against such idiotic religious policies by atheists is worthy, then I really don’t know what to say.

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He goes on to say that the Catholic Church accepts evolution. No it doesn’t! They claim to have removed a conflict between religion and science but this is false and only appearance. The Catholic Church’s version of evolution is actually Intelligent Design since the hand of God guides the process. Sorry, but science knows there is no God involved, only a natural process devoid of any divine intervention.

This is what a militant looks like. They kill people. They retaliate. They attack with bombs.

This is what a militant looks like. They kill people. They retaliate. They attack with bombs.

Atheists once again militantly point the finger at delusions that pervert science in order to justify idiotic belief systems and perpetuate harm done in the name of false belief. If you were teaching a Catholic student in a biology/evolution course at Emory University, would you fail them for persisting in the divine intervention theory of evolution, or would you sleep furiously and give a passing grade? Are apes moral and empathic because God guided things to be this way? Does truth matter to you?

Are you afraid of these academics, writers, philosophers, scientists?

Are you afraid of these academics, writers, philosophers, scientists?

He then revisits the paradigm of Steven Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria proposal where science and religion represent supposed separate circles of a Venn diagram that don’t intersect. Science should say nothing about religion and vice versa. Well, science can be used to test religious claims. In the recent past the Harvard Prayer Study lasting 10 years and was a good example of where science proved that intercessory prayer does not work, it has less than zero efficacy since the control group of atheists had lower mortality than the religious groups that had prayers being said for them! If anybody/anything is listening to prayer, they/ it don’t intervene or do anything to save anybody. Please name one thing that science has ever conceded to religion.

Perhaps in a "Battle" of ideas it would be helpful to understand the ideas. What are the "New Atheists" saying? Are they advocating violence in any way?

Perhaps in a "Battle" of ideas it would be helpful to understand the ideas. What are the "New Atheists" saying? Are they advocating violence in any way?

Another reason for atheist militancy is that religious people simply believe erroneous things about atheists. That is the reason for atheism ranking worse than pedophilia on the ten worst things list of the religious in the USA. If they really believe that, then there are huge negative consequences to atheists such as zero chance of getting hired by some employers, or getting a vote from religious electors. I’ve often thought of getting a t-shirt with “Worse than a Pedophile” printed on it and walking in to US churches on Sundays to promote discussion and also as a kind of “F-You”.

Did this man ever blowup a clinic?

Did this man ever blowup a clinic?

In another article de Waals quotes Al Sharpton and dignifies him with the title “Reverend” as saying that without a God there would be no morality. I was proud of Christopher Hitchens when he said on stage with Sharpton that “I’m not going to call you Reverend.” I’d go one further and give him the title “The Contemptible” because he says that no one can be moral without belief in God. What conceit to think that only Christians can be moral! Well I have news for you Al, monkeys and apes show empathy and a sense of fair-play, and I can guarantee they don’t have a soul and they don’t believe in your God!

Getting back to Chapter 4 of the Bonobo and the Atheist, de Waals then goes through a pathetic illustration of the resistance to new and correct ideas in the scientific community. Yes scientists are human, yes they have biases, like other humans they will be resistant to a change of ideas they are invested in. Outmoded scientific ideas have inertia, they are the same to a certain extent as religious people are invested in a different type of idea, those that are non-falsifiable. However, the difference between science and religion is that scientists will follow the evidence and change their ideas and theories in the face of proof. Religious people will persist in belief of false ideas despite the evidence. There are stupid lazy scientists, but to say that scientists are only slightly better than the religious accepting things on faith because they have uncritically accepted every underlying assumption in a theory is an abomination. Ultimately the truth triumphs because of the competition of ideas, in religion there is no competition of ideas.

The militant atheist forces the competition of ideas on the religious, many arguments are science based. Many criticisms point out inconsistencies, abhorrent ideas, horrible practices, institutionalized discrimination, logical inconsistencies, biblical approval of slavery, and lack of evidence. Why shouldn’t we hold the religious to the same intense fire of criticism as any other group of crazies, especially when religion affects things that might prolong my atheist life like stem cell research for one! Why should religion get a free pass?

Ultimately I agree that religious people are unlikely to change their belief systems overnight. The corrosion of religious belief by science however is a worthy ongoing successful process. Militant atheists challenging the complacency of the religious is a good thing, can be very entertaining, and adds to the corrosive effect of science.

In conclusion I would change the question from: What does atheism offer that is worth fighting for? To: What does atheism champion that is worth fighting for? Atheism champions truth and important principles worth fighting for. I hope anyone reading this is now convinced. Yes you are a fellow atheist Dr. de Waals, but do you champion anything?

Atheist Champions

Militants? Really?