If you haven’t yet seen my Cal Tech debate with atheist Michael Shermer—a debate held December 9 before an audience of more than a thousand—you can watch it at michaelshermer.com. I want you to make up your own mind about the debate, so I'm not going to try to settle arguments here that were fully aired in the Beckman auditorium. One point I did make was that the new atheists--people like Richard Dawkins--who use science to promote atheism are in fact an embarrassment to science. They are abusing science for ideological ends. Although I was in a generally hostile crowd, my comment drew a spontaneous and surprising burst of applause.
Why? Part of the answer can be found in a remarkable article in the current issue of Skeptic magazine. Note that the magazine is published by none other than my debate adversary, Michael Shermer. Authored by David Sloan Wilson, the article is subtitled, "Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion." Wilson is the author of several books including the acclaimed study Darwin's Cathedral in which he examines the evolutionary basis for religion.
Wilson begins, "Richard Dawkins and I share much in common. We are both biologists by training who have written widely about evolutionary theory." Moreover, "We are both atheists in our personal convictions." Then Wilson gets to his point. "When Dawkins' The God Delusion was published, I naturally assumed he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues." Rather, Dawkins has subjected his atheist readers to "sleights of hand." He has produced a "diatribe against religion" that is "deeply misinformed." Indeed he is "just another angry atheist trading on his reputation as an evolutionst and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions about religion."
Devastating stuff. Wilson examines Dawkins' central claim that religion is an obvious "delusion." On the contrary, Wilson writes, religion is in general more adaptive for human communities than atheism. "On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning, rather than gratifying their impulsive desires...They report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited."
Wilson gives a telling example: The Jains of India seem to have bizarre religious habits. They won't kill any creature, even cockroaches. They sometimes fast virtually unto death. They have been known to refuse contact with non-Jains. The Jains would easily satisfy Dawkins' view of religion as a senseless delusion. And yet Wilson points out that the Jains are basically the Jews of India: they are one of the most successful economic communities in the world. The reason, he suggests, is that religious practices that seem weird and impractical to outsiders actually cultivate deep bonds of trust between Jains. This economic solidarity is crucial for a diaspora trading community that has built economic networks throughout Asia and around the world. What seems like a pointless delusion turns out to be eminently practical. From the evolutionist's perspective--and in terms of the only currency that counts for a biologist--Jain practices have demonstrated "survival value."
Richard Dawkins was given a chance to respond to Wilson's article. How does he counter one of the most trenchant challenges to his book, one that is all the more crushing as it comes from a fellow atheist in an atheist publication? Dawkins concedes that "religious belief may have a positive survival value." He sheepishly notes that his book is not about religion and evolution, and that the Darwinian perspective is tangential to his theme.
Now he tells us. Essentially this evolutionary biologist is confessing that in his recent work he has ventured to write about subjects in which he has no expert knowledge. When Dawkins tackles history, philosophy and theology, he usually makes a fool of himself. Not that his atheist admirers recognize this: many of them are even bigger fools. But it is Dawkins who is their leader, and that's why writers like Wilson and I take the trouble to point out his blunders. As I put it during the Cal Tech debate, "This is what happens when you let a biologist leave the lab."