Why would atheists study religion?

Just when you thought that it was safe to ignore the “debate” between science and religion, along comes The Chronicle Review with a long article on the emergence of a “new” science, “evolutionary religious studies.”

From the start, let’s get the oxymoron jokes out of the way by noting that it’s not called “evolutionary religious beliefs.” The point isn’t to prove religion right; it’s to examine religion’s evolutionary character, its origins and its impact on individuals and societies.

When the suggestion arose that we consider the social origins of religion, a member of my Monday morning discussion and coffee group (not to be confused with my Wednesday morning coffee and discussion group) demurred, likening the suggestion to inviting a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses for tea and a chat. His distaste for the whole idea was clear.

The response is very familiar, of course, for it’s essentially the position of the “New Atheists,” to whom religion is not only bunk but evil bunk, an essentially destructive force that, if we can’t eradicate, we certainly should ignore. I have some sympathy for this position, for until recently (the last year or so) it was my view, too. Religion is bunk, and we should ignore it if we can’t eradicate it.

As I have read more and more on the subject, I have slowly changed my mind. Not about religious doctrine, you understand. I remain certain that there is nothing substantial, literally, in any religion, anywhere. Where my thinking has changed is that I have come to appreciate the fact that religions have persisted for such a long time that they must have contributed something, even something adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

If you cared to, you could trace this change through a large number of posts on this site. While I still like to take a materialist’s poke at the supernatural from time to time, my views on religion-as-entity (as opposed to religion-as-creed) have slowly matured.

And I think that matured is the correct word. While my friend is a reasonable man, many of the most prominent New Atheists are not. There is quite a bit too much smugness and superiority, not to mention scorn and superciliousness, in the constant attacks of the New Atheists on anything — and anyone — that smacks of a “soft” approach to religion. In this B&W view, any suggestion that religion might have some purpose or serve some function — even though we all know that its supernatural content is completely wrong — is to move the focus in some immoral way from the one truth that religion is evil, and so are all of its works.

Some of my favourite books of the last year have been books that start by stating clearly that religious doctrine is false, then proceeded to study its origins, forms, and effects anyway, for the simple and important reason that it’s been here a long time and appears to be here to stay for some time longer. Among these books is John Teehan’s excellent studyIn the Name of God.

As  the article in The Chronicle Review points out, even so staunch an anti-religionist as founding New Atheist Daniel Dennett has said that “One of the good reasons for studying religion is that it does so much harm, and it’s worth trying to figure out how to control it.”

Of course, that’s not much of an endorsement for “evolutionary religious studies,” but at least it’s a whole lot more civil than the response people like David Sloan Wilson (included here) and Scott Atran (featured here) typically get from people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers.

2 thoughts on “Why would atheists study religion?

  1. Good post, enjoy your writings. I too was of the same mind – I believed there is nothing literal or substantial in any religous doctrine- therefore saw no value in its analysis. However, over the years I have come to believe there is a spiritual dimension to the human psyche. This dimension is an artifact of the evolution of the human brain. This does not make any religous doctrine “real” but it certainly explains why such a large portion of mankind continues to (and will continue to) embrace religion. Only by better understanding and accepting this spiritual dimension for what it is can we counter the known evils of many religous doctrines.

  2. Thanks for a good post! I’m happy to see another atheist being annoyed with the “New Atheists”, because I too recently found that religion or God is really interesting and important. As opposed to you (I guess), I do believe in the power of postmodern thoughts, and so my eyes to this was opened by a book on postmodern theology. The argument was something like “if anything goes, so does believing in God” (!). But really, what I experience is that many of my friends use God in their thinking, have a relationship with God, rely/depend on God. They are not fanatics, they can’t explain everything, they don’t believe in miracles. Even if they believed in Donald Duck – who am I to judge? The point is that they have something precious, and whatever people have in their minds, it is both philosophically and psychologically interesting and important. I just find it disturbing that I have no appropriate language for what they have. The available language of epistemology, ontology, linguistics or theology – it does not do the job, the language is not alive. There is a philosophical insufficiency both if a theologian says transcendence and Derrida says difference – it does not really describe what my friends are doing. Maybe it is a dead end, as Nietzsche implies, but yet, I don’t want to give up. God is dead, but who is the living God?

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