• Atheists – are we killjoys?

    I’ve been reading Frans de Waal‘s very interesting book The Bonobo and the Atheist.  The book gives a riveting account of the morality of the bonobos (and other primates), and also some theories of how human morality may have arisen.

    Frans de Waal is an interesting kind of atheist – a very different kind of atheist to me!  For one thing, he consents to Alain de Botton‘s famous line:

    Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

    For me, “Is it True?” is precisely the most important question you can ask about a religion.  I suspect this is probably the case for most people reading this, whether believer or skeptic – why else would you bother reading an atheist blog?

    I think you could really only accept de Botton’s view if you were convinced that either all religions were obviously false, or else that it didn’t matter if one of them was true.  I’m sure my readers will differ on the first point, but probably not on the second one.  Many religions teach that you will suffer for eternity if you make the wrong choices – it matters a great deal if one of those religions is true!

    De Waal’s feelings about the kinds of atheists who would reject de Botton’s view is nicely summarised in this passage from Chapter 7:

    To insist, as neo-atheists like to do, that all that matters is empirical reality, that facts trump beliefs, is to deny humanity its hopes and dreams.  We project our imagination onto everything around us.  We do so in the movies, theater, opera, literature, virtual reality, and, yes, religion.  Neo-atheists are like people standing outside a movie theater telling us that Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t really go down with the Titanic.  How shocking!  Most of us are perfectly comfortable with the duality.  Humor relies on it, too, lulling us into one way of looking at a situation only to hit us over the head with another.  To enrich reality is one of the most delightful capacities we have, from pretend play in childhood to visions of an afterlife when we grow older.  (p 204, emphasis added)

    “Neo-atheists” are described as killjoys, who want to ruin the fun of others who just like to play make-believe games, or watch movies.  They’re the kind of people who would point out that the bride is not really the most beautiful woman in the world!

    But is it really like that?  Personally, I don’t have a problem with the typical religious believer who believes because it gives them solace to think that they’ll see their lost relatives again, or because they find nature even more wonderful by imagining a beautiful designer of rainbows and sunsets, or even because they are moved by the spine-tingling harmonies and echoes of a Catholic mass in an ancient cathedral.  But I do have a problem with the kind of believer who insists that others must share their views, or who acts on their views in destructive ways.

    To continue with the movie theatre analogy, if I saw a group of movie-goers honestly upset by the belief that Leonardo DiCaprio had really drowned, I would want to reassure them that this was not the case.  If I saw a drowned-Leo-believer acting aggressively towards drowned-Leo-skeptics, I think it would be important to step in – even if, for some reason, the believer thought it was extremely important for everyone else to come to share his views.  And I don’t think there is anything wrong with this.  In both cases, knowledge of the truth is far from just a boring little detail.  On the other hand, if I found a group dedicated to a belief that the events of the movie were all true, but whose beliefs did not have any adverse effects, then I’d feel no need to explain otherwise.

    I should probably finish by saying that I also don’t have a problem with believers who want to share the “good news” or, perhaps more accurately, warn me about the “bad news”.  Such people are simply concerned for my well-being, whether their concern is well-founded or not.  It can, of course, become irritating if the believer won’t take No for an answer, or if they like to knock on your door early on a Saturday morning.  While I don’t think their religion is true, I can certainly understand why they would want to tell me about it.  (In fact, I was in their shoes only a few years ago.)  A religious believer is very rarely the inventor of the religion, so the religion itself bears more of the blame than the believer.

    Religions affect people differently.  Some are content to let the good teachings lead them towards a more moral way of living, but others become obsessed with “spreading the word”, even to the point of violence.  If religion was abolished, people in both camps (and all in between) would have one important factor motivating their behaviour removed.  Is that too much of a price to pay?  I don’t claim to know the answer to that question.

    Category: AtheismReligion


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian
    • Frans de Waal is a brilliant scientist and a great atheist given his empirical contributions to the moral debate, which makes it all the more perplexing that he can actually say stuff like that with a straight face.

      • Reasonably Faithless

        Agreed and agreed. I love the guy! His work has such profound implications. I don’t mind that he thinks about me as a “neo-atheist” – I can learn from anyone, and I’ve certainly learnt a lot from him. Actually, when I was on my path out of Christianity, I saw him give a lecture at the University of Sydney on primate morality – it was very eye opening.

        • 2 things

          not seen that mitchell and webb clip – good find.

          should i buy the book (though my reading list is as long as my arm)?

          • It’s definitely a good book, with lots of depth in the studies that have been done. Quite engaging too. How long is your arm? That might determine whether I’d actually tell you to buy it 😉

    • Ahriman

      I would say that, confronted with the reality of a pitiless universe, many atheists have become masters of narratives built on Hallmark greeting card fluff. In some ways, the belief in heaven almost seems less credulous.

      • Reasonably Faithless

        I agree. I blush when atheists say things like “we must find our own meaning”, etc. Sure, it might be the case that that is the closest we can really get to true objective “meaning”, but it doesn’t mean we *have to*.

        • Mike W

          I generally think of “we must find our our own meaning” as shorthand for “if we want to find our own meaning, we must do it ourselves, as it is not given to us by people/doctrine/supernatural-beings.” It’s more of a response to the truth claims of others than a manifesto

    • Nick Sewell

      One of the recommendations on der Waal’s book is from Jonathan Haidt. I highly recommend The Righteous Mind as a great primer on moral psychology.

      He’s similarly been criticised for suggesting that religion is good for the believers themselves. He writes:
      “I used to dislike all religions, back when I thought of them as systems of belief that helped individuals understand the world and cope with the unknown. After reading Durkheim and D. S. Wilson I now think of religions first and foremost as coordination devices that bind people together into moral communities with effects that are mostly good for the members, although sometimes terrible for deviants and for neighboring groups (as Shermer and Harris noted). Whether the net effects of religion for humanity are good or bad is a complex empirical question, the answer to which varies by religion, by era, and by what terms we include in our cost/benefit analysis. (This is exactly the sort of ambiguous dataset from which it is so easy to cherry-pick evidence in favor of one’s desired conclusion.) I am motivated neither to convict nor to acquit, but if religion is to be subject to trial by science, I want the trial to be fair. Until we acknowledge a latent prejudice, however, we will have trouble understanding the accused.”


      “I do have a problem with the kind of believer who insists that
      others must share their views, or who acts on their views in destructive
      Destructive to whom? I’d argue that people who want to hurt themselves shouldn’t be stopped, the only necessary intervention should be when someone wants cause objectively recognised harm to others. To me, that means fundamentalists inculcating their children into hateful religious doctrines and supporting discriminatory political agendas.

      • Reasonably Faithless

        Thanks for the quote, Nick. Very interesting, and I agree with it quite strongly.

        “Destructive to whom?”

        Religions can cause people to harm others physically, or just damage relationships. If someone believes something that causes them great sadness, then I’d feel it my obligation to try and help them, though not in a forceful way. I doubt that too many such people would want to hurt themselves. I’d care more if it was a close relative of course.

        • Nick Sewell

          Hey RF, I bought the book after reading this and just got it delivered. I skipped straight to chapter 7, one key thing I think you’ve left out of the quote from two paragraphs earlier on P203

          “This capacity for dual reality is so highly developed in our own species that a sugar pill improves our health even if the nurse takes it out of a bottle with “placebo” clearly written on it. On one level, we know the pill is fake; on another, we still believe it will work. In the same way, we fall for romances, rivalries and deaths in movies while at the same time well aware that the actors are just acting”

          The placebo comment is more interesting. A lot of researchers have taken an interest in the nocebo effect, where people warned of the side effects of a medicine feel that it is dangerous and report feeling worse. Homoeopathy miracle healings and ant-vax are all built on distrust of evidence based medicine.

          The reason why skeptics oppose homoeopathy is that if patients spend time and money on placebo, it may hold them back from seeking out evidence based treatments (like Steve Jobs trying to cure cancer with a magic diet). To me, homoeopathy is most likely to be pernicious and exploitative if people don’t know they have options, and there is no awareness of skepticism.

          Similarly, I would think religion is less likely to be exploitative if people are able to question outside the bounds of their own faith. I have no problem with Christians like Thom Stark who acknowledge violence in the bible and deal with it pragmatically, but I do have a problem with Copan et al encouraging fundamentalists to never seriously question biblical scholarship or morality.

          In Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World he talks about a ‘mr buckley’ who believed in homeopathy, the Shroud of Turin, the Bermuda Triangle Atlantis and other crap.

          “Spurious accounts that snare the gullible are readily available. Sceptical treatments are much harder to find. Scepticism does not sell well. A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment.

          Maybe Mr Buckley should know to be more sceptical about what’s dished out to him by popular culture. But apart from that, it’s hard to see how it’s his fault. He simply accepted what the most widely available and accessible sources of information claimed was true. For his naivete, he was systematically misled and bamboozled.”

    • Kevcol

      Frans de Waal caused quite a ruckus over at Salon when he published an excerpt from “The Bonobo and the Atheist” there: http://www.salon.com/2013/03/25/militant_atheism_has_become_a_religion/

    • brad lencioni

      I am entirely unfamiliar with De Waal’s work, but I am familiar with this embarrassingly fallacious and thoughtless, knee jerk kind of a critique of atheism. And after reading the quoted passage above, I can’t imagine he possesses any reliable, sophisticated understanding of critical thinking, logic, science, or atheism.

      To begin, not one of the major atheistic works I have read have ever claimed anything like that “…all that matters is empirical reality.” This is a silly, sophomoric straw man fallacy; and the entirety of his argument can be simply dismissed as a result of it. The thesis of Sam Harris’s work, e.g., is not to kill art and creative thinking–What a ludicrous and offensively ignorant claim! Nor is this even an implication which logically follows from Harris’s work…

      The point, rather, as I understand “neo-atheism,” is to protect the virtue of honesty, and to not propagate entire cultures which confuse the distinction between reality and fiction; it is to critique traditions which arrest the development of peoples intellect from being able to distinct for themselves between reliable information and bullshit being sold as “empirical reality.”

      Furthermore, De Waal’s “Titanic” analogy is a false one. People don’t literally believe the Hollywood hit is a historical documentary, which is why the person reminding everyone of this is an obnoxious ass. The worlds major religions, on the other hand, are claimed to be historically accurate, facts–and millions (billions?) of people are convinced of this. (The Bible, e.g., is not valued as a great piece of “literature”, eclipsing the artistry of Shakespear, etc. It is valued because people are made to believe it depicts reality, and that they will suffer for failing to believe.)

      If one were to suddenly find himself surrounded by people obsessing over the truth of the movie “Titanic,” then the analogy would work. But suddenly then the person pointing out the “facts” (which De Waal desires, for some reason, to attack) appears, not the ass, but a fresh and necessary breath of sanity!

      De Waal is fallaciously trivializing what is, in fact, a legitimate, serious issue in the world today. I can’t imagine a respectable intellect publishing such poor work (trusting, of course, that his work has been accurately represented in this post); thus, I can’t say I am moved to learn of any more of his thoughts.

      • Reasonably Faithless

        De Waal is a top class primatologist. His book is just wonderful – the product of decades of research and fieldwork – he knows his primates! I disagree with his assessment of outspoken (or “militant” or “neo-“??) atheists, and the titanic excerpt is a faithful copy of his words (barring typos), and the theme comes up quite often in the book. I’m happy for him to have different views on that, and learn from his vast knowledge of his field, though it’s a bit annoying when religious people quote things like this to show you that “even atheists” think Dawkins and Hitchens are bad people… But then again, it is interesting to read from a variety of viewpoints – if there is a point to be made against something I believe, I am more likely to discover it by listening to a critic than by just trying to refute myself (which is hard to do).

        • brad lencioni

          I too value people having different viewpoints–and being able to consider things from others points of view is surely a valuable intellectual ability. However, not all view points are of equal quality and value–in fact, some idea’s are just pure crap (whose only value would be to serve as an example of what NOT to do). And a telltale that an idea is crap is when it is being offered as a truth, yet the subject matter has obviously not been properly researched by the author, and the idea is contradictory and fallacious. (De Waal presented a ridiculous straw man of “neo-atheism” which entirely missed the point of its authors; then he ranted against those who concern themselves with “facts”, all the while portending to be a reliable source of the very things he is negating…)

          Again, I value others points of view, but I just can’t understand De Waal’s critique. And I think that is his fault, not mine. What really troubles me about this is that these seem such embarrassingly amateurish mistakes that I would think any professional would, not stand by them, but immediately revise them! Has no one called him out for publishing this?

          • Reasonably Faithless

            I basically agree (and I hope you know I wasn’t saying you don’t value different views). I’m pretty sure he’ll have received his fair share of criticism for his views. The main problem is that there *are* some atheists who his critiques *do* apply to (though I think Dawkins, et al, don’t really do what he thinks they do). But to make the jump from this to say things like “neo-atheists [think that] all that matters is empirical reality” is like saying “Christians think that God hates fags”.

            • brad lencioni

              I know you weren’t saying I don’t value different views. And I also respect that you are trying to keep a fair, even keel about this. The point I was making is that we can be fair and understanding, but still call bullshit what it is; and we should also take care not to, in our attempt to be fair and sympathetic, rationalize away what is truly plain and utter crap.

              The fact of the matter is that that passage IS dubious bullshit, and does not resemble the qualities and standards of respectable scholarship; it is surely not an example of the authors best work–so we have no choice now but to band together and burn his freaking house down!


              Hah, in all honesty, I now hold a negative opinion about this de Waal character. However, i put very little weight on that opinion because of the very minuscule information it is based on.

              Peace, and keep up the thought provoking work!

            • Yep, I definitely hear ya. Here’s a very interesting read – “Pro-religious atheists” – written by a blogger I have only just discovered:


              I think it sums up this kind of atheist very well. I’d definitely encourage you to read de Waal’s work if you’re interested in primate morality – it is second to none. Here is his TED talk, which will give you a brief idea without having to read a whole book:



            • brad lencioni

              Thanks for the site references!

              1) The blog post you referenced is very well done; it essentially outlines–as I understood it– a liberal psychology with a culturally relativistic slash pragmatic view of truth (i.e. the view that truth is what ever your culture defines it as or what ever works for you).

              This is very popular on college campuses and with the mystically inclined, but I find it to be simply awful, poorly thought out philosophy (and perhaps an overreaction by those who support it to the conservative, authoritarian aspects of human society). I have never seen anyone make a plausible case for cultural relativism, and pragmatism works for a theory of justification, but it is inconsistent if one tries to use it to define “truth.” (One cannot abandon logic, yet claim to make valid and sound arguments!)

              2) And I’ll be darned… I am familiar with de Waal’s work after all! I have seen that video and studied some of his work in both psychology and philosophy of ethics courses–it is very important to understanding the evolution and nature of morality in primates, including humans.

              Now I just want to slap him 🙂 for surely he didn’t mean what he wrote.

        • iamcuriousblue

          De Waal’s “Evolutionary Psychology: The Wheat and the Chaff” is about the single best statement I’ve seen on the topic. Anybody who wants to either criticize or sing the praises of evolutionary psych ought to at least acknowledge this as a starting point:


          His critique of strong atheism is off-base, however. The fact that people regard religion, unlike works of fiction, as being some kind of literal truth about the universe is problematic, in the same way that adherence to pseudoscience and superstition are. Wrongful truth-claims deserve to be contested, full stop. Of course, the real problem with religion is the way that some people act on what they think the imperatives of their particular belief system are. However, that’s not entirely unique to religion, because both history and recent incidents have shown how irrational and hurtful people can act using various secularist (or, more accurately, non-theistic) ideologies as a justification.

          In terms of the approach to critiquing religion, I definitely think there can be productive and not-so-productive ways of going about this. Looking at the childish way that people like PZ Myers, etc deal with political differences has definitely led me to rethink many of the confrontational tactics “New Atheism” uses in its approach to religion. But that does not mean there’s anything wrong, per se, with criticizing religion.

          • Yes, and I noted throughout that de Waal is very opposed to creationism, particularly teaching it in schools.