Do the New Atheists err in their ways? A response to Amarnath Amarasingam

I have just finished reading Amarnath Amarasingam’s recent journal article “To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists” (2010), and I really don’t know how to react. I found myself agreeing emphatically with some of his well-researched points, and yet at other times I was hitting the roof at how unfair and inappropriate some of his statements were. To that end, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the article… positive and negative… and hopefully you can draw your own conclusions.

Firstly, Amarasingam writes:

‘The academic community, with a few exceptions, has largely dismissed the[ New Atheists’] writings as unsophisticated, crude, and lacking nuance.’ (574)

This is not necessarily a criticism of Amarasingam, but a criticism of most academic treatments of atheism (‘New’ or ‘old’). What I want to know is what gives the academic community the right to do this? I guess it is possible to do this from a philosophical perspective… but if we are looking at these texts from a religious studies perspective, it is not our place to critique them in this way. Imagine if a religious studies scholar read something by Karl Barth or al-Ghazali and deemed it ‘unsophisticated’, ‘crude’ or ‘lacking nuance’! According to http://info.wlu.ca/randc/phd/phd-students.html, Amarasingam is a PhD student in Religious Studies, ‘working in the area of sociology of religion with a focus on social theory’, yet he refers to New Atheism as an “evangelical revival and  repackaging of old ideas” and deems the frequency of comments posted in the Converts Corner of Dawkins’ website ‘ad nauseum’.

Amarasingam begins by discussing what he describes as “the fundamental attribution error. This is:

“a pervasive tendency on the part of observers to overestimate personality or dispositional causes of behaviour and to underestimate the influence of situational constraints on behaviour’’

Tetlock, PE, 1985. “Accountability: a social check on the fundamental attribution error” in Psychology Quarterly, 48(3):227-236, p. 227.

Amarasingam states:

‘I am not arguing that secularists are the only group that succumb to attribution biases. Christians may view Muslims as a coherent whole, even though this is far from the case, and Muslims in turn may view secularists with similar biases. However, I focus on the new atheism, because it often presents itself as an objective, value-free, and universal critique of religion en bloc.’ (575)

And continues:

‘One of the most replicated […tendencies that individuals exhibit when attempting to understand why others behave the way they do] is one in which individuals assume that some stable dispositional or attitudinal characteristic lies behind the behaviour of another. [… P]eople often downplay situational reasons for the actions of others while overestimating the significance of dispositional causes.’ (575)

So far so good. I can totally relate to this. As human beings we all too frequently make statements such as “That’s so typical of a…”, without giving that ‘other’ the respect that we would give ourselves by discerning situational reasons for such-and-such an action/statement/belief/etc.

However, Amarasingam suddenly stumbles when he states that ‘It must be noted that religious belief is best treated as a situational cause of individual behaviour, and not as a disposition’ (576). Why is this the case? He provides no justification for making this statement and just assumes that it is obvious. He continues:

‘At times, [New Atheists] effectively treat religion as a social constraint and critique it accordingly. At other times, they treat individual religious actions as if they were dispositional.’ (576)

But is it not both? Doesn’t everyone do this when they assess things? I see his point… we should treat religious actions as both dispositional and situational… but I would imagine that everyone is guilty of focussing on one to the detriment of the other at specific instances in time. The fact that they consider both aspects throughout their writings could be seen as a positive… Just a thought…

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Amarasingam then moves on to the following statement from Sam Harris:

‘‘The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not ‘cowards’, as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith – perfect faith, as it turns out – and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.’’(2006, 67)

From this, Amarasingam somehow infers that, ‘For Harris, all that is required to understand the terrorist acts of 9/11 is the knowledge of the fact that these individuals were people of faith. Situational causes – Western injustice, geopolitical realities, etc. – do not need to be factored into the equation’ (576). Whilst I understand the point that he wishes to make, my problem is with the statement ‘all that is required’… Harris does not say this at all. He makes it quite plain that ‘faith’ is what he sees to be the most important element… but he does not say that it is all that is required. That being said, I do agree with his further elaboration that: ‘To continue to argue that religion is about blind faith and not open to discussion and criticism seems disingenuous’ (576).

At this point I had a thought. Could it have been that the idea of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) stopped civilised debate occurring between atheistic and theistic positions before the publications of New Atheistic literature? Could the New Atheists’ books be a deliberate overstatement to force the religious to clarify their position and open up a dialogue?

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One of the things that Amarasingam does well, is to draw attention to these massive overstatements which lace the texts of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. He writes:

‘Although there is much in Hitchens’ text to admire, and several philosophical arguments to take seriously, his presentation of basic historical facts about religion as if they are revelatory is rather perplexing, especially since most religious people (not to mention theologians and scholars of religion) have known about them for years.’ (576)

As a ‘scholar of religion’, and someone who has had experience with religious faith, I could not agree more. Most religious people are well aware of the inconsistencies of their religious tradition, and

‘just because [they] have learned to live with inconsistencies in their religious tradition, this does not mean that they practice blind faith. Hitchens’ claim that religion is man-made is particularly revealing as he believes himself, once having stated it, to have made a devastating critique of religion.’ (577)

Just as in science, religious people tend to adapt to new revelatory facts about their faith by accepting, adapting and revising, or stubbornly sticking to old paradigms. This is human nature… the religious do not all, or even mostly, live up to the caricature depicted by many atheists. They do not all stubbornly resist the discoveries of history and science, but take them, work with them, and attempt to understand them and work them into their worldview.

Whilst it pains me to agree with him, the theological critique of John Haught hits the nail on the head, when he writes that in arguing that faith is simply

‘‘‘belief without evidence,’’ the new atheists are undermining ‘‘the intended universality’’ of their condemnation of faith: ‘‘Even one white crow is enough to show that not all crows are black, so surely the existence of countless believers who reject the new atheists’ simplistic definition of faith is enough to place in question the applicability of their critiques to a significant sector of the religious population’’’ (577)

Citing Haught, JF, 2008. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 62

Amarasingam continues to hit the nail on the head, when he finds Dawkins, in an interview on Youtube, stating, in opposition to this criticism, that

‘“it’s no good saying ‘oh, that’s not my kind of Christianity!’ Well fine, it is not your kind of Christianity, but I didn’t write the book for you’’ […]. Such candid statements by Dawkins contradict the intended universality of his writings. It is unclear, then, whether the writings of the new atheists are aimed at religious fundamentalists or religion en bloc.’ (577)

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Getting back to the fundamental attribution error, Amarasingam writes:

‘when the group that we are a member of performs a positive act, we are more likely to see that act as stemming from a dispositional trait. But, when this in-group performs a negative act, we are more likely to see it as stemming from situational, contextual, causes. When it comes to the out-group, however, we tend to do the opposite.’ (578)

This certainly makes sense, and is something which Richard Dawkins draws attention to himself.

‘When their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children [considered in an experiment by George Tamarin in Israel] agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. […] But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts in early life. [… Religion] made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.” (Dawkins 2007, 292)

Amarasingam continues:

‘As Pettigrew (1979: 464) has noted, there ‘‘appears to be a positivity bias for intimate others, such that you grant them the benefit of the doubt by attributing positive actions to dispositional causes and negative actions to situational causes’’ […] Similarly, there is often a negativity bias, where the situational constraints of a negative action performed by an individual member of a disliked group are underplayed in favour of dispositional explanations. ‘‘And often when race and ethnicity are involved, these attributions will take the form of believing the actions to be a result of immutable, genetic characteristics of the derogated group in general – the bedrock assumption of racist doctrine’’ (Pettigrew, 1979: 465). Although I am certainly not calling the new atheists racist, they do, as we will see, repeatedly fall victim to what is known as the ‘‘ultimate attribution error’’: whenever a member of the out-group (i.e. adherents to a particular religion) perform a positive act inconsistent with their overall view of the group (i.e. all religious people), the new atheists either dismiss it as an exception to the rule or deny that religion had anything to do with the positive act. The reverse is true when the new atheists deal with their in-group (other secularists).’ (578)

Citing Pettigrew, TF, 1979. “The ultimate attribution error: extending Allport’s cognitive analysis of prejudice” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 5:461-476.

‘As Sam Harris (2006: 78) notes, ‘‘the fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is itself a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness.’’ This is indeed true: faith, and/or religion, is not necessary for people to be good. However, neither is it a sufficient element for the perpetration of evil. Harris (2006: 78–79), however, does not allow for this: ‘‘By contrast, the most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief. This is nearly a truism.’’ Here we see the ultimate attribution error in full bloom.’ (579)

From my own experience of New Atheist literature, this criticism certainly rings true. However, I would disagree when Amarasingam turns to the New Atheist criticism of the Holocaust. Taking Sam Harris’s statement that ‘knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion’’ (2006:79), Amarasingam writes:

‘Such attribution errors are common in the new atheist corpus. Harris does not even attempt to explain why, if Christian anti-Semitism was the sole driving force behind the Holocaust, the Nazis also attempted to eliminate the Romani people, the deaf, the disabled, as well as homosexuals’ (580).

Sam Harris has not stated that Christian anti-Semitism was the “sole driving force” behind the Holocaust, but that the Nazis were fulfilling a path laid by the religious situation in Germany at this time. Whilst it is not debatable that the Holocaust targeted many more people than just ‘the Jews’, these were certainly the primary targets of Hitler’s extermination. And whilst ‘religion’ is not the only factor involved here, a brief glance at the situation of the Jews in Europe in general in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust, and particularly in Germany will demonstrate that the common, and indeed Christian, attitude to the Jews was largely responsible for providing an atmosphere in which the Holocaust could happen.

To take but a few examples of Christian anti-Semitism at the time of Hitler, Joachim Hossenfelder (1932) – wrote that the Church must help “cleanse the German nation of the foreign blood of the Jews”, Reinhold Krause (1933) declared the Old Testament, the apostle Paul, and the symbol of the Cross to be debilitating signs of Judaism, and Bishop Muller (1934) decreed that Hitler was to be considered the supreme authority of the church. This anti-Semitism was not new to the twentieth century, but had been present for many years before, in the writings of, for example, Wilhelm Marr (1879), Heinrich von Trietschke (1880), and of course the composer Richard Wagner, who wrote in 1850 that moneyed Jews “held it wise to make a Christian baptism wash away the traces of [their origin]”, and that “to become man at once with us, however, means firstly for the Jew as much as ceasing to be a Jew.”

I am not wishing to argue here that Christianity was responsible for Hitler. But simply that Amarasingam is being unnecessarily harsh to Sam Harris in this instance. I would thoroughly recommend seeing (Ericksen and Heschel 1999) for more information on this issue.

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Turning to the idea of group consensus, Amarasingam writes that:

‘at times, the[ New Atheists] complain that organizing their fellow secular humanists is a bit like ‘‘herding cats’’ because they are ‘‘such independent thinkers,’’ while viewing religion as homogeneously irrational. At other times, they view themselves as a homogeneous, enlightened whole, fighting back superstition.’ (582)

Whilst I agree that there is some ambiguity here, it would be helpful is Amarasingam included some citations (see my previous post). And can these not be the same thing? Can a group of enlightened, independent thinkers, not fight back superstition in their own individual ways? However, this is me simply being a pedant. Continuing once more:

‘When faced with a threatening group, ‘‘perceivers are quite willing to infer the presence of a consensus without much information simply because they want [584] to see the group as a unified whole’’ (Corneille et al., 2001: 440). Such biases will become apparent below when we explore the new atheist treatment of Islam.’ (583-4)

Citing Cornielle O, Yzerbyt VY, Rogier A and Buidin B (2001) “Threat and the group attribution error: when threat elicits judgements of extremity and homogeneity” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27:437-446.

‘For Harris, the out-group, Islam, is indeed thoroughly homogeneous. For example, he argues that ‘‘If a twenty-first century [585] Muslim loses his faith, though he may have been a Muslim only for a single hour, the normative response, everywhere under Islam, is to kill him’’ (2006: 115; italics added). If we are to believe Harris, Muslims, regardless of whether they live in Dearborn or Dubai, live under the fear of death if they even contemplate apostasy. As Corneille et al. (2001: 440) noted, individuals are more than willing to believe there is a consensus in a given community simply because they wish to see this community as homogeneous.’  (584-5)

I could not agree more! This monolithic treatment of Islam is completely and utterly inaccurate and misleading.

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Amarasingam begins his conclusion stating that his ‘paper has argued that insights gleaned from social psychology – particularly the fundamental attribution error, out-group homogeneity bias, etc. – are especially useful for critiquing the new atheism’ (585).

As I began this post, so I will say again… yes within the context of social psychology it is definitely okay to make this sort of critique. However, I ask once more: how appropriate is it for a religious studies scholar to be critiquing the position of a group of people who are essentially articulating their position on religion?

That being said, Amarasingam has a point when he cites McGrath and Collicutt McGrath (although the majority of their book is utter twaddle), who state that (2007, 22, 50):

‘similarly note that one of the main characteristics of the new atheism is its presentation of ‘‘the pathological as if it were normal, the fringe as if it were the center, crackpots as if they were mainstream. It generally works well for his intended audience, who can be assumed to know little about religion and probably care for it even less. But it’s not acceptable. And it’s certainly not scientific.’’’ (586)

Drawing attention to another Youtube interview, this time between Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, Amarasingam finds Dawkins confused by Harries’ liberal stance on Christian dogma. On hearing about this, ‘Dawkins responds: ‘‘This, of course, is all music to my ears, but I’m kind of left wondering, why you stick with Christianity at all!’’ Harries (YouTube, 2008a) rightly responds that perhaps Dawkins has spent too much time in fundamentalist circles’ (586).

It is a point…

Bibliography

Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2010. To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 39, no. 4: 573-588.

Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.

Ericksen, Robert P., and Susannah Heschel, eds. 1999. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Harris, Sam. 2006. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: The Free Press.

McGrath, Alister, and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. 2007. The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the denial of the divine. London: SPCK.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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