New Scientist: The Accommodationist Issue

I subscribe to New Scientist. Many years ago, I decided that it was the best of the popular science magazines—better than Scientific American, National Geographic, SEED (now defunct), and Discover. Recently, however, I been having second thoughts as the quality of the articles deteriorates and more and more pseudoscience and wrong science is making its way into the magazine. The issue of March 17-23, 2011—The God Issue—is the last straw. This is no longer a science magazine.

It's not because the topic is out-of-bounds. Quite the contrary, I think it's perfectly appropriate to address the conflict between science and religion. There's even a good article in there; it's the one by Victor Stenger. Stenger argues convincingly that science conflicts with the existence of all personal gods. It's possibly compatible with a strictly deist god but nobody believes in such a god.

The problem is with all the other articles which are accommodationist to various degrees. Several of them flatly contradict science (and common sense). One of them (by Alain de Botton) advocates that atheists adopt some of the practices of religion as if religion has a monopoly on being nice.

You only have to read the editorial to see how bad things have become ....
"GIVE me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man." This Jesuit maxim epitomises how many of us perceive religion: as something that must be imprinted on young minds.

The new science of religion begs to differ. Children are born primed to see god at work all around them and don't need to be indoctrinated to believe in him (see "The God issue: We are all born believers").

This is just one of many recent findings that are challenging standard critiques of religious belief. As we learn more about religion's biological roots, it is becoming clear that secularists are often tilting at windmills and need to rethink.

Another such finding is that belief in a god or gods does appear to encourage people to be nice to one another. Humans clearly don't need religion to be moral, but it helps (see "The God issue: Religion is the key to civilisation").

An interesting corollary of this is a deeply held mistrust of atheists (see "In atheists we distrust"). In fact, atheists might consider themselves as unrecognised victims of discrimination. In a recent opinion poll, Americans identified atheists as the group they would most disapprove of their children marrying and the one least likely to share their own vision of American society. Self-declared atheists are now the only sizeable minority group considered unelectable as president.

Such antipathy poses a dilemma for opponents of religion, and may explain why "militant atheism" has failed to make headway.

Secularists would also do well to recognise the distinction between the "popular religion" that comes easily to people's minds and the convoluted intellectual gymnastics that is theology. Attacking the latter is easy but will do little to undermine religion's grip (see "The God issue: Science won't loosen religion's grip").

This is not an apologia for god. Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally - which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with. Religion is deeply etched in human nature and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity. Until secularists recognise that, they are fighting a losing battle.
The editors seem to have been completely bamboozled by the article entitled Born Believers. The author is Justin L. Barrett of Fullier Theologial Seminary in Pasadena, California (USA). Barrett argues ....
Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language. The vast majority of humans are "born believers", naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims it does help us see religion in an interesting new light.
Barrett quotes a few studies in support of his claim but those studies don't really say what he thinks they say. It makes no sense to say that young children find religious claims and expectations attractive unless they have heard these explanations from adults.

I don't remember a time in my childhood when I spontaneously created a supernatural being who expected me to behave in certain ways. I never saw any evidence that my children needed to create gods and I don't see any evidence that my two-year-old granddaughter needs to imagine sky daddies in order to understand the world around her.

There are millions of children in Europe who are growing up as second and third generation atheists and I can't imagine that their parents are upset because the children are turning out to be "born believers." The idea is ridiculous. It could only come from a culture where young children are being constantly brainwashed by stories about gods. There's no such thing as an innate attraction to religion in a culture with no religion in the first place.

Oh, and one other thing, it's not true that belief in one of the gods makes you a nicer person. If that were true then America would be one of the kindest, nicest, societies among all Western industrialized nations. And Saudi Arabia would take the prize for the nicest society in the world. And you sure as hell wouldn't want to live in evil, crime-ridden Sweden or Holland.

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