I rarely find time to read the magazine New Scientist, but when a friend pointed out to me that the 17th March 2012 edition was sub-titled "The God Issue - The surprising new science of religion", I expected something interesting. However, starting from the editorial itself, the signs were not good. (This was a short homily about how nice religious people can be (but neglecting how horrible they can be) and about how society discriminates against atheists (which at least is true). It is written by someone who clearly has taken no interest in the science of religion, and fails to understand that secularism is not an anti-religious movement as such. Secularists do specifically recognise that 'religion is deeply etched in society' and this is precisely what worries them. Secularists realise that those in minority beliefs are disadvantaged as much as non-believers, and that a secular society would offer freedom of religion as well as freedom from it.
The choice of authors for the articles shows that this editor either does not have the budget or lacks the knowledge to make a better selection. One other theme emerges - but it is hardly one that justifies the selection.
Moving on the the first of these authors, Justin Barrett seems to be a little known academic with a book to sell. On the basis of this performance I think you should not be tempted to buy it. He starts with basic and obvious observations (to anyone who has read anything at all about the subject) that babies are born to recognise agency, that adults retain some of these characteristics, and that we are all sensitive to the concept of 'design'. Eventually he gets to 'theory of mind' and develops the idea to say that we are all born believers in 'natural religion'. So what? He goes on to point out that nobody starts believing in Santa when they are adults, but that they do convert to religions, as if this proves something superior about gods. He neglects to mention that there is no well-funded and well practised organisation offering Santa as a solution to all your problems when you are feeling at your most sensitive and vulnerable. Religions do tend to prey on those who are in need.
Barrett's assertion that "adults do not typically eat sacrifices left out for the gods" demonstrates precisely that he has no notion of the role of the priesthood. These people live solely on the sacrifices of their followers - either literally as in the priests of the temple in Jerusalem or metaphorically by consuming financial contributions. Religion is big business. Just look at the Vatican if you don't believe that.
The second article is by Ara Norenzan (who has a book to sell - and no - don't buy it on the basis of this article). So - there's a bit of a puzzle about the way that societies transitioned to city dwelling. Organised 'big' religions blossomed at around the same time. Does this necessarily mean that religions forged societies? It might do, but it doesn't say anything about their truth, or about the existence of a god. Norenzan's rambling collection of barely relevant stories is at least followed by a sensible conclusion - however unscientific. The societies in the world that are most atheistic have become the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous.
All in all I was unsure what message he was trying to purvey. Perhaps it was that religion might have kick-started society, but that now it is not necessary to maintain it. If so, why did he ramble on about the observation that cults and religious movements rarely last long.
Robert Macauley also has a book to sell and has nothing useful to say in it. He takes a page and a half to say little more than that theology is not the same as religion and to tell a few anecdotes. So what?
At last we come to the real meat in the sandwich of The God Issue though! (I say that metaphorically and do not intend offense to vegetarians!)
Victor Stenger always has a new book to sell, and his books are always worth reading. His article is the shortest, and yet it has more value than the sum of all the others. As the only actual 'scientist' among them, he gets straight to the point of what science has to say about the testability of specific religious claims. It is hardly relevant whether there is a gap in our minds for a god. There is simply no evidence that there are any deities to fill that gap. Here at last is a well known scientist talking about a subject that he knows and understands. The editor of New Scientist should have made sure that there were more articles of this standard.
|Alain de Botton - a self-made straw man|
And finally to the dismal stream of tosh from an interview with Alain de Botton (who also has a dismal book to sell). He thinks it is time for atheists to join together in a community, and that a cathedral of atheism is worth building. Had his book been announced on 1st April it might have been recognised more clearly for what it appears to be. This is a man who seems to have no ideas of any value - or if he has them he hides them very well. He is ideal material for the press who have until now had to manufacture straw-man versions of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett in order to make any (false) headway against their rationality. Here, handed to them on a plate, is a self-made straw-man. Maybe he is right about one thing though. The atheist community should come together. They should do this solely to 'ex-communicate' de Botton and other people who have nothing useful to say, making it completely obvious that he does not speak on behalf of many of us.
My conclusion is obvious. This was a collection of writings by authors who deserve their status as being largely unknown, with one jewel in the crown, namely Victor J Stenger. Did I find any of the promised 'surprising new science ofreligion'? Emphatically no! None of the fascinating outputs of neuroscience were mentioned at all. Nothing is mentioned about the evolutionary value that might have caused religions to work as a by-product of the survival value of recognising agency in the world. There was little sign of real scientific investigation of religious claims with only one of the articles having anything valuable to say on the subject.
Having failed to find any interesting science, it clearly recognised the economic value of an article in New Scientist for those who want to sell a book, and yet it totally neglects the fact that big religions exist as big businesses. It totally ignores the observation that, if not so deeply embedded in society, each and every one of them could be described as a racket which benefits a small group of priestly types at the expense of the people.
Two out of ten for New Scientist!