The New Atheism: Evolutionism as Cosmization

The Religion of Humanity’s vision of the progressive development and improvement of human society, and its sacralization of Nature and positivist methods of understanding, established a secular nomos and framework for cosmization of the human experience. It thus explicitly made a religion out of science and its relationship to humanity. The New Atheism is essentially an updated version of the belief system underpinning

Comte’s religion that is bolder in its position on issues like the relationship between scientific and moral progress, and more interested in celebrating the irresistible, natural force of evolution than humanity itself. That is, Dawkins and his peers speak about how religion devalues human life, but rather than celebrating humanity and its achievements on their own terms, these are reduced to manifestations of the much more majestic process of evolution, and they assume (unlike Comte) that the pursuit of scientific truth is an inherent good that will naturally lead to social progress—thus the sacralization of science and particularly the theory of evolution by natural selection.

To understand these processes, we must understand these thinkers’ basic goals. The New Atheism is generally understood as a reaction to religious fundamentalism and a defense of modernity and its constitutive epistemologies and socio-political structure (Eagleton 2009; Stahl 2010; McAnulla 2012). It asserts that religion is a lingering feature of the premodern world and that “Moderns, who by definition possess science, must therefore reject religion and magic” (Segal 2004, 135). The first and most important aspect of their critique is the notion of religion—more specifically, monotheism, their central target—as an ancient attempt at explanation of the natural world. It is thus a pre- or pseudo-scientific theory of the origin and nature of material reality, or what Dawkins (2006) refers to as the “God Hypothesis”. The origins of this hypothesis, he suggests, may be discovered in our evolutionary history. While Dawkins does mention some more sociological explanations of religion (such as “consolation” and the importance of socialization in early childhood), he takes care to note that these are “proximate” explanations. For “ultimate” explanations, we are instructed to look to the concept of natural selection, from which he derives an “evolutionary by-product” theory of religious beliefs.

Dennett (2006) explains this theory as the idea that belief in deities is rooted in an evolutionarily adaptive proclivity to attribute agency to inanimate objects and natural phenomena, that is, the “intentional stance”. Harris similarly argues that “because our minds have evolved to detect patterns in the world, we often detect patterns that aren’t actually there—ranging from faces in the clouds to a divine hand in the workings of Nature” (2010, 151). The New Atheists thus treat religion as a “natural phenomenon” (Dennett 2006) or product of natural processes that ultimately can be understood only by recourse to the theories and methodologies of the natural sciences (primarily under the paradigm of evolutionary psychology, which is presented as a superior form of social science). For all these writers, religion is produced by, and exists within, the individual mind. These cognitive tendencies, determined by biology and shaped by natural selection, are allowed full expression when alternative explanations are lacking. Hence, religion is a result of ignorance of scientific truth combined with a genetically programmed tendency to see agency in natural processes.

This narrow understanding of religion is a natural consequence of the general ideology shared by these authors. This ideology, in short, is defined by scientism. By this, I mean a belief in the epistemic authority of the natural sciences over and above all other forms of understanding, which in practice also amounts to the political authority of the natural sciences. This commitment to the authority of the natural sciences is an extension of the basic epistemological position common to the New Atheists: scientific materialism or the view that “everything that exists (life, mind, morality, religion, etc.) can be completely explained in terms of matter or physical nature” (Stenmark 1997, 24). The social sciences are thus reduced to an undeveloped branch of evolutionary biology, subsumed to what Dawkins (2006) considers to be the “ultimate” theory of natural selection, which is itself equipped to explain the presence, and persistence, of religion.

This critique of religion is part of a larger belief system that is grounded in a Darwinian vision of progress. While Darwin was clear that evolution is not a process of progressive improvement, but rather differentiation in response to environmental conditions, evolutionary theory was, in its political formulation, ideological fodder for those inclined to a teleological view of social evolution that situated European modernity at the summit of a universal process of civilization, a position it occupies by virtue of its assumed defining characteristic: the hegemonic triumph of scientific rationalism. Atheism, accordingly, was viewed as the natural culmination of intellectual progress from superstition to Enlightenment (Buckley 2004). This is a politicized understanding of evolution as a social process, with all cultures located at various stages of evolution and moving toward a singular civilization driven and defined by scientific rationality. We can see these views on the nature of modernity and civilization most clearly in the New Atheist discourse on Islam. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens repeatedly tell us that Islamic civilizations are “backward” and “uncivilized” and that the presence of Muslims in the West threatens “our” progress. The Muslim world, reduced in all of its complexity to a homogeneous mass, is represented as a “civilization with an arrested history” (Harris 2004, 107), which is to say that the socio-cultural evolution of the Islamic world has been obstructed by its religion.

Islamic societies serve as the “other” of enlightened modernity, a notion employed in portraying the advanced status of Western secular-liberal society, and in the construction of a binary that pits religiosity against civilization. This view posits that modernity—which in the discourse of New Atheism is equivalent to scientific rationalism—is the final stage of our social evolution. While there is some similarity to Comte’s notion of “positive” society, this view is fuelled more precisely by an ideological deployment of the theory of evolution that is closer to that of Herbert Spencer, whose highly influential sociological theory constituted the basis of social Darwinism. While the four major New Atheist thinkers vary in their points of emphasis (Hitchens is notably less interested in science than politics and less inclined to collapse the latter into the former), the one thing they all share is a teleological vision of the progressive advancement of civilization, which they believe is inevitable, given the free reign of science and reason without impediment from religion (Eagleton 2009; LeDrew 2012; Stahl 2010). None of the New Atheists explicitly support Spencerian socio-economic views, and indeed, they generally avoid direct engagement with the subject of economics. On the conspicuous absence of any mention of economics in their work, Eagleton notes that they “have much less to say about the evils of global capitalism as opposed to the evils of radical Islam. Indeed, most of them hardly mention the word ‘capitalism’ at all” (2009, 100). In Eagleton’s view, the New Atheists treat religion at least in part as a scapegoat for the inequities of capitalism, ironically deploying science and Darwinism as substitutes for religion’s ideological function of legitimating the modern Western social structure. They also thereby perpetuate unalloyed faith the idea of progress, circumventing critique of the present by contextualizing it within an ongoing process of social evolution.

Because the New Atheism considers religion to be a false explanation of nature, or in Berger’s terms, a false mode of cosmization, it counters with its own preferred explanatory mode: one based on scientific rationalism and outlined within a framework of evolutionism. This discourse is not new, and Mary Midgley’s (1992, 2002) description of scientism and evolutionism as secular religions is pertinent to the case of the New Atheism. She describes a worldview centered on the concept of evolution that includes “a surprising number of the elements which used to belong to traditional religion” (Midgley 2002, 34). The most important among these elements is “purpose”, or a sense of meaning that will bring some coherence and perspective to life’s conflicts and clashes (Midgley 1992, 63), which could be alternatively expressed as Berger’s concept of “nomos”. Increasingly, Midgley argues, science is seeking to provide just this sense of purpose, noting that, in recent decades, scientists have developed a proclivity for claiming that science can answer the “big” questions, like “why are we here?” and “what is man?”. We see this particularly in popular science books by figures such as Richard Dawkins, who claims that science is the only alternative to superstition in the search for an explanation of purpose, as well as Stephen Hawking, who famously concluded A Brief History of Time by saying that through science we can “know the mind of God” (1988, 185). This statement led some to assume that Hawking was a theist or at least a deist, until he finally felt compelled to clear up the confusion over his views in his more recent publication, The Grand Design, where he rejects the notion of an anthropomorphic God with whom humans can have a personal relationship, explaining that “God” can only be understood as the embodiment of the laws of nature (Hawking and Mlodinow 2011).

Albert Einstein similarly instigated a great deal of debate about his own religious beliefs, with believers and unbelievers claiming him for their side, often battling over the correct interpretation of his equally famous and misunderstood statement that “God does not play dice with the universe”. In fact, his position on religion was clear and he belonged to neither side, though he did reject the “naive religion” of those who believe in a personal God who responds to their prayers, which he understands as a sublimation of the relationship with the father (Einstein 2010, 37). Rather, Einstein declared that he believed in Spinoza’s conception of

God—which was essentially Nature, or everything that exists materially and in thought—and experienced what he called a “cosmic religious feeling”, which he describes in this passage:

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. (Einstein 2010, 35)

We should be reminded here of Berger’s “nomos” and “cosmization”, as both are addressed in Einstein’s “cosmic” religion. His use of the word “order” is intended to refer to the cosmos rather than to the human experience of the world, but this is not far from a statement on nomos. Likewise, “significant” applies to the universe, though humans, being a part of the universe, could easily be included here and, as such, we would have an instance of cosmization.2 Einstein’s religion also includes a desire for transcendence. Whereas Durkheim believed this was to be found in society, Einstein expands the scope to find it in the individual’s experience of the entire universe as a “single significant whole” of which the individual is a part.

Despite some ambiguity, the major distinction that sets Einstein apart from evolutionists like Richard Dawkins is simply the use of the term “religious” to describe his view. Otherwise, they are quite similar, though evolutionism makes more direct connections between humanity and the rest of nature. Both look to science rather than traditional religion for an answer to the mysteries of nature, and both use science for purposes of nomization and cosmization, that is, to make some sense of the world, the human experience of it, and the significance of humans in it. One thing that might be missing from the Einsteinian view is purpose. Cosmization must involve some kind of statement of purpose, but it may be very vague and distant.

These examples of secular cosmization take a general and expansive approach, looking for order in the harmony of nature. Evolutionism, on the other hand, can be much more specific—as in the case of the New Atheism. Its quest to provide and explain purpose is an example of science “invading” religion, though Victorian scientists saw it quite the other way around, where it was religion that was accused of invading the province of science in seeking to explain natural phenomena and the origin of human life. There is actually a fine line between these two positions, as Midgley notes when she explains that “[t]he reason why science and religion seemed to come into competition was that they were seen as rival attempts to do the same work” (1992, 52), though in the Victorian period science did not invade religion in quite the same way it does today, when it preoccupies itself with “the business of providing the faith by which people live” (1992, 57). Midgley describes scientific knowledge as a kind of “closed faith system” that rejects certain knowledge claims as a matter of principle (1992, 59). This is a clear overstatement if applied to all scientific practice, but in certain forms of discourse that are guided by scientism—the misapplication and over-extension of scientific knowledge—the charge is valid. The New Atheism, which extends the principle of evolution as an explanation of human history, including society and culture, is one such discourse.

Scientism in this form offers not only purpose (nomos), Midgley argues, but also salvation, the promise of “glory and immortality reminiscent of the strongest offers available from religion” (Midgley 1992, 164), as well as a guarantee of “a secure and glorious future for the human race, a human heaven on earth as the inevitable end of the whole natural process” (Midgley 2002, 256). This pseudo-religious promise comes from scientists and technocrats who “are taking flight from the world, pointing us away from the earth, the flesh, the familiar—‘offering salvation by technical fix,’ in Mary Midgley’s apt description—all the while making the world over to conform to their vision of perfection” (Noble 1997, 207). The New Atheism offers the utopian promise that worldly salvation can be achieved through science, the engine of social progress, and the foundation of “civilization”, which is opposed to the “barbarism” produced by religion.

Enlightenment philosophers had similar goals and encountered similar issues, realizing that if they wanted to supplant Christianity, “they could do so only if they were able to satisfy the hopes it had implanted. As a result they could not admit what pre-Christian thinkers took for granted—that human history has no overall meaning” (Gray 2007, 24). That is, in order to get rid of religion entirely, science must be able to carry out these crucial functions of religion: it must provide people with a sense of purpose and connection to the eternal and transcendent, and must offer a substitute for the Christian promise of salvation and a progression toward paradise.3 Midgley offers an account of how evolutionism accomplishes this:

What, then, are these alarming quasi-scientific dreams and prophecies? They are, as we have seen, predictions of the indefinitely increasing future glory of the human race and perhaps its immortality...Evolution, in these prophecies, figures as a single, continuous linear process of improvement.

In the more modest form in which some biologists have used it, this process was confined to the development of life-forms on this planet. But it is now increasingly often extended to do something much vaster — to cover the whole development of the universe from the Big Bang onward to the end of time — a change of scale that would be quite unthinkable if serious biological notions of evolution were operating. (1992, 147)

Evolution, then, breaks free of the confines of a scientific theory that explains a particular set of facts regarding the variation of living things and becomes a universal principle that can be applied to any field of inquiry, including culture, ethics, and the fate of human history. Steve Fuller notes that, in general, “‘evolution by natural selection’ has been somehow promoted to a universal law of nature—well beyond Darwin’s original, and still controversial, principle for explaining life on Earth” (2008, 191). Daniel Dennett, for example, uses natural selection as an umbrella theory for how scientific knowledge develops; it is “a ‘universal acid’ eating through every aspect of material and intellectual life, in which less fit theories or artefacts are replaced by their fitter descendents” (Rose and Rose 2010, 91). Further, natural selection is not just the process by which ‘unfit’ theories are eliminated, but itself rises above rival explanations in all fields, “promising to unite and explain just about everything in one magnificent vision” (Dennett 1995, 82).

Richard Dawkins is equally bold in his use of the concept, not only arguing that natural selection is the principle responsible for the progressive development of knowledge, but that it can be applied directly, as a theoretical framework, to everything from the development of the cosmos to human culture, and can be used to predict (and determine) where human civilization is (and should be) headed. He assigns evolutionary biology a particularly vast and sweeping explanatory power, and in his hands it becomes “universal Darwinism” (Rose and Rose 2010, 92). An ironic by-product of this commitment to the scientistic worldview is that it becomes ideology and thus betrays its very foundations. In his enchantment with Darwinism, he is “obsessed by a picture so colourful and striking that it numbs thought about the evidence required to support it” (Midgley 2002, 6). He has faith in the nomos provided by what Mikael Stenmark (2010) calls the “evolutionary epic”. Indeed, Midgley claims that this attitude is somewhat inescapable, arguing that evolution is “the creation myth of our age” (2002, 33) and that it “is not just an inert piece of theoretical science. It is, and cannot help being, also a powerful folk-take about human origins” (2002, 1). This is not necessarily so, since evolution by natural selection in its proper scientific context is simply an explanation of the development of life. But taken out of this context, it does adopt a mythic character, such as when Dawkins tells us that “Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene” (Dawkins 1989, 191) in arguing for the application of the theory of natural selection to the study of culture and social evolution.

In the New Atheism, then, science is a source of cosmization and evolution is a sacred process. In its capacity to explain and provide meaning, it possesses a “mysterious and awesome power” (Berger 1967, 25). Like the sacred objects of other religious faiths, it is “set apart and forbidden” (Durkheim 1995, 44) and constitutes the key element of an unquestionable “closed faith system” (Midgley 1992, 59). It is an “impersonal process” (Bruce 2011) outside of our control, an “immensely powerful reality” (Berger 1967, 26) that is “other” with respect to us and yet locates us in an ultimately meaningful order. Alternatively, we might say that Nature itself is the sacred object of the New Atheists’ religion. Dennett explicitly takes this view:

The Tree of Life is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm’s ‘Being greater than which nothing can be conceived,’ it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred. (1995, 520)

The “Tree of Life” metaphor refers to the origin and interconnected nature of all living things, including us. While Nature may be the sacred here, its laws govern us all and themselves take on a sacred character in their capacity to determine how we should organize social life. These laws are understood through science and, in the case of life in particular, the concept of evolution. Because science and evolutionary theory are expressions of the sacred, they themselves take on sacred character, become unquestionable and exalted, and are assumed to have relevance for the social world—with evolution becoming a kind of universal law.

Dennett declares as much when he tells us that natural selection is actually “substrate neutral” (2006, 341) and occurs wherever the conditions of replication, variation, and differential fitness are present, leading Dawkins and him to presume that natural selection works on culture and ideas as much as on organisms and genes—a belief that gives rise to the sociobiological theory of memes. Dawkins claims that human culture “evolves” progressively in precisely the same way that biological entities evolve, that is, by natural selection: “Fashions in dress and diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering and technology, all evolve in historical time in a way that looks like highly speeded up genetic evolution, but has really nothing to do with genetic evolution. As in genetic evolution though, the change may be progressive” (1989, 190). The difference is the unit of transmission: in biological evolution it is the gene, while in cultural evolution the “meme” (roughly analogous to “idea”) is the unit that is negatively or positively selected and transmitted. Memes are the “new replicators”, performing the job of cultural transmission and evolution just as genes perform the job of biological evolution (Dawkins 1989). Dawkins’ theory of religion, bearing these guiding principles in mind, proceeds in two steps: biological predisposition, followed by memetic transmission. The basis of religious belief, then, is a by-product of evolutionary adaptations: “The religious behaviour may be a misfiring, an unfortunate by-product of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful” (2006, 174). The salient point in this discussion of Dawkins’ theory of religion is that it is not based on evidence, but, rather, is simply an element of an evolutionistic narrative that encompasses everything. Through this universal application, the evolution narrative becomes something more than explanation of nature: a sacred principle that provides meaning, situating the present within the context of a narrative of social and moral progress.

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