Friday, November 5, 2010

de Waal's in over his head

Frans de Waal writes a response to all of the comments he got on his previous article, which went on and on about how morality clearly had a natural origin, then at the end said, "But maybe we need religion to be moral anyway!" de Waal seems like he is not aware of a lot of what has been said on this already. I could not manage to read his whole response (I read the first one, it was disappointing, and this one is just aggravating). But I want to comment on two things:

Even though 90 percent of my text questions the religious origins of human morality, and wonders if we need a God to be good, it is the other 10 percent — in which I tentatively assign a role to religion — that drew most ire. Atheists, it seems (at least those who responded here) don’t like any less than 100 percent agreement with their position.

Sigh. The reason you're getting so much "ire" over that particular 10% is because it has a hidden implication that us atheists (including de Waal!) may be less equipped to be moral than our deluded counterparts. That's offensive. I mean, imagine if he had written a piece in which he hints that Islam might be inferior to Christianity when it comes to keeping people moral, and then was all surprised when Muslims get pissed off at him. Duh! Of course that is going to piss atheists off. In fact, I don't understand... is de Waal saying he himself is less moral?

I understand that de Waal is trying to draw a distinction between societal effects and individual effects. But that kind of comes across as elitist ("I don't need religion to be moral, but the unwashed masses do!"), and in any case, the way he put it in his previous column and the way it just came out of left field with no evidence was really off-putting. "Morality clearly has nothing to do with religion... but now I'm going to say, for no reason whatsoever, that our society might become immoral without it!" WTF. Of course that raised our ire.

Those who wish to remove religion and define morality as the pursuit of scientifically defined well-being (à la Sam Harris) should read up on earlier attempts in this regard, such as the Utopian novel “Walden Two” by B. F. Skinner, who thought that humans could achieve greater happiness and productivity if they just paid better attention to the science of reward and punishment. Skinner’s colleague John Watson even envisioned “baby factories” that would dispense with the “mawkish” emotions humans are prone to, an idea applied with disastrous consequences in Romanian orphanages.

Double sigh. So, he hasn't followed any of the discussion surrounding Harris' controversial idea? First of all, a lot of atheists think he's full of it, and that morality has to stem from arbitrary conventions. (I fall somewhere in between) So he's representing a false dilemma here: Old-time religion vs. Harris' radical idea. Um, no. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a huge amount of the discussion about Harris' idea is in regards to similarities and differences between past Utilitarian and Utilitarian-esque ideals. de Waal is late to the game here if he think he's enlightening anybody by pointing out that Utilitarianism is not only insufficient, but has a real dark side. Get with the program.

Of course, he follows that with the dumbest fucking comment of all:

And talking of Romania, was not the entire Communist experiment an attempt at a society without God?



Can I get some of what you've been smoking, de Waal?

Yes, Communism in its two most high-profile manifestations, as well as many others, tried to enforce a society-wide atheism, but that's not central to the Communist experiment. Look the fuck up what Communism is. It has nothing inherently to do with godlessness, it has to do with economics and distribution of resources. And yes, it turned out to be a big failure. It turned out to be an even bigger failure because those high-profile manifestations were also brutal dictatorships. Did it occur to de Waal that maybe the human rights disaster in Communism was partly because the people were forced to abandon their religion, which is not what any sane person is discussing.

Gah. Fuck you, de Waal. You're an idiot.

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