Noted evolutionary psychology troll and Big Think blogger Satoshi Kanazawa decided to reach dazzling new lows this past Sunday, releasing an article called “Why I’m Not an Athiest.” that boldly tested the limits of lazy and sloppy writing.
Then again, considering this is the same Kanazawa of, “Black women are just plain scientifically uglier than everyone else, guys” fame, I suppose there’s no need for those two qualifiers. Let’s start off with a bang:
“Atheist” used to mean someone who does not believe in the existence of God. Unfortunately, it no longer does. Thanks to Richard Dawkins and his ilk, “atheist” now means someone who is (and acts as if he is) intellectually superior, and who mocks and derides the deeply held and personal religious beliefs of less intelligent others by pointing out how wrongheaded and stupid they are to believe what they believe.
First, the increasingly annoying Dawkins card. When I was younger and first discovering my footing as an atheist, I, like many of my generation, read Dawkins’ The God Delusion. It was a sharply written defense of nonbelief that didn’t pull punches when it came to the question of religion. While Dawkins didn’t convince me of anything I hadn’t already surmised, the sheer strength he was willing to put into his arguments allowed me to realize that it was perfectly okay TO question religious ideas as though they were any other kind of idea. His abrasiveness paved the way for others to accept their lack of nonbelief and gather around openly campaigning against other harmful beliefs. He was and continues to be an important part of the secular movement.
But stop. Just stop using him as the de facto atheist to bring up whenever atheism’s the topic of discussion. He does not represent the secular everyman. He represents a highly educated British professor and biologist with flaws and blind spots all the same. His beliefs are not gospel. His attitudes towards religion are not the baseline by which to take all atheists by. I find plenty to not agree with the man on, and while I greatly appreciate his contributions, I do not necessarily need him to speak for my generation, thank you very much. To continuously trot him out as the token nonbeliever betrays a lack of effort in even trying to understand the nuances of whatever topic you’re looking into. And as we’ll see, if there’s anything Kanazawa is chock full of, it’s lack of effort.
Dawkins’s major problem is that he doesn’t know Americans and how religion works in the United States. Americans are by far the most religious people in all of the western industrial world. And anyone who has lived in and traveled to as many places as I have will unanimously tell you that Americans are the kindest and most generous people on earth. Although it would be difficult to demonstrate it scientifically, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Americans are the kindest and most generous people on earth because they are deeply religious.
Totes congrats on the subtle humble brag there, Satoshi. I too have traveled from one place to another that was completely different from the first place, and understand the heavy burden of infallible wisdom that comes with it. Stepping aside the pompousness, let’s take care to note the brilliant methodology behind Kanazawa’s assertion that Americans are the gentlest creatures this side of Ben because of their high levels of religiosity…oop, there it went, hiding behind that lack of anything to back up his undoubtable conclusion.
Now to be fair, Kanazawa does bring up a 2006 Reader’s Digest survey taken of residents from the 35 countries that currently circulate the magazine. It found that New Yorkers proved to be the most courteous of the bunch; courteous in this case meaning more likely to leave a door open for someone, picking up a dropped document, or saying thanks after a store purchase. What the informal experiment does not prove by any means whatsoever is whether religion has any influence on the level of kindness one shows towards his fellow man; it doesn’t even tell us whether any of the Good Samaritans were religious to begin with. And why would it? Why would anyone throw that out as proof of anything related to the central thesis of “Religion makes for kinder people”?
It’s about as irrelevant as tossing out the existence of a weekly news segment that features random acts of kindness as ‘qualitative’ evidence of Americans’ fuzziness. So, of course, that’s what Kanazawa does next:
Every Friday, the CBS Evening News features a segment called “On the Road,” originally conceived of and hosted by the late Charles Kuralt for a quarter of a century, and recently revived and now hosted by Steve Hartman. In the segment, Kuralt and Hartman feature otherwise unknown ordinary Americans who perform extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity.
All of which can only mean one thing:
Decent people in other countries pay their taxes, obey the posted speed limits, and otherwise stay out of trouble; they don’t go out of their way to perform extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity as many Americans routinely do. And I personally have no doubt in my mind that it is because Americans are deeply religious and consider all of their neighbors to be God’s great children.
Right, God’s great children. Unless they’re gay, women or not Christian. But you know what? I take that back. I can throw out examples of religiously minded citizens doing not-so-ethical things as easily as Kanazawa can throw out examples of Americans who may or may not be religious doing kind things, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. The point I’m trying to make is that for all of Kanazawa’s doubtless assertions of Godliness being next to Goodness, assertions he’d find it scientifically difficult to test, there actually is a wealth of data looking at the question of religion and morality.
In 2009, sociologist Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College in California engaged in a deep dive of current studies involving the social behavior of atheists as compared to believers and found surprisingly robust data as to the conclusion that nonbelief does not, in fact, turn you into an inhuman monster.
Here’s some brief cliff notes of his findings:
In the U.S., the incidence of violent crime tends to be higher in more religious areas than in lower as well as higher in less secular countries; atheists make up only 0.2% of the U.S. prison population; most of the top 50 safest cities in the world belong to more secular nations; atheists are less likely to express racist, sexist or otherwise prejudiced beliefs; they’re overwhelmingly more likely to support women’s rights; the amount of public aid per capita is highest in secular democracies such as Scandinavia: secular democracies rate better on markers of social and financial health; rates of infant mortality are lower in parts of the country with less religious influence; rates of STD’s are likewise lower (What’s so kind about passing on a STD to your partner?). Atheists might even be less likely to divorce.
Does this definitely prove atheists make for better people? No. Are all the studies and surveys Zimmerman brings up rigorously tested and unbiased? Maybe not. And even if so, does any of this prove religion has a direct negative relationship to people’s quality of life? Not at all. I’d personally wager secularism and atheism – along with better lived lives – are more consequences of a financially, socially and educationally stable society than its root causes.
But you know what these studies are? Evidence. Something substantial to look at and provoke discussion over. Kanazawa’s brand of laziness, especially coming from a supposed scientist, adds zip to any discussion, save the one about how on earth a major blog network would presumingly pay for this quality of writing.
They’re at least words and numbers that bear a remote relevance to Kanazawa’s argument that religion is good for us and so we shouldn’t be so mean to it. That’s the main argument by the way, for Kanazawa is – unfortunately – a nonbeliever as well. He simply can’t stand sharing the same label as Dawkins because of his darn right mean-spirited attitude towards religion, especially since believers share a divinely inspired sense of generosity.
Dawkins tells religious people to their faces that their beliefs are delusional because God in fact does not exist. It is a scientific fact that God does not exist, so it is not rational to believe in God. I wonder if Dawkins walks up to random people on the streets of Oxford and tells them that he is more intelligent, better looking, and wealthier than they are.
It’s little more than the same drivel about equating a person’s beliefs to the person himself. Yes, our beliefs, religious or not, do shape our sense of identity. Yes, we tend to take any challenge of those beliefs as a personal attack. And yes, sometimes people can be outright dicks to other people over challenging those beliefs. But that’s all it ever is, a challenge. Not a stoning, not a prison sentence, not even an inquisition. And ya know what? When it comes to beliefs that harm others, I’m more than willing to challenge them. This, strangely enough, doesn’t destroy my capacity to treat people with different beliefs as those deserving of basic human empathy. Nor does it Dawkins, I’d presume.
But if the day comes when I’m not doing that, I hope to God that I get a better challenger of my actions than Satoshi Kanazawa.