Prominent atheists like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins judge people of faith. Here’s why that is a recipe for failure.
By Steve Neumann / Salon
March 22, 2015
I’ve written before about the root causes of religious conflict — in a nutshell: it is not about what many people would like you to think it’s about — but I realized recently that I had still been missing part of the picture picture, because I wasn’t accounting for what happens when people get caught up in narrowly tribalistic thinking. If there’s ever going to be a genuine, durable peace in the world, we have to overcome this tendency. And we atheists have to realize that we’re subject to the same pull of tribalism as are religious believers.
Yes, religion has been a source of conflict for millennia—but religion is just an especially organized form of tribalism. Human beings come by it honestly. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observed in his book “The Righteous Mind,” “our ancestors faced the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions that could fend off challenges and attacks from rival groups” for eons. It may even be in our DNA.
New Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher — with their legions of followers, numbering in the millions just on Twitter — continue to employ the Us vs. Them rhetoric of tribalism. But what these New Atheists fail to realize is that even if their criticisms of religion are correct, pointing them out does nothing to combat tribalism—in fact, it only strengthens it. Their faith in the power of rationality, which is effective but not perfect, blinds them to the larger problem.
This isn’t surprising, because science has convincingly shown that individuals don’t really reason well on their own—our rationality is unreliable because of the pervasiveness of motivated reasoning. This suggests that the only cure for our cognitive biases is other people. The problem is that we’re more receptive to alternatives only when challenged by members of our own tribe. Atheists as well as religious believers are relatively immune to attacks from those “other” people.
So what are we to do? Ironically, we have to expand our notion of what our tribe is—with the ultimate goal of expanding that notion so wide that the tribal concept vanishes altogether. We have to bring people together who will challenge each other’s positions while also being bound by having something in common, a common purpose or a set of common values…