Do the more aggressive skeptics misunderstand religion?

I just got back from a conference on “The Evolution of Religion,” largely devoted to discussing evolutionary and cognitive science-based explanations of human religiosity. There’s some fascinating work being done, and I expect this topic will be of increasing interest to secular people as the field continues to mature. As I pointed out in my talk, current research fits in very well with my expectations as an “ambitious and lazy” physicalist. But the news is not all good for those nonbelievers who would like to see less religion in the world—it appears as if supernatural beliefs are too deep-seated a part of human nature to disappear easily.

For atheists, perhaps the most interesting presentation was by Dan Dennett, who elaborated on some themes in his Breaking the Spell. He ended up with a plea for scientists to be more forthright in their criticism of religion: Dennett thinks that even academics end up being reticent and giving religion a free pass too often.

No doubt there is a good deal of truth there. But it was interesting that the audience didn’t entirely buy it. Most people doing scientific research on religion are either outright nonbelievers or on the very liberal fringes of religiosity. But they tend to distance themselves from calls to a more activist style of nonbelief. Sometimes this has to do with reasons such as not wanting to antagonize religious people who are the subjects of their research. But also they perceive some of the more aggressively anti-religious authors out there as having a rather limited understanding of religions. Dennett received some very critical questions, some of which pointed out that a number of features of “religion” he identified specifically had to do with contemporary conservative Christianity in the United States, and did not generalize to other traditions and other times.

I challenged Dennett as well, drawing a rather testy response. I said that I was disturbed by the way that, along with himself and Richard Dawkins, he was holding up Sam Harris as a model of courageous criticism of religion. Particularly in his attacks on Islam, Harris does not follow even elementary scholarly norms, and produces a pretty nasty misrepresentation. Dennett sort of defended Harris’s listing of disgustingly violent verses from the Quran, but I pointed out that most Muslims do not respond to the Quran the way a stereotypical Protestant fundamentalist responds to a Bible translation. He said he didn’t know that. Fair enough, but why on earth would he trust Harris’s non-existent expertise in the first place?

There have been a bunch of books that have been both aggressively critical of religion and commercial successes recently, which has made a good number of nonbelievers feel better. And no doubt, there is good reason to complain about the immunity from criticism religion enjoys in much public discourse. But that does not mean that the most prominent critics have done a uniformly good job. Their understanding of religions have too often left something to be desired.