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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Asma on New Atheism

This piece by Stephen T. Asma is critical of the "New Atheism", but it's one of the most thoughtful critiques so far (probably the most impressive I've seen since the material by Philip Kitcher that we discussed some weeks ago now).

In a bullet-biting mode, Asma makes strong claims for the pragmatic value even of some untrue claims about the world. At the least, it's worth considering his account of the attractions of animism and similar belief systems to people in developing countries - and his preference for these over the more familiar (to us) kinds of monotheism.


clodhopper said...

He is projecting the myth that atheists seek to destroy religion and in doing so will lose aspects that he considers good: consolation, inspiration etc. There are other places these can be found. He also weights the scales in favour of animism unduly I feel.

I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I prefer to save the baby and have clean bathwater.

steve oberski said...

an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and ra­tional as West­ern science
Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons.

This may be the most impressive critique of "New Atheism" but it is hardly impressive.

Perhaps the author has cause and effect turned around and it's mystical thinking like this that is the barrier stopping these people from achieving some measure of control over their lives.

tildeb said...

Another agnostic who doesn't care about what's true and assumes a tone of superiority for it. If he did honestly think animism was true, he would be an animist. If he didn't think these spirits were anything but metaphorical, he wouldn't champion their belief but rather their narrative power only.

So what's the point he's trying to make versus the gnu atheists who fight the intrusion of religion into the public domain? If there's anything of substantive value critiquing NA in this piece about monotheism and the role it is currently playing on the world stage through such institutions such as the RC Church, the UN Human Rights Council, various national governments, and so on , I can't find it... other than the age-old argument of those darned atheists taking away the comfort offered by fairy tales to the poor and ignorant. Perhaps he means to suggest that such belief will help overcome these deficits by magically transforming these metaphorical entities into actual?

Charles Sullivan said...

After reading Asma's piece I began to wonder about the torturing and killing of suspected witches in Africa and India.

Some of these acts are committed by monotheists, but certainly not all.

I wonder if witchcraft should be seen as an offshoot of animism, and whether similar atrocities occur in Southeast Asia.

Perhaps the Buddhist influence might have a dampening effect on such atrocities.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I would reconsider commending this criticism of the New Atheists.

When Asma says the Four Horsemen have proclaimed religion useless, he's setting up a straw man. What Dennett (and I think Dawkins, too) would say is that, even though religion can be very useful (and is very useful in many situations), it cannot be left unchecked by secular institutions. Religion cannot be given the benefit of the doubt. It should not be favored or protected. That's their main point. It's not that religion has no use for anybody, anywhere.

They don't all simply view religion as an opiate. And I think Asma is wrong to claim that they are unaware of the role their own prosperity has played in their ability to appreciate the values of science and secularism. I also don't like that he equates NOMA with the fact/value distinction. Unlike NOMA, the fact/value distinction has a good deal of philosophical sense. That he would confuse these ideas helps me understand why he might fail to see how confused Sam Harris is about science and morality.

Russell Blackford said...

Have at it, folks. I didn't mean to suggest that I actually agree with him.

Greywizard said...

Well, I don't even think it's very good -- and certainly not up to the standard of Kitcher. He takes the 4 horsemen to task because they are working within the Western tradition, as though philosophy of religion in the West is any different. Animism is, it seems to me, anyway, not at all preferable to the great religions. It binds people to local superstitions which have completely disastrous consequences for individuals. Animism is largely fatalistic. That may be a natural response to conditions that seem so much greater than you are, but it doesn't help you to break away from cycles of oppression and abuse. Not impressed.

Marshall said...

Steve oberski claims to quote:

an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and ra­tional as West­ern science
Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons.

(his italics)

The second quote is from Asma's piece, the first is not. Asma doesn't use the word "empirical"; his only use of "rational" is:
Not only should the more rational and therapeutic elements be distilled from the opi­ate of re­li­gion. But the wacky, su­per­sti­tious, cloud-cuck­oo-land forms of re­li­gion, too, should be cherished and preserved

I call stinking fish. Let's argue about what the man actually said, which is that irrational and nonempirical beliefs/practices can be seen as functional.

Speaking of Animism, note that in industrialized Japan, animist Shinto also co-exists easily with Buddhism. And in the west, there are folk superstitions about ghosts and magic tricks to help your car get started on cold mornings, intervention of saints and relics, and so on. I think we can take it as the unsophisticated end of Projectionism, and thanks for the pointer to Blackburn and Quasi-Realism. Human psychology at work.

(for cheapskates far from an academic library such as myself, it seems that the complete text of "Essays in Quasi-Realism" is online at questia.com.)

steve oberski said...


Both quotes are taken directly from Asma'a article at http://chronicle.com/article/The-New-Atheists-Narrow/126027/

I call your stinking fish and double.

You may want to acquaint yourself with the search function of your web browser.

steve oberski said...

@Marshall Let's argue about what the man actually said, which is that irrational and nonempirical beliefs/practices can be seen as functional.

Quite a stretch given that Asma claims that, and I quote, an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and ra­tional as West­ern science.

How you get to irrational and nonempirical from there is beyond me.

If you are aware of animistic beliefs that are functional, outside of the "they make me feel better" type, provide details.

You may mutter magic incantations to get you car going on a cold morning, I find that a regular schedule of vehicle maintenance and replacement of the battery when needed is far more effective.

Jeremiah said...

Seems like just a dressed up version of the bedside argument to me. Basically saying that your friend/family member is dying and you should tell them that they aren't really going to die and they will live forever in a magical wonderland where all their wishes will come true because it makes them feel better. I don't subscribe to that personally.

Also, animism isn't quite the rainbows and puppy dog tails that Asma seems to portray it as. If people in town think that old woman over there is sending negative spirits toward them and bringing them bad luck and decide to burn the witch, well it doesn't take fundamental monotheism for that. Just as a slight aside, in a criminal case you can (mostly) convince someone that person A could not have stolen your grain because they were 3000 miles away at the time. How do you convince someone that they aren't hexing them with spirits when you go about fostering an attitude that simply making shit up (animism) is okay?

Asma agrees that superstitions which have such negative outcomes (like witch burning) should be removed so no problem there, but then he argues that if it is benign then what's the harm? First off, if an idea is true or not actually matters to some but apparently not to Asma. That is why I threw in the crime example above because things like our justice systems have a bedrock idea that the truth is important.

Secondly, he seems to be addressing a problem that doesn't actually exist as 'new atheists' haven't been gunning for the Jains or Buddhists, as Asma even acknowledges. So after acknowledging that, what is left in the argument? The argument that religion might have had some utility as an emotional balm? Well, so what? If we can move past such an infantile stage and be able to stand and face the truth then why shouldn't we? Why should society coddle itself in order to avoid facing the realities of our existence?

This probably reads harsher than it sounded in my head but I just didn't find Asma's article that impressive.

Darrick Lim said...

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has written a fierce criticism of Asma's article.

I'm with Myers on this, especially his point about Asma misunderstanding/misrepresenting the core values of atheists.

Bruce Gorton said...

As someone who actually lives in a third world African country where a belief in animism occassionally leads to people getting burnt alive as witches I found his article profoundly insulting.

First off none of the figures he thinks should spend a year in more animist surroundings haven't done so, second he fails to demonstrate that they are incorrect in their view of religion as an attempt to explain nature, and in real terms he fails to refute the idea that religion has a moral dimension.

His chief arguments for animism look extremely, to put it bluntly, California and he fails to explain why if animism is so good the conditions animists find themselves in are so frequently miserable.

It is the straight "Noble savage" mythology we in Africa have been hearing since the Victorian era.

It sounds all very complimentary right up until you recognise that it renders everyone who is not of a Western cultural background generic.

Further problems arise when you consider he restricted himself in his criticism of "New Atheism" to Westerners, without even considering those of us who aren't.

Where is the mention of figures like Leo Igwe, James Onen or Tauriq Moosa? Or Indian Atheists and Unscientific Malaysia?

Does he really think it doesn't count as "New Atheism" if it isn't white?

Chris Lawson said...

I thought it was a terrible article. Just one example: when Asma claims that animism is associated with low Human Development Index countries, he seems completely blind to the 119 million Shinto followers in Japan.

I would have been interested in a well-written article about animism and the challenges it poses to atheism, but this was a load of cobblers.

My blog post on it was short enough to reproduce here:

A 3,000-word argument by Stephen T. Asma, professor of philosophy at Looking Glass University, abridged for your reading convenience: (1) Westerners seem to think that Eastern people are animists because they are poor and uneducated when in fact it’s because they are poor and uneducated. (2) Animism can be seen as rational and empirical if we redefine “animism”, “rational”, and “empirical”.

steve oberski said...

Asma has responded over at Pharyngula to criticisms of his article.

Marshall said...

My browser doesn't find "empirical" or "rational" (or "explanations") in the target article at all. First reference is comment #1 by johnny6:

Professor Asma says, "An­i­mism can be de­fined as the be­lief that there are many kinds of per­sons in this world, only some of whom are hu­man. Your job, as an an­i­mist, is to pla­cate and hon­or these spir­it-persons."

So, according to that definition, Professor Asma (a professor of philosophy, no less) thinks that animism is "empirical" and "rational"?

Is johnny6 a friend of yours, Steve?

The point is that to the contrary, Prof. Asma does write that the animistic beliefs under discussion are "wacky, su­per­sti­tious, cloud-cuck­oo-land forms ". He suggests that they are somehow valuable in improving the general happiness of some people, not that they are justified true belief.

There's something more interesting here than the ongoing New Atheist food fight.

David M said...


I note that Asma has replied, in quite a bit of depth to PZ's post.

David M

Lance S. Bush said...

I'm almost completely with PZ on this. I don't find this critique impressive at all. There's one gripe I have though, which is that PZ overemphasizes the importance of the intrinsic desirability of truth. He appears to maintain that he's for truth no matter what harm it may cause (at least with respect to religious institutions). He could have made the argument the truth matters, but he could have made what I think is an even better argument, which is that truth matters in this case because it is actually better for us, and that religion, by comparison, even fails on the question of “is it good for us?” Insofar as religion serves to inhibit truth, I think the answer is clearly a no, and PZ hints at this when he says

“I despise people who try to swaddle truth with lies in the name of consolation. It kills ambition, the striving to make the world better in the future, and it can allow evil to lurk unchecked.”

...But goes on to only focus on the importance of whether religion is true or not, and suggests he’d oppose religion no matter what. Well, I am not for the truth simply because I prefer truth over fantasy. I actually think, for the most part, the world is better off with truth, rather than religions superstition. Whatever benefits come of religion will be accompanied by a mentality that fundamentally inhibits progress in a way that ultimately undermines our ability to achieve what Sam Harris might call higher peaks on the moral landscape. I think PZ would probably agree that we’d be better off with the truth in this case; I wish he’d focused on that point, too. We should be arguing not just that religion is false, but that it’s a bad thing, and that the two are connected - that at least part of the reason it’s bad has to do with it being false.

Bruce Gorton said...

David M said...

I for one am distinctly unimpressed. He fails to respond to the issues on the truth of his claims on how well-travelled the "New Atheists" he was criticising actually are.

In other words he fails to address the criticism that his article is a massive strawman of the New Atheist position.

He further fails to defend his characterisation of "primitive" religions.

He fails to defend the concept that animist religions do in fact have a moral context, or his criticism of the "New Atheists" believing that primitive religion is in fact an attempt at understanding the world.

Budhism may speak of a path to happiness, but then one could equally argue that Christianity isn't concerned with setting morals as saying "This is how you get into heaven."

His moral dimension argument also fails - which is to say even his straw-man "New Atheist" whips his backside in this argument.

He is not getting impolite things said about him because he is criticising "New Atheists." I have criticised both Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in the past.

He is getting impolite things said about him because his criticisms are of New Atheists who only seem to exist within his head - because they are certainly not the four he spends the article highlighting.

Dave Ricks said...

Marshall, I checked Prof. Asma's target article in Firefox (View > Page Source) and I see the HTML is full of "soft hyphens" (intended to help justification but known to cause problems). Evidently my Firefox 3.6.13 finds the words "empirical" and "rational" by ignoring the soft hyphens.

Prof. Asma's 15th paragraph reads:

But here's a radical suggestion: Contrary to the progress-based story the West tells itself, animistic explanations of one's daily experience may be every bit as empirical and rational as Western science, if we take a closer look at life in the developing world. [emphasis mine]

Steve's posts here quote Asma's article correctly.

Marshall said...

Thank you Dave.

I apologize to you, Steve.