A Weakness in the New Atheism

John D. Mullen’s review of Hitchens’ God is Not Great captures some of my frustrations with the new spirited and much needed defense of atheism. In Metapsychology Online Reviews:

There is a weak point that infects both Harris and Hitchens’ claims that religion is an important cause of human violence (indeed Harris claims that the survival of the human species requires the extinction of religion — or at least of Islam). The flaw is their failure to disentangle the religious from other potential social factors, e.g., nationalist, economic, cultural, educatioinal. Harris at least asks the question: Could the (terrorist) tactics of Palestinians warriors be a result of economic or political oppression rather than religious conviction? This is an extremely complex question of social/causal analysis. Harris’ answer is shockingly cavalier: No, you don’t see Christian Palestinians becoming suicide bombers. Does anyone believe there are no differences between Christian and Muslim Palestinians other than a (rather minor) disagreement on the status of a certain Nazarene? No economic, educational differences? No differences of group identification or empathy, no disparities of tribalist propensities?

This lack of a social-causal analysis comes up many times in Hitchens. For example he attributes a religious cause to female genital mutilation (223). This is almost certainly wrong. FGM occurs in tribal societies, where the worst evil to befall a male is for an offspring of another male to be unwittingly attributed to him. The difficulty of preventing this is heightened by polygyny, where there are more women to worry about and watch over. Thus women must be guaranteed virginal (and so unpregnant) at marriage and secluded afterwards (purdah). FGM is best understood as an element of this complex. It is required by no religion, has been practiced within or along side all three of the Abrahamic traditions and is more prevalent by far in the polygynous Muslim variations, particularly among less educated populations. (See Gary S. Becker A Treatise on the Family 2005)