Jared Diamond, the professor of geography from the University of California, Los Angeles, and who got his fame from voluminous books like The Third Chimpanzee, Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse has recently published a new book, titled The World Until Yesterday.
I haven’t read this book yet, but the website Salon.com published an exerpt from the book dealing with religion. I want to share some observations…
The exerpt only seems a page or so from the book, it’s rather brief, but it seems to give the impression that Diamond has joined the ranks of the new-atheist army of intellectuals that tries to discredit religion as much as they can and by all means necessary.
The first thing that struck me was how naive Diamond’s description of religious belief is. In the first paragraph of the exerpt he only sums up phenomena that I would describe as “believe that”, i.e. forms of propositional beliefs. Is religious belief merely about “belief that so-and-so is the case”? It’s a stereotypical image of religious belief one finds with many atheists. That religions are what Wittgenstein would call forms of life is hardly ever expressed. Religious belief is an attitude towards existence in general. It may be that this attitude uses expressions that often seem to have a propositional ring to them, but to reduce religious belief to a mere set of propositional beliefs is ludicrous. One would expect a more nuanced view from someone with the reputation of Jared Diamond.
The second thing that struck me, and that in a sense underlines my previous observation, is that in the few lines that this exerpt comprises, Diamond seems to slide from using the term “religious beliefs” to using the term “religious superstitions”. As I said in my previous observation, using the term “religious beliefs” to denote religious belief in general seems to convey a reductive view on religion. However, to talk about religious beliefs as “superstitions” expresses an explicit deragotory view of religion. Again, I was hoping to find a more nuanced view from someone with the reputation of Jared Diamond.
It is truly astonishing as well as deeply sad to see that such intellectuals like Jared Diamond are prone to abandoning honest inquiry and description that belong to a proper scientific attitude as soon as religious belief is mentioned. But perhaps this inconsistency bordering on irrationality is what proves intellectuals to be human after all.