Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Step Too Far.

God of the atheists, Richard Dawkins

THUS SPAKE THE BEAGLE... It's understandable that a significant number of scientists would become atheists. The scientific method that rules their professional lives insists that they must concern themselves only with phenomena which can be measured. It's not much of a leap from there to believing that what cannot be measured does not exist. The concept of the divine, being a concept, cannot be measured. Therefore, the scientific mind can easily conclude that the divine does not exist or is irrelevant even if it does.

Those who observe that there is much which cannot be measured but which also obviously exists -- e.g., the human imagination -- may disagree with such a conclusion, but there is no particular need to condemn it out of hand. It is a consequence of the practical utility of creating specialists, which is accomplished by establishing within individuals a frame-of-reference so focused in a particular direction that it may amputate or truncate other perspectives. We have athletes who know or care nothing about anything but sports or even their own sport. We have artists who come to believe that all the experience in their ken is nothing but fuel for their work. We have mothers who dote so completely on their own children that they do not accept the primacy of any human value outside that bond. We have ideologues of every description -- political, philosophical, and, yes, religious -- who behold the panorama of life and see in it only an allegory of the concepts they hold most dear.

Specialist viewpoints of this sort become dangerous when they reach the level of certainty that moves them to insist that all other viewpoints must be brought into conformance with their own. This is the step too far which almost always precipitates death and disaster for everyone involved. This is a step the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has recently taken by condemning all religion and promoting in its place a philosophy of atheism characterized by such hostile provocations as The Blasphemy Challenge. (see their major product here.)

In case you're not familiar with it, here's a brief introduction of the challenge via YouTube.

The rationale of Richard Dawkins for supporting this kind of cultural flamethrowing is summarized in an interview he gave to Salon magazine back in April 2005. Here are some representative quotes:

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains why God is a delusion, religion is a virus, and America has slipped back into the Dark Ages.

Q... so many people resist believing in evolution. Where does the resistance come from?

A. It comes, I'm sorry to say, from religion. And from bad religion. You won't find any opposition to the idea of evolution among sophisticated, educated theologians. It comes from an exceedingly retarded, primitive version of religion, which unfortunately is at present undergoing an epidemic in the United States. Not in Europe, not in Britain, but in the United States.

My American friends tell me that you are slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age. Which is very disagreeable for the very large number of educated, intelligent and right-thinking people in America. Unfortunately, at present, it's slightly outnumbered by the ignorant, uneducated people who voted Bush in...

Q. ...why do we insist on believing in God?

A. From a biological point of view, there are lots of different theories about why we have this extraordinary predisposition to believe in supernatural things. One suggestion is that the child mind is, for very good Darwinian reasons, susceptible to infection the same way a computer is. In order to be useful, a computer has to be programmable, to obey whatever it's told to do. That automatically makes it vulnerable to computer viruses, which are programs that say, "Spread me, copy me, pass me on." Once a viral program gets started, there is nothing to stop it.

Similarly, the child brain is preprogrammed by natural selection to obey and believe what parents and other adults tell it. In general, it's a good thing that child brains should be susceptible to being taught what to do and what to believe by adults. But this necessarily carries the down side that bad ideas, useless ideas, waste of time ideas like rain dances and other religious customs, will also be passed down the generations...

Q. What are... negative connotations [of "The God Delusion]?

A. A delusion that encourages belief where there is no evidence is asking for trouble. Disagreements between incompatible beliefs cannot be settled by reasoned argument because reasoned argument is drummed out of those trained in religion from the cradle. Instead, disagreements are settled by other means which, in extreme cases, inevitably become violent. Scientists disagree among themselves but they never fight over their disagreements. They argue about evidence or go out and seek new evidence. Much the same is true of philosophers, historians and literary critics.

But you don't do that if you just know your holy book is the God-written truth and the other guy knows that his incompatible scripture is too. People brought up to believe in faith and private revelation cannot be persuaded by evidence to change their minds. No wonder religious zealots throughout history have resorted to torture and execution, to crusades and jihads, to holy wars and purges and pogroms, to the Inquisition and the burning of witches.

Q. What are the dark sides of religion today?

A. Terrorism in the Middle East, militant Zionism, 9/11, the Northern Ireland "troubles," genocide, which turns out to be "credicide" in Yugoslavia, the subversion of American science education, oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Roman Catholic Church, which thinks you can't be a valid priest without testicles.

Q. How would we be better off without religion?

A. We'd all be freed to concentrate on the only life we are ever going to have. We'd be free to exult in the privilege -- the remarkable good fortune -- that each one of us enjoys through having been being born. An astronomically overwhelming majority of the people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose number came up. Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one. The world would be a better place if we all had this positive attitude to life. It would also be a better place if morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them, rather than religion's morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment.

In his intro, the interviewer noted that Dawkins had recently "signed an agreement with British television to make a documentary about the destructive role of religion in modern history, tentatively titled 'The Root of All Evil.'" He also commented that during the interview Dawkins, though famously argumentative, "was as gracious as he was punctiliously dressed in a crisp white shirt and soft blazer."

No wonder the scientist was gracious. The interviewer challenged him on nothing. He failed, for example, to ask the single most obvious question one could ask of a man who describes religion as "the root of all evil" and claims that "the world would be a better place" without it: Dr. Dawkins, hasn't this experiment already been tried repeatedly over the past century with expressly rational and atheistic social organizations in Eastern Europe, China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Latin America? Hasn't it resulted in an aggregate death toll that makes the Spanish Inquisition look like a walk in the park?

Or: What possible basis can you have for proclaiming that only people concerned with religion and the divine "cannot be persuaded by evidence to change their minds"? Isn't this true of all entrenched systems of thought, including your own discipline of science?

Of course, there is no evidence that could make Richard Dawkins change his mind about the ideas he is espousing. His blind spot is his own certainty that his personal model of the world is absolutely correct. All his arguments are immune from criticism only to the extent that he gets to define what constitutes "evidence." Thus, he would probably discount the horrifying murder rate of Marxism because its professed rationality doesn't measure up to his own standards of rationality. For the same reason, he cannot see that much of what is to him evidence of what is "better" or "worse" in the human condition is mere partisan political opinion, however derivatively related to the perfect rationality he (thinks he) sees in his Oxford laboratory.

Most of all he cannot see that his own perspective represents a greater ultimate danger than all the religions in human history put together, for the same reason that Communist governments around the world calmly and systematically annihiliated millions of their own citizens in the name of engineering a "better" human social contract. Why is that? Because they lacked the one consistent principle which unites and redeems all major religions -- the belief in a power beyond men to which all men are eventually accountable, no matter how august and mighty. This is the great restraining power inherent in religion that -- while admittedly tolerating much abuse and injustice -- can prevent or end the excesses of kings, emperors, priests, and other tyrants. For the self-anointed gods of atheistic rationalism there is no such thing as punishment and neither the fear nor the humility that can cause the most arrogant among us to question their own certainties.

If we allowed him to, Dawkins would no doubt be happy to impose his certainties on our societies, to remake our laws and child-rearing schemes in his own image. He admits of no supreme entity capable of refuting his logic. All he lacks is the power to set things right.

We've been down that road a time or two in the past hundred years. We don't need human gods; they inevitably fail. (What kind of "evidence" might this be?) His inability to see the danger his own arrogance represents is all the proof we need that his diagnoses of the human condition are wrong.

He needs to take a step back. Out of the arena of politics. Into the realm of philosophy, where he properly and safely belongs.

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