Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Certainty of Dawkinsism

Richard Dawkins’ views on religion are almost exactly as unapologetic and sure as mine were when I was 17 (and 21, and 26), and in this interview on Salon, he doesn’t pull any punches in defining them:
Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.
Faced with a fundamentalist monotheist today, I’d say pretty much the same thing, being essentially, still, an atheist. But Dawkins also says this in the interview, when asked if his atheism stemmed from intellectual problems with religion:
Yes, purely intellectually. I was never much bothered about moral questions like, how could there be a good God when there's so much evil in the world? For me, it was always an intellectual thing. I wanted to know the explanation for the existence of all things. I was particularly fascinated by living things. And when I discovered the Darwinian explanation, which is so stunningly elegant and powerful, I realized that you really don't need any kind of supernatural force to explain it.
I’ve never understood this notion that evidence refuting some specific explanatory element of one specific religion’s dogma somehow eliminates the individual need to grapple with larger spiritually philosophical issues. Maybe it’s because, looking back, even as a child I instinctively thought religion was at least partly metaphorical (not a popular stance with zealots, I know). As a non-believer, I suppose this only matters in a thought-experiment kind of way, but I for one don’t find that the truth of biological evolution, which I accept, does a single thing to assuage my curiosity about the broader existential issues raised by, in no particular order: the complexities of human consciousness, the beginnings of the universe, and basically any issue on which I don’t trust that Richard Dawkins has every scrap of information that I need.

(This reminds me of an absolutely classic Dave Chappelle stand-up moment, when he’s dissecting the cult of celebrity and says that MTV was interviewing rapper Ja Rule in the days after 9/11. Chappelle recalls his reaction: “Who gives a f*** what Ja Rule thinks at a time like this? I don't wanna dance, I'm scared to death. I want some answers that Ja Rule might not have right now.” Well, there are times when I’m looking for answers that Richard Dawkins might not have -- and I’m a hardcore agnostic when I’m not feeling like an atheist. I can only imagine that Dawkins’ stridency isn’t going to win over many people who actually believe.)

Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion, is stirring up some strong feelings. Norman Geras, another non-believer (if I may call him that; I think I can) recently posted about Terry Eagleton’s take in the London Review of Books. I share Norm’s feeling when he says: “Not that I agree with all of what Terry says, but some of it is spot on.” Here’s some of it:
Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.


Such is Dawkins's unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false. The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history -- and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry.
I think there’s relevance in this last point. It's obvious that far too many people -- many of them consistently making headlines for the past few years -- attach their worst, most ignorant and violent impulses to religion. They act badly under the cover of their faith. But as one Salon reader responding to the Dawkins interview put it:
I enjoy Dawkins ... but the one thing I can never get past, in him or thousands of others who haven't nearly his acuity, is the notion that religion causes bad stuff, like war and violence. I'm the farthest thing from an evolutionary biologist (my doctorate's in the humanities, so what would I know about people, right?), but even I can see this: The impulses and tendencies that have caused people to kill in the name of one deity or another for millennia are much, much more deeply-rooted than any given sect could ever hope to be. We fight and kill for land; we fight and kill for power; we fight and kill for resources; we fight and kill because we're human. It doesn't matter what patina of cause we put on it. It's something that, under certain circumstances--or sometimes for no discernible "reason" at all--we do. If getting rid of concepts of God could get rid of this . . . if only, as the saying goes, it were that easy.
If it’s true -- and mystifying, to me -- that people are deeply influenced by religion in negative ways, it’s equally true (and mystifying) that others access their best natures through the same inspiration. It might not be true that every soup-kitchen worker who ladles in the name of the lord, or every criminal who corrects his path to please Jesus, or every family that adopts disadvantaged children because of religious impulses would turn into an unmotivated, uncaring couch potato or recidivist criminal if the convincing notion of God disappeared from their minds, but I’m unwilling to just cast out the many good results that come from religion. And I’m unwilling not because of my own beliefs -- I find the notion of explanatory religions silly, and their certain, detailed stories completely uninspiring and even at odds with the idea of spiritual mystery and “faith” -- but just because it’s fair. If, when debating, I’m going to use the evils abetted by religion -- which I do, and fairly often -- it would be stacking the deck if I ignored the good done in its name.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

JMW, are you a biologist?

8:42 AM  

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