These fundamentalists crusade against religion, and they call others delusional
I briefly saw Richard Dawkins on BBC News this morning, talking about his favorite subject these days: The God Delusion, his book on why we must abolish religion. I didn’t listen long-I’ll explain why in a moment-
but I did notice that for a change he was pontificating in a suit and tie, looking very much the well-fed burgher as he went about his business of épater-ing le bourgeois.
Having sold millions of books, he can afford a nice suit, and be well fed too-and I never have begrudged him a single mouthful. I’ve read several of his previous books, even taught from one of them, and they are just marvelous. Which makes me wonder all the more: why did he have to drop his true métier of doing and explicating science and make this ill-considered foray into pop philosophy and politics?
I wouldn’t be so unkind were unkindness not a Dawkins specialty. I’ve read The God Delusion, and it is really bad. It’s not that I think God, or any of his or her representatives, is the light and the way. In fact, like Dawkins, I’m on the Celebrity Atheist List. It’s just that I’m soft on religion.
By Dawkins’ standards, that is. And those of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, the four horsemen of the anti-religious apocalypse that hit the best-seller lists in the past few years. Unfortunately, I’ve had to read all their diatribes, because I became involved in this spat in 2006 when I gave a presentation at a Salk Institute conference called “Beyond Belief.”
The meeting was thoroughly dominated by Dawkins and Harris, and there was a long letter from Dennett, who was ill. By the time I finally got to the podium, I had scrapped my intended talk and just gave a systematic reply to them. You can watch my presentation, the little debate afterwards, and in fact the whole meeting if you have the patience for it, by clicking here.
But the best summary of what I believe was delivered from the audience in less than two minutes by Francisco Ayala, the great evolutionary biologist who early in life was a Jesuit priest:
“We cannot ignore religion…There are six billion people in the world, and if we feel that we are going to persuade them to lead a rational life, based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming…it’s such an illusion, it would be like believing in the fairy godmother or something like that. People need to find meaning and purpose in life…and they find meaning and purpose in religion. Now, religion comes to them in the form of, you can call it indoctrination, it can be education in the family and otherwise in the schools, but this allows billions of people in the world to live a life which makes sense. They can put up with the difficulties of life, with the hunger and disease and the like, and I think you don’t want to take that away from them.”
All of the four anti-religious fundamentalists spend much of their ink on the evil done in the name of religion. I concede them every inch of this territory. The thing is, two of them are scientists (Dawkins and Harris) and one a distinguished philosopher (Dennett). We can write Hitchens off as an entertaining pundit who is not supposed to be objective. But the other three have more responsibility.
Let’s say you want to have an objective answer to a scientific-in this case social science-question: say, Does religion do more harm than good? Well, you would presumably tote up all the harm it does, and then tote up all the good it does, and try to find a method of weighing them against each other.
Now, these authors are great on the evil side-you can find out that very bad things get done in God’s name. So in case you didn’t take history in high school and never watch the news, you will find this part of their work very informative. But what you won’t find is even the slightest attempt to find out anything good that religion might do.
That’s not science or even philosophy-it’s just four arrogant men’s opinions. The three of them who sit on the very high horses of science and philosophy also spend a lot of time and paper proving that religion is not scientific–as if any person of faith ever thought it was.
In fact, they have completely missed what faith is: believing in something for which there is no scientific evidence. Their ignorance of religion-I’m talking about the psychology and social science of religion, not just the theology-is breathtaking. But that hasn’t slowed them down one little bit.
(More on this entertaining debate in future blogs.)