Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Make the most of it

Watched the second part of Root of all Evil? last night. The Doctor arrived just in time for the chimps, and quickly ran away again.

There's an unbearable smugness about evangelical atheists, which I'm conscious of if myself. And I know Dawkins is constantly criticised for the same.

It's difficult, then, to know whether his programme impressed me for preaching to the choir. It seemed, quite fairly, to argue against "demonstrable falsehoods" and how they muddy our lives. There was good evidence of the downright pessimism of religion - that we can only behave ourselves if we live in fear of God.

While there was much made of the gays and abortionists going to Hell, it's not Jesus who talked of damnation. No, Hel was a Viking (thus pagan) god, part of their brutal, pillaging "morality".

The punishment of the wicked by some authoritarian power speaks of huge inadequacy - the equivalent of an child wailing, "I'm telling mum". We should do what's right because we should do what's right, not because some invisible Bogey Man will get us in the end.

The Dr points out that of course many Christians refute the idea of Hell. And, answering her criticism of the first episode, Dawkins did interview a moderate. While Dawkins found the Bishop of Oxford's arguments for tolerance and calm were "music to my ears", he then refuted the man for fence-sitting, for picking and choosing which bits of the Good Book to hold dear.

The need for the Bible to be literally true also speaks of inadequacy. Jesus taught by telling stories, so there's no reason at all the good book can't still hold moral worth while not being right about dinosaurs.

I always thought Jesus was a far more impressive figure without the God stuff. As the perfect son of an omniscient God, part of a divine trinity and blessed with special powers, he's amazing. But because he's got special powers, what he does isn't special.

As just a bloke who stood up to authority and said, "You could be nicer..." he's incredible. And imitable. He was the bastard son of a lowly carpenter, and look what he achieved... I note Dawkins quickly glossed over the not-easy-to-argue-with teaching of Jesus in favour of a pop at St Paul.

At the end, Dawkins was good on dealing with the real world and not seeing it as a test-run for the real thing. There's sheer wonder in what we do know - the hugeness of statistical probability against our very existence, the vastness of the universe, the complexity in the detail.

Yet, he's also keen to admit what we don't know, what we can't prove, what we haven't worked out yet. Which contrasts with the "easy truths" of religion: again that resolute need for certainty speaks of inadequacy. Like people who can't admit when they're lost.

And I couldn't help feeling that by exploring the world as it's given to us, striving never to bear false witness, to pursue truth and morality whatever the received wisdom from the leaders of church and state... Well, Dawkins is probably doing God proud.

7 comments:

Liadnan said...

While Dawkins found the Bishop of Oxford's arguments for tolerance and calm were "music to my ears", he then refuted the man for fence-sitting, for picking and choosing which bits of the Good Book to hold dear

I always find this kind of argument daft. Dawkins seems to be first telling the good bishop precisely what the right way is to interpret a text which as any fule kno is open to a variety of interpretations is (in fact, a mixture of texts, some of which, such as Job, is quite clearly a "moral tale"), and then proceeding to say that those (such as the bish) who do not agree with his interpretation of the text are, err, wrong, while those who do are, by definition, deluded maniacs, he having previously determined that the correct interpretation is a deluded maniacs one. The bishop is not "picking which bits of the book" he will hold dear, he is picking his interpretation of the whole and its many parts, a right Dawkins is, on questionable authority and logic, denying him.

0tralala said...

Hmm... With the utmost respect, of course, I think there are two separate points here.

1. Dawkins asked the Bish about the morality in the Good Book - the stuff about sexuality, for example. The Bish responded that the Good Book was written in harsher times, and I think your case of his "interpreting from the whole" would stand there.

2. Dawkins then asked about the more supernatural elements of Jesus' life. The Bish replied that he definitely believed in the resurrection, but was less devout about the virgin birth. And it was to that that Dawkins responded he was conveniently picking the bits he wanted to believe in.

Liadnan said...

I don't remotely see 2 as a problem either. Unless one sees Luke and Matthew as not only inspired by God but to be taken literally in every detail, (which is self-evidently daft as the Gospels frequently conflict on detail) then one can see the virgin birth as simply a pleasant story with some moral overtones. It isn't fundamental to Christianity. By contrast, the resurrection, and the incarnation (subject to argument about what precisely the incarnation involved, I don't see any reason why the notion of god becoming man should be dependent on the virgin birth) is, or at least, it is doubtful whether calling someone who denies it a Christian leaves the term remotely useful.

Dawkins point only makes sense if he defines "the religion" as everything said in the bible, taken literally, and not qualified by anything else. From the point of view not only of the majority of Christians -catholic, orthodox, monophysite, nestorian, arian if there are any left, and at least the anglo-catholic wing of the anglicans/episcopalians- but in the eyes of an awful lot of practicing jews, for a very long time, that simply isn't what "the religion" is, it's always been a matter of interpretation. It's implicit in what the religion is that you have to interpret (hence the catholic emphasis on the equal importance of tradition, and on the continuing role of the holy spirit in the church).

Dawkin's point only stands if he gets to define what "the religion" is first, only then can he accuse people of picking and choosing from it. And he seems to have defined it as biblical literalism, to which the vast majority of Christians haven't subscribed since St Augustine at least.

His tagline about the evil caused by religion equally seems to reflect a remarkably simplistic view of human history as well. He seems to assume that if religion is a declared motive for, for instance, a war, it is the underlying cause. Which is more than a little debateable in almost every case of which I can think bar, possibly, the First Crusade (certainly in the case of all the ensuing ones). "For good people to do evil it takes religion". So the world is divided into good people and evil people and their motives are simply analysed are they? I have serious difficulty with that.

Anonymous said...

Psychonomy says:

that resolute need for certainty speaks of inadequacy. Like people who can't admit when they're lost.

Quite. As I've said, I don't have a problem with people who elect to behave as though 'God' (or whatever) doesn't exist because there's not enough evidence. I'm one of them myself. There is a differnce, however, between choosing that as a way to live one's life, and insisting that 'God' (or whatever) absolutely does not exist.

Dawkins has the good grace to admit that he is technically a "teapot agnostic" - which is my disagreement with him pretty much done away with at a stroke. There *are* evangelical atheists, however, who do not adopt such a rational approach - fundamentalists every bit as bad as their self-appointed pastors preaching their ignorance and hatred which Dawkins, in the main, used to represent religious ideologies (which was in one sense fair enough, but a bit fish in a barrel).

So the central, for me, debate - the *interesting* debate - is still to be had: not so much whether organised religion as a cultural meme is a bad and bonkers idea (clue: yes), but whether there is anything that can fill the 21st century's increasingly obvious God-shaped hole in a rationally argued manner.

(Originally posted to the LJ feed.)

0tralala said...

Liadnan: “Dawkins point only makes sense if he defines ‘the religion’ as everything said in the bible, taken literally, and not qualified by anything else.”

Hmm. I’m not sure that’s necessarily what he said. His argument is based on demonstrable falsehoods and evidence, which is his (and most scientists’) approach to any proposition.

He doesn’t say all religion is Biblical literalism. That’s merely where he begins.

He makes pretty short work of the “it’s all historical fact” line. Geology, the dinosaurs, astronomy, archaeology, carbon-dating and whatever else you care to mention provide a huge and compelling evidence base against the version of geological history as given in the book.

From that, he undermines the authority - and thereby the abhorrent morality - of the “it’s all historical fact” camp.

The Bish does not, though, share that opinion, and makes a case that some things are to be believed in, and some things are not. And Dawkins sympathises with many of things the Bish says.

As you say, Liadnan, it’s about assessment. Yet that assessment is not evidence-based, so – if I understand Dawkins’s argument correctly - it’s essentially just conjecture. It does not hold up to the scrutiny put to scientific statements about the universe and our place in it.

There’s a bit in A Devil’s Chaplain where a scientist explains to a journalist that he’s not sure what his research will show. “But what’s your gut feeling?” asks the journalist.

The scientist replies: “I try not to think with my gut.”

So, as Dawkins puts it, there’s no evidence for the resurrection, nor for the virgin birth. So why believe in one supernatural conjuring and not another?

Ah, that is what faith is, goes the argument. You need to believe in the resurrection to be a Christian. Otherwise... well, what's the point?

But that seems, as Dawkins says, to be fence-sitting: “I’m a moderate because I only believe in the more palatable bits.”

There is a problem – one I found myself – that if you start unpicking bits of the Bible as evidently untrue, more of it starts to unravel. That’s hugely unsettling for anyone with faith – wherever you end up as a result. And something those who’ve never believed don’t often appreciate.

It might also explain the need for it all to be true, and some people's fear of this kind of scrutiny.

“For good people to do evil it takes religion". So the world is divided into good people and evil people and their motives are simply analysed are they? I have serious difficulty with that.

Yes, me too, granted.

Despite the crassness of the generalisation - a soundbite, not an argument - I think he may be on to something, but it’s not merely organised religion. It’s belief despite a weight of evidence to the contrary.

Money, for example, is a belief system. Our economy is based on the Bank of England deciding that 2+2=8, and our convincing us that we'll get our cut.

(Now, of course, the economy’s not tied to the gold standard, which (if I get this right) means 2+2>8.)

There are other examples of belief systems: Colin Powell’s address to the UN Security Council, for example, talks many times of the “accumulation of facts” – “facts” we now know to be false.

Yes, I appreciate that his response (for example on Newsnight earlier this week) is that his conclusions were based on the best evidence available at the time…

But a fact isn't a fact if it can be shown to be wrong. That's Dawkins's point.

And then from Psychonomy:

“…whether there is anything that can fill the 21st century's increasingly obvious God-shaped hole in a rationally argued manner.”

Hmm. Glib response: I think the answer is the same as to “Who delivers the Christmas presents if Santa Claus doesn’t exist?”

A. The grown ups have to.

Less glib response: this is going to get into the HOW do things happen and WHY do things happen discussion we’ve had before. I have some notes on this I will write up as a separate post soon.

psychonomy said...

Glib response: I think the answer is the same as to “Who delivers the Christmas presents if Santa Claus doesn’t exist?”

A. The grown ups have to.


A small debate has now emerged on Bugs, in which I posted:

"My [...] point being that self-awareness in human beings is, from first principles, something which will lead humans to question not just the physical nature of the universe, but the nature of existence (being a broader thing) itself. Some people - chavs, for example - may not be self-aware; but for everyone else, I would argue that the problem of existence *is* something that people need to address, and they very often do that through belief."

That's not to say that religious belief is a *good* response, mind, but it's illustrative of one of the reasons that religions develop and thrive. Until those advocating a reductionist, fundamentally materialist, agenda address this problem, they're always going to be frustrated - which is why I, in turn, was frustrated that Dawkins did not address it.

Of course, the materialist response is that there *is* no 'why' - no 'meaning of [or to] life' - and that stuff just happens. That doesn't help their cause either, because it serves to mark them out as either rather stupid for not considering what is, to many, the self-evident problem of existence, or simply disingenuous for ducking the issue through maintaining that, like Santa Claus, it doesn't exist.

Personally, I suspect the whole debate will ultimately turn out to be a whopping great misunderstanding - a difference of perspective rather than any fundamental distinction in philosophy. Religion, of course, is so embedded in our culture and language that it only serves to make sorting out the tangle of ideas that much more difficult.

0tralala said...

"Of course, the materialist response is that there *is* no 'why' - no 'meaning of [or to] life' - and that stuff just happens. That doesn't help their cause either, because it serves to mark them out as either rather stupid for not considering what is, to many, the self-evident problem of existence, or simply disingenuous for ducking the issue through maintaining that, like Santa Claus, it doesn't exist."

You'll be amazed to discover that I don't agree with this, and have written a new post about why.