can’t see the forest

Well-adjusted Atheism and the Dialog with Theism Reconsidered

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Richard Dawkins (BBC)Prof. Richard Dawkins is a biologist, science popularizer, and advocate of atheism whose positions I tend to support and whose passion I deeply admire. His books, such as The God Delusion, sell quite well, and he can be seen in auditoriums and television studios the world over, patiently and persistently explaining—with more than a touch of righteousness, one feels—the truth of evolutionary theory and the perils of religious belief. I happen to share the Professor’s point of view that religious dogmas and mentalities have in practice been at least as aggregately destructive and divisive as benevolently useful, but there are some things about Dawkins’ approach, or at least what I take to be the most common interpretations of it, that I have always found troublesome. These points, I should stress, are not specific to Dawkins’ thought only, and are not meant as personal criticism. I bring them up because I think they are critical to understanding the nature of atheism and its relationships to science and religion, and I don’t believe they’re adequately developed in the work of Dr. Dawkins and others like him. My goals here are to help clear things up and for us all to get along peacefully, and that takes work. :-)

I know it hurts in a punch-to-the-gut way for some of us to subject ourselves to the voice of Bill O’Reilly for any reason, but take a look at this 5-minute interview with Richard Dawkins that happened on the O’Reilly Factor a couple of years ago. I’d like to use it as a starting point:

Notice Dawkins’ statement near the beginning of the interview that science keeps “piling on the understanding.” The implication here is that an individual adopts an atheist worldview as a result of scientific enlightenment leading to metaphysical revelation—almost invoking the idea of scientist as evangelist.

Now, it is certainly true that a systematic and rigorous understanding of nature, and of ourselves as part of it, does not support theism as fact and indeed presents copious factual evidence against a lot of the basic tenets of theist, creationist systems of metaphysics. But it does not follow that all the scientific knowledge in the world could necessarily compel a person to abandon his or her faith. Many prominent religious figures from various traditions, as Dawkins is always quick to point out, accept the theory of evolution in one version or another, even though it might speak unambiguously against certain aspects of the dogmas they represent.

The Tortoise and AchillesFor me, Dawkins is tilting at windmills in his quest to deconvert the faithful through an overwhelming preponderance of scientific data, and potentially alienating those who might benefit most from his message. First of all, you can’t confront real obstinacy with logic and language. Language just isn’t that powerful. Consider Lewis Carroll’s familiar dialog, ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,’ in which he demonstrates the futility of using reason to truly force a conclusion. If C is logically supposed to follow from A and B, a person who accepts both A and B as true can find, literally, infinitely many ways of casting into doubt the logical necessity of C. You can lead the mind to logic, but you can’t make it think, if you’ll excuse the poor humor.

The same point is delightfully demonstrated in this anecdote from atheistwiki:

Many years ago, when I was a Psychology student, we had a lecturer who told stories of his own early life as a young clinical psychologist. One story he told was of a psychotic patient who was under his care. This man was quite normal in other ways, but he believed that he (the patient) was dead. So one day my lecturer decided to try some cognitive therapy on him:

Lecturer: You think you’re dead, yes? Well, do dead people bleed?
Patient: No, of course not. How could they?
Lecturer: (Sticking a pin in him) Well, how about that?
Patient: Good God! That’s amazing! I was totally wrong! Dead people do bleed!

In the television interview above, O’Reilly doesn’t really “throw in with Jesus” because he is uncomfortable with the lack of the extent to which science has “figured it all out.” That is pretense, an attempt to take away Dawkins’ intellectual leverage, leverage which I think is probably misplaced to begin with. O’Reilly chooses the Cross at Calvary over the Hubble Space Telescope, so to speak, because of the former’s symbolic power and its central nature to the cognitive guidelines along which so many of his neurons are so steadfastly organized, regardless of the intellectual paradoxes and contradictions endemic to his faith. This subtext no doubt resonated powerfully among his viewership. Expressed in modified terms, it would have resonated powerfully among aboriginal Australians, whirling dervishes, or the tribes of the Amazon, and for much the same reasons.

People aren’t religious because they’re uneducated, inherently illogical, or don’t know anything about astrophysics. Isaac Newton was, after all, a deeply Christian man, and J.S. Bach is only one titanic example among numerous composers and artists whose emotionally compelling and intellectually formidable works were dedicated to the glory of God. No, people are religious because religious belief fills certain psychological—some would even say biological—needs, and serves social purposes deeply entrenched in human interactions with one another and the environment on a pan-cultural basis. This is why, even though I enthusiastically agree with Dawkins in many respects, I take issue with his pointed portrayal of religion as an illness or delusion which must be scientifically educated into oblivion.  I think such a goal is neither clearly profitable nor definitively wholesome. If anything, it seems only to fuel misconceptions, ill will, and defensiveness among believers.

As Joseph Campbell eloquently observes at the outset of Primitive Mythology, the first volume of his epic essay The Masks of God:

Every people has received its own seal and sign of supernatural designation, communicated to its heroes and daily proved in the lives and experience of its folk. And though many who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition rationally scrutinize and disqualify the sacraments of others, an honest comparison immediately reveals that all have been built from one fund of mythological motifs—variously selected, organized, interpreted, and ritualized, according to local need, but revered by every people on earth.

A fascinating psychological, as well as historical, problem is thus presented. Man, apparently, cannot maintain himself in the universe without belief in some arrangement of the general inheritance of myth. In fact, the fullness of his life would even seem to stand in a direct ratio to the depth and range not of his rational thought but of his local mythology.

NGC 6543 - Hubble imageAnother of my intellectual heroes, the astronomer and author Carl Sagan, once wrote hopefully of a coming time in which the joy of using science and reason to approach the wonders of nature might someday unify nations and cultures in contrast to the various ways in which myth-based approaches have helped to divide them throughout history. This is a noble aspiration, and one full of possibility—for science is at least as capable of building partnerships and enriching humanity as it is of constructing atomic bombs. But science cannot merely take the place of religion any more than one could suddenly impose the Qur’an on heartland America, and, in fact, the latter might be the more feasible possibility. This is because there is something about religious symbolism, ritual, and mystery that is fundamental to the human psyche, and this is, I believe, the main reason that well-meaning free thinkers such as Dawkins and Sagan have sometimes missed the mark in an important sense. As marvelously productive and existentially liberating as the Enlightenment might have been, European philosophers would be ill at ease in a primitive environment where the mystic wisdom of the shaman holds the keys to survival. It was probably not in search of a more rigorous understanding of the cosmos that the Great Pyramids were built, or the Mass in B minor composed.

Ernest Becker, the late anthropologist and psychologist whose writings continue to gain prominence in academia, wrote in The Birth and Death of Meaning an accurate and insightful account of the psycho-social machinery, some of it quite dark, served by religious belief. For example:

No religion gives any easy resolution to its central myth, by which I mean that ideal religion is not for compulsive believers. As psychoanalysis has taught us, religion, like any human aspiration, can also be automatic, reflexive, obsessive. … To believe that one has a higher reason to take human life, to feel that torture and murder are in the service of a divine cause is the kind of mandate that has always given sadists everywhere the purest fulfillment: they are free to remain on the level of the body, to pillage real flesh and blood creatures, to transact in lives in the service of the highest power. What a delight. … Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions …

Intellectual duality and contradiction lie at the heart of religion, and this has been understood since long before Galileo or Darwin. In Christian apologetics, the problem of theodicy—the existence of evil in the universe of a benevolent and omnipotent creator—has been a central problem for almost as long as Christianity has existed, and there were direct precedents and indirect analogs even before that. This fundamental basis in contradiction and resistance to an objective, rational reality is the crucial strength of religion, not its weakness, as many atheist proselytizers seem to believe. Through the embrace of contradiction, man lives an existence which is defined by his own terms and values, and is able to resolutely justify his actions amid the bloody, pulsating chaos of life, Tennyson’s “Nature red in tooth and claw,” according to an immutable and permanent scheme, which he can conveniently take to be the mandate of the highest and most perfect possible authority. If such a modus operandi is delusional in nature, it is also so deeply central to human cognition that even well-seasoned atheists can be caught invoking the name of God Almighty in moments of real trial or terror.

Celtic tree of lifeThe paradigm of learning via evidence-based thought is immensely powerful and has been astoundingly productive. Like Sagan and many others, I think there is real hope that it can transform humanity and bring people together to solve problems in which we all have a stake. In fact, it already has: consider the ways in which modern medicine is creating new possibilities in spite of the greed of corporations, and how the Internet is creating intercultural exchange on an unprecedented scale despite its role in porncasting. There is, I must profess, no sense in waiting on Jehovah to end hunger, disease, and divinely foster the sense of interconnectedness and interdependence that humankind needs in order to make good on its present situation, and viewing all the ills of the world as divine will to be bravely and humbly accepted is not an attractive solution to the miseries of real organisms, human or otherwise.

But well-adjusted atheists cannot expect to share their viewpoints as long as the strategy is to supplant religion and to bash ages-old and psychologically central beliefs with a club made of scientific theory, because religious belief is not a question of insufficient evidence to the contrary, and is far from a symptom of a faulty mind. Atheism is arrived at not through an understanding of facts, figures, and logical constructions. It arises from one’s consideration that religion may be a cultural phenomenon, the most basic kind of literature, one whose purpose is not entertainment or even instruction so much as the definition of who people are as individuals and as groups in ways that are fundamental to conscious organisms. The historical record combined with the illuminating discoveries of comparative mythology and psychoanalysis provide, for most, ample support of this conception.

For me, being an atheist is a profoundly empowering experience: it represents the ability to construct one’s worldview in the most pure, honest, vulnerable, and nobly independent sense, and the realization that man has always created his gods, by the hundreds and thousands, in man’s own image. It is empowering precisely because I arrived at it through my own volition. People can be either receptive or hostile to the suggestion, but in no case can they be won over to it. To subscribe to atheism is, I maintain, a process of exchanging one manmade contradiction—that of a perfect, divinely ordained order rife with brutality and strife—for another more constructive and intellectually challenging contradiction, that of rational, organizing man amid such beautiful probabilistic chaos. Such an exchange is the result of volition, not of compulsion, and should be treated accordingly. If atheists expect theists to listen with well-adjusted, open minds, we had better lead by a better example.

Perhaps Sir Francis Bacon said it best when he wrote: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” Scientific thought and achievement certainly conflict with the dogmatic nature of myth-based belief and ritual, but science is not a cure for religion and should not be treated as such. The two are sides of the same coin. Given sufficient time and room and even decently favorable conditions, man’s notion of spirituality will develop in its own way according to his experience of the world around him, just as it always has. And so, atheists and theists alike should move forward in conversation and not in aggravated opposition—a tall order to which we must rise if we are to survive long enough to see our development through.