One of the wonders – to me at least – of the internet is that it facilitates interesting conversation without being hindered by money (a key concern for those of us on pay-as-you-go tariffs!), distance, or time. And the internet, being open to all, is therefore a perfect forum for precisely those interesting conversations, and I love being part of them. So my thanks go to Cristian, a follower of this blog, who left the following comment, which stimulated the post that you are about to read:
You do not know me, but i have stumbled upon your blog and have followed it for a few months. To me it’s about what you wrote at the top but mostly about: reason, intelligence and religion. A combination that you don’t see that often.
I am writing because I would like to know your opinion about Richard Dawkins and particularly about his arguments in this movie
I do think it would make for quite an interesting post and I hope you will consider it. I am extremely curious about how a person who is simultaneously intelligent and religious views this matter, as I have not found any comments made by such a person until now.
I did hesitate before writing this, wondering if it made any sense at all, I hope in the end it did.
I encourage you to watch the video, for a couple of reasons: first of all, it’s very entertaining and informative in its own right; secondly, a lot of the post that follows is going to refer to it, and therefore it’s worth acquainting yourself with the arguments before I get into them.
Richard Dawkins, for the benefit of those few people left who do not know who he is, is a biologist and exponent of evolutionary biology. He coined the word ‘meme’ and was Oxford University’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 – 2008. He has sometimes been referred to as ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler’, and he – as you will know if you watched the above embedded video – is opposed to religion in all its forms (and particularly Christianity, though that is simply the biggest target in front of him in the UK and America).
Let me begin by saying this: Dawkins and I disagree on a number of crucial points – but there is a lot of common ground on which he and I are in agreement. Here are the things on which he and I agree:
#1. Intelligent Design is Creationism in disguise, and it is not science.
#2. In America there is a widespread and wholly insupportable prejudice against atheists.
#3. Science is enthralling and inspirational.
#4. Repeated simplicity gives rise to complexity.
#5. You do not require God to explain the complexity of the natural world (I have phrased this very carefully!)
#6. There ought not to be unchallengeable ideas at the core of a religion. There is always room for debate.
#7. An atheist is a person espousing a particular religious position. It has no bearing on their patriotism or citizenship.
#8. We are all atheists about most gods. I do not believe in Thor, Apollo or Shiva.
Meanwhile, here are the points on which Dawkins and I part company:
#1a. Science is inherently corrosive in its action on religious faith, and vice versa.
#2a. Christianity (as an example of a religious faith) or ‘The God Theory’ exists to answer the question of our origin.
#3a. “Hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought!'”
#4a. The religious imagination is ‘poverty-stricken’.
I think, to begin with, I should look at the points on which Dawkins and I are in agreement, and explain why this is the case. So let’s start with #1: “Intelligent Design is Creationism in disguise, and it is not science”.
This seems to be primarily a factor in American discussions on the origin of life, and it is of special relevance to Americans for two reasons. Firstly, because of the separation of Church and State, it is impossible to teach an overtly religious position in the classroom; secondly, the Fundamentalist movement, though not without its adherents elsewhere, is primarily an American Christian movement, and it is Fundamentalism, more than any other branch of the Christian faith, that preaches Creationism.
Because of the influence of the Christian church on American political life, particularly the best-funded and most vocal aspects of the church (such as the Fundamentalist movement), there is immense pressure on the educational system to incorporate religious beliefs into classroom curricula. Intelligent Design is one example; Abstinence Only is another. However, the American Constitution, because of its clear and unambiguous separation of Church and State, cannot permit such an influence to be realised, and so these religious positions are forced to adopt more legitimate (or legitimate-sounding) rationales for their inclusion. Abstinence Only (even though a meta-study of the scientific data has demonstrated that as an educational policy it doesn’t work) is incorporated as a matter of biological education and public health; Intelligent Design becomes an alternative scientific theory for the origin of the universe and humanity.
However, as this cartoon demonstrates, as a scientific theory, it lacks a certain rigour:
Throwing formulae and pseudo-scientific phraseology (‘irreducible complexity’, etc.) at a concept does not a scientific theory make. And that is before we get into the quagmire of literalism, and taking the Genesis account as entirely (and crucially) literally accurate.
The argument against there being literally six days taken to create the earth is older and more respectable than is often acknowledged. First of all, Christ had nothing to say on the matter. Six literal days avoids that divine endorsement. Secondly, if we reach back into church history, great theologians, such as Augustine, avoided a literal interpretation, explaining that the six days provided a logical framework rather than a description of the passage of time. (These beliefs, incidentally, were never condemned as heretical). It was much later that the idea of the Young Earth took hold, when Archbishop Ussher calculated that 4004 B.C. was the date of creation. He arrived at this conclusion by simply counting backwards through the genealogies mentioned in the Bible.
I don’t want to spend a huge amount of time on this, but I am, as a Christian, completely and utterly convinced that the Earth is older than 6,000 years. Geology tells us it is, Astronomy tells us it is, Cosmology tells us it is, Chemistry tells us it is, Paleontology tells us it is, and (my favourite, this one) Archeology tells us it is. The Sumerians had a flourishing civilisation 6,000 years ago, and we have the artefacts to prove it. Hence this hilarious article in The Onion. So let’s have no more on the young earth hypothesis. It’s nonsense.
I am also convinced that the literal interpretation of the six days is incorrect. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, the scientific evidence against it is too completely overwhelming. We know, from empirical data and research, roughly how and when the solar system was formed. We can date the earth itself because we know the half-lives of the isotopes in the rocks that form it. And we have dateable fossils of living things separated from us and each other by hundreds of millions of years. An argument proposed against this is that God planted the fossils to test our faith. I’m sorry, but that argument smacks of desperation to me. It only works if you ignore other, key Biblical teachings: namely, the (hugely important) idea that God is not capricious. Numbers 23:19 puts it “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?”. That God would use the physical structure of the planet on which we live to deceive us therefore contravenes what the Bible says about Him. “God,” said Einstein, neatly encapsulating the argument, “does not play dice with the Universe”.
I am neither a theologian nor a scientist, though I read around a fair amount on both topics. I am a student of English, and a student of stories, and I am particularly a student of how people convey difficult information to one another. As such, when I read the Genesis account of creation, I read it in a manner not dissimilar to the Revelation, as experienced by John on Patmos. It seems to me to be an attempt toward expression of a vision or a revelation monstrously complicated, mind-blowing in its implications and literally inconcievable for a single human being. I imagine the author of Genesis reeling away, clutching his head, crying out “what was that?“
Such a view is not necessarily popular within the Christian church. In fact it was precisely this perspective – the method of Biblical interpretation facilitated by Higher Criticism and then referred to as ‘Modernist’ – that led to the rise of Fundamentalism in the United States in the first place. (This was news to me, but it forms vital backround information in Edward L. Larson’s book on the 1925 Scopes trial, “Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s continuing debate over Science and Religion”). There were Five Fundamentals put forward as a result of the controversy and debate:
(a) The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore inerrant
(b) Christ was born of the virgin Mary
(c) Christ’s death is an atonement for sin
(d) Christ was bodily resurrected after His death
(e) Christ’s miracles were real, historical happenings
It is the first of these, concerning the inerrancy of Scripture, that caused the problems. According to the Fundamentalists, if the Bible is inerrant then it follows that everything within it is literally true. I’m sorry, but that argument seems to me fundamentally invalidated by the existence of the Parables. In other words, there are bits of the Bible that we know not to take literally. And with the greatest respect to Vicki Dillen and others of her ilk, if there are bits of the Bible that can be demonstrated not to be literally true, insisting that the Universe is wrong and your particular interpretation is right is not a particularly tenable position…
Allow me to pre-empt the argument that God ‘destroys the wisdom of the wise’ (1 Corinthians 1:19) that is sometimes advanced under these circumstances. It is invalid on two counts. Firstly, wisdom is subjective. It consists of applying a morality to knowledge. Knowledge itself, on the other hand, is objective: things are either known or they are not, and if they are known, they are known because they are demonstrable. If God destroys wisdom He destroys a particular moral position, not an understanding of the physical structure of the universe. Secondly, and not unrelatedly, the verse is taken out of context when it is used under circumstances such as these. The passage in question concerns other soteriological systems (particularly those of the Jews and the Greeks) and explains that Christ’s actions are a refutation of them, a destruction of their apparent wisdom. So let’s not have anyone explaining that despite the overwhelming evidence of a 4.5 billion-year-old earth upon which life appeared over a very long period, that this is ‘merely the wisdom of scientists, and God will destroy it’. No part of that defence, which I have heard before and am keen to finally put to bed, is accurate or valid (This is a particularly good example, which commits among others the sin of cherry-picking the evidence, but there are hundreds if not thousands of similar sites that Google can connect you to). So let’s move on.
Dawkins’s second and third points with which I am in agreement – the idea that in the US there is a war on atheists, and that science is, in and of itself, a beautiful thing – are not unconnected. The weblink above provides a reason why. On that site (which, judging by it’s page on ‘What we believe‘, appears to be a fairly conventional conservative fundamental Christian website, albeit one in South Africa rather than the USA) it asserts that
If evolution is true then there is no right or wrong and no Creator to whom we are accountable. This attitude influences every area of life. For instance, since evolution teaches that man is nothing more than an impressive mammal, sexual behaviour has become increasingly predatory and bestial. It is quite consistent for the humanist (for whom evolution is the foundation of all he believes) to accept that sexual practices among humans can be as varied as they are among animals. Thus, sex outside of marriage and homosexuality must of necessity be accepted as alternative lifestyles; abortion is simply the “survival of the fittest”; there is nothing to prevent paedophilia becoming an accepted lifestyle.
Comments like these really and genuinely make me angry. (They make Richard Dawkins angry too, incidentally). They make me angry because they are based on such false premises. First of all, evolution has nothing to do with the existence of God. One does not invalidate the existence of the other. The Universe (which I do, incidentally, believe God made – this question of origins is for me, ultimately, a question of mechanisms rather than sources) and my understanding of it can accommodate both. But the idea that evolution destroys ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is ludicrous. Right and wrong are not arbitrary. Evolution doesn’t say that they are. Evolution actually supports the existence and social relevence of right and wrong, in that people who do right more often are more attractive potential partners and thus more likely to find a sexual partner and reproduce. For instance, this study (also conducted in South Africa) found that
Encouraging young people to be protective and caring towards mothers, role models to younger siblings, ‘right’ friends to each other and to nurture values that arise out of close relationships (such as selflessness and a desire to be a better person for their partners) presents an unexplored opportunity for moral education that builds on young people’s understandings of positive influences in their lives.
The comment from CFT also betrays an ignorance of human behaviour. If learning about evolution is responsible for increasingly predatory sexual behaviour, then we would expect to see a corresponding and unprecedented change in sexual behaviour since about 1860 (Darwin having published his On the Origin of the Species in 1859). However, there are no such data. In fact we find that in the 1700s public consumption of pornography and erotica was far more socially acceptable than today, and Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice by Clint E. Bruess and Jerrold S. Greenburg explains that
Reiss (1973) informs us that, in the late 1700s in Massachusetts, one in three women in a particular church confessed fornication to her minister (the actual figure was probably higher still). The western frontier relied heavily on prostitution.
So much for a revolution of sexual behaviours. (I will accept that there was a revolution in the way in which sexual behaviours were discussed, and I will accept there have been sexual revolutions, mostly either to do with the invention of effective contraceptives – the condom in 1876 and the Pill in 1961 – or modes of transport that enabled a widening of the gene pool – the introduction of the bicycle probably saved East Anglia from a population implosion. But neither of these seems to have anything to do with evolution). Actually, the unchanging nature of ‘man’s baser attitudes and desires’, to quote a particularly apposite phrase, is not so much an argument against evolution as it is an argument for the existence of original sin.
Other aspects of CFT’s comment make equally little sense. Abortion has nothing to do with the ‘survival of the fittest’. And paedophilia cannot be encouraged by evolutionary thinking – quite apart from the moral outrage it (quite rightly) provokes, it is not an effective reproductive strategy. Homosexuality is an even less effective reproductive strategy again. The comment, which serves as a useful example of ‘the war on atheism’, seems fundamentally misguided, in that the offence taken by the religious requires a huge number of unwarranted and phobic assumptions. I have several theories on why this might be the case, but they shall have to wait until a later part of this discussion. I think 2,700 words on the subject are more than enough for one post!
So let’s conclude – temporarily – with a moment of Zen for today: