Friday, April 06, 2007

E. J. Dionne, Jr. on atheism

E. J. Dionne, Jr., wrote a somewhat interesting article about the so-called "neo-atheist" movement. He describes the movement as a reaction against modern religious fundamentalism, and somewhat a re-kindling of the post-Age of Reason religious skeptics of the late 19th and early 20th century ("Answers To the Atheists," April 6, 2007).

The article begins:
This weekend, many of the world's estimated 2 billion Christians will remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

While some Christians harbor doubts about Christ's actual physical resurrection, hundreds of millions believe devoutly that Jesus died and rose, thus redeeming a fallen world from sin.

Are these people a threat to reason and even freedom?
No, they often are not. And not very many people think they categorically are. The problem with Christians, as with any other massive, wide-ranging group, are the ones that are batshit nuts. Here in the United States of America, we have a lot of those. A hell of a lot. Elsewhere, there are other Christians who are batshit nuts to the point of crucifying themselves. And then there are groups that are just plain strange (I include the Catholics and Mormons in this category).

Oh well. No problem. Religous freedom, right? Yep! So, why did Dionne ask if devout Christians are a threat to reason and freedom? Well, apparently, somebody made what sounded like a categorical statement that they were:
It's a question that arises from a new vogue for what you might call neo-atheism. The new atheists -- the best known are writers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins -- insist, as Harris puts it, that "certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one." That's why they think a belief in salvation through faith in God, no matter the religious tradition, is dangerous to an open society.
What if the believer just believes that he'll get salvation? He may not be certain. And I don't think all religious people are so certain.

Belief and faith, to me, are two forms of uncertainty anyway. That's the primary reason I call myself an atheist. I don't believe in God, and I don't have faith in God or any particular religion claiming to speak for God. On the other hand, I don't believe there is no God. I withhold judgment on the question of God due to lack of evidence. My atheism, personally, is rooted in the technical meaning of the term: a- (greek root for negating something) and theism (belief in the existence of God or gods). Other atheists will categorically state that there is no God, which strikes me as just as silly as saying there is a God.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who not only believe there is a God, but that this God (usually referred to with the proper pronoun "He") actually speaks to them. These people are often certain because they actually hear God's voice in their heads. I have a hard time not thinking these people don't belong in Bellevue, personally (okay, I'm being a little ironic here—a little).

On the other hand, Dionne brings up a good point here (inadvertently). What believers are the most dangerous ones? The certain ones or the uncertain ones? In fact, it may well be the uncertain ones who are the most threatening. These people are more likely to be insecure in their belief systems, often hold political power, and often exercise their political power at the expense of others. The United States Republican Party is crawling with these types of people. There isn't any reason to try to institutionalize your religion and impose it on others if you're at least pretty sure you're right—or at least secure enough in your beliefs to accept that you might be wrong, and are respectful of people who might draw alternative conclusions.

Then again, I don't have access to the thoughts of believers who exercise power at the expense of others. Sometimes, however, I'm convinced their very sure about their beliefs. That doesn't mean they're not insecure (intolerance of innocuous beliefs or lack of beliefs—and I hold lack of belief in God in and of itself to be innocuous—seems like a form of insecurity to me). However, it's hard to think that these people are uncertain sometimes. Fred Phelps and his family/church are so certain that God utterly hates homosexuals that they're willing to go to remarkable lengths to tell everybody. What reason do I have to believe that Fred Phelps isn't certain? He's certainly wrong (even if God exists, why would God hate homosexuals?), and he would probably be pretty dangerous if he held actual political power, but he's not uncertain.

Another example of certainty in your belief system are probably the 9/11 hijackers, who, in a religion-inspired frenzy, decided that God wanted them to suicide bomb some skyscrapers with airplanes. It seems to me that you need to have a lot of certainty in the afterlife to do something like that. You may be batshit nuts for doing it, but it still takes certainty.

So, what is the problem with the neo-atheists? Are they certain or uncertain? Dionne says they're certain:
The problem with the neo-atheists is that they seem as dogmatic as the dogmatists they condemn. They are especially frustrated with religious "moderates" who don't fit their stereotypes.
For one, there's nothing intolerant about being frustrated with people you disagree with. I get frustrated all the time with people I disagree with. Ultimately, the challenge is to remember that you have to allow people to think (even believe) what they want, even stupid things.

It even seems fair to be frustrated when people are utterly disregarding established practice because they simply don't understand it. The evolution v. creation debate is a great example. I'm not sure that idea escapes Richard Dawkins, even if he at times does seem to have a bit more zeal than he needs. (I for one don't care if people believe in creationism, although I take exception to having it imposed on me, and also take exception to the way that many people refuse to modify their beliefs in the face of other factors. If anything, evolution gives us a pretty good explanation for why the world wasn't created in seven literal 24-hour days. And if God is so omnipotent, why couldn't he have created the world in one second? Seven days seems awfully arbitrary.)

Take a look at this exchange between Dawkins and Bill Moyers (from December 3, 2005, on NOW With Bill Moyers):
MOYERS: Even as you speak about the four billion years of evolution, I can hear minds going off in the audience that says, "Yes, but we can't think that long. We're concerned right now with this controversy in this country."

One of the largest school districts in Georgia created a real stir, not long ago, when they insisted on putting a warning sticker on biology books saying, and I've got the exact quote here, "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." What's your response to that?

DAWKINS: All materials should be studied with an open mind, studied critically, etcetera. I'm all for that. What's wrong is to single out evolution as though that is any more open to doubt than anything else. Of course, in science, there have been sort of open to doubt and things that need to be discussed.

And, of course, everything needs to be approached with an open mind. But, among the things that science does know, evolution is about as certain as anything we know. And that, of course, as you know, is accepted by responsible educated churchmen, as well as scientists.
Evolution is a fascinating case of something that is frequently cited as blurring the line between faith and fact. I never really hear Dawkins give a great explanation of what the theory in the theory of evolution really means. I'll try to explain it the way I believe most scientists see evolution. First of all, we're dealing with something that can't quite be proven to the point that you can reproduce it completely in a lab. Now, you can demonstrate natural selection in a lab. That's pretty easy; you could probably do it in your kitchen with fruit flies. But evolution is more than just natural selection, and the idea of evolution predates natural selection. Likewise, natural selection, as described by Charles Darwin, predates by almost a century the explanation for natural selection. It wasn't until the mid-20th century, well after the development of some pretty sophisticated medicines (vaccines, antibiotics, happy pills, birth control pills) that we discovered that there was actually a coherent unit of natural selection, genes, that passed traits from parents to offspring, and that these genes could even mutate (even identical twin brothers don't have the exact same genes).

As a result of what we have learned about evolution (dating back to before Darwin), natural selection (dating back to Darwin), and genetics (dating back to the mid-20th century), human beings have discovered some remarkable applications. These applications range from understanding our ability to adapt to our environment (e.g., what role does genetics and blood types play in a heart surgery?) to solving crimes (remember O. J. Simpson?). Yet, evolution continues to be dismissed as "just a theory" when convenient for creationist zealots.

Naturally, the term theory in the theory of evolution doesn't mean the same thing that theory means when it's used in everyday language. When you use the term theory in everyday language, you're talking about a guess or hunch. Not so in science. A theory in science is more like a framework. There might be pieces of the framework that need to be altered in the face of new evidence (Einstein did this to Newton, for instance; Newton's equations describing motion don't take into account variations in time, and don't necessarily have to, since time is a rather insignificant variable at low speeds). A good explanation of the differences between theories, laws, and hypotheses can be found on ("Scientific Laws, Hypotheses, and Theories"). Another good example comes from the Online Gadfly ("We're Not in Kansas Anymore"):
So folks, here it is again. As we all know, in ordinary speech, "theory" means "a hunch." And as we gather practical evidence, that "theory" may "grow up" to be a proven fact. (The scientist uses the word "hypothesis" in roughly this sense). In contradistinction, to the scientist, a "theory" is a complex model of reality, composed of "facts," laws (generalizations), and a carefully defined vocabulary of concepts, all woven into an intricate structure of implication and mutual support. Scientific theories are no more capable of "growing" (dare we say "evolving"?) into "facts," than a raisin cake is capable of "growing into" a raisin, a solar system into a planet, or a molecule into an atom. In science, facts are ingredients of theories!

This is why it never occurs to most people to discount Newton's theories of motion and gravity, or atomic theory, or the theory of relativity, or numerous other scientific theories, as "mere theories, not facts."
So, how does scientific theory play into religion? If you ask me, it shouldn't. If anything, scientific theory should supersede previously held religious dogma. But science could never replace religion. They aren't compatible, and near as I can tell, don't overlap. Religion is supposed to offer spiritual fulfillment, not factual certainty. Debunking evolution no more proves there was a "creation" of the cosmos than debunking relativity disproves motion. God might have created the world five minutes ago, with all our thoughts and memories intact, if God was so inclined.

However, the elegant thing about science isn't that it provides certainty. Science provides a posteriori answers to questions. The rules of logic come into play, but there is a method to science as well. The method is experimentation and observation. These methods don't provide certainty, however. Take the claim, the sun rises every day. That seems like a pretty well-established fact. But, is it universally-descriptive? Not really. Observing the sun from Baltimore, Maryland, you might think it is. The sun does rise every day in Baltimore, Maryland (discounting overcasts and crazy volcanic eruptions, anyway). On the north pole, the sun may not set for months, so it doesn't rise every day. We, therefore, have to modify the description, perhaps to places north and south of a certain latitude. The sun rises every day in southern Ontario, but it might seem to rise earlier in northern Ontario.

At the end of the day, I don't ever really see Dawkins harping on religious folk like Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr.. There is room, however, to criticize religious moderates. They often believe things that must be fundamentally wrong (they often believe in opposing theologies, so at least somebody has to be wrong). Often, they allow room for interfaith dialog, however. The moderates aren't killing each other. Sometimes they're debating each other. Sometimes they're joining together to improve the effectiveness of their humanitarian efforts, however.

Sam Harris may be a bit more critical of the so-called moderates. As Dionne says:
In his bracing polemic " The End of Faith," Harris is candid in asserting that "religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each one of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others."
I don't see where that's such a scathing criticism. I know it may not make a lot of people happy to think that religious moderates have to, at least logically speaking, be incorrect in their belief systems.

But, something also tells me that there is a danger to categorically refusing to accept that moderate people can hold personal religious beliefs. Primarily, I think there's something that we all have to grapple with, even if we personally don't like religion: religion isn't going away. As reported in The Washington Post ("Atheist Evangelist," October 26, 2006):
Nobody has ever accused the man of being subtle. Harris is straight out of the stun grenade school of public rhetoric, and his arguments are far more likely to offend the faithful than they are to coax them out of their faith. And he doesn't target just the devout. Religious moderates, Harris says in his patient and imperturbable style, have immunized religion from rational discussion by nurturing the idea that faith is so personal and private that it is beyond criticism, even when horrific crimes are committed in its name.

"There is this multicultural, apologetic machinery that keeps telling us that we can't attack people's religious sensibility," Harris says in an interview. "That is so wrong and so suicidal."
Van Harvey is quoted in the article as a critic of Harris:
"I think this country needs a sophisticated attack on religion," says Van Harvey, a retired professor of religious studies at Stanford University. "But pushing moderates into the same camp as fanatics, that seems like a very crude mistake."

According to Harvey, not only has Harris picked a fight with those who could be on his side, but his solution -- let's all ditch God -- is laughable given the role that religion plays in so many lives. Others say that he has taken these "Old Books" at their literal word, instead of studying the way that the faithful actually engage the scriptures. Put more simply, he doesn't know what he's talking about.
I'm inclined to agree that religious moderates perhaps don't alter their beliefs based on evidence. I find the idea of bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is somewhat silly. I just can't help that. But Christianity doesn't have to monopolize religion, or belief in God. God could easily exist independently of Christianity.

In closing, I think the key point that Dionne missed was that atheism itself is a very poor thing to identify with. Atheism is an assertion that you don't believe in God, and perhaps an assertion that God doesn't exist in its more dogmatic forms. God may or may not exist, but even if God doesn't exist, why base your political or spiritual identity around the matter? Maybe the worst thing Harris and Dawkins do is just that. But that doesn't make them worse than those who base their identity around the belief that God does exist.

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