Listing entries tagged with Dawkins

Irreligious Intolerance?

posted on 12.02.2006 at 1:53 PM

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is the latest, now that athesists are for the first time in my memory getting some attention, to fret that they are guilty of irreligious fundamentalism:

Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let's hope that the Atheist Left doesn't revive them. We've suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.

It is not possible, alas, to say that atheists would never resort to violence. As Kristof notes, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot certainly did (though in the name of what began to look like another religion). However, is it not unfair to equate our current crop of loud, proud atheists -- Richard Dawkins and ? What atheist today has launched a fatwa, banned a book or grabbed a gun?

What is happening is that some individuals are now arguing that those who believe the universe is governed by a supernatural Being are wrong. The religious insist upon their beliefs in books, on radio stations, television channels and in various houses of worship weekly, daily. Is it intolerant to disagree? What is so awful about the debate finally, in some small way, being joined?

And, oh yeah, has the Christian Right really retreated from the culture wars?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:53 PM | Comments (7)

Religion and Science -- 7

posted on 11.22.2006 at 9:42 AM

A few things are extraordinary about the New York Times report, by George Johnson, on a conference on science and religion in California.

1. The general anti-religious tone of the conference. Some quotes:

"The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief....Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization." -- physicist Steven Weinberg
"Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome -- and even comforting -- than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know." -- Carolyn Porco, a space scientist (whose ideas have been discussed here before)

Indeed, anthropologist Melvin J. Konner said at one point about the conference:

"With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

Since public debate on such matters has been stuck so long at Y and Z, this may have been useful.

2. It is also significant that the ever-cautious New York Times felt comfortable printing an article that is so critical of religion -- an article that ends with this exchange between Weinberg and Richard Dawkins:

Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.
"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."

3. And the debate on how scientists should respond to religion (discussed here often) is also of interest. Here's a dissenting (maybe L or M) voice:

"Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it." -- Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist

Dawkins' hard-line response to this sort of statement is here.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:42 AM | Comments (1)

Odds on Existence of God

posted on 11.17.2006 at 10:23 AM

Every once in a while, it's useful to check up on the theists' logic. Here is Mahlon Marr (writing, alas, under the name Thomas Paine), responding, he thinks, to Richard Dawkins:

Let's meet him halfway and assume for the sake of argument that there have been no supernatural events since the creation - the Big Bang in technical terms. Either the universe was created by a super-powerful being, or it came into existence spontaneously. There is no scientific theory or evidence available that can even begin to account for either possibility.
So, scientifically, philosophically and reasonably speaking, the odds for the existence of God are an undeniable 50-50. Throw in some slight scientific evidence from the argument for intelligent design...and make it a 50.1 to 49.9 advantage for God.

This calculation is, shall we say, somewhat flawed.

First, we should note that believers have been looking for some dark, as-yet-unexplained corner of the universe in which to secrete God for many centuries now. It was once the creation of life for which there was "no scientific theory or evidence available," but then Darwin shed some light on that "mystery." Now they (and agnostics also) have fastened upon the initial moment of the Big Bang. (To be sure, this is a rather important subject, but so was the creation of life.) Light -- scientific light -- will eventually be shed here, too. As Dawkins writes: "Physicists and cosmologists are hard at work on the problem." He mentions a couple of possible answers -- "a random quantum fluctuation or a Hawking/Penrose singularity" -- and then adds a prudent "or whatever." But even after such an answer arrives, there will undoubtedly remain new puzzles for scientists to work on -- leaving new dark corners into which indefatigable theists can try to stuff a God.

Second, given the track record of science in explaining the workings of the universe versus that of religion, it seems rather odd to assume that a supernatural explanation for the Big Bang is just as likely as a natural one.

Third, suggesting that God launched the Big Bang just raises the larger question of what or who launched god. So, instead of answering the question, by placing an Omnipotent Big Daddy there at the beginning of space-time you have simply raised a more difficult question

Dawkins would add a fourth response: that the universe tends to move from the simple to the more complex and therefore would not move from God, who seems astoundingly complex, to the germ of the Big Bang. We have debated this point below.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:23 AM | Comments (12)

High Tide of Atheism?

posted on 11.14.2006 at 8:17 AM

Two bestsellers (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris). Cover story in Wired. Main book review in the Sunday New York Times. Big review essay in Newsweek. Can't start a conversation in intellectual circles on five continents without someone mentioning this blog (or at least using the word "without").

What goes on?

1. A reaction to a religious revival which obstructs biology classes, causes a fuss over cartoons, fuels a mad American foreign policy and kills and maims?

2. Enlightenment reason has never ceased spreading, though it may have been obscured or lying low for a couple of decades there?

3. New burst of development for idea-dispensing technologies increases the questions and answers available to curious minds, from Kansas to Kabul?

4. ????????

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:17 AM | Comments (2)

Dawkins on the "Design" Argument

posted on 11.06.2006 at 9:53 AM

Here is Richard Dawkins on one of the better of the arguments for the existence of God. He's a bit unfair to it: The religious position today, rather than entirely ignoring evolution, is usually that there wasn't time for something as complex as an eye to evolve. Still, I think Dawkins is useful on the subject:

The only one of the traditional arguments for God that is widely used today is the teleological argument, sometimes called the Argument from Design although -- since the name begs the question of its validity -- it should better be called the Argument for Design. It is the familiar 'watchmaker' argument, which is surely one of the most superficially plausible bad arguments ever discovered -- and it is rediscovered by just about everybody until they are taught the logical fallacy and Darwin's brilliant alternative.
In the familiar world of human artifacts, complicated things that look designed are designed. To naíve observers, it seems to follow that similarly complicated things in the natural world that look designed -- things like eyes and hearts -- are designed too. It isn't just an argument by analogy. There is a semblance of statistical reasoning here too -- fallacious, but carrying an illusion of plausibility. If you randomly scramble the fragments of an eye or a leg or a heart a million times, you'd be lucky to hit even one combination that could see, walk or pump. This demonstrates that such devices could not have been put together by chance. And of course, no sensible scientist ever said they could. Lamentably, the scientific education of most British and American students omits all mention of Darwinism, and therefore the only alternative to chance that most people can imagine is design.
Even before Darwin's time, the illogicality was glaring: how could it ever have been a good idea to postulate, in explanation for the existence of improbable things, a designer who would have to be even more improbable? The entire argument is a logical non-starter, as David Hume realized before Darwin was born. What Hume didn't know was the supremely elegant alternative to both chance and design that Darwin was to give us. Natural selection is so stunningly powerful and elegant, it not only explains the whole of life, it raises our consciousness and boosts our confidence in science's future ability to explain everything else.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:53 AM | Comments (3)

Did Einstein Believe in God?

posted on 11.02.2006 at 11:47 PM

Here's Richard Dawkins:

When Einstein said 'Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?' he meant 'Could the universe have begun in more than one way?' 'God does not play dice' was Einstein's poetic way of doubting Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle. Einstein was famously irritated when theists misunderstood him to mean a personal God. But what did he expect? The hunger to misunderstand should have been palpable to him. 'Religious' physicists usually turn out to be so only in the Einsteinian sense: they are atheists of a poetic disposition. So am I. But, given the widespread yearning for that great misunderstanding, deliberately to confuse Einsteinian pantheism with supernatural religion is an act of intellectual high treason.

But isn't this a bit unfair? Pantheism -- seeing god (or gods) in everything -- is not the same as atheism or even poetic atheism. It would seem to find some sort of divine purpose or meaning where atheists find mere matter -- however attractive.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:47 PM | Comments (27)

Dawkins Religious?

posted on 10.31.2006 at 10:39 PM

Well, we know he's a six on the seven point disbelieve-in-God scale. But then Richard Dawkins writes this:

An American student asked her professor whether he had a view about me. 'Sure,' he replied. 'He's positive science is incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about nature and the universe. To me, that is religion!' Well, if that's what you choose to mean by religion, fine, that makes me a religious man. But if your God is a being who designs universes, listens to prayers, forgives sins, wreaks miracles, reads your thoughts, cares about your welfare and raises you from the dead, you are unlikely to be satisfied. As the distinguished American physicist Steven Weinberg said, "If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal." But don't expect congregations to flock to your church.

Do those of us who rank high on the waxing-ecstatic scale (and myself I can get pretty exuberant about summer breezes and all sorts of landscapes) really meet some definition of religious?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:39 PM | Comments (7)

Religion and Science -- 6

posted on 10.31.2006 at 1:57 AM

Should proponents of evolution allow some space for religion in their schema or reject it entirely? Richard Dawkins, writing on Edge, labels the two sides in this dispute the "Chamberlains" and the "Churchillians," which gives away which side he's on:


The Chamberlain tactic of snuggling up to 'sensible' religion, in order to present a united front against ('intelligent design') creationists, is fine if your central concern is the battle for evolution. That is a valid central concern, and I salute those who press it.... But if you are concerned with the stupendous scientific question of whether the universe was created by a supernatural intelligence or not, the lines are drawn completely differently. On this larger issue, fundamentalists are united with 'moderate' religion on one side, and I find myself on the other.

The intellectual case for accomodation with religious moderates has been made by Stephen Jay Gould -- arguing that religion and science occupy two different "magisteria" -- teaching domains (Shermer's "separate-worlds model"). Dawkins, taking the hard line (Shermer's "conflicting-worlds model"), will have none of this notion that religion might deserve a "magisteria" of its own:

Either Jesus had a father or he didn't. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it. The same is true of any miracle -- and the deliberate and intentional creation of the universe would have to have been the mother and father of all miracles. Either it happened or it didn't. It is a fact, one way or the other.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:57 AM | Comments (2)

Relgion and Science -- 5

posted on 10.29.2006 at 11:31 PM

Michael Shermer, the man behind Skeptic magazine, proposes this "three-tiered model on the relationship of science and religion":

1. CONFLICTING-WORLDS MODEL. This "warfare" model holds that science and religion are mutually exclusive ways of knowing, where one is right and the other is wrong. In this model, the findings of modern science are always a potential threat to one's faith and thus they must be carefully vetted against religious truths before acceptance; likewise, the tenets of religion are always a potential threat to science and thus they must be viewed skeptically.
2. SAME-WORLDS MODEL. More conciliatory in its nature, this position holds that science and religion are two ways of examining the same reality; as science progresses to a deeper understanding of the natural world it will reveal that many ancient religious tenets are true.
3. SEPARATE-WORLDS MODEL. On this tier science and religion are neither in conflict nor in agreement. Today it is the job of science to explain the natural world, making obsolete ancient religious sagas of origins and creation. Yet, religion thrives because it still serves a useful purpose as an institution for social cohesiveness and as a guide to finding personal meaning and spirituality.

Shermer, like Richard Dawkins, seems a natural partisan of the first and more aggressive model. However, he gives some credit to the third model. Too much?

The problem with attempts at blending science and religion may be found in a single principle: A is A. Or: Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism. Believers can have both religion and science as long as there is no attempt to make A non-A, to make reality unreal, to turn naturalism into supernaturalism.
The Separate-Worlds Model is the only way to do this. Thus, the most logically coherent argument for theists is that God is outside of time and space; that is, God is beyond nature -- super nature, or supernatural -- and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. This places the God question outside the realm of science.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:31 PM | Comments (2)

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 3: God and Other Minds

posted on 10.25.2006 at 11:19 PM

Here is the heart of Jim Holt's critique of Richard Dawkins' new (and have I mentioned "best-selling") book attacking belief in God:

As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds.

The argument about free will would seem to come down to whether this feeling we have that our decisions are freely made has any meaning given the fact that the biological mechanism we are is composed of particles whose behavior is, presumably, predictable. Many also feel that some grand puppeteer in the sky is manipulating our decisions and their consequences. However, to jump from free will to God's will would seem, at the very least, to be adding an additional level of mystification.

Objective values, without something in the heavens to attach them to, pretty clearly ain't; and "smart people" who have thought the matter through probably ought to realize that. The consequences of values not being objective are, of course, complex and leave plenty of room for such "smart people" to disagree -- as do the consequences of God's not being.

But Dawkins, in my view, really goes off the rails in his analogy (for a fellow intent on critiquing misleading analogies he uses quite a few of them himself) between belief in God and belief in other minds. The evidence for the existence of other minds, while it may not be "knock-down" to a committed skeptic, does tend to present itself with some regularity -- more or less every time we converse, read or hear a ring tone. The evidence for God's existence, on the other hand, has been a little thin -- at least over the past couple of millennia.

To disbelieve in other minds you have to assume that you are victim of some sort of vast delusion. To disbelieve in God all you have to do is assume that the world and universe function, more or less, the way they appear to function. Shouldn't "smart people" be able to notice the difference between these two varieties of disbelief?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:19 PM | Comments (8)

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 2: Complexity

posted on 10.24.2006 at 10:54 PM

In his review of Richard Dawkins' attack on religion, Jim Holt raises an interesting question about complexity and simplicity. Holt says Dawkins relies on the premise that:

a creator is bound to be more complex, and hence improbable, than his creation (you never, for instance, see a horseshoe making a blacksmith).

By this logic, God would be more complex than the universe He created. But the whole point of evolution Dawkins says, according to Holt, is that "the simple can give rise to the complex" -- not visa versa. Hence, the complex, God, couldn't have come before the (relatively) simple, the universe.

Here is Holt's response to this use of evolution to dismiss God as the creator:

Not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat).

Doesn't Holt have a point here -- even if something as improbable as God may seem too improbable to imagine?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:54 PM | Comments (10)

The Ontological Argument: Holt vs. Dawkins

posted on 10.23.2006 at 7:12 PM

The ontological argument for the existence of God -- based only on the logic of "being," not on evidence -- dates back to Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century. His "logic" (streamlined a bit) runs as follows: God is...

something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought....Something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind....Surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater....Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in the mind and in reality.

Hence: God.

A different version of the ontological argument was provided by Descartes, but it is hard to see that it is any stronger:

Certainly, the idea of God, or of a supremely perfect being, is one which I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number....Hence...I regard the existence of God as having at least the same level of certainty as I have hitherto attributed to the truths of mathematics.

In his new book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins dismisses such arguments as "infantile" and "dialectical prestidigitation." In a New York Times review, Jim Holt, a writer on science and philosophy I respect (though he is getting less funny), criticizes Dawkins for being too cavaliere here:

He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute.

The potential "sophisticated modern versions" of this argument that I am familiar with (thanks to Nicholas Everitt in his useful book, The Non-Existence of God) are by Plantinga, Malcolm and Hartshorne. Here are a few of the steps in Hartshorne's effort (as outlined by Everitt):

(i) Either it is necessarily true that a perfect being exists or it is necessarily true that such a being does not exist. (ii) It is not necessarily true that there is no perfect being. So: (iii) It is necessarily true that there is a perfect being.

Everitt collapses Hartshorne's argument into the following:

(i) If it is possible that God exists, then he exists. (ii) It is possible that God exists. So: (iii) God exists.

It is hard to see that Hartshorne has taken us beyond Anselm and Descartes -- in essence: God is too perfect not to exist. We could discuss exactly how such arguments fail (part of the problem, writes Everitt, "is the assumption that existence is a quality that things can be said to have or lack"). But it's hard not to agree with Dawkins' characterization of the ontological arguments. Holt's criticism of that characterization, unless I am missing some compelling new versions of those arguments, seems unfair. Here's Schopenhauer -- writing, to be sure, before all that modern "sophistication":

When considered generally and impartially, this famous ontological proof is really a most delightful farce.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:12 PM | Comments (5)

Dawkins' Belief Scale

posted on 10.22.2006 at 10:58 PM

Richard Dawkins comes up with an interesting scale of belief and disbelief in his new (and bestselling) book The God Delusion (here via a review in the New York Times):

On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certitude that God exists and 7 is certitude that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6: "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

I'm curious where the readers of this blog would place themselves on this scale...and why.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:58 PM | Comments (20)

Atheism and Morality

posted on 09.20.2006 at 11:16 PM

The question of where morality might be found without God has been a preoccupation of this blog. Here, from Jerry Adler's round-up in Newsweek of current books on atheism, is an interesting critique of Richard Dawkins:

Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

Katha Pollitt made this argument at a conference at NYU some time ago. Somewhere, Pollitt suggested, there is a woman convinced the only thing between her family and ruin is her husband's commitment not to take another drink and the only thing that prevents him from breaking that commitment is his belief in Jesus. What has atheism to say to her?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:16 PM | Comments (25)

Atheism Resurgent?

posted on 09.18.2006 at 5:34 PM

Something is definitely going on here.

The latest piece of evidence I have collected that the argument against God is being treated with a new respect is a review-essay in Newsweek by Jerry Adler. Adler is dealing with a new book by Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, along with a not-so-new book by Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, and a forthcoming book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. What's remarkable, for someone who has spent some decades following American journalism, is that while Adler quibbles a bit, he never dismisses the Harris-Dennett-Dawkins point of view.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:34 PM | Comments (1)

Religion and Science -- 3

posted on 07.20.2006 at 2:09 AM

Stephen Jay Gould, whose book Wonderful Life is among my favorites, deserves a hearing on this subject.

Gould.jpgGould, in one of his columns for Nature, speaks of something he calls NOMA or "nonoverlapping magisteria" ("magisteria," a term borrowed from Pope Pius of all people, meaning, for those of us who managed to avoid Latin, "areas of teaching authority"). Gould sees in this way of looking at things:

the principled resolution of supposed "conflict" or "warfare" between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority.

So Gould here seems to be aligning himself with the why-can't-we-all-be-friends view of the relationship between science (or specifically evolution) and religion. That puts him with the archbishop of Canterbury and Madeline Bunting against (not for the first time) Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett:

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

Gould describes himself as "not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice" and as an "agnostic." Perhaps that has something to do with the rather wan view of religion to which he is according a valid "magisterium" here: just "questions of moral meaning and value"? What about an afterlife (he does, at least, mention "heaven"), the efficacy of prayer and, lest we forget, God? It is hard to see how the claims of a real, old-fashioned religion -- a Pope Pius religion, with an Immaculate Conception and a Resurrection -- might manage to avoid overlapping with the claims of science, unless we are to agree with Francis Collins that there is a place in the universe or in existence "outside of nature." And Gould, eager as he may have been to avoid conflict, would seem to have been too good a scientist for that.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:09 AM | Comments (0)

Trashing the Bible...and God

posted on 05.24.2006 at 10:32 PM

More from that interview with Sam Harris, author of the End of Faith (and somewhat unorthodox atheist):

Q: Richard Dawkins, a vocal atheist, has said the Old Testament God is a "psychotic monster."
A: Not only is the character of God diabolical in those books, but there are explicit prescriptions for how to live that are not metaphors; they are not open to theological judo. God just comes right out and says "stone people" for a list of offenses so preposterous and all-encompassing that the killing never stops. You have to kill people for working on the Sabbath. You kill people for fornication.

Okay, Dawkins and Harris are known atheists, and this appeared on the Web, not in a mainstream publication. But "psychotic monster" (or should it be Psychotic Monster) and "diabolical" (interesting choice of word)? God? Is this further evidence that it is becoming easier to take swings at religion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:32 PM | Comments (1)

Does Darwinism Lead to Atheism?

posted on 03.28.2006 at 5:56 PM

A split seems to be developing among pro-evolution (anti-intelligent design) forces, with the work of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett the major bones of contention. The selection below is from a new piece by Madeleine Bunting, an old friend in this blog, in the Guardian:


'Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: "Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level." The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: "If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool."'

In his blog, The Proper Study Of Mankind, from which I learned of this latest Bunting blast, Dan Jones does a fine job of unpacking the Bunting-Rose position. He has a go at the "legal loophole," atheism-as-religion argument. But also takes on the Darwinism=atheism question: Jones concedes that "the specific claims of" science and evolution may not be "utterly incompatible with a religious conception of the universe (you can always tweak your scientific and religious models to mesh with one another)." But he contends that "scientific investigation just doesn't tend towards theism and belief in God."

This tending away from theism (and you-know-Whom) by science, while it is wrestling with creationism, throws Bunting into something of a panic:

'Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion. It's important that Britain avoids the trap that America is falling into, not just because it endangers good science, but also because there is a fascinating debate worth having about what scientific method can reveal about faith, and what theologians have to say about science.'

Bunting is right about the scientific method shedding light on faith. That, as she acknowledges, is the point of Dennett's book. But seeing science as irreligious won't interfere with this effort. Exactly what light theologians can shed on science she neglects specify.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:56 PM | Comments (5)

Religion Is Like Sex?

posted on 01.24.2006 at 2:45 PM

And what do you make of this surprising analogy from Bunting on Dawkins?

"Dawkins seems to want to magic [Bunting does have a way with verbs] religion away. It's a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, JS Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience - sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Dawkins's, he pointed out the violence and suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilized by the need for sexual gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on."

I feel bad for sad John Stuart, but aren't there rather obvious reasons why his task would be more daunting than that of Dawkins? And isn't it odd for a theist to try to score points by accusing an atheist of being anti-sex? And aren't there differences in the epistemological claims made by sex and those made by religion (which, last I checked, pretended to be something more than the pleasurable satisfaction of an itch)?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:45 PM | Comments (1)

An Indifferent Cosmos

posted on 01.23.2006 at 6:38 PM

More from Madeleine Bunting's assault on Richard Dawkins:

"Science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe - such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos."

Is this really such a tough question?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:38 PM | Comments (6)

On Bunting On Dawkins On Atheism

posted on 01.17.2006 at 6:45 PM

Richard Dawkins, who seems to be taking on the Bertrand Russell role of primary intellectual champion of atheism, has a two-part series attacking religion on Channel Four in the UK. Haven't seen it. (Will a US network have the guts to pick it up?) But I was sent Madeleine Bunting's exuberant critique of the series in the Guardian.

Bunting's piece is smart, tough and even, in places, wise: Yes, societies can find other excuses for killing each other besides religious difference. No, trying to prevent parents from indoctrinating their kids with religion doesn't sound like such a hot idea. (Are we also to prevent them from indoctrinating their children with free-market ideology or compassion for the poor?)

However, Bunting -- like many in the group Thomas Huxley once dismissed as "reconcilers" between religion and science -- seems unable to grasp the natural antagonism between faith and reason. "Faith, according to the New Testament, "is assurance of things hoped for." Reason, particularly its offspring science, is the alternative -- the antidote -- to such wishful thinking. This doesn't mean there isn't an element of faith at the bottom of reason -- "faith" that the sun will in fact rise tomorrow, for example. And this doesn't mean people of faith can't do science. But it would seem to support Dawkins' characterization of faith as a "process of non-thinking."

Bunting is also smart, tough and possibly wise on a subject that has been much discussed here: the new religious Great Awakening and an alleged and concomitant decline in freethinking. "There's an aggrieved frustration," she writes about nonbelievers, "that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now."

Bunting thinks she senses "the unmistakable whiff of panic." You panicked?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:45 PM | Comments (5)