Richard Dawkins Proves Poem False
A few weeks ago David and I were joking about Richard Dawkins’s signature brand of atheistic assholery and I said that a funny headline for The Onion would be “Richard Dawkins Proves Poem False.” Well, last week good ol’ Dick actually topped my joke by declaring that he’s stepping down from his post at Oxford to write a book about how fantasy stories like the Harry Potter series have a “pernicious” effect on children, encouraging mythical thinking instead of scientific rationality.
At this point, it’s easy to be dismissive or derisive of Dawkins. Like the Christian fundamentalists he seeks to disparage, Dawkins’s own deeply ingrained biases prevent him from taking a dispassionate, objective stance on any worldview, including his own. And yet I believe his current position of prominence is a symptom of a complex and chaotic time of upheaval in our institutions of belief. When the dust settles, I don’t think the spiritual and intellectual topography in the West can ever be the same.
I once heard an interviewer ask the Dalai Lama what he would do if there were ever a consensus among scientists about some new piece of information that proved fundamentally incompatible with Buddhism. He replied, with characteristic good humor, that he would take it as a cue that it was time to revise Buddhism. This fluid, open-ended view of spirituality stands in stark contrast to the inflexible, absolutist certainty with which many Christians and Muslims view their own religious beliefs. In Ptolemy’s day, the earth was flat. Today the incontrovertible, observable reality of evolution is a popular point of contention for Christian fundamentalists. Ironically, the tenacity with which these Christians cling to their ramshackle, impossible literalism is precisely why their faith is doomed to obsolescence. Like a biological organism struggling for survival, a religious system that is not equipped with a mechanism for self-revision is a dead and static thing. Is it any wonder they can’t stand the idea of evolution? To embrace the simple truth that change and growth are fundamental properties of life itself would be to acknowledge the fatal flaws in the very foundation of their worldview!
It is a common misconception, when dealing with issues of morality, to mistake flexibility (the kind that makes growth possible) for a simplistic sort of moral relativism, which makes different things acceptable for different people based on any of a number of factors. To be clear: I absolutely do not embrace any relativism when it comes to the big issues. It is never OK to threaten, harm or kill other human beings over differences in ideology. Likewise, it is never OK to teach your children that your own inflexible worldview is the only way to salvation and that people who don’t embrace it—whether by their own will or by geographical accident—are doomed to suffer eternal damnation.
Which brings us back to Richard Dawkins. Dr. Dawkins has good reason to feel passionately about the intense wrongness of Christian fundamentalism, his primary target. After all, these Christians are guilty of breaking both of the moral imperatives I just mentioned. They unrepentantly violate human decency with a divisive and cancerous program of fear, hatred, sexual repression, anti-intellectualism and cultural dominionism. But Dawkins himself is guilty of perpetuating a false dichotomy. He takes the worst examples of religious behavior and uses them to condemn everything in a very broad category that includes all religion, spirituality, mythology, pseudoscience and now, apparently, fantastical works of fiction.
How did we get here? Why are the only two sides of this issue that we ever see expressed so cartoonishly unsophisticated?
I can’t pretend to have all the answers, but one reason for the polarization has got to be the rigid duality at the heart of the Christian myth, tracing back to the Old Testament definition of “evil” as the failure to observe the commandments of the Hebrew deity. Neuropsychologists are accumulating a growing body of evidence that this duality is hard-wired, however there are plenty of religious philosophies in the non-Western world that work to dissolve rather than reinforce this perceived duality. One thing is certain: today’s European and American philosophers and scientists, even as they reject the miraculous claims of religious literalism, are so embedded in a dualistic worldview that many take up their own us-versus-them crusades.
What has yet to happen on a popular scale is a complete philosophical overhaul that recognizes both religious literalism and reactionary secularism as incomplete polarities, neither of which is capable of simultaneously encompassing our current understanding of the physical world and fulfilling our apparently innate desire to revere and mythologize the unknown. This is the postion taken by physicist Chet Raymo in his humble treatise on religious naturalism, When God is Gone, Everything is Holy:
As I write, two books that do their best to reduce God ad absurdum are being talked about everywhere: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. The authors go at religion like B-movie slashers armed with Ockham’s razor, and by the time they are finished there is not much left but the gory shreds of miracles and superstitions. I enjoyed both performances. God had it coming. But I won’t go where Dawkins and Harris would like to take me. Something is amiss with their militant, slash-and-burn atheism. If I can switch metaphors—and turn the new one on its ear—Dawkins and Harris throw out the bath water with the baby.
In my inverted cliché, let “the bath water” stand for the mind-stretching, jaw-dropping, in-your-face wonder of the universe itself, the Heraclitean mystery that hides in every rainbow, every snowflake, every living cell. After all, water, as much as anything in our environment, is an adequate symbol for the creative agency that forges atoms in the hot interiors of stars, weds oxygen to hydrogen, and wets the Earth with the stuff of life and consciousness—an agency worthy of attention, reverence, thangsgiving, praise. As for “the baby,” let that represent the cultural accretions that religious traditions have affixed to the “water” of mystery—the anthropomorphisms, misplaced pieties, triumphalism, intolerance toward “infidels,” supposed miracles, and supernatural imaginings. Memes without substance.
So, yes, toss out the baby, but save the water.
In conclusion, I would agree with Chet Raymo that the problem isn’t so much what we believe as how we believe it. Certainty is the enemy of truth. Faith—whether religious or scientific—is only as useful as its willingness to admit its own limitations. Richard Dawkins is a powerful voice in our culture, and in many ways I think his heart is in the right place. Let’s just hope his mind catches up.