Tuesday, May 28, 2013


This is a brilliant lecture on Evil by Terry Eagleton that really helped me to clarify my own thinking on this. I don't know if he knows it or not but this is also very consistent with Buddhist thought

However, this could be a bit difficult to process without certain background knowledge, especially his idea of demonic and angelic evil. Here is an example that I believe illustrates it

Consider three people, all recently divorced from a long and wonderful marriage that somehow went horribly off the rails.

Person 1 is angry and bitter and now believes that all marriages are a sham. He does not believe that anyone has a happy marriage and if someone is pretending to have one he attacks that person viciously, to their face or behind their back, to prove that he is right. Since he could not sustain a happy marriage, no one can, and anyone pretending to deserves to be destroyed. Furthermore the whole idea of marriage should be thrown out as a contemptible lie. This is my example of the demonic evil Eagleton refers to

Person 2 is also angry and bitter but he blames his former spouse for the demise of the marriage, and possibly also himself. However, now he has seen the light and understand that the marriage failed because they did not follow all the rules. Next time he will get it right. He now advocates a very traditional, conservative view of marriage and people who do not agree are ignorant and morally corrupt. He knows marriage is good because he experienced it as good, but it failed. Rules and enforcement of the rules are needed to protect and enforce what is good. This is my example of the angelic evil that Eagleton refers to. This concept is trickier because people generally view protecting the good as moral. However, when the protection destroys what it is meant to protect by strangling the life out of it, it is evil dressed up as good.

Person 3 believes in dependent co-arising and understands that it is not easy in this world to create something good. He appreciates and is thankful for the good part of his marriage but he understands that the fragile web of interaction that held it together had run its course. Nobody is to blame, it is cause and effect that causes some people to have long stable marriages and others not to, and most of that is beyond our control. This is the good, as I understand it, the creation of compassion and meaning (in my view the two cannot be separated).

This is very consistent with the Buddhist idea of impermanence. All things arise temporarily through cause and effect. This is called dependent co-arising. In Buddhism, evil is created through ignorance and, as we can see from the examples above, not understanding the impermanent nature of things has this result. For demonic evil the problem lies in rejecting anything that is found not to be permanent, leading to the destruction of things that are good and inevitably impermanent. Angelic evil involves killing something that is good by trying to force it to be permanent when it is not. Th Buddhist way is the middle way, trying to create good while understanding its transient nature

Monday, May 13, 2013

Francis Collins - The Language of God

I think the brand of Christianity promoted on this blog is more liberal than this speaker would advocate, but his understanding of the relationship between religion and science is very good

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why do this??

Why am I doing this? I am a scientist and I run the risk of looking like a crazy person by ranting about religion on this blog. Daniel Dennett, a famous philosopher was also asked this question when he wrote a book called, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Specifically, he was asked why he was wasting his time on this? In other words, who cares about religion? His answer, which I paraphrase, was that understanding religion is important because it makes people irrational and dangerous. I agree very much and this is also one of my motivations for this humble blog. 

Dennett takes a reductionist approach, reducing everything to neuroscience and evolution.  His arguments are devastating for fundamentalists as it is impossible to credibly maintain their world view in the face of them. Again, I agree very much that fundamentalist views must be thrown out and that science is the way to do it.

However, I do not agree with the New Atheism movement that has arisen from the writings of Dennett, Dawkins, and other similar authors. In my opinion, the problem is not religion, the problem is fundamentalism. Ironically, the New Atheism movement has been criticized for being somewhat fundamentalist in thinking. In particular, they have been criticized for misrepresenting and simplifying non-fundamentalist religion to create a straw man version of religion that can easily be dismissed.

I believe that religion is like a rainforest. The rainforest is full of miraculous chemical compounds that have provided many breakthroughs in medicine. This is because we evolved out of the rainforest and we share a biological history. Likewise, religion embodies within its stories, rituals, symbols, etc., the history of human wisdom. It can also be viewed, in my opinion, as an evolved methodology for working with the human brain and, in particular, with consciousness. Terry Eagleton, the famous literary critic (and atheist) wrote an an excellent book making this argument (but not the rainforest bit, that’s mine) in his book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009).

Also, it is very, very important to point out the views of the New Atheism movement are not universal amongst scientists. For example, Gould’s Non-overlapping Magisteria view places science and religion in separate spheres. There is really no agreement on this matter and very few scientists or philosophers devote time to it. I am very alarmed when members of the New Atheist movement represent this as a struggle between religion and science, and represent their view as the science side. In reality it is much more complex and messy

However, we can all agree that fundamentalism is problematic and that fundamentalist views should never be considered in any scientific debate. My approach is to promote an intelligent practice of religion for people who will benefit from it.