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.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Rob. I think atheists needs to calm down themselves by practicing Buddhism or some thing like that to be able to put their feet in religious people's shoes. Some great atheists may have no problems with religion but some may be too harsh on them, which is not good.