Wednesday, February 13, 2008

dawkins? eh?

ok. I know there is already a fair amount of Dawkins love on this blog. Honestly, I know very little about his non-atheist related work so on that I have little to comment. I find the man interesting. He's obviously a talented speaker and debater and I'm sure he could make me cry, defeated. But when a man makes his living debating the most ridiculous religious figures in the world (just see the video a few posts down) and writing articles for magazines, I begin to question his methods.

In one sense, it is perfectly logical to fight the "enemy" where they are weakest, or in this case, not necessarily weaker, but more ridiculous to so-called "educated" people. But when I watch his videos I can't help but view him as the mirror image of his opponent: a person 100% certain in the absolute validity of his beliefs, willing to say or do anything if he believes it necessary to his cause. BORING. I don't know about you folks, but the God/no God "debate" fascinates me because I think its one of the few questions that by nature does not lend itself to empirical methodologies. If a scientist were to say that God is improvable by science, the theologian would just say, "exactly." But if the "modern" educated person needs proofs to back up their faith, then they will probably be waiting a really long time. Dawkins makes his name by having something at stake in this debate. But so does the Pope. Both are claiming some form of truth that excludes not only the other, but I would guess a large percentage of the world. You can't put all believers in one camp and say, "you are all believing in a false God." I'm pretty sure most of them think that everyone else is believing in a false God as well.

Dawkins largely paints this question in black and white: Religion=Bad; Science=Good. Religious fundamentalists would just flip that equation. That sort of absolute faith in only your own beliefs to the exclusion of all possibilities is exactly what makes religion dangerous, and by extension, Dawkins as well. The whole point of the "Scarlet A" campaign is to fight for the atheists right to pursue what they believe. Not to get all hippy on you, but is it so hard to just leave people to their own beliefs and go about your own life/work from whatever point of view you deem correct? I really wish everyone could just get over this. Its nothing new. Seriously.

Galileo was persecuted for his beliefs by the church because they conflicted with their dogma. Does Dawkins need to put religion on the chopping block (in everything he does) for his theories and positions to have validity? Is his goal to eradicate religion, or are these fundamentalists just dummy's for Dawkins to make his point to his real audience: the moderate religious types who go to church, etc., a few times a year but are largely secular. um.. me. I'm not going to launch into a long diatribe about "dialogue" (ahem.. because that term is as empty as "change" is in the current democratic race), but when did "tolerance" stop being an issue that mattered? If Dawkins or anyone else thinks religion in essence is so dangerous it must be eradicated, then they better figure out quickly all of our metaphysical questions. While they are at it, they should also tell us what happens after death, problem of evil, etc. My guess - people will still prefer God to finite death etc. Myths do have their place... but thats for another day.

5 comments:

Ragoth said...

Real quick, as I have to get ready for class:

1. Dawkins has become famous as an atheist, but most of his work is geared towards science education to the public. The God Delusion is rather an exception, but has garnered the most attention.

2. Dawkins never debated Boteach. Boteach moderated a few debates that Dawkins became involved in because it was near required by his chair position. Dawkins' position is as a public outreach for science, and I think he's done a pretty good job of promoting evolution since he's held the chair.

3. There is a difference between the faith of a religious believer and the "faith" of a scientist, and it comes down purely to evidence. Now, I know, religious believers have experiences of gods and such. While you can't deny this is the case, "I accept that you believe you have had this experience," you don't have to accept the ontological reality of it, especially if you know there are other factors involved. Dawkins has never, to my knowledge, in any debate or book (and you know I've watched/read a lot of them) attempted to deny that someone has a meaningful relationship with a deity. He has always accepted that they believe something, and that it means something very important to them, but wants them to consider the other side, which he feels is much stronger.

4. On the evidence viewpoint, even Dawkins admits that properly speaking, all atheists are agnostics in truth, we're just comfortable operating on a daily basis with the idea that no god exists. And this is a very powerful point: he's not willing to do absolutely anything for the cause of atheism or science. Notice you have never had engineers starting a war, sparking a riot, or going on serial murders for the sake of engineering. A lot of crazy shit happens in the world, but generally speaking, the more rationality you demand of yourself and others, the better citizen you tend to be, to your own community and to the world. And here it comes down to probability: even if you can't prove God's existence one way or the other, it is not a 50/50 shot, if by God you mean the theist rendering of God who intervenes in the world and wants you to do certain things (controls what you eat, what you wear, what parts of your body you cut off, who you sleep with, etc). A Deistic god may very well be close to 50/50 - flung the universe into existence and then left, forever - but future evidence may put less of a possibility on that. I think the evidence that we do have, and the range of possible explanations that actually fit with the evidence, comes pretty close to excluding a theistic god from the picture. And that's Dawkins whole point.

5. You also have to understand that Dawkins really believes that if people just asked for a little more evidence and rationality in their daily lives, things would be improved. I'm a big Jefferson fan, and I can't say I can argue against this point for very long. There aren't a hell of a lot of situations I can think of where asking for more evidence or a more rational approach would not have improved things (did they really have WMDs, or where they just trying to make people think they had WMDs?).

6. Yes, most people do believe that others are believing in false gods. But that's almost sort of the point. "Why do I reject your god? Tell me why you reject all the other gods of the world, and you'll have your answer." Or, as Dawkins has put it, "We are all atheists about most of the gods in the world. Some of us just go one god further."

7. Last point, on the Scarlet A campaign. It would be wonderful if everything was just hippie and cool, "Oh, you're an atheist? Okay. That's cool, why don't you come over to dinner later?" Maybe that happens on college campuses, and probably in Europe to a much greater extent. In the US, things aren't so peachy keen. You do realize that atheists are the most distrusted minority? That there is not a single atheist representative in Congress (at least openly. I have my eye on a few. The same thing could be said for the gay/lesbian/bi/transsexual community, and probably for much the same reason)? That we've had several presidents who don't believe declared atheists should be granted citizenship? That a lot of elected officials are doing all they can to increase the religiosity of the country and prevent any real scientific community? Read the Wedge Document from the Discovery Institute - there's the face of the benign religious group.

So, I'll just end now by saying that Dawkins doesn't so much get into these kinds of debates just because he wants to. There have clearly been debates he had no desire to be at, but, as required by his chair, he must speak for science to the public, and he's definitely going to defend it against any encroachment from religious or irrational people (in the two televised series he has made, he has given equal time to religion and "alternative" medicines. I refer you to "What's the Harm?" on both points). The other thing is that Dawkins, and the rest, could actually be convinced by new evidence to be theists. They'd probably have a lot of residual questions: What God are you? What do you really require from your people? Etc., but I think these questions are perfectly fine. In fact, it'd be really nice if there were a God who kept in touch, as it were, or had a hot line just to check up on ethical questions. Apparently not, however, or at least not one who's comfortable operating in a way that would actually make him distinguishable from a person talking to themselves.

That being said, you know I'm not a 100% fan of Dawkins. I think he gets some stuff wrong and is a total ass at times. However, as an engager of the public for science, he's done a lot of good, and he's contributed a lot to evolutionary theory. Everyone says that he just pulls up the old arguments and that the modern theologians have solved them. That might be the case: modern theologians might have solutions to some of the older problems, but the vast majority of religious people do not follow a particular theologian, and some of these answers are personally satisfying without meeting a lot of other criteria. Point is, the debate has been going on a long time, religion still hasn't answered a few fundamental questions while trying to become more powerful on the public and political scene, and atheists are still a very mistrusted minority despite the fact that we tend to be very nice people (or am I just an asshole and you never tell me?).

Zie said...

Dude. Ok his job is public outreach for science? Then why doesnt he just stick to promoting science? By spending a majority of his public life saying Science is right, Religion is wrong and dangerous, he just puts himself into this crazy fundamentalist intolerant place. I personally don't think religion and science have to be opposed in modernity. I think people can enjoy a good metaphor. I think Dawkins is nuts, and I do not like his abrasive, condescending, know-it-all approach. He's a bull in a china shop. When I hear other scientists talking about the beauty of the cosmos and the "wonders of evolution" that touches me, and I think it could hit an affective place where religion resides. Dawkins comes off as ridiculous as the religious fundamentalists he debates. However, I never said I didnt agree with him, or at least many of his positions. But I think its dangerous to paint the religion/science debate in such black and white terms. Thats all I'm trying to say.

Oh and bullshit that he didn't "debate" Boteach or others. Do a google search. He's like Russell Crowe in that south park episode.. fightin 'round the world.

DirtyGaijin said...

Gotta agree with Zie on this one...Dawkins does seem abrasive towards religion at times. He makes religion appear as the great evil and science as the great savior, which in itself lends to a rather religious zeal and ideal. Not saying he wants a religious following, but say Jesus existed and really did prophesize...did he really want people waging war in his name?...just for an example, of course. Now, some specific replies:

1. The God Delusion has garnered the most attention, as you say. As such, he is known mostly as the "devout" atheist, not the scientist. He should try to pry himself away from this image as the hardened faith-killer and become more of an explainer if he wants to win more support and understanding. If living in Japan has taught me anything, image means a lot, especially to the younger generations, which, as far as I know, is the future.

2. Honestly, not a philosophy/biology/religion buff, so I can't touch this topic. Don't know Boteach, so I leave this to Ragoth and Zie.

3. I disagree. Dawkins seems just as unwilling to see the other side as much as the evangelical is unwilling to see the other side. Faith is a powerful thing, and the world being created in seven days (as truly unlikely as it is) is a viable answer to those who really believe, as they have answers to these problems. Do these answers always make sense to science? No. Can they be completely disproven by science? No. Science is, well, not always an exact science. There is a lot of creativity involved in it (theories, anyone?).

4. Okay, here I have to ask...by rationality do you mean "leftist thought?" Dawkins seems quite leftist in many of his ideas, going against the grain and whatnot. If so, I have a long list of riots started by leftist parties. Look at France 1968 as one example. Could be wrong in this argument, though. Needs clarifying in my regard.

5. Can't argue with this one. Also a fan of Jefferson and rationality.

6. Also agree.

7. This isn't so much a point that politicians are religious adherents, but that religious parties have great power in elections. Is this good? No. Does this mean atheism should be taken as the absolute, undeniable truth? No. What this means is that politics and religion should be completely separate, as our friends like Jefferson once stated. The founding fathers didn't really state that religion was bad (though Franklin did say he had his doubts about Jesus' divinity...do enjoy my Franklin), but that it should be a separate entity from the political realm. I do, wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment.

So, I guess, I kinda leave you with a question, more than anything. Is atheism really different from any other faith?

(I probably opened one hell of a can of worms with that last statement...don't hate me for it guys!)

Ragoth said...

Zie: I will agree that he does devote a lot of time debating religion. Part of this, I think, is a result of The God Delusion. And, as I said, for his actual TV specials, he has one on religion, one on alternative medicines. I imagine if he makes another, it will be on a different topic. But I can't say for sure.

His atheism has indeed come to the forefront, and this is what most people want him to come on programs and talk about because, as you know, religious discussions have had an upsurge in popularity. And who do you book to portray the atheists? Well, the most famous atheist of the day, Dawkins. The vast majority of his publications, popular or otherwise, are on evolutionary biology. God Delusion is the exception, but, again, I recognize, most popular. So, I'm going to dispute that the majority of Dawkins' work has been for atheism. I just think it's gotten the most public notice. I read The Selfish Gene back in high school, so I've known and followed Dawkins' books since then. There are of course hints of The God Delusion is some of his more recent publications, but the main focus has always been science.

I think Dawkins' main problem is that he can't understand why other people don't weigh things on the basis of evidence and reason. Most of the talks that you see him get involved in are quite reasonable until he hits a stone wall against evolution or scientific reasoning. PZ Myers and Dawkins have both said, and I agree with the statement, you really have to almost have a few hour "opening statement" in a debate about biology if you're really going to be anywhere near on the same level and talk on equal terms. I think he's impatient with people who refuse to consider the atheist or scientific standpoint, and I do mean to keep those separate for now.

I agree black and white terms is probably not the best way of making the argument. I never defended that position, but you also have to look at the numbers. Science education today is horrible. Absolutely horrible. I can understand a bit of the scientist's panic when he speaks to the public at large. It's kind of like a scene from "Root of All Evil," he's talking to a guy who runs one of England's faith based schools (there are a lot). Dawkins asks him about the curriculum and if he actually cares whether what he's teaching is supported by evidence, or true or not. The guy just kind of chuckles condescendingly, says "Ah, but I counter point with Jesus said, I am the Truth," and chuckles condescendingly again.

I'll be honest, I don't think theology and science education should mix. They are two totally separate discourses, and I make no secret of the fact that I, personally, don't have a lot of use for theology. It's not a question that interests me or has a lot of bearing on my personal life. I understand it's very meaningful to other people and...okay...but if you try to bring a theological discussion into science, I'm sorry, but you've got an uphill battle. I think the reverse holds as well, so I don't think this is any special discrimination.

Also, thank you for correcting me. I was incorrect on the Boteach debate. I see that he has actually debated Dawkins once, or maybe twice, but he definitely claims to have debated him 5 or more times in the Hitchens debate, when really he was just a moderator. I retract the first sentence of point 2, and replace it with: "Dawkins debated Boteach once or maybe twice."

Gaijin: I completely agree that Dawkins comes off as abrasive at times, but I almost have to say "so what?" I've known a lot of asshole professors who get by just fine, and if they have evidence to back up what they're saying, well, their personality is sort of a nil point. Now, it is important that his chair is a position for public science outreach, of course, but I'd still argue he has done a lot to popularize science and get the public talking about it. Is he vigorous and sometimes abrasive in his defense of evolution? Yes, quite so. But so have I been when debating people who just want to use clever turns of phrase or just ignore evidence. I mean, watching a lot of debates he's been in, I can understand part of the anger. It's logical fallacy after logical fallacy. After a while, it's hard to stay calm and remain in pure, clean, debate mode. You want to just say "This is absolutely ridiculous. People are actually buying into this. Please, shut up for a while and let me lay out science's actual account, not this thing that you have proposed."

So, yes, hella abrasive at times. I'm a little forgiving towards it, probably for quite personal reasons. Zie knows how angry I get in class sometimes. Especially this quarter.

1. I think he probably should get back more to science outreach, but let's remember Carl Sagan as well - i.e., the most famous popularizer of science ever. He constantly engaged the forum against homeopathy, astrology, and religion. Was he more likable? Maybe? Maybe it was also because it was the 70's and he had a really deep voice. I love Sagan, and while I don't have the same strong feeling towards Dawkins, I think his "Enemies of Reason" program is quite admirable and redeeming for a lot of other wrongs in debate forums.

3. Indeed, science cannot put down a 100% answer, but that's also one of its best strengths, as I've belabored in plenty of conversations with both of you, I believe. Science does change its mind and is quite willing to admit "No, I don't have all the answers," I've seen Dawkins admit the same is various debates, in response to articles, and in books. Is he pretty sure of his answers? Yes, and I think with pretty good reason. I disagree that he is completely unconvincable, and should God himself decide to come down for a chat and Dawkins stands outside saying "Nope, don't believe it," then call me on this. The thing I think Dawkins won't budge on is sociobiology. He's completely against it. It would take a lot to change his mind on this one.

4. I agree, it needs clarification, and I'm not sure I can do justice to it right now. I would like to analytically separate leftism and rationality. I guess rationality, for me, is tied up with science and logic. Typically left-wing values, but not exclusively. I'll try to get back to this later.

5. Thanks.

6. Thanks.

7. I also agree with Franklin on the separation issue (and like Franklin quite a bit). I'm just a little mystified as to why people still believe what they do in religious realms. I mean, I'm not arguing for the immediate eradication of all religion, I just really want it to be as much a private matter as possible (with all the problems inherent in that, Zie).

Let me say this: if atheism is taken to its absolute, unshakable grounds, then yes, it's probably no different from faith. But, if you take faith to mean, a belief held in spite of or in absence of evidence, then, atheism as a tentative hypothesis is quite different.

That's about all I have to say about that right now.

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