It’s a sad indictment that I should feel it necessary to write this post, but the blogosphere, at least considerable sections of it, are full of it. Notice the use of the plural, though there is one specific problem that compounds all the others – it’s called intolerance. Not that long ago, in the land I inhabit, we had our own brush with intolerance that had ramifications right across the nation and across the political spectrum – she was called Pauline Hanson.
I’ve always had a tendency to analyse, even when the issues are emotive and personal. What I found interesting about the Pauline Hanson phenomenon is that she created intolerance in people like myself who are normally tolerant. Pauline Hanson taught me that I’m intolerant of intolerance. Pauline, a fish and chip shop proprietor, who became a parliamentarian, created a political storm that pretty well divided a country and even divided families. The link with fundamentalism is that fundamentalists, like Pauline Hanson, create intolerance on both sides.
This is why someone like Richard Dawkins, with whom I share many of his arguments, not only shows contempt for anyone with religious beliefs but contempt for anyone who is tolerant of people with religious beliefs (just read his introduction to the paperback edition of The God Delusion). So, whilst I support Dawkins in his fight against religious fundamentalism completely, I don’t support his fight against religion per se at all. I don’t agree with a black and white view of the world, that he tends to portray, which is divided between atheists and religious fundamentalists, and therefore one must take one side or the other. I wish to lay out my slate that there is a world that can include atheists and religious believers. My role models for this perspective are Karen Armstrong and the Dalai Lama.
I write a lot about science and mathematics on this blog, but almost every essay includes an aside to explain why the mysteries of the universe cannot be resolved by the invocation of God. It seems to me that many people don’t appreciate that a philosophical argument that uses science to support it, doesn’t necessarily turn it into a scientific argument. I believe that even Dawkins makes this error when he introduces the anthropic principle, in concert with the concept of the multiverse, as if it’s a scientific argument rather than a philosophical argument supported by both known and speculative science (The God Delusion). There is nothing wrong with Dawkins’ argument – it’s philosophical in the same way that Paul Davies produces an alternative philosophical argument in The Goldilocks Enigma, only, with Davies, one is more aware that it is philosophical. I make this distinction because many fundamentalists don’t seem to appreciate that a philosophical argument that includes scientific evidence or a mathematical proof is not of itself a scientific or mathematical proof. There are no philosophical proofs in my view (refer my Mar.08 post: What is philosophy?).
But I’m getting off the track before I’ve even started. If one reads a lot of science, like I do, then one sees a history of investigation at many levels where the solution of one mystery reveals other mysteries that we didn’t even know existed. I contend therefore, that it’s quite possible, even reasonable to assume, that we will never know all the mysteries of the natural universe, let alone resolve them. It is for this reason that any sceptic of science, which includes all religious fundamentalists that I’ve read or heard or argued with, can find a hole in any area of science, which they believe they can exploit.
It follows, according to their logic, that the answer to any mystery, still unresolved by science, can therefore be found in the Bible, as if the Bible has provided all the information we currently have on the natural world. Therefore the Genesis explanation, of man being made from dirt and woman from a man’s rib, overturns all the scientific evidence of biological evolution discovered in the last 2 centuries. ID and creationism are not about studying science, despite the camouflage rhetoric to the contrary, they are about proving that the Bible is true. For Christian fundamentalists, the Bible is the only source of truth in the earthly world. Despite all the discoveries of science, especially in the last 500 years, any conflict with biblical scripture, whether apparent or real, rules science invalid. It is on this battle-line that I firmly side with Dawkins.
Mathematics and physics are my private passion, and I’m currently reading about Paul Dirac’s discovery of an equation that didn’t just predict anti-matter but insisted upon its existence. In 1928, Dirac took the recently formed Schrodinger equations of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s equations of special relativity, and in resolving their apparent dichotomy, not only justified evidence already known yet unexplained (the magnetic moment of electrons), but predicted the electron’s anti-particle, the positron. This is an intellectual achievement that is monumental in its consequences, comparable to Einstein’s equation: E= mc2. There is nothing in the Bible to compare with this. Imagine if the Bible told us that God created anti-matter alongside matter. On the contrary, the Bible tells us about a global flood that is physically impossible, a woman turned into salt, a child born from a woman who never had sexual intercourse, and I think the sun stops at some point, which was a particular point of contention that the Catholic Church had with Galileo in 1633 (ref: Livio, see previous post).
So while Christian fundamentalists want equal time to teach ID or creationism, or whatever they want to call it, in a science class alongside evolution, someone should point out to them the discrepancies between biblical myths and scientific theories, as well as the criteria involved (refer my Nov.07 post, Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth?).
My point is that yes, there are lots of questions still unsolved in science, including questions inherent in evolutionary theory, but the successes of science far outweigh any explanation of the natural world found in any religious text, so there is no logic, and absolutely no justification, in replacing science with a biblical account in any area of the sciences at all.
I contend that there are questions science can’t answer. Philosophical questions on why humans look for meaning in their lives or the resolution of moral dilemmas. This latter issue leads to the argument, that I’ve heard from a number of religious fundamentalists, that without a belief in God one is a moral relativist. I find this a truly bizarre conclusion and it’s always presented as if it’s self-evident – there can be no alternative. You either believe in God and have morals or you don’t believe in God and you’re amoral. They should read Hugh Mackay’s book, Right & Wrong; how to decide for yourself, which is the best book on the subject I’ve read.
There are a number of ways of looking at morality. For a start, you can read a book that prescribes everything you do, from how to treat slaves to whether you should eat pork, and what you can do on what days of the week, and also throws in 10 solid statements, or rules, on how to get along with your fellow man. But there are other approaches, like a meta-philosophical approach, attempted by people like John Stuart Mill, and before him, some ancients like Plato and Aristotle, and even a Chinese bloke called Confucius. Then there’s Hugh Mackay’s approach where you look at every situation on its merits and decide for yourself. No, that’s not moral relativism. Moral relativism is where you accept whatever any culture decides for itself, which may include cultural practices like the mutilation of girls’ genitalia at puberty, or the public beating of someone for selling meat on the wrong day of the week, or a woman having to be sacrificed at her husband’s funeral. That’s moral relativism; atheism is rarely a factor at all.
Then there is your conscience: one of the most misunderstood but most manipulated characteristics of human nature. Religious fundamentalists may tell you, or imply, that your conscience is God whispering in your ear, but in reality, your conscience is conditioned by your culture and your upbringing. Freud called it the super-ego. Your conscience is what made you feel guilty about masturbating when you were an adolescent – not God whispering in your ear at all, though it can be made to feel that way.
Hugh Mackay explains the dangers of taking your morals from God, because once you believe that, you can justify any action, like flying a fully loaded aeroplane into an occupied building. That is not an isolated example – just look at the Crusades, the Inquisition, and any number of atrocities justified in the name of God. Mackay is not anti-religion by any means, and explains that religion is more about finding meaning in your life.
Dawkins, if I read him correctly, is contemptuous of people finding meaning through religion. But according to Dawkins, we are just ‘gene-replicating organisms’, therefore any intellectual ruminations concerning our raison d’etre must be a waste of time. No, he’s never said that, but it’s the only logical conclusion: we live for our genes; they don’t exist for our benefit. So, I do see a role for religion, which makes me a bit of a weirdo. But at least I can acknowledge that my religion is nothing special compared to anyone else’s. You see, I grew up in a culture where religion was considered something very personal, like your most intimate thoughts, so you never discussed it unless you were invited to. I also realised that if everyone followed that precept then people with different religious views could get along just fine. In fact, I contend that everyone’s religious point of view is unique to them, so why should I intrude or insist that mine is better?
But this in itself begs another question: why do I argue with fundamentalists? Because fundamentalists believe the exact opposite to this: that everyone should believe the same thing, which is exactly what they believe, and, what’s more, they have the text to prove it. But this text, when taken literally, conflicts with current scientific thinking, so now we have scientists in opposition to all religious belief. As I said or alluded to at the beginning: intolerance breeds intolerance to itself.