I'm getting increasingly worried by the "new atheists". This movement, for any who aren't aware, is the one spearheaded by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris: top-ranking scientists, who wherever possible decry the stupidity of religion on all grounds. My major issue is how they misrepresent both religion and science. I will also say here that (despite how I may sometimes appear) I think science is a beautiful thing; I am not anti-science, this would be idiotic in the extreme. I also know that there are as many theistic fools trying to push weak arguments to win some fictitious 'battle' as there are atheistic. There is a middle road, but in order to walk that we need to understand exactly what the roles of science and religion are.
Sam Harris' recent article for the Washington Post carries a rational and appealing argument for the destruction of religion based on (a) the naivety of belief in God, (b) the intolerance of some adherents. I'll address his naive and offensive statements about Islam at the end of this blog, for the main part I want to concentrate on his belief that religion has no place in society.
Harris' claims that atheists should emphasise their "reason and intellectual honesty" as opposed to their absence of faith. He believes that grouping themselves as Atheists marginalises their arguments by placing them within a subset, one of many, belief-systems. This is a very complex and tricky issue, and one which requires strict untangling, but once unravelled may isolate the key problem in this entrenched battle of wills.
Rationalism is not a belief system. Or at least, it should not be one. Rationalism is a means of acquiring information. It is a way of thinking which places facts within a particular order, and allows us to draw conclusions from them. The type of conclusion is not determined by rationalism: in this sense, it is open. The key element of rationalism is its emphasis on empiricism and logic. The method demands no assumptions unless justified by one of these two means (usually empirical evidence takes priority, upon which logic is put to work to extrapolate further information). In this way, any truth is known to be grounded on solid inductive principles and understood to be beyond reasonable doubt.
The method and ideal is great: it has enabled massive advances in understanding the natural world, and these have led on to fantastic tools to improve our standard of life, our health, the passage of information and our ability to act in and upon the world.
But, what the proponents of rationalism have to realise is that not being a belief system is a double-edged sword. Because, humanity does need belief systems. The ordering of facts according to logic suits us when we need to approach the world logically. But there is so much more to life than this...logic cannot answer questions of value or meaning, it cannot offer us moral guidance or hope, and it cannot give us a framework in which to contextualise the importance of events in our own lives. Although many people try to bend scientifically discriminated facts to offer answers to these questions, what this actually does is distort the nature of science and go beyond the very remit of empirical-logical inference upon which science depends. Pulling answers about the meaning of life from Darwinian evolution, from quantum physics or from neuroscience misrepresents not only the facts but also the method by which they are acquired. Karl Popper and Mary Midgley (not to mention Ludwig Wittgenstein) have written extensively on the true nature of science, and the kind of questions that are accessible to the scientific method. They all conclude that much of human thought lies outside the realm of rational investigation, and that any attempt to cross this divide results not only in bad science, but also bad everything else (whether the subject be morality, language, religion, art, etc).
The questions of value, meaning and purpose do not have answers within the material world: these are metaphysical in the truest sense, and whether or not we can associate an area of the brain with the act of thinking about these things, the values and systems which these thoughts generate, the social superstructures arising from our mass contemplation on questions of human-import are not material entities, and do not follow the rules laid down by rationalism.
What religious belief systems offer is an approach to living which interprets the world through a particular system of values. What all religions have in common, is a transparent admission of their context for understanding the world and events within it. This is perhaps the one thing lacking from the peculiar form of western rationalism which has come down to us from Greece, via Anselm and Descartes. This peculiar rationalism claims to strip away all context from thought, placing the individual intellect above and beyond everything else: the implicit claim is that the individual can process logic so smoothly as to analyse the world's facts removed from any context. This idea, that the individual mind can reach outside of its own subjectivity and attain a rational peak from whence to view the world as it really is, in all its objective glory, constitutes such a firm base for western thought as to be entirely buried from sight. There is an interesting corrolary if we examine the concept: This idea of the self as a unitary entity comprehending space and time from outside mirrors very effectively the picture of God which the west has struggled so hard to rid itself of. The very idea of a rational intellect perceiving the world and its nature beyond its own particular subjective context has in fact replaced the naive God of centuries hence, with a naive Self. In believing that we as subjective beings within the world can raise ourselves above and beyond subjectivity, we betray not only our arrogance but also the very intellectual tradition which provides the context for western rationalist thought. Rationalism is not a universal, as the Enlightenment claim goes: it is embedded within the western tradition, and has the western tradition embedded within it: the emphasis on individualism is not a universal value. The value of culture is essential to many, and therefore cultural beliefs and nuances are taken much more seriously than in the west; tradition, which Europe claims to have broken with so effectively during the struggles of the Enlightenment and Renaissance, is regarded as essential to any understanding for the rest of the world: it is both naive and arrogant to believe that we as individuals can see so clearly now as to disregard the wisdom developed over millenia by our people. It is naive and arrogant to believe that we can even remove ourselves from it.
The proliferation of scientific attempts to describe the structure of the world should give us a clue as to the nature of the problem. We now have a whole host of competing hypotheses to choose from: multiverses, superpositioned particles, superstrings, two dimensions of time, Boltzmann brains, the universe within a black hole...for every experimental finding there are at least two theories adequately explaining the data, and in terms of the "big picture" we seem to have no way of knowing how to choose between different interpretations of what it looks like. This is because this big picture is simply beyond science's capabilities. It is beyond the capabilities of humans. We cannot objectively comprehend the world of which we are part. The subjective mind, no matter the elegance of its logic or the detail of its micoscopes, cannot step outside the universe and view it "as it really is". Our science is excellent at making predictions, which we can then test and establish with a degree of certitude whether they're true or false. This can lead us to an understanding of how the physical world works within the specific parameters of this action. What this cannot do is answer questions when we do not even know the context, or when the context is outside the physical universe. As different scientists attempt to give an answer to these "big picture" questions, we get a multitude of different pictures in much the same way as different religions offer different takes on the question.
One of the biggest mistakes of the atheist take on religion is that religions are defined principally by their metaphysical claims. The reduction of Christianity down to the doctrine of the trinity, for example. This approach (a) misses so much of what actually constitutes the religious life and (b) sets religion up as a rival to the realist truth claims of science. We must see that religion is not be understood in terms of truth claims about material reality. This is the fundamental mistake which is made by so many on both sides of the theistic divide. What religion does is offer a structure for interpreting life in terms of value and purpose by appeal to a level beyond rational, subjective thought. The structures of religion describe the metaphysical realm to which realism is not relevant: God must not be thought of as a being which we can ascribe existence in the same way we do to a chair or a table. Such ideas, that we can argue about and establish the existence or otherwise of God, demonstrate a dangerous category error which places metaphysics within matter. Metaphysics, of course, covers an enormous amount of ground: The ideals and categories of thought, the structure of logic and number, and the meaning and value of life are non-physical forms to which we can ascribe no temporal or causative relation with material existence. It is useless even to ask the question of whether these things precede spatio-temporal existence, or are generated from within it. It is a waste of intellectual effort to attempt to establish these metaphysics as underlying and guiding matter, or as being mere epiphenomena of human thought processes. They are both, and neither. If we view things from a rationalist-empiricist standpoint (ie, a reductionist material one), then they appear to emerge from the lifeless, inert interplay of material processes: it is matter which somehow generates minds, which then develop metaphysics. If we view things from a logical or mind-based (ie metaphysical; religious) standpoint, then they precede and through the pre-eminent structure of logic and number or transcendental consciousness, inert matter arises as a means of giving expression to these principles through the eventual emergence of individual consciousness: it is for the expression of these eternal principles that matter comes about. Whether we take matter or metaphysics/mind as the prime element of reality depends entirely on how we phrase the question, and according to what rules we answer.
The crucial thing we must realise is that both elements are equally important, and for we humans, as subjective beings, we are accountable to the metaphysical forms just as much as we are to the material. Human life is lived as much within the social noosphere of cultural thought as it is within the material world. It is the metaphysical structures of logic, archetypes, morality, which inform our understanding of life and the way we live. They place restrictions on us just as powerful as the material world, and they cannot be altered (or removed) from our consciousness any more than the limitations of matter can be removed from our bodies. To have minds is to exist within the metaphysical realm of thought-forms and implicit structures of interpretation. We can understand this clearest through maths: even though numbers are an abstraction from the material world, when we begin to investigate the abstract structure of numbers, we discover eternal principles and relationships such as irrational numbers; the sequence of primes; Fibonnaci numbers; degrees of infinity. These structures are inherent within number itself, independent of human experience of the world. Although numbers do not exist in a material sense (even the most simple integers do not exist; they are merely expressed through matter, or abstracted from matter, depending on how we look at it), they have qualities which are independent of human opinion. Irrational numbers such as the square root of two were not invented by humans: they were discovered within the nature of number itself. So it is with all metaphysics. The step we need to take is to disregard claims about 'realism', for this is a red herring. Realism cannot and does not apply to metaphysics. The nature of metaphysical entities however is independent of the minds which conceptualise them. Through the examination of these entities and structures we can discover new things about their nature, and understand better how they influence and effect our lives. Whether we understand mind as an epiphenomenon emerging from material reality, or as the guiding principle underlying it, the metaphysical structures which are expressed through it need to be investigated in order for us to understand the social-mental-cultural world of meaning in which we live.
One cannot really blame those of the new atheist movement for their attack on religion: in part, it is purely defensive. As rationalism has advanced and consumed everything in its wake, religions have assumed the form of rational belief systems in order to survive. This application of religious and scriptural myths to the material world, reflects the precedence which science has given to matter. The current debate over creationism vs evolution in schools is only one area where religious myth is being pushed far beyond its mandate and encroaching onto territory it has no claim to. The right of science over religion in this area should be obvious. Factual material and historical claims must be based on empirical data and reasoned thought, not myth.
Finally, I'd like to quickly address Harris' claims about religious extremism. It's become traditional to blame religion for the terrible crimes of the past, and also for events such as modern day terrorism. What Harris, along with so many others, fails to comprehend is that it is through the tools of science that these hate-crimes have been achieved: if religion is to blame for men wanting to crash airplanes into buildings, then it is science that has provided the ability for men to express anger so effectively. No one blames science for the atom bomb or the gas chamber. These things presumably were sitting dormant, waiting to be discovered; it is not the lack of moral conviction on the part of scientists (or in fact the lack of ingrained morality in science generally) which is at fault here - the blame is solely on the one who authorises their use. Swords, guns, bombs, tanks...all these are the result of science, of people applying the scientific method to manipulate the materials of nature. Why was morality not applied to stop implements of torture being designed and manufactured?
Secondly, in looking solely at the terrorist acts of some Muslims, Harris fails to engage any kind of debate about why people feel this angry, and why the people who provided some of the world's most just, peaceful and tolerant nations and empires have now reached the stage of such desperation that they have resorted to terrorism in order to make their voice heard. Blaming religion for this anger is stupid, plain and simple. In fact it's fucking stupid, but this is what comes of not having looked enough into the context and history that current events have grown from. It's what comes of the west's ignorance of its own traditions of brutality and manipulation, both explicit and covert, leading right up to the present day.
Okay, that's the end of the serious stuff. I needed to get that off my chest.
And now, a little light relief in the form of satire...