Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dawkins on Faith and Reason

Via PZ, I have just finished reading an interview with Richard Dawkins in Salon magazine. Dawkins has always been one of my favorite authors, on a par with the late Steven Jay Gould. Dawkins is very forthright about his atheism, for which he is highly criticized, not just by creation fundamentalists like William Dembski, but also by Darwinian evolutionists like Michael Ruse. One of the things that I admire most about Dawkins is his brutal honesty:

Well, yes. I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence. And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything. If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die -- anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed -- that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that.

To suggest, in the face of a large proportion of the world's population who express faith in something supernatural, that faith is evil in and of itself, takes guts. And I have to wonder if he is not on the right track. If faith is a legitimate reason to justify anything, then it is a legitimate reason to justify everything. Ultimately, there is no distinction between those who fly planes into buildings because of their faith and those who do not accept the scientific evidence for evolution because of their faith. Yes, one groups doesn't typically kill people (at least not yet!), but neither position is founded in any kind of reason, therefore both are legitimate outcomes of a system based on faith. I have often told my relatives in discussing matters of religion, that "all faith is equivalent". What I mean, is that faiths cannot be compared in any logical sense; to accept one and not the other is entirely a matter of personal choice. You cannot say the Koran is incorrect and the Bible is correct on the basis of anything tangible. Well, but the Bible is the word of, you believe the Bible is the word of God. You believe it is not the construct of different stories by people trying to explain the world around them without the benefit of scientific knowledge; you believe it was actually translated correctly; you believe its writers were inspired by God and did not have nefarious political ambitions of their own.

I think Dawkins also gets to the heart of a matter that is troubling for many of us evolutionists, although we won't admit it. I was always enamored by Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" between science and religion. I still point my students to Gould and Ken Miller when I see they are struggling with their own ideas on this intersection of faith and reason. Most of us are decent people and it would be nice for there to be a truce between science and religion - if only everyone could just get along. But Dawkins comes along and dashes our hopes:

And I believe that actually is the political reason for Steve Gould to put forward the non-overlapping magisteria in the first place. I think it's nonsense. And I'll continue to say that I think it's nonsense. But I can easily see, politically, why he said that and why other scientists follow it. The politics is very straightforward. The science lobby, which is very important in the United States, wants those sensible religious people -- the theologians, the bishops, the clergymen who believe in evolution -- on their side. And the way to get those sensible religious people on your side is to say there is no conflict between science and religion. We all believe in evolution, whether we're religious or not. Therefore, because we need to get the mainstream orthodox religious people on our side, we've got to concede to them their fundamental belief in God, thereby -- in my view -- losing the war in order to win the battle for evolution. If you're prepared to compromise the war for the sake of the battle, then it's a sensible political strategy.

Yeah, I wonder if we are all just kidding ourselves and just using the NOMA princple to buy political time. I certainly have nothing against people who hold their own personal faith (I have a serious problem when that faith is used to direct public policy). But where in history has faith not been forced to retreat from the progress of science? In every instance of scientific discovery, there have been theological casualties. The reverse has never occurred. There are only two possible theological outcomes: God exists, but is so far outside any descriptive ability of humans at this stage of their evolution as to be practically non-existent...or God doesn't exist at all.

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