About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, October 30, 2006
Enough blasting Dennett and Dawkins, all right?
Here are, in a nutshell, the common and tiresome “arguments” made by even intelligent people to denigrate anybody who has the guts to come out publicly against religion:
* “Nothing good can come out of stating what one does not believe.” Yes, we all like a positive message, and of course both Dennett and Dawkins do have positive messages, like any atheist or secular humanist I know. However, to stand up against something is often as important as to stand for something. In the 1960s it was important to stand up against the Vietnam war, which of course was the same as standing for peace. Secular humanists stand up against religion because they stand for reason and real human compassion (not the variety catalyzed by fear of eternal punishment).
* “They don't understand the subtleties of theology.” To which I'm guessing that both Dawkins and Dennett would answer that this is like saying that critics of astrology don't understand the subtleties of ascendants. I have been criticized for underestimating the “depth and complexity” of the thought of theologian Alving Plantinga, but since theology is about a subject matter for which there is neither evidence nor reason to believe in, being an “expert” in theology isn't any better than being an expert in paranormal phenomena. The stuff that respectable scholars can study about religion is its complex history and immense cultural impact, i.e., one can seriously do history and sociology of religion, but not theology.
* “There is a big difference between fundamentalism and 'reasonable' religion.” Granted, the real beef here is against nutcases who hurl themselves against skyscrapers aboard jetliners, or who picket abortion facilities and shoot down doctors and nurses. But fundamentalist religion is only the extreme and obvious consequence of absolutely believing in something despite the evidence, an attitude that all religious people share. Dawkins, Dennett and others aren't calling for a government-enforced shut down of churches, just for people to realize that make-believe isn't a good basis for decisions in life, at either the personal or the societal level. Besides, what we now call “mainstream” Christianity, to pick on a particular sect, has been responsible for crusades and burning of witches in the past, and is currently co-responsible for the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
* “Religious people are not superstitious.” That's funny! I thought that superstition is, by definition, the belief in supernatural or mystical forces despite the complete lack of evidence for their existence. If religion doesn't qualify, I don't know what does.
* “Science is a matter of faith too.” Oh, give me a break. Yes, of course scientists have to accept as a necessary premise of their investigations some key philosophical assumptions, for example the idea that there is a real world out there independent of our minds. But this isn't “faith” in any sense of the word comparable to what religious people do, and to use the word in this context is either naïve or disingenuous. Every human being has to accept what philosophers call realism in order to conduct sane lives, we all bring our cars to mechanics, not to exorcists. But that is in an entirely different ballpark from making up stuff despite the evidence of facts and against the (dim and tentative) light of reason.
* “They'll never convince anybody.” Well, that is an empirical statement, and it remains to be investigated as such. But if in fact the diatribes of Dennett, Dawkins and the like won't convince anyone, then why all the venom? Why is it that so many “reasonable” religious people find it necessary to vilify these authors as if they were the devil incarnate? Could it be that the Christian or Muslim god is so powerless that a couple of books are going to send him down the same path as Zeus and Apollo?
* “Skepticism about religion is one more instance of intellectual arrogance.” Of all the anti-intellectual statements this is the most preposterous. So, using natural reason (which presumably god gave us, from the standpoint of a believer) is arrogant, even though scientists and philosophers keep saying that their positions are provisional and debatable. On the other hand, just stating the Truth out of thin air, or based on what a handful of ignorant people just out of the caves happened to write several thousand years ago, that does not quality as arrogance? Telling people that you know exactly who is going to hell and who to heaven, and that your view of morality is absolutely the only one that the creator of the unvierse himself endorses, that is not arrogance??
* “Let the children decide for themselves... when they are adults!” This argument applies specifically to Dawkins' book, since he maintains that children around the world are being abused by early indoctrination into religious nonsense. I have come across the same reasoning within my family. My daughter, who is nine, has been talking about Jesus and god for years, fortunately with only mild conviction. Whenever I raise the worry that she is being brainwashed and that something should be done about it, I'm told that I want to impose by own set of beliefs on her. “Let her grow up and then if she wants to let go of god she'll make her own decision.” These people don't seem to even be able to grasp the elementary fact that religious indoctrination isn't a harmless default, and once it takes hold of one's mind one has to struggle for decades to get rid of it. Which is, of course, why religious ministers the world over pay special attention to children. Critical thinking is one of the most precious things we have, but it doesn't come naturally, and it needs constant nurturing and effort. Superstition, on the other hand, we share with other animals from rats to apes, an ironic twist considering that so many religious people are bent toward denying our familial relationship with the rest of the natural world.
So, let people like Dennett and Dawkins rant to their heart's content. Even if their science isn't quite as far reaching as they think (Dennett), or their philosophy could use a reinforcing shot after high school (Dawkins), it is so refreshing to see serious intellectuals challenge the major source of unhappiness and disaster that the human race has ever seen. As Voltaire would have said, Ecrasez l'Infame!