Sunday, 18 September 2011

A point of view

When Richard Dawkins goes off on one about religion, I usually find myself in agreement, but very occasionally I wish he'd change the record. He's bang on the money when it comes to fundamentalists of the Islamic or Christian variety, patriarchy and the oppression of women, paedophile priests, the wilful blindness of creationists, the bloody history of religious wars and the way that religion fuels the tribalism that keeps such conflicts going.

There are, however a lot of religious people in the world who don't fall into any of these categories; perfectly decent, good people who happen to believe in something I find unbelievable, but who display kindness, integrity, courage and any number of other qualities that would do credit to any human being, regardless of his or her belief system. In the world's more open and liberal societies, most religious people are like this, getting on with their own lives and believing in their own beliefs and allowing other people who live by other belief systems to get on with their own lives unhindered.*

So, for a lot of the time, in a lot of the world, the fact that many people believe in what I'd consider to be weird things, doesn't strike me as a pressing problem. I think, for example, that the happiness of this nation would be better served by a reduction in the number of people without work, or more equal access to a good education, than by a reduction in the number of people sitting in pews listening to self-appointed wise men telling improbable fairy stories on a Sunday.

All quiet on the home front, then? Well, not exactly. Just when I feel like saying, 'good point, well made Professor Dawkins, I totally get it, but can you move on and talk about something else now', up pops some affronted talking head with a killer argument that's supposed to put all these uppity secularists back in their place. And, invariably, the furious rebuttal is so slippery and shoddy and badly thought out, so condescending that I feel that I'm having my intelligence systematically insulted by somebody too lazy to frame a convincing argument and remember why Dawkins (and Hitchens and P Z Myers and all of the other eloquent free thinkers out there) need to keep turning up the volume. If they didn't, their signal would be drowned out by counterblasts of incoherent noise.

The philosopher John Gray made a bit of incoherent noise on Radio 4's A Point of View this morning. Gray's a respected philosopher and J G Ballard, no less, was impressed by the quality of his philosophising. The quality of his talk about the things that "extreme atheists" don't understand was considerably less than stellar, though. There's a short precis of his talk on the relevant BBC web page and the whole things's available in iPlayer for a while.

His talk purports to be a well-considered demolition of the naive misconceptions of the more vocal secularists. All he can actually manage to do, as far as I can see, is to furiously mow down straw men like a runaway combine harvester at a scarecrows' convention. Viz:

Straw men 1 and 2:

'Extreme atheists do not realise that for most people across the globe, religion is not generally about personal belief. Instead, "Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts."'

1. Extreme atheists?

How are they extreme? They don't force anybody to think the way they do. Their only weapons are argument and persuasion. People we call religious extremists, are described as "extreme" because they seek to enforce their beliefs on others, using methods including ostracism, the threat of supernatural punishment,   caste prejudice, intimidation and the murder of people who disrespect their beliefs or even dare to believe different things. At the very least, a person would have to subscribe to a set of beliefs that is untenable without denying a large, coherent body of well-attested evidence before they deserve to be called "extreme". Moderate religious people who don't do any of these things don't get labelled as extremists - why do middle-of-the-road secularists who don't threaten anybody deserve this sort of name-calling?

2. Religion is not about personal belief?

This is Gray's strongest argument, but that's not saying much. Granted, religious observance has plenty of fringe benefits that have nothing to do with supernatural beliefs. For a Christian these might involve a quiet moment in the week, the whole community getting-together-with-friends-and-neighbours vibe, a cup of tea and a hob nob with the vicar after service, singing in the choir, the rota for cleaning the brass rubbings / arranging flowers, bell ringing, putting a penny or two into the charity box, an Easter egg hunt for the kiddies, celebrating the life's rites of passage, etc, etc I'm certain that equivalents exist in other traditions.

I don't believe the stories told in holy books about how the universe was created, or about supernatural events or about supernatural beings and their actions. Where required, however, I'll turn up for carol services, hatch, match and dispatch events, and so on, that happen to take place in a church or equivalent.

Is John Gray really saying that people who label themselves as religious and go to regular devotions are like just me - agnostics who don't believe in the truth of the creed being preached, but just turn up occasionally because it's what people do? If so, that's another dirty secret the Pope's been keeping very quiet.

I don't know, but it's reasonable to assume that for most people who practice some sort of religion it is, at least partly, about belief. If John Gray can cite some research that convincingly suggests that a substantial proportion of people who are motivated enough to regularly attend religious services don't actually care whether the creed being preached is true or not, I'll start to be interested in his point.

Straw man 3:

'Central to religion is the power of myth, which still speaks to the contemporary mind. "The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories."'

I wonder who these scientists are who think we can live without myths? Presumably the ones who have never read a fictional story, have never seen any films other than documentaries, have never seen a TV drama or a play, or a musical, or an opera, have never played a video game and wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about if you mentioned Prometheus or Procrustes or the Trojan Horse. We're all of us, scientists included, surrounded by myths and consume them daily. I can't think of any scientists - "extreme" atheists included, who call for humanity to live without myths.

Gray seems to think of scientists as cartoonish, dessicated Gradgrindian calculating machines,  as emotionless as Science Officer Spock, or a brain in a box, self-absorbed geeks cut off from "normal" society and its culture. And then he's got the brass neck to accuse rationalists of caricaturing the religions they criticize.

There are quite a few scientists who think that people ought to be able to distinguish myth from reality, but that's something else entirely.

Straw Man 4:

'In fact, he argues, science has created its own myth, "chief among them the myth of salvation through science....The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible" he says, "but no more so than the notion that humanity can use science to remake the world"'.

Really? I'm not exactly deafened by a chorus of scientists preaching 'salvation though science'. I hear plenty arguing that knowledge is better than ignorance and that humanity has gained incremental improvements to the quality of human life on the back of scientific discoveries - antibiotics, transistors, that sort of thing. But salvation, ultimate truth and such like are religious concepts that you don't generally hear hear serious scientists claiming they can deliver. If you were desperate to find a scientific/technological prophet, you could cite people like the computer scientist, Ray Kurzweil with his millenarian vision of the "singularity", but he's hardly mainstream.

In reality, most scientists I've read or heard make cautious, testable, evidence-based claims about specifics, leaving the sweeping generalisations about the nature of things to the clergy.

It doesn't take another high-falutin' philosopher to refute John Gray's caricature - I'm quite happy to leave it to comedian Dara O'Brian to finish off this straw man. People who come up with the auld 'well science doesn't know everything", as if scientists had ever claimed such a thing, get on Dara's nerves because:

Well, science knows it doesn't know everything, otherwise it'd stop... Just 'cos science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.

Just when you find yourself about to say 'Dawkins! Leave it! 'He's not worth it!' up pops somebody like John Gray and makes you remember that he's not just there to speak up against the crazies in the world's unfortunate Islamic Republics or the Tea-Partying Bible-Belt of the USA. He's also there to remind us that some of our own respected talking heads and public intellectuals need to raise their game and sharpen up their arguments, rather than clogging up the public's ears with this sort of chicken shit for the soul.

 * With a few exceptions.