In conversation with Roy Eisenhardt
Monday, October 30, 2006 8pm
The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
Thirty years ago, British scientist Richard Dawkins set out to explain the newest and most thought-provoking theories of evolutionary biology to a wider audience. Written with clear and vivid prose, Dawkin’s groundbreaking book The Selfish Gene reignited Darwinian theory and synthesized broad ideas on natural selection, influencing both his peers and the public. Throughout his prestigious writing career in books including Unweaving the Rainbow, A Devil’s Chaplain, and The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins has exposed many common misperceptions of evolutionary theory. A rationalist and vocal atheist, Dawkins asserts the irrational belief in God in his most recent book The God Delusion. Dawkins firmly roots The God Delusion in historical arguments for a divine being, from St. Augustine onwards, and negates influential theologians. His impassioned rebuttal compellingly shows how religious fervor fuels wars, compounds bigotry, and perpetuates oppression in human society. One of the most influential scientists of our time, Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.
Roy Eisenhardt was President of the Oakland Athletics baseball team from 1981 - 1987. He was the subject of a 1983 Roger Angell Profile in The New Yorker.
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
3301 Lyon Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
A dismally unctuous editorial in the British newspaper the Independent recently asked for a reconciliation between science and “theology.” It remarked that “People want to know as much as possible about their origins.” I certainly hope they do, but what on earth makes one think that theology has anything useful to say on the subject?
Science is responsible for the following knowledge about our origins. We know approximately when the universe began and why it is largely hydrogen. We know why stars form and what happens in their interiors to convert hydrogen to the other elements and hence give birth to chemistry in a world of physics. We know the fundamental principles of how a world of chemistry can become biology through the arising of self-replicating molecules. We know how the principle of self-replication gives rise, through Darwinian selection, to all life, including humans.
It is science and science alone that has given us this knowledge and given it, moreover., in fascinating, over-whelming, mutually confirming detail. On every one of these questions theology has held a view that has been conclusively proved wrong. Science has eradicated smallpox, can immunize against most previously deadly viruses, can kill most previously deadly bacteria. Theology has done nothing but talk of pestilence as the wages of sin. Science can predict when a particular comet will reappear and, to the second, when the next eclipse will appear. Science has put men on the moon and hurtled reconnaissance rockets around Saturn and Jupiter. Science can tell you the age of a particular fossil and that the Turin Shroud is a medieval fake. Science knows the precise DNA instructions of several viruses and will, in the lifetime of many present readers, do the same for the human genome.
What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?
(apologies for gratuitous use of periods at the end—HAD to widen the thread; I get claustrophobic )
Snake Oil and Holy Water
by Richard Dawkins
Are science and religion converging? No.
There are modern scientists whose words sound religious but whose beliefs, on close examination, turn out to be identical to those of other scientists who call themselves atheists. Ursula Goodenough’s lyrical book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, is sold as a religious book, is endorsed by theologians on the back cover, and its chapters are liberally laced with prayers and devotional meditations.
Yet, by the book’s own account, Goodenough does not believe in any sort of supreme being, does not believe in any sort of life after death. By any normal understanding of the English language, she is no more religious than I am. She shares with other atheistic scientists a feeling of awe at the majesty of the universe and the intricate complexity of life. Indeed, the jacket copy for her book—the message that science does not “point to an existence that is bleak, devoid of meaning, pointless,” but on the contrary “can be a wellspring of solace and hope”—would have been equally suitable for my book, Unweaving the Rainbow, or Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. If that is religion, then I am a deeply religious man. But it isn’t. And I’m not. As far as I can tell, my “atheistic” views are identical to Ursula’s “religious” ones. One of us is misusing the English language, and I don’t think it’s me.
Goodenough happens to be a biologist, but this kind of neo-Deistic pseudoreligion is more often associated with physicists. In Stephen Hawking’s case, I hasten to insist, the accusation is unjust. His much-quotd phrase, “the mind of God,” no more indicates belief in God than my saying, “God knows!” as a way of indicating that I don’t. I suspect the same of Einstein invoking “dear Lord” to personify the laws of physics. Paul Davies, however, adopted Hawking’s phrase as the title of a book that went on to earn the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, the most lucrative prize in the world today, prestigious enough to be presented in Westminster Abbey. The philosopher Daniel Dennett once remarked to me in Faustian vein: “Richard, if ever you fall on hard times…”
If you count Einstein and Hawking as religious, if you allow the cosmic awe of Goodenough, Davies, Sagan, and me as true religion, then religion and science have indeed merged, especially when you factor in such atheistic priests as Don Cupitt and many university chaplains. But if the term religion is allowed such a flabbily elastic definition, what word is left for conventional religion, religion as the ordinary person in the pew or on the prayer mat understands it today—indeed, as any intellectual would have understood it in previous centuries, when intellectuals were religious like everybody else?
If God is a synonym for the deepest principles of physics, what word is left for a hypothetical being who answers prayers, intervenes to save cancer patients or helps evolution over difficult jumps, forgives sins or dies for them? If we are allowed to relabel scientific awe as a religious impulse, the case goes through on the nod. You have redefined science as religion, so it’s hardly surprising if they turn out to “converge.”
Another kind of marriage has been alleged between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. The argument goes as follows: Quantum mechanics, that brilliantly successful flagship theory of modern science, is deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Eastern mystics have always been deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Therefore, Eastern mystics must have been talking about quantum theory all along.
Similar mileage is made of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (“Aren’t we all, in a very real sense, uncertain?”), fuzzy logic (“Yes, it’s okay for you to be fuzzy, too”), chaos and complexity theory (the butterfly effect, the Platonic, hidden beauty of the Mandelbrot Set—you name it, somebody has mysticized it and turned it into dollars). You can buy any number of books on “quantum healing,” not to mention quantum psychology, quantum responsibility, quantum morality, quantum immortality, and quantum theology. I haven’t found a book on quantum feminism, quantum financial management, or Afro-quantum theory, but give it time.
The whole dippy business is ably exposed by the physicist Victor Stenger in his book, The Unconscious Quantum, from which the following gem is taken. In a lecture on “Afrocentric healing,” the psychiatrist Patricia Newton said that traditional healers “are able to tap that other realm of negative entropy—that superquantum velocity and frequency of electromagnetic energy—and bring them as conduits down to our level. It’s not magic. It’s not mumbo jumbo. You will see the dawn of the 21st century, the new medical quantum physics really distributing these energies and what they are doing.”
Sorry, but mumbo jumbo is precisely what it is. Not African mumbo jumbo but pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo, down to the trademark misuse of the word energy. It is also religion, masquerading as science in a cloying love feast of bogus convergence.
In 1996 the Vatican, fresh from its magnanimous reconciliation with Galileo, a mere 350 years after his death, publicly announced that evolution had been promoted from tentative hypothesis to accepted theory of science. This is less dramatic than many American Protestants think it is, for the Roman Catholic Church has never been noted for biblical literalism—on the contrary, it has treated the Bible with suspicion, as something close to a subversive document, needing to be carefully filtered through priests rather than given raw to congregations. The pope’s recent message on evolution has, nevertheless, been hailed as another example of late-20th-century convergence between science and religion.
Responses to the pope’s message exhibited liberal intellectuals at their worst, falling over themselves in their eagerness to concede to religion its own magisterium, of equal importance to that of science, but not opposed to it. Such agnostic conciliation is, once again, easy to mistake for a genuine meeting of minds.
At its most naive, this appeasement policy partitions the intellectual territory into “how questions” (science) and “why questions” (religion). What are “why questions,” and why should we feel entitled to think they deserve an answer? There may be some deep questions about the cosmos that are forever beyond science. The mistake is to think that they are therefore not beyond religion, too.
I once asked a distinguished astronomer, a fellow of my college, to explain the big bang theory to me. He did so to the best of his (and my) ability, and I then asked what it was about the fundamental laws of physics that made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible. “Ah,” he smiled, “now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand you over to our good friend, the chaplain.” But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef? Of course chaplains, unlike chefs and gardeners, claim to have some insight into ultimate questions. But what reason have we ever been given for taking their claims seriously? Once again, I suspect that my friend, the professor of astronomy, was using the Einstein/Hawking trick of letting “God” stand for “That which we don’t understand.” It would be a harmless trick if it were not continually misunderstood by those hungry to misunderstand it. In any case, optimists among scientists, of whom I am one, will insist, “That which we don’t understand” means only “That which we don’t yet understand.” Science is still working on the problem. We don’t know where, or even whether, we ultimately shall be brought up short.
Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can’t prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can’t disprove it. But that doesn’t mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn’t.
Now, if it be retorted that there actually are reasons X, Y, and Z for finding a supreme being more plausible than a teapot, then X, Y, and Z should be spelled out—because, if legitimate, they are proper scientific arguments that should be evaluated. Don’t protect them from scrutiny behind a screen of agnostic tolerance. If religious arguments are actually better than Atkins’ teapot theory, let us hear the case. Otherwise, let those who call themselves agnostic with respect to religion add that they are equally agnostic about orbiting teapots. At the same time, modern theists might acknowledge that, when it comes to Baal and the golden calf, Thor and Wotan, Poseidon and Apollo, Mithras and Ammon Ra, they are actually atheists. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.
In any case, the belief that religion and science occupy separate magisteria is dishonest. It founders on the undeniable fact that religions still make claims about the world that on analysis turn out to be scientific claims. Moreover, religious apologists try to have it both ways. When talking to intellectuals, they carefully keep off science’s turf, safe inside the separate and invulnerable religious magisterium. But when talking to a nonintellectual mass audience, they make wanton use of miracle stories—which are blatant intrusions into scientific territory.
The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the raising of Lazarus, even the Old Testament miracles, all are freely used for religious propaganda, and they are very effective with an audience of unsophisticates and children. Every one of these miracles amounts to a violation of the normal running of the natural world. Theologians should make a choice. You can claim your own magisterium, separate from science’s but still deserving of respect. But in that case, you must renounce miracles. Or you can keep your Lourdes and your miracles and enjoy their huge recruiting potential among the uneducated. But then you must kiss goodbye to separate magisteria and your high-minded aspiration to converge with science.
The desire to have it both ways is not surprising in a good propagandist. What is surprising is the readiness of liberal agnostics to go along with it, and their readiness to write off, as simplistic, insensitive extremists, those of us with the temerity to blow the whistle. The whistle-blowers are accused of imagining an outdated caricature of religion in which God has a long white beard and lives in a physical place called heaven. Nowadays, we are told, religion has moved on. Heaven is not a physical place, and God does not have a physical body where a beard might sit. Well, yes, admirable: separate magisteria, real convergence. But the doctrine of the Assumption was defined as an Article of Faith by Pope Pius XII as recently as November 1, 1950, and is binding on all Catholics. It clearly states that the body of Mary was taken into heaven and reunited with her soul. What can that mean, if not that heaven is a physical place containing bodies? To repeat, this is not a quaint and obsolete tradition with just a purely symbolic significance. It has officially, and recently, been declared to be literally true.
Convergence? Only when it suits. To an honest judge, the alleged marriage between religion and science is a shallow, empty, spin-doctored sham.
(Richard Dawkins is a professor at Oxford University. His books include The Selfish Gene and, most recently, Unweaving the Rainbow.)
As important as it is to recognize that theology is a failed intellectual enterprise, it is moreso to acknowledge that the vast majority of human beings alive and ever to be born cannot function from day to day without this concoction, and are essentially ineducable.
Evolution is the tale of populations as much as anything. Draw your own conclusions.
You know, that last post you did of his thoughts, Mia, got me thinking about these fantastical miracles in the bible and all the people who believe that they happen. There is a sort of evolution of the mind that happens once one looks around the world to see that these miracles do not happen today. It’s a quickening of sorts. Yet many religions claim that miracles happen all the time. Opposing religions claim them. All religions, even atheists have their miracles.
It’s a dumbing down of the word miracle. Or if a truly spectacular occurance comes about, it is never able to be substantiated.
Thank you for the posts, Mia. I enjoy reading Dawkins and in general I agree with him. He explains in some detail my reasons for preferring to call myself an atheist rather than an agnostic. Both terms are misleading if there is no further explanation, but “agnostic” is more misleading.
In what follows, I express some disagreement with the implications of a rhetorical question Dawkins wrote.
What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?
Religion would not have survived and thrived if it offered no benefits to anyone. Theology in the form of some religious doctrines offers comfort and various kinds of support to believers. Believers receive assurances that they are individually loved by an all-powerful father figure. (What a thrilling notion the Christian has: He who has unlimited knowledge, power, and benevolence cares about poor little me, one six-billionth of living humanity, though he knows in intimate detail all my short-comings, erroneous thoughts, and misbehavior.) Believers while mourning receive further assurances that they will (or might) be reunited with their loved ones in a life after this life. That comfort may assist believers through difficult times. I think this comfort of at least some small use to some people.
You recall that I support a Freudian idea that religion is a shared neurosis just as neurosis is a private religion. The neurotic holds onto his neurosis for the benefits it confers. If there were no benefits whatever, he would be much more likely to abandon the neurosis. It is not that religion has no benefits. It is that religion’s benefits come at too high a price. That price includes accepting dubious propositions as certain although the evidence is inadequate or contrary. This is a big step toward a pernicious habit of ignoring reality in favor of wishful thinking. Further, religious teaching commonly includes much that is terrifying, not just things which might be comforting. Consider “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and “Many are called but few are chosen”. The devout have to accept a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in accepting views such as “God knew that the tsunami would kill many people, including innocent children. He could have prevented it. Being benevolent, he would have prevented it. Nevertheless, the tsunami happened.”
From Edward Gibbons, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on what theology in the form of religious practice did for one man:
He (Gibbons) tells the story of a Benedictine abbot who confessed: “‘My vow of poverty has given me an hundred thousand crowns a year; my vow of obedience has raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince. — I forget the consequences of his vow of chastity.”
The Church has always been willing to swap off treasures in heaven for cash down.—Robert Green Ingersoll
It does placate those torn by loss and poverty, and I’m of course not keen on demanding that people with next to nothing (or worse than nothing) abandon the one thing that makes life even vaguely endurable. If only faith did not so often lead to violent clashes and control, and was practiced only for its comforts—like hugging a teddy bear, or hearing mom tell you everything is going to work out just fine—then these many books would hardly be necessary. We’re so insulated in the USA, thus far. The violent and controlling expressions of this ‘comfort’ aren’t on every street corner, or leveling our villages; it still takes a flood, tornado or catastrophic quake to do that. Christians also don’t execute ex-Christians.
As many of us have discovered, though, the comfort aspect does not protect us from an unpredictable invasion of logic, else I would still be in the grips of it, comfortably numb. Some upredictable correlation of evidence intersected my beliefs and forced a process. Obviously the comforts were still desirable, it’s just that they began to feel childlike, like waking up from a great dream as a kid, or a drug stupor. The stupor was more pleasant, but that’s largely because I was cherrypicking my perception of God & Heaven. I suspect most Christians cherrypick dramatically—how many think there’s a real chance God will send them to Hell?
As it turned out, I was completely off-base in my belief about reunion in Heaven, anyway, since Christianity says we will not be married in Heaven, nor will the parent/child relationship be in place there. In fact, we may not have any memory of each other at all; there is no evidence in the Bible indicating that we will even experience recognition, other than, presumably, to know and adore the ‘face’ of God/Jesus/HolyGhost. I didn’t know about this before my deconversion ‘happened’—my upbringing had been infused with all variety of flowery Heaven notions, so I envisioned a great reunion, not riches—and am convinced that [knowing there could be no reunion] would have quickened my awakening.
I suspect most Christians cherrypick dramatically—how many think there’s a real chance God will send them to Hell?
I have the same suspicion. In recent years, I have had contact with many people who are mourning the deaths of people they loved. Sad to say, they are grieving for parents, siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren, grandparents, friends, lovers, and on and on. I frequently encountered expressions meaning that the one who died has gone to Heaven. (“She’s in a better place now,” or something like that, a woman said of her young adult daughter who died Christmas Eve of cancer.) Never once did I hear anyone suggest that Hell was even the faintest possibility for the people they loved or for themselves or for anyone else. Cherry picking indeed.
One woman, mourning her son, told me that her priest had said “You know three things: where your son is now, who he is with, and that when you see him again, it will be forever.” I didn’t say what I thought, namely, that that was an impressively kind, gentle, generous, humane comment—seemingly assuming Heaven for both her and her son, and intending consolation to the grief-stricken mother—but not obviously in accord with Catholic doctrine. It is not what I would expect from the Church’s stern insistence on Justice for us but not for our alleged maker. You know, the One who, they say, requires us to believe in Divine Three-in-One Oil as a condition for salvation and then hides from our view.
Having lived in an intellectual cave for many years it is interesting to come out into the world and see what is in the air.
I just read the articles here by Dawkins, which gives his take on the state of religion and science.
“Ignorance is bliss”, the religious fanatic sees and lives in a fantasy of the imagination, dogma bound and stifled until all that is seen and felt comes from within the deeper inner reaches of the fairytale self created world.
Dawkins on the other hand represents the “bliss of ignorance”. In the self imposed state of higher knowledge all that is not yet studied cannot be important. So opinions and formulations come from this arrogantly blissful state “knowledgeable ignorance”.
The human race has barely crawled out of the muck intellectually. Scientifically we are just over a hundred years from the first powered flight and still at the early beginnings of any true understanding of the nature of our Universe. I highly suspect even the Big Bang theory until the before and regenerative states can be clearly understood. Most scientist, let alone lay people I suspect don’t understand there is no such thing as random chance, or a random piece of matter or energy how ever you want to call it. Ever spec of everything has an orchestrated non linear probability that precludes purely random movement or spacing. Just something as simple as a circle does not exist in reality in any form, nor even mathematically, it is a construct of our imagination. The world really is not what we think it is or seems to be.
Some few things are coming into clearer view through science and that is the stupendous, mystifying, miraculous world we really do live in. Science through its micro managed view of things sometimes misses the big picture. Still there is a marriage of understanding the real world utilizing our intelligent mind through scientific principle that brings into outline the nature of reality as we experience it.
Nothing is as complicated a subject as science and religion. To do justice to ether would take more than volumes. To do justice to both certainly takes more than a few paragraphs, or my poor writing skills
Cutting to the chase there is a “science of belief”. A close examination of the world and how we exist in this world makes it clear this is so. There is no easy answer to anything, but one thing is clear the atheist is just as wrong in his thinking and view of the world as the false prophet is. The atheist does worship at the alter of metaphysical philosophies and pondering. The ability to do so is at the heart of the nature of the Universe. If one cannot see one’s self as a swirling cloud of self conscious matter formed by the eons of time as the inevitable consequence of matter left to its blueprinted own devices, you don’t understand science as we know it today.
What is left to the understanding mind is that using a defining team like God will always be a question left wanting proper definition. What the word God means or is, is irrelevant, what is relevant is we can ask the question. Why is it that the Universe left to time and its blueprint creates self aware beings that can contemplate its own self-awareness and in this contemplation seemingly at any place or time in this Universe be it here on earth or anyplace will always ask these same questions. What are we, who are we, where did we come from, from these metaphysical questioning, meaning and purpose are contrived. Metaphysical questioning is hard wired into the beings that have the greater intelligence, self-awareness and ability to effect the inanimate matter around themselves in the most complex ways. From this understanding comes the “science of belief”. It is as real as any truthful fact, for even in the distracters denial of its truth comes confirmation of the reality.
Ah, El Topo, I’m sorry to hear that. I will be there, my first time hearing Richard, other than on the God Who Wasn’t There dvd. Sorry also to report, too late, that Richard was apparently at a Palo Alto bookstore tonight to do a signing for the new book.
You say Sam was in SF yesterday? What was that—a book signing? Details, please :D.
Mia, he was at UCSF as part of the Atlantic Monthly “Day of Ideas”. It was an all day event, and Sam was the last speaker. The moderator was great at being “The Devil’s Advocate”, and so it was an interesting but brief discussion (only an hour long, including audience questions).
There was a book singing afterward, but unfortunately I had to leave before I had a chance to get my books signed. It was pretty well attended (I think I spotted Tracy Chapman in the audience?).
Thanks for the info, El Topo. . . I’m just bugged that I don’t know where to find out in advance about events like this—does Sam publish his appearance schedule on another part of this site? I would’ve loved to see that.