Why Are Unicorns Hollow?
Richard Dawkins is that evolutionary theorist and science writer who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Yep, they have one of those. And he first came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which oddly enough introduced the term meme to us all, and started the whole field of memetics. There is one of those too. But the book was actually about something else - "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities." Our genes drive our behaviors - they're just working on replicating. And that even explains altruism. Of course altruism should be an unexplainable paradox to the Darwin folks - helping others costs precious resources and can even limit one's own health, and life. So it shouldn't have anything to do with Darwinian survival of the fittest and all. Others had said it was a group thing - individuals were doing what was best for the survival of the population or species. One of Dawkins' Oxford buddies, W. D. Hamilton, said altruism arose as a matter of kin selection - individuals behave altruistically towards their close relatives, as they share many of their own genes. Another fellow, Robert Trivers, had his theory of reciprocal altruism - one organism provides a benefit to another in the expectation of future reciprocation. Dawkins popularized all this and too it down to the gene level - natural selection is "the process whereby replicators out-propagate each other" and that explains all behaviors. And other books followed.
But Dawkins is best known as an outspoken atheist and foe of "Creationism," which he has called a "preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood." As for religion in general, he has his credentials - Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, vice president of the British Humanist Association and a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland. He calls religion a "virus of the mind, and in 2003, the Atheist Alliance set up the Richard Dawkins Award in his honor. He has nothing but contempt for religious extremism - Islamic with its terrorism to Christian fundamentalist and its silliness. He's big on education and consciousness-raising as the main tools for opposing religious dogma. And he invented the term "Bright" to describe his side of things, a bit of improving the image of atheists. Lots of folks resent that, of course.
As for 9/11 and where were are now, he's said this -
Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!
And he certainly stopped. He's through playing nice.
If one is to believe Wikipedia, Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya, had "a normal Anglican upbringing" and just never got the God thing at all. He began doubting the existence of God when he was about nine years old - the customs of the Church of England seemed "absurd" and had more to do with dictating morals than with God. Then he stumbled on evolution when he was sixteen, and that was that - evolution and science could account for the complexity of most everything in simply material terms, and no "designer" was necessary. And the rest is history. From 1967 to 1969 he was out here - assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. Then it was Oxford. The only other detail is the amusing fact that he met his third wife, Lalla Ward, through their mutual friend Douglas Adams, who worked with the woman on the BBC series "Doctor Who," before Adams became famous with the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" stuff. Adams and Dawkins think alike, and their irreverent Brit attitudes match. That's kind of cool.
But Americans never quite got the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy thing - far too clever and too British. There was even the movie - and that bombed. And if they don't get Arthur Dent, they certainly don't get Richard Dawkins, and his actual first name is Clinton, which is really unfortunate. And he's an atheist.
We are a religious people. Consider this from Madison's Capital Times -
The main spokeswoman for a group supporting Wisconsin's proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions has little regard for the separation of church and state, which she calls a "fictitious wall."
"Speaking of it as if it has some kind of constitutional authority is completely bogus," said Julaine Appling, president of the Wisconsin Family Research Institute, at a debate Thursday at Edgewood High School.
So much for the constitution and that pesky first amendment that says the government cannot establish a state religion. The guys in Philadelphia way back when were just kidding? Well, they might have been. You never know.
And everyone knows Jesus hates gay folks, and the current House scandal is upsetting, so you find Cliff Kinkaid of the religious right of Accuracy in Media (they set the record straight, of course) saying this - "It's early in the probe, but we may be looking at emerging evidence of a homosexual recruitment ring that operated on Capitol Hill."
But Dick Armey, über-Republican, is getting worried -
Freedom is a gift from God Almighty, and we have a responsibility to protect it. Christians face a temptation to power when we are fortunate enough to have a majority of support in Congress. But government can never advance a faith that is freely given, and it is corrosive to even try.
... And so America's Christian conservative movement is confronted with this divide: small government advocates who want to practice their faith independent of heavy-handed government versus big government sympathizers who want to impose their version of "righteousness" on others through the hammer of law.
Yep, we all believe, but let's not get all crazy here.
Enter Richard Dawkins in a new interview - The Flying Spaghetti Monster - sure to stir things up even more. (As mentioned elsewhere, see this in these pages from August 2005 on this monster, with an illustration.) Now we have an interview conducted by Steve Paulson for SALON.COM - and it's long and nicely outrageous, and worth a careful read. Paulson says Dawkins is religion's chief prosecutor - "Darwin's rottweiler," as one magazine called him - and perhaps the world's most famous atheist. Speaking to the American Humanist Association, Dawkins once said, "I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." The occasion here is the publication of Dawkins' new book The God Delusion.
Here are some highlights.
Why he became an Atheist -
I started getting doubts when I was about 9 and realized that there are lots of different religions and they can't all be right. And which one I happened to be brought up in was an arbitrary accident. I then sort of went back to religion around the age of 12, and then finally left it at the age of 15 or 16.
So God and religion just did not make sense intellectually and he turned against religion because of that, of all things?
Yes, purely intellectually. I was never much bothered about moral questions like, how could there be a good God when there's so much evil in the world? For me, it was always an intellectual thing. I wanted to know the explanation for the existence of all things. I was particularly fascinated by living things. And when I discovered the Darwinian explanation, which is so stunningly elegant and powerful, I realized that you really don't need any kind of supernatural force to explain it.
But isn't he really an agnostic?
Well, if you wish -
Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.
There goes again, being all logical.
And he's asked about the link between being logical and intelligent and an atheist - isn't that elitist?
It's certainly elitist. What's wrong with being elitist, if you are trying to encourage people to join the elite rather than being exclusive? I'm very, very keen that people should raise their game rather than the other way around. As for citing the evidence, a number of studies have been done. The one meta-analysis of this that I know of was published in Mensa Magazine. It looked at 43 studies on the relationship between educational level or IQ and religion. And in 39 out of 43 - that's all but four - there is a correlation between IQ/education and atheism. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist. Or the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist.
Yeah, yeah, but what is so bad about religion?
That question sets him off -
Well, it encourages you to believe falsehoods, to be satisfied with inadequate explanations which really aren't explanations at all. And this is particularly bad because the real explanations, the scientific explanations, are so beautiful and so elegant. Plenty of people never get exposed to the beauties of the scientific explanation for the world and for life. And that's very sad. But it's even sadder if they are actively discouraged from understanding by a systematic attempt in the opposite direction, which is what many religions actually are. But that's only the first of my many reasons for being hostile to religion.
… 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. Whether or not we're actually faithful ourselves, we've been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it's had historically - the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York - all in the name of faith.
But, but, but… there are peaceful religion. And here he concedes -
You certainly need to distinguish them. They are very different. However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children - sometimes even indoctrinating children - to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith. Now, the faith of these moderate people is in itself harmless. But the idea that faith needs to be respected is instilled into children sitting in rows in their madrasahs in the Muslim world. And they are told these things not by extremists but by decent, moderate teachers and mullahs. But when they grow up, a small minority of them remember what they were told. They remember reading their holy book, and they take it literally. They really do believe it. Now, the moderate ones don't really believe it, but they have taught children that faith is a virtue. And it only takes a minority to believe what it says in the holy book - the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Quran, whatever it is. If you believe it's literally true, then there's scarcely any limit to the evil things you might do.
That's not much of concession, but then you have to decide what to teach the kids -
I would say that parents should teach their children anything that's known to be factually true - like "that's a bluebird" or "that's a bald eagle." Or they could teach children that there are such things as religious beliefs. But to teach children that it is a fact that there is one god or that God created the world in six days, that is child abuse.
… Children ask questions. And when a child says, "Why is it wrong to do so and so?" you can perfectly well answer that by saying, "Well, how would you like it if somebody else did that to you?" That's a way of imparting to a child the Golden Rule: "Do as you would be done by." The world would fall apart if everybody stole things from everybody else, so it's a bad thing to steal. If a child says, "Why can't I eat meat?" then you can say, "Your mother and I believe that it's wrong to eat meat for this, that and the other reason. We are vegetarians. You can decide when you're older whether you want to be a vegetarian or not. But for the moment, you're living in this house, so the food we give you is not meat." That I could see. I think it's child abuse not to let the child have the free choice of knowing there are other people who believe something quite different and the child could make its own choice.
So much for Jesus Camp and the next generation of Christian warriors.
And as for science and religion coexisting and getting along together - the moderate American compromise view - where science deals with the "how" questions and religion deals with the "why" questions and we all get along -
I think that's remarkably stupid, if I may say so. What on earth is a "why" question? There are "why" questions that mean something in a Darwinian world. We say, why do birds have wings? To fly with. And that's a Darwinian translation of the evolutionary process whereby the birds that had wings survived better than the birds without. They don't mean that, though. They mean "why" in a deliberate, purposeful sense. So when you say religion deals with "why" questions, that begs the entire question that we're arguing about. Those of us who don't believe in religion - supernatural religion - would say there is no such thing as a "why" question in that sense. Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer.
But, but, but… science doesn't say anything about why we're here, and religion does. Doesn't that count for something?
Paulson flat-out asks him, what he, as an atheist, sees as our purpose of life.
Ready? Here it is, the answer to the BIG QUESTION -
It's not a question that deserves an answer.
… If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I'm saying that is quite simply begging the question. If you happen to be religious, you think that's a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn't mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don't believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn't be put. It's not a proper question to put. It doesn't deserve an answer.
… There are core questions like, how did the universe begin? Where do the laws of physics come from? Where does life come from? Why, after billions of years, did life originate on this planet and then start evolving? Those are all perfectly legitimate questions to which science can give answers, if not now, then we hope in the future. There may be some very, very deep questions, perhaps even where do the laws of physics come from, that science will never answer. That is perfectly possible. I am hopeful, along with some physicists, that science will one day answer that question. But even if it doesn't - even if there are some supremely deep questions to which science can never answer - what on earth makes you think that religion can answer those questions?
As you recall, the comic version of this response is the answer to the BIG QUESTION ABOUT EVERYTHING in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" - after the long search and all the adventures it was… 42.
It'll do. If you're going to make things up, or say it was written by someone three thousand years ago and seven translations deep, one thing is as good as another.
This is followed by a great deal on the war between the intelligent design folks and the scientists - our new Scopes trails in Pennsylvania and Kansas - and it's amazing, but it comes down to this -
There are two ways of responding to mystery. The scientist's way is to see it as a challenge, something they've got to work on - we're really going to try to crack it. But there are others who revel in mystery, who think we were not meant to understand. There's something sacred about mystery that positively should not be tackled. Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label "religion" to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we're not really arguing. We're simply using a word, "God," for that which science can't explain. I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with saying God is a supernatural, creative, intelligent being. It's simple confusion to say science can't explain certain things; therefore, we have to be religious. To equate that kind of religiousness with belief in a personal, intelligent being, that's confusion. And it's pernicious confusion.
Yeah, but why should we even worry about such things?
When the book was first published in the UK the previous month, Joan Bakewell, explained in The Guardian -
These are now political matters. Around the world communities are increasingly defined as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and living peaceably together is ever harder to sustain. Champions of each faith maintain its superiority to the rest. Recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI show the man in his true colors: an absolutist pointing up with intellectual precision the incompatibility of Islam and Christianity. He did this long before he was Pope, writing the declaration of John Paul II that all religions other than the Catholic faith were defective. Since his election he has demoted efforts at rapprochement with Islam and, on a visit to Auschwitz, failed to address the papacy's collusion with Nazism. The Pope is, of course, held to be infallible by the Catholic Church. Islam's response to all this - "if you dare to say we're a violent religion, then we'll kill you!" - compounds not only the idiocy of rival dogmas but also the dangers. Islam's sharia law invests the law of the land with its own religious and often brutal priorities. Apostasy is punishable by death, as is homosexuality. Christian observance is put under increasing pressure.
Dawkins is right to be not only angry but alarmed. Religions have the secular world running scared. This book is a clarion call to cower no longer. Primed by anger, redeemed by humor, it will, I trust, offend many.
It will certainly do that on this side of the pond.
And why are unicorns hollow? The answer is clear - 42, of course.
Posted Sunday, October 15, 2006