October 2006

I was part of an interesting discussion last night at a party. We got onto science and religion, and one of our number, who I’ll call F, was pretty steadfast in asserting that science and religion were the same sort of thing. Her reasons were partly that science grew out of religion, I think, and partly that both are engaged in a search for truth.

We got side-tracked a bit by trying to define religion in a way which doesn’t include ballroom dancing, say (funny clothes, weekly meetings, rituals… hmmm). Like the judge asked to adjudicate between erotica and pornography, we know religion when we see it, so we agreed that Christianity was a religion, say, so we could talk about that rather than religion in the abstract.

The scientists (or at least, people who’d studied science as undergraduates) argued that the methods that religion and science were the key difference between them. Christianity typically begins with the statements of the church or of the Bible, science typically begins with a hypothesis which is confirmed (or refuted) by experiment. While it’s not true to say that there’s no valid knowledge outside the scientific process, where Christianity does make claims about things happening outside people’s heads, those claims are susceptible to science, per Dawkins.

F made the point that we might eventually supersede the scientific method with something else, and that science might lead us to evidence for the existence of God. Both of these are things which are possible but haven’t happened yet, I suppose.

She also pointed out that people like Dawkins would want to exclude bad or fraudulent scientists from our definition of science, but were happy to rail at the worst of Christianity, people who most Christians think are crazy. In other words, Dawkins is aiming at straw men. I didn’t get a chance to think about this properly, but in the Dawkins case, his argument in The God Delusion is intentionally very broad, and takes in the mainstream version of Christianity as well as the fundamentalists. I’d also add that science is better at correcting for bad science than Christianity is at correcting for bad Christians, precisely because it is actually possible to show someone’s science to be wrong.

We then talked about reality as a construct and F said that maybe there wouldn’t be gravity if people didn’t believe in it. Nobody was willing to jump out of the window and try this, although someone did drop a cracker on the table to confirm that they even keep it on at weekends. We did say that it was easy to see how that might be the case if solipsism were true, but it was hard to see how many minds agreed on a reality if each of them had the power to change it (which sort of begs the question, since we were assuming that people do agree). I mentioned that people on uk.religion.christian who think that matter arises from consciousness, and not vice-versa, who might believe something similar to F.

At the end of it all, scribb1e and I were struck by the failure of the majority, who were scientists or mathematicians by education, to connect with F, a liberal arts person, and vice-versa. I hope F didn’t feel too put upon. More than that, though, I wondered how many people hold similar sort of views to hers, who I never meet because I mainly have these sorts of discussions with scientists.

[ LJ Poll 855650 ]

It seems the right way to respond to Dawkins if you’re a believer is to claim that he’s not actually talking about the God you believe in, but rather the God that only people who don’t have theology degrees or Americans might believe in, laughable simpletons that they are. I’m thinking of Giles Fraser in the Church Times and Terry Eagleton in the LRB.

As I mentioned previously, gjm11 has responded to the Giles Fraser review, so I thought I’d write about the Terry Eagleton review. Both of these are postings to uk.religion.christian, a surprisingly sane Usenet newsgroup (surprising because most other Usenet groups with “Christian” in the title are full of nutters), which you can look at most easily via Google.

I’ve not seen any reviews by evangelicals yet. It’ll be interesting to see what they say, as they can’t really pull off the “not my God” argument.

I’ve read a couple of Richard Dawkins’s books recently, namely his latest, The God Delusion and A Devil’s Chaplain, an earlier book.

A Devil’s Chaplain

A Devil’s Chaplain is good holiday reading (just as well, as we took it to Venice with us). It’s Dawkins in bite-size chunks, a collection of articles on his favourite subjects: evolution, science, pseudo-science, and religion. Most of the articles have been published elsewhere, but enough of them were new to me to make the book interesting.

<lj-cut>With the current publicity for Dawkins-the-atheist, one might forget that Dawkins-the-explainer is remarkably good at his job, and well deserves deserves his Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. He writes clearly and engagingly, and explains complex ideas with flair. His passion for science is shines through in his writing.

Dawkins dispatches the pseudo-scientists while showing that their sideshow tricks are nothing to the wonders of real science. Crystalline truth and crystal balls is a workmanlike example of this, where he mocks the New Age crystal energy nonsense before launching into a description of what crystals really are.

The Information Challenge was particularly interesting to me because of the discussion robhu and I had about evolution and information, back in 2004. In that thread, I linked to the article and suggested that Dawkins hadn’t clearly distinguished between storage capacity and Shannon information. I suppose I must have been skim reading when I read it on the web, because on reading it again in the book, it’s obvious he does make that distinction, and also talks (in the “The Genetic Book of the Dead” section) about information acquired from the environment in the sense of the paper by MacKay we were talking about.

Dawkins also provides the reader with some moving eulogies, notably one to Douglas Adams, whose pathos again gives the lie to the caricature of Dawkins-the-unfeeling-atheist.

The book is certainly worth reading, but don’t expect the depth you’d get from a full length work on a single topic. As I said, it’s bite-size chunks.

The God Delusion

The God Delusion must be the book that Dawkins has been wanting to write for years. It’s well timed. People like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have prepared the ground, and in this country we’re in the middle of a debate about the role of religion in public life (not to mention that any passenger who is parched on a UK to USA flight might find themselves fondly imaging nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too).

Dawkins lines up his definition of theism and then proceeds to knock it down. He’s carefully not to fall into the trap of claiming he has proved that God does not exist, but rather, he argues that God’s existence is overwhelmingly unlikely.

<lj-cut>Dawkins has has no sympathy with Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” (the old idea that science answers “how?” questions and religion answers “why?” questions). As he says, any religion worth its salt (so, excluding deism or the extreme liberalism of people like Cupitt) makes claims that God affects the material world, and these claims are susceptible to scientific inquiry. Giles Fraser, writing in the Church Times objects to definiteness and wants Dawkins to recognise that his God is vaguer than the one Dawkins attacks, an objection which gjm11 dealt with in a posting to uk.religion.christian.

Turning to his area of expertise, Dawkins shows that evolution invalidates arguments from design, and for an encore deals with a host of the other arguments for God with his customary panache.

The book is bracketed by chapters arguing that wonder at the universe need not die with theism. Dawkins is keen to divorce what he calls Einsteinian religion from the theistic sort (Einsteinian because Einstein often referred to “God” as a sort of shorthand for the mystery of the universe, although he wasn’t in fact a theist). It’s obvious to me that non-theists retain that sense of wonder which might be described as spiritual, but I suppose it’s one of the things that theists worry they might lose if they gave up on God.

Dawkins has something of a reputation for being outspoken, not to say arrogant. That’s partly down to the special privileges religion gets, as he mentions in the book. We don’t consider it impolite to disagree with someone’s political views, yet as a society we are extremely careful to show respect to religious behaviour, however outlandish. This is part of a defence mechanism to protect religion, as Douglas Adams has pointed out. It’s not surprising that Dawkins’s decision to ignore this social convention makes people uncomfortable.

The writing is less formal than his earlier works. In some places, Dawkins develops a stream-of-consciousness style, at one point breaking off into a paragraph about how much he misses Douglas Adams (something even the theists can agree with, I guess). He also uses humour to good effect, with some wickedly barbed remarks (he seems to especially dislike the Templeton Prize). scribb1e read the book after me, and laughed out loud at the jokes. I’m not sure this style helps when people are so ready to accuse Dawkins of arrogance, but on the other hand it probably makes the book accessible to a wider audience, which is certainly something Dawkins is aiming for.

There are a few clangers in places where Dawkins cites specific examples of things from the Bible and early church history and gets it wrong (St Paul didn’t, as far as we know, write the Letter to the Hebrews, and to argue that Paul invented Christianity is over-doing it). Proof-reading by someone who knew about that sort of thing wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Nevertheless, the book largely achieves what it sets out to do, and, as I said, it’s about time.

Dawkins is currently promoting the book all over the place. His interview with Jeremy Paxman was particularly good.

The Foundation

Dawkins has also established The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. This looks like it’ll be a lobbying and educational body, both in the UK and the USA. You might not think we need such a thing in the UK. If so, I suggest you read rosamicula‘s recent posting, and remember, it’s describing a British college. But at least such colleges aren’t teaching nonsense as a matter of policy, unlike the government-funded Emmanuel College in Gateshead, who hastily removed their science teaching policy from the web after Dawkins pointed it out in the Telegraph.

One thing Dawkins doesn’t address is the way societies remain religious despite the advances of science. As Andrew Brown puts it:

Some people may ask why, if I am so pessimistic about religion, and believe so much in its destructive power, I am then so rude about Dawkins. Sam Harris, and similar atheists. Don’t they agree with me? Yes. But they’re optimists. They hold out the hope that there can be democratic, peaceful societies committed to the (costly) effort of reason and self-criticism even when this has no obvious benefits, and irrationality no obvious costs. Actually, their assumption is stronger than that. They believe this is the natural, equilibrium state of any society that has discovered science. And it seems to me that this is one of the beliefs that has been completely exploded since about 1950. Or, as Housman put it, the love of truth is the weakest of all human passions.”

I keep thinking there’s a need for a grass-roots movement to do what religion does for people on the small scale. I’m not sure whether it’s a realistic, given that the only thing atheists have in common is the lack of a belief, but it sounds like a nice idea. We could call it the Culture, say.