Debating Religion and Science with a Post-Secular Prophet

A Time article from a few years ago presents highlights from a debate between two scientists of evolution and genetics, Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins.  The topic: the tension between religion and science (as the article puts it, “God vs. Science”).  I work with a lot of people doing religious studies and theology, and I find that Dawkins doesn’t get the respect he deserves not as a scientist (he gets that respect) but as a theorist of society and religion.  I consider Dawkins an ally in a war against the anti-intellectualism propogated by some forms of religiosity. 

Dawkins and Collins both make some good points throughout the debate.  Perhaps the best point is this: Dawkins (an atheist) and Collins (a Christian) both agree that religion and science are not the non-overlapping magisteria envisioned by Stephan Jay Gould.  For better and for worse, religion and science overlap all the time.

They discuss the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God, although without explicitly designating them as such.  Referring to the statistical improbability of the natural laws that have allowed life and human consciousness to emerge in the universe, Dawkins finds no reason to posit a God to explain the cause of those laws.  Perhaps further research will reveal a unified theory for which those laws and constants are not so improbable, or perhaps our universe is one among multiple universes, thus also diminishing the improbability.  Collins disagrees that a unified theory is coming and, using Ockham’s razor, he claims that God is a better explanation than a multiverse because it is a simpler explanation.  I am not convinced by that use of Ockham’s razor.  The multiverse hypothesis makes fewer new suppositions than the God hypothesis.  Both hypotheses posit something external to the universe, but the externality of the multiverse hypothesis is just a multiplicity of finite things (more universes), whereas the God hypothesis posits another thing (God) and also has to posit a different (transcendent, eternal) order of being for that thing. 

They discuss miracles (Collins is fine with them, Dawkins thinks they’re anti-science and anti-intellectual), but what’s noteworthy is that they both follow Hume (implicitly) in defining miracles as violations of the laws of nature, which I think is simply a bad definition.  They also touch on morality, which Collins derives from God and Dawkins derives from evolution (like Darwin’s evolution of social sentiments, which is Drawin developed out of Hume’s and Smith’s concepts of moral sentiments).  Collins’ divine morality results in cosmic tensions between good and evil, whereas Dawkins takes a more Nietzschean tone is asserting that there is no good and evil as such, there are only good things and bad things that happen in particular contexts.

Particularly interesting is that, throughout the debate, Dawkins reiterates his openness to the possibility that there is something “incredibly grand and incomprehensible” that exceeds our present understanding.  It could be God, but it could be billions of gods, and if it is a God or gods, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to be the same as or similar to the God of transcendental monotheism.  Dawkins sounds more agnostic than atheist sometimes.  Not only agnostic, sometimes he sounds prophetic.  Just as prophets criticize idols and call for more authentic engagements with reality, Dawkins criticizes religion and calls for attention to the actual world around us here and now, rejuvenating wonder at the “magic of reality” while resisting any claims that posit an ontotheological superbeing .  A postsecular prophet?

“If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.”

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2 responses to “Debating Religion and Science with a Post-Secular Prophet

  • Matthew David Segall

    Hey Sam,

    I don’t know, I’ve always thought Dan Dennett was the nicest New Atheist, Hitchens the funniest, and Harris the hippest. Dawkins’ conception of science seems very 19th century to me. His vitriol only adds fuel to the fundamentalist fire. Instead of calling creationists “IDiots,” I think there is still hope for fruitful dialogue. It requires not assuming from the beginning that empirico-mathemtical science is the only valid way of knowing. After all, if it were, most of biology would no longer count as science.

    Dawkins knows very little about religion and theology, but he may be doing a good job with the public understanding of science. That said, I think he could learn something from thinkers like Whitehead about the philosophy of science. I say his understanding of science is rather 19th century because he almost always falls prey to thinking nature as bifurcated. I wrote about this a few months ago: http://footnotes2plato.com/2011/06/08/beyond-the-bifurcation-of-nature/

  • sam

    Thanks for your comments, Matt. I like your characterization of the New Atheists. The nicest, the funniest, the hippest. Sounds like a boy band. Does that make Dawkins the bad boy? Caricatures aside, I don’t know if any scientist is easily labeled by a century. Regardless, Dawkins has made some important contributions to evolutionary theory, despite and/or because of any intellectual commitments he has to nature/culture bifurcations. Dualisms and nature/culture bifurcations aren’t all bad.

    Dawkins might know more about religion and theology than he admits or fully knows. Maybe it’s because I grew up around a lot of fundamentalists and anti-intellectual Christians, but I think “IDiots” is a funny term. I also think Bill Hicks is a brilliant philosopher of religion. Philosophy shouldn’t restrict itself to PC language or to diplomacy. It shouldn’t refrain from calling out stupidity when it sees it. And philosophy shouldn’t limit itself to doing things that don’t have incendiary consequences (fueling fires). Diagnosing ignorance is part of the job description, for better and for worse. I suppose I’m Deleuzian on this one.

    “The use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy which saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy. It is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought.” (Nietzsche and Philosophy)

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