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Thoughts on Religion

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Some thoughts on this comment thread:

  • DJW is absolutely correct to follow up Matt’s condemnation of Dawkins statement on Catholicism. It isn’t just illiberal; it’s virtually totalitarian. Dawkins is, essentially, arguing that raising children as Catholic is worse than sexually abusing them. Since we all agree that sexually abusing children merits the violent retribution of the state, the next logical step is pretty much unavoidable. Dawkins may have been tossing the statement off without really thinking about it (indeed, his “arguably” suggests that he isn’t really willing to stand by it in its strongest form), but it is nonetheless illiberal, particularly if we define liberalism as, in large part, a political recognition of the fact of pluralism.
  • However, when evaluating competing illiberalisms (say, Dawkins vs. Mitt Romney), it obviously merits note that Romney’s illiberalism is far more political powerful and vastly more dangerous than Dawkins’. Thus, it’s entirely reasonable to wonder why people bother to worry about the atheist threat when there remains rather significant Christian and Islamic threats to a liberal order. I’m inclined to think that there’s a “why do you lefties condemn Bush when Ahmadinejad is so much worse” phenomenon going on here; while plenty of liberals have probably given up on the hope of convincing Christians that there is no God, and thus that they should refrain from condemning us to Hell, most of us quite likely know a mildly irritating militant atheist.
  • As for the Dawkins vs. Hitch, as I noted in the comment thread I find Dawkins position if anything less defensible than Hitch’s. Hitch concentrates primarily on the utility of religion, suggesting that religion is an awful thing and has had horrible effects on human culture and society. While I sort of agree with that claim, I also think it’s utterly untestable; religion is so deeply embedded in human culture and society that there’s very little point in trying to pry out and then weigh its positive and negative effects. I most certainly think that religion has had some positive effects; it has inspired great works of art, wonderful architecture, and laudable political action, whether or not these effects are outweighed by the negative. I do think that the strongest claims made by advocates of “religion” aren’t empirically defensible; post-religious Europe seems to be doing just fine, as a substantial decrease in belief in the divine doesn’t seem to have led to anarchy in the streets. But nevertheless, I can only bring myself to say that yes, Hitch is probably right about the effect of religion; I can’t say for sure.
  • I don’t find Dawkins’ arguments on religion, to the extent that I’m familiar with them, at all compelling. Science requires the rejection of unobservable phenomenon as a starting point; if scientists allowed for the possibility that invisible blue elephants controlled the rate of growth of bacteria, then they wouldn’t have much to do. This has nothing to do with the particular religious beliefs of the scientist; it simply requires a commitment to physical rather than spiritual mechanisms for physical phenomena. As conservatives delight in noting, most of the Founders of science were themselves quite religious. This isn’t surprising, since religion has an entirely different relationship with the unobservable, positing that it has some critical (but fundamentally unknowable) relationship with the world that we see. As such, the idea of science disproving religion doesn’t make sense to me; they are two fundamentally different kinds of inquiries. To put it another way, we’re all familiar with the old canard about the possibility of the world being created five minutes ago with all of our memories intact etc. This seem improbable to me, but I don’t have any idea how I would go about measuring just how improbable the argument is. Scientific theories (evolution, Big Bang) can be evaluated, to some extent) on their probability and their fit with the empirical world. Religion can explain the empirical world fully, and strikes me as invulnerable to a probability inquiry. But I’m probably wandering farther into philosophy than I should on this question…
  • As a final note, it seems to me that we’re in danger of granting science a bit too much credit when we put it up against religion in debates like this. Science was made, not found; it is a mode of inquiry that was created by human beings, and it has had and continues to have many of the flaws that those human beings had. I most certainly prefer to have science taught in public high schools than religion, but that is in large part because I think the teaching of religion to be illiberal, and the teaching of science to be a part of the liberal/Enlightenment project. If I actually agreed with Dawkins that a commitment to science required atheism, I would, to be honest, be a little bit more twitchy about having the state unreservedly recommend it.
  • And one more bit on the rational/irrational point; most of the commitments we feel are, in some sense, irrational. I love my wife, and I’m not sure that there’s a version of rationality that can sufficiently explain what that means. I love the Oregon Ducks and hate the Washington Huskies, but I can’t give a rational account for the one vs. the other, or for either instead of some third attachment. As such, if we’re going to start worrying about people have irrational attachments and convictions, religion is only the first of our problems. Moreover, it seems to me that evaluating and condemning such convictions is absolutely the last thing that we should want the state to do.
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