One of the things that hard-core atheists like Dawkins get wrong IMO is they underestimate the importance of dramatic narrative in people's lives. This is ironic because it is easy to trace this need back to its evolutionary roots. And yet, Dawkins insists, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to deny this simple fact, choosing instead to take the position that acknowledging the power of myth is "condescending."
I believe that at root all humans share an evolved moral intuition whose core features are more or less the same across the entire species. As a result, the divisive rhetoric that tries to separate atheism from other belief systems is counterproductive because it makes people believe that atheism is at odds with their moral intuition, which manifests itself as religion instead of Scientism.
From a practical and political point of view I believe it would be much more constructive and effective for atheism to embrace the proposition that it is a religion rather than positioning itself as the anti-religion. One of the reasons that atheism fails to win more hearts and minds is just that religions have vastly better marketing departments. I think atheists would do well to take a page or two from their books, and that includes the holy ones.
It should come as no surprise to any scientist that there is much that is good in the Bible. If man's behavior is governed by an evolved moral intuition then no book could survive that was fundamentally at odds with that intuition. "Love thy neighbor" and "thou shalt not murder" are really quite fine and dandy ideas, even if they are not the Revealed Word of God.
In fact, because the Bible is an encyclopedic collection of early human thought, it should come as no surprise that there is a lot of wisdom there that goes far beyond these usual moral platitudes. To be sure, there are irreconcilable differences between Science and fundamentalism, but if one leaves even a little room for doubt that every single word in the Bible is literally true (as most people who call themselves Christian do) then there are a lot of opportunities to find common ground.
There is room in a Scientific worldview for the concept of God. Of course, there is no room in the Scientific worldview for God as an extra-physical being, or for the Bible as having any particular standing above any other work of literature. But even within these constraints I think there's a lot of room for reconciliation. Here, then, is a first-draft attempt to construct a literary narrative for atheism, a Scientific Theology.
The core of a Scientific Theology should be an acknowledgement that there are very deep mysteries about our existence, and the very deepest is the manifest asymmetry of every person's perception of reality. The laws of physics are everywhere symmetric, but my perception of reality is radically asymmetric. The laws of physics are the same in all places at all times, but I am here and now. My most basic reality is therefore fundamentally at odds with what is known about the laws of physics, and this naked fact ought to keep Scientists humble about their worldview. There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Richard Dawkins' philosophy, or yours, or mine.
Let us then take "God" to mean all that is mysterious and wonderful about this existence, starting (but not ending) with the fundamental mystery of existence. This is a Deistic "god". It is not a supernatural being, not a bearded man in the sky. We are created in God's image only in the sense that God and we are both part of the great mystery that is reality. We are made of atoms, but that is not all we are made of. There are a lot of atoms in the universe, but only a few of them are us, and that makes those atoms special. At least part of what makes them special is that they are arranged in very particular patterns. One aspect of those patterns is that some of those atoms are arranged to form brains which are collections of atoms that can process information. This is a truly remarkable and wonderful fact, and what is even more wonderful and remarkable is that brains are actually capable of understanding the natural processes that brought them into being, and in that understanding we are brought closer to God.
Scientific Theology utterly rejects the Calvinist point of view, that we are totally depraved and separate from God. We are part of God and God is part of us. We have (at least the illusion of) free will, and we have knowledge of good an evil. Does it really matter whether the source of this knowledge is an evolved moral intuition or a result of eating the Fruit of the Tree?
Unfortunately, the world is not black and white, good and evil. The world is painted in colors and shades of grey. This is our burden, to make our way in a world where the Way is not clear and cannot ever be clear. The world is complicated. This is what makes it at once wonderful and terrible. We are in fact, as Christian theology says, doomed to fall short of perfection. But the Christian looks at this inevitable failure and turns to Christ. The Scientist looks at it and sees it as a challenge. Our purpose in life is not to serve God, it is to make this world and this life as good as it can be, knowing all the while that it will never be as good as it can be. This is what it is to be human, to struggle against the complexity and ambiguity of the universe, knowing the struggle will never end, victory can never be achieved, but to struggle nonetheless, and then to pass the torch to the next generation to continue the never-ending struggle that is life and death and love and regret and yin and yang and all that makes existence wonderful and terrible. This may not be the way we would want it to be, but that is the way it is. And in the end, life would be very boring otherwise. We are born to engage in this existential jihad. Like it or not, that is the purpose of life.
Scientific Theology should be tolerant of alternative points of view. Not everyone lives a good life. Some people are born into horrible suffering, from disease or abusive parents or material want. We should not insist that everyone squarely face the harsh reality of existence. If someone finds salvation, or even solace, in Christ, it would be cruel to take that away from them. There are real problems with fundamentalism and evangelism and virulent anti-scientific ideas like creationism, but if someone wants to believe that Jesus died on the cross to save them from their sins and doesn't insist that everyone else believe it too, I don't see the harm.
Personally, I see God in all of the information-processing that I don't have direct conscious access to, from my DNA to my right-brain, to all that stuff happening in all those other brains in the world, and now in all those computers in the world. There's an awful lot of thinking going on that is beyond my ken. And every now and then I can communicate with all those other information-processes -- through meditation, through email and blogs, or by looking at the stars or gazing at the ocean. My God is mysterious and powerful and wise and it knows things that I don't, but it is not all-powerful nor all-knowing. My God forms the light and creates darkness. My God inspired the Bible -- and all the other books ever written. My god is familiar and forgiving and sympathetic and vengeful and mysterious and fallible because my god is us.
My God, like any parent, wants His children to grow up eventually. He does not demand prayer and obsequiousness, but if you want to offer up a prayer he's a good listener. Sometimes prayers are answered, sometimes not. But mostly, my God helps those who help themselves. He gave us (via evolution) the wherewithal to make our own way in the world, and wants us to use our faculties to take responsibility for our lives and make the world a better place. He wants us to love each other, because love produces better results than hate. Where love is not possible (and sometimes it isn't) he'll settle for respect.
If this one idea survives me then my life will not have been lived in vain.
I believe it would be much more constructive and effective for atheism to embrace the proposition that it is a religion rather than positioning itself as the anti-religion.
I think that's a horrible idea.
I grant that Dawkins is deliberately antagonistic, rather than persuasive. For those attempting to effect political change, Dawkins's approach may not be ideal.
But "religion" is about the supremacy of faith over reason. Pretty much all religions require that you strongly believe in things for which there is no observable evidence.
The idea of scientific rationalism is to let the evidence drive your beliefs, to use priors and Bayesian updating on evidence to determine what your beliefs will be, rather than choosing those that make you feel good.
This is a radical departure from any previous world religion, and so calling atheism "a religion" -- except, perhaps, as a pandering marketing ploy -- is not appropriate.
> But "religion" is about the supremacy of faith over reason.
It is, de facto, but it need not be so. Faith is not religion's raison d'etre, it is a means to an end, namely, to answer the question: what is the meaning of life?
> Pretty much all religions require that you strongly believe in things for which there is no observable evidence.
That is not true. Judaism, for example, does not require belief in God. In fact, Judaism requires that you maintain at least some doubt about the existence of God. I believe Unitarianism also does not require any beliefs without evidence.
> except, perhaps, as a pandering marketing ploy
I wouldn't use the word "pandering" or "ploy", but marketing is in fact precisely what I am talking about. I even said so explicitly: "One of the reasons that atheism fails to win more hearts and minds is just that religions have vastly better marketing departments."
Marketing is important. Maybe you don't care what other people think, but I do. So I take marketing seriously.
> I grant that Dawkins is deliberately antagonistic, rather than persuasive. For those attempting to effect political change, Dawkins's approach may not be ideal.
OK... you got any better ideas?
Ron wrote: what is the meaning of life?
And if atheism's answer is: there is no "meaning", in the sense you wish it? What is to be done then? The truth may be unsatisfying.
Maybe you don't care what other people think, but I do. [...] you got any better ideas?
Well, there are clearly some people who value truth over happiness. Even in the current hostile climate, some manage to become atheists anyway.
I'm not even sure that's a goal. Do you want to mold society into believing in more truths, if the cost is less happiness? I'm not totally sure what you're trying to achieve.
If you're asking a very directed question, "how can we market atheism to make it more popular?", then sure: calling it "a religion" is one such approach. But now you're asking basically a pure political (or marketing!) question: how can we manipulate the public, such that our preferred policies become law?
Ironically, this is somewhat at odds with the philosophies ("truth seeking") of people who have managed to find atheism on their own.
But in any case, if you want something to become popular, rather than merely true, then you can explore all the things that make other fads popular. You may enjoy this allegory; it's about science and probability rather than atheism, but you get the idea. Turn the thing into a cult, with secret hidden knowledge, team colors, rituals, us vs. them, etc. That's how you get popular allegiance to an idea.
But what is the point of this exercise? The "thing" may become more popular, but perhaps only at the cost of distorting its essence so much that it no longer has the virtues that attracted you to it in the first place.
> And if atheism's answer is: there is no "meaning", in the sense you wish it? What is to be done then? The truth may be unsatisfying.
Yes. The idea that knowing the complete unvarnished truth is an unalloyed good is an article of faith, one to which I (and Daniel Dennett by the way) do not subscribe. I believe that there could be things which many if not most people are better off not knowing, and the possibility that life really is meaningless might be one of them.
> Well, there are clearly some people who value truth over happiness. Even in the current hostile climate, some manage to become atheists anyway.
To be sure, but the unvarnished truth may not be everyone's cup of tea. Some people like the unrefined rawness of sports cars; others prefer softer suspensions and padded seats despite the fact that this shields them from the "reality" that the road can be bumpy.
> If you're asking a very directed question, "how can we market atheism to make it more popular?", then sure: calling it "a religion" is one such approach. But now you're asking basically a pure political (or marketing!) question: how can we manipulate the public, such that our preferred policies become law?
Except for the "becoming law" part, yes, that is exactly the point I am trying to make.
> But in any case, if you want something to become popular
My goal is not so much to make atheism popular as to make it more socially acceptable than it is today. To be sure, I would prefer it to be more popular, but I think that social acceptance is a good first step in that direction.
> then you can explore all the things that make other fads popular... Turn the thing into a cult
The problem is that Scientism has to be constrained by its own principles or it will degenerate into hypocrisy (which is bad because hypocrisy impedes the flow of information). But in between turning Scientism into a secret cult and standing on a soap box and shouting "Religon is stupid and evil and the source of all human suffering" I think there is a broad range of possibilities, and somewhere within that range I believe there is a happy medium between the unvarnished "truth" (as we see it) couched in impolitic terms and turning atheism into "just" another religion.
At least, I think the possibility is worth exploring before it is rejected.
Ron wrote: "The problem is that Scientism has to be constrained by its own principles or it will degenerate into hypocrisy".
Yes, I agree with that concern, and some version of that was probably at the root of my negative reaction to calling atheism "a religion".
"But in between turning Scientism into a secret cult and standing on a soap box and shouting "Religon is stupid and evil and the source of all human suffering" I think there is a broad range of possibilities, and somewhere within that range I believe there is a happy medium"
OK, probably true. Those do seem to be extremes, and I agree with you that Dawkins is on a soapbox, and not particularly persuasive (except to those who are already converted).
I don't have any good ideas in the middle myself, but I'll credit you with trying to find some.
And I'll credit Dawkins, in my own case, for at least this much: the previous approach for most atheists was not making waves, hiding in the closet, kind of analogous to homosexuality. I think Dawkins has a reasonable point that this non-confrontational approach has also not led to broader social acceptance of atheism. Dawkins has convinced me to be more public and confrontational than I used to be.
But I'll grant, that the middle road you're searching for is a good goal, and I myself don't have any particularly good suggestions at this time.
I definitely think Dawkins has been a net win, and I do not wish to detract from the man's achievements and contributions. I just think he'd be even more effective if he had (or at least expressed) a little bit more sympathy towards religious people. I think he believes that the only reason people believe in God is because they are stupid. And I believe he's very badly wrong about that. (And if he doesn't believe that then he's left me -- and a lot of other people -- with the impression that he believes it, which is in and of itself a problem.)
Yup, I can agree with this last paragraph of yours. Seems reasonable.
"God and we are both part of the great mystery that is reality... We are part of God and God is part of us... Our purpose in life is not to serve God, it is to make this world and this life as good as it can be... My god is familiar and forgiving and sympathetic and vengeful and mysterious and fallible because my god is us... my God helps those who help themselves."
Hi Ron, couldn't your view be pantheistic then? I think many scientists could identify with that. Here's one really good data point to back your view up: http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/229
It is a fascinating view, but in a postmodern world with too many meta-narratives to choose from, our job is to see which meta-narrative can explain the most data points of practicality in the quest for meaning of our existence.
> couldn't your view be pantheistic then?
Yes. Scientism is a subset of pantheism, though I don't like to emphasize that because pantheism embraces all sorts of religious and new-age mumbo-jumbo that Scientism rejects. Also, the word pantheism makes is sound as if it's theistic (and some branches of pantheism are theistic), whereas Scientism is strictly atheistic. On the Scientific view, God exists only in the sense that, say, beauty exists, as a construct of our minds, not as some transcendent component of external reality.
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