[Originally written in June 2010, lightly edited to take into account some recent developments.]
I'm going to take a slight detour from my exposition of the Great Conspiracy to do a series of posts that have been in the works for several months now. I've recruited Don Geddis to be a guest blogger here, and we're going to do some collaborative blogging about a topic that has become one of the major themes here: the conflict between science and religion. I tapped Don because he's been a consistent and eloquent proponent of what I will call "hard atheism", the point of view advanced by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris among others, that religion, because it makes objectively false claims about the world, is an unalloyed evil. As an atheist myself I can understand this point of view, but I do not agree with it. I think that religion is much more nuanced than the hard atheists admit, and that they conflate religion with fundamentalism, to the detriment of deeper understanding and societal progress.
So I've asked Don to engage in a debate on this topic, and he has very graciously accepted. The format is going to be a series of posts, with each one being a response by the other person to the one before. Since I'm the instigator I get to go first.
So let me begin, Don, by welcoming you to Rondam Ramblings and thanking you for agreeing to participate in this project. I'd like to start by saying a few words about why I think this is an important topic, and to try to frame the discussion so we don't drift too far afield.
We are living in, to borrow a phrase from an ancient Chinese curse, interesting times. The pace of change -- technological, social, and political -- that we are currently experiencing is unprecedented in the history of the known universe. Much of that change has been indisputably good: when measured against historical norms and in terms of percentages, the world today is more peaceful and prosperous than at any time in recorded history. But of course we also face new and unprecedented dangers, particularly climate change and proliferation of nuclear weapons. It has always been easier to destroy than to build, and modern technology provides non-judgmental leverage for both endeavors. I worry about people with a tenuous grip on reality getting their hands on tactical nukes.
I think it is safe to say that there is a near universal consensus that the world would be a better place if there were fewer crazy people in it, and therein lies the rub: many of the people that you and I would consider crazy are more than happy to return the favor and consider us crazy (or immoral or amoral or otherwise mentally deficient) because we don't believe in (their) God. If the issue were to be decided democratically we would lose.
This, then, is my motivation for engaging you in this debate: Religion does indeed appear to the casual atheistic glance to do a tremendous amount of harm. It is natural to conclude that the correct response is to point out this apparently self-evident fact and embark on an effort to bring people to their senses and get them to stop believing in silly superstitions. But I claim that the premise is false: it is not religion that does the harm but rather particular religions. I'll point at Buddhism as the classic example of a religion to which the vast majority of the usual litany of hard-atheist critiques do not apply.
My thesis, then, is that the right way to deal with the problems caused by religion is not to try to eliminate religion, any more than the right way to try to deal with the problems caused by technology is to try to eliminate technology. The right way to deal with these problems in both cases is first to seek to understand the underlying phenomena, and then to (struggle to find a word here that doesn't have Machiavellian baggage attached to it) manipulate those phenomena in the service of our goals.
Which brings me to the first order of business: what are our goals? (One of my favorite aphorisms is that the hardest part of getting what you want is figuring out what it is.) World peace? Prosperity? Saving the whales? If you had a magic wand and could use it to bring about any result you wanted, what would it be?
Well, guess what: we humans have such a magic wand. It's called a "brain". There are no guarantees of course (magic is not 100% reliable), but waving that magic wand (a.k.a. thinking) has been known to occasionally produce amazing results. So let's get started.