Richard Dawkins (scientist and popular writer) spoke at the Galle Literary Festival. His talk covered evolution, alien life, Buddhism and – of course – organized religion. I think that religion is part of human evolution, like any other trait, not something opposed to it. But anyways, here are a few videos and tweeted quotes from Dawkins presentation before we get into it. He’s damn interesting and the crowd was electric and packed.
Please get an idea for yourself:
Dawkins On Eating Cousins
This is the basic evolutionary premise, which I think is both logically and spiritually satisfying. There is a preponderance of evidence that things are changing and that humans evolved, and that living things are all related. Dawkins was interesting because he said
“Is there evolution on other planets? – I’d put my shirt on yes… Most of the stars that have been looked at have planets. 10 to the 22 stars are out there with planets… If you want to believe we’re the only planet with life, you’re looking for a staggeringly implausible theory of life… I think there are billions of lifeforms around the universe. Those islands, a celestial Polynesia without the canoes”.
This is an interesting point, that if like makes any sense in this universe, then it’s likely to repeated somewhere in the nearly infinite cosmos.
The Modern, Liberal Decent Consensus
And here are some relevant tweets on the subject.
“The very idea of supernatural miracles is nonsense. Either it didn’t happen or we’ve encountered [an obstacle] in science”
“A great evil of the world is child indoctrination. It should be an outrage to say this is a Muslim child or a Catholic child”
“Authority, revelation and tradition are not going to lead you to the truth”
“The wrong answer is because our people have believed it. Right answer is here’s the evidence”
Dawkins On Buddhism
To that end he’s quite sympatico with Buddhism which – in the Kalama Sutta if not daily practice – is quite, dareisay, scientific. “Some of them are not so much religions as ways of life. As rules for living. I could imagine that that might be rather good”. Please note that quote. It’s important and I’ll return to it later.
Dawkins On Science And Sexuality
This to me was the most telling encounter of the speech. Someone asked a good question (about sex giggle giggle) and Dawkins didn’t answer it. And the crowd just laughed. Please note this as well.
Getting Into It
Now that we all have a sense of what the man said, let’s get into it. I think Dawkins is wrong because he’s biased towards the faiths he knows, for cultural reasons. The same value he sees in Buddhism – that it is a way of life – is also true of other religions, and they all have baggage. Because they are ways of life and not logical constructs, his attempt to somehow replace the function of religion with science is misguided and pointlessly antagonistic.
That man asked a good question about sexuality, how can science help us talk to and guide our children? All Dawkins had was that it’s either for animals to procreate or humans to use condoms and detach it from procreation completely. And the people in the audience just laughed, which I thought was really unfair. It’s an important question, and that’s really not an answer. That doesn’t help anybody raise their kids, which we all need help doing.
These are the questions that matter. While science should quite rightly replace creation myths, Dawkins presumes too much by saying that science can now replace faith altogether as a guide to life. As he himself says, “I’m not sure that it’s the business of a scientists to guide anybody’s sexuality.” Science may have debunked Genesis, but most people don’t even read that part of the Bible. What about the words of Jesus or Mohammed, and the (contradictory and often scary) guides they give to daily life? What about the idea of love and marriage? To Dawkins sex is either to make babies or to have fun, but that’s neither true nor helpful.
The Business Of Science
I’ll return to that quote: “I’m not sure that it’s the business of a scientists to guide anybody’s sexuality.”
Perhaps, but that is business that needs to be done, on a personal, social and dareisay spiritual level. In his inability to answer or even understand that question, Dawkins shows why religion still matters. As the author of Religion In Human Evolution (Robert Bellah) says:
I have found that the very mention of the words “religion” and “evolution” sets off a kind of reflex reaction among some, but fortunately not all, contemporary Americans. Among both religious fundamentalists and what might be called atheistic fundamentalists these terms set off a war to the death, with abusive language directed toward the supposed opposition. In that kind of atmosphere any rational discussion becomes impossible.
What unites these two groups is the idea that religion and science are essentially the same thing: sets of propositional truths that can be judged in terms of argument and evidence. What surprised me when I began to read the work of leading scientists in the fields of cosmology and evolution is how many of them rejected this idea and argued instead that science and religion are really two different spheres that may at points overlap but that operate in accordance with different logics…
Science operates with scientific method in terms of which different theories can be tested and proved or disproved, though if Karl Popper is right, proof is always problematic and we are safer to stick to disproof. Religion on the other hand is a way of life more than a theory. It is based on beliefs that science can neither prove nor disprove. Its “proof” is the kind of person the religious way of life produces.
Whatever bad experiences Dawkins has had with religion (and there are many we have all had, and many injustices and retardations in its name) it is still a way of life. The ‘proof’ is the kind of people that religion produces. It’s not a logical construct to be debated and put away, it’s a guide to life which gestates in the reality of the human mind. Indeed I would venture that Dawkins gets the entire definition of religion wrong in his bias against Judeo-Christian faiths. I think the multi-cultural and historical research of Bellah is more spot on in that it tries to describe religion rather than immediately prescribing an antidote. Religion is really more of a productive virtual reality than a description of reality as is.
Religion Is An Evolved Trait
I should also note that I think Dawkins is wrong in placing homosexuality outside of evolution, or any social trait for that matter. “Homosexuality, this is not very Darwinian, it’s what people like.” I’d venture that this is plain wrong, it’s just a value judgement on his part. The whole point of evolution is that nothing is really outside of it, including social behaviors, even if you don’t understand them. Evolution isn’t just about everyone having babies, it’s about raising offspring to reproductive age, which humans do within a complicated society, which gay people are a significant part of. Homosexuality is evolved traits with broad social value and function, it’s not a random outlier. As Dawkins says – the issue is just that science doesn’t quite understand them yet.
In the same way, it’s really not a scientist’s business to condemn a complex and common social trait like religion but rather to understand it. As a public intellectual it is important to push back against the horrors of Christianitism, Islamism, etc, but it is just a bias to project that western culture war on the entire human species and religion in general.
Dawkins does not have that bias towards Buddhism (which also has comparatively less baggage), so he should be able to see that other religions can also be ways of life, and have value in practice. I think he also recognizes that the business of science is not prescriptive, is not to guide people in life, but that people do need guidance and help. That’s why I say that both religion and evolution can exists, indeed, that faith is an evolved trait.
Dawkins gave a very compelling lecture, but I’d argue that the idea of religion as an evolved way of living (rather than a logical construct) and his own inability to provide comparable guidance from science makes his broader point, well, wrong. Religion is not opposed to evolution. It is a part of it.