Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Fear of Religion

I thought I'd repost this piece from The Valve while I'm sorting through a career's worth of work, thinking about my book-in-progress, Mind-Culture Co-Evolution. This was originally published on October 23, 2006, and engendered a lively discussion, which i recomment to you. I've only skimmed it, but it does appear, however, that the discussion changed my mind about something to some extent, but I'm not sure just what.
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Now that Adam's stirred up a hornet's nest with his Eagleton-on-Dawkins-on-religion post, I want to keep things buzzing along. In that discussion I commented:
I've not read this particular Dawkins book . . . but I've read articles and interviews where he goes on about religion, and it's clear to me that there's something very defensive in his stance and it's not mere scientific reason he's defending. The stridency of his position reeks of ritual, like the kid chanting “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
That is to say, it is one thing to argue that no gods exist and hence that religious belief is irrational. Dawkins is doing more than that. In a review of The God Delusion published in The New Republic, Thomas Nagel points out: “One of Dawkins's aims is to overturn the convention of respect toward religion that belongs to the etiquette of modern civilization. He does this by persistently violating the convention, and being as offensive as possible, and pointing with gleeful outrage at absurd or destructive religious beliefs and practices.” That is what I find bothersome.

The Uncanny Zone

Dawkins, of course, is not the only one to carry on like this, though some reviewers seem to think he's reached new rhetorical heights. Bertrand Russell did it in the last century and Daniel Dennett has gone of the war path as well. Further, not only does Dawkins argue against religious belief, he also offers accounts of just why people believe. This is not new either, both Marx and Freud, among others, had some thoughts on that subject, which has recently gained new life through a variety of contemporary psychologies - evolutionary, cognitive, and neuro. Well, I think there's more to Dawkins's crusade than the mere implausibility of religious belief, something that's driving him to be offensive.

What is it?

In asking that question I am, of course, stepping back from the arguments Dawkins advances against religion. But I am not seeking to discredit Dawkins's anti-religion arguments through an ad hominem argument. Though I'm somewhere in the vicinity of atheism, agnosticism and humanism, I am not particularly interested in arguing about the existence of God or gods one way or the other. As far as I can tell, my target is a certain kind of discourse, a kind which Dawkins exemplifies particularly well, but others participate in it as well. And what bothers me about this discourse is not that it is against religius belief, but that it is against the religious as well.

What particularly bothers me is that I cannot articulate just why I believe that distinction - between religion as a set of propositions about the world, and the religious - is both appropriate and important. I can point out that how we in fact live in the world is different from how we reason about it, but I do not yet see how to convert that observation into an argument. I feel betwixt and between.

But then, that's where I think Dawkins is as well, betwixt and between. I want to return to Nagel's review, “The Fear of Religion.” If Nagel is correct on a certain point - and I must assume that he is, because I've not read Dawkins's book - then I think he has uncovered a clue as to what's going on with the discourse Dawkins uses.

The Faith of a Reductionist

Nagel argues that Dawkins hasn't made his case against the so-called God Hypothesis but also that Dawkins is mistaken in thinking that hypothesis to be the only alternative to science. Roughly the first half of the review is given over to throat-clearing of one sort or another. Nagel then settles down to his main argument, which is about how Dawkins deals with the argument from design. Nagel suggests, first of all, that Dawkins' misconstrues the main point of the argument from design:
The reason that we are led to the hypothesis of a designer by considering both the watch and the eye is that these are complex physical structures that carry out a complex function, and we cannot see how they could have come into existence out of unorganized matter purely on the basis of the purposeless laws of physics. . . . But God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. . . . If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them. [My italics, WLB]
Now Nagel is ready to begin:
All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.

This entire dialectic leaves out another possibility, namely that there are teleological principles in nature that are explained neither by intentional design nor by purposeless physical causation--principles that therefore provide an independent end point of explanation for the existence and form of living things. That, more or less, is the Aristotelian view that was displaced by the scientific revolution.
Keeping that in mind, Nagel turns his attention to Darwinian evolution, granting that it provides plausible account of how, over time, organism after organism is exquisitely “designed” to fit its environment, yet there is no organism. But where did life itself come from?
The entire apparatus of evolutionary explanation therefore depends on the prior existence of genetic material with these remarkable properties. Since 1953 we have known what that material is, and scientists are continually learning more about how DNA does what it does. But since the existence of this material or something like it is a precondition of the possibility of evolution, evolutionary theory cannot explain its existence. We are therefore faced with a problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument from design: we have explained the complexity of organic life in terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just pushed back one step: how did such a thing come into existence?

Of course there is a huge difference between this explanation and the God hypothesis. We can observe DNA and see how it works. But the problem that originally prompted the argument from design--the overwhelming improbability of such a thing coming into existence by chance, simply through the purposeless laws of physics--remains just as real for this case. Yet this time we cannot replace chance with natural selection.
Acknowledging that “Dawkins recognizes the problem,” Nagel asserts that “his response to it is pure hand-waving.” Thus, in Nagel's view, Dawkins has not made his argument. I take it that Nagel believes there is still room for a rational person to have faith in God-the-Designer, though that is not what Nagel himself wishes to argue.

Nagel agrees with Dawkins “that the issue of design versus purely physical causation is a scientific question,” but disagrees with Dawkins's apparent assumption we must choose between “purely physical causation” and divine design: “The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.”

Nagel goes on to suggest that we are going to need non-reductionist models to account for “conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth” and, presumably for life itself, though he doesn't mention that, nor does he tell us where such models will come from or what they're like. But such matters are certainly beyond the scope of a book review. At this point Nagel's work is done. He has exposed a critical weakness in Dawkins's position. It is not only that Dawkins has nothing useful to say about the origins of life, but that Dawkins's philosophical presuppositions commit him to a position that has, so far failed to provide such an account and has no immediate prospects of providing one in the foreseeable future.

Reductionism in Trouble?

I am sympathetic to Nagel's argument. I think he has a plausible suggestion about the source of the desperate arrogance that informs not only Dawkins's writing on religion, but also Dennett's and others as well. These thinkers are reductionists working at a time when, for example, a skilled science journalist, John Horgan, can write a book about The End of Science. Despite the apparent science-bashing in the title, Horgan doesn't bash science at all, but he is impatient with claims that far outstrip actual accomplishments. For example, he is an outspoken critic of superstring theory in physics. Perhaps, he argues, physics has gone as far as it can go and so, in effect, it comes to an end. There is no more doable physics. While it is not at all clear to me that Horgan is right in this, that science is coming to an end in many arenas, I am sympathetic to a weaker claim, that a certain kind of science is in deep trouble. Just how one characterizes that kind of science . . . well, I'm going to wave my hands and pass on that one, though I have some relevant remarks in my review of Horgan's book. That's a different argument.

Let us assume that Nagel is correct, that not only is Dawkins a committed reductionist, but that Dawkins cannot see any alternative to reductionism other than religion. Why not? And just why does this situation force Dawkins to take a militant stance as an atheist? How is it that an attack on religion is also a defense, not of science, but of a reductionist view of science? Why doesn't Dawkins attack non-reductionist views of, say, biology or psychology, in addition to attacking religion? Does he think such views are unworthy of attack, or that they are, for all practical purposes, essentially religious? If so, why?

It's not at all clear to me just what kind of questions those are. But they aren't about personal motivation in any simple sense. They are also about modes of thought and argument, and in a fairly open-ended sense. It is not at all clear to me that we know, anymore, just how to think about ultimate issues. While I am reasonably convinced that Dawkins does not know, I am not convinced that anyone does. Thought, like time, goes on.


  1. Religious belief and spiritual practice serve for many people as a way of dealing with suffering. This seems to get missed in so many intellectual discussions that are eager to malign religious belief. In this context, the distinctions of the religious and a set of propositions about the world could be a very rigorous intellectual exploration as well as a profoundly sublime inquiry into human experience. Suffering. The How. The Why. The When. The We of What is Next to Come when What If. . . The religious path is both exalted by lifting the burdens of suffering into joy, and humbled by the burdens of suffering into joy.

    1. An obvious recent example is the response of the families in Charleston to the murders of their loved ones. When confronting Dylann Storm Roof they expressed forgiveness, something Obama mentioned in his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney.