Sunday, January 02, 2000

Dawkins Summarized: Companion to part 3

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.

soundtrack: hit play and start reading.
jesus by so young (random youtube discovery)

Now, Dawkins goes into a series of chapters where he tries to explain how religion could have given certain tribes a darwinian advantage, or how religious explanations could have creeped in over generations, as survival innovations became ritualized and then spiritualized. He wants to dislodge morality from religiousity, arguing that there are perfectly good Darwinian reasons for humans to act moral.

(page 268) Chapter 7: "The 'Good' Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist" was an interesting one: Dawkins makes a convincing argument for what he calls the "Moral Zeitgeist" -- the idea that morals and ideas of what is right and wrong have progressed through all societies at a roughly equivalent pace, regardless of religion, or lack thereof. He points out the way the bible is littered with tribalism, genocide and ridiculously harsh punishments (c'mon, Christians: it's embarrassing when somebody starts asking about those chapters of Law where it demands death by stoning for adulterers. Admit it.)

Dawkins points out that all good Christians no longer believe we should execute adulterers, nor that we should own slaves (despite Timothy seeming to endorse slavery) -- modern morality seems to come from somewhere else, not exclusively from the Bible, or other holy texts.

He also points out how religion can cause a kind of suspension of moral conscience, by describing an experiment where they told a random group of Jewish children the story of Joshua massacring the men, women, children, and even livestock of Jericho, and 66% of the children agreed Joshua had been right to do it. They told the same story to another random group of Jewish children, replacing names and places, so that General Lin massacred everyone, even the livestock, in an ancient Chinese city, instead of Joshua laying the Godly Smack down on Jericho, and this time only 7% thought it was right.

Roboseyo here.

It occurs to me (I think he touched on this too) that religion's only competition is nationalism, as the hook on which humans most often hang their tribalism and clannishness, and by which we excuse our brutality "for a higher cause".

As to the "Moral Zeitgeist", he says, "In any society there exists a somewhat mysterious consensus, which changes over the decades, and for which it is not pretentious to use the German loan-word Zeitgeist (spirit of the times)." (300-301)--he points at changes in attitudes toward women and race in the last hundred years, which have occurred in every educated society, regardless of the religions found (or not found) in those different societies.

For examples from the last century, it's amazing how unanimously the first world supports women's equality and repudiates apartheid today, considering how recently the suffrage and civil rights movements actually gained prominence (1960s was not long ago at all). Dawkins says this shift in the zeitgeist is totally unconnected to religion: if it were religious, it would have occurred in countries with deeper religious traditions and more widespread religious practice (Arab nations or America, or maybe deeply Buddhist Southeast Asia) first, and then spread to secular countries (post-Christian Europe, for example); it didn't happen that way. "it moves in parallel, on a broad front, throughout the educated world" (306). Here's an example of how quickly the moral zeitgeist can change in a country. 1968 was not long ago.

Regarding the accusation that belief in Darwinism requires just as much faith as belief in any God, Dawkins responds, basically, that every (intellectually responsible) Darwinist knows exactly what it would take to change their minds: compelling evidence that contradicts the theory (for example, fossilized human bones with T-Rex toothmarks on them, found in the stomach of a fossilized Tyrannosaur, would conveniently blow Darwin out of the water); this evidence has not yet been found. The religious, who, no matter what one argues, will continue responding with "yes that's all well and good, but I BELIEVE. . . " have NO conditions under which they will change their mind; this is the difference between a passionate belief in something, and fundamentalism.

(Roboseyo here: this point of Dawkins' got me thinking:)

Because of the reliance on evidence (of which more can be discovered at any time), the scientific method of gaining information about reality is very robust and (to be honest) much more flexible than using a book that, even when it appears to be anachronistic or brutal or overly vague, CANNOT be changed, because it is believed to be God's word -- the scientific method proved that leeching didn't work, so doctors stopped leeching patients. Einstein reconfigured the way we understand physics, and the body of scientific knowledge (particularly Newtonian physics) changed; in contrast, the bible explicitly warns us not to take anything out -- even all that stuff about massacring babies, and stoning adulterers to death, that's a little embarrassing to read (or have thrown in our face by people like Dawkins).

Sure, some may argue that science changes constantly, so it can't be trusted as much as the Eternal Word Of God. . . but the nice thing about science is that every time it changes, it's because we've learned something concrete, demonstrable, and duplicable, and incorporated it, and thus hopefully gotten a little closer to the full truth about some phenomenon or another. . . that idea, that science is self-correcting and cumulative, can be seen as hopeful, rather than untrustworthy, if you turn your head and kind of squint your eyes; even if you disagree, you can at least understand how Dawkins finds that enough to warrant putting his hope in it.

To boot, because of that whole "we'll find out when we die (but not until then)" thing, if we want, the religious have a convenient excuse for sticking to our guns in the face of any evidence to the contrary, right on until the day of death. . . but we won't win credibility or open-minded points by doing so.

Next Dawkins weighs in on several hot-button issues that cause a lot of moral controversy. . . gays, euthanasia. . .outside the scope of this essay series, but moves on to a section titled "How 'Moderation' In Faith Fosters Fanaticism," (341-348) that is pretty crucial to what I want to say. From the horse's mouth (or should we say from Darwin's Rottweiler's mouth, as Dawkins has been called), "my point in this section is that even mild and moderate religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes" (342)

other important quotes from this section:
"Why would anyone want to destroy the World Trade Center and everybody in it? To call bin Laden 'evil' is to evade our responsibility to give a proper answer to such an important question." (343)

Terrorists and abortion clinic bombers are motivated, "by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. . . because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith." (344)

"Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument." (347) -- shutting one's eyes to scientific evidence and declaring "I believe the earth was created in six days" is the same subsuming of reason and sense to faith as suicide bombing, to a much lesser degree, and Dawkins argues that privileging faith over sense or reason in those small things, creates a climate of assent and tacit approval where extremists can also feel justified in subsuming their reason, sense, and humanity, in their extreme, shocking, tragic ways.


Personally, I start feeling nervous any time somebody decides an idea is more important than human life.

In Chapter 9 is one of Dawkins' big missteps. He describes the kidnapping of a baby from its Jewish parents (in the 1800s), in order that he be raised in a Catholic home, "saved" from his "heathen" parents. I'll get to that.

He also criticizes the "presumptuousness whereby religious people know, without evidence, that the faith of their birth is the one true faith, all others being abberrations or downright false." (353) which has been problematic for me, too, as I think about it more and more.

Then, he starts talking about the far right in America: he interviewed a bunch of them for a TV documentary he did called, "The Root of all Evil," and
here is where old Roboseyo picks up the baton.

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.

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