Dawkins and the God Wars…

But I’d like to add a side note at this point — a follow-up to my responses to Rick’s inquiry here. I think the natural sciences would be even more appreciated and embraced by the public at large if it were realized how very much in process they really are! How creative and resourceful and willing to revise themselves with deep honesty to their materials. I think that much of the public resentment or distrust of science is a reaction to the old-style characterization of science as being absolutist, mechanistic, detached, cold, and pre-determined — and as seeming to be claiming to be the ONLY way of REALLY KNOWING about EVERYTHING.

Now, perhaps this is a digression, and I’ve gone on quite long enough, but I’ve been thinking am lot about these disturbing polls about a majority of Americans not accepting evolution. I think it must be the case that these Americans are thinking that they are being asked in these polls to choose BETWEEN evolution and theism.

The majority of Americans, as we know, consistently describe themselves as theistic, but I do not for a second believe that a majority of Americans are Christians who think that the Genesis account of creation is supposed to be literally true. I have worked with Evangelicals for most of my life and most of them are far more sophisticated readers and thinkers than this. They don’t know much about evolution, frankly, and their theism lies closer to them. (Yes, there are the impassioned fundamentalist bigots, but they don’t account for these polls!)

So I think these polls may show that there is an animus against science going on here, but it is not about evolution itself, about which many people don’t know much. it may be instead about a feeling that people have that science is claiming to show that their religious faith is invalid, whatever that faith may be, and especially that science wants them to stop feeling emotions of reverence, awe, and even gratitude when they see the beauties of the natural world or experience the birth of a child. People are not going to be intimidated into denying the depth of these precious experiences and emotions, even when most of them don’t go to church or mosque or synagogue. In this, I cannot help but suspect that they are actually philosophically wiser and more sophisticated than many so-called philosophers or scientists who debunk religious feelings altogether….

So I think the sciences ought to get out of the religion business as fast and as throroughly as ipossible, and that folks like Richard Dawkins are NOT helping at all to promote “the public understanding of science,” which is the ironic name of his Oxford Chair. I actually like Dawkins in some ways, and if he wants to advocate atheism as being the most liberating and beneficial way towards human progress, that’s fine.

But all the sciences can legitimately say about the persistent question of a deity (or some divine dimension or source of the cosmos) is that such is not needed in order to give a scientific account of the natural or cosmic processes that the sciences study, but then, such causation was eliminated from their purvue from the beginning: it is intrinsic to the structure of their disciplines and methodologies that the natural sciences deal with natural causation. But science cannot dismiss genuinely metaphysical questions simply because it does not deal with them! That would be as tragic (and muddled) as thinking one can dismiss scientific accounts of evolution because one claims to be able to get one’s science from ancient religious texts whose original hearers were wandering nomads, and who heard in them about a surprising new kind of omnipotent creator-god, one who had made a rational and beautiful cosmic order and who actually seemed to care about their personal and civic treatment of one another.

The sciences per se have no particular claim to expertise in addressing ultimate existential questions of meaning and purpose, which go far beyond the operative structure of the physical processes of the natural world. Their findings stimulate such questions, of course, which is why many scientists are theistic in one way or another (including Richard Dawkins, as I noted in an earlier post called “Bravo for 3 Quarks Daily”). But existential questions and questions of a spiritual dimension to life or religious faith are personalistic questions and require — in the most ideal case — that many ways of knowing to be brought to bear upon them by knowers equipped to deal with the strengths and limitations of the ways of knowing.

But this laying down of arms can only happen if we have a powerful and lucid account of the human ways of knowing and their irreducible many-ness, with which to re-invigorate the liberal arts core of the university education. Science students need to have GE coursework in the history of science and be supported in getting past naive empiricism — they need GE courses IN SCIENCE, to counteract their scientism. Evangelical students need a climate in which spiritual and religious knowing is not devalued or ignored; where they are invited into and engaged in learning about, say, the history of the science-and-faith dialogue, on which so many thoughtful, respectful, and consciousness-raising books are available as texts. (I especially like John Haught’s _Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation_.)

3 Responses to “Dawkins and the God Wars…”

  1. Rick Says:


    you said:

    I think the natural sciences would be even more appreciated and embraced by the public at large if it were realized how very much in process they really are! How creative and resourceful and willing to revise themselves with deep honesty to their materials.

    I had to laugh a little at this. I have been following the creationism/evolution “debates” for going on to forty years now, and one of the themes that seems to run through the creationist view of evolution is that the fact that evolution as a field is “in process” and that those working in the field are “creative and resorceful and willing to revise themselves” is a mark of the DIShonesty of those working in the field. It seems that this willingness for “revision” is presented as if those in the field are people who, when caught in a falsehood, change their story and hope that nobody notices.


    You said

    So I think the sciences ought to get out of the religion business as fast and as throroughly as ipossible, and that folks like Richard Dawkins are NOT helping at all to promote “the public understanding of science … .

    I agree, and think the current attitudes of your “folks like Richard Dawkins” are not, in the long run, helping to promote science and the public understanding of science. I also agree that in general a lot of people do find that their “theism lies closer to them” than does science – be it evolution or other areas of science. I know I do nto go to the various science blogs as often as I would ordinarily would like to because of the stridency, whic I find very off-putting.

    However, this is just tactics for the current situation. In a longer perpective, I think the somewhat more correct analysis is more along the lines of “religion ought to get out of the science business as fast and as throroughly as possible”.

    I would think that the negative attitudes that some of those in the sciences have against religion and other areas of non-scientific thought, and in particular the current stridency, is a reaction against the attempts of these other areas to claim that they have, and are politically and culturally trying to impose, a superior insight and knowledge of the areas treated properly by science as science; that, for example, 150 years or so of evolutionary theory is wrong because it does not meet with their non-scientific conceptions of how the world of their opinion is constituted. This is not limited to so-called “fundamentalists”; there are those whom we would not consider fundamemtalists who oppose evolution for religious reasons, including people such as, for example, Huston Smith (see his Beyond the Post-Modern Mind). It is a reaction to the rise of the anti-science fundamentalism in todays world as a political and cultural force that has generated the recent strident “skepticism”. If the science side needs to quiet down, so does the non-science side at least as much, or more so. (See http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=rational-atheism , which seems to accept a similar analysis to mine, particularly the first paragraph, and tactics similar to your suggestion.) I think that were the anti-science forces to quiet down and recognize that science is – in its own domain – a genuine and honest “way of knowing” that gives results in and for that domain, then I think that the current stridency would simply die down on its own.


    Now it could be objected that the anti-science, anti-evolutionist religious movements are just a noisy minority of all the religious people out there. And so they are. But the atheist anti-religion folk are also a noisy minority among those who value science. So it would seem that my “religion ought to get out of the science business” is no more unfair than your “science ought to get out of the religion business”.

    Of course, no one will listen to either one of us, so it’s all moot anyway.


  2. Janet Says:

    What? You don’t believe that the entire world will sit up and take notice — when we present them with our new-old “theory of knowing” in the arts and sciences, a shot of fresh theorizing that will end the wars of science and religion and unleash a powerful new movement in our universities: to produce that new kind of knower that the liberal arts were originally designed to produce? Of course it will; it will change everything….

    And then we will see, all of us together, how to develop out of the strident dogmatists destined for both camps, when they become our students, more of the thoughtful kinds of persons who can integrate various ways of knowing personally, without conflating them with one another OR setting at war, the one against another.

    So, as usual, I agree entirely with all your strictures — but I do not believe that you really have read me as applying them to science only, without also thinking them in relation to religiously illiberal voices as well. I think that you know me better than that!

    However, this kind of growth (out of stridency into a chastened understanding) is painful and difficult, and it doesn’t happen inevitably no matter how well the arts and sciences are taught — I just have to think, though, that a more lucid theory of knowing can’t help but direct our efforts a bit more efficaciously, at least for awhile into the future, when the whole recovery of the liberal arts vision will have to be undertaken all over again, because the path to becoming that kind of knower must be worked out anew in every generation — just as the truths of science and faith have to be grasped afresh in every generation by the members of their communityies, so that the genuine endeavors of the sciences and of the faiths are sustained and renewed, even as their previous formulations harden and lose their efficacy for re-making human subjects.

    After all, I am a humanist, and my aim is therefore to employ the poststructuralist break-throughs as some of the now available formalisms useful for the theoretical project I have in mind, that of getting our focus back on the activities of “leading out” the minds of the young into the kind of agility and responsibility that are available to be practiced only by chastened, humbled, inspired, and matured knowers…. The superb efficacies of the many ways of knowing — real contact with those efficacies — is precisely the formation designed to produce these structures of character and practice within a human subject.

    In this light, the descriptions of the growth of students in humanities classes described by our “poet” (in her recent comment) illustrate the benefits of paradigm changes brought about while students are working within a discipline, as students are confronted, puzzled, intrigued, and led out into a more developed, flexible, critical way of thinking about issues that had previously been thought merely routinely or without examination.

    The same thing on the level of the disciplines themselves interrupting the routines of one another and causing painful growth in seeing the competing validities of various ways of thinking, and seeing the self or subject as the place where this exciting integrations is to be done — this is the essence — the essential “conditions of possibility” for — the liberal arts education. This is why interdisciplinary formation requires the full efficacy of each discipline to be brought to play…the ikes have to be in the mind as functioning ikes if they are to brought to bear together with other ikes.

    The problem, getting back to Rick’s comments, occurs when those within an ike don’t believe they “need to know anything” about another way of knowing in order to be able to dismiss it in advance. One hears this all the time on science blogs — who needs to know abut theology or history or culture in order to know that anything involving “God” is worthless — and it also lies at the heart of the fundamentalist rejection of (say) “evolution” or (in the Islamic case) “the West.”

    They don’t really know much about science or evolution (or the West) and so they haven’t encountered the profound theology of Christian evolutionists such as Teilhard de Chardin (or the deep common grounds between most Muslims and most Evangelicals). Nor would they want to, because they think they can know in advance that all of that would be worthless.

    What is most wonderful in all of this, however, is that it is not necessary to know about everything in order to become the kind of knower who is open to a deeper understanding of other ways of knowing and be-ing. This is why Stanley Fish’s theory of “interpretive communities,” for example, ought not to lead us to a position of ontological or epistemological relativism. (Though it so often does, in our current situation, and appears to be intended to do.) One IS formed by the community within which one’s identity is structured, and it is true that we experience and know as enabled to by that community. And it is also true that when we transcend that parochialism, we do so only by entering into another interpretive community, with its own inherent parochialisms (and efficacies, I might add).

    However, the miracle — and it is nothing less, and the Socratic tradition sees it as nothing less — is that having experienced this inter-disciplinary formation only two or three or four times is enough to produce the new kind of knower. It is not SUFFICIENT to produce such a knower. But given a knower who can/will/does find in this process genuine deeper contacts with reality, it is ENOUGH to make the formation of such a new kind of knower possible.

  3. janeaire Says:

    This reminds me of Echo. Echo is the sort of knower who could fully buy into a scientific perspective and a religious perspective simultaneously.

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