Monday, September 25, 2006


Subtle Distinctions

Red State Rabble loves Richard Dawkins. There is no better popularizer of science and evolution alive just now. He brings great understanding and a real talent at explaining the subtle complexities of evolutionary theory to bear in his writing on science.

Unfortunately, it's a love hate relationship.

The rich texture and subtle coloring of Dawkins' writing on evolution in The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Unweaving the Rainbow, A Devil's Chaplain, and his most recent book is The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, are sadly absent from his writing on religion.

Dawkins, it seems, is the sort of man who can see quite clearly how the multitude of species we see around us today descended from a common ancestor -- something that requires both sound judgement and the ability to make fine distinctions -- but he can't tell the difference between a holy roller and a Unitarian.

Andrew Brown, the much respected author of The Darwin Wars, has written a review of Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, for The Prospect, that characterizes the book as "incurious and rambling" and a "diatribe against religion doesn't come close to explaining how faith has survived the assault of Darwinism."

For RSR, Brown captures what is wrong with what is coming to be called evangelical or fundamentalist (Brown calls it 19th centry) atheism:
Dawkins is inexhaustibly outraged by the fact that religious opinions lead people to terrible crimes. But what, if there is no God, is so peculiarly shocking about these opinions being specifically religious? The answer he supplies is simple: that when religious people do evil things, they are acting on the promptings of their faith but when atheists do so, it's nothing to do with their atheism. He devotes pages to a discussion of whether Hitler was a Catholic, concluding that "Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn't, but even if he was… the bottom line is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism."

While RSR shares Dawkins' skepticism about religion -- especially organized religion -- we have become increasingly bored with the simple-minded and increasingly sterile bashing of religion by a handful of our atheist brothers and sisters.

It's better we think to try to understand the beast. To look at the various species of belief as Margaret Mead once looked at the taboos of Polynesia -- by trying to understand what they mean.

Scientists could make no headway in understanding the human genome until they'd learned to distinguish the role of individual genes hidden among the long chains of nearly identical base pairs making up the DNA in the nucleus of our cells.

Likewise, secular types -- like RSR and his friends -- will be unable to defeat fundamentalists on the cultural and political front, or make converts on the philosophical front until we are able to make the same fine distinctions between those who read the Bible literally and those who read it as metaphor.


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