Re: Ch. 3: The Infected Mind (A Devil's Chaplain)
This discussion, and the thread on delusion
, open the question of why the debate between atheists and theists is so difficult, with people often talking at cross-purposes, and why emotional attitudes, such as the refusal to allow atheist advertising, have such a strong grip.
How I see it is that religion is essential to human psychology, as a way to explain the meaning of life. The key is themes such as redemption and salvation, which the religious regard as central but scientists see as meaningless. What these psychological themes give people is a sense that human life is linked in to the cosmos, that there is a unified meaning which gives our lives a sense of purpose.
Atheist science argues that all such efforts to find meaning and purpose in objective reality are delusional, that in fact the universe is purely physical, and any meaning that we claim to find in nature is what we have put there. So phrases like 'Jesus Saves' are based purely on fantasy, without objective reference.
I find myself between these camps, convinced with science that nature is the sole reality, but sympathetic to the religious quest for meaning. My view is that religion is actually based originally in natural perception, but this perception has been intensified over the centuries by claims that people understand things that are actually not understood. So, the literal historical stories of the Bible were written in order to provide a popularly acceptable explanation of the meaning of life, and to legitimize the goals of religious parties to gain political power. These literal stories have, in Dawkins' term, 'infected' the minds of their adherents. They cannot see that the stories have a deeper allegorical intent, pointing towards an actual reconciliation between humanity and nature.
Dawkins is quite willing to accept that scientific discussion of the divinity of the universe has some meaning, in the terms used by scientists such as Einstein and Hawking, and to a lesser extent Paul Davies in his books such as The Mind of God
. It is purely semantic if people wish to say that nature is God, as long as they do not extend the analogy to say that God is a supernatural entity.
However, the viral idea of God as supernatural entity has a very deep hold in the Abrahamic traditions. People who live within these traditions tend to see other religions, including the more naturalistic attitudes found in Asia, through this monotheist prism. The process of disinfecting the minds of people who hold to the delusionary literal claims in the Bible has to start from a respect for the psychological function of belief, and for its evolutionary role in supporting social cohesion. In order to maintain the cohesion that is provided by faith, the atheist critique should respect that the stories of faith are not just rubbish, but that they have symbolic content that can be salvaged as part of a rational worldview.
Spirituality, understood as an intuition of how identity relates to reality, has a perfectly legitimate scientific place. Spirituality suffers from the problem that metaphysical arguments are often wrong, but it is still possible to start from an atheist naturalistic framework and analyse the meaning and purpose of spirituality in a sympathetic way. This has been done a lot in philosophy and psychoanalysis, but the current scientific mood tends to be more hostile towards such study. In philosophy, this angle of research was addressed in phenomenology, the study of things as they appear. A systematic logical categorization of phenomena has to include study of people's attitudes. It is not just enough to use zoology as a template for philosophy, as Dawkins does, because that misses essential features of human psychology.