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The Emptiness of Theology 
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Post The Emptiness of Theology
The Emptiness of Theology

Richard Dawkins

Free Inquiry, Spring 1998

A dismally unctuous editorial in the British newspaper the "Independent" recently asked for a reconciliation between science and theology. It remarked that, "People want to know as much as possible about their origins." I certainly hope they do, but what on earth makes one think that theology has anything useful to say on the subject?

Science is responsible for the following knowledge about our origins. We know approximately when the universe began and why it is largely hydrogen. We know why stars form and what happens in their interiors to convert hydrogen to other elements and hence give birth to chemistry in a world of physics. We know the fundamental principles of how a world of chemistry can become biology through the arising of self-replicating molecules. We know how the principle of self-replication gives rise, through Darwinian selection, to all life, including humans.

It is science and science along that has given us this knowledge and given it, moreover in fascinating, overwhelming, mutually confirming detail. On every one of these questions theology has held a view that has been conclusively proved wrong. Science has eradicated smallpox, can immunize against most previously deadly viruses, can kill most previously deadly bacteria. Theology has done nothing but talk of pestilence as the wages of sin. Science can predict when a particular comet will reappear and, to the second, when the next eclipse will appear. Science has put men on the moon and hurtled reconnaissance rockets around Saturn and Jupiter. Science can tell you the age of a particular fossil and that the Turin Shroud is a medieval fake. Science knows the precise DNA instructions of several viruses and will, in the lifetime of many present readers, do the same for the human genome.

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't mean anything. What makes anyone think that theology is a subject at all?

Edited by: Jeremy1952 at: 4/22/03 8:52:46 pm



Sun Mar 02, 2003 7:08 pm
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Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
I previously posted this article by Dawkins as "Atheism: Supplemental Reading". It's one of my favorites.




Tue Apr 22, 2003 8:53 pm
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Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
Jeremy

I had never read that essay before so thank you for posting it. I think theists would argue that theology contributes much towards the morality of man, but in my opinion this is complete horseshit. During the Atheist Alliance International convention this weekend Michael Shermer did a presentation on the origins of morality, which you would have enjoyed immensely.

Obviously, theology contributes nothing of substance towards mans standard of living. So why do so many people insist on believing? My opinion is as follows. Homo sapiens is a curious species. Our curiosity has helped us adapt and survive to ever-changing environments and conditions. This curiosity is what prompts man to set out across mountain ranges just to discover what is on the other side, or to set sail across the oceans in hopes of finding new lands over the horizon. This quality of being extremely curious has been selected for naturally. Those humans that were curious enough to take risks, explore and figure out how nature worked had a higher probability of survival.

So here our ancestors were with this strong sense of curiosity for discovering how things worked. What makes the sun travel across the sky from east to west every day? Why do things fall when you drop them as opposed to shooting up into the sky? What makes blood clot? Why do we cry? The list can be as imaginative as you want - but the point is that we are perpetually trying to figure things out.

Then along come questions that were beyond our present capability of answering. Some answers aren't available...but the desire to know is very strong. As a curious animal we struggle with this scenario. Instead of refraining from forming an opinion we create our own crazy answers. The moment these fabricated answers are in place our burning desire to know is temporarily pacified allowing us to relax...until the next mystery comes along.

The problem is once a belief becomes ingrained in our heads and culture it is difficult to dislodge. Gods were a reasonable answer - at one time. But now the advances of science have opened up new arenas of knowledge. What was once a mystery has now been brought into the light.

"Believing is easier than thinking. Hence so many more believers than thinkers." - Bruce Calvert

To me this is the realm of superstitions and religion. It had its place in mans ancient past, but is no longer needed. Actually, maybe it didn't ever have its place in our lives. Perhaps superstitions and religions have been a tremendous hindrance to our species technological and cultural evolution.

Chris

Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 10/30/05 4:50 pm



Tue Apr 22, 2003 10:14 pm
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Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
Chris,

Have you heard of the book "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer? I have read over half of this book but have not completed it. It speaks much about what you say in the previous post. He makes some interesting points.




Tue Apr 22, 2003 11:15 pm


Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
I would say that it is that and more Chris. I think that as humans, we each have a sort of religious disposition in a sense. You refer to it as a nature of curiosity, and it is, but I think that we are more than just curious to understand our experiences. We observe the tides, the celestial bodies, the seasons and we want to know the process whereby these phenomena are governed, but more than that, we want to know our place within them. We long to see order and meaning in reality, to believe that our lives have purpose. But reality is often absurd and meaningless. People die for no reason at all, to nature, there is nothing so contemtable as blood. In such a world, where our desperate need to know purpose is contradicted in every which way by reality, we are often forced to impose our own sense of order and meaning. I see religion, science, and art as all different ways of responding to the contradictions of reality, with art being the most truthful and most sincere as it is faithful to the human experience, as experienced, and nothing else.

In the case of religion, that grotesquely mutilated product of anthropocentrism, the notion of God has been constructed not just for the purpose of solving our unknown problems, but also for the purpose of concretely establishing humanity within a sea of meaninglessness: for providing a point of absolute reference, and a means of deriving identity. It is utterly humanistic.

I think that science, in its pursuit of truth for truth's sake, is also plagued by humanity's religious sense. God has been substituted by almighty Truth, but our motivation remains the same. We're looking for meaning, for a nonsubjective point of reference, for order in absurdity. Science, although in not so many words, promises to reveal the nature of reality and so dispel the myths of existentialistic despair and perspectival subjectivism. Science for so many people is hope. Of course it would be silly to assert that science cannot be done in the absence of humanistic motivations, but throughout modernity, and even from the Enlightenment to arguably the present, many believe that such has not been the case.

I'll leave art for a later time. I think I've sufficiently incriminated myself in the eyes of my detractors for the present.

Edited by: Timothy Schoonover at: 4/22/03 11:52:12 pm



Tue Apr 22, 2003 11:47 pm
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Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
Timothy
Quote:
I'll leave art for a later time. I think I've sufficiently incriminated myself in the eyes of my detractors for the present.
Uh-oh, I hope that didn't mean me! Misanthrope that I am, I may not have made it clear that I have great respect for you, Timothy. You champion some ideas that I think are goofy but I never meant to imply dislike or disrespect for you, only to provide counterpoint to specific ideas with which I strongly disagree.
Quote:
Science, although in not so many words, promises to reveal the nature of reality and so dispel the myths of existentialistic despair and perspectival subjectivism. Science for so many people is hope. Of course it would be silly to assert that science cannot be done in the absence of humanistic motivations, but throughout modernity, and even from the Enlightenment to arguably the present, many believe that such has not been the case.
I think this analysis is dead on. Our innate motivations don't change when our methods do. I'm not sure about the "silly" part, though; affect provides all our motivations. Without emotion we don't do much of anything at all.

I'm reading Miller, The Mating Mind, which offers an explanation for the evolution of art and music, among other things. I'm planning to post a synopsis in Roundtable when I'm done. Let's talk Art!




Wed Apr 23, 2003 6:24 am
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Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
Could it be that the most ultimate reality out there is the one we experience every day through our senses? What is "ultimate reality" exactly? And does truth have a utility value? Is something true because it is useful? Or is something true because it exists?




Wed Apr 23, 2003 12:38 pm


Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
Thank you Jeremey, that means a lot to me. I have two papers to finish by tomorrow, but afterwards, I'd be glad to continue the conversation. But don't let that stop others from commenting.




Wed Apr 23, 2003 2:31 pm
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Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
William

I'm not familiar with that book, but keep us posted as you get further into it. Right now I'm reading God.com reviewing it for the author. I'll let you know what I think.

Tim

Your post was incredibly perceptive. I agree with your general thesis, but I do want to hear more about your views on how art is the most truthful and most sincere. My main interest is in learning to appreciate art more intensely, so I'm not challenging your position.

Quote:
...but our motivation remains the same. We're looking for meaning, for a nonsubjective point of reference, for order in absurdity.

Interesting - I've never thought about my infatuation or passion for science in this light. To me it has always been about basic curiosity. But what makes us curious? Sure, curiosity can be shown to be of survival benefit, but it might also be shown to be a detriment to our health.

This search for meaning, as you stated above, is the existential dread that laid the foundation for every religion on earth. What is the meaning of life? Where did we come from? Where do we go after we die? Why should I give a damn about anything if I'm just going to return to the earth eventually? Dawkins speaks of this in the preface of "Unweaving the Rainbow."

Chris

Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 10/30/05 4:51 pm



Fri Apr 25, 2003 1:14 am
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Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
In my opinion, art does what religion should. It shows us who we are and what we can be, as a society. Religion falls short of this objective because its primary currency is delusion: it trades in the denial of reality for fantasy and power. Art, while not entirely exempt from the delusional tendencies of religion, has but one primary coin--human experience. It's objective is ultimately to communicate real and actual experience to the observer and in doing so, enlighten that individual about what it means to be human.

A lot of people think that good art has something to do with how well an artist can replicate a particular image and wonder why so many 'modern' pieces recieve so much commendation when they look like arbitrary collections of brush strokes, etc. My girlfriend told me that she doesn't understand why she should value a piece of art, when she could easily produce something as equally 'aethetic.'

For me, good art is not about how exact, accurate or beautiful a work is, but how perceptive it is to the human condition. Art is often social commentary, but too often, one's own aethetic ideal obscures the experience a piece is trying to communicate. Early in this century, artists rejected the conventions of exactitude in favor of more expressive (less naturalistic) methods of depiction. In order to more fully appreciate art beyond its 'beautiful' elements, you must first become sensitive to the language of form, structure, style and content that an artist uses to transcribe the experiences of living in the world.




Mon May 05, 2003 1:46 pm


Post Re: The Emptiness of Theology
Quote:
For me, good art is not about how exact, accurate or beautiful a work is, but how perceptive it is to the human condition. Art is often social commentary, but too often, one's own aethetic ideal obscures the experience a piece is trying to communicate. Early in this century, artists rejected the conventions of exactitude in favor of more expressive (less naturalistic) methods of depiction. In order to more fully appreciate art beyond its 'beautiful' elements, you must first become sensitive to the language of form, structure, style and content that an artist uses to transcribe the experiences of living in the world.



I find I somewhat disagree.

On some levels, I do think you're right. In order to understand the beauty of an Italian poem, you must first understand the Italian language. Granted. And much can be lost in translation.

However, when an artist is displaying his concept, it is that which is in the concept that speaks to, or resonates, within the one viewing that is the appreciation.

I don't know if I've explained myself very well.


Lynne




Tue May 06, 2003 10:18 am
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