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Richard Dawkins Introduction

#165: June - Aug. 2019 (Non-Fiction)
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Robert Tulip

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Richard Dawkins Introduction

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The introduction by Richard Dawkins is on the hubris of religion and the humility of science. This moral characterisation is well put, since science is cautious in its claims while religious believers tend to aggressively promote wild and unsubstantiated assertions that conflict with available evidence or just have no evidentiary basis other than speculative intuition.

In his introduction, Professor Dawkins explains the background to his ‘four horsemen’ meeting with Dennett, Harris and Hitchens in 2007 in Washington DC. I must admit, I have long had misgivings about the quality of Dawkins’ analysis of religion. Here he cites Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot to argue that against the relativistic model of religion that places the perceiver at the centre of the universe. Dawkins says geocentrism became obsolete with modern astronomy. This is not so simple. The uncentred cosmology of Big Bang Theory is objective, but there is still merit in developing a terrestrial cosmology that includes the psychological problem of how human life connects to the cosmos, a problem systematically avoided by modern science.

Despite this quibble, Dawkins is correct that theologians just make stuff up, and so have deservedly wrecked their intellectual reputation for reliable judgment. This is especially so when precise moral injunctions are based on false cosmology, with Dawkins citing the example of bizarre Islamic views on breast feeding.

By contrast, science makes ignorance a methodological principle. Dawkins explains how this reliance on evidence and logic is a highly ethical stance compared to the shameless Bronze Age inventions of religion which use the fallacious method of justification by authority and tradition. I was quite interested to see he uses the infallible catholic dogma of the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven as Exhibit A. I encountered this 1950 teaching in Carl Jung’s analysis in Answer to Job, where he explains the Assumption in terms of subconscious archetypes of masculine and feminine energies, a reasonable scientific analysis that would still be anathema to Dawkins who is just focused on whether it is factually true. For Dawkins, the Catholic focus on what is comforting and dignifying for the faithful is just dangerous unfalsifiable nonsense, showing cavalier disregard for truth.

Next Dawkins delves into the Catholic Encyclopedia, “a treasury of overconfident sophistry”, with its baseless creative advice on purgatory. By contrast, he interestingly observes that scientific humility about truth goes too far in denying certainty, mocking uncertainty about generally accepted scientific facts in astronomy, physics and chemistry as an incantation deserving lip service. He says the exact precision of scientific knowledge justifies scientific pride: “The emergent power of our evolved brains has enabled us to develop the crystalline edifice of mathematics by which we accurately predict the behaviour of entities.”

I disagree with his claim that religion has contributed nothing to knowledge. Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity rested upon the religious hypothesis that the same laws govern earth and the heavens, even if that was an esoteric rather than orthodox religious teaching.

Dawkins' moral argument for the courage of atheism is based on the surprising assertion that good scientists know what they don’t know. This is a paradox, and at one level obviously false. The problem is that science has a research agenda regarding known unknowns, but the problem of the value of religion rests more with unknown unknowns. These can only be factored into an ontology with mysterious concepts like Castaneda’s nagual or Kant’s noumenon, as discussed by Otto in The Idea of the Holy. It is an amazingly profound question whether the deep problems of existence can be explained by science or theology. I fear that writing off the contribution of religion is premature.

Against these points of detail, Dawkins makes the immensely important moral observation of the naturalistic principle, that the laws of physics are secure against alleged miracles. As Hume argued, miracle stories are more likely to result from fraud, trickery or mistake than divine intervention. Atheism demands we prioritise the courage of reason over the comfort of emotion. The only intelligent design occurs when atheists have the intellectual courage to accept reality for what it is, constructing morality and standards for life.
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