Why Should Darwinists Care About Creationists' Feelings?
In the Sunday New York Times Book Review was a review of Richard Dawkins' new book ("Beyond Belief," Oct. 22), The God Delusion. Dawkins, for those unaware, is an almost rabidly atheist biologist at Oxford whose bibliography is extensive. He's undeniably a brilliant evolutionary biologist whose contribution to the field in undisputed, but in the last couple decades most of his work has been directed towards criticizing and debunking creationism and the theory of intelligent design.
What struck me about the review (I must admit to not having read the book, nor am I likely to) is Jim Holt's fairly typical sort of liberal elitism in treating the issue.
Yes, yes, I know it's not very fashionable to call the mainstream media elitist unless you're a right- or left-wing demagogue, but really, there is something to the idea. After all, you don't turn to a major newspaper for counterintuitive reasoning, and in the case of the seemingly never-ending struggle between science and religion, the liberal New York Times represents the worst tendencies of liberal elitists in this country. There's a sort of kumbaya attitude that suggests that if we could just live with mutual self-respect all of our issues could be water under the bridge, which seems to mask an intellectual pretension regarding the issue, much as the same as whenever a New York publication tries to appraise Nascar as though it were an exercise in cultural anthropology, filled with alien concepts and strange totems that can only be understood through lengthy, detached appraisement. You'd never guess, reading some 15,000-word essay by Jonathan Franzen or the like that Nascar fans even lived in the same country, let alone ate the same food, went to the same sort of churches and worked at the same companies as the readers of the article.
In his review of The God Delusion, Holt reaches for this point writing: "Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience. As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds."
Once I would have appreciated that point, and in a way I still do, but I think it stems from a more disingenuous set of tendencies in our culture than the rational criticism Holt pawns it off as.
Firstly, it's politically au courant amongst a certain set of American liberals to make good with Christians. The idea is that we have more concerns in common (healthcare, a balanced budget, education) than not (Iraq, Intelligent Design, Nascar), and that a reasonable electoral middle-ground can be found on the most contentious issues that divide the nation (pretty much everyone's been convinced that some restrictions on abortion are acceptable provided fundamental access is retained, and that gays should at least be granted some sort of civil union though marriage is, currently, off the table). This strategy jives well with the received wisdom of the day. Ever since Thomas Franks' What's the Matter With Kansas? was published, it's become "common knowledge" that Republicans win elections on a bait-and-switch program of appealing to social conservatives on issues like abortion and gay rights then carrying out a program of please-the-rich tax cuts and pro-business laws. (Never mind that Franks's book was not quite that simplistic or partisan, politicos and talking heads have an insatiable need to reduce all arguments to black-and-white, Dems-v.-Republicans logic.)
Secondly, it appeals to the centrist, libertarian and multiculturalist tendencies amongst the electorate to live and let live. Centrists are genuinely deferential. Multiculturalists (if they're not of the college-set) are genuinely deferential. Libertarians of course just want everyone else the hell out of their business, and more or less consistently support others' in their efforts as well, so long as it doesn't contradict with their own, at which point they seem to believe that dispute should be settled with a sort primeval struggle for survival of the fittest.
As I mentioned, at one point I shared Holt's opinion that critics like Dawkins are too strident and show too little understanding of others' beliefs. My introduction to Dawkins came following a growing interest in evolution and human migration spawned by the fascinating introduction of Jared Diamond's otherwise disappointing Guns, Germs, and Steel. More interested in human evolution than Diamond's case intensive arguments, I picked up Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. I, too, was turned off by his condescension and rhetorical fluorishes. He refers to even respectable attempts to prove the existence of God as "gloriously and utterly wrong." (No one has ever accused Dawkins of being a poor writer.)
But my opinion has changed somewhat over the years since. Whereas once I though deference was important, I now tend to feel that deference given is not exactly being returned. Perhaps I have been seduced by rage against the triumphalist excesses of the right, but in age in which the debate is over whether or not we're having a civilizational clash based on religion (Judeo-Christian west vs. Islam), my patience for those who demand respect and deference for their chauvinist religious beliefs has waned. Pluralism is fine, and I am an atheist by default rather than belief (I still question the verve with which some atheists rail against religion; surely a disbelief should not be able to inspire such virulence). But the chauvinist—these days everyone prefers the more loaded "fascism" as short-hand for the concepty—principles of many religious groups these days have pushed me away from a willingness to empathize.
This is certainly not entirely fair, and of course as I mentioned it is a personal response to the contemporary political situation. But a deeper sort of evolution has happened with my thinking on the issue, and it stems more from the politicization of the issue than from the politics of it, if that makes any sense. What truly disturbs me about the Christian right's embrace of Intelligent Design was not so much that it was an attempt to introduce religion into our schools but rather that it marked the rather startling embrace of cultural relativism by otherwise orthodox believers. That is, Intelligent Design asserts that the universe by its nature suggests an intelligent designer created it with a purpose. The identity of that designer/creator remains to be determined. In other words, as a political move to overthrow "materialism" in scientific education (as was described in the now-infamous "wedge document" published by the Discovery Institute here in Seattle, the center of Intelligent Design thinkers) and inject a religious element to the explanation of the universe, they were willing to compromise, asserting that (1) it was a theory comparable to evolution, and (2) that God was not the most important part of it. That comes dangerously close to putting us on a slippery downward slope to mediocrity, which in the end may have been the political strategy (they've never suggested, that is, that evolution be taught in Sunday school as an equally valid belief). I personally doubt the skepticism publicly expressed by Intelligent Design theorists who wanted to parade their supposedly scientific credentials. It was a political attack rather than an honest disagreement over ideas, and the philosophical precedent its success would have set in American education is horrifying in its potential to snowball out of control. If any group with a grievance can impose its beliefs as an equally valid explanation, well, then we could all actually wind up learning about Flying Spaghetti Monsters.
In such an environment of intellectual disenguousness and politicking, I now find it thoroughly reassuring that there's someone like Dawkins beating a dead horse and assailing his critics with vitriol equal to their own. Polite conversation is not a prerequisite for intellectual discourse, and the paternalistic shooshing our side perennially gets from the likes of Times book reviewers has grown tedious and counterproductive. It's reminiscent of Bill Cosby's infamous criticism of Eddie Murphy's use of the word "nigger" in his stand-up; Cosby thought it was bad for African-Americans to encourage the use of a derogatory term by using it publicly, no matter how they used it privately; Murphy simply responded that he didn't know he was still supposed to try to act good in front of the white-folk.
Lastly, what I find most exasperating is the tendency of the mainstream media--particularly in the wake of the Mohammed cartoon fiasco--to expect automatic respect for the other side. European Muslims humiliated themselves by rising to the bait; for good reason the likes of the ADL don't spend time responding to Holocaust-deniers: it just grants them credibility. Similarly, when people like Holt chastise unforgiving atheists like Dawkins for "failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be" automatically suggests they deserve philosophical consideration. My guess is--and I would agree with this point--Dawkins would say that starting from a purely logical train of thought, one does not need God or religion to explain the cosmos and the fact that something exists, whether it be matter or people. That story has little need of supernatural input or deus ex machina given contemporary science's successes. Therefore, Dawkins does not need to address the careful considerations of religion's role in society that Holt throws at him ("Many thinkers — Marx, Freud, Durkheim — have produced natural histories of religion," or "For those who want to understand the weaknesses in the standard arguments for God’s existence, the best source I know remains the atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie’s 1982 book 'The Miracle of Theism.'"). That comes later, to explain why religion exists. Biological complexity may or may not explain the origin of religion, but religion is certainly not necessary to explain the origin of biological complexity. Holt, by assuming that we must start with responding to the fact that people have developed religion, holds Dawkins to account for failing to do so; that's a little too nonjudgmental in my view, and even if Dawkins is being polemical, a polemic based on science need not abandon its rational basis to make its point to give due credit to its opponent; in fact, to do so would be intellectually dishonest, something that Holt should perhaps consider with regard to his own middle-brow, pseudo-liberal multiculturalism.
For those who are interested in a very good essay rebutting Intelligent Design and who want to avoid Dawkins's tendentious prose, a highly recommendable article by Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago appeared in The New Republic in August, 2005: "The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name: The Case Against Intelligent Design".