Why are they throwing brickbats at God?

Richard Dawkins tops Britain's list of public intellectualsRichard Dawkins has done more than all religious people together to put God on the current public agenda. He is on a highly publicised, international campaign to convince the world that "religion is the root of all evil". I think he’s seriously misguided, at best, and that his campaign is dangerous. Here are just a few of the reasons I think that.

Terry Eagleton, an eminent literary scholar, reviewing Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, in the London Review of Books, says that Dawkins’ writing on theology and philosophy is equivalent to someone writing on science whose sole familiarity with science is The Book of British Birds. That’s also an apt description of Dawkins’ limited discussion of ethics in his book. His ethical analysis is simplistic and unsophisticated.

Dawkins confuses religion and the use of religion – I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt intellectually and assume he does so deliberately -- in order to promote his thesis that religion is evil. Religion itself is not evil – just as science is not evil – but it can be used for evil purposes, just as science can.

Using religion to convince the 9/11 terrorists to commit mass murder by knocking down the World Trade Towers was a profoundly evil use of religion. Using airplanes to carry out that evil was a profoundly evil use of aeronautical science. However, Dawkins looks only at the evil uses of religion – never the good it effects -- and only the good uses of science – never the harms it does. A balanced ethical approach requires us to recognise both the goods and harms of both religion and science, and to try to stop the evil uses and to promote the good ones of each.

We should stop automatically associating having liberal values with being open minded and having conservative values with being closed minded – liberal people can be very close minded (as we can see with some uses of political correctness) and conservative people open minded.

The primary "way of knowing" in science is reason and reason is fundamental to the scientific method that produces scientific knowledge. Dawkins’ mistake is that he sees reason (and probably science) as the only valid way of human knowing and, consequently, as the only appropriate tool to explore non-scientific questions, such as profound ethical issues.

We have multiple ways of human knowing in addition to reason, all of which are essential to ethics. They include history (human memory) -- this is beautifully encapsulated in aboriginal people’s practice in making ethical decisions of looking back seven generations. Imagination and creativity – looking forward seven generations to try to assess the ethical acceptability of the impact of what we plan to do on future generations. Intuition -- especially moral intuition. Common sense. Experiential knowledge – including what we can know, as the gym teachers tell us, by listening to our bodies. And "examined" emotions, to name just some.

I believe that, in combination, these other ways of knowing constitute our primary decision making mechanism (what we describe as our "gut reaction") and that reason is an immensely important, but secondary in terms of its use, verification mechanism of those decisions. We use reason to make sure our gut reactions are on track, whether ethically, legally, spiritually, emotionally or in some other relevant way.

Indeed, research published in the last three weeks in Nature, one of the world’s leading scientific journals backs this up. In an article entitled, "The Moral Brain", researchers reported that people with the reasoning parts of their brains intact, but who had damage to the emotional centres, could not make good ethical decisions.

Basic presumptions are of great importance in decision making, although often they are unidentified. They allocate the burden of proof. When there is equal doubt about an issue the basic presumption prevails. Richard Dawkins’ basic presumption is that there is no God and, therefore, that those who believe there is must prove it. But the equally valid basic presumption is that there is a God and those who don’t believe that must prove it. Because both are tenable basic presumptions, both must be accommodated in a secular society. In contrast, and, ironically, where Dawkins and religious fundamentalists are ad idem, is that each wants to impose their choice between these basic presumptions on everyone else. Where they differ is only with respect to their choice of basic presumption, which are, of course, of opposite content.

In short Dawkins – who is a fundamentalist atheist (atheism is a secular religion) and religious fundamentalists are similar in an important respect: They take an either/or approach to everything: my beliefs or yours; religion or science; reason or Faith; and so on. They then seek to reconcile what they see as the conflicts between the two elements that make up each of these pairings, by dropping one or the other of them. Dawkins’ call for the elimination of religion demonstrates such a choice on his part. But it is an extremely dangerous proposal and likely to escalate the culture clashes and "religious wars" we are seeing.

I propose that what we need to do is search for a shared ethics that can accommodate as many people of goodwill as possible. We will never find a universal ethics and we will never be able to accommodate fanatics at either end of the spectrum of human beliefs, but we can articulate and develop an approach that will accommodate many more people in a big ethical tent than is presently the case.

To achieve that will require us to change in some ways. Instead of starting from and focussing on our differences, we should start from where we agree. Starting from agreement and then moving to our disagreements, as we must, sets a different overall ethical tone than starting from disagreement.

We should stop automatically associating having liberal values with being open minded and having conservative values with being closed minded – liberal people can be very close minded (as we can see with some uses of political correctness) and conservative people open minded.

We also have to stop assuming that all change in values is progress and to be welcomed, and re-value wise ethical restraint. That can require having the courage to say "no" -- which often takes more courage than saying "yes".

Dawkins’ approach of wanting to eliminate religion is also dangerous because it is an impossible goal. Probably the vast majority of people will not accept that religion should be eliminated and conflict will be exacerbated as a result. In short, in ethics and searching for values (a task which encompasses religion), impossible goals are not neutral; they cause harm. In contrast finding as much shared ethics as we can is a realisable goal and likely to reduce conflict This is not a "gently, gently" approach as Dawkins described it. It is a principled, pragmatic, ethical one.

The correct question is not whether religion can be used for evil purposes – it can. And the correct response to religion being used in evil ways is not to eliminate religion as Dawkins proposes. The correct question is: How can we best reduce, to the minimum possible, the likelihood that religion will be used for evil purposes and prevent its evil use? As an aside, as a person working on how to prevent bioterrorism, I’d add that this is the same question we are rightly asking in relation to science.

I believe that spirituality is innate to being human -- possibly new epigenetic research will show us in the future that the capacity for spirituality has a genetic base, although spirituality, itself, is not just a genetic phenomenon. Religion is one way – but not the only way -- people experience their spirituality and it’s very important they have access to that experience.

The search for meaning and the desire to belong to something larger than ourselves – the longing for transcendence – is of the essence of being human. And humans have also always searched for morality. Religion is one way – but I agree with Dawkins there are other ways -- that over vast periods of time, across all kinds of societies and cultures, humans have sought meaning, belonging and morality. Who knows, might Richard Dawkins and I agree on that, even though we strongly disagree about the role and value of religion in our contemporary societies?

Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal. Her latest book is The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit.


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