Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dawkins, Goodenough and God

I have been rereading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion again and it makes me sad. First off, I have enormous respect for the guy. I can’t speak for his science since I am a physicists and not a biologist but I am told he does good work. But as a science writer he is one of best. His eloquence and specificity in descriptions of biological processes as well as the process of science are a joy to read. Much of my (limited) understanding of evolutionary science has come from reading his books. But when it comes to religion as a broad human phenomenon Dawkins is, unfortunately myopic. I will probably be writing a lot on this subject in the months to come but Dawkin’s mistake is one many scientists make when they address issues relating to human spirituality – they can’t see past God. As a committed scientist I share the Dawkins' (and Einstein’s) difficulty with a personal God who intervenes when asked (sometimes) letting the Red Socks take the series one year and the Yankees the next (and the Mets of course never ever, ever. EVER!). I am no fan of supernatural explanations for the structure of the world. But to define away all that happens in people’s experience of religion as being defined solely and completely by theological definitions of a supernatural creator is to miss something so vast and so vital as to blind oneself to both its power and its potential.

Dawkins has this way of defining away anything or anyone which does fit his straw man definition of religion. Ursula Goodenough is a good example. Goodenough is a well respected biologist whose father was one of the pre-eminent scholars of religion of the last century. After years of “playing it straight” as a tenured scientist she describes her self as returning to her father’s questions about religion and the human sense of the sacred. In the years that followed she has written eloquently about how the narratives of science can act as gateways to this experience of a life’s’ sacred character. Her work is one example of a sensitive, sophisticated and nuanced attempt to place science and religious experience into a broader context. In Dawkins' book Goodenough gets a couple paragraphs which dismiss her efforts as being fundamentally irrelevant. I could only shake my head that such a smart guy could have such thick blinders on.

Last week I participated in a wonderful panel discussion at the National Association of Science Writers on getting science out of the lab. The panel, organized by the always delightful writer K.C. Cole, focused a lot on meeting people where they are when it comes to talking about science. Far too many people in the world come to meaning in their life through their experience of what they apprehend to be sacred to just tell them to get over it. It’s a huge, dangerous and ultimately misguided approach.


  1. I am not sure what kind of research on religion Richard Dawkins has done, but to me his perceptions of it are just as unenlightened as the perceptions of fundamentalists on science. He may simply be getting his ideas of "God" from casual church visits, or from the news, or from his friends. Either way, as you pointed out, his view always seems to come down to struggling with the idea of a deity who CONSTANTLY interviews in worldly affairs. This conception of God is surely held by many people, but if one were to delve into the field of religious scholarship a little more deeply, one would see that there is a plurality of ideas and characteristics associated with God aside from creative powers. In my personal experience, most reasonable people, who happen to also be religious, do not at all have this idea of a God who's power is manifested constantly in every-day events. For most people, accepting God as part of the natural order of things is much more about your attitude than about prophesying determinism. It seems that for someone who accepts the idea of God, the biggest implications are on a personal, ethical level, rather than on getting everyone to agree that the universe is a few thousand years old and that God is a Yankees fan. To criticize "God" as Dawkins does is to give weight to the latter idea, which in and of itself a very mute point made by frightened, defensive, and judgmental modern charismatics.

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