Thursday, October 26, 2006

Suburban Nihilism

I'm not sure that I agree with the likes of Holt and Eagleton that Richard Dawkins is obliged to address his polemic against religious belief at the more sophisticated end of modern theology. Simple faith isn't just the faith of the simple, it is the foundation of all religious systems. In that sense I can better understand the fundamentalist than the 'sophisticated' believer who chooses not to fully incorporate some of the most basic tenets of Christian dogma into his or her faith (Holy Trinity, Resurrection, Virgin Birth etc.)

Neither of those reviewers addresses the context of Dawkins's book: that a nation that emerged from an enlightened millieux that included the likes of Thomas Paine is now collectively inclined to value a cell more than an adult human being. Dawkins calls this an "intellectual emergency" and worries that we face "nothing less than a global assualt on rationality".

His response has been to have a full-on rant about religion, which has raised a number of important issues which he himself has apparently neglected to flesh out. For instance, can society as a whole "raise its consciousness", can everyone live their lives on the assumption that He isn't there, or is it just an elite option for the cheerily nihilistic denizens of "north Oxford"?! What are the cultural conditions for a genuine re-Enlightenment in the West?

As the originator of the belatedly trendy term meme, Dawkins refuses to give up on his notion that religious education is a form of child abuse. Evidence from identical twins points to a genetic basis for religiosity, and believers tend to live longer, apparently happier lives, but Dawkins refuses to concede that religion might be adaptive in itself. Instead he suggests that belief in God is a byproduct of our instinct to believe everything our parents tell us and religious dogmas are cultural memes that benefit themselves not the minds they inhabit.

Like Dan Dennett Richard Dawkins is often caught out trying to use Darwinian natural selection as a universal system of explanation. Jim Holt picked him up on his insistence that all complex things − and Dawkins insists that God must be the most complex of all − derive from simpler ones.

"Not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat)."

Of all the arguments for a Deity (or at least some sort of transcendental purpose in the cosmos) , the design argument − which notes that we exist in a markedly bio-friendly universe− is for me the hardest to dismiss. The standard counter-argument, that this is likely to be just one of many universes, most of which are fundamentally eco-hostile, has always struck me as a bit of a fudge. (It's hardly "parsimonious" to throw in all those extra universes simply in order to neutralise the conclusions that one might otherwise draw from the way our own is calibrated.)

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