Saturday, March 08, 2008



John Wilkins, the unrepentantly antipodian philosopher of biology, happened to be in Arizona the past few days, where he saw the opening lecture of Richard Dawkins' latest American tour. John was not impressed.

First John notes that Dawkins has apparently dropped his claim that an agnostic is somebody who has an evenly balanced probability assessment of the existence of God, a position John previously criticized. But his real criticism is the way Dawkins tries to claim his scientific assessments amount to "truth."

Scientific ideas are tested or not, reliable or not. They are never True, just good enough. To talk about Truth is to help yourself to the trappings of religion under the counter, as it were. And this is the final point I want to make about Dawkins on religion: he is trying to produce exactly the same effects as religion does. Social cohesion, derogation of the Other, ideas that everyone can take for granted. I wish it were the case that he was taking the scientific approach here, but at best he's using the cachet of science to promote his quasi-religion.

I've spent a good part of the day over in the comment section of John's place arguing for the agnosticism that John and I closely share and against those who seem to think that their philosophy and science are one and the same thing, so I haven't considered an entry for today until lately. And, copacetically, what should I come across but this review by Lorenzo DiTommaso, assistant professor of theology at Concordia University, of Chris Hedges' new book, I Don't Believe in Atheists. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winner as a correspondent for the New York Times and author of American Fascists, a bestselling exposé of the Christian right.

The subject of Hedges' book is the lead troika of the "New Atheists," Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. As DiTommaso describes the book:

According to Hedges, atheism, as promoted by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al., leads to a secular fundamentalism that is just as dangerous as the religious variety. Like religion, the "cult of science" (which Hedges neatly morphs with atheism) presents itself as a comprehensive worldview with explicit utopian goals. Science and reason, claim their high priests, improve life materially and stimulate moral progress.

Hedges argues that this kind of mindset has led to some of history's worst calamities, as well as our current global environmental and political problems. Moral progress is an illusion, while evil
is real. Neither religious nor secular fundamentalism can address these issues meaningfully, he suggests. Religious literalists believe that all the world's problems will be resolved in the coming apocalypse. Atheists cannot admit the possibility of a transcendent reality, nor its universal truths, and so must define moral progress by human standards, which are fallible and arbitrary.

For Hedges, our spiritual nature must be acknowledged, not denied, if we are to avoid the pitfalls of the fundamentalist mindset. The inner religious life that reveals the existence of a transcendent reality also orients itself to its universal truths, which in turn provide the basis for true morality.

DiTommaso believes Hedges' vision of what religion should be is unrealistically pale and claims Hedges' vision of the European Enlightenment is that it was as much a curse as a blessing. Of course, Hedges may not agree with those characterizations but the review is worth reading and the book promises to be, at the least, interesting.

You are right. I am unrepentant about being antipodean ;-)
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