Saving Alexandria

One of the most dangerous speeches given by a public intellectual in recent memory was that of Richard Dawkins at the just held Atheist Rally in Washington DC.  Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, and a member of what the philosopher and fellow atheist Daniel Dennett has termed “the brights” a movement seeking to promote a naturalistic as opposed to supernatural view of the world. All this is for the good, and the brights were originally intended to be an inclusive movement that aimed to pull religious as well as non-religious people into a dialogue regarding some of the deeper questions of existence in so far as religious persons shared the same materialist assumptions and language as the secular and scientific mainstream of the movement.

This inclusiveness might have resulted in some very interesting public conversations, something that the neuroscientist David Eagleman has called possibilism– the space between what science definitively knows, and what religion and philosophy imagine. Instead, we have Dawkins’ speech in which he calls on atheist to challenge, “mock”, and “ridicule” the beliefs of religious people. Not only is this an invitation to incivility- where atheist are encouraged to intellectually mug religious persons who probably have not asked to engage in such conversations- it threatens to inflame the very anti-scientific tendencies of modern religion that Dawkins, rightly, opposes and detest.

To challenge religion where it has an immoral, intolerant, or dangerous effect on the larger political society is a duty of all citizens whatever their non-religious or religious persuasions.  Persons of a secular bent, among whom I include myself, need to constantly remind overly zealous religious people that theirs is not the only view and that the separation of church and state exists, not merely for their own, but for all of our protection.

Yet, the last thing science needs is to get into a fist-fight with sincerely religious people about subjects that have no effect whatsoever on the health of the public sphere. When the crowds roared in support of Dawkins’ call that they mock people who hold what he considers absurd beliefs such as that of Catholics regarding transubstantiation (an example he actually uses) one is left wondering whether the barbarians of the future might just as likely come from the secular rather than religious elements in society.

Continued in this vein, Dawkins would transform the otherwise laudable atheist movement into a lightening rod aimed right at the heart of science. No one should want a repeat of what Piss-Christ did to public funding for the arts.

Up until now, the ire of religion towards science has remained remarkably focused- evolution, reproductive technology, and, to a limited and much more dangerous extent- global warming- the last thing we need is for it to be turned on physics- cosmology, neurology or computer science.

Should the religious ever turn their attention to the singularity movement, which, after all, is a religion masking itself as science, they could stifle innovation and thus further exacerbate inequality. If the prophets of the singularity prove to be correct, they may find themselves in a state of war with traditional religion. A cynical minority of religious people may see the singularity as a major threat to their “business model”, but the majority may be reasonably inspired by their dispute with singularians over the necessarily spiritual question of what it means to be human, something the religious hold, with justification, to be their own turf.

Here, the religious may ironically actually hold the humanist higher ground. For it is difficult to see how the deep extension of the human lifespan and creation of artificial forms of intelligence promised by the singularity movement are humanistic ends given the divergence in mortality rates and educational levels between the developing and developed world. In other words, a humanist, as opposed to a trashumanist version of the future would aim at increasing the life expectancy of countries such as Chad, where a person is not expected to live past 50, rather than trying to extend ever outward the lifespan of the wealthy in the developed world. It would also be less inclined to race towards creating a new species of intelligent beings than towards making the most of the intelligent beings who are already here-us- through the old fashioned methods such as education- especially for girls.

In the not too far-off future, class and religious struggles might merge in dangerous and surprising ways, and the explosive growth of religion in the developing world might be mobilized in the name of traditional belief, and in the humanist cause of protecting the species.

Even should none of this dystopian scenario come to pass, religion is already full of anxiety in regards to science, and science imperialistic in its drive to submit every aspect of reality human and non-human alike to its “models” of reality. This anxiety and imperialism has been detrimental for religion and science both.

The confrontation between religion and science has resulted in religion becoming vulgar in the need to translate religious concepts into the “truths” of science- think the Shroud of Turin or the Creation Museum.

At the same time, science turns it sights not so much on undermining the religious world-view as the very nature of belief itself. It is equally vulgar for scientist to strap electrodes onto someone’s brain in the hopes of finding “the god spot” or some such nonsense- as if it means anything that religious belief is “proven” to be a part of neuro-anatomy- what else could it be?

We have known since the ancient Greeks that there are better ways to describe the natural world than religion. Religion isn’t, or shouldn’t be about that. It’s about the mystery of being, the search for meaning, on a human scale, a scale that science cannot provide, about good and evil.

Science may be extremely good at explaining a mental disease such as schizophrenia, and devising effective interventions. What it cannot do, what religion does so well, is to turn the devastating nature of such an illness into a sphere of meaning that can rescue purpose from the cold indifference of the universe. Without some variant of it we will freeze to death.


20 comments on “Saving Alexandria

  1. Charles says:

    I have always been in two minds about Richard Dawkins. While I disagree with his (and Hitchens) tactics in disparaging religion, I think it is essential to challenge certain declarations made by particular religious authorities on issues such as evolution or sexuality.

    It is however, counterproductive to suggest that society should abandon religion as Dawkins claims because the freedom to think for oneself is deeply personal (not to mention the core of one’s autonomy) even if some of his arguments are valid (for instance, intelligent design assertions).

    Dawkins critique also tends to focus on the monotheistic religions. On the other hand, certain eastern religions (combining traditional and sometimes modern values) escape under his radar (understandable given his background) continue to perpetuate oppressive patriarchical structures. For instance, nuns are seen as of a lower rung in certain Buddhist sects.

    The debate between science and religion is a complex one because there is no single view held by those who generally adhered to a scientific outlook nor those from the religious. Furthermore, there are scientists (and religious persons) who straddle between both camps (or identities, depending on the context). Add to that mix are the different types of science and religions (each with varying levels of accomodation towards other science and religion – and vice versa).

    • Rick Searle says:

      I largely agree with you, Charles. I think secularist, such as Dawkins, should challenge religion where it invades their turf- evolution- or over-reaches in the public sphere- rights and elsewhere. I did not pay much attention to Dawkins with the exception of his excellent work on evolution until this speech. If you have not already done so I encourage you to follow the link to it on the post under speeches and tell me if you find it as dangerous as I did, or not.

  2. Certainly, Dawkins saying “I don’t despise religious people; I despise what they stand for,” reminds me of religious leaders saying, “I don’t hate the sinner, I just hate the sin.”

    This was not the extremist rant I had expected from your analysis, but I do think ridiculing religion may be counterproductive in some circumstances. Some, but not all. Dawkins’ own “Viruses of the Mind” was instrumental in my questioning my fundamentalist beliefs.

    I think Dawkins’ point is that there are people who call themselves Christian who simply have not examined their own beliefs very closely, and they should be challenged to do so. I agree with this. Ridiculing is probably going a bit far.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks for you comment. I agree with you that Dawkins’
      was attempting to be a modern day Socrates, but I found his language inflammatory. “Ridiculing” and “mocking” are not forms of reasoned discussion and debate. Indeed, unlike Socrates, Dawkins presumes he already knows the answers which closes down discussion from the start.

  3. psriblog says:

    Rick – yet again our views are in agreement! Years ago, I read a book by Dawkins and felt compelled to blog not about his sensible views on evolution but his rabid and over-the-top rundown of religious people. Stay calm, stick to the facts, you are a man of science, I feel like telling him. Leave the hysterical rabble-rousing to the fundamentalists.

  4. --Rick says:

    Excellent posting. The point of “the brights” was to open dialogue, but mocking serves only to shut down avenues of intelligent discourse. It’s akin to trying to discuss the benefits and faults of pies in order to find the perfect recipe as they are being thrown at you for every thought you express. It serves no one and no purpose.

    Science is not an automatically acquired volume of knowledge and the epistemology and reason used in identifying existents and their relationships to man and his percepts are things that must be worked at in order to be useful Life’s manifold options and elements are not fully absorbed by osmosis, but most need to be explained and understood in order to move man forward; hence the assignment of Gods to events humans could not understand and the continued dependence on a deity to reassure man that life’s sufferings and ills come for good reason and future rewards.

    It is a shame that Dawkins has resorted to name calling and insults in response to frustrations that should be critically analyzed and discussed until well understood. This is most likely why he was unable to hold his own fully in his debate with Dinesh Souza:

    The key point missed on both sides, for me, however, was that neither faith nor science can be imposed by fiat on others as a primary philosophy or guide to spiritualism. To do so is to take on the role of dictator and deprive those who follow their true right to liberty and free will.

    Force, no matter who is wielding the staff of power is still force and an anathema to freedom and choice be those granted by “The Laws of Nature or Nature’s God”, or just God depending upon your perspective.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks for you comment, and for sharing these great clips, Rick. What struck me in Dawkins’ discussion was that he seems to dismiss thousands of years of human thought on spiritual and moral questions with a mere wave of the hand. What are the origins of his anti-Darwinism that he states is his position on what human beings should actually do- medical care etc, if
      not from the tradition of compassion first articulated by religious persons? which is not to discount religion’s tribal and violent legacy. This blindness leads Dawkins to totally miss the callers’ point about Dawinism and WWII. The Nazis represented Darwinism un-moored from the human moral tradition- a tradition that, up until modern times, was religious in nature. Thanks again for sharing these.

  5. --Rick says:

    I think Dawkins is lacking in his positions because he is lacking in a philosophical core. I’m not sure that just because some religious persons were the first to articulate compassion, that the majority didn’t feel it or understand it. Neither go I think that personality disorders with anti-social features only existed from the 20th century onward because it wasn’t defined with words until then. Certainly “Billy the Kid” or Cole Younger had this characteristic during the day when the only word for it was outlaw.

    Just as there were Nazis who hated Jews and wanted to remove them all from the planet, there were more who were opposed to the hate and hate driven activity that led to the holocaust. Most were powerless to do anything effective to stop it and that became and even more problematic position to articulate when the penalty for doing so was death or imprisonment alongside the Jews.

    Compassion is an emotional component of what it is to be human, but it is one that seems to be more in abundance when conditions are good. Just because tribes in Africa war with each other over what appears to be nonsense to us doesn’t mean that the members of those warring factions don’t feel for the maimed, mutilated and dead – they do, but only for those on their side.

    The nations that exhibit the highest degree of compassion, in my world view, are those with highly evolved societies that are benefiting from man’s technological achievements and philosophical belief in man being at his best when he is most free.

    Without the right conditions and without a solid core philosophy that is only practical to live by when it is accompanied by liberty, compassion, although present, has little value. In fact, too much compassion in the wrong conditions is most likely to lead to one being labeled a criminal, imprisoned or killed by government sanction.

    Keep in mind that I have no PhD in philosophy; so, these thoughts come from a very humble and perhaps under-nourished mind.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Rick- thanks for making me think. I totally agree with you that something like compassion has existed as long as there have been here- and even longer given that animals have been shown to possess empathy as well. I also agree that diseases such as mental illness has always been here even if we didn’t have labels or a correct understanding of it.

      What I think I have failed to clearly communicate is that these core aspects of human nature were refined over time by religion and philosophy and I think Dawkins totally misses this positive legacy. We could think of these refinements as innovations in their own right- just like technology. Some examples might be the Christian idea that all human beings are of equal worth. The idea that a slave had just as much value in the eyes of God as their master was a real innovation and different than anything that had come before. Or one could think of the Muslim duty of Zakat or charity in which it is the duty of ever good Muslim to provide for the poor. One the philosophical side on could think of Socrates commitment to question everything as the road to an ethical life. Even the modern idea of environmentalism or animal rights in which nature or animals are given moral worth are innovations that do not emerge out of science and are anti-Darwinian in character.

  6. jjhiii24 says:

    There is a profound difference between being an advocate for either the scientific view of the world or a religious one, and being a fundamentalist on either side of any question. The world is not only one thing and not another. It’s not that science is good and religion is bad or the reverse, but when extremism is applied in favor of only one possible “correct” conclusion, freedom of thought dies.

    Throughout the history of humanity, all sorts of fundamentalist views have decimated thriving civilizations and resulted in terrible unnecessary suffering in every culture during every epoch. There is enough blame to go around between every extreme religious view and every power hungry dictatorship or over-reaching secular world view ever conceived for the ills that beset us even today. It may be irresponsible to espouse “ridiculing” or “mocking” another point of view or belief system, but it’s probably better for people like Dawkins to have the freedom to express such sentiments, as it makes it possible to recognize his view for what it is. What is discouraging is how many people agree with him. There clearly aren’t enough people thinking things through for themselves on both sides of this issue.

    I have spent the better part of twenty years investigating and researching the wide spectrum of philosophy, science, and religion, and the worldviews of many different individuals regarding our very human nature and how our cognitive skills and spiritual inclinations combine to create what can be a more balanced approach to construct our future as human beings. There is a richly diverse and enriching library of thought in both the scientific and spiritual traditions of human history, and I would not advocate obliterating any part of our diversity simply to satisfy one very narrow worldview.

    This particular discussion is probably the most civil, balanced, and illuminating of any I have visited online or anywhere else. It seems to me that the owner of this blog is an advocate for the enrichment of our humanity, and that makes this place of much greater interest to me (and to many others it seems)–and it gives me cause for optimism that civility, balance, and illumination of a shared worldview in the future are clearly possible.

    Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts, and for your attention to my writing……John H.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hello John:

      You expressed my view of the matter far more eloquently than I could have. What disturbed me most about Dawkins’ comments was precisely that he appeared to be squandering the whole deep legacy of philosophy and religion all because it gets the cosmology wrong, as if that, and not the profound reflections our traditions have given us regarding the human condition was the most important thing to be learned.

      This, to me, is but the flip-side of religious fundamentalist who not only cut themselves off from almost the whole of human philosophical, religious and scientific and thought in the name of their narrow vision. They also seem to be running away from the fact that reality is nuanced, complex, and constantly resists our attempts at understanding.

      I look forward to reading your future posts…

      Rick Searle

  7. […] Searle, at Utopia or Dystopia, a blog about contemporary science, political ideologies and other things in the context of images […]

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  9. Sisyphus says:

    Rick, thank you for the kind words. You may enjoy Richard Smyth on the same topic as your post.
    (Cross-posted from

    • Rick Searle says:

      Smyth, displays the same aggressive posture as Dawkins. He basically makes the argument that democracy translates into a tyranny of the majority- foolishness. He seems to forget that when you fail to show people respect they stop listening- which is everyone’s right as well, and the opposite of his intended goal.

      Thank you very much for sharing the link. I look forward to reading posts on your blog.

      • Sisyphus says:

        I concur with your reading. We hear one another far better when we are not screaming.

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