Thursday, September 14, 2006

The war of science and faith

We know the battle has been well and truly joined when the Religion section of Newsweek gives three pages to atheist/agnostics who happen to be scientists or science savvy -- Sam Harris, The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, and Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (to be published next month). Scientists have generally been reluctant to make pronouncements on religion, but apparently too much is now at stake for silence. What Newsweek calls a "religious revival" is rather a global relapse into fundamentalism and righteous triumphalism. To Harris, Dennett and Dawkins it is simply mind-boggling that in the 21st century people are still ordering their lives -- and seeking to order their neighbors' lives, sometimes violently -- according to a clutch of mutually inconsistent (and self-inconsistent) books supposedly written by the creator of the universe. It is a simple fact -- no matter how much one invokes politics, economics, etc. -- that almost every instance of collective violence on Earth today is religiously inspired. The so-called "war on terror" is more accurately a war of opposing faiths.

For all of their God-bashing, Harris, Dennett and Dawkins take care to lay out a rational foundation for ethics, based on maximizing the happiness and minimizing the suffering of sentient beings. Their ethics is global, not tribal. They do not demonize actions without victims -- private homosexual acts between consenting adults, for example. They are aware of the ambiguities and complexities of many moral decisions -- collateral damage in a just war, for example -- but reject commandments based on thousand year-old texts -- the honor killing of female rape victims, for example. All things considered, I would rather live in a society based on the ethical principles of these atheist/agnostics, than have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Pat Robertson telling me what to do.

Theology, says Harris bluntly, is a branch of ignorance. Are we then left with a grim, heartless existence? His final paragraph: "Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. The consciousness that animates us is itself central to this mystery and the ground for any experience we might wish to call 'spiritual.' No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshipped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation. No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish."

More on Dawkins tomorrow.