At the airport, I spied the paperback version of the atheist polemic that caused so much grief that I haven’t read yet: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I’ll admit; I get influenced by blurbs, and this book had a gazillion really great ones. And even though I’m a hardline atheist like Dawkins, and I’m in full agreement that the hysteria greeting this book says more about the people getting upset (that they’re trying to bully atheists into silence) than about Dawkins, I cracked and bought it. If all these people enjoyed it/were offended by it, then surely I could learn something from it, right?
I’m less than 100 pages in, and I’ve learned a couple of things. First of all, reading it on planes causes the inevitable Bible reader next to you discomfort. Second, Dawkins actually tackles the question in precisely the way you’d hope he would if he’s writing to an audience that largely agrees with him, but needs tools to go out in the world and convince others. Not by door-knocking, sentimental storytelling means, either. Atheism spreads primarily by outing people that are already atheists in their thinking, but haven’t yet admitted it completely to themselves or others out of stone cold fear.
But I digress; I can deal with the book in length later, or not if I’m already bored with the subject when I finish it. What I want to blog about is something Dawkins says early on, which is a reason I’m glad I bought the book. He challenges the approach of scientists who pay phony respects to religion, particularly those who go out of their way to say that the theory of evolution doesn’t necessarily contradict religion, when they know full well that it does. Yes, even religions that revised their beliefs in the face of evolutionary theory to say, okay evolution happens but god is guiding it invisibly. What Dawkins says on this subject really got my gears running, because I’m both a fan of elegant political solutions and easily annoyed by bad faith, which means I’m constantly at odds with myself, because the former tends to exist through the latter.
In sum, Dawkins argues, and I agree, that scientists tend to say that religion and science don’t conflict because they have ulterior, if completely understandable, motives. The government controls research and education funding, and they answer to a public that is largely stuck with an irrational preference for religion. The public wants to enjoy the benefits of science without taking on the challenge to magical beliefs. The “no conflict” line, which I’ve peddled before and will probably be lulled into peddling again is a way to get the public to resolve this contradiction. The problem is that it’s bullshit. And this is why, which Dawkins keys into, the religious right in America keeps pushing legislation that will immediately get challenged by civil liberties organizations—they want to put religion vs. science on the stand and heighten the contradictions. They want to get scientists under oath to weasel around points where the contradictions become obvious, to make people realize you can’t hand wave the conflict away. As Dawkins notes, if he was put on a stand and asked if he was an atheist and if his study of evolutionary theory helped make him that way, to say no would be an outright lie. To be political, he’d have to weasel around, and the public would see through his inability to give a straightforward answer. Considering that the vast majority of scientists are atheists in one sense or another, right wingers just have to keep pulling stunts where scientists have to own their atheism and its grounding in science over and over to make their point.
I’ve been haunted for awhile by Matt Taibbi’s piece on the Dover, Pennsylvania evolution trials. Since that happened and until I read his piece, I considered the trial a clean win for the side of rationality. But sitting in the room, the thing that struck Taibbi was how the defenders of science on the stand kept nearly perjuring themselves when pressed by the Thomas More lawyers about their feelings on the relationship of science and religion. It was well understood by witnesses that the big, fat no-no was to ever admit that science directly challenges religion, that rationality directly challenges religion, that to really embrace rational thought results in rejecting the fairy tale about the big guy or gals upstairs. Taibbi called our bluff; we say, “Oh, it’s no problem. This research and way of looking at the world need not upset your belief in god, even though I quit believing in god once I got used to thinking rationally,” but we’re lying. We know that teaching critical thinking, logical, and science will create a positive effect on the number of atheists in the world, and while that’s certainly not the goal of teaching these things, it’s a side effect that makes many a parent squirm. I know a lot of atheists, and almost all of them were born to believers of some sort or another, and became atheists precisely because they got educated and the big fat glaring logic holes that make god not only unlikely, but an embarrassing thing to cling to like a ratty Care Bear, just overwhelmed them. (To be fair, a lot of atheists like myself have parents that are indifferent to our religious beliefs, and don’t have any to speak of themselves.)
But I find myself where I often do when I’m in a totally honest with myself mode—totally stuck. Playing the public is a critical thing to keeping science safe from some paranoid crackdown. But reassuring the public that their kids aren’t going to jump off and become atheists if they major in biology is basically lying. I mean, not all, but let’s face it, some. Many, if they get graduate degrees especially. An honest assessment of evolutionary theory, which will happen in a percentage of people presented with it in school, will lead to atheism or at least deep questioning most of the time. That you can always find people who have moving tales of how they managed to live with cognitive dissonance doesn’t change the fact that this information will cause a lot of people to come around to realizing there is no god.
Dawkins apparently thinks the solution is (this is something of a guess, since I’ve only just begun the book) to get atheists out of the closet and, if not organized, on the same page about the importance of speaking up and making our views heard. This is definitely part of the solution, which is why I don’t bow to the pressure to offer a special respect to people’s beliefs, which of course is an exercise in submission and humiliation because I don’t actually have any respect for religious beliefs. People, of course. I can respect good religious people despite their religion. But without playing the phony game of pretending to agree to the social rule that religion gets all these special respects is political poison that science can’t afford. How to bridge that gap?