Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Is atheism reason-able?

Philip Ball is arguably one of most gifted and prolific science writers today. On his blog, he has posted the pre-edited version of a column, The ‘war’ between science and religion is stuck in a rut. Can we change the record now? that just appeared in Nature News. It is a wide ranging piece mentioning C.P. Snow, Richard Dawkins, Francis Collins, Obama, Bush, ....
Although there are points where my perspective is significantly different, I think it is quite balanced and perceptive. Here are a few quotes:

The[Reason] project [recently launched by Sam Harris] aims ‘to spread scientific knowledge and secular values in society’ and ‘to encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.’ It is not hard, given the list of backers, to see what that means: doing battle with religion....

Important though such issues are, the Reason Project’s supporters would probably agree that they pale in comparison with the use (or generally, abuse) of religious dogma to justify suppression of human rights, maltreatment and murder. To the extent that those are in the project’s sights, it should be applauded. But with Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) on board, one can’t help suspecting that the Almighty Himself is the prime target.

What the Reason Project has in its favour is philosophical rigour. That may also be its failing, because it looks unlikely to venture beyond those walls. Like most utopian ideas, atheistic absolutism works so long as it ignores what people are like and remains in a cultural and historical vacuum. Logical neatness and self-consistency is, unfortunately, not enough.

Sadly, when that is pointed out – as for example when the Royal Society’s former director of education Michael Reiss suggested that it was best to understand religiously motivated delusions such as creationism as world views rather than as mere ignorance that the right information would set right – scientists tend to react badly. Reiss, a biologist and an ordained Christian clergyman, was forced to resign, I suspect because some scientists found a whiff of relativism in his remarks.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe atheistic absolutism fails because God actually exists.