A common response to the books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris involved castigating them for the shallowness of their understanding of religion. In their incessant focus on fundamentalism and more extreme forms of religious belief, they proved themselves unwilling to consider seriously the nuance and subtlety of mainstream religious thought, it was argued.
P.Z. Myers brilliantly satirized this argument, referring to it as The Courtier’s Reply. I was moved to think about it once more in light of this exchange of editorials in the British newspaper The Guardian. Representing sunshine and goodness is Daniel Dennett. Preferring darkness and obscurantism is Lord Robert Winston.
I recommend both editorials, but I was struck by this paragraph, from early in Winston’s reply:
To some extent, he falls into a similar trap to Dawkins. He feels he knows about religions but seems to have done too little research; a number of his points – for example, about Jewish attitudes or Muslim practices – seem to show a lack of serious scholarship.
You will search Winston’s essay in vain for any indication of where serious scholarship into Judaism or Islam would challenge anything Dennett has said. Instead you will find some ruminations as to who is and is not an extremist, and a bizarre paragraph on the book of Job.
But it was Winston’s closing that really struck me:
The problem is that scientists now too frequently believe we have the answers to these questions, and hence the mysteries of life. But, oddly, the more we use science to explore nature, the more we find things we do not understand and cannot explain. In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man’s uncertainty. Perhaps the paradox is that certainty, whether it be in science or religion, is dangerous. The danger of Dennett’s relatively gentle brand of certainty is that it increases polarisation in our society. With inflexible positions on both sides, certainty surely is the biggest threat to rationality, and to science. (Emphasis Added)
Someone tell me, please, what that boldface sentence means. Science is an expression of man’s uncertainty? What? Science is what has transformed the world from a confusing and chaotic playground in which the simplest phenomena were chalked up to the supernatural, to a world that is predictable and orderly and bendable to the needs and wants of humanity. Sure, researchers probing the details of the atom or the origins of the universe have discovered many bizarre things. But it is ludicrous to say that the more we do science the more we find things we don’t understand. It used to be that everything in nature was confusing and arbitrary. Nowadays you need to go looking pretty hard and concern yourself with fundamental questions before you hit something really mysterious.
As for religion, I do not get the impression that the people filling the pews of the churches on Sunday are doing so for the sheer mystery of it all. I’ll make some allowances for cultural differences here (mainstream British Christianity is not the same thing as mainstream American Christianity), but the preachers I listen to seem very certain indeed about some very important issues. They know precisely what God wants, they know our fate in the afterlife, they know the cuases of natural disasters, and they know precisely the public policy positions that should be endorsed by anyone doing the Lord’s work, to pick just a few examples. If religion is not good for providing simple answers to fundamental questions, then what exactly is it good for?
In protesting the excess of certainty found on “both sides,” Winston is effectively conceding all of Dennett’s (and Dawkins’ and Harris’ and Hitchens’) main points. The sort of religion that is genuinely humble before the mysteries of life is not especially scary. That is why people like Dennett focus on the troubling, and far more common, dogmatic sort. If the only kind of defensible religion is the sort that eschews claims of fact regarding the workings of nature and the mind of God, then Dennett and the others have effectively won the debate.