Pharyngula

It’s been a great week for vapid defenses of religion…at least for atheists, that is. It’s been a sad week for the godly, given that their paladins are all such flabby purveyors of tepid tea.

First up, let us consider the Dalai Lama, revered all around the world because he’s such a nice guy and is always smiling — and I agree that he is an awfully nice fellow, considering that he’s the representative of a medieval theocracy. He has an op-ed in the NY Times, sadly, which reveals that behind his happy face is a bubble of confused cortex. Anthony Grayling has already dealt with the core of his argument, that the many faiths are all facets of one truth, which is ragingly dishonest. The only equality between them is their entirely comparable falsehood — while there are relatively few ways to answer a question correctly, there is endless diversity in error, and that’s all we’re seeing…swarms of priests vigorously asserting that their weird and substanceless take on the universe is the one truth. And no, you aren’t going to arrive at the truth by splitting the difference between the inmates of an asylum.

I want to focus on one other assertion the Dalai Lama made. What is the central core of all religions? Compassion. I disagree, of course, since the religions I get hammered with day after day here in the US are all militant, evangelical, aggressively hegemonical faiths, and compassion isn’t what you see if you are confronted by them. Even their putative compassionate outreach in such things as missionary work are often attempts at cultural conquest. That compassion business is just a tool to win over minds for the Lord/Prophet/Messiah/Cult.

But also…what is uniquely religious about compassion? I don’t have to be a Muslim to give to the poor, I don’t have to be a Christian to abstain from excess. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to be kind, and what Tenzin Gyatso is doing is more of that hegemonical impulse — he’s seen something he likes, so he rushes to land on it and plant the sacred flag of religion on it, declaring this the property of all the holy people of the world…without noticing all us pagans and infidels already occupying it. Lama go home! We don’t need you, or your pious ilk!

Then there’s that fellow Francisco Ayala, who apparently has been emboldened by that generous Templeton Prize to babble vacuously and frequently. He has two pieces out. The first is in Standpoint, some rag affiliated with the ghastly Social Affairs Unit. Does Ayala know this is the kind of magazine that will blithely claim that “Evolution describes a linear progression from the amino acid to man of inevitable increasing complexity”, and publishes apologists for Intelligent Design creationism like Steve Fuller? At least his drivel is in good company. I was primed with contempt by the first two lines of the article.

Can one believe in evolution and God? Some people of faith and some scientists agree: “No.” They are wrong.

Strawmanning already? That’s what someone like Ken Ham says, all right, but that’s not what the pesky New Atheists have been saying at all. Of course you can believe in evolution and gods. People are not either 100% right or 100% wrong, but can actually be right about one thing and wrong about another. Shocking, I know. It seems to be news to Francisco Ayala, though!

The rest is pure noise in which he mentions internal contradictions within the Bible, but excuses them as irrelevant, and mentions other erroneous factual statements about the world, but says it is OK because the Bible is not a science textbook, and the authors did not intend to accurately describe the natural world. He recites the usual cliches about how it’s a book that is supposed to teach us how to live, how to get to heaven, and the purpose of your life. Which, of course, makes it worse. Has Ayala read that book? It’s a cacophony of vileness, with god’s chosen people raping and murdering for their land, god going off into peevish snits in which he tortures and massacres people, and your purpose is to win a place as god’s eternal slave in a ‘paradise’ where you will spend all your time praising the supreme tyrant. It’s a horror.

And Ayala wants to draft science to prop up god’s evil regime. The problem of evil is no problem for god, because it’s all evolution’s fault!

Evolution is not the enemy of religion but, rather, it can be its friend, because it accounts for disease, death, and the dysfunctions and cruelties of living organisms as the result of natural processes, not as the specific design of God. The God of revelation and of faith is a God of love and mercy, and of wisdom.

So if I choose to force you to slave for me and follow my orders with a whip and a gun, I still get to be the good guy, because it isn’t me doing all the harm — it’s my weapons. I love my weapons, they are my great good friend, taking all the blame and still allowing me to reap the fruits of my methods.

So is Ayala claiming that evolution is not a product of god’s actions? Or is he just a goddamned dimwitted airhead?

Ayala’s second article is just as bad. What he claims is that religion has nothing to do with science — and vice versa. It’s that tired old NOMA garbage, with none of the graceful language of SJ Gould to soften me up. It’s simply a series of repeated assertions that science is excluded from decisions about values or meaning, while religion is excluded from saying anything about the natural world, and he allows absolutely no overlap between the two. Ayala’s Venn diagram of the universe is rectangle labeled “everything” with a square labeled “science” filling up the left half and another labeled “religion” occupying the right.

It’s absurd and dishonest because we know that religion makes claims about the natural world — it’s right there in the fabric of the institution of religion, which tells us how we material beings are supposed to act, where we came from, and where we’re going to go when we die. Ayala has to rewrite history to say that “Religion has nothing definitive to say about these natural processes” when the religious themselves babble constantly about how every event from the trivial score fo a football game to the cosmic supernovae are evidence of the hand of their god. Somehow, religion is allowed to claim that we have a purpose in our life (life: it’s a natural process, you know, something supposedly in the domain of science), but science may not, despite the fact that we’ve got a good look at our history and the mechanisms and the drives of life, and can say fairly strongly that there is no evidence of an external driver pushing us along.

Now let us admit that in one respect, he’s right. Science isn’t everything. We don’t use science to appreciate a piece of art (although, fundamentally, it is a material object and our brains are similarly natural); we don’t break out beakers and bunsen burners to determine if we’ve fallen in love; calculators have limited utility in writing poetry. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean that religion fills in all the spaces! I don’t consult a priest to find out what I think of a painting, prayer has bugger-all to do with love, and there is better poetry in the world than what we find in holy books. You don’t get to simply assume that if science does something poorly, religion must do it well, and that the universe has to be neatly divvied up into these two mutually exclusive domains.

We already know that science does its job well, and even Airhead Ayala would agree with that. We can talk about and measure expertise in manipulating and examining the natural world.

What about religion’s “domain”, values and purpose and its insight into a supernatural world?

It’s all bullshit. There is no evidence, no reason to believe in a supernatural world at all; priests are no better than John Edward or James van Praagh at letting us see this hypothetical after-life, and are just as patently ridiculous. There is no agreement among all the religions, each claiming greater authority than all the others, on what our purpose is, other than the self-serving one of keeping the clergy prosperous. As for values: are homosexuals to be stoned, or treated as equals? Which is more important, the woman or her fetus? What foods are unclean and an abomination unto god? When the foreskin is lopped off, is that mandatory or a defilement of the temple of the human body? Are you allowed to mow your lawn on Sunday? Or on Saturday?

Ayala assumes and asserts and demands that we privilege religion as the final arbiter of those kinds of decisions. As far as I can see, though, there are no good reasons why believing in reincarnation or witches or angels or omnipotent phantasmal overlords makes one better qualified to decide what is right or good for people…to the contrary, it seems to me that such lunacy proudly declared shows that the believers are the wrong people to make real decisions.

I’m embarrassed for Ayala, and my opinion of the guy is spiralling down fast. His entire essay is an exercise in making a false dichotomy and proposing a supernatural, superstitious authority that he doesn’t even try to defend rationally. I guess this is what happens when the Templeton Foundation buys off your integrity.