Pure Pedantry

Writing in the City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple criticizes the equivalence of religion with the immoral and atheism with the moral:

Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.”

What? The Saint Matthew Passion? The Cathedral of Chartres? The emblematic religious person in these books seems to be a Glasgow Airport bomber — a type unrepresentative of Muslims, let alone communicants of the poor old Church of England. It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.

In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies. (Emphasis mine.)

Read the whole thing.

I have written before that I don’t consider religion the problem. I consider the problem fanaticism.

Dalrymple makes an additional point. A perpendicular axis to the issue of religion or atheism is whether an individual feels awe for the majesty of creation, and this awe is necessary — at least in my opinion — for moral behavior.

Let me explain what I mean. Like many people, I watched and enjoyed the Discovery Channel series Planet Earth — a multiple part documentary looking at different ecosystems. It was excellent; it has to be the only show that I have ever seen for which HD TV is actually required. In HD at one point you can see the individual blood cells moving through the capillaries in a salamander’s gills. That is pretty cool.

I have a video clip. This is the mating dance of the Bird of Paradise. The producers suggest that this has never before been seen on film.

Watching this show you are dumbstruck by the majesty of creation. To see the Universe in all its beautiful complexity, the only appropriate response is stunned awe. It is awesome in the true meaning of the word, and the magnitude of that truth defies the limited meaning of words and leaves us speechless.

I argue that this feeling of awe at creation is necessary for ethical behavior. We are not tawdry and irrelevant bits of matter participating in a farce meaning nothing. We are part of the cosmic play, and as a consequence the life of each living being is sacred. And in this world the truth — to grasp even a small fraction of the infinite — is the highest moral good. To confront reality is not only the means by which we live: the aspiration to understand reality is the meaning of life.

Now I have met scientists who truly feel this awe. It is hard to ignore it as a biologist, although some lab researchers who have allowed their science to become dissociated with the natural world do sometime lack this feeling. Likewise, I have met religious people who lack this impulse; they usually have a strong puritanical streak. The cosmic order is for them the dictates of a savage master, and their lives are filled with guilt about their failure to fully conform to those dictates.

However, the fact that I can attribute this trait to both the religious and the scientific is suggestive. There are many arguments for and against religion, but I deny that the capacity for morality is one of them. Neither science nor religion possess a monopoly on moral behavior. The New Atheist authors have emphasized religion’s failures, and they have offered atheism as a more reasonable alternative. They make several valid points. However, this discussion cannot occur without also including religion’s merits of which an understanding of the majesty of creation is most certainly one.

Comments

  1. #1 qetzal
    October 29, 2007

    Theodore Dalrymple criticizes the equivalence of religion with the immoral and atheism with the moral.

    So would I, if I ever actually saw that equivalence being made. In reality, I’ve only ever seen the opposite claim: atheism is immoral (or amoral) because atheism means there’s no purpose.

    And sure enough, Dalrymple is happy to trot that fallacy out:

    If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency.

    Honestly, I see very little of value in anything Dalrymple wrote:

    The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.

    Nonsense.

    Dalrymple makes an additional point. A perpendicular axis to the issue of religion or atheism is whether an individual feels awe for the majesty of creation, and this awe is necessary — at least in my opinion — for moral behavior.

    Except Dalrymple doesn’t make that point at all. It’s quite clear that in his view, religion is essential to such feelings of awe:

    Even if you did not know that Sanchez Cotan was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us.

    I agree with you that theists and non-theists alike can feel a sense of awe of the universe. I don’t agree that this sense is necessary for moral or ethical behavior. You say yourself that you have met scientists and religious people (not mutually exclusive, btw) that lack this feeling. Were they amoral?

  2. #2 qetzal
    October 29, 2007

    Oops. Forgot to close the blockquote. That last paragraph, starting with “I agree…” should not be blockquoted.

  3. #3 writerdd
    October 29, 2007

    Belief without evidence is a problem even when it doesn’t lead to fanaticism. It’s a bad way to think and make decisions.

  4. #4 Reginald Selkirk
    October 29, 2007

    I have written before that I don’t consider religion the problem. I consider the problem fanaticism.

    But religion enables fanaticism by proposing that “making sh– up”, er, I mean “faith” is an acceptable means of epistemology.

    If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.

    Who has claimed otherwise? But, as Steven Weinberg has said, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”

    A perpendicular axis to the issue of religion or atheism is whether an individual feels awe for the majesty of creation,…

    Perpendicular? So you think most atheists would go along with your terminology of calling the universe “creation”?

    Dalrymple: Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books, but it is deeply condescending to all religious people.

    Some things are worthy of condescension.

    At any rate, it ill behooves Dennett to condescend to those poor primitives who still have a religious or providential view of the world: a view that, at base, is no more refutable than Dennett’s metaphysical faith in evolution.

    Bold added for emphasis. Serious points off for stooping to Creationist rhetoric. Religious and providential views certainly are more refutable than belief in evolution.

    But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations–and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false.

    Seriously wacky. Why is it necessary that all possible beliefs be explicable in precisely the same way? Is he claiming that evolution has not been supported by a multitude of evidences? Whereas theism, unlike evolution, persists as a belief despite the lack of any convincing supporting evidence. I really don’t know what point he is trying to make here unless it’s a bad one.

    To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.

    Why is it that the phrase “in fact” is so often followed by a poorly-substantiated opinion rather than a fact? One might as well say, “To regret the mud puddle is to regret the cleanliness you achieved after climbing out of the mud puddle and taking a warm bath.”

  5. #5 CRM-114
    October 29, 2007

    I was awed watching an adult Doberman teaching a Siamese kitten how to play. He was very good at it, and he knew it. He began by going slowly so she could quickly catch up, and then over the weeks increasing the difficulty level. She loved the learning and soon excelled at running, turning, leaping, landing, and feinting. She would often play by herself as if she were practicing, enjoying her elevated skill levels.

    I wish I had pictures of her copying his postures while they relaxed together.

  6. #6 therapydoc
    October 31, 2007

    Which is why, when the 40-ish female has been dumped by the 20th guy who tells her he was under the impression it was a casual relationship, I say, Have you ever considered going to church to find a guy?

  7. #7 karen
    November 7, 2007

    “I argue that this feeling of awe at creation is necessary for ethical behavior. We are not tawdry and irrelevant bits of matter participating in a farce meaning nothing. We are part of the cosmic play, and as a consequence the life of each living being is sacred. And in this world the truth — to grasp even a small fraction of the infinite — is the highest moral good. To confront reality is not only the means by which we live: the aspiration to understand reality is the meaning of life.”

    Beautifully stated… thanks!

  8. #8 mike kaplan
    November 10, 2007

    Hi folks,

    I disagree with almost all of this article’s criticism of the “new atheism”, but since many of my criticisms were already covered, let me focus on one: the idea that you can somehow blame Auschwitz on science, as a way of counterbalancing the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and a host of other horrible events that were inspired directly by religion, and executed by religious authorities.

    Science is a tool that can be used for good or for evil- this is not news. But Auschwitz was not inspired by science- it was inspired by a cultish ideology that had much more in common with religion than with science, and was executed using age-old scapegoating techniques that rely on easy manipulation of our emotionality to cloud our reason: the gratifying feeling of blaming everything on “the others” among us, and tribalistic urge to be part of the band of the righteous. None of this is remotely scientific. Not a teeny weeny bit. But it does sound very similar to what most of the world’s “great” religions do- accept Jesus and be saved, or go directly to Hell.

    Auschwitz also would not have been possible if not for almost 2000 years of Christian-sponsored anti-semitism, lurid “passion plays” featuring Christ-killing Jews, and pograms throughout eastern Europe that were often launched quite literally from the pulpit. When the Nazis preached their anti-semitic doctrines, they found a population that was very receptive, because religion made them that way. Not science.

    You can point out the fact that the Nazis also tried to justify these acts and the demonization of Jews using transparently bogus science, but science was clearly not the main motivation for the enterprise, the way religion was the motivation for the crusades. That’s obvious. And the science was so bad that you can’t even call it science. The idea that Jews had inferior intelligence was just so obviously stupid to even the most casual observer- in fact, the rejection, deportation and extermination of Jewish scientists was undoubtedly a key reason why the Nazis ultimately failed. Again, none of this was remotely scientific.

    The example of Rwanda has even less to do with science. The fact that radios were used is utterly, maddeningly irrelevant. Why did these people kill eachother? Again, it was tribalistic and emotional appeals that went out over those radios (and, again, often from church pulpits), not science. When one group decides that another group has too much power and resources and decides to brand them as “cockroaches” and hack them up with machetes, this has nothing even remotely to do with science. I’m baffled that anyone would suggest such stupid thing.

    Finally, I would also add that in the end, the biggest problem with religion is that it’s all bull****. People pretend to know things that they clearly DO NOT KNOW, and that in fact it is quite impossible to know. This attitude has a distressingly reliable tendency to spill over into other areas of life, and this unjustified and arrogant certainty fast becomes a habit.

  9. #9 Mike Kaplan
    November 12, 2007

    And one more thing- The article says:

    “However, this discussion cannot occur without also including religion’s merits of which an understanding of the majesty of creation is most certainly one.”

    Certainly NOT. Religion has no special aptitude for awe, let alone a monopoly on it.

    To say that God made the world in seven days, was later kind of disgusted with it and thus brought down a great flood, killing most of that beautiful creation….. and then became so disgusted a few thousand years later that he sent down his son to be horribly tortured, as a way of buying forgiveness for his creation, from himself…….????? Where’s the “awe” in this story? The “majesty” of creation? Then why is god himself so disgusted with it?

    Contrast this with the world as presented by science (i.e., the world as it actually is): an incredibly complex and beautiful place, full of wonder everywhere you look, and made all the more wondrous because it seems to have assembled itself. Life itself is more precious, not less precious, if there is no afterlife.

    Contrast the two views of creation of humans: in the one case, God basically made a mud pie and breathed into it- voila. End of story. In the scientifically sanctioned view, it took billions of years for humans to evolve, gradually pulling ourselves up and away from simpler solutions but still interconnected and related to every living thing. Which story is more awe-inspiring? (Hint- it’s story #2).

    Dalrymple’s piece is utterly worthless- the only valid points he scores are against straw man arguments that NO ONE is actually making. He’s no Richard Dawkins, that’s for sure.

  10. #10 Eric YSY
    January 8, 2009

    Debating the existence of God is like finding Higg’s boson: it is there but it is not there. Can you prove it there? Can you unprove it there?

    If someone somehow can prove it and starts a system of proving it, Heinsenberg uncertainty principle dictates it is harder for other people to follow suit as the more precise the ‘system’ of proving try to prove it, the more uncertain the outcome will be.

    At the end of the day it is not who is right, who is wrong and who is better on the topic but who has got the final say. And I don’t think any of us has got it.

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