Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Rationality of Dawkins's Optimistic Atheism

I’m preparing for a class I’m teaching on Richard Dawkins’s new bestseller “The God Delusion” in which this Oxford professor of evolution argues stridently that Darwin’s theory undermines the rationality of belief in God.

He seeks to demonstrate that a scientifically-informed atheism affirms life. In other word, it’s positive:
“As many atheists have said better than me, the knowledge that we have only one life should make it all the more positive. The atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing, while at the same time never being tainted with self-delusion [read here: like a religious view], wishful thinking, or the whingering self-pity of those who feel that life owes them something.”

Does that work? In this entry, I’ll just set these words in contrast with another of his works, “River Out of Eden” where he reflects on the bus crash of some Catholic schoolchildren.

"If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of a bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
As the unhappy poet A. E. Housman put it:
For Nature, heartless, witless Nature
Will neither know nor care.
DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."


john said...

For Nature, heartless, witless Nature
Will neither know nor care.
DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

but we, as humans, do know, and we do care.

i am paradoxically, a christian and a dawkins fan, and i feel that dawkins' own fanaticism makes it to easy to dismiss the very hard questions he raises about the basis and boundaries of faith.

traditional theologies might, in fact blame the bus tragedy on sin. but could it possibly been the result of purely objective and amoral physics? in other words, poop happens.

the point where is diverge from dawkins is how we respond to the natural world as people of faith.

what do we do when confronted with evidence for evolution?

how do we respond to the apparent heartlessness of the of the natural world?

how do we respond to our own instincts that betray our higher purposes as they serve our dna?

most importantly, how do we respond to atheists like sam harris when they point out the apparent ambivalence of god, or logical inconsistencies of faith?

"god of the gaps", often invoked by creationists, is bad science. but, in my opinion, is good theology.

i also think that it is important to honor the limitations of faith as a rational basis for understanding all things.

GCootsona said...

Good point, and it's imperative that we don't join faith with bad reasoning. Instead--and here Pascal was right on--we need to realize that it is reasonable for reason to see its limits.

Does that excuse certain Christians for their poor thinking and infanile belief? By no means. But their bad examples certainly don't prove that faith and science are incompatible.