25 October 2006


The War of Faith and Reason

There is a rule on internet discussion boards, sometimes called Godwin's Law, that the argument has irretrievably broken down once an analogy with the second world war is brought in, as signalled usually by the name of Hitler. This has now happened in the arguments against creationism and religion.

The philosopher Michael Ruse seems to have been the one to first bring in the analogy, but it has been amplified by Richard Dawkins in his new book The God Delusion, where he accuses those evolutionists who wish to concentrate their attack on the creationists as being of the "Chamberlain School", whereas those who think that this is only a battle and the real war is the much wider one between reason and superstition constitute the "Churchill School". He doesn't actually use the name of Churchill in this way in his book but he does do so in his blog on the huffington post. I fear this is a strategic mistake.

Analogy is a dangerous method of reasoning. It is favoured in Islamic Law for a start! It is a form of rhetoric, and it is seldom scientific. Ruse's original ruse was to compare the non-creationist religionists with communists, with the idea that we need to have an alliance with them against the creationist "nazis". This is a plausible analogy, but Dawkins' version of it just doesn't work. Chamberlain tried to appease the nazis, not the communists. The real Churchillian strategy is war against the fundamentalists and cold war against religion.

The fight against creationism in the science classroom is a fight on an extremely narrow front. The creationists at "Lies in Pseudoscience" are analogous to shock troops. The religious "nasties" come from a much wider constituency. For instance those opposed to stem cell research, or to the use of condoms against the spread of AIDs, or to abortion on any grounds, are not just evangelicals, but include many mainstream religionists.

The BCSE (British Centre for Science Education) is trying to concentrate on the battle against creationists, specificaly in the science classroom. In so doing their policy is to try to keep the ordinary christians on-side by deliberately avoiding arguments with them (for instance, arguments that "faith is contrary to reason" - I've had a message on that deleted from their discussion forum).

There are indeed prominent anti-creationists who are religious believers, notably Kenneth Miller who was one of the principal witnesses (for the evolutionists) at the Dover trial.

Miller's view of God is not very clear to me (or to him it seems), but in the
concluding section of his book Darwin's God (this section is available on
his website) he writes: "As more than one scientist has said, the truly remarkable thing about the world is that it actually does make sense. The parts fit, the molecules interact, the darn thing works. To people of faith, what evolution says is that nature is complete. Their God fashioned a material world in which truly free and independent beings could evolve. He got it right the very first time."

This is a version of the anthropic argument: that the design parameters of the
universe seem to have been set so that human beings could evolve. Dawkins follows the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, and others in accepting the "multiple universes" explanation of the anthropic principle, though many rationalists (myself included) would say that this is just as bad as the theological explanation, since it badly violates Ockham's Razor (especially if there are an infinity of universes!). I prefer to think that the universe is the way it is either because that is the
only way it can be, or because it has evolved to be that way, as Lee Smolin
plausibly conjectured in The Life of the Cosmos.

I find it difficult to understand how an evolutionist like Miller can retain belief in a god of this type, who must have been a complex entity to have conceived the creation, so where did this god come from in the first place? Was it the product of an earlier evolution? And is it still about, to interfere in the progress of its creation? Miller doesn't say what he believes in this regard.

Miller defines God vaguely as "truth, love and knowledge" (how can abstract qualities like this be a creator?) and says that "True knowledge comes only from a combination of faith and reason." He says that "What science cannot do is assign either meaning or purpose to the world it explores." Implying that "faith" can do so. "In biological terms, evolution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are - free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices" and: "Evolution explains our biology, but it does not tell us what is good, or right, or moral." This is what he sees "faith" as telling us.

But none of this explains what exactly "faith" is and why it should be any better in finding purpose and moral guidance in life and the universe than reason does. It is important for the "moderate religionists", like Miller, and like Michael Roberts and others at Ekklesia for instance, to explain how they reconcile faith and reason, as they claim to be able to do, and not just avoid the argument.

This is the challenge for the future of religious or spiritual belief. It must make its peace with science and reason. If there is genuine meaningful content in religion (and I'm sure there is) it must be put onto a rational foundation, and not separate itself off from reason behind the "nomic" wall of non-overlapping magisteria. Perhaps the true religion is the science of love.

Really George these are absurd comments with your contrast between reason and superstition. It is difficult for a "moderate relgionist" as you call me to engage with your confused and prejudiced comments.

Michael, I'm trying to understand religion. But if religious believers won't even try to answer my questions, or point out where I am "confused and prejudiced", my understanding will never improve.

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