Posted from the US
Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are both leaders of a somewhat recent new wave in atheist thought - and both have reached celebrity status as best-selling authors and speakers, primarily by bashing religion and promoting rational thought.
The books which lay out their strongest viewpoints include Dawkins' best seller "The G-d Delusion" and Harris's best seller "The End Of Faith".
I think that I can sum up most of their arguments in the following way:
- Religion requires a suspension of rational and logical thought.
- Most, if not all, religious people are willing to accept many ideas and statements as true, with no proof (outside of certain texts).
- Many, if not all, religions are filled with local/regional specificity, which removes the universal applicability of whatever messages may be present (and also trap the religion as a cultural, tribal phenomena).
- Religion does not hold up to scientific scrutiny, including hypothesis and test.
- Religious people, who do not hold up their religions to scientific scrutiny, are willing to act in very illogical and irrational ways, which has often led to great evil (see the Inquisition, etc.)
- We are at the point in human civilization and development that we need to abandon religion on a wholesale level, and continue forward based on rational thinking and scientific methodology.
- Even intelligent people, who have religious belief, are essentially delusional with regards to their religious belief, and it is time that they abandon their concepts overall and become atheists.
My response here is not going to be a widespread defense of religion in general, because in many respects, it is hard not to agree with many of Dawkins' and Harris' core arguments. In fact, most religious folks think the same way as Dawkins and Harris about every other religion (other than their own). They probably don't believe in Zeus, The Flying Spaghetti Monster , or thousands of other strange, defunct ancient and pagan deities. Religious people, by and large, are mostly absolutely certain about the truth and reality of their religion and belief system, while they are also certain in the absolute falsehood of the religious beliefs of all others.
Let's start the argument by wiping the slate clean (as Harris and Dawkins would want) and throw out all religious baggage and trappings. What is left?
- Rational thinking
- Scientific Methodology
- The Universe
- All living creatures
- Major unsolved problems.
What are some of these major unsolved problems?
- How and why did the Universe begin?
- Why do we experience the world in conceptual representations? Why do we act and feel as if we have a mind separate from our physical brain?
- What happens to us (and our minds, if such a thing exists) after death?
- What should govern human behavior and morality?
- What to make of the many mystical and contemplative experiences members of many different religions and sects have had (Sufi Muslims, Jewish Kabbalists, Christians, Buddhists, Native Americans) - and in theory, can still have (which makes this a testable, repeatable experience set)?
- How do we frame the broad concept that key individuals in most, if not all, religions, claim to have been in some contact with something?
The immense challenge to religion is that it has become overly comfortable and reliant on many of the ills that Hawkins and Harris decry: a lack of intellectual thought, a lack of demand for proof and experience, and a lack of filtering - many, many ill conceived ideas and beliefs have grown and attached themselves to the core ideas of many religions, like weeds and garbage choking the splendor of a formerly beautiful garden. The new wave of atheists are basically hacking away mercilessly at all the weeds, all the in-growth - but I suspect that there many be some hidden jewels and ideas that they pluck out (which merit saving). In fact, the garden of religion may be so overgrown that some can only see the weeds - and perhaps in many religions, there never was anything of merit.
This response will not be the end of an argument, but the beginning of one. Here are some basics:
- Let us separate the concept of G-d from the of religion.
- Let's agree that the scientific method (which Harris and Dawkins rely upon) does not allow for complete atheism, as this would require certainty. At best, one can only be uncertain about the broad concepts of G-d and the major questions which stem from this, and allow for future hypothesis, theorems, proofs, and tests.
- Let's propose that scientific inquiry could lead to the knowledge of G-d.
- Let's agree that the concept of G-d is not well understood by anyone - so we need to clarify what it is we are trying to find.
- Let's review that in some religious texts, that claims are made for actual events occurring, vs. blind faith in their occurrence (if Richard Hawkins was at the parting of the Red Sea, one could argue that he would be presented with evidence of something going on, vs. blind faith).
- Let's follow Harris' thread where he grants a level of viability to mystical and contemplative traditions - which may be a bridge between seemingly intractable viewpoints.
- Let's finally agree that we do not yet know enough about the human brain - which means that even the concept of rational thought is up for debate (the brain itself looks much more like the machinations of the Flying Spaghetti Monster than Hawkins or Harris would like to admit - it is perhaps not a very rational machine - and we may need to somehow work through this issue).
My goal is not to blindly argue (as many have) with the low-lying fruit debate that Hawkins, Harris, and many others in this new wave of atheism have pounced upon. Let's grant them a 90% victory - because it is likely deserved. However, it is time to move the debate up a level, a level which will not be so easy for them, or anyone, to argue with simplicity. It is at this higher level that the seed of religious thought finds its only true hope, and it is an arena where science and core religious philosophy may not be incompatible.