Four Horsemen on religion, atheism and everything else

On September 30 2007 an unmoderated 2-hour discussion took place between Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

The very best quote is from Daniel Dennett: “Sophisticated theology is like stamp collecting. It’s a very specialized thing and very few people do it.” (24:48)

I’d like to go through the first hour’s worth and point out a few problems with these gentlemens’ arguments. I don’t disagree mostly with their conclusions, but i certainly take exception to how they get there. For all the brain power around that table, none of them seem to understand what religion is. They define it epistemologically, from the point of view of knowledge – i.e. from the point of view of science. Religion is bad science, it is believing nonsense, holding true unverified facts. This is, of course, miles away from how religious people understand what they are doing. Until the atheists stop defining religion however they well please, they will simply be talking right past their intended audiences. And that is a shame.

Dennett: “the religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them without being rude. They play the hurt feelings card at every opportunity.” (00:47)

Dennett: “There’s no polite way to say to somebody: Do you realize you’ve just wasted your life? Do you realize that you’ve just devoted all your efforts and all your goods to the glorification of something that is just a myth?” (5:55)

This last comment shows that Dennett does not at all understand what religion is about. Whether or not all the details of Christianity are historically true is not a matter of great concern to most christians. Religion is not about verifiable statements, but about getting through life. Religious statements are good religious statements if they work, not if scientists can prove them true. Even if it turns out that the God of Abraham does not exists, a christian will not have wasted her life. Because he belief will have given structure to her life, will have provided her with friends, a community, reassurance, hope, love. Arriving at such things is never a waste, no matter how shaky and temporary the road you’ve taken to get to them.

It is true that many but certainly nowhere close to all religious people do themselves believe that they’re scriptures must be scientifically right for their religion to be at all valid and will therefore fight for creationism and literal interpretations of fabulously impossible passages. What a sophisticated atheist must realize though is that these people are mixing up their religion with science because they cannot distinguish between the function of science (to produce mostly useable knowledge)  and the function of religion (to live life well). The proof that these fundamentalists are mixed up (and that religion is not itself at fault) is that they do not understand what science is. They are willing to force their religious beliefs upon science in such a way as to turn science into religion (or at least an existential matter). Thus they prove that what is important to them as religious people is actually the impact of their beliefs upon their lives and not the truth of them.

Fundamentalists have mistakenly believed those who claim that religion is about truth as scientists define that term. And they have accordingly tried to defend religion against science, thinking both were on the same playing field. This assumption that religion is a type of science, which Dennett is here reiterating, completely misrepresents religion and is in part responsible for religion’s bellicoseness.

Hitchens suggests around 12:00 that what we need to do is separate between the numinous and the supernatural. This is actually a very interesting and worthwhile idea. Of course, he wants to say that the numinous is perfectly ok and that the supernatural is just plain false.  This is, of course, a matter of definition. The only caveat is that the numinous is just as religious a phenomenon as the supernatural. Getting rid of the latter will not dispose of religion, though it might fix some of its current problems.

Dennett: “I dont think many of them ever let themselves contemplate the question – which scientists ask themselves all the time – What if i’m wrong?” Hitchens disagrees and suggests that many religious people are in a “permanent crisis of faith” (15:00)

Hitchens is, of course, right. Dennett is again comparing religion to science with dubious results: the “What if i’m wrong?” question means something very different in the mouth of a research chemist as in the mouth of a clergyman. The first simply has to tweak her experimental apparatus or her equations. The latter has to reinvent his entire existence. You have to admit that the former question is substantially easier. A question of equivalent difficulty for a chemist as the above is for the religious would be: “What if i should have become a doctor? Should i drop everything and go back to med school?”

Around 27:00 these great minds show how limited their view of religion is. It basically is confined to believing silly things on faith. They’ve obviously not been to a church service in Tübingen, Germany! No one here believes much of anything in the bible is to be taken on face value. For that matter, theologians have been interpreting the unbelievable and irreligious portions of the Christian scripture since the first centuries of the christian era:

Dawkins: “They [bishops and vicars] do preach about what adam and eve did as though they did exist.”
Dennett: “Can you imagine any one of these preachers saying when such a topic is introduced: Um, this is a sort of theoretical fiction; it’s not true but it’s a very fine metaphor.’ No!”
Dawkins: “They kind of after the fact imply that that is what they expect you to know” Dennett: “But they would never announce it.”
Harris: “… These moderates don’t admit how they’ve come to be moderates. What does moderation consist of? It consists of having lost faith in all of these propositions or half of them because of the hammerblows of science…”

Harris’ last comment is of course what Charles Taylor’s 800 pages of A Secular Age was bent on disproving. Science doesn’t disprove religion, at best it forces religion to reinvent and review itself (which is a very good idea, and something religion desperately needs to do as soon as possible). A moderate is not a half-baked cookie. A moderate is a more flexible, self-reflexive religious person.

The fundamental problem with these four horse’s attempts is that they do not offer a substitute, an ersatz for religion. The very fact that they do not realize that they need to do so if they are to convince anyone. Simply put: these atheists do not realize that atheism is a sub-set of religion, that they do have a religion (perhaps a much more viable and simpler one), a (non-dogmatic and changing) metaphysical view of the world, sets of moral practices, general ways of getting through life. If only they’d tell us how they do it!

From the Friendly Atheist.

Here are the MP3s: Hour 1 and Hour 2.

And here are the links to Google Video: Hour 1 and Hour 2.


One Comment to “Four Horsemen on religion, atheism and everything else”

  1. Please oh please keep writing! Your articles are wonderful!

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