Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Stewtape Letters, No 1

lashing Lash: easy pickings to start with

Dear Nicholas Lash
I've picked you out more or less at random to be the first recipient of my Stewtape Letters, which are a hopefully polite and civilised approach to the issue of religion, particularly Christianity - it being the dominant supernatural belief system in the west - and its costs and benefits in our society. Generally these letters will be addressed to believers, though sometimes they'll be addressed to critics of those advocating entirely 'non-supernatural' belief systems. These critics may or may not be believers themselves.

While websurfing I happened to come across an abstract of an article you wrote for New Blackfriars magazine, entitled ‘Where does The God Delusion come from?’ I’m afraid I haven’t read the whole article and would prefer not to do so as I would find it tiresome – which would put you offside immediately of course, but there are so many other things to read, learn and do, and I can well imagine what an elaboration of your abstract would be like.

In any case, the abstract itself provides plenty of material to sink my teeth into, if you’ll pardon the expression father [if you’re a father]. First I ‘ll note that New Blackfriars is ‘’A Review: Edited by the Dominicans of the English Province, published on behalf of the Provincial Council of the English Province of the Order of Preachers”, and so the article is designed principally for consumption by your own [dwindling] constituency, so to speak. For my readers [ho ho] I should point out that you’re a Catholic theologian, and that you’ve written various texts, with religion, theology and god in the titles. Wikipedia describes you as a loyal and obedient Catholic – the term obedient being an important operative, as good Catholicism seems to be as much about submission as is Islam.

That this article is designed for your own people is more or less obvious from the abstract. Your readers will give a bright hallelujah to these sentences:

Given The God Delusion's lack of extended argument, historical ignorance and unfamiliarity with the literature, the praise it has received from some distinguished scientists is troubling.

to address the question of what it is about the climate of the times that enables so ill-informed and badly argued a tirade to be widely welcomed by many apparently well-educated people.

It isn’t my view that Dawkins’ book is badly-argued or ill-informed, though it steers clear of theological literature and only dwells lightly on the various philosophical arguments put forward for the existence of a god or gods. I think it’s probably the lightest of Dawkins’ books, and I think that is entirely fitting to the subject, a subject he can’t quite take seriously. I also think that, like your article, it’s addressed largely to his own [expanding] constituency, a group to which I belong. We find the book hugely entertaining and amusing, as well as accurate.

It’s also a book full of optimism. Let me take, for example, his comments about practising scientists in the USA and their religious views:

A study in the leading journal Nature … showed that of those American scientists considered eminent enough by their peers to have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences… only about 7% believe in a personal god. This overwhelming preponderance of atheists is almost the exact opposite of the profile of the American population at large, of whom more than 90% are believers in some sort of supernatural being. The figure for less eminent scientists, not elected to the national academy, is intermediate. As with the more distinguished sample, religious believers are in a minority, but a less dramatic minority of about 40%. It is completely as I would expect that American scientists are less religious than the American public generally, and that the most distinguished scientists are the least religious of all.

These remarks could hardly be described as badly argued; they’re merely a commentary on some fairly conclusive hard data. More importantly, they emphasise Dawkins’ focus – a reasonable hope that religion is losing its grip, especially amongst those who most matter, those in the process of shaping and changing our understanding of the world. Like many of us, he believes that science and religion are in conflict, and that religion has lost and will continue to lose every battle.

Of course, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, recognising the damage it has done to its cause in backing the loser in the scientific stakes on every historical occasion, has chosen more recently to back evolution, though in an unsurprisingly half-hearted way. Most scientists and non-believers are far from fooled by this move, and see it as entirely political, just as the move to pronounce the infallibility of the pope in the 1860s was a political move in response to the Vatican’s loss of material power in Italy and Catholicism’s giving way to the protestant ascendancy in Northern Europe. Dawkins claims that the Catholic church makes it up as it goes along, a remark that you, with your huge investment in that particular set of interpretations of your religion, will undoubtedly see as awfully glib, but to most of us the evidence speaks for itself.

You clearly don’t come from a science background, but you do make a claim about science in your abstract. You write of the illusion, unique to the English-speaking world, that there is some single set of procedures which uniquely qualify as "scientific" and give privileged access to truth. These words are quite revealing. Of course, science’s aim is to discover how the world works, and scientists, largely by trial and error, have worked out various methods for uncovering the truth about this, though in fact setting these methods in stone, so to speak, has proved more difficult than might have been thought, as philosophers of science can attest. In any case, a complex and painstaking combination of model building, experimentation, theorising, careful observation and the like, has resulted in a great furthering of our knowledge over the past few centuries, and scientists should feel rightly proud of the great strides they’ve made. Yet though it would be hard to define absolutely the scientific method, or set of methods, we’re fairly clear about what constitutes an unscientific approach. Results must be repeatable and verifiable, and hypotheses must be rigorously tested before being accepted as genuine theories. It isn’t about ‘privileged access to truth’, which is a curious term, presumably used in religious discourse but quite foreign to science. Scientists don’t follow their procedures in the expectation that they will give them privileged access to truth, they follow them because they work. As to the claim that scientists in the English-speaking world are under an illusion not experienced by Italian, French, German or Korean scientists, such absurd claims aren’t worthy of a response.

Presumably you’re suggesting there are other forms of truth apart from scientific truths, which is the usual way religious thinkers try to avoid the call to provide evidence for their claims. Of course, ‘truth’ by divine revelation really is privileged access to truth, isn’t it? My contention, and that of most non-believers, is that there is no such thing as privileged access to truth. It’s arrived at through hard work, mainly – a modicum of inspiration or insight, and lots of perspiration. Perhaps in the body of your essay you’ll point out other forms of truth than that which relies on evidence and verifiability, but I doubt if you’ll convince anyone outside your own constituency.

I now want to focus on what you describe as Dawkins’ unfamiliarity with the literature, which you also refer to in terms of his book’s ignorance of the grammar of “God” and of “belief in God”. This clearly refers to theology, and many of Dawkins’ critics have focussed on this.

Amusingly, Dawkins anticipated this by placing at the front of his book the story of Einstein and his theological critics. Einstein rejected in no uncertain terms any belief in a personal, interventionist, anthropomorphised deity, and of course was jumped on by theologians who claimed he should shut up about matters about which he was ignorant. In those days, a mere 70 years ago, theologians and church leaders felt safe about being openly abusive and offensive in their responses, but their authority has fortunately slipped a bit since then, and they now have to at least provide a semblance of a real argument. But the theological ignorance argument is no less bogus now than it was then.

Theology’s a funny old subject isn’t it? I believe Isaac Newton wrote far more on theological issues than he ever wrote about mechanics. What theological issues did he write about? I’d have to look it up, for the fact is, those writings are of merely historical interest, and Newton would be a rightly forgotten figure today if that was all he wrote. Which raises the question of whether any theological work has ever had even a tiny fraction of the impact of the work of Galileo, Newton, Darwin or Einstein on our understanding of the world. There are, of course, thousands of Islamic, Judaic and Christian scholars wasting tonnes of ink today on such matters as ‘the grammar of God’ and ‘the nature of belief’. If all of that work was erased from the planet tomorrow, what difference would it make? You tell me – I would love to know. As a theologian yourself, you would find even this probing to be grossly offensive, for it suggests that you’ve wasted your life. No comment to that. As Dawkins points out early in The God Delusion, the subject of theology creates the illusion that there are people who are experts on the nature of god, and that in order to comment yourself, you should train rigorously in this area. Such an illusion is much-beloved of hierarchical, authoritarian organisations like the Catholic Church, for obvious reasons. It needs to be challenged and rejected as the self-serving sham that it is.

You’ve mentioned Dawkins’ paradoxical belief in progress, and also his book’s lack of interest in ethics. I don’t see anything paradoxical about such a belief. We do make progress. A simple example. In the nineteenth century, in Britain and Europe, there were a number of quite commonplace beliefs. It was generally believed that white people were superior to black people, that men were superior to women, and that homosexual behaviour was a mixture of the criminal and the diseased. Of course, the Catholic Church still officially believes in the third of these, but it can be safely ignored. It also still believes in the inferiority of women, to all intents and purposes, but the majority of us have progressed beyond these false and damaging beliefs. How was this progress achieved? Generally in the teeth of established religion, through universal, secular education, through international travel and trade, and through a more scientific understanding of what human beings actually are. And these changed beliefs have quite massive ethical implications. The most ethical thing that we can do is learn about ourselves and our world. I have no doubt that Dawkins understands that, and as such, his book is in fact steeped in ethics. It is a highly ethical pursuit to seek to divest people of their delusions, and that is his whole purpose, and it’s the purpose of many of us, and we continue to grow in strength and numbers. Where does The God Delusion come from? It comes from a questing spirit, and a sense that enough is enough – it’s time to put away childish things , and to drive out the self-appointed ministers of gods, and expose their bogus expertise on eternal verities about submission and worship.

I’m sorry that I’ve not ended up as politely as I’ve started out, but I am indignant about this issue, and impatient to see the end of the claptrap that, unfortunately, you and your ilk represent. The truth is at stake.

I wanted to email this to you personally, and I almost got hold of your email address, but unfortunately it escaped my grasp. I'll keep trying, i'd love to hear your response. It's never to late to change.

Yours from the USSR.



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