Monday, November 17, 2008

A response to Melanie Phillips and her anti-secularist views

Melanie Phillips is a popular columnist in England's Daily Mail and a blogger in the Spectator. A month ago she wrote a column in the Jewish Chronicle bashing secularists and Richard Dawkins. I have reproduced her column and made my comments in bold italics.

The false faith of scientific reason

Jewish Chronicle, 17 October 2008

It is an article of faith (except, of course, among those who actually have a faith) that the dethronement of God by the apostles of secularism has ushered in an age of reason. Belief in the Almighty is now widely held to be a priori evidence of primitive stupidity.

The age of reason was introduced by two revolutions, the American and the French, more than two centuries ago. The Americans deliberately protected themselves in their constitution from the predatory aspects of religion, having experienced life under a regime with a national religion, and the French revolution was aimed at the church first and foremost, and only secondarily the noble class. Louis XVI might not have lost his head except he was unmasked as being on side with the church. This tells you as much as you need to know about the defenders of the faith as practiced by the elites of the day.

The interesting thing is that the revolutionaries did not necessarily believe there was no God, only that the priest class did not speak for such a being.

None of this “enlightenment” through revolution had very much to do with science; it was political in its nature, aimed at power relationships amongst the people of the nation states. Science benefited from these revolutions, but did not lead them.

The idea that belief in the Almighty is evidence of primitive stupidity is not widely held. Quite the contrary. Considering the nations where the Abrahamic god prevails, the vast majority claim to believe in such a supernatural being.

It is a small, but growing number of people, who believe that there is little or no convincing evidence for a supreme being. In Canada, during the last census, about 16% of the population espoused no religious belief (although that is not the same as denying the existence of a god). Recent surveys have indicated that number is closer to 23% and amongst those under 35, it is about a third of the population. In the United States, those claiming no religion are about 8%.

In fact, we are living in a deeply irrational age, where millions are putting their faith in such mumbo-jumbo as astrology, parapsychology, paganism, witchcraft or conspiracies between sinister groups and extra-terrestrial forces. All of which goes to prove the truth of the old adage that when people stop believing in God, they will believe in anything.

A secularist can make exactly the same argument: “We are now living in a deeply irrational age, where millions are putting their faith in such mumbo-jumbo as an invisible sky god, who knows everything about you and, not only can create and maintain the universe, but has time to answer your individual prayers about your little problems, and who communicates with Earthlings through burning bushes and flapping angels blowing trumpets, provided you are a scientifically ignorant, sandal-wearing desert dweller living in the Bronze Age. Although he/she/it is supposed to be all powerful and all knowing, one of the angels was able to foment a revolution in heaven (wherever that is).”

I could go on for pages about the ridiculous myths and logical contradictions of the Abrahamic religions to prove that belief in them is quite irrational, but I will spare the reader.

The only things in Ms. Philips list that are of fairly recent origin is parapsychology and the belief in extra-terrestrial beings. The rest are as old as the religions themselves, so why does she attribute them to the modern world? One also wonders why a person who believes in miracles (suspension of the laws of physics) and celestial voices giving behavioural instructions would be bashing parapsychology and UFO-ology.

What would be the contradiction between witchcraft and religion that relegates the former to the world of secularism – the history of witchcraft is very much tied to the history of religion. Sarah Palin, recent candidate for the office of vice-president of the United States, a deeply religious person of the Protestant faith, favourably received the prophesies of an African priest who believes in witches.

Nevertheless, the belief has taken hold that religious faith is inimical to reason, as defined and exemplified by the scientific mind. Such belief expresses itself in the near God-like status afforded to Professor Richard Dawkins — the Savonarola of atheism — on the basis of his aggressive contention that evolution accounts for the origin of life, and that anyone who believes the world had a creator and a purpose should be exiled altogether from intelligent discourse.

The secular belief is that religion fails to explain the world as we have come to know it through scientific discovery. It is because of the irreconcilable differences between the two “truths”, one empirically determined and one the subject of unprovable revelation that the doubt about the existence of a supreme being has begun to flourish. Darwin’s evolutionary theory is only part of the argument. And the idea that science now seriously conflicts with scripture predates Dawkins (Scopes Monkey Trial).

Dawkins maintains that when those who adhere to religious explanations speak they have nothing useful to say about science, whereas the reverse is not true. Science has turned it lights on religion and, each and every time it does so, what it discovers makes the rationale for carrying on with religious beliefs more and more dubious. Dawkins does not deny the possibility of a god, just that the probability for his existence is very low.

Interestingly, over the past few months Dawkins has been meeting his match in a remarkable Oxford mathematics professor called John Lennox, who argues for the existence of a creator on the basis of science — and demonstrates that, on his own scientific terms, Dawkins’s arguments fail the test of reason.

Next week, the two of them will slug it out in a debate freighted with historic resonance at Oxford’s Natural History Museum — the very place where, in 1860, Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, tried to pour scorn on Darwin’s Origin of Species, only to be savaged by ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ TH Huxley. I wouldn’t put money on the same outcome this time.

There is a bundle to be had by betting with Philips. Lennox, despite his mathematics background and other academic credentials is, at heart, simply another Jesus loving Bible-thumper. He brings no new light to the argument, despite Ms. Philips sincere marketing efforts. If he did, she would have told us about it. On balance, there is little point in debates between atheists and believers; neither side will persuade the other and the audience hears what it wants to hear. There are no great conversions walking out of a hall after such a debate.

The fact that secularism has taken on the characteristics of religious fanaticism, in espousing dogma inimical to human flourishing and punishing dissenters in order to slam the lid on debate, is explored in a timely monograph by Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, the influential American think-tank.

This institute is a front-line combatant in America’s culture wars, in which it seeks to defend the values of western civilization against the onslaught from those trying to destroy it. In his book, America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion, London argues that the rise of secularism has so hollowed out Western society that it has left it acutely vulnerable to the predations of radical Islam.

Wow! Secularism is like religious fanaticism and because of that we have become vulnerable to radical Islam. How does that work, exactly? I thought it was the weakness inherent in moral relativism that is the problem in western society in confronting the religious fanaticism of the Islamists, not an equally powerful fanatical secularism that is holding the fort. If what Philips says about secularism is true, I am much more comforted that we can meet and overcome Islamism.

The decay of religion, he says, has given rise to moral relativism, which regards all beliefs and principles as being of equal value and truth as a relative concept. This has given rise to multiculturalism, which masquerades as the promotion of equal rights but is actually a disguised form of cultural and national self-loathing.

Note the appropiate use of the word “decay”. This implies that religion has imploded, not as a result of an attack from outside.

Nothing new here, but I am not sure what any of it has to do with secularism. There is no reason to suppose that those who advocate the separation of church and state are responsible for moral relativism. This argument is like the one where you tote up all the evil things in the world that you disagree with and then blame them all on the atheists because you see atheists as evil people.

This in turn lies behind the idea that nations are illegitimate or passé, and that the world’s problems can all be solved by everyone on the planet coming together to harness the power of reason to arrive at a solution. But, in robbing people of their national identity and capacity to believe in anything except the fiction that reason trumps all, this is an essentially irrational negation of self-interest.

Again, there is no relationship between this argument and secularism.

No less irrational is the overreach of science which, as London writes, has been hijacked by secular fundamentalists who want to supplant religion by asserting that only in science can truths be found.

Secular fundamentalists? What are they? Being a secularist is like being pregnant, you can’t be a pregnant fundamentalist, either you are pregnant or you are not. If we are talking about the physical world, then indeed, only science can find the truth. If we are talking about morality, then religion does have something to say (not all of it good or worthwhile, however) and secularism has something to say on that score as well (not awfully different from the decent stuff found in religion).

Such ’scientism’ — as this overreach is termed — goes beyond the ability of science to explain the nature of the world around us and claims to tell us how life began. Yet the assumption that science provides a complete theory of knowledge is itself fundamentally unscientific.

The only people who assert that science purports to provide a complete theory of knowledge are religious people who know very little about science. No respectable scientist would hold such a position.

Science generates more questions than it can answer. The more science unravels the mysteries of the world for us, the more mysterious it becomes. And, as the many scientists who are also religious believers demonstrate, there is no inherent conflict between religion and science.

Good for science. If it is generating more questions than it can answer then it is doing its proper job.

No, Ms. Philips, the only thing that noting there are scientists who are religious believers proves is that there is no conflict between science as a profession and the holding of a religious faith. There is an insolvable contradiction between science and religion, however, and it is up to those scientists who believe in a faith to rationalize these contradictions for themselves – they will never do it to the satisfaction of the broader scientific community.

The dogma that science provides the answer to every question and so supplants religion has led to a junking of the moral codes deriving from Judaism and Christianity that underpin western society.

This is drivel! Only a person who knows very little about the scientific method could make such a fallacious cause and effect argument. Western societies’ moral codes have evolved somewhat from their religious roots, but they have not been overthrown.

This loss of cultural nerve has created an unwitting collusion between secular zealots and the Islamists who have declared war upon western civilization, and who believe — correctly — that a secular west will be unable to resist them.

Science, rationality and the pursuit of truth are intimately related to the religious traditions of the west. If those traditions are not defended from within against the threat from without, this will be how the west was lost.

Jesus Christ and General Jackson, what is this??? First we are told that secular zealots are in collusion with Islamists to destroy western civilization. Then we are told that science and rationality (the secular realm) are part of western civilization’s traditions, along with religion, and we have to defend them. Well. which is it? Are we to scorn secularism or are we to defend it?

This is not some argument out of whole cloth. I have read more compelling versions of it than Ms. Phillips outing here, but it always leaves me wondering two things.

The first is that religious folk are in the majority, so why don’t they just get active and put some fire into their beliefs instead of sitting back and playing the blame game, pointing at secularists as the cause of all their decay. Secularism is the result of religious decay, not the cause of it.

Secondly, what do they think religion brings to the table in combating the religious fanaticism of Islam? How does jumping up for Jesus beat Mohammed? They never tell us the battle plan.

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