Religion Aims, Again

Section 3 of Allen Orr’s review of Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain reminded me of a review of the same book by Michael Ruse. I commented on Ruse’s review last month. Section 3 of Orr’s review deals with Dawkins’ criticisms of religion, and what Orr thinks is wrong with them.

You might argue that what conflicts did occur between science and religion were due to misunderstandings of one or the other. Indeed you might argue that Dawkins’s belief that science and religion can conflict reflects a misconstrual of the nature of religious belief: while scientific beliefs are propositions about the state of the world, religious beliefs are something else—an attempt to attach meaning or value to the world. Religion and science thus move in different dimensions, as Gould and many others have argued.

You might – and a lot of people do. Michael Ruse for example:

People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it. Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions. There is no conflict here, except when people mistakenly think that questions from one domain demand answers from the other. Science and religion, evolution and Christianity, need not conflict, but only if each knows its place in human affairs — and stays within these boundaries.

That certainly is a popular argument, or rather assertion, these days, isn’t it. But it isn’t true. Religion does try to tell us about the world – it tells us there’s a supernatural being in charge of it. That is a truth-claim. Religious people do in fact believe in the existence – the real existence, not some fuzzy metaphoric existence – of this supernatural being. They may be vague about the details, but they believe the critter exists – that’s what being religious means. And then, just as I said last time, this business about ‘aiming’ to give a meaning – anyone can aim to do anything. I can aim to give the world a meaning. Does that oblige anyone to accept my attempt? Why are we obliged to be respectful about religion’s ‘aims’ of that kind?

And in any case that claim is a bit of footwork. Both reviewers try to defend religion from Dawkins’ criticisms by changing the definition of religion of the word – but as Dawkins himself points out in one of the essays in A Devil’s Chaplain, that is not the normal meaning of the word. It’s a mere tactic, that kind of thing, and I don’t think it’s respectable.

Christopher Hitchens has some choice things to say about this kind of thing in his Letters to a Young Contrarian:

I have met many brave men and women, morally superior to myself, whose courage in adversity derives from their faith. But whenever they have chosen to speak or write about it, I have found myself appalled by the instant decline of their intellectual and moral standards. They want god on their side and believe they are doing his work – what is this, even at its very best, but an extreme form of solipsism? They proceed from conclusion to evidence; our greatest resource is the mind and the mind is not well-trained by being taught to assume what has to be proved.

So. You might argue that Dawkins’s belief that science and religion can conflict reflects a misconstrual of the nature of religious belief, but you’d be wrong, it doesn’t. It’s the belief of S.J. Gould and Ruse and Orr that it doesn’t that reflects the misconstrual.

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