Not rocket science, nor brain surgery

An interesting (at least in places) discussion at Pharyngula of Eagleton on Dawkins. One of the interesting bits is the one where Andrew Brown drops by to comment. He notes that he reviewed The God Delusion for Prospect with a follow-up at Comment is Free (I put both in News here, and I think commented on one or both; they’re not new). He draws a rather irrelevant analogy.

The shortest form of all these objections is this analogy: Suppose that I, knowing nothing about economics, write a book saying that the world would be better off without money: that money has led people to terrible crimes, and may even be thre root of all evil — “and besides, when you look at it money doesn’t even exist: who is this ‘I’ who promises to pay the bearer on demand? Why should we believe in dollars when no one believes in Reichsmarks or in cowrie shells?” Would this be a scientific work? Would it advance our understanding of money, or of economics?

But religion isn’t economics, and it’s not like economics. Religion is not an expert subject. That’s why I find all these questions about theology beside the point. Religion of course can be an expert subject, but it isn’t of its nature an expert subject, especially not in the form of the various Protestant denominations. Religion is public, and democratic, and inclusive, and all-embracing; furthermore, people are constantly making us a present of their religious beliefs in all sorts of public media, from newspapers to political campaigns to radio shows to tv dramas. It is a perfectly legitimate and indeed necessary undertaking to look at and dispute with that form of religion – public religion – everybody’s religion – Bush’s religion, Blair’s religion, Cristine Odone’s religion. That’s why economics is beside the point.

Brown goes on:

There are lots of us who believe that religion is primarily a social reality. The way to study social realities, and to understand them, is not to ponce around saying “Nyah nyah nyah it’s all just an illusion.”

Well, there are also lots of us who believe – for good reason, I would say – that religion is a social reality that rests on particular supernatural beliefs – to wit, that there is a personal omnipotent benevolent omniscient god who is real but out of our reach and who is transcendent but nevertheless answers our prayers and is involved in our world. One way to study and also criticize a social reality that is based on those beliefs is indeed, surely, to ask whether there is any reason to believe all that. Why wouldn’t it be? When we’re always being urged to believe all that ourselves, and urged or commanded to respect people who believe it, and told to be quiet about our opinion of it, and having plays and museum exhibits closed down before we can see them because of it. It’s our business, isn’t it; it’s everyone’s business. Economics isn’t.* I wouldn’t apply for the job of chairman of the Federal Reserve, because I quite agree that I don’t know enough about economics, but religion isn’t like that (not that I plan to apply for the job of archbishop of Canterbury either).

I can see saying that approach is not terribly interesting or challenging, I can see not wanting to bother with it, but Brown seems to be saying that it’s illegitimate, and I don’t buy that. I don’t think an approach that disputes religion as it is commonly (and often) presented is in the least illegitimate, in fact I think it needs doing.

*Well, economics is, but not in the sense of being able to criticize it cogently merely because we know how to spend money.

66 Responses to “Not rocket science, nor brain surgery”