We do not now have the understanding

Sorry – a couple of people have reproached me for linking to Nagel on Dawkins when it’s subscription. Sorry. I got access via bugmenot (which will probably now be taken away) a long time ago, so I forget that it’s subscription. I thought it might be on the Dawkins site but it isn’t, at least not yet. Try bugmenot – it doesn’t always work, but it sometimes does. It’s cheating, but then again, one can read magazines at libraries, and that’s not cheating.

It’s worth the effort (no surprise there).

One of Dawkins’s aims is to overturn the convention of respect toward religion that belongs to the etiquette of modern civilization. He does this by persistently violating the convention, and being as offensive as possible, and pointing with gleeful outrage at absurd or destructive religious beliefs and practices. This kind of thing was done more entertainingly by H.L. Mencken (whom Dawkins quotes with admiration), but the taboo against open atheistic scorn seems to have become even more powerful since Mencken’s day.

Just so, perhaps especially in the US (although it seems to me to be pretty powerful [in public discourse] in the UK too). I was saying just that to Jeremy the other day – that yes Dawkins and Dennett are rude about religion, but that I think they do that not because they are smug or arrogant but because the default assumption has become that it is taboo to be scornful of religion, with the result that unbelievers can feel very isolated and peculiar, especially young ones; I think what both are doing is at least partly performing the fact that it is and ought to be permissable to be scornful of religion. They’re performing for that high school student that Dennett talked about in his NY Times Op Ed – the one who felt so isolated and peculiar until Dennett spoke at his school and was quite matter-of-factly atheist. At least I think they are, I think that’s one possible and even likely explanation, though they may also just be being irritated.

I agree with Dawkins that the issue of design versus purely physical causation is a scientific question. He is correct to dismiss Stephen Jay Gould’s position that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.” The conflict is real. But although I am as much of an outsider to religion as he is, I believe it is much more difficult to settle the question than he thinks. I also suspect there are other possibilities besides these two that have not even been thought of yet.

That’s just it, in a way – other possibilities. That’s interesting, where saying ‘God’ is the opposite of interesting. It’s about as interesting (and plausible) as saying Joe.

A religious worldview is only one response to the conviction that the physical description of the world is incomplete. Dawkins says with some justice that the will of God provides a too easy explanation of anything we cannot otherwise understand, and therefore brings inquiry to a stop. Religion need not have this effect, but it can. It would be more reasonable, in my estimation, to admit that we do not now have the understanding or the knowledge on which to base a comprehensive theory of reality.

You bet. I’m happy to admit that. I resent the ‘God’ answer partly because it claims we do have the knowledge – because it’s content with an answer that’s not an answer, and uses the non-answer to close off the question. It’s doubly annoying.

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