I’ll discuss two more the responses to my piece before (probably) moving on to some other stuff. First is, “A Most Likely Misguided Guide to McElwee’s Misguided Take on the New Atheists, Religion, and Science,” by Paul Sunstone. I’m not going to address the whole piece, but there is some room for profitable discussion. The first objection is that we’re evolutionary wired for religion, which I would accept as entirely true. Sunstone’s conclusion is that:
Put differently, there might well be little or no link between whether a religion grips and moves us, and whatever measure of wisdom, meaning and purpose it contains. It’s true that most of us derive at least some measure of wisdom, meaning and purpose in life from our religions, but is that the most fundamental reason we humans are usually religious?
I don’t see why the answer to this question can’t be “both”. Religion might be a “spandrel,” in the Gouldian sense, but I think most likely it’s around because the “religious impulse” is a genuinely useful one.
The next argument is against my plea for NOMA. Sunstone writes,
To me, the notion that science and religion are two “non-overlapping magisteria” is simplistic. Typically, religions make claims about what is or isn’t the case, just as does science. Most famously, perhaps, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all at least originally claimed the universe was brought into existence in six days. These days, that claim has been reinterpreted by many people to be merely a metaphor for, say, humanity’s place in the cosmos and our relation to deity. But originally, it was most likely a literal claim. As such the claim was mainly in conflict with what we have since discovered, or think we have discovered, about the physical origins of the universe.
The problem with NA and religious fundamentalists is they both read the Bible in the same way, as a series of assertions to be proved and disproved. Dinesh D’Souza tries to prove how the Bible foreshadows scientific development. That’s a waste. NA try to argue how science is at odds with the Bible. That’s a waste. It’s like showing how science disproves Sons and Lovers. That’s what I mean by NOMA. Properly construed (a huge caveat, I know), I honesty see no conflict between science and religion.
Next up, Sunstone argues that,
My last Grand Bitch with McElwee and with King, too, is with their notion that science is not a source of values. In fact, science is not a source of categorical imperatives. It is not a source of “Do this!”, or of, “Do that!”, without any reason given as to why one should do this or do that. But I think you can argue that it can be a source of hypothetical imperatives. That is, a source of, “If you do this, then you will get that.” e.g. If you cause global warming, then you will get flooded coastal cities.
I don’t know if we disagree here. King said, “Science investigates, religion interprets.” I would say, “Science Investigates, philosophy Interprets,” and include religion in the list of things that constitute broadly “philosophy.” So when science discovers climate change, there isn’t, as far as I can see a moral imperative to do anything about climate change. Climate models can tell you, “if you emit 1000 GtCO2 between now and 2100 there is an 80% chance global temperatures will increase by 2 degrees Celsius and will increase ocean levels, natural disasters, etc.” I would argue that framework you use to react to that news should be rooted in moral thinking from philosophers, theologians and writers. Now, we’re seeing some insane developments in neuroscience and that may start to lead to a bleeding between the “Science investigates, religion interprets” model, but nothing in Sam Harris’s lectures on the subject struck me as enough reason to throw out religion. For one, religious thought can still inform a deeper understanding of oneself. For another, at some point we’ll have to abandon our chauvinistic nationalistic interests and work toward the collective good. I don’t know how well the Western individualist tradition can address these problems.
Sunstone’s piece was fun to read, and I hope my responses are profitable. The next piece is from Why Evolution is True, by Dr. Jerry A. Coyne and it’s entitled, “The good news and the bad news. I: The bad news.” I do hate being someone’s bad news!
Coyne argues that,
But who can deny that nonreligious societies like Sweden or Denmark have less suffering than, say, Yemen or Saudi Arabia?
Right, but this gets to my deeper point: the religious fundamentalism that afflicts countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia is directly attributable to the massive social upheaval brought about by Western imperialism. Take away Western imperialism and you get Mohammad Mosaddegh instead of Ali Khamenei. To take another case, you can lose Mobuto and get Lumumbu. But the West looks at Congo and says, “Wow, what terrible leaders they have had,” ignoring the fact that the West supported the very anti-democratic coups that are plaguing these countries.
Moving along we get a Hitch point. Quick note: I don’t hate Hitchens. I love No One Left to Lie To and The Trials of Henry Kissinger. My point is that the anti-religious zealotry obfuscates Western imperialism and endorses a pernicious foreign policy.
That leads to the next objection:
But the main problem here is that most Islamic violence is directed not at colonialist oppressors, but at other Muslims (e.g., Sunni vs. Shia). Or against Islamic women. Or it comes from a religiously-motivated hatred of Jews: another religious problem. Yes, colonialism plays some role, but if you read Lawrence Wright’s absorbing book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (highly recommended, and it won a Pulitzer Prize), you’ll see that the origins of Al-Qaeda and its predecessor the Muslim Brotherhood trace back not to colonialism by Western powers, but to resentment of the “secular” government of Egypt and the desire to spread Islam throughout the world. I wish more people who play the “it’s-all-politics” card would read that book!
I’ll check it out. Western power created a debate across the East about whether to imitate the West or dive back into the Islamic tradition. Turkey secularized. Egypt secularized. So the conflict here is certainly still East/West. The religious adherents were disturbed the Westernization of Egypt. This likely helps to explain part the anger directed at Israel.
This follows to the next objection:
But if there were no religion, there would be no conflict over the Trinity, regardless of the “political maneuvering” involved! Of course not all wars are religious, and there is always a secular element even when religion is involved, but to deny that religious beliefs motivate wars and conflicts is to deny reality.
My point here is that religious doctrines are shaped by political expediency. The Roman Empire was always cautious about what religions were allowed to be practiced. Any religion that would incite rebellion was quashed. That’s why Pontius Pilate is a waffling pussy in the Bible. So if there was no Christianity, would Constantine just chill out, and decide not try to acquire new territory. I doubt it.
I have to catch up with someone, so some of these thoughts aren’t fully developed. But have no fear Sunstone and Coyne, your arguments will be flying around in my noggin. I didn’t get finished with Coyne’s objections, but I hope to finish up tonight.
Note: Also, some said on Twitter that it’s useless to argue with me because my mind is closed. I would note that simply because your arguments aren’t persuasive to me doesn’t mean I’m ignoring them.