Friday, October 26, 2007

How to Misunderstand Religion

The Archbishop of Canterbury has answered Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in a lecture given at Swansea University (HT: AKMA).

Here are a few important excerpts:

In Richard Dawkins' writings there is one very interesting factor affecting the whole discussion and that is the assumption that, loosely speaking, Darwinian Theory is a theory of everything.

In order to make a Darwinian scheme work, with religion and indeed with other cultural or intellectual phenomena, you have to assume some more rather questionable things. And the most dramatic example is the hypothesis originally advanced by Dawkins, almost 'off the cuff', (but taken rather seriously by some of his followers) that there actually is a measurable, identifiable process of the transmission of cultural ideas, that's like genetics. Dawkins and others have called it 'memetics'. The meme the unit of culture is like a gene in biology. The meme carries information from person to person and generation to generation, just as a gene encodes the information that allows replication to occur.

And as far as I'm concerned, one of the most abidingly difficult and problematic aspects of Richard Dawkins' approach to religion, remains this attempt to transfer biology into culture, to suppose that there is a science of cultural transmission exactly like genetics only with different material. I find this, I have to say, philosophically crass, undeveloped at best, simply contradictory and empty at worst.

Dawkins has confused the notion of a movement in time from the simple to the complex with the idea that there is a necessary logical priority to complex regularities and properties which ensure that when that simple organism begins to develop, it develops coherently, consistently, that cause and effect will operate from the beginning. And the question is not where that primitive organism or that physical reality comes from in terms of time. The question is about where the whole notion of explanation, regularity and intelligibility comes from.

It's not a question about bad scientific explanations and good scientific explanations. Scientific explanation always looks for specific causes inside the universe. That's what science is. Theological language, religious language asks if there is a ground for the very idea of a regular world of which you can make sense. And religious language perhaps appropriately therefore at the very least reminds the scientist that in every intelligible act there is an act of faith.

People who speak religiously have at least these in common, that they recognize the dependence of their own existence and that of the entire universe.

Bad religion is driven out by good [religion], not by no religion.

We have no obvious knock-down arguments.

But for the secularist, for the systematic critic of religion, moral integrity, self-inspection, fundamental trust must either be reduced to a personal option (I do this because I choose to do this) or it must be reduced to another form of survival strategy. And some of the problems with that, I've already touched upon. The religious believer says in contrast, that moral integrity, self-inspection, honesty, openness and trust are styles of living which communicate the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency that most religions call God. Agree or disagree, is what I would want to say to our contemporary critics, but at least grasp that that is what is being claimed and talked about. Don't distract us from the real arguments by assuming that religion is an eccentric survival strategy or an irrational form of explanation.

So what do you think? Does he expose any flaws in Dawkins' argument? Do you find his argument persuasive? Does he give up too much ground by arguing from the position of religion-in-general rather than from the position of Christianity?

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"

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