Wednesday, September 12, 2007

An Open Letter to Dr. Francis S. Collins and Dr. Richard Dawkins

Dear Dr. Collins and Dr. Dawkins,

I have just finished reading your books ‘The God Delusion’ and ‘The Language of God’. I want to thank the two of you for an enriching experience that I would definitely recommend for all open-minded seekers. There is a synergy between your books that made the combination of them even more compelling than the individual texts. While your books do not perfectly complement each other, there is enough yin in the one and yang in the other to make for a stimulating and ultimately enjoyable reading experience.

Be that as it may, I have gripes with certain phrasings each of you chose to use regularly in your books. Dr. Dawkins, I found your references to ‘races’ of humans bothersome since you, more than most, should know that races are merely sociological constructs created to focus xenophobia and justify oppression and thus have no place in a discussion based largely on evolutionary biology. As for you Dr. Collins, your continuous references to God as ‘He’ was irksome since a man of your background cannot believe that God has a penis, testes, a y-chromosome or distinctly male personality traits. As a member of our contemporary culture you do not have to be constrained by such an out-dated convention.

I chose to start with ‘The God Delusion’ because I believe that in general, rationality should be our first resort and faith our last. In this context Dr. Dawkins, I should point out that your insistence that science will ultimately be able to answer our currently unanswerable questions marks you as a man of faith, though your faith is based on deductive reasoning. But since history merely informs the future, it does not guarantee it, in the end your faith may not be justified.

As for your book Dr. Dawkins, with all due respect I found your perspective to be elitist. For instance, when you describe your transcendent awe of the wonders of the world around us, this is a leading scientist speaking. In general, the vanguard of the neo-atheist movement represents a collection of seemingly intelligent individuals who are evidently capable of seeing transcendent beauty in the empirical world. But what about the majority people who simply cannot see the world in these terms? Are they supposed take the word of the intellectual elite that there is more to life than doing unfulfilling work to scrape out a minimal living in a corrupt a world; or worse be told that there is not? If so, how would this be different from the elitism that allows religious clerics to tell the laity what to believe? The capacity of corrupt individuals among the “spiritual elite” to interpret the transcendent for the “common folk” is the basis of most of the ills of religion that you cite in your book. Replacing a spiritual elite with an intellectual one would not necessarily represent an improvement, given the corruptible nature of even the smartest humans. Ultimately, it is demonstrable wisdom that should characterize our leaders.

Ironically Dr. Collins, in ‘The Language of God’, the story of your return to the faithful gives credence to one of Dr. Dawkins major problems with religion: the wrongness of indoctrinating children. Your personal narrative shows us that an intelligent, compassionate individual needed to escape his early indoctrination and experience life as a rational adult in order to gain a balanced appreciation of the perspective of the faithful. Imagine what would happen to a less intelligent or less compassionate individual in your situation. On second thought, you don’t have to imagine since we have seen it play out in the intolerant, hateful behavior of believers down through the ages. Religion tells children that embracing a particular faith makes you better than all non-believers, regardless of how deeply spiritual, intellectually brilliant or extraordinarily wise they are. This will generally undermine their incentive to improve anything about themselves except the fervor of their faith. Few people escape this trap of self-limitation with their faith intact.

Dr. Collins, in your ‘Exhortation to Scientists’ you miss one of the critical reasons why many scientists are not inclined to accept religion: it is not self-correcting. Scientific knowledge has improved through the millennia while, by virtue of its sacred nature, the basis of religious knowledge remains largely static from the time it was first revealed. To invite someone who is a part of a rational system of dynamic progress to (re)consider adopting what from their perspective is a primitive, stagnant world view, because it is not as backwards as they think and might make them feel better about the world, is a dubious request. On the flip side of the coin Dr. Dawkins, your asking theists, deists and many agnostics to abandon their efforts to connect to the transcendent because a few evil people claimed to share their beliefs or because you can’t see how it could not be a waste of time, is asking a great deal as well.

Both of your books indicate that there are critical problems on each side of this debate. Dr. Collins, your protests to the contrary notwithstanding, religious faith is often an irrational state of mind. For the sake of this discussion let us go the simple definition that faith is belief in a premise that you cannot prove. Faith seems rational when the underlying assertion on which it is based resonates with the believer. For instance, most mathematicians had faith that Euclid’s Parallel Postulate was true because it made an intuitive sense to them (and still does in flat space). Faith becomes irrational where its premises do not make intuitive sense to the observer (e.g. "Three persons in one God"). Most people who reject a given faith do so because some of its underlying principles are inconsistent with their world view. Believing an irrational assertion because it makes you feel better about your place in the world is not the noble undertaking that many of the faithful take it to be. The age, size and complexity of the major systems of faith make it likely that most believers are accepting things that seem irrational to them (e.g. God is omniscient, omnipotent and yet can be swayed by prayer). It is the irrational (“ineffable”) concepts underlying faiths that leave its adherents vulnerable to being exploited by unscrupulous snake oil salespeople masquerading as clerics.

As for you Dr. Dawkins, while the typical atheist is only expected to believe things that make sense to them, what makes them atheists is that true transcendence does not seem sensible to them. But irrespective of its evolutionary origin, you cannot deny that many humans seem to have an innate desire to experience the transcendent. Insisting that pursuing this desire is a bad thing because evil has been done by others on this path (or again because you can’t see that it could possibly succeed) has the definite feel of a baby-bathwater scenario. The pursuit of the transcendent is no more inherently evil than the search for scientific knowledge. To try to stigmatize the former represents a level of intolerance worthy of a fundamentalist. In doing so you demonstrate that we do not need religion to be xenophobic.

To many of us, the available transcendent belief systems have unacceptably irrational components while our current rational frameworks do not encompass the transcendent, which arguably the majority of us ache to experience. So what is to be done about this situation? The “What to do?” part is actually rather obvious: rationally explain the transcendent. The fact that it has yet to be demonstrably achieved in human history indicates that the “How to do it?” part is proving to be a bit more challenging. But it is what must be done if humans are to survive our current dubious moral/ethical state.


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