Re: Dawkins on Channel 4 tonight

From: Ben Dawson (
Date: Mon 16 Jan 2006 - 21:55:31 GMT

  • Next message: Ben Dawson: "Re: Dawkins on Channel 4 tonight"

    On Mon, 16 Jan 2006 16:04:22 +0000, you wrote:

    >Ben Dawson wrote:
    >> This is a point that has been on my mind since I watched Dawkins's
    >> program last week. Is religion really as bad a meme as Dawkins makes
    >> out? I really can't decide.
    >> On one hand, when presented with mad Muslims calling all Western women
    >> whores, it's easy to agree with him. Clearly that is bang out of
    >> order! On the other hand though, that is an extreme example. My
    >> parents and sister (all religious) are the nicest people you could
    >> meet, and would view their own religion as an entirely peaceful thing.
    >> But if faith causes people to fly planes into buildings, killing
    >> thousands, then surely our tolerance of this meme should only stretch
    >> so far?
    >> I think the problem is in the nature of the meme, rather than the meme
    >> itself. If I have a disagreement with a friend over the height of a
    >> building, say, we can resolve that quite easily by looking it up in a
    >> book or asking an authoritative source or even measuring the thing
    >> ourselves.
    >> But the meme of faith arises from not being able to empirically prove
    >> something one way or another. Thus, with no possible way to argue the
    >> issue out logically, humans turn to their last resort - the primeval
    >> instinct of fighting one other - because they are both equally certain
    >> they are right (take the Jew vs Muslim thing that Dawkins showed).
    >> Ben

    Kate - thanks for the considered reply.
    >This is true of the meme of "faith" as defined by Dawkins: faith as
    >belief-without-evidence. But no serious Christian writer would accept
    >this definition. I don't know where he's got it from. It is one of the
    >straw men he's so keen on fighting (see Derek's point about his
    >reluctance to engage with McGrath).
    >Faith is not about believing things because there's no evidence/proof
    >either way. Faith is about sticking to beliefs for which you *have*
    >what you regard as convincing evidence, in the face of what appear to be
    >counter-arguments or contradictory evidence. Sticking to them, anyway,
    >until you are convinced of the need to ditch them.
    >Scientists have this kind of faith in established theories. If some new
    >bit of evidence arises that seems to contradict an established theory,
    >the scientists don't immediately ditch the theory. They hold on to it
    >while they investigate the apparent new evidence more carefully. This
    >is a rational way to behave and,as it happens, perfectly in keeping with
    >a memetic view of what's happening. It's what religious people do, too.

    I'm not sure it's valid to equate a religious belief with the acceptance of an established scientific theory in this way. There is a big difference in my mind.

    Scientists accept established theories. You could term that acceptance faith, but it is faith that is based on some sort of objective evidence which leads the theory to be adopted in the first place. On the other hand, how does religious belief come about? It certainly isn't based the same principle.

    Also, I don't believe that many religious people are as inclined to let their beliefs drop as easily as you believe. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence for evolution and yet creationists are abundant. If statistics are to be believed then nearly half of Americans believe that the Earth is 4000 years old, despite the discovery of a 3.5 million year old complete human skeleton. People who hold these beliefs cannot have investigated the evidence at all. Their faith is definitely not based on reasoning in the same way as scientific acceptance of a theory is.

    >So, for example, a Christian is taken ill, or betrayed by a friend, or
    >is scared about an impending challenge. Faith is about not being able
    >to see her way out of the current situation, but knowing that in the
    >past God has never let her down. Faith is about praying, and trusting
    >God with the situation, on the basis of all her life's experience to
    >date, even though just now she cannot see how on earth she is going to
    >be able to cope with the situation.

    This is all subjective evidence though, isn't it? A person may believe that God is in charge of the situation, and when she overcomes that situation, she may be adamant that God helped her to do that -- but it cannot be proven one way or another.

    "Faith" as Dawkins defines it, I think, is a belief in spite of lack of proof - proof being the cogency of objective evidence that compels acceptance of a statement.

    And I think it all comes down to how we define "proof". But a subjective notion such as the one you described above - that God has control of a given situation - is, in my mind, no proof at all.

    >This is what we do in our human relationships, too. We consider our
    >loved ones innocent until proven guilty. We display faith in them. All
    >perfectly reasonable.
    >I'm not sure that I understand what is going on in the minds of people
    >who fly aeroplanes into buildings, or say (as Dawkins's interviewee did
    >last week) that they "hate atheists". But nor do I understand what is
    >going on in the minds of people who commit atrocities in any cause, be
    >that political, gang-related, tribal or whatever. And I am pretty clear
    >that what is going on in these minds is not very much like what is going
    >on in mine when I engage in robust philosophical or theological debate
    >with my Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or atheist friends.

    I am very glad to hear it! :)


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