Celestial teapots

In The New Republic
last October, Thomas Nagel, a philosopher who calls himself “as much an outsider to religion” as Mr. Dawkins, extracts a quite cogent little nugget from the two-fingers-up-at-religion school of baloney, pointing out that what was meant by God was not, as Mr. Dawkins’s argument seemed to assume, “a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world.” instead, a la RD, “as some kind of chap, however supersized.”

Nor was belief in God analogous to belief in a Celestial Teapot, an example Mr. Dawkins borrowed from Bertrand Russell. If this insistence on theology beyond the level of Pat Robertson and biblical literalism was not enough, several reviewers banged on enthusiastically about double standards. One compared Mr. Dawkins’s volubility about religion’s vast wrongs with his silence “on the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity” and the good that religion has produced. He writes:

“In a book of almost 400 pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false. The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history — and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry.” H’m. More good than harm, perhaps?

Another wrote: “No decent person can fail to be appalled by the sins committed in the name of religion,” but atheism has to be held to the same standard: “Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual fact that (1) the 20th century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.” Communism as a social disease, Nazi extermination camps, inter alia. Dawkins is not an amiable agnostic. It almost seems as if he is desperate to believe, perhaps standing, like Dostoyevsky, on the ladder just one rung below belief.

We might ask a more linear question: does ‘rational’ mean ‘ scientific’? “The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism.” writes another. In other words, tediously grey thinking.

It’s surely becoming clearer that emotional intelligence is as valuable if not more so in the survival struggle than academic attainments. We have more than one formula for understanding, a distinction made in Scripture by the separate use of both ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We still don’t know if a horse can sympathise with a rat, for example. Surely we have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection or conceptual analysis as ways of uncovering the truth just because they aren’t ‘physics’.

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