Open Letter to Richard Dawkins

I have not read Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion, but I’m sure I agree with just about all of what he argued for in it. The idea that a personal God is responsible for the creation and maintenance of this universe, that He answers prayers and passes judgment upon the deeds of men, is childish indeed, a leftover of pre-modern humanity’s lack of intellectual freedom and, hence, its dependence on the dubious and dogmatic claims of a learned ecclesiastical authority to quell fear of the unknown (much like a mother may lie to her child to keep it from worrying about what it cannot yet understand). Such beliefs have contributed to some of the greatest human tragedies in all of history and in fact continue to do so up until this very moment. Our world is in dire need of the rationality Dawkins employs in his deconstruction of its outdated religions, and indeed we have reached a point in time when the widespread availability and connectivity of information has given nearly every person on Earth the ability (and therefore the moral responsibility) to become more fully aware, both of the world around them, and to a lesser extent, to the world within them (1).

I do, however, have a few qualms with Dawkins’ credo, among which his insistence on referring to himself as an impassioned atheist. It makes him sound as though he has a deep-seated emotional bias against anything overtly spiritual. I suppose someone needs to do what Dawkins is doing, playing the kryptonite to orthodox religion’s Superman; but atheism is no more than a reaction to theism. Going out of his way to assert disbelief in God, usually condescendingly, Dawkins seems to reveal and underlying obsession with the supernatural that is just as fervent as the worship of those he rants against. All psychological analysis aside, though, my only real reservation about Dawkins crusade to rid the world of the silly literalisms of outdated religion is that he seems to offer little to replace them. That they need replacing is obvious, but that “science” alone might be able to fill the gap, as Dawkins suggests, seems a bit like suggesting that menus could replace meals. Obviously they cannot, or we would all soon starve.

The human being is and always has been both animal and angel, both worldly and spiritual. We are drawn to both the immanent and the transcendent, sometimes parading around like gods, other times moping guiltily for our sins. It seems, then, that throwing out our mystical side in favor of our rational will leave us with nothing but descriptions of the world unaccompanied by their experiential correlates. There is a certain inner sense of the genuinely spiritual hiding beneath the drab and pockmarked shell of religion. Now that it has come time for us to crack this shell, we ought to be careful not to toss the life of the yolk away with it. I fear that an overly literal interpretation of the merits of science could turn out to be just as destructive as the literal religion that preceded it.

I quote Dawkins at length from the opening to a recent documentary entitled The Big Questions:

The human race is one of the wonders of the universe, and of all our remarkable properties, one stands out. It is that we are restlessly drawn to ask questions like ‘why are we here,’ and ‘what is the purpose of life?’

So far, I have no problems. He goes on:

The great civilizations and cultures of the past came up with various answers, all unsatisfying because they were made up, rather than being properly investigated. Can science come up with something better? I think so.

I sense that Dawkins is here overstepping his bounds as a scientist. The most sacred of scientific creeds has it that one ought not apply the tools of the trade to areas where they do not apply, such as the spheres of value and meaning. Despite Dawkins protest that civilizations and cultures past were somehow mistaken in their “made up” beliefs about the purpose of life, science can in no way escape a similar type of subjective construction when it attempts to build its own models of the world. He goes on to say,

For most of the 500,000 years of human existence, we have been unable to answer the question of why we are here. It was only 150 years ago that science first tried to find an answer.

For Dawkins, that answer was Darwin’s theory of evolution. I would like to suggest, though, that Darwin’s theory is just one, albeit the most recent and admittedly the most empirically verifiable (2), in a long line of cultural mythopoeia. Every age has its own conception of the ultimate. For the people of Classical Greece, the gods of Homer’s epics were just as real as the particles and energies of the modern scientist. Neither Grecian nor scientist has ever actually seen either, but both will undoubtedly testify to having a direct conceptual experience of each.

As Voltaire once put it, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” Human beings are inexplicably drawn to asking big questions. It seems, though, that this drive is overshadowed by our even greater desire to provide big answers, often times without merit.

The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, painted some 500 years ago by Michelangelo, reveals the prevailing mythos of the late medieval period of human history. At the center of the immense fresco is the famous image of The Creation of Adam, God reaching down to Man to bestow upon him the gift of knowledge. Such supernatural explanations for the complexity of the human mind are unacceptable by the more critical, scientific standards of today. We demand to know how God bestowed this gift, not just the obvious fact that he did. Hidden in this same image, though, is evidence that Michelangelo’s understanding of the mythological construction of belief was ahead of his time. An entourage of angels accompanies God, draping him in the unmistakable outline of humanity’s most powerful asset: its brain.

The artist is here illustrating both God’s creation of Man, and Man’s creation of God. In its literalist forms, Christianity asserts a God who exists high above His created masterpiece, divinely designing it from without, turning dust (matter) into intelligence (form). In a similar way, the scientist uses the technological skill offered by the brain to construct meaning from the ambiguities of the manifest world, thereby dragging God down from heaven, chopping Him into individual parts, and renaming each as the ego. Every individual thus becomes the designer of his or her own world. In this sense, “God” refers only to that which provides the necessary ground of being upon which any explanatory edifice must build its foundation. For the pre-modern Christian, this ground was the Biblical God the Father, the Holiest of Holies. For the modern scientist, the ground becomes the rational mind, the ego: God shrunken and internalized. God becomes, for the scientist, the only thing Descartes could not doubt. His famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” provided modern science with its own creation myth.

Science’s big answers, then, are no more final than any of humanity’s previous answers. Throughout our history, the elite classes of the time have always championed their own versions of how things came to be the way they are. Usually, these explanations come subliminally packaged as to promote and maintain the current social order. Church officials once claimed to offer the only route to heaven, and an intellectually and economically meager populace was forced to obey their every command. Scripture was written only in Latin, making it impossible for the uneducated masses to interpret their tradition for themselves. Most find themselves in a similar situation today, as scientists rule over the collective psyche of society from behind their university desks and obscure scientific journals, claiming to have answered the big questions with theories like evolution by natural selection. Most normal people, not having the scientific background to fully comprehend such ideas, are forced either to take the side of academic authority, thereby accepting the over-simplified, pop-science sound bites they hear used in the media, or to reject science in favor of some prior mythological authority, such as the Bible or their local church pastor. This creates a situation where the average person assumes they must pick one or the other: science or God, evolution or creationism, reason or faith.

In reality, such dichotomies exist only in the minds of the fundamentalist. When one has understood the intricacies of the scientific worldview, it becomes clear that science neither proves nor disproves the spiritual. While it may have much to say against literal belief in the miracles of the Bible, it has little to say about ultimate matters in general. It is almost universally true, though, that the scientific heroes of our past, while usually rejecting notions of a personal God, nonetheless found through their investigations into the natural world a numinousity so profound that it may as well be called spiritual. This was true for Newton, for Einstein, for Eddington… the list goes on.

Scientific theories do indeed go a long way toward explaining the how of the universe. What they fail miserably at is explaining the why. This is precisely the reason that so many scientific geniuses end up believing in some sense of the mystical. Their penetrating investigations reveal to them a reality so far beyond mere descriptions that the pure experience of its mystery becomes a form of worship.

We see, then, that the hows of science cannot replace the whys of spirituality. Dawkins’ suggestion that we reinterpret ourselves in light of natural selection as nothing more than “survival machines” simply will not do. The human psyche is so structured that it cannot function without equal doses of both knowledge and purpose. To be fair, Dawkins suggests that our ability to think and speak has given us what he believes amounts to “purpose.” The fact that our brains developed enough to allow us to create our own goals is what separates us from the blind forces of evolution. Unlike animals, we humans can decide for ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. Dawkins cites our mastery of technology as a prime example of this skill, as we can now “alleviate hunger with new strains of crops, predict the weather with high speed computers, and cure diseases with pharmaceuticals.”

While these innovations are doubtlessly great achievements, I must point out that around a billion people remain starving, hurricanes and tornados still kill thousands every year, and pharmaceutical companies participate in one of the most profitable and corrupt businesses in economic history, researching not cures, but treatments, as the former simply wouldn’t make shareholders rich enough to keep the racket going. We can see, then, that science can certainly provide the means, but when it comes to the motivations, it is silenced. Human values and meaning, therefore, must come through some other means, means I’m prepared to call spiritual. By spiritual, I do not mean we ought to revert to superstitious belief in a vengeful God who will smite those who disobey. Rather, I refer to the individually mediated experience of that which transcends the everyday categories of the mind, that which cannot be explained but most assuredly can be experienced. Such experiences universally produce feelings of compassion and connection to nature and to one’s fellow man. Only with such an internal understanding of one’s place in the world can the powerful external tools of science be used for good.

Science and religion must be integrated. Asserting the practical truths of science above and beyond the transcendent truths of spirituality leaves one in a valueless world where, indeed, only the fittest will survive. If we wish to fully embrace our dual human countenance, being as we are both animal and angel, we must respect the worth of each sphere, combining the best of both to create a new and more integral human future.

(1)- There seems to be an excess of credible information about the exterior world available to human beings alive in our age. I’d refer to this as knowledge, the practical know-how that allows one to get things done in the world. However, when it comes to what I’d call interior spiritual wisdom, credible information seems less widely available, or at least much less sought after because of the Western world’s overtly extroverted worldview. Knowledge, again, provides us with the how. Spiritual wisdom provides us with the why.

(2)- Modern day science has reduced the meaning of empiricism to what can be experienced through the five senses, thereby negating even the possibility that one might objectively investigate matters of the mind and spirit through various types of intersubjective study. The reason Darwin’s theory is the most empirically justified is because no special injunction is required for one to see with their eyes that humans bare a striking resemblance to primates, or that during the early weeks of pregnancy, the fetuses of many animals appear almost identical. Even the layman can see such things. However, for one to see, for example, the empirically verified spiritual truth that all supposedly self-existing entities gain their apparent separateness only through their contextual relationship to all other entities (dependent origination) and that they therefore exist primordially as Sunyata, or emptiness, they would need to follow the carefully prescribed methods of the masters of their preferred tradition.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Andras Magagna says:

    I think that there is with the extroversion, segregation, and predication of academia the loss of: self, cognition, and impression. I think that there is with the introversion, integration, and indication of mysticism a loss of: others, recognition, and expression. The first so lost in the focus on the action of obtaining information from the experience that that it has forgotten how to experience. The second so focused on inaction of attaining the experience that it is lost in the experience. I think there is in need of a third to write a letter to the first and tap the shoulder of the second as to invite them to the world where speculation and intuition meet.

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