Monday, August 13, 2007

The Enemies of Reason

Tonight on Channel 4, Richard Dawkins took on 'the enemies of reason' - by which he means superstitions and non-organised spirituality. He does so because he wants to guard against the effects of fundamentalism that ignores evidence and reason.

My impression is that this less rabid programme is just a reincarnation of his 'the root of evil' which attacked organised religion and was mostly reproduced in The God Delusion. Whilst it seems softer its another attempt to tell us we just need pure scientific reason. However, it's a straw man because once more he fails to engage with the evidential claims of Christianity.
(We know why he wont engage with these 'unscientific delusions'.
1. Because the Bible is the evidence and it presumes God's existence and is therefore not something he's prepared to consider.
2. Because the book he ignores says that the gospel looks foolish to him, which is what it does to those who trust in their reason alone.)
Back to tonight's programeme... His study is interesting though because he claims that a quarter of the population believe in horoscopes. Appalling to the pope of science and his hope of an enlightened society. And so this unthinking superstition is actually more popular than Christianity - and so perhaps a bigger enemy of Dawkins' reason. Dawkins would never beg the question so naturally he introduces his subject as"irrational nonsense", a primitive fog of pseudoscience. I can't help thinking that he has a point - the difficulty is he thinks that I'm as dimwitted as those he features.

He notes that psychologically people believe that very general statements in horoscopes apply specifically to the circumstances of their lives. Once more he has a point. Sadly people sometimes do the same with the Bible, twisting it's meaning to their situations. One still has to wonder why Dawkins cares so much, other than that astrologers ramblings distract us from the real 'triumph of human intellect' (?) that we can see in the night sky. Though what that really testifies about us is hard to see.

Then we're told that half of the population believe in paranormal stuff. And we're given an example which looks absurb. From it Dawkins concludes that psychics claims are nonsense and can be harmful. How can they be harmful? He doesn't say, but just moves on to look at Derren Brown who endorsed Dawkin's bestseller who diagnoses the linguistic tricks that pyschics use. Then we're on to the spiritualist churches and their seances. The main problem seems to be that gullible people are being conned. I agree this isn't good and it's nice that Richard cares about the vulnerable who might be exploited. As Dawkins assesses the experiences that people have I find myself again wanting to read get back to Religious Affections and Edwards' qualifications of real spiritual experiences. Sadly, my copy is in storage so I'm thwarted for now.

Dawkins challenge would appear to be that we evangelicals are just like the spiritualists with our non-rational claims of absolute truth based on private feelings that can't be tested. Then he found some dowsers who were prepared to be tested. So he gets the opportunity to show that scientific reason is best. He confesses that he has to be agnostic about claims of a spiritual realm but that as a good scientist he will happily test any claim. The Dowsers don't do very well and aren't able to accept his refutation of them. They wont adapt to new evidence, which is 'primitive' apparently. We, apparently, want to believe in meaning because we can't face up to life without meaning in an indifferent universe - "wanton storytellers creating intention in the randomness of reality". He observes an inescapable human condition that seeks meaning and self-delusion. These spiritual people sell more books than scientists - maybe that's Dawkin's biggest frustration!

As he draws to a close he begins to preach about how 'science is the poetry of reality'. His devotional appeal is a touching adoration of the indifferent universe. The god of Richard Dawkins 'science' has achieved everything in the last 50 years... the lack of science students is perceived as prejudice against science and betrayal of the enlightenment. We observe religion declining because of postmodernism, he sees his god under attack by the same foe! Society stupifies people into gullibility and private belief... Wikipedia worldTM presents opportunity and great danger in the world of fundamentalist bloggers (ahem) who devalue evidence. Undeniably some of this happens - but I have to ask whether Dawkins TVTM is more reliable than the private hunches that the rest of us have? I do agree that we need to value verifiable evidence ahead of private experience... strangely when I do that I find myself becoming a more convinced Christian.

Dawkins continues next Monday...


  1. I've finally watched this. I thought Dawkins was quite good actually. And I liked the Dowsing expose. I really did find him to be much more rational than many of the people he met. Although at the end he starting going off on one about the wider religious belief in the supernatural, which was to be fair to him, was not totally out of line. We do attribute the supernatural explanations far too quickly, too often. "The cancer was healed, we were praying, it must be a miracle".... No, sorry sometimes some kinds of cancers regress.

    The deeper and more pertinent questions are:
    1. Given that there is a lot of whacky supernatural mumbo jumbo worldview around, how can we offer a more rational Christian worldview that is faithful to our understanding that there is more to nature than just the natural?
    2. How can we look, and try to grow more of our experience and understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, without subverting the worship of God with the rational, cognitive mind?

  2. I agree entirely.

    We Christians have got to be careful about mixing up sequence and consequence... both when we talk about providence and about miracles. Sometimes we just notice patterns...

    Your two questions are very helpful. I'd love to see you explore some answers to them, here or on your blog.