Did you ever notice that we have no holidays in which we revere history’s true – in the sense of “backed up with evidence” – miracle-workers, those hard-working saviors we call “scientists”?
Think about it: scientists, through the “miracle” of human reason, have eradicated diseases for literally billions of people through medicine, created light and warmth in winter through electricity, bread for the hungry through improved agriculture, knowledge of “the heavens” through astronomy, knowledge of creation and generation through biology and genetics. They’ve literally given man the “miraculous” power to fly around the earth and to the stars; to speak face-to-face from opposite ends of the earth (and from the moon); they’re close to creating life itself, and have already created a doubled average lifespan for all of us in a mere century.
Why we don’t give thanks at Temples of Science, and donate our tithes there to promote more Good Works, is a question for future historians – if our future is not cut short by nuclear- or bioweapon-armed religious fanatics in the name of one authoritarian book or another (and it’s funny that Buddhists, of all world religions I’m aware of, are the only ones not to claim knowledge of any god at all, and also the only ones not to be engaged in violence in the name of their creed). Why we take our children to hospitals when they’re sick – we used to take them to priests – but turn around and attack the teachings of science in our schools….this saddens and frustrates me to no end.
As a history teacher and humanist, as a simple human amazed at the changes over time in human history – women’s liberation, civil rights, the triumph of modern science and reason over medieval and Iron Age ignorance, and so forth – I’m keenly interested in the rise of the “new atheists” in Western culture (again, “atheism” makes no sense in Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian Asia, since it was never “theist” to begin with). Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others have led a fascinating movement to challenge one of the last unreasoned taboos – the desirability of religion in modern civilization.
Yesterday, I was reading the Science Blogs in my Bloglines, and came across a post that had the following 2-hour “coffee klatsch” conversation of four of the earth’s leading contemporary “heretics” (in Latin, this simply means “ones who choose”) and champions of science. While I’ve seen them all featured in the media in one place or another, it has usually been in situations in which they argued their positions from an editorial soapbox, or else engaged in a somewhat sensationalistic debate with a proponent of one faith or another.
In the videos below, though, things are remarkably different: they’re among friends and fellow-travelers. No name-calling, no thumping of Darwin or Moses here. Instead, they unwind into a wonderfully intelligent discussion of their motives for attacking superstition, their fears of its untrammeled progress in the future, their frustrations at our culture’s ignorance of the basic principles of science and scientific “knowledge” and “truth” and, perhaps most remarkably, their own misgivings about both what they are doing, and how they are doing it.
In this setting, we see different sides of these men. Richard Dawkins, author of the best-selling The God Delusion, who has often seemed peevish and combative in discussions with such religious leaders as the fallen “cocaine-with-male-prostitutes” megachurch preacher and Bush-adviser Ted Haggard (here) (and to be fair, Haggard castigated Dawkins with all the self-righteousness of the best of our American Elmer Gantry‘s) and with a Jewish convert to Islam in Jerusalem (here), emerges in the videos below a much milder, more humble and likable man.
Similarly, Sam Harris, whose The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason is a masterpiece of style and rhetoric in its arguments against religion, but at the same time threatens to alienate the very audience it hopes to reach through that very force, poses in the talks below some exquisite questions about these rationalists’ own assumptions of their “righteousness.” It’s scientific humility in action, and at its best. (Harris gave a brilliant speech in 2005 at Canada’s version of TED Talks, “Idea City,” here, but thankfully seems since then to have reconsidered the efficacy of calling religion “bullsh*t,” as he does in an ill-advised moment at the end of this speech.)
Daniel Dennett is Professor of Cognitive Studies at Tufts, author, and a staff writer of my favorite intellectual science-and-culture blog, The Edge, (don’t miss his “Thank Goodness” post for a beautiful paean to the good works of scientists worldwide working together for a universal good, rather than against each other for a tribal one. Dennett wrote it after surviving
a nine-hour surgery, in which [his] heart was stopped entirely and [his] body and brain were chilled down to about 45 degrees to prevent brain damage from lack of oxygen until they could get the heart-lung machine pumping
–and it is a truly beautiful, inspiring piece of writing from a man recently back from the final precipice.) Dennett comes off as warm and civil as can be (and I just discovered he gives three TED Talks here).
Finally, Christopher Hitchens, author and staff writer at Vanity Fair, contributes his own spice to the mix. He frankly annoys me by dominating so much of the conversation, ignoring others’ attempts to weigh in, and otherwise showing a lack of social intelligence. But his discussion of the fateful event which Hannukah celebrates, and his argument that it was actually an unparalleled disaster for the future of civilization, was one of the high moments, intellectually, for this history buff’s experience of the film. It’s in the last ten minutes or so of the second video.
Before embedding the videos, I’ll add the following caveat: as an educator tasked with inspiring critical thinking abilities to the next generation, and as a person who simply stands up for advancing the Good as he sees it, I hope I don’t have to apologize to anyone for asking valid questions like this. I’ve said it before in these pages, and I’ll say it again: the problem with schools, generally, is they only practice critical thinking about safe subjects – and that’s an increasingly tragic oxymoron for our world.
I hope you’ll find a couple hours to be entertained by some sorely needed, very civil, conversation about one of the chief questions in our shared historical moment.
Best holiday wishes to you all, by the way. You’ve enriched my life (with the aid of this scientific miracle called the read-write web) over the past year in ways for which I am truly thankful.