Truly Critical: Thinking about Science, Religion, and Goodness

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.

Hour One:

Hour Two:

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.

44 thoughts on “Truly Critical: Thinking about Science, Religion, and Goodness”

  1. Thanks for posting the videos and the sentiments. Nice site. I look forward to following some of your links. Here’s to “sharing this historical moment” with sane, inquisitive and conscientious people.

  2. @noreligion2: Thanks for reading. Is it surprising that the only comment (yours) on this post comes not from my regular educator readers, but instead from a person who found this blog via a link from a political website?

    Part of the problem – and it’s understandable – is that teachers are in general so afraid of losing their jobs for engaging in free speech about serious issues (as opposed to “schooly,” safe ones), that they stay mum.

    And as a result, the next generation attains adulthood subject to the same old memes that keep science on the defensive.

    1. Agree that many of us fear for our jobs if we stray. But we can still teach… I think of myself as an underground subversive, or educational guerella.

      Learning through hard work is fun. Teaching people to think, to question authority. Or as Buddha said: eh Paseco – take nothing on authority check it out. If it works keep it, if not discard it.

  3. Wow,

    Thanks for the video links. That’s probably the best two hours I’ve invested in quite a while.

    Much to think about in there. Striking the ‘right tone’ (as so not to raise the defensive shields) is dancing on the knife edge.

    I found the discussion on supporting would be Atheists ‘Coming Out’ to be very interesting. There is so much inertia in the societal pressure to Conform, that support is defiantly needed to think for one’s self and question the religious ‘reality’. I did it unsupported back in the ’70s, but I had several teachers (public schools, MD, class of ’78) who taught us to think critically. (Must have been the tail end of the ’60s DFHs subverting the nation.;-) Yet, I still am not too public with my (non)belief as so not alienate parents, co-workers, etc.
    About chewed through my tongue over Xmas…

    I’ve thought of teaching a few times over the years, but I don’t think I’d make a semester before I said something, or assigned some ‘subversive’ reading, that would get me fired. Damn shame, I’d like to return the favor my Teachers bestowed on me.

    Got here from C&L and will be back.


  4. @Mfer, thanks for the comment. To me, the question is not so much one of supporting atheism as it is of supporting science and humanitarianism, and opposing any irrational forces that block science from helping the world as much as it can.

    Examples? The Catholic Church refusing to allow missionaries in AIDS-ridden Africa to promote condom use (these missionaries and priests are the closest things to teachers and doctors that many of these villages have); stem cell research that could end the suffering of so many people being blocked by religious beliefs about embryonic “souls” that, if you check theological history, have differed within the church over the centuries; dominionists attacking tolerance and the constitution in the US and exporting that type of danger elsewhere; and of course, the well-funded and entirely cynical sophistry attacking the well-established truths of evolution and geology in schools.

    I often wonder if it wouldn’t be more beneficial to expose the differing Christianities that existed before the Roman state cut them down in the 4th century. Valentinus in particular developed a non-authoritarian view of Christianity that was closer to Buddhism than to today’s version, but that rich tradition is unknown to all but the scholars.

    Anybody who’s ever been to a Unitarian service knows there’s more than one way to read a text. But they don’t have the money or the machine to spread their gospel.

  5. Thanks for this posting. I got here via C&L. I teach in Japan (though now in Eugene, OR on sabbatical) and was happy to read your comments about Buddhism. I often want to scream when I see debates on TV where religious people claim that without Christianity, our moral compasses would disintegrate. What about Asian countries, which have a much lower crime rate than in the US? They’re not Christian countries (Japan is about 1% so).
    I grew up as a Southern Baptist but lost my faith when I learned about different religions and ideas in college. All religions claim to be “right” and the “only way,” and it occurred to me that since they couldn’t all be right, none of them must be right. Nor could I square some of their beliefs (original sin, for example) with what I saw in the real world. Perhaps what turned me the most against religion was that I felt so strongly against hypocrisy and yet I saw it constantly in church.
    I’m planning to keep in touch with this blog.

  6. @redwood,

    Boy, we must have been separated at birth. I’m an ex-SB myself, “Camper of the Week” at the Southern Baptist “Camp Joy” summer camp, 1972 – probably because the fire and brimstone “call” sermon scared more tears out of me than the other involuntary campers.

    Not only that, but I’m also an Oregon Duck, Class of ’96. Might be going there this summer to buy a house, if America still strikes me as a place worth living – a thought that grows more dubious by the day.

    But go to Espresso Roma on 18th and Hilliard, and have a latte in the courtyard for me. If the beautiful maple tree is still in the courtyard, take a picture of it for me.

    And yes, living in China for five years and traveling most of Asia showed me the peaceful decency of Buddhism. Funny how there’s no terrorist fears away from the Abrahamic sphere.

    Really nice to read your comment. Hope you stay in touch.

  7. I did come by way of C&L, one of my favorite sites. After reading your entry, I wanted to give you some support. You’re right about some people remaining mum, although I understand that position. I’ve gone through cycles of damping down my own rhetoric after some scary anonymous letters appeared in my mailbox: fanatacism is an ugly thing.
    Seeing Dennis, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens sitting around the same table discussing this issue was great. It was both inspiring and worrisome at the same time, however. History shows how bad things can get when dialogue is thrown out the window. That is why I think this medium might be the very thing that keeps humanity from destroying itself. Keep posting!

  8. Just finished watching the two-hour video. Perhaps what struck me most is that I felt I was practically in the same room with them, sitting as a silent participant, yet how easily I could have contributed to the conversation as for the most part they were speaking at a level I could easily follow. Suffice it to say I have no where near their knowledge of history and authors as the four of them collectively have, but I have read the works of each of them to varying degrees, most notably Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

    And so, would we want a world where belief in the supernatural did not exist? Would we be better or worse for it? In all consideration, I would venture better. It is difficult for me to conceive that the human mind requires some sort of “god-spot” in order to produce the great works of art, music, poetry, architecture, etc. which we have indeed produced; only that the works would be of a different appearance and that we would not be cognizant of such difference having never known otherwise. We would still have considered them great human achievements. Furthermore I find it entirely plausible to suggest that we would find ourselves as a civilization much more advanced (and therefore well-off) having escaped the pitfalls that religion, in its insistence on clinging to dogmatic authoritarian imposed ignorance, has wrought.

    But I cannot answer this question in certainty, as this has not been our history. It might be a future worth trying, however.

    By the way, Clay, I also arrived here at your blog via Crooks and Liars.

  9. @noreligion2 (nice John Lennon allusion there, I “imagine”?): would you be so kind as to tell us the story of those “threatening anonymous letters that appeared in [your] mailbox”? Take as much space in comments as you’d like to share as much of the story (stories?) as you’re moved to share. These stories are instructive in more ways than one.

    I’m curious, for example, whether they were the result of you directly challenging anything, or simply expressing your own belief. I’m also curious about the nature of the threats and threateners – and anything else you think might be interesting.

    @VastLeft: I respect your blog for its assiduous reading of the Bible, chapter by by chapter, and for its conversational and often witty translations of the King James into secular, contemporary American English. I’m curious to hear who your intended audience is, though, and whether you think your project’s tone (which often tickles me, but I’m not a victim of the meme) helps or hinders its chances of readership by the flock. I really hope you finish it. Not many Christians can say they’ve read the Bible from cover to cover at all, much less made sense of the historical context and background as you try to do.

    @Forrest Prince:
    Your thoughts in the second paragraph of your comment strike me as so beautiful somehow. I’d like to say more, but have to cook breakfast now. :)

  10. I’m pleased I found you on C&L. Teacher, huh? One of my least-fond memories from my freshman year at one of the top tech universities in the US, was in the only non-tech course we had. It was some type of social analysis/study course, and the Professor was a really great guy. On the last day of the course, he came to me and said, ‘You know, you should really consider becoming a teacher. You’d be very good at it’. In my overweening freshman ignorance/arrogance, I flippantly replied, ‘Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach’, and left the room. The fleeting look of hurt in his eyes that I briefly caught as I turned, has remained with me all these years. I aced the course. I hope he has excused/forgiven my ignorance, and I continually try to eliminate it.

  11. @PreacherBoob, Maybe it’s because I’ve made my living for the past 8 years trying to pass on the worlds of literature and history to the next generation – and doing it as a world traveler. So I’ve never envied people whose work earned more financially, if it earned them less intrinsically.

    I admit I may pity a lot of people who don’t have some sort of fire or ability to “do” interesting things in their work – but that’s not profession-specific.

    Funny thing is, with web 2.0, teaching now allows some incredibly creative and effective “doing” (see my sidebar for a few examples, and my teaching gallery for more) – but schools themselves, and students themselves, are the problems frustrating me right now.

    But these comments are a bit off-topic for this post, so I’ll end there. Thanks for coming by.

  12. Clay, I agree completely with your critique of my post. But back to Science, Religion, and Goodness.
    ‘Goodness’?! I haven’t thought about that as a topic, for years. I used to say I did not believe in either ‘Good’, or ‘Evil’, in the sense of existing as independent entities, or forces. If I had to nutshell ‘goodness’ now, I’d venture that the only ‘goodness’ required in a fair and just universe, would be the quality, in each of it’s inhabitants, to grant (and fight for, if necessary) the same rights and freedoms they demand/desire for themselves, to all others.

  13. Clay, thank you for the gracious compliment. I shall be back again, and as long as I have something intelligent to provide to the conversation I will be commenting accordingly.

  14. Thank you, Clay, for the kind words.

    I do hope the Good Lord keeps me in this vale of tears long enough to finish reading His book.

    My intended audience is atheists who want to know what’s inside that vaunted tome, but comments are also open to True Believers as long as they’re not total trolls.

    As Daniel Dennett nicely articulates in the first video, no matter what you say critical of religion, it’s going to be ill-received by those who put faith on a pedestal. So, I don’t fancy that sweetening up the rhetoric would make it any more likely to convince the flock that they’re being fleeced.

    If I have any pretensions of being a change agent, it’s as someone who tugs on the Overton Window as best he might, emboldening a few people to speak up on occasion about what a flawed and often horrible book the Bible is, a work that simply doesn’t deserve to be treated as infallible or divine or the ideal guide to moral values. The only way religion will come off that pedestal is if, as a society, we stop stifling “emperor’s new clothes” admissions from ourselves and others. (BTW, IMHO, one of the great points made in the video is how some secularists are the biggest stiflers of all. Certainly seems that way to me.

    I will say that I’m keeping an open mind about potentially liking some things in the Good Book. That would be nice, and it would make me a little less freaked out at my fellow earthlings who swallow this stuff. People say the “Jesus” character is admirable (even if all his quotes were written after his death). Gawd, I hope so. 3+ chapters into the Old Testament, I’m fiending for some decent moral lessons (that is, if stoning people to death for working on the Sabbath isn’t one’s idea of a decent moral lesson). Outside of the standard human values of not killing, cheating, and stealing (all of which God and/or his chosen people do right and left), there’s almost no decency exhibited up through the end of Leviticus.

    Finally, a fine point, lest I misrepresent what I’m bringing to the table. I don’t lay claim to any historical expertise about the Bible — though a wonderful anonymous commenter has contributed a lot of same on dang near every post. I’m just taking the tack that the literalists do (only without lobotomizing my critical faculties), asking the question of what each passage means literally, metaphorically, and ethically.

  15. Clay,
    My experience with negative feedback is nothing dramatic, only letters calling me less than human and some telling me Jesus loves me while hinting at punishment. They have been enough for me to “be quiet” for short periods of time. I have a family and do not wish to expose them to vitriol or the very real possibility of violence. I live in a medium size town in the U.S. and there is an ever-present underlying threat to anyone who questions the validity of Christanity. I’ll admit, I am provocative in what I write. Perhaps my style is too aggressive.

    Let me clog up your string with one of my diatribes, you can be the judge. This one was about euthenasia:

    “Who are the Militants!?

    Timothy, the author of “Times Editorials Bespeak Militant Atheism”, deserves congratulations. In his quest to reveal the “secular clerics” he states, “No inquisition was needed”. Inquisition? What other reference could be as helpful in bringing to mind the atrocities perpetrated on a majority of everyday people by a few ranting zealots?

    Calling people witches was, in the time of the Inquisition, one way of saying what Timothy infers in his conclusion when he says, “we are in the presence of the one he serves”. These “servants of the devil” need no exposing because, according to Timothy, they expose themselves by merely arguing positions other than his. Should people who don’t share his view of the universe hide because Tim thinks they are Satan incarnate? Is that the spirit of the law he derives from of the First Amendment?

    Tim should be happy with such “voluntary admissions”, because he won’t even have to bother with the unpleasant task of extracting confessions. What a pity! Just think of the mechanisms for that purpose he could devise using today’s technology! The paring tools and other instruments of torture designed and implemented by the faithful in those times would pale in comparison! The screams of exiting demons could be broadcast once again. Maybe Tim would prefer that sound to those thumping, obscene car stereos. He could take comfort in the knowledge that the world would be on the righteous path.

    He says life and prayer are the issues. Since when has life been so precious to the Christian faith? Historically, the Christian idea was pretty much that people are just sacks of scum, the only thing elevating them above slime is their faith. Convert them, reduce them to servitude, or kill them; this was the historical mantra, planted in the sand on crosses as the first Europeans landed here, and it was carried out thoroughly and maliciously. This is history kids should learn, and I would suggest it be taught immediately preceding their state-mandated minute of silent meditation. They could then ponder the question, “What else am I not being told?”

    Has this particular faith and its various sects undergone a change over the last few centuries? Has it become less MILITANT? Perhaps it would be too much to suggest religion has EVOLVED a little in order to survive? Maybe, but fear still makes people commit heinous acts in the name of religion. People are still susceptible, and the burr under Timothy’s rear is that the First Amendment forestalls persons like him from inflicting their superstition on the rest of us.

    Here is something upon which no doubt should lie: life ends. Sometimes it ends peacefully, sometimes not. Sure, the Hippocratic oath states “… first of all, do no harm,” but sometimes, no harm is not an option; sometimes the choice is either pain or death. Deciding which is the lesser of these two evils should be up to the individual. Forcing someone to endure agony is indeed harm; unless, of course, you are on a “good Christian” mission, like say, ridding the world of Satan. By the way, isn’t that also the goal of today’s good Islamic fundamentalist?

    Religion has the contemptible quality of painting suffering and martyrdom as honor and courage. I thought the phrase was “the meek shall inherit the earth.” To which meek does that refer, the ones with enough atomic, biological, chemical, incendiary, and shrapnel producing weapons to kill the entire world population many times over, or the ones with enough faith to strap explosives on their bodies to try and even the score?

    Confucius is supposed to have said, “A man who points a finger has three pointing back.” I think I know where to look to see the militants.

    Did I come across as threatening?

  16. @nr2 – Outraged, yes; forceful, yes; threatening? Absolutely not.

    This is a bit of a tangent, but I’d love to see Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, whose “The Terrible Texts of the Bible” is a lecture that confronts all the barbarity of both the Old and New Testaments in an hour-long catalogue, but then argues that Judeo-Christianity still should not die – I’d like to hear him in conversation with Dawkins’ group.

    How interesting would that be?

  17. Thanks very much for these videos – I am a religious Studies teacher in London and as part of the A’ level course we look at depth at atheism and these videos will really help the discussion. As an atheist myself, they made for interesting viewings

  18. Congrats, Jackie, on being the first teacher to comment on this post *sigh*

    A couple years ago, I did my best to find a theist to debate religion with me in a religious studies course in which, in an entirely unexpected way, the student atheists all came under attack by stereotyping religious students who had no idea some of their classmates were atheists.

    I invited a teacher/missionary from the Philippines to engage in a debate on our Moodle, but she declined, and referred me to a full-time missionary with a very self-important email address like “hermenuetist” or somesuch.

    I emailed him, he expressed very solemn interest, and (I noted through the Moodle backend) visited the class Moodle (I’d given him the password).

    He never replied after that.

    I even emailed Bishop Spong, thinking he, of all people, might engage in some conversation. But he never replied either (though of course, he’s surely got far bigger fish to fry, seriously, than a high school class).

    Spong’s video lecture (linked above) is also very much worth watching. He’s the Martin Luther of the post-Enlightenment world. What I don’t get is how he squares the peg. He attempts to do so in his video. But I truly admire the man.

    If you blog about your class, or if it’s open in any other way, I’d love a link.

  19. Clay,

    I’m glad that the videos of the “Four Horsemen’s” conversation struck a chord with you as well. I completely agree – the intelligent dialog among these men was refreshing and illustrates that they are not caricatures painted by the politico-religious in the US. I also recommend – if you have not already seen it – the videos of the The Science Network’s Beyond Belief conference (my apologies for the raw link, but I’m not sure if HTML is enabled in your comments’ field):

    Finally, a hearty “thank you” for this post and especially for those first three paragraphs!

    Doc Bushwell
    Princeton, NJ

  20. Doc Bushwell – “Thank Goodness” for your blog, which led to this post. I’m following your link again as I type – I’d seen and bookmarked Beyond Belief more than once, but neglected to drill more deeply into it. Thanks for the nudge :)

  21. I am right with redwood. I define myself as spiritual but not religious. My son is as well. My daughter is atheist and my husband feels it is not a prayer without thees and thous. I am tired of the hypocrisy especially prevalent in this town (we worship that weather forecasting groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil). I am asked why I do not go to church anymore. Oh, what I would love to say. I put my foot in my mouth a lot but haven’t gone there. My one friend who is a converted Catholic (for marriage) has heard me and she knows just what I mean.

    I do talk about God in class but use it as a general term – I believe some other religions are more on track. Religion has done more to hinder science development and solving problems in the past and certainly as well today.

    Louise Maine’s last blog post..A real model?

  22. @Louise: Your seconding of @Redwood’s sentiments confirms what a colleague of mine who went back to Michigan after leaving us Korea says: that America is a scary place today for anyone who thinks critically about the status and role of religion in the Republic. Meanwhile, Korea, where I work, has seen a dramatic rise in evangelical churches in which talking in tongues and gibbering about creationism and intelligent design has taken firm root. So America is exporting this darkness to the wider world, while Americans themselves who know it’s pernicious allow it to proceed unchecked.
    It’s disturbing. We’ve never needed science more than now, and it’s never been opposed by such a money and propaganda machine from “the Land of the Free” – which no longer seems to be “the Home of the Brave.”

  23. Side note: Remember those Korean missionaries to Afghanistan that cut such a ridiculous profile – all tragedy aside – when the Taliban kidnapped them (hello – your chances of survival are better if you have a picnic on the freeway)? They’re from my neighborhood here in Korea. And they’re not unusual at all.

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  25. It’s a tough one when educational facilities try to enforce or forbid teachers from teaching with any influences, either secular or religious. How can a teacher really teach from the heart while being a puppet in the area of faith and beliefs?

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