This Salon interview with Richard "Evolution is a fact" Dawkins is a marvelous litmus or Rorschach test. It either makes you feel "validated and hopeful," like Tamar, or angry and scathing, as I know it will make my culture-warrior friend Jeff Schwartz, or, if you're like True Ancestor (in Tamar's comments) and me, it makes you feel weary and depressed, as you sink into the barren, shell-pocked quicksand of the DMZ between fundamentalist religion and dogmatic scientism, each in its own way so literal-minded. In that DMZ a subtler truth, at once scientific and mystical, keeps trying to take root, but every time it rears its head it's mistaken by each side for the other.
Listen to Dawkins:
Design can never be an ultimate explanation for anything. It can only be a proximate explanation. A plane or a car is explained by a designer but that's because the designer himself, the engineer, is explained by natural selection.
There is just no evidence for the existence of God. Evolution by natural selection is a process that works up from simple beginnings, and simple beginnings are easy to explain. The engineer or any other living thing is difficult to explain -- but it is explicable by evolution by natural selection. So the relevance of evolutionary biology to atheism is that evolutionary biology gives us the only known mechanism whereby the illusion of design, or apparent design, could ever come into the universe anywhere.
This is as ex cathedra a declaration as anything from the Pope. It is so because Dawkins says it is so. I don't see an "explanation" here. I don't find any honest engagement with the real gaps in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory that Intelligent Design-ers have pointed out. (Not that they've proposed anything remotely like a testable scientific theory in its place.) This is a pronouncement, a dismissal, an excommunication of heretics. Dawkins, whose official title is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, is the head of the scientific establishment's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
It reminds me of the conversation I had this weekend with two old friends **[conversation is removed because friends were offended to be blogged about, and, they say, misrepresented.]**
The assumption is that science is the last word. Now, science is wondrous. It's probing deeper and deeper, discovering more and more of the what and how of life and the cosmos, but virtually nothing of the why, which is inseparably bound up with the how of first origins. I happen not to think that Biblical literalism explains much of anything, either. Both fundamentalisms, religious and scientific, assume that the important answers are already known! That chokes off inquiry and denies the fact of how very little we still know, even as our knowledge of how things work is exploding. Method -- scientific or meditative -- can do only so much. Without openness, we'll only find what we already expect to find.
Dawkins points out that "You won't find any opposition to the idea of evolution among sophisticated, educated theologians." Very true. He fails to consider that the reverse may also be true -- that some of the most brilliant and cultured scientists have allowed their sense of wonder to spill over the strict boundaries of what Dawkins approvingly calls "a materialist, mechanist, naturalistic worldview." When Einstein used the word "God," Dawkins insists that he wasn't trying to get at anything more transcendent than an "emotional response to the natural world." Einstein isn't here to ask, but he did express himself on the subject. In the quotes posted here, the evidence is ambiguous. See what you think:
"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." Upon being asked if he believed in God by Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue, New York, April 24, 1921, Einstein: The Life and Times, Ronald W. Clark, Page 502.
"Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here involuntary and uninvited for a short stay, without knowing the whys and the wherefore. In our daily lives we only feel that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own." ... "The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. [Emphasis added] To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is." Einstein's speech 'My Credo' to the German League of Human Rights, Berlin, autumn 1932, Einstein: A Life in Science, Michael White and John Gribbin, Page 262.
"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." - Albert Einstein in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas (Einstein's secretary) and Banesh Hoffman, and published by Princeton University Press.
My own impression is that Einstein revered something less (or shall we say more?!) than the Biblical God, but also something more than just "materialist, mechanist."
As an ironic postscript, listen carefully to Dawkins again for a moment:
(The interviewer asked, "How would we be better off without religion?")
We'd all be freed to concentrate on the only life we are ever going to have. We'd be free to exult in the privilege -- the remarkable good fortune -- that each one of us enjoys through having been being born. An astronomically overwhelming majority of the people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose number came up. Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one. The world would be a better place if we all had this positive attitude to life. It would also be a better place if morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them, rather than religion's morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment. . . .
We are amazingly privileged to be born at all and to be granted a few decades -- before we die forever -- in which we can understand, appreciate and enjoy the universe. And those of us fortunate enough to be living today are even more privileged than those of earlier times. We have the benefit of those earlier centuries of scientific exploration. Through no talent of our own, we have the privilege of knowing far more than past centuries. Aristotle would be blown away by what any schoolchild could tell him today. That's the kind of privileged century in which we live. That's what gives my life meaning. And the fact that my life is finite, and that it's the only life I've got, makes me all the more eager to get up each morning and set about the business of understanding more about the world into which I am so privileged to have been born.
If I didn't know better, I'd think that was an argument against abortion.