30 April 2007

A Dangerous Misunderstanding

The religious have a hard time understanding what I do with my time. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve had the following conversation, I’d be a rich man:

Theist: “College, eh? What are you majoring in?”
Me: “Religion”
Theist: “Oh…so you’re going to be a priest (/minister)?”

It makes sense to me that the religious tend to misunderstand me; the idea that religious practices can be studied systematically and dispassionately as fundamentally human endeavors is not generally compatible with personal religious commitments. Any meaningful work in the discipline requires, if not outright atheism, then at least a staunch commitment to agnosticism for the sake of argument.

What I do find hard to understand, however, is when even atheists fail to understand that there is an entire academic discipline (not to mention the related contributions made by cultural anthropology, evolutionary psychology, sociology, art history, literature, and so on) devoted to the study of religion. As an example, several people at the New Humanism conference a few weeks ago asked me why I was wearing a shirt from Harvard Divinity School – as though the only people who were interested in studying religion are the religious. Sadly, I have tended found many atheists to be as narrow-minded in their dismissal of religion as theists are in their acceptance of it.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at some excerpts from the great Dawkins himself (for whom, lest I be misconstrued, I have nothing but respect). Dismissing the argument that no rational theist believes that God is an old man with a white beard, Dawkins starts out promisingly, writing:

“I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented” (36).

Music to my ears! But then, a mere page later, Dawkins commits himself to a ‘true Scotsman’ fallacy that grates on me like fingers on a chalkboard:

“I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism… Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life” (37-8).

First of all, Buddhism is unequivocally a religion. I don’t have the space to make that argument here, but perhaps I’ll address it more completely in a later post. Far more disturbing to me is Dawkins’ offhand dismissal of every “other religion” apart from Abrahamic Monotheism, and the pursuant assumption that Abrahamic Monotheism is somehow representative of religion in general. Even his section exclusively devoted to Polytheism spans a mere 4 pages, most of which he rather bafflingly spends discussing the Christian trinity.

Granted: for Dawkins’ purposes, this is true. Dogmatic adherence to the witchcraft practices of Zandeland isn’t threatening to undermine Western civilization or the rights of the nonbeliever; to my knowledge, there are no Daoist lobbyists in Washington. Because the point of his book is to assert that the supernatural, in all its forms, is not empirically true, his criticism is quite appropriately directed to worshippers of the Abrahamic deity.

While I do not fault Dawkins for restricting his focus to the forms of religion that are the most threatening to our society in the here and now, I would warn him and all of my fellow atheists of the dangers of equating “religion” with “modern Christo-Islamic extremism” or, more generously, with “ethical monotheism” – the specific kind of religion that has a single god who is aware of your inner state and who concerns himself with telling people how to behave in the bedroom. This kind of religion is only a narrow slice of a part of a piece of the earth’s spectrum of religious diversity – but as Dawkins illustrates above, this kind of religiosity is more often than not taken as representative of the whole.

If we want to combat the negative effects of religion in our society, we have to understand it – and in order to understand it, each of us needs to have at least a rudimentary understanding of “religion” that takes the entire breadth of its expression into account, rather than just the handful of forms with which our culture is most intimately familiar.

Grab a lifejacket, sinners

From CNN.com (via Pharyngula), a Netherlands creationist has built a one-fifth scale model of Noah's Ark. Presumably (this is my guess anyway), God warned him of a coming flood and told him to save one-fifth of the animals on Earth.

What I get a kick out of most is this quote form the article:
Under sunny skies Saturday, Huibers said he wasn't worried about another biblical flood, since according to Genesis, the rainbow is the sign of God's promise never to flood the world again. But he does worry that recent events such as the flooding of New Orleans could be seen as a portent of the end of time.
I wish these people would make up their minds as to whether God is going to send floods or not. Because, you know, floods can't just happen naturally.

Also somewhat amusing (and also aggravating) is this line:
A contractor by trade, Huibers built the ark of cedar and pine -- biblical scholars debate exactly what the wood used by Noah would have been.
The answer is, the ark would have been built out of whatever wood happened to grow in the area where the story was told. It's like asking what kind of metal Thor's hammer is made of. The technical details of a myth are incidental to how, where, and when it's being told. And since myths like these are told and retold for generations before being written down, there's no one right answer.

24 April 2007

Creationism comes to Dartmouth

With the onset of the Dartmouth College trustee election, creationism has found its way into college politics. Trustee candidate Stephen Smith '88 is a Roman Catholic who has in the past been harshly (and ignorantly) critical of evolution and science education. In a recent editorial in "The Dartmouth," Professor Roger Sloboda exposed Smith's anti-science slant:

As a member of the faculty of the department of biological sciences at Dartmouth College, I find many of the comments made by Smith in this article not only scientifically incorrect but also personally offensive. Smith appears unsupportive of College faculty in general, unsupportive of science in particular and unsupportive of the theory of evolution, the linchpin of modern biology.
I had thought that that would be the last word on Stephen Smith. A few subsequent editorials echoed some of Prof Sloboda's criticisms, giving me hope in the scientific integrity of Dartmouth.

But last night, the campus conservative paper "The Dartmouth Review" released its latest issue, featuring an endorsement of Smith. Smith's campaign seems primarily focused on putting academics above administration. It's a commendable goal in principle, wanting to provide a better education, but given Smith's previous attitude toward science, I doubt he would direct the same benefits toward the Biology department as he might (for instance) toward his majors, History and Philosophy. Especially worrisome is his comment in the TDR interview:

To my mind, a College is a place where student education comes first, and that needs to be the reality at Dartmouth, and it's not going to be the reality if instructors are given all sorts of incentives to spend their most productive time on research outside of the classroom. Students need to be the focus of professors. That's not to say there shouldn't be research; it's to say that nothing should trump the importance of educating the students at a place that truly is a College.
Such a statement isn't terribly damning off the bat, but it does merit further discussion. I hope Smith realizes how critical research is both to attracting the greatest minds in the fields and to giving students experience in practical applications of what they learn. I have personally never felt my education suffer as a result of a professor's research. Quite the opposite, in fact.

To be fair, Smith's anti-science article was written about ten years ago. It's possible that he has since changed his mind, but I have yet to see any indication to that effect.

This should serve as a warning: the threat of creationism to legitimate science education is not isolated to the occasional Kentucky school district. It is here at an Ivy League college. We need to be ready to handle it.