An excerpt from Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God, is included in this month’s Ode magazine. In it, she makes the argument that New Atheism, a school of thought that has gained popularity through the writings of people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, doesn’t have the grounding in science that some would like to think.
Dawkins, she says, has argued that mankind’s propensity toward religion is “an evolutionary mistake.” I’ve read some of Dawkins’ works where he has described our shared religious impulse as an accidental by-product of evolution and, as Armstrong quotes him, a “misfiring of something useful.”
From The Case for God:
Dawkins is an extreme exponent of the scientific naturalism. For Dawkins, like the other “new atheists,” religion is the cause of all the problems of our world; it’s the source of absolute evil and “poisons everything.” These individuals see themselves in the vanguard of a scientific/rational movement that will eventually expunge the idea of God from human consciousness.
But other atheists and scientists are wary of this approach. The American zoologist Stephen Jay Gould [believed] everything in the natural world could indeed be explained by natural selection, but he insisted science wasn’t competent to decide whether God did or didn’t exist, because it could work only with natural explanations. Gould had no religious ax to grind; he described himself as “atheistically inclined agnostic,” but pointed out that Darwin himself denied he was an atheist. Atheism didn’t, therefore, seem to be a necessary consequence of accepting evolutionary theory, and Darwinians who held forth dogmatically on the subject were stepping beyond the limitations proper to science.
But the new atheists will have none of this. They adhere to a hard-line form of scientific naturalism that mirrors the fundamentalism on which they base their critique: Atheism is always a rejection of and parasitically dependent on a particular form of theism. Like all religious fundamentalists, the new atheists believe they alone are in possession of truth; like Christian fundamentalists, they read scripture in an entirely literal manner.
That last sentence underscores what I believe is the real problem. Isn’t is so easy to think that what you believe — or even what you see — is the truth? We’re all guilty, in one way or another.
Thousands of years ago, we looked to the heavens and within our own minds and wondered the eternal questions: How? Why? What’s Next? We used what we had to try and understand that which eluded us, and in doing so, we found what we thought were our own personal truths. Many of us still ask these same questions today.
Some could argue that, if this ability to place our faith in the unseen — be it within or in some omnipotent power — were so detrimental to humanity, evolution should have weeded it out by now. And for all I know, as wars rage around the globe while we amass stockpiles of weapons capable of annihilating our species and fundamentalists use terror to twist the teachings of wise men, maybe that’s where we are headed.
But the only thing I think I can be certain of is that no one knows the absolute truth.
Perhaps the underlying source of our problems is that evolution has given us the ability to rationalize our individual truths as The Truth. Do people go to hell after they die for not accepting Jesus as their personal savior, or for worshiping another god? Does the man who drives a car laden with explosives into a packed market spend eternity in the company of virgins? Is there some part of me that moves on after this body ceases to function?
I don’t know the answer to these and other questions, and yet, so much of my day-to-day life is based on the assumption that I do. Amplify this assumption by 6.8 billion people, and suddenly, things get very complicated.
The point where science and faith intersect is murky at best, but assumptions of truth should probably be left to scientists, who have established a method for separating that which is real from that which is unknown. As science and faith continue to work together, as is the case with organizations like the Mind and Life Institute, maybe we’ll find some answers. Until then, humanity is best served by leaving the absolutes in the laboratory.