Monday, November 20, 2006

Sermon: "A Letter to Dawkins & Harris" (Delivered 11-19-06)

Earlier this Fall I sat with the worship committee in the back row of the top balcony of the Lied Center in Lawrence, Kansas. It was a standing room only crowd, there to hear the evolutionary biologist and atheist celebrity Richard Dawkins speak about his most recent book, The God Delusion. As Dawkins neared the end of his talk, he prepared for his big finish. On the screen behind him he projected images of ancient gods – Thor, Odin, Baal, Ra, Zeus. Dawkins explained that nobody believes in these Gods anymore, implying that it was foolish for people to have believed in them. Then, substituting an image of Jesus for the images of the ancient Gods, Dawkins uttered his famous line, “Some of us just go one god further.”

The crowd cheered and I grimaced. [I apologize for insinuating in the oral delivery of this sermon that the members of our worship committee cheered Dawkins approvingly.] It is true that almost nobody believes in Poseidon or Zeus anymore. But was it foolish for the ancients to have worshipped these Gods? Some of them were foolish. But, what about Homer? What about Aeschylus or Sophocles? Were Plato and Aristotle fools?

It occurs to me that, in a mirror-universe, a cleric could stand up and display an image of Isaac Newton or Galen, the father of modern medicine, and say, “Today, nobody thinks these scientists were correct.” And then, displaying a picture of Einstein or Darwin or Richard Dawkins, the cleric might say, “I just go one scientist further.” Clearly Dawkins would not say that Galen or Newton were fools just because their science was later surpassed. Dawkins would revere these scientists for providing the building blocks for his life’s work. I see this as somewhat of a double-standard.

Richard Dawkins’ most recent book, The God Delusion, is near the top of the New York Times Best-seller list. Sam Harris’ two most recent books, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, have been similarly popular. Both men are atheists and their books are accusations against religion. They accuse religion of doing all sorts of bad things in the world and advocate for a world made better by getting rid of religion. This morning I want to offer you my thoughts on these books. I will say from the beginning that I’m not impressed by these books. I find them to be at times arrogant and ignorant, and, at other times, misguided and mean. I can understand how the thinking in these books is seductive, but ultimately I am of the opinion that the thinking they contain isn’t helpful.

A couple of wisdom sayings will help to frame my comments this morning. The first one is, “The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.” The second one is, “Choose your enemies wisely, for you will become them.”

To Dawkins and Harris, the enemy is religion. They are most concerned with the fundamentalist expressions of religion. They talk about suicide bombers, holy wars, and religious conflict. They also talk about forms of religion that lead to discrimination and hate; religious views that hurt people by attacking science and reason. In this way, when we Unitarian Universalists read their books we feel like the choir that is being preached to. Our moral sense also leads us to condemn terrorists, crusaders, and suicide bombers. Our moral sense also leads to feel outrage against those on the religious right who believe contraception should be illegal, who have said that they would not cure AIDS if they could, or who literally torture gays calling it “ex-gay” therapy. Writing after September 11, Salman Rushdie wrote, “The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multiparty political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolutionary theory, and sex.” [Goldberg, 210] Rushdie was wrong though. The religious right in America doesn’t have any problem with beards. What is worse, these extremist religious views have become more mainstream and more powerful in recent years, and this is very dangerous. So, let me be clear on this: When I criticize Dawkins and Harris, I am not denying that all sorts of evil, violent, hateful, bigoted and ignorant things are done in the name of religion.

It would seem that Dawkins and Harris and we Unitarian Universalists share a common enemy, and this is indeed true. But Dawkins’ and Harris’ enemy isn’t just fundamentalist religion, it is all religion! To quote Harris, “I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do. It is my hope, however, that they will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths… Even the most progressive faiths lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world.” [Harris, LtaCN, ix] This comment is so wrong, I have a difficult time knowing where to begin to criticize it.

But, I want to do something more than just argue against these author’s treatment of moderate and progressive religion. Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate to Harris and Dawkins for just a little while. For example, they accuse religious televangelists of deceiving people and ripping them off. And yet, science has had its own version of televangelists. Consider the Korean scientists who faked cloning experiments or the British scientists who fabricated Piltdown Man. [Robinson, p. 86] Or consider the researcher who claimed to have succeeded in achieving cold fusion. Many are of the opinion that he was not intentionally attempting to deceive anybody as much as he wanted so very badly to believe that he deceived himself. (One need not be religious to have lapses in reason.) Or, what about drug companies who suppress research in order to bring their drugs to the market more quickly? Both religion and science have had their snake oil salesmen.

And, both have colluded with evil. Harris and Dawkins delight in pointing out that the Bible was used to justify slavery and racial discrimination. Indeed, passages from the Bible, especially the story of Noah and Ham, have been used to justify slavery. But so has science. Consider Louis Agassiz, one of America’s greatest 19th century biologists and president of Harvard University. Agassiz’s science led him to the theory of polygenesis, which said that the races had arisen separately, thus multiple geneses. From this theory, Agassiz concluded that slavery was justified and that racial mixing would be harmful. Intellectual honesty would require Harris and Dawkins to admit that some religion led to the abolition of slavery just as some science opposed it.

I might also point out that science gave us eugenics, the “science” that was used to justify the Holocaust. I might also point out, borrowing an idea from Marilynne Robinson, that if my religion inspired me to kill for the glory of God, I’d be hard-pressed to have much success. If I really wanted to have success – detonating a dirty-bomb, for instance – I’d have to turn to the fruits of scientific discovery. As Marilynne Robinson points out, those bomb-making scientists are mostly atheists, meaning “we may then exclude religion from among the factors that recruit them to this somber work. We are left with nationalism, steady employment, good pay, the chance to do research that is lavishly funded and, by definition, cutting edge – familiar motives of a kind [as] fully capable of disarming moral doubt [as religion is.]” [Robinson, 84]

But, aren’t polygenesis, eugenics, and phrenology bad science? Yes, but they are still science… just as bad religion is still religion. Marilynne Robinson quotes Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s instruction that in comparing religions, you should take care not to compare the sublime acts of one against the scandalous acts of another. Similarly, if you want to compare religion and science, you must compare the good of one against the good of another, and bad against bad. Otherwise, what you are doing is cherry-picking.

Choose your enemies wisely, because you are likely to become them. In Doug Muder’s review of Harris’ book in the UU World, Muder points out how Harris threatens to become like those he despises. Muder quotes Harris as arguing that, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Harris accepts that torture is sometimes justified and that collateral damage – the maiming and killing of innocent people – is unavoidable. We have seen the enemy and he is us.

If Harris is the Ann Coulter of atheism, Dawkins is the George Will. (Interstingly, Dawkins bibliography contains a telling typo. He cites Coulter’s book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, but lists it as the “Godless: The Church of Liberation.”) Dawkins is not nearly as hysterical or shrill as Harris, and his ideas are disguised by fancy verbiage and reference to high culture. It is telling how South Park, that great exploder of pretense, chose to lampoon Dawkins recently. Imagining a dystopian future where everyone is atheist, and destructive wars are fought over whose science is most scientific and whose logic most logical, Dawkins’ teachings are remembered as, quote, “The use of reason and logic is not enough, you must be a [expletive] to anyone who doesn’t think the same as you.”

Marilynne Robinson quotes Dawkins as writing condescendingly of the Amish. You can chalk this up to poor timing. Consider this passage from Dawkins discussing the Amish, “The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives.” Arguing that we should not tolerate the Amish, Dawkins continues, dripping with sarcastic condescension, “Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture.” [Robinson, 88]

Responding, Robinson points out that the Amish are “pacifists whose way of life burdens this beleaguered planet as little as any found in Western civilization.”

Indeed, Harris and Dawkins take positions that are as hostile to tolerance as any put forward by the religious fundamentalists they condemn. In truth, anyone who advocates for tolerance – religious or otherwise – will have accept that they will have to accommodate some who choose to live life very differently. Those who elect for tolerance will have to decide on limits and also decide what methods of engagement with difference are acceptable. But, I would sooner struggle with the moral demands of tolerance than elect for a world cleansed of the types of thought or belief I deem unacceptable. I can’t get excited about religious cleansing. And, by the way, when Dawkins says that we shouldn’t tolerate the Amish or Harris says we shouldn’t tolerate Muslims, what are they talking about? Maybe make their religion illegal? Maybe take away their right to vote” Maybe make them wear armbands? Maybe deport them, or round them up in concentration camps? Maybe forced sterilization? Maybe kill them all? What, precisely, does it mean to say, we should not tolerate them?

Marilynne Robinson makes this point with great rhetorical flourish. She writes, “Dawkins himself has posited not only memes but, since these mind viruses are highly analogous to genes, a meme pool as well. This would imply that there are more than sentimental reasons for valuing the diversity that he derides. Would not attempting to narrow it only repeat the worst errors of eugenics at the cultural and intellectual level?... The impulse toward cultural and biological eugenics have proved to be one and the same. It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and [it is] diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason and science.” [Robinson, 88]

But it is not just the meanness and arrogance, the dangerous thinking, that makes me critical of Dawkins and Harris. They also come across as wholly ignorant of religion. In The God Delusion, Dawkins spends the better part of one hundred pages blowing up arguments for the existence of God. His logic is seamless. Except, thanks to Paul Tillich, it has been fifty years since any serious theologian has worried about whether God exists. Tillich, to simplify his argument and probably do a little injury to it, simply said that God cannot possibly be a being because that would make existence a higher category than God. Rather, Tillich said, God is the ground of all being… God does not so much exist as existence gods.”

If Dawkins had bothered to walk from the biology department to the theology department at Oxford, someone might have explained this to him. Then he wouldn’t be saying the things about religion that he says. Contrary to Dawkins’ caricature, serious theology is not concerned with the quantities of angels dancing on the heads of pins, or the taxonomy of fairies. Yes, there is such a thing as serious theology. And thus I’m torn. I can easily get behind and cheer his criticisms of fundamentalism and his tearing down of bad theology. (However, an intellectual of the caliber of Dawkins doing this is somewhat akin to using an AK-47 to shoot fish in a barrel.) But he models no kind of positive engagement with any religion whatsoever. If he can’t bother to take religion seriously, how can he advocate that religious people should take science seriously?

If you are looking for a good book that does what Harris and Dawkins hope to do – that is, to expose the dangers of fundamentalism – I would suggest you pick up a copy of Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg. Goldberg exposes the harmful and dangerous effects of Christian Nationalism, otherwise known as Dominionism. And she does it without calling for the abolition of progressive, liberal, or moderate religion. She concludes her book with these words, “It makes no sense to fight religious authoritarianism abroad while letting it take over at home. The grinding, brutal war between modern and medieval values has spread chaos, fear, and misery across our poor planet. Far worse than the conflicts we’re experiencing today, however, would be a world torn between competing fundamentalisms. Our side… must be the side of freedom and Enlightenment, of liberation from stale constricting dogmas. It must be the side that elevates reason above the commands of holy books and human solidarity above religious supremacism.” [210] Goldberg enlists religious progressives and non-religious people alike in this battle. For that I commend her.

I want to conclude with just a couple thoughts. One is a quote from Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, an organization that uses religion to work for justice. Wallis offers a quote I find wonderful: “The answer to bad religion is not ‘no religion,’ but ‘better religion.’” The other thought I want to share comes from a man here in Kansas City who serves with me on the steering committee of the MAINstream Voices of Faith. At a recent meeting, he expressed the importance of progressive religious people working for justice. Justice, peace, equality, he opined, won’t be achieved without the commitment and dedication of religious people.

If progressive religious people aren’t engaged, then we don’t have much hope. I believe this. One need only look to South Dakota. South Dakota has two Unitarian Universalist churches, with a total of 160 UUs, children included. And yet, those two modest congregations were leaders in the battle to defeat a proposed abortion ban that would have made no exception for incest, rape, or the woman’s health. Progressive religion gave us Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Susan B. Anthony. [I was asked how this sermon fits in my “Future of the Liberal Church” series. This last point, I think, speaks to that question.]

Dawkins and Harris are quite right to criticize fundamentalism for all the ways it fails the causes of human thought, human freedom, and diversity. And yet, I do not find that the extreme application of their ideas would lead to a world where thought, freedom, or diversity is furthered.

Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become them. The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. The world’s diverse pool of ideas is richer for the existence of religion; and the world is far, far richer for the existence and the work of progressive religion. Remember the words of Proverbs 8:12, “I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence. I possess knowledge and discretion.” Dawkins and Harris are clearly deeply intelligent. But are they wise?

Despite my criticisms of these authors, I don’t recommend that you avoid reading them. I think these books are best read as a challenge to liberal religion, a challenge to remain the type of religion that defies their criticisms of religion. Let’s prove them wrong.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Sam Harris, The End of Faith
Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation
Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
Marilynne Robinson, "Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstacy of Richard Dawkins" (Harpers 11/2006)
Doug Muder, "Secularism and Tolerance After 9/11" UU World, Fall 2006