Thursday, 24 May 2012

Religion and Atheism on ABC Q&A: Part 1

Dawkins & Pell on ABC's Q&A

Richard Dawkins vs
Cardinal George Pell 

ABC's Q&A : Religion and Atheism  

This will be a multi part blog as if I do all of it at once it will take days.

This was a very interesting talk found here.  I heard a talk between Dawkins and Krauss about this talk before I heard the Dawkins/Pell talk.  I have to say I think Dawkins and Krauss are overly critical of Cardinal Pell.  It is understandable as they are often faced with people who distort the facts or don't understand the science all the time but I think Cardinal Pell was much better then the average individuals that engage in these types of talks.  But then he should be.  He is a highly educated person.

Let me start off by saying I'm agnostic at best, from the view point of those that are religious, and atheistic in practice.  My beliefs are my own.  I have justifications for my beliefs but I do not care if others have differing views from mine as long as they don't feel the need to force their beliefs on others.  This doesn't mean I won't defend my beliefs if challenged but you should never hear me say someone is wrong for their spiritual beliefs unless those beliefs contradict reality.  But the existance of God is not contradictory to reality while something like the denile of evolution, no rainbows before 'Noah's Flood' or any global flood a few thousand years ago are contradictions of reality.

It isn't easy being an atheist.  A study preformed in Canada showed that religious believers distrusted atheist more then any other groups and on par with rapists.  This is a totally undeserved reaction by the many of various religious persuasion.   People have preconceptions about atheists that are often blatantly wrong like "atheist have no sense of morals" or "atheist hate Christians" or "atheist don't know anything about [insert religion here]".  While you'll be able to find individual atheists that one or more of those statements apply as as demographic those statements, and many more like them, are demonstrably false.  So keep in mind that while you may not have negative preconceptions about atheist, studies show that most people do and that can and does effect how many atheist may respond to certain situations.  The old verbiage 'If it walks like a duck..." may seem like an unreasonable prejudging of peoples motives but if you walk past 9 people and they all punch you is it really unreasonable to think that the 10th person is going to punch you too so it is ok to flinch even if offends that 10th person.

Back to the Dawkins/Pell talk.

Dawkins was on the defencive from the start.  He, wrongly, assumed the audience was very biased against him but watching the whole show it was clear that the mix of people there seemed very supportive of both views.  I think it was just the first few questions where targeted against Athiesm where many of the final questions where targeted or "loaded" questions against thiesm.

For those that don't know Dawkins he can come across very rough at times.  He's a hard core atheist but in this talk he was actually holding back a fair bit from his normal deminer. Over all, if you listen to the words and meanings, he is very clear about his beliefs and atheism in general.

I'll critique the questions and responses as I see them then put in my 2 cents worth.

Question #1: At Easter Australia's religious leaders invoke the name of God in order to preach peace, tolerance, political integrity, social and moral fortitude, all obviously positive and worthwhile values. My question is: in what way is the practice of these values dependent on an existing God? Is it possible for an atheist to be a peace loving socially responsible person?

Dawkins: He articulates the fact that you can, and most people do, have these values regardless of their beliefs and that it makes sense that Christianity would adopt the values and "they don't belong to Christianity".  But then he steps beyond the question and points out why defining the bible as your source of morality is a philosophically bad idea.

Cardinal Pell: Pell goes on the defensive right away and says this "First of all our tradition goes back about 4,000 years so whatever these values are that we’ve taken over, we’ve got to go back a little bit of a distance".  Seems a bit of a non argument if you are paying attention.  First Christianity is only half that age which shows that Dawkins statement is correct in that Christianity can't claim to be the source of these values.  To boot humans have been around for about 196,000 years longer then the people Cardinal Pell speaks of.   Pell then goes on to try to claim Christianity was responsible for women's rights, a bit ironic when you consider what is going on in the USA right now forget 2,000 years ago, and infanticide.  At this point he was pointed out that he wasn't answering the question asked.   Then quickly agrees that atheist can be good people but throws a spin that it helps to believe in God and it is to easy to be bad if you don't.

Me: These values are values of society and not the purview of any one group of people regardless of religious beliefs or lack their off.  They, values, evolve with society.  What people consider tolerant is based on the time.  Right now we are tackling the issue of tolerance toward the LGBT community.  We are still battling with tolerance toward various racial and (non)religious groups.  50 years ago interracial marriage was taboo and as  George Takei says "Growing up in California, it was illegal for Asians to marry whites. How times have changed. I married a white DUDE. And an adorable one, too!". Even so many in California would, and have, tried to not only deny him that right but actively seek to undo his marriage.  While I concede that the belief in god(s) doesn't necessarily itself hurt these values I point out that the doctrines and interpretations of many religions do.  Especially when it comes to tolerance of others.   To the second part it is out right a ridiculous question in one aspect and very sensible in another.  Since many people have a preconception that atheist can't be this I guess it needs to be answered.

Question #2: Religion is precisely often blamed for being the root of war and conflict but what about all the good it has done for society. God-centred religion has been the birth place of schools, universities, hospitals and countless developments in science. Richard, if you believe the human drive to seek the truth and to constantly improve ourselves is merely a mechanism for survival, then what’s the point and why should I bother?

Dawkins: He again puts it in great terms.  Pointing out that Cardinal Pell tries to claim things like women's rights as a result of Christianity in stalk contrast to the reality that women's writes were gained from society in general and with little help from Christianity.  Atheist are willing to stand up and face the issues of society head on and in reality are more altruistic because what they do will always have a more limited benefit for them then those that believe that they'll be rewarded in the afterlife for 'good' deeds.

Me: The question is a bit misinformed.  Public schools came from ancient Greece.  The were a result of part of society having enough resources where it could spare the time to educate some of the population.  This is generally true of all societies.  When societies thrive you see a blossoming of culture.  Ancient Egypt had public medicine.  For me religion is not the root of war.  Humans seeking more power is the root of war.  These people may try to justify their grabs for power in the name of religion.  Hitler and Luther try to use religion as a justification for hatred against the Jews but it is simply a power issue where they viewed a different group of people doing well and wanted what they had and thought they should just be able to take it from them. Note: if you think Hitler was an atheist then you really need to learn the history better.

Question #3:  Okay, my question for you today is: without religion, where is the basis of our values and in time, will we perhaps revert back to Darwin's idea of survival of the fittest?

Dawkins: Points out that values come from within ourselves and our interaction with our society.  That he hopes we don't fall into some social Darwinism because, while survival of the fittest is part of the explanation of evolution and for the diversity of life, it is a very bad social model.

Cardinal Pell: Tries to twist, knowingly or unknowingly, Dawkins words by using the various definitions of "Why" and never really answers the question.

Me: Science can answer "why" we are here in that the "why" is the processes and mechanisms that led us to where we are today both physically, biologically and psychologically.  Every day we learn more and more, through science, about the universe and objects within it, including ourselves.  We learn more and more about psychology, culture, emotions, and the development of these areas.  We can give people a scientific reason for near death experiences.  We can give people scientific reasons for the tendency for religious beliefs.  We can give people scientific reasons why humans and chimpanzees, or humans and mushrooms for that matter, share common ancestors.  The Cardinal tries to flip the meaning of "Why" to a purpose, I.E. The question 'Why am I here? How does evolution explain the progression of life one cell creatures over 3 billion years ago to every living creature we see today?' verse 'Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?'  The former question is scientific.  The latter is philosophical and by its nature outside of the realm of science.  In my view  using a bait and switch tactic like this is the same as trying to get those ignorant of the scientific definition of "theory: a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence"  to think scientists are using the layman's definition of "I've got this idea" that often doesn't have any evidence.  The Cardinal at one point says "science tells us nothing about why there was the big bang".  This was caught by Dawkins and is a bad "god of the gaps" approach.  First because it is a "god of the gaps" claim and even worse it really isn't a gap.  Science is making good progress on why there was a big bang and the Cardinal should know this because he read Krauss's new book which provides some explanations.  Now the science of why there was a big bang is a very different question then "what is the purpose of the universe".  Science doesn't need a purpose to the universe just like science doesn't need a philosophical reason for gravity.

To be continued...

Until then I encourage you to watch the entire show yourself.
  1. ABC Q&A : Religion and Atheism

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