January 2, 2009


The Return of Religion (Roger Scruton, Axess)

There are two reasons why people start shouting at their opponents: one is that they think the opponent is so strong that every weapon must be used against him; the other is that they think their own case so weak that it has to be fortified by noise. Both these motives can be observed in the evangelical atheists. They seriously believe that religion is a danger, leading people into excesses of enthusiasm which, precisely because they are inspired by irrational beliefs, cannot be countered by rational argument. We have had plenty of proof of this from the Islamists; but that proof, the atheists tell us, is only the latest in a long history of massacres and torments, which – in the scientific perspective – might reasonably be called the pre-history of mankind. The Enlightenment promised to inaugurate another era, in which reason would be sovereign, providing an instrument of peace that all could employ. In the eyes of the evangelical atheists, however, this promise was not fulfilled. In their view of things, neither Judaism nor Christianity absorbed the Enlightenment even if, in a certain measure, they inspired it. All faiths, to the atheists, have remained in the condition of Islam today: rooted in dogmas that cannot be safely questioned. Believing this, they work themselves into a lather of vituperation against ordinary believers, including those believers who have come to religion in search of an instrument of peace, and who regard their faith as an exhortation to love their neighbour, even their belligerent atheist neighbour, as themselves.

At the same time, the atheists are reacting to the weakness of their case. Dawkins and Hitchens are adamant that the scientific worldview has entirely undermined the premises of religion and that only ignorance can explain the persistence of faith. But what exactly does modern science tell us, and just where does it conflict with the premises of religious belief? According to Dawkins (and Hitchens follows him in this), human beings are ‘survival machines’ in the service of their genes. We are, so to speak, by-products of a process that is entirely indifferent to our well-being, machines developed by our genetic material in order to further its reproductive goal. Genes themselves are complex molecules, put together in accordance with the laws of chemistry, from material made available in the primordial soup that once boiled on the surface of our planet. How it happened is not yet known: perhaps electrical discharges caused nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms to link together in appropriate chains, until finally one of them achieved that remarkable feature, of encoding the instructions for its own reproduction. Science may one day be able to answer the question how this occurred. But it is science, not religion, that will answer it.

As for the existence of a planet in which the elements abound in the quantities observed on planet earth, such a thing is again to be explained by science – though the science of astrophysics rather than the science of biology. The existence of the earth is part of a great unfolding process, which may or may not have begun with a Big Bang, and which contains many mysteries that physicists explore with ever increasing astonishment. Astrophysics has raised as many questions as it has answered. But they are scientific questions, to be solved by discovering the laws of motion that govern the observable changes at every level of the physical world, from galaxy to supernova, and from black hole to quark. The mystery that confronts us as we gaze upwards at the Milky Way, knowing that the myriad stars responsible for that smear of light are merely stars of a single galaxy, the galaxy that contains us, and that beyond its boundaries a myriad other galaxies slowly turn in space, some dying, some emerging, all forever inaccessible to us – this mystery does not call for a religious response. For it is a mystery that results from our partial knowledge and which can be solved only by further knowledge of the same kind – the knowledge that we call science.

Only ignorance would cause us to deny that general picture, and the evangelical atheists assume that religion must deny that picture and therefore must, at some level, commit itself to the propagation of ignorance or at any rate the prevention of knowledge. Yet I do not know a religious person among my friends and acquaintances who does deny that picture, or who regards it as posing the remotest difficulty for his faith. Dawkins writes as though the theory of the selfish gene puts paid once and for all to the idea of a creator God – we no longer need that hypothesis to explain how we came to be. In a sense that is true. But what about the gene itself: how did that come to be? What about the primordial soup? All these questions are answered, of course, by going one step further down the chain of causation. But at each step we encounter a world with a singular quality: namely that it is a world which, left to itself, will produce conscious beings, able to look for the reason and the meaning of things, and not just for the cause. The astonishing thing about our universe, that it contains consciousness, judgement, the knowledge of right and wrong, and all the other things that make the human condition so singular, is not rendered less astonishing by the hypothesis that this state of affairs emerged over time from other conditions. If true, that merely shows us how astonishing those other conditions were. The gene and the soup cannot be less astonishing than their product.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 2, 2009 8:49 PM
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