A Pagan's Blog

The famed evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, gave a spirited criticism of religious faith at his Pop!Tech address, comparing it to a virus that,once it infects the mind, undermines a person’s rationality. As an example, he described the case of Curt Wise, a highly trained geologist and paleontologist who, when he finally confronted the disparities between a literal reading of the Bible and what he had learned about the earth’s age and similar phenomena, tossed the latter, becoming a young earth creationist. Faith, Dawkins argued, does little good and enormous harm.

Ethan Zuckerman has an excellent account of Dawkins’ Pop!Tech talk as a whole. I recommend it, and will focus here on only parts of his address and my reaction to them, which carries the conversation in directions unaddressed and perhaps unimagined by Dawkins himself. I particularly liked Dawkins use of a fanciful Quarterly Review of Biology index and its series of articles on “Did an Asteroid Kill the Dinosaurs?” along with his explanation for why we cannot perceive certain dimensions of the material world, and his discussion of how children were labeled improperly in a Christmas pageant photograph. Go to Zuckerman’s account for good descriptions. Zuckerman disagrees with Dawkins, as do most who have commented on his blog. While I have not yet read Dawkins more considered work on religion (where I suspect I would largely agree with his critics) his talk at Pop!Tech was in a section titled “Faith and Fundamentalisms.” Insofar as Dawkins was addressing Fundamentalist faith, I think his words were well taken.

Faith, Dawkins said, is belief in the absence of evidence. Unlike science, faith is supremely arrogant, arrogating to itself not only access to truth, an access that may not be legitimately challenged and that refuses to take seriously any evidence against it no matter how seemingly well founded. Science, by contrast, is always tentative, and open to correction from new information. To illustrate science’s view of reality Dawkins gave one of my favorite quotations, by the British evolutionary biologist, J. B. S. Haldane, “Now my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Building on his concept of a meme, Dawkins takes faith’s virus like qualities seriously, finding it a noxious mental disease that needs to be treated before it does even more harm than it already has. We should not respond people’s protestations of faith with politeness, but rather with vigorous criticism. It is a meme that humanity would be better off without.

While I agreed with important points of his talk, I think my disagreements may prove more interesting. Dawkins is correct that as an enterprise science is institutionally humble, and that its lack of claims about ultimate truth and its openness to correction give science a decisive edge over the kind of faith he criticizes, a kind that is disturbingly common in the US today. But at the same time, many individual scientists are anything but humble in their attitude towards their favored theories and science’s capacity to in principle account for all truth that is able to be acquired. Scientists at their most arrogant become believers in “scientism: – the faith that the only kind of real knowledge is that revealed by science. Dawkins’ account of prominent scientists admitting they were wrong when confronted with new evidence is inspiring, but also regrettably rare. Nevertheless, science as an emergent self-corrective system of knowledge is different from and superior to any specific religion as a means for acquiring knowledge about our world.

However, insofar as he was attacking faith in general, I found serious problems with Dawkins’ account. These problems were in part based on my own spiritual experience, which is probably rather different from that of most who read this blog. Without going into a great deal of detail (see my Pagans and Christians if you want details) for many years I have been deeply involved with Pagan and shamanic spirituality, particularly Wicca and Brazilian Umbanda, both of which can involve prolonged personal “close encounters of the third kind:” with the world of spirit. As a consequence, one characteristic of Dawkins talk I found most interesting was its narrow ethnocentrism. In reality Dawkins did not even focus on the Christian tradition as a whole, let alone that of those spiritual traditions that lie outside the Abrahamic sphere with its emphasis upon revealed authoritative texts. But again, given the panel name under which he spoke, this may not really be a criticism.

Faith, Will and Humility
Dawkins criticized fideistic faith and largely ignored other kinds. In my judgment fideism is particularly nasty when coupled with claims about the material world or to possessing a sole monopoly of truth over alternatives. Fideistic faith is an act of will. In my view it is a mind of supreme arrogance: I choose to believe this to be true, and because I so choose it, it is beyond criticism. You who differ from me are wrong. But faith, even religious faith, is a multifaceted term, even in Christianity.

Let’s look briefly at a kind of faith that is unavoidable if we are to learn anything at all. Children come into the world with essentially no practical knowledge. They are unavoidably dependent upon their parents, and ideally develop complete faith in them as trusted authorities, guides, and loving presences. As we mature we gradually become independent to some degree from our parents’ once unquestioned influence, but had we not been dependent on it, we would never have gained the maturity to be able to evaluate what we once took “on faith.”

As with fideism, faith in this example is belief in what is not known and cannot be proven. The child is in no position to judge. The issue of proof simply does not exist for the young child. If it comes at all, it comes later.

So faith is not quite so one sided a matter as Dawkins suggests. The real issue, I believe, is the relationship of faith to humility and authority. The humility that characterizes scientists at their best, the humility that acknowledges they might be wrong, still constitutes a faith that they, as fallible human beings, are following the best path they know towards acquiring knowledge.

This faith is not belief in the absence of evidence, because we possess other kinds of evidence about the trustworthiness of the authority in which we (provisionally) trust. In the case of science it is faith in science’s track record. In the case of the child it is the parent’s record of nurturance, love, and support. In this latter case the faith becomes increasingly provisional, or something is wrong with the parent-child relationship.

Our contemporary problem lies in refusing to allow evidence to question belief and refusal to ask whether the so-called authority some have faith in is worthy of such faith. It is the faith of the child held by an adult with the power and responsibilities of an adult. They act in childish ways, but unfortunately not with childish things. And all too often, theirs is faith in an authority the fruits of service to whom are bitter indeed.

Experiential faith
A person who has a powerful personal experience of a deity does not fall within the bounds of fideistic faith. When we have direct experience with the numinous, faith takes a different form. We then know that, as Hamlet observed: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet was concerned primarily with the crimes against his father. My point is more inclusive. There are dimensions of reality that interact with us of which science so far has no knowledge. More to the point, science may never have this kinds of because it is concerned with the externalities of things: what can be measured, predicted, observed, and explained. Science is poorly suited to explore meaning and the internal, but spiritual encounters are entirely or mostly within realms of meaning, presence, and the inner dimension of context. They are Martin Buber’s world of Thous rather than Its.

Faith and Trust
When we have such encounters, faith is better described as a kind of trust. But Dawkins did not discuss faith as rooted in trust rather than a will to believe. The kind of encounter that can engender trust and a faith appropriate to it varies widely, from encountering or experiencing beauty and value in the world to the mystical experience. Interestingly, this kind of faith, a faith particularly appropriate to Pagan spiritual traditions, stands in no necessary tension with science.

We often trust what we have not seen because it either has not happened or happened without our knowledge. Indeed., we have to. I know that someone has been my friend. I trust them to act as a friend in the future. I make my plans based on this trust. Or perhaps I say what I have heard to have been the case is not true because it is totally out of character with the person as I know him or her. Sadly, this trust is not always justified by later events, but it is hardly irrational to act on it. Even when it seems that trust has been betrayed, it is rational initially to assume there are extenuating circumstances, that we have not seen the whole picture, that there has been a misunderstanding, and so on. Sometimes later events reveal our hopes to have been wishful thinking, but often times they are proven far wiser responses than simply concluding we have been betrayed.

This kind of faith is appropriate for those of us who have encountered the numinous, that which has manifested to us as the more-than-human. It is also, I think, the foundation for the trust so many people have that there is ultimately some higher power or value in our world, despite the frequent evidence suggesting otherwise. This faith simply puts events within a larger and more meaningful context, rather than denying the reality of the events. It is far from irrational.

Faith and Revelation

This kind of faith is based at times on kinds of knowledge that do not fit the scientific model. Trance, visions, intuition, dreams, and the like are given short shrift in discussions of scientific knowledge. But what is loosely termed the scientific method is in fact neither more nor less than a variety of tools developed over centuries by which we may evaluate the credibility of claims concerning the material world. As methods for understanding physical reality they have been marvelously successful. As tools for exploring whether there may be other dimensions to realiuty, they are suspect.
But methods for evaluating theories only arose to test theories that themselves arose by other than the “scientific method.” Such methods test knowledge claims, they do not generate them. And if we look at the reports by many Nobel Laureates as to how they first developed their theories we read that they were helped by trance and visions (Kekule, Feynman), a sense of communicating with sub-cellular phenomena (McClintock ), intuition (Einstein), dreams (Bohr, Mendeleev , Lowei, ). Even LSD appears to have been involved in the discovery of the double helix. Many of these accounts, including all I have not otherwise linked, can be found in Linda Shepherd’s excellent Lifting the Veil: The Feminine Face of Science.

In short, the kinds of experiences reported by people having powerful numinous encounters are remarkably similar to those that often characterize the initial insights behind path breaking work in science. This has important implications for both science and spirituality. For science, it is irrational for scientists, particularly strong secularists such as Dawkins, to ignore or belittle the kinds of experiences people have that convince them of the existence of an underlying spiritual reality to the world. For the spiritual, in all these scientific examples much work usually remained to be done so that these insights could be made plain to other people, and in at least some cases the experiences simply helped science make another step forward rather than supplying the Ultimate Truth.

If these thoughts hold validity, the relationship between science, knowledge, and faith is far more fascinating than either religious or secularist fundamentalists can imagine.

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