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Dawkins v Sagan: vive la différence?

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Carl and Deepak: will the real guru please stand up?

God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.

Nanrei Kobori, quoted in Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

I was staying with some people recently who, to everyone’s pleasure, suggested we watch a couple of episodes of Carl Sagan’s old classic ‘Cosmos’ series, which I hadn’t seen since it first came out in the early eighties. My hosts and at least one of my fellow guests were Christians, albeit science-loving, and I found this interesting, especially when, on watching the episodes, I found that Sagan paid far more attention to religion as an outmoded way of thinking, and to new ageism and pseudo-science as objects of mockery, than I’d previously noted. Yet my Christian companions didn’t appear to bat an eyelid. Later in my stay though, when I happened to mention Richard Dawkins in passing, the knives came out immediately. Arrogant, rude, irrational and ignorant were the terms I best remember. Hmmmm thought I, here’s a topic worth writing on.

Richard Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan both achieved some celebrity in around 1980, Dawkins with a controversial book, The Selfish Gene, and Sagan with his ground-breaking television series, ‘Cosmos’. Sagan was already a well-established astronomer and cosmologist and a full Professor at Cornell University when he co-wrote the series, but his interests enveloped the whole scientific enterprise. As a student he worked in a famous genetics lab, and teamed with the Nobel Prize winning chemist Harold Urey on a thesis on the origin of life, a topic that always captivated him. Later he co-authored a chilling account of the after-effects of a nuclear war, excerpts of which were published in Scientific American. After the success of Cosmos, Sagan went on to publish many books of scientific speculation and inquiry, always keen to promote critical thinking, scepticism, and the public awareness of science. Richard Dawkins probably didn’t gain quite the same popularity as Sagan until he published The God Delusion in 2006, some thirty years after The Selfish Gene, though he was well-known enough to sciencey dilettantey types, having published, in between those two books, important texts promoting evolution and scientific thinking, much in the manner of Stephen J Gould. These texts include The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, and probably his greatest achievement, The Ancestor’s Tale, a journey back through time tracing human ancestry to the earliest life forms on earth.

To summarize, both Dawkins and Sagan have been eloquent champions of the delights of scientific enquiry, and both have been highly regarded and respected for their ability to inspire and to bring people into the fold of science. Sagan, in particular, was once criticised for a ‘popularising’ style – for appearing to dumb down the enterprise of science and for shamelessly demeaning the lofty aspirations of his discipline with regular appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, but this is now surely seen as counter-productive snobbishness, and Dawkins himself admits to being strongly  influenced by Sagan’s approach of wooing a lay audience to the pleasures of scientific enquiry and wonder.

So why the denigration of Dawkins and the admiration of Sagan among my more or less pro-scientific Christian acquaintances? Also, are those acquaintances typical in their responses to Dawkins and Sagan, or am I just being anecdotal here?

Well, these questions open up a whole can of complexities. First Dawkins and Sagan are quite different personalities [though their scientific outlooks are in fact remarkably similar]. Second, they emerged out of different ‘contexts’, and not only because Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and Sagan was a cosmologist, but because they emerged in different eras and had to fight somewhat different battles, in which they chose to use different weapons – and in some ways needed to use different weapons.

Dawkins’ book The God Delusion was massively popular, and massively polarising, and I suspect that its very success, particularly in the USA, the west’s most religious, or I should say Christian, nation, has caused great resentment in Christian circles there – especially amongst those who haven’t read it. This resentment has boiled over into Britain, Australia and other nations heavily influenced by the US – and I must say I’d be surprised if any of those Christian acquaintances of mine who got stuck into Dawkins had read The God Delusion, and absolutely astonished if they’d read any of his other books.

But of course The God Delusion also caused resentment because it was seen as confrontational, combative, mocking and disrespectful of religion. And Dawkins himself, largely because he has been pitted against the stubbornly, vociferously religious, in a way that Sagan never really was, is easily made to seem intolerant [I saw him at Adelaide Writer’s Week in 2010, in a far less combative setting, and he was a perfect gentleman].

Obviously there are personal and stylistic differences between the two, but I’ll just focus on two factors, beyond their respective ‘natures’, that make for a great deal of difference. First, Dawkins is a Brit whereas Sagan was US-born. Britain ceased being as religious as the USA quite some time ago, and in scientific circles in Britain religious difficulties would rarely have been encountered, though of course the early British debates in evolution between Huxley and his opponents are a solid part of the history of the biological sciences. However, the extremely vociferous, and extremely cashed-up, forces of the anti-evolutionists in the USA, and their relentless efforts to interfere with the US education system at all levels, presented a huge stumbling-block to Dawkins’s project of educating the English-speaking west in the explanatory power of the theory of natural selection. After all, considerably more than half of the English-speaking west is American. So it seems to me that The God Delusion, together with associated efforts such as the documentary ‘The Root of all Evil’, represented a sort of ‘dummy-spit’, an ‘enough is enough’ moment, or if you want to ennoble it a bit more, a Lutherian, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’, line in the sand statement. And Dawkins, arguably, found it easier to launch this attack from the safe haven of Britain. Sam Harris had courageously blazed a trail with his The End of Faith, but generally American academics had taken a softly-softly approach to the religious fervour of their nation, or where they had been critical, as indeed Sagan had in a number of his publications, they’d been largely ignored.

Having said this, I suspect that The God Delusion’s overwhelming popularity was a matter of timing. Dawkins wasn’t the only one getting heartily sick of religious opposition to science in the US. Indeed some, like Harris, preceded Dawkins in tackling the issue. And many others followed. The blogosphere was just starting to take off when The God Delusion first hit the stands, and a number of scientifically literate bloggers like P Z Myers, Jerry Cohn, Matt Young, Richard Hoppe, Jason Rosenhouse and many others, preferred a take-no-prisoners approach to creationists and religious zealots. Amongst other things, this has provided a shot in the arm to sceptical and atheist movements throughout the west, with people turning up to atheist and sceptic gatherings and gabfests in record numbers.

Of course, The God Delusion also had its critics, not only, obviously, the believers but also non-believers who either thought it was too disrespectful of religion, or that it was intellectually lightweight. This has of course led to many debates and arguments, and I’ve made my own little contributions here and there. I’ll try a quick summary. On the second point, there’s been a lot of insults but few analyses of Dawkins’s arguments, and none that stand up to scrutiny. That’s because his arguments aren’t new, they’ve all stood the test of time. Theological arguments for the existence of gods – cosmological arguments, teleological [design] arguments, ontological arguments – have all been comprehensively demolished many times over. Further, one of the oldest arguments against the existence of a Benevolent Omnipotent Omniscient Being [BOOB] is the ‘problem of evil’, or the problem of suffering, as I prefer to call it, which alone serves to destroy the credibility of this later theological construct [the god of the Old Testament could never be honestly described as universally benevolent]. Dawkins doesn’t detail all these arguments, and he generally avoids the bogs and fens of theology in what is an unashamedly populist text, but what he does provide is sound enough, and his demolition of Gould’s NOMA thesis is particularly devastating. That thesis is now as dead as the dodo.

Yet still, on the shallower level of name-calling, Dawkins is a consistent target. This can partly be explained by his style, but more particularly by the fact that in interviews and on talk shows he is regularly called upon to defend a position or to take on an opponent. I don’t think he’s at his best in such scenarios – though I don’t think he comes across as ignorant or irrational. He does sometimes come across as bristly, defensive, irritable and impatient, and lacking in the kind of unflappable humour that might be the best resort in certain circs. Then again, I’ve even seen Stephen Fry lose it in these pressure situations.

It’s also true that Dawkins has gone further than most by aiming his argument, and his contempt, at a broader target than creationists and fundamentalists, thus putting more liberal and pro-science Christians on the defensive. This is the real bone of contention with Dawkins, but it has, I think, brought benefits. For one thing, it has revivified the debate about the compatibility of evolution and religion, particularly Judeo-Christian religion. Generally it has been accepted, with an avoidance of thought, that ‘x is a Christian, and x accepts evolution, therefore evolution and Christianity are compatible’. For example the Catholic Church has, it has been thought by some, avoided having yet another losing battle with science by pontifically pronouncing that evolution and Catholic beliefs are compatible, while adding that humans are their god’s ‘special creation’. Interestingly, George Pell, in his recent Australian debate with Dawkins, tried a variation on this theme by announcing that the soul is the ‘life spirit’, which in fact inhabits every living thing [so now we know that all living things have souls] but that in humans it is ‘infinitely more complex’ than in other creatures, thus cleverly preserving our ‘specialness’. But there are obvious problems with such pronouncements in the face of evolution. Just when did this ‘specialness’ or ‘infinitely greater complexity’ evolve? Is it in chimpanzees, with whom we share an ancestor? Was it fully there in Homo erectus? What about the Neanderthals? What about the Australopithecines? When thinking things through like this, it seems that Christians, in order to accept evolution, would have to give up some central tenets of their faith, such as the exclusivity of the human soul and human specialness, our god-given dominion over other species, our being made in the image of their god, etc. Faced with this, liberal Christians either ignore the problem, present tortuous arguments to vindicate their beliefs, or they concede defeat but without giving up their faith – in fact sometimes seeking to turn defeat into victory by claiming that their god was always an environmentalist with an equal love for all his creatures and for the biosphere etc etc. It’s this kind of goalpost-shifting, and selective, cherry-picking faith that has raised the ire not only of Dawkins but also Hitchens and other ‘new atheists’. And so the debates continue.

So what then of gentle Carl Sagan of the deep, soothing, measured, almost mystical tones? Sometimes he makes me think of Deepak Chopra, the archetypal modern ‘guru’, though I admit I’ve never heard Chopra speak. But as I’ve said, Sagan does have things to say about religion in Cosmos and elsewhere, and they aren’t particularly positive. He is best described as a sceptic – a position which I also subscribe to. Scientific scepticism involves following the evidence, insisting on following the evidence, and being aware of what evidence actually consists of. In the first episode of Cosmos he describes the scientific enterprise as a combination of scepticism and imagination. This is surely right – if you think of Einstein’s work, he would’ve done nothing had he not been sceptical of previous explanations of the nature of space and gravity, but then he needed the imaginative insight, as well as the rigour that comes from a deep familiarity and understanding of previous work on these entities, to work out new relationships that could withstand analysis and generate new insights, in fact a whole new worldview.

When pressed, Sagan described himself as an agnostic, which, some might argue, opposes him to the atheistic Dawkins. I think this is quibbling. Agnosticism was a term first popularized by Thomas Huxley, but to me the most interesting use of it was by the philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell. In an essay entitled Atheist or Agnostic? – or something similar, Russell basically described himself as an agnostic with strong atheist tendencies. It was his logical understanding that prevented him from going ‘all the way’, because he recognised how well-nigh impossible it was to prove a negative. As he famously pointed out, it was as difficult to prove that supernatural beings didn’t exist as it was to prove that there wasn’t a teapot orbiting the sun. So, his respect for and understanding of logic pushed him into agnosticism, but he was griped by a strong feeling that it was no more likely that supernatural beings did exist than that there was a teapot orbiting the sun. I strongly suspect this was the sort of agnosticism that Sagan subscribed to. I also feel that too much is made of these atheist/agnostic distinctions. As I’ve written elsewhere, the number of terms that can be used – and separately defined if you feel like wasting your time on them – are legion. Unbelievers, non-believers, hard atheists, soft atheists, brights, naturalists, this-worlders, materialists, secularists, these are just some of them, but again I think ‘sceptic’ best covers my position, because it goes further into the positive territory of respect for evidence. There’s no evidence for the existence of supernatural beings, so there’s nothing really to say about them. There is, though, plenty of evidence of a human need to believe in such beings, and this is fascinating and challenging and needs to be accounted for. Theology, though, can’t achieve this, because its basic assumptions completely undermine its authority.

It’s impossible to determine, of course, how Sagan – who would be 77 years old if he were alive today – would have oriented himself to the ‘new atheism’. I’m currently embarking on a reading of some of Sagan’s books, and maybe after that I’ll be able to better answer this question. One of his last books, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, indicates how concerned he was with critical thinking and maintaining a sceptical frame of mind, and it seemed that he lumped religious thinking with superstition and pseudo-science as enemies of the kind of understanding he was keen to promote. It’s ironic, therefore, that he’s sometimes seen as ‘the guru of the cosmos’, though to some degree that was an image of his own making. Dawkins has taken, a different, more hard-nosed tack, though those who know a bit more of his work might describe him as ‘the guru of evolution’, just as lyrical in his own way about his particular discipline and what it has opened up to our understanding. They’re quite distinct in their characters, I suppose, and yet both have used their celebrity to further some worthwhile causes – Sagan speaking out against the arms race and Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ madness in the eighties, Dawkins speaking out against the invasion of Iraq, and for animal rights and against ‘speciesism’ [in this respect following Darwin himself] in more recent times. So I don’t see them as so different, but for what it’s worth, vive la différence. Biological diversity is always a positive thing.

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Written by stewart henderson

May 1, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Posted in religion, skepticism

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2 Responses

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  1. Great piece of writing! I have often wondered about the knee jerk venomous responses that Dawkins seems to get. I have some acquaintances who despise him but have not read his books and are not sympathetic to religion either. I wonder if it’s a gut reaction to his mannerisms compared to other well known atheist writers like Sam Harris or Dan Dennett. Imagine if David Attenborough had written an athiest bestseller before Dawkins, would the response be different? Or maybe AC Grayling? People like to get their ideology fix from social commentators that they also like the look and sound of. In fact I would go further than that and suggest that people will overlook the truth of a statement if they really like the person eloquently giving the statement. I guess I am thinking of your friends not really hearing Sagan speak his mind on religion or at least having little response. I imagine that Dawkins could say half as much but receive 10 times the derision.

    Petria

    May 23, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    • Thanks for the response. Yes, the thought of David Attenborough writing an atheist book, even now, is a bit of a turn-on – so to speak. Isn’t he the most popular man in the galaxy or something? As to Dawkins, I suppose it’s the barely concealed contempt he sometimes shows. Also the fact that his stridency has won so much support, which is pretty threatening to a lot of Christians. Christians are now worried they might actually have to justify their positions for the first time in centuries, and that makes some of them mad as hell.
      Of course there are also non-believers who like to get stuck into Dawkins, because they still have a sentimental attachment to religion, or for some other reason, and some of them are pretty incoherent in their attacks. The British historian Melvyn Bragg did this on Lateline recently, and I got stuck into him here. I’m quite proud of this piece, you might like to look at it when you have the time.

      luigifun

      May 24, 2012 at 7:35 am


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