Sunday, 2 September 2007

Belief and understanding

Two podcasts that I listen to regularly are Skepticality and Point of Inquiry. And both of them have recently done pieces featuring religious believers. Skepticality included as a large part of a recent podcast a speech that deist Hal Bidlack gave at The Amazing Meeting. Point of Inquiry featured an interview with human genome scientist and evangelical Christian Francis Collins.

I was nodding (and, at times, almost crying) throughout Bidlack's speech – it moved and inspired me.

The interview with Francis Collins, on the other hand, had me shaking my head and grinding my teeth. I couldn't believe that someone with such apparently superb scientific talent could trot out such an uninformed critique of the non-theistic worldview.

Now, I don't want this blog to become a place for me to rant about people I disagree with being stupid, and why, and where they can put their blankety-blank opinions. One of my values as a humanist is to focus on actions and consequences. Why does Collins bother me, while Bidlack doesn't? What do I want my reaction to accomplish? How can I help that come about?

First, self-understanding. Why does Collins bother me? He bothers me for the same reason that Richard Dawkins bothers him: because the thing he takes to be my worldview is in fact a caricature of how I actually see the world. He presents a simplistic, ill-thought-out atheism as though that is the best that millennia of skeptical philosophy and reason have to offer. When DJ Groethe suggests that there are more sophisticated ways of seeing the world naturalistically, Collins dismisses those as not being what most atheists hold. I wonder how many humanist gatherings he's gone to? I wonder how many non-theistic weddings or funerals he has attended? (Of course, this is exactly the response that Dawkins and others provoke from believers - including Collins. “That's not what I believe in. You're ignoring the more sophisticated theologians through history. Most people don't believe that any more.”)

So Collins irritates me because, when he talks about my beliefs, he misrepresents them.

Why doesn't Bidlack bother me? Because he doesn't mention my beliefs. Simple as that. His speech is about his own beliefs – their merits and their weaknesses – not about the merits or weaknesses he perceives in mine.

For this same reason, religious people are much less upset at Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God or the book Parenting Beyond Belief (edited by Dale McGowan) than they are at the “evangelical atheist” books of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others. It works both ways.

Second, the goals. What do I want my reaction to accomplish? Well, I would love for Francis Collins to learn more about my beliefs. Not necessarily to convert him – it'd be nice, but it's unlikely. More so that, next time he talks to someone, he doesn't misrepresent me and my fellow humanists. Also, I think he is ideally placed to influence the many religious believers, both in the US and elsewhere. The Baptists I know here in Edinburgh are more likely to be persuaded by Collins, a fellow evangelical, that evolution is a safe idea to believe and that ID isn't supportable, than they are to listen to me or even a qualified scientist like Dawkins telling them the same thing.

Finally, the means. How do I accomplish these goals? Well, I could rant about how wrong Collins is about so many things. But this would not incline him to listen to me, so my first goal would fail. And it wouldn't have any positive effect on other believers' uptake of the constructive side of his message. All it would do is give me some emotional release, and I can get that just ranting with my fellow humanists in private. Alternatively, I could try something more constructive.

I could recommend that Francis Collins (and any other religious person who wants to speak from knowledge rather than ignorance) read one of the many excellent introductions to the humanist perspective. Richard Norman's On Humanism is an easy read, and is gentler toward believers than Dawkins or Harris. (It's the book that introduced me to humanism as an organized and coherent worldview, rather than just a disparate list of things I already happened to believe, so I recommend it to people new to humanism too.) Julian Baggini's What's It All About? is an excellent exploration of the meaning of life by a humanist philosopher. Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God monologue is excellent, so order the CDs, Dr. Collins.

As for how to help Dr. Collins influence other evangelicals positively, if a religious person expresses doubts about (or interest in) evolution, I can point them to his book. It has a far better chance of being read with an open mind (and thus influencing them) than Hitchens or Harris, or even the relatively gentle and thoughtful Dawkins.

Okay, I think I've managed to avoid ranting and be constructive. Perhaps I'll wrap up this post here. I have to confess, it takes effort and attention to focus on what I want to accomplish with a reaction, rather than just to react. Good humanist lesson, though.

1 comment:

  1. Just read another piece that provoked the same reaction - this time from a British non-believer, John Humphries.

    It's so frustrating to see an educated, informed member of a largely humanist-friendly country make some of these errors. But I think the best response is the same. Rather than talking about how stupid he is (see the comments on this page), I would gently suggest that he read listen to Julia Sweeney, and read the books I mention above (Baggini, Norman).

    John Humphries is not an idiot - he's a very widely-travelled and well-informed person. He's just wrong about what nonbelief implies or leads to.


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