In Alexandria, in 415 AD, the renowned female mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, Hypatia, was brutally murdered by a Christian mob. Christian patriarchalism, aggression against pagans (of which she was likely one), faith based suspicion of science and the fraught politics of a rising church and a declining state, combined to doom her. Her death was a milestone in the passing of the classical age of antiquity and the beginning of a chaotic transitional period. Much knowledge was lost. The faculty of reason became chained to theology for the next thirteen to fourteen hundred years, until the rise of modern industries and cities enabled the reclamation of its independence.
The global rise of religious fundamentalism everywhere in the latter twentieth and early twenty-first centuries parallels the situation in Hypatia’s time; the increasingly strident denial of science that conflicts with religious claims; the re-assertion of values and practices associated with traditional patriarchal religious communities; the increasing militance of religious sensibility; the decline of social governance within consumer societies; and the increasingly unstable, conflicted and unsustainable character of the corporatized global order.
Just as in Hypatia’s time people found the ground beneath their feet starting to shift, so it is with us.
Richard Dawkins, in his recent book ‘The God Delusion’, mounts a spirited attack on the ideological pretensions of Abrahamic monotheism (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). And while I heartily endorse his arguments and conclusions and share his horror at the extent of abandonment of reason amongst the pious, his work does not really confront the real issue. Something big is going on and Dawkins et al haven’t put their finger on it.
Rebuttal of ascendant ideas is the lowest form of intervention against them because it has almost no impact on those who are already influenced by them and does not address what is driving them and giving them traction. And to suggest, as Dawkins tries to do, that religion can be defined away as a wasteful, but nonetheless advantageous group strategy in the survival-of-the-fittest Darwinian struggle, merely threatens to pit one tendentiously speculative supposition with another. Social Darwinism has a strong track record of descending into pseudo-science.
Trying to cram the sum of human behavior under the aegis of one theory screams pseudo science, every bit as much as it did when Marx and Engels tried to unify history under the banner of dialectical and historical materialism. Besides, human intelligence enables the species to toy with all sorts of highly unnatural and asymmetrical selections, no matter how one looks at them.
Darwinian theory is best left to paleontologists and biologists. That is where the bulk of its power, research effort and scientific integrity lies, as does the fear and hate of its enemies.
This is not to say Dawkins’ book isn’t required reading for anyone preparing to fight off an attempt by nutters to ram Intelligent Design theory into the local school science curriculum.
However, what is really interesting is not the ideological debate, but why it needs to be revisited at all. After all, the evidence for Darwinian theory is so overwhelming, and it wasn’t so long ago that we seculars were confidently expecting traditional religion to molder into the cultural landscape until it was finally buried in the grave yard of history. What happened? Why the unexpected and aggressive resurgence of faith, irrationality and superstition?
More interesting still is the impression that it is Dawkins and his audience that are the ones in need of bolstering and self re-assurance. Their faith protagonists seem so overwhelmingly confident and pugnacious. Why wouldn’t a rational evidence based intellect be shaken by the resurgence of ideas based on little more than fresh air?
They have good reason to fear the consequences of this change in the cultural fabric. Nonsense can gain cultural and political traction very easily. Come the crunch, rational debate and evidence based argument can be all too easily suborned, circumvented or bulldozed out of the way.
And it should also be noted that it isn’t just religious fantasists that are doing this. Anyone following anthropogenic climate change denialism can see exactly the same anti-science tendencies at work amongst threatened industrial lobbies and their social mainstream sympathizers. Climatologists and the institutions they work in have found themselves under increasingly shrill attack by scientific nobodies with a very limited grasp of the climatological research effort, no record of involvement in its most recent projects, or recent peer reviewed published work in reputable scientific journals. But they know how to get equal billing with the real experts in public ‘debates’, which allow them to weave pseudo-scientific public-relations-speak into scientific dialogue.
All that is necessary is some kind of disturbance within the economic or cultural infrastructure to unravel rational and critical thinking. Getting a handle on that and addressing the issues it raises is the real answer to individual and collective fantasizing. Obsolescent thinking only becomes a resort when what is currently on offer becomes inadequate or threatening in some way(s).
Dawkins et al need to take a good hard look at what has happened to secular society in the last sixty years. The irrational forces he is confronting are just a symptom of what is going on within it. He can get the ideological traction and hitting power he so passionately wants, by beginning the process of recognizing a need for and then designing a rational alternative to, what religious groups deliver to their acolytes.
Understanding just how deeply disturbed modern societies have become is fundamental to understanding and managing the irrational forces that stem from them.
The rising power and aggression of religious feeling is a crie de coeur that cannot be argued away. And unless something concretely changes, that cry will only get stronger and more insistent.
The bottom line is about social regulation and the secure reproduction of the values that will sustain it into the very long term. Almost nothing that is being done now is sustainable. This is not just an ecological question. A sustainable society is one that can go on replicating itself indefinitely, in everything it does.
In truly classical Marxian language, I say that the ideological ‘superstructure’ of any given society is intimately dependent for sustenance and the contextualization of its thought, on the nature of the economic ‘substructure’ that underpins it. If the substructure is unsustainable, then its ideological mainstreams will be equally so.
The modern secular industrial society that emerged out of the World Wars is now as seriously damaged internally as the destruction it is visiting on everything else around it. Irrational faith that something ‘out there’ will save us from the damning nature of what we are doing, seems an entirely understandable and justifiable need.
People resort to it despite the fact that the language and thinking behind the biblical mind is obviously at variance with modern experience and understanding. To come at it at all one has to completely suspend disbelief and most, if not all, of what one has learnt about how the world and the universe work. And despite the fact that it was written before our species discovered evidence based thinking, or the intellectual and observational tools that would inform it, or the data streams and technology it made possible, it continues to grow apace.
In this struggle of ideas, Richard Dawkins can order back the tide as much as he likes. It is coming in, ready or not. Building ideological life boats seems a better way of avoiding being drowned by it; or more likely murdered by the nasties that lurk beneath it, like poor wretched Hypatia, all those years ago.
For those interested in following up these views, do drop in at my writing url at http://Writing.Com/authors/kiffit. ‘Meditations on the Road to a Post-Modern Age’ may be of interest.
Christopher ‘Kiffit’ Nagle