Can we turn our backs on complex religious beliefs?

Prof of Anthropology Gananath Obeyesekere on Richard Dawkins

Now that the Galle Festival has come and gone and readers and the literary luminaries have gone to their respective homes, some readers might be interested in the comment I made on Richard Dawkins in an endnote in my book The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience (Columbia University Press, 2012, note 20, p. 478). Not having ever patronized the Galle festival some might object to my gall in criticizing Dawkins but others might enjoy my brief critique of that distinguished thinker.

Dawkins in Galle. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

That comment should be read in the larger context of my enormously long “essay” wherein I state that “it is ethically wrong for the scholar to denigrate the religious beliefs of people by denying the existence of god or spiritual beings or some other view of the afterlife such as rebirth and karma on the basis of empirical or scientific or pseudo-scientific evidence” (p. 15).

I go on to say that “science itself is so much open to debate, especially the problematic of verification or falsification and what I think is the very basis of ‘scientific truth,’ that is, its lack of finality. Scientific and scholarly truths are always in the making, and there lies their attractiveness for many of us.

This is, of course, not to condone cruelty, injustice, and intolerance endemic to our own times whether they appear in a religious or in a secular nationalistic or patriotic mask or in any other guise. Sensitive believers and non-believers in our own day have condemned such practices” (ibid).

I also add “that much of what anthropologists have labeled ‘culture,’ those webs of meaning that human beings construct to make sense of the worlds in which they live, are constituted of false beliefs, at least from the viewpoint of modern scientific knowledge. And where are the truths of yesteryear?

The political and economic beliefs once fanatically held by progressive intellectuals are today’s falsehoods.” (p. 11). It is in this context (and in the larger context of my critique of Enlightenment rationality or “Euro-rationality”) that the following excerpt on Dawkins should be understood:

I want to make it clear that my “essay” is not a response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006). I had written most of my essay long before Dawkins’ book which I read only recently. I admire Dawkins’ work on evolution, especially his most recent and clearly written book, The Ancestor’s Tale. By contrast The God Delusion does not excite me, uninterested as I am in debunking Christianity or any other religion.

Admittedly, Dawkins’ work is cogently argued but in the days of my youth I read a very similar work by a predecessor, the nineteenth century American anti-Christ and atheist, Robert G. Ingersoll (who does not appear in Dawkins’ bibliography). And many more will appear before we are done with this question. This is not the place to make any detailed criticism of Dawkins, but I shall point a few issues that struck me as I read the book.

Dawkins’ criticisms are primarily directed against Christian fundamentalist Evangelicals, mostly in the US and those naïve enough to believe in Creationism as a kind of scientific alternative to Darwinism. Most Christians do not need Creationism to believe in both and, like human beings in general, find no great cognitive dissonance from having contradictory beliefs. Many non-religious beliefs and all sorts of political ideologies are not only false but they also contradict other views or ideologies that we simultaneously adhere to. For Dawkins, there are members of our species who “clutter their minds with beliefs that are palpably false,” without asking the obvious question whether such beings knew whether their ideas were false or whether they had empirical evidence or commonsense experience that seemed to them at least to validate their beliefs (165).

We might think that some of these validations of religious truths are examples of self-fulfilling prophecies. Many human societies have cosmological doctrines, notions of the origin of the world and of the gods that, from a strictly scientific point of view, seem untrue. And that goes for much of philosophy. I can enjoy reading Plato or Plotinus but I would say that their beliefs about the world or the after-world are false, from our contemporary perspective. Were Platonists then and now mired in ignorance? Or could we say that even though their ideas were false, they did have some insights into the human condition, as do philosophers in general? And if so, why not Christianity especially the gospel of Jesus and the many Christian philosophers who were, I would think, propagators of both truths and falsehoods? I am with Dawkins in condemning those who turn their back on the achievements of Darwinism, but that does not entitle us to turn our back on complex religious beliefs, even if their foundations could be seen by scientists to be false or unverifiable.

I can only partially endorse Dawkins’ view that Christianity has been instrumental in great acts of cruelty. But then he goes on to make the naïve proposition that unlike religious wars, no war has been fought on the basis of “atheism.” It surprises me that Dawkins would even make this argument, given its absurdity. Christianity and other religions have been with us for ages and possess a powerful ideology, a “church” in the broadest sense of that term, and millions of followers socialized in it. Not so with the term “atheism” that came into popular use only in recent times; and atheism does not have organizations or congregations that can mobilize large numbers.

It lacks an ideology; and that is why nationalism, whether the Nazi variety or some other, can be mobilized to wage wars. In other words, even if you had fanatic atheists, you will not find them able to summon an army! Remember that atheistic doctrines like communism did not wage revolution on the basis of atheism but on an ideology based on Marx, holding up the capitalist classes as evil along with a populist hope for the masses of redemption from poverty and tyranny.

Dawkins is obviously right that cruel wars have been waged in the name of religion but he does not recognize that the name of religion is sometimes a cover-up for more blatant non-religious motives, for example plunder or territorial aggrandizement. Further, it seems to me that cruelty is much more endemic in wars fought without the invocation of religion. I would say that the God of Christianity has little to do with the two terrible World Wars, not to speak of the unspeakable cruelty unleashed by revolutionary movements like the Russian or Chinese.

The Crusaders seem nice guys in comparison. Further, in decrying the nature of the God of the Old Testament, Dawkins is blatantly unfair by the psychologist Carl Jung whom he credits with a belief in the God syndrome. Jung is a much more complicated thinker as the readers of my essay will note. He was a more astute critic of the God of the Old Testament than Dawkins, especially in his late work Answer to Job which I discuss in my work. As far as the general issue of human violence is concerned, whether of the Old Testament God and other deities or the wars waged on their behalf, I would assert that our understanding would much benefit from evolutionary biology, if one rejects the idea that biological explanations are by themselves sufficient.

I think the critique that Dawkins is a nineteenth century thinker is well taken. His response is to admit it and say, what’s wrong with that? I agree that one can be proud to be an intellectual descendant of the great thinkers of the 19th century. But there is a deeper issue when it comes to Dawkins’ nineteenth century view of societies outside of the West. His thought is rooted in the mostly discredited writings of James Frazer and others like him. No wonder he has some peculiar views of non-Western societies. He praises the Australian aborigines for their knowledge of nature and their physical capacity to weather extremes of climate and then points out their commitment to sorcery and other irrational beliefs (164-65).

The latter conclusion is quite correct except that reading Dawkins one would think that practices such as sorcery and witchcraft are confined to Australians and New Guinea folk whereas any anthropology student would know they are found everywhere in the world, including a few centuries ago in England and Europe, even in the heyday of the Enlightenment. Moreover, Dawkins does not mention the extremely complex religious beliefs of the Aborigines and of course their brilliant art and what ethnographers have called their “kinship algebra.” His chapter “The roots of religion” is one of the shallowest accounts of that interesting subject that I have read.

We are back to my earlier critique: religious beliefs may be false but their complexity and richness is something that tells us about the human spirit and we might, if we have open minds, as Dawkins would surely agree, learn something about life and death and existence from them, a lot more I would add than one could from science. Science as it is now practised can tell us very little about existential meanings for which we have to turn to art, literature and philosophy, including the philosophical thinking of religious virtuosos. We do not have to be in bondage to the latter to read discriminately about their views of life and the world.

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