The Beyond Belief 2006 seminar that I have been writing about on the weekends did not have a set schedule. Rather, speakers were invited up to speak sometimes out of turn in order to generate what the organizers called a conversation on the issues. After Joan Roughgarden gave her presentation about describing evolution in biblical terms, Richard Dawkins was invited up to give a response.
Dawkins actually responded first to something that Steven Weinberg said at the end of Session 2. Just before the conference broke for (a very late) lunch. Weinberg was given an opportunity to introduce the next topic, which was supposed to be, “If not religion, then what?”
Prophets and their Books
In this short introduction, he expressed an important concern. Humans seem to have a strange attraction to prophets and their books. If we get rid of Jesus (or, actually, Paul) and The Bible, or Mohammed and The Koran, what enters the vacuum?
Marx and Das Kapital
Hitler and Mein Kampf
Mao and The Little Red Book
Some people would add:
Darwin and The Origin of Species: yet, this classification comes from those who are so locked in a mindset of “a prophet and his book” that he cannot imagine somebody living without a prophet and a book. They assume, falsely, that everybody must have a prophet and a book to live by and the ask, “If not The Bible, then what?
Another pairing that I could add to the list is:
Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged.
Now, some people may be offended by my putting this book in the same company as those above. Yet, the worshippers of any of these ideologies would find the company shameful, I imagine. Yet, they all do have a lot in common. I once was a libertarian who spent a lot of time among Randian Objectivists, and the distortions of reason and fact that they can subject themselves to would shame a Christian, in spite of the fact that they hold reason in high esteem.
Some may claim that I have done the same thing, blinding myself to facts and reason in defending desire utilitarianism. I will not deny the possibility. Furthermore, I hold that I am the least qualified to judge whether such a charge is true or false. I hope that it is false. I also hope that, if the charge is true, that others can see through those mistakes so that they do no harm.
In the mean time, let’s get back to the main point. If not religion, then what? One of these other non-religious prophets and their books? That sounds like a bad idea.
Is there a a reasonable alternative to prophets and their books?
The Mischievous Old Aunt
Weinberg ended up comparing religion to an old aunt. “She lies and causes mischief,” Weinberg says, “But she was beautiful once and we loved her.” In her old age, she has become quite a bother, and it is time for her to pass on, but we will still miss her, according to Weinberg.
Richard Dawkins stepped up to the microphone and said,
I wondered whether Steven Weinberg . . . was feeling the need to bend over backwards and be a little bit nice about religion. Scrape the barrel to find something nice to say about religion. So, we came up with this picture of the elderly aunt. We will all miss her when she goes. I won’t miss her at all. Not one scrap. Not one smidgen. I am utterly fed up with the respect that all of us, including the secular among us, have been bestowing upon religion.
What Is There to Miss?
Ultimately, if we are talking about missing religion, we are talking about missing false beliefs.
False beliefs are, as Weinberg says, ‘mischievous’ (to say the least). We seek to fulfill our desires. However, we act to fulfill our desires given our beliefs. False or incomplete beliefs stand in the way of us fulfilling our desires. The person who believes that a glass contains water and drinks it to quench her thirst tells us of the ‘mischievousness’ of false beliefs.
Some of these false beliefs provide an escape from a reality that can be difficult to handle, such as the possibility of death. Weinberg spoke of consoling a parent over the loss of a child with the false belief that the child is not really dead, but instead has moved on to another place where the child will know nothing but joy and the protection of an almighty and perfectly benevolent God. These false beliefs are the difference between pleasure and pain for a lot of people.
Yet, they are still false beliefs, and false beliefs are the barrier that gets in the way of our preventing harms to start with. A quite simple fact of the matter is that there will be far fewer children dying if we had a better handle on how to explain and predict the real world. We could then explain and predict those parts that tend to kill children, and make them far less common or far easier to avoid. Just as false beliefs can get in the way of our quenching our thirst, they can get in the way of our saving our children.
Comfort and Joy and the Meaning of Life
There are also those who would miss the comfort and joy that they claim to find in religion, and the meaning that their life has when they devote their life to God.
On this measure, I have had dreams in which some deep desire of mine has been fulfilled – or, at least, the dream has given me a belief that they were fulfilled, giving me great joy. I wake up, and find myself in the same house facing the same job so that I can pay the same bills. I wish that it had not been a dream – that the events had been real. In fact, that’s what it means to say that the dream fulfilled my desires. They caused me to have false beliefs that the state I was one where its propositions were those that I desired (wished) to be true.
Yet, it was still a dream.
What if I could stay in that dream state forever, falsely believing that the propositions I accepted in the dream were true in the real world? I would know great comfort and joy. I would think that my life had meaning and purpose. In fact, I would be a blob of protoplasm wasting away in a dream state until I finally died. Even if I was given an opportunity to remain in that dream state, with all of the comfort and joy it provides, I would prefer the real world, with its difficulties and disappointments. At least, in the real world, when I help somebody, there is somebody who actually benefits.
No person has ever found meaning and purpose in his life serving a God, because the time he spends serving God is like the time that I spend in a dream. It may generate great feelings, but those feelings have no anchor in the real world.
The one difference between permanently sleeping and living a dream life and religion is that the person living the dream life is harmless. He lays in his bed while his body rots, accomplishing nothing real but experiencing great joy and the pretense that he has done great things. He does not do any good, but he does not do any harm either.
Unfortunately, many of those who find meaning and purpose in religion find that meaning and purpose in doing things that are harmful to others. Notwithstanding the maiming and killing of others in the name of God, they seek legislation that deprives others of fulfilling lives and relationships, stand in the way of medical research, block scientific advance, erect barriers to freedom that do real-world harm but which serve no real-world purpose, and denigrate and belittle those who do no harm and tend to provide great benefit to the community in the name of defending the faith.
Besides, people also thought that they found meaning and purpose for their lives in the Nazi Party, the Communist Party, and the KKK as well. Sometimes we just have to ask, “How many people have to suffer and die for your life to have meaning?”
If not religion, then what?
Well, let’s put an end of the era of prophets and their books. Those who quote some author as if he were an infallible prophet can already trust that he does not know what he is talking about. Nobody is that good.
And even though false beliefs can bring comfort and joy, they also bring great misery and sorrow. Better abilities to explain and predict the real world are the best tools that we have to avoid the situations where we would need to be comforted, including the deaths of children, and our own deaths.
There is a real world out there. Anything worth doing, is worth doing for real.