A)This is a simplistic reduction of a rather varied and sophisticated set of objections to religion. B)Such objections are hardly limited to 18th C France. Calling something "French" is a rather crude backhanded way of dismissing it out of hand. Maybe this wasn't Gray's intention, but it seems rather too pointed to be accidental.
In the 18th century, the philosophers of the French Enlightenment argued that science is the voice of reason while religion is little more than blind faith.
Doubt has been an integral part of religion at least since the Book of Job, while science has often gone with credulity. The doctrines of dialectical materialism and "scientific racism" promoted by communists and Nazis, respectively, during the 20th century were as irrational as anything in the history of religion. Yet in the 20th century, millions of people embraced these pernicious ideologies as scientific truth.In the narratives of religion (Job, Augustine, Donne, etc.), doubt is invariably defeated. In science pursued as science is supposed to be pursued, on the other hand, scepticism is foundational. In the Wikipedia article on the scientific method, this is addressed directly:
Belief can alter observations; those with a particular belief will often see things as reinforcing their belief, even if they do not. Needham's Science and Civilization in China uses the 'flying horse' image as an example of observation: in it, a horse's legs are depicted as splayed, when the stop-action picture by Eadweard Muybridge shows otherwise. Note that at the moment that no hoof is touching the ground, the horse's legs are gathered together and are not splayed.Earlier paintings depict the incorrect flying horse observation. This demonstrates Ludwik Fleck's caution that people observe what they expect to observe, until shown otherwise; our beliefs will affect our observations (and therefore our subsequent actions). The purpose of the scientific method is to test a hypothesis, a belief about how things are, via repeatable experimental observations which can contradict the hypothesis so as to fight this observer bias.
Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have popularized the Enlightenment view that a reductive type of materialism is the only picture of the world compatible with the results of scientific inquiry. Promoting Darwinism as an intellectual orthodoxy - a creed rather than a provisional hypothesis - these writers renew the old quarrel between science and religion. Though controversy has been intense, it can hardly be described as having made any large intellectual advance on the debate that raged in Victorian times.
Anyone who claims that Dawkins, especially, promotes "a reductive type of materialism" should read his book The Ancestor's Tale, if they haven't already. There is nothing reductive in Dawkins' worldview; there is, arguably, a great deal more room for wonder, doubt and awe than in any religious writer's work. "Darwinism"--by which I assume Gray means the theory of natural selection, as there are facets of Darwin's work that no latter day evolutionary scientists accept (because they've been proven incorrect!)--is no "creed," nor indeed is it any longer a "provisional hypothesis" because natural selection has yet to be broadly proven incorrect. If there's been little "advance on the debate that raged in Victorian times," it's precisely because the loudest religious opponents of natural selection's explanatory powers refuse to recognise an increasingly large amount of evidence supporting the detested theory. One of the parties in the debate has stood still. Guess which?
There is actually very little that is new in the so-called new atheism, whose claim to be based on science is as dubious today as it has ever been.Well, to the best of my knowledge, the label "new atheism" has been applied by others, not by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or Harris. And even if it has been, they're not interested in novelty--I fail to understand how not being new is a damning critique--evidence of which is to be found in Hitchens' anthology The Portable Atheist.
A)There's no such thing as "the atheist community." B)I've never known an atheist who uses Dawkins' rather embarrassing term to describe him or herself. Dawkins suggested it as an alternative to the negatively-defined term atheism--which suggests not believing in something, rather than believing something for good reason--but I don't think the self-congratulatory and condescending label has caught on. C)The identification of a materialist philosophy with science is not "mistaken," but very well established.
Berlinski - a mathematician and well-known critic of evolutionary theory, though not a proponent of "intelligent design" - has two targets in his sights: the conventional belief that religious thought is intrinsically superstitious and the materialist philosophy that Dawkins and his fellow "brights" - as members of the atheist community fondly describe themselves - mistakenly identify with science.
The first of these targets is dispatched with in a barrage of devastating arguments. Berlinski quotes Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg as declaring "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." Berlinski comments on this, forcefully and unanswerably: "Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons? If memory serves, not the Vatican."
A)Weinberg was almost right. Replace "religion" with "the conviction of moral rectitude" and the statement's bang-on. Religion is just one very common cause of this error. McCarthyism was another. Marxist-Leninism and Nazism are other examples. B)Berlinski's comment is hardly "unanswerable"; for one thing, he does not establish that these terrible inventions are the products of good people. For another, weapons, defences and murder (mass or otherwise) have existed since humans started walking upright. That those weapons have become more technologically sophisticated over the last century says nothing about science's capacity for evil, but rather about humans' capacity to use scientific knowledge for (arguably) malign purposes. Again, the term "pseudo-scientific" makes it quite clear that real science has not been, and cannot be, used to justify genocide. And, "if memory serves," the Vatican signed a treaty with Hitler.
Nothing infuriates atheists more than the observation that people who scorned traditional religion in all its varieties were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the last century.
If it's true that this is infuriating, it's because it stupidly elides the point that is embedded in the phrase "traditional religion": viz., that totalitarian leaders have made cults of themselves and appropriated the trappings of traditional religions in order to form new ones, complete with iconography, worship, catechism, dogma and immortality.
Atheism was - according to the founders of the Soviet state, and in fact - always an integral part of the communist project. Despite the vehement denials of Dawkins and Hitchens, terror in communist Russia - and Mao's China - was also meant to bring about a utopian society in which religion would no longer exist.
Atheism was definitely a central tenet of Marx's philosophy. However, a state that preserves a dead body in a glass case so that people might come and pay homage to it cannot honestly claim to be atheistic. Nor can a state in which the leader is said not to produce human waste. The desire of totalitarian regimes to control and eradicate religion stems from the political competition provided by churches. (This is why Constantine first converted to Christianity, after all, a religion which, at the time, was widely regarded as atheistic for its repudiation of all other gods.) It's impossible to have total control over society when institutions independent of the government, with large popular followings, exist.
Berlinski is right to focus on the fact that 20th-century atheist states were as complicit in crimes against humanity as any religion has been in the past. He weakens his case when he argues that "The twentieth century was not an age of faith, and it was awful." Quite to the contrary, the 20th century was an age of faith - the secular faith in Utopia that produced the atrocities Berlinski rightly condemns.
Lenin's Bolsheviks were not a bunch of skeptics. They were fanatical believers in a vision of a future world, more fantastic than any religious myth, which they claimed was based on science.
Exactly, they weren't skeptics, they were fanatics. Is Gray trying to make the opposition's argument for it? As for the dictatorship of the proletariat being "more fantastic than any religious myth"--wishful thinking, yes, but hardly on a par with the universe being created out of nothing and human beings from clay--to say nothing of the entire world being inundated. Again "claimed was based on science" means that it wasn't actually based on science, but on pseudo-science (which by another name one might call doctrine).
The same is true of the Nazis, who in claiming that race was a scientific category, opened the way to history's supreme crime. The atrocities perpetrated by atheist regimes during the 20th century did not come from believing in nothing. They are testimonies to the destructive ferocity of faith when it is detached from traditional religions and invested in pseudo-science.
That would be an accurate statement, but for "when it is detached from traditional religions." The "destructive ferocity of faith" has had ample play within the moral barricades of one churchyard or another and the Bible is full of genocidal cleansings.
No doubt correctly, Berlinski argues that Darwin's account of natural selection and current theories of cosmology leave a good deal that is not adequately explained. More contentiously, he suggests that these gaps in understanding may give support to ideas of intelligent design. Here Berlinski follows atheists such as Dawkins in thinking of religion as a type of explanatory theory, different from that which is presented in prevailing science.
Of course "correctly," otherwise there'd be no work for present-day evolutionary biologists, none of whom claim that all has been explained. And wait a minute, didn't Gray say earlier that Berlinski is "not a proponent of 'intelligent design'"... Richard Dawkins didn't come up with the idea that "religion [is] a type of explanatory theory"; the founders of religions did! The whole purpose of myth is to explain to people where they came from and what they're doing here. It's blatant revisionism to pretend otherwise.
The truth of the matter is that religion and science are not competitors, but fundamentally different responses to the human situation. Religion begins where science leaves off.
Wrong! They are fundamentally similar responses to the human situation. Without the religious impulse--the need to answer vexing questions about ourselves and our origins--there would be no science, just as there would be no literature. Religion is an important early step in attempting to fill the void of ignorance. However, once that impulse leads us to discover certain facts about the universe that are in blatant contradiction of the dogmas of religion and the assumptions of faith, it behooves us to abandon the dogmas as truth (while still recognizing their historical and metaphorical values) and pursue knowledge where it might actually be obtained. Science begins where religion leaves off.
Religion expresses the human need for meaning, not a demand for explanation. For those who have it, faith entails understanding the limits of the human mind and an acceptance of mystery. Even if all the problems of science are some day solved, humans will still be searching for purpose in their lives, and for that reason alone they will need religion.
Explanation leads to meaning. An abstract "need for meaning" that can be satisfied by a rote adherence to millenia-old doctrine is a pretty feeble need. I'd say it's more a need for comfort. An understandable need, but one that is too easily satisfied. I have a young nephew who drags around a dirty threadbare blanket and can't bear to be parted from it. If that blanket were to disappear tomorrow, he'd no doubt suffer some anxiety from it. But he'd get over it. If you can't find purpose in your life without religion, maybe you should, as Rilke said, change your life.