Sunday, October 7, 2012

Dennett contra Weinberg

There's a relatively famous quote by physicist Steven Weinberg : "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion." I think this is an incredibly naive claim. I would replace "religion" in that quote with "ideology." After all, good people do evil in the service of political ideologies all the time. But that's a post for another day. Right now I want to point to an interesting passage from Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea that contradicts Weinberg's claim. It's from page 264 of my copy, the third page in chapter 10; the emphases are mine.

Anybody as prolific and energetic as [Stephen Jay] Gould would surely have an agenda beyond that of simply educating and delighting his fellow human beings about the Darwinian view of life. In fact, he has had numerous agendas. He has fought hard against prejudice, and particularly against the abuse of scientific research (and scientific prestige) by those who would clothe their political ideologies in the potent mantle of scientific respectability. It is important to recognize that Darwinism has always had an unfortunate power to attract the most unwelcome enthusiasts -- demagogues and psychopaths and misanthropes and other abusers of Darwin's dangerous idea. Gould has laid this sad story bare in dozens of tales, about the Social Darwinists, about unspeakable racists, and most poignantly about basically good people who got confused -- seduced and abandoned, you might say -- by one Darwinian siren or another. It is all too easy to run off half cocked with some poorly understood version of Darwinian thinking, and Gould has made it a major part of his life's work to protect his hero from this sort of abuse.

So Dennett not only affirms that science can lead good people to do evil, but evolution in particular can do so. Of course, Dennett and Weinberg and I would respond to this charge that such people are obviously misunderstanding science and evolution in such cases. But then I don't see why this defense isn't available for religion as well.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


mattghg said...

Nice spot.

Timothy Mills said...

A good thought, Jim. I agree that "ideology" works better than "religion" in Weinberg's quote. (That also nicely encompasses the 20th-century despots used by some apologists as evidence of atheism's moral poverty. Hitler and Stalin and the others were dangerous because of their ideologies, not any alleged position on religion.)

As for your final point, I see some merit in it. However, with science there are objective standards we can apply to when we want to demonstrate that someone is misunderstanding or misapplying a scientific principle. These standards can be referred to as an objective basis for resolving "schisms", such as the Social Darwinists.

In the case of religion, however, it is rarely the case that some objective standard, outside the claims of two competing groups, can be used to resolve schismatic splits in belief or practice. Often, religious schism leaves two separate groups, each as confident and comfortable in their position, with no systematic means of reconciling them or establishing, externally, which is correct.

This isn't to say that there aren't better and worse religious sects. There are some who flatly refuse to conform their beliefs to actual evidence (such as the evidence for evolution, for an old earth, or for the absence of a global flood in historical times), while others accept this and adapt their religious beliefs accordingly. There are some who put their religious beliefs above human well-being (vaccinations, blood transfusions, sex education, women's rights, reproductive rights), thus generating lots of unnecessary human suffering, while others accept advances in our ability to promote human happiness and adapt their religious beliefs accordingly.

So I would say that (for example) liberal believers of just about any religion have a better handle on reality and compassion than conservatives. But I think it would be hard to prove a claim that they are more faithfully carrying out the dictates of their religion (be it Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, whatever).

That is why the "no true Scotsman" defense of religious claims often falls flat, while the same defense of established religious principles succeeds.