Monday, March 7, 2011

Dawkins' Lecture both Profound and 'Spiritually Uplifting'

Reichard Dawkins, Emeritus Fellow, Oxford Universtiy
(Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science)
Richard Dawkins, the noted biologist and critic of all things 'religious,' gave what has become a bit of a 'stump speech' (entitled "Queerer than We Can Suppose: The Strangeness of Science") on several years ago. Dawkins - whom I would describe, having been one, as an "evangelical atheist" - along with Christopher Hitchins, is in the forefront of an all-too ideological battle against what comedian Bill Maher has called "religiousity."

While many "religious critics" have found Dawkins' pitch antithetical to their ideas and beliefs about God and the universe, I don't share that view. Dawkins is both an eminent scientist and influential social critic, but while many found Dawkins evolutionary critique of fundamentalist religious teaching challenging, I found it profoundly inspiring.

Perhaps the fundamental conflict that Dawkins and others have with "religion" or "God," per se, (Dawkins' formal religious critique is, after all, called "The God Delusion") consists of a definition of terms. Dawkins and Hitchins rail against an "anthropomorphic God" - i.e., a man-like God behind the universe somewhere, 'pulling the levers,' so-to-speak, like an eternal 'Wizard of Oz.'

While this anthropomorphic view may be a popular conception of what "God" is, or may be, it is an old and disavowed view which, nonetheless, continues to hold some capital with those who have not given much thought to what such metaphysical terms might mean. I suspect it is still informed somewhat by the iconic images on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel. Nonetheless, it has been disavowed by most authorities, including the Vatican and the Pope, himself.

If one examines experiential religion - what the founding father of introspective psychology, William James, called "inner religion", as opposed to the "outer religion" of dogma, creeds, temples, vestries and incense - there is no inherent conflict with the evolutionary scientific perspective of Dawkins and Hitchins. Their choosing to oppose fundamentalist, outer and anthropomorphic theism with science is just that, a choice. Yet even the Vatican's chief astronomer has said that the 'Big Bang' is the most likely version of the Creation. And the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict, besides lifting the ex-communication of Galileo, has said that the debate between evolution and creationism is "an absurdity," pointing out that the two can co-exist.

A more informed debate would occur if there were agreement as to the terms and concepts being discussed. More's the pity since this does not appear to be likely even though such a debate would likely prove to be beneficial to both science and metaphysics. (A point made by Alan Wallace, an accomplished scientist and Buddhist practitioner, in a fascinating, if lengthy, "Google TechTalk.")

Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955)
Rather than engaging in a debate with 'fundamentalist' religious types (and stereotypes) over the 'usefulness' or 'social harm' caused by organized religion, a more utilitarian debate informed by the works of modern theologists, philosophers and scientist, like the Jesuit paleontologist, Teihard de Chardin (that's right, a Jesuit paleontologist) or progressive spiritual leaders like Andrew Cohen, who teaches what he calls "Evolutionary Enlightenment," would add much good to both the public discourse and to science.

While we wait for such a debate, as an inwardly-focused yet not "outwardly religious" spiritual aspirant, I find Dawkins' lecture to be both immensely informative and profoundly inspiring. I suspect that many, if not most, seekers after authentic, inner religious experience who are at all informed about the wonders of evolution, relativity theory and the uncomprehendable (not 'incomprehensible') wonders of quantum mechanics, may find that Dawkin's "polemic" is both profound and, dare I say, spiritually uplifting.

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