Monday, 8 March 2010

Q&A - Prof. Dawkins must be oh so bored

Being touted as the world's most famous atheist must be tedious.

Tonight on ABC 1, Q&A counted amoung its guests Professor Richard Dawkins, Family First Leader Steve Fielding, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, Australian of the Year 2010 Prof. Patrick McGorry, Member for Watson and Minister for Agriculture Tony Burke, and Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio of Emmanuel Synagogue. For all of the learned people on the panel - a handful of which have a say in how our country is run, might I add - the likes of whom you might expect would be familiar with answering questions and partaking of debate, I was most disappointed in the quality of debate that went on.

A few days ago I posted an entry called "God in the Suburbs" in which I lamented the severe level of ignorance being wielded like a sword and shield by any and all that saw fit to wade into the debate (whether atheist or religious). This ignorance is not purposeful on the part of those arguing, but it is a natural byproduct of believing one's self to be an expert on a topic that is far more intricate and complicated than first thought. Or indeed, ever thought.

Q&A tonight proved that our country's top minds are not immune to this ignorance. I want to go through some of the points thrown at Prof. Dawkins tonight and examine them just a little. I'm not inviting you to find these arguments ridiculous. I'm inviting you to read them in correct context and make up your own mind.

Never the 'twain shall meet.

The question "Can evolution and faith co-exist in the mind of a believer?" elicited a fairly basic starting point. The answer, of course, is obvious to anyone who is familiar with the subject: yes. The two are not mutually exclusive. One can easily believe that god or gods "jump started" the universe and stood aside while evolution took its course and led us to where we find ourselves today. This line of discussion, in turn, led to a berating of Steve Fielding for his belief that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and that we were placed here by god almighty. A berating that, while I certainly can't disagree with, I felt ought to at least have been tempered by the fact that the man was willing to stand on faith alone and not rely on falsified evidence in favour of his position*.The upshot of it all was a generally arrived at consensus that 'Science and Religion have nothing to do with each other and do not need necessitate conflict'. This, as just about any atheist will tell you, is a gross oversimplification. A peacekeeping argument designed to move past a point.

If Religion and Science really do have nothing to do with each other, someone needs to tell the lobbyists that. Someone needs to tell those that banned all stem cell research in the United States - an action that led to the sacking of Australia's own Elizabeth Blackburn from the President's Council on Bioethics in 2004 when she spoke up in favour of the wondrous possibilities of human embryonic stem cell research (She later went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine). Someone, while we are at it, needs to tell the Vatican that condoms actually are effective in preventing the spread of STI's and AIDS, and that issuing edicts to the religious folk of Africa that condoms must not be used because they make trasmission more likely is doing to regional health what speeding bullets do to pane glass.

Someone again - obviously, one of the few not busy trying to accompish the first two tasks listed here - needs to suggest to the Islamic extremists, the really passionate believers, that our great scientific accomplishments - namely jumbo jets and skyscrapers - were never meant to be banged together the way a caveman might when trying to invent fire.

And yet tonight we listened to five different people - three of them politicians - try to explain to Prof. Dawkins that religion and science could be kept separate without the slightest bit of interference. One must ask - if this is true, why do we see so much opposition to scientific research? Why are people ready to believe that Mary McKillop can cure cancer so long after her own death?

This is not an argument that can be so easily dismissed. If you truly believe that science and religion are not at loggerheads, I hope this is a conclusion that you have arrived at after scrupulous study of the facts.

*Fielding did not try and refute evolution by natural selection while in the company of Prof. Dawkins, he simply stated 'you have your beliefs and I have mine' - a statement that, if not entirely nourishing, at least has the merit of being irrefutable and honest. If more people had a faith of the kind that Mr. Fielding has, the debate between theism and non would be solved much more easily as people would not rely on psuedo science and fraudulent evidence to 'strengthen' their positions. Can I also take this footnote as an opportunity to applaud him for declaring religion and science to be separate departments in a school setting, something that many hardline believers will not concede.

Respect me, you Nasty Atheist.

This one is easy. There is a myth circulating that goes something like this: "all beliefs are personal and deserve your respect. To speak against them is impolite, disrespectful and harmful. It will get you nowhere."

This sounds, I'm afraid to say, like the spiny response of someone who doesn't want to engage with the topic at all because they have either a) never had to argue it before, b) don't want to think about the implications of the argument or c) have enjoyed a lifetime of privellege in which people have lightstepped around their beliefs in the hope of avoiding all-too-easily provoked offence.

Josh Thomas posted the most eloquent refutation to this on his Twitter feed when he said "It would be a pretty boring #qanda episode when no one argued with people's views out of respect."

Beliefs need to be challenged - especially those posited with no substantiating evidence. Without this there would be no checks and balances, there would be no way to tell truth from dogma. When Prof. Dawkins offered a passage from the new testament as an example of abhorrently immoral behaviour (the story of Jesus dying on behalf of all man's sin) and loudly declared "you can keep it!", he was met with a stroppy, petulant tantrum from Tony Burke. "When you ridicule people's beliefs, it's divisive and nasty". Or something along those lines. A banal back and forth took place in which Prof. Dawkins tried to argue that he didn't ridicule the belief. It comes down to definition. If you're going to say that the fact that Dawkins disagrees with the idea that the new testament is an inspiring moral tale and is willing to say so to people that asked him about it, then I guess there's no defence. He did ridicule it. And if that is your definition of ridicule, then guess what? I'm okay with it.

Because the story he told really is morally abhorrent, it really is an example of how the bible is not a great teacher of morality, and it really does deserve to be ridiculed. One very rarely finds ridicule where the object is not first ridiculous. It would be hard, for example, to ridicule the idea of the mathematical equation 1 + 3 = 4 because it is irrefutably true. Ridiculous stories and beliefs will attract ridicule - they are not made to look ridiculous. They already look that way. Pointing this out can be defined as ridicule, yes. But it is the kind of ridicule that is unavoidable if you're going to disagree with the moral quality of the story.

For me, the interesting part is just how sensitive the religious are to this 'ridicule'. One would think that if their faith was strong enough, the point of view of a single man amoungst a panel of five would not be sufficient to hurt their feelings. Would I be accused of ridicule if I asked whether this was a sign of insecurity?

And note that I do not demand respect for holding this point of view. All I ask is my right to hold it without being called disrespectful.

Temporary Close.

Look, there is a lot to talk about. I never imagined when I started writing a blog that I would find so much to say and have such little time to do it in. It's nearly 1am again, I must go to work tomorrow, but I will be back. I still owe MasterMystery a response to Pantheism, I have about three more points of interest from Q&A to talk about, aghhh.

There just is not enough coffee in the world for this. 

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