Sunday, January 4, 2009

Evolution is One Part of Something Much More Important

Sam Harris commented in this interview that atheism is just one aspect of a much more important shift that's taking place. In the same way, I've always thought that evolution, important though it is, is a much smaller issue than atheism. Yet it dominates the discussion. Religion-atheism debates often contract to evolution-creation debates, and atheists are willing accomplices.

Like many atheists, the person who brought me into the world of neo-atheists (as we're being called) was Richard Dawkins. And like many atheists, I've wasted my share of time debating online with creationists who, to be fair, often told me up front that no evidence could change their minds; from time to time I still can't help myself. The question here is really why this one corner of science (albeit a very important corner) has become the focal point of the discussion about the source of morality and the rules of public discourse? If the stormfront is going to be a technical field, why not cosmology or medicine? And furthermore, is this limiting our scope?

The longer you think about it, the stranger it seems, and the only explanation that makes sense is a historical one. That is, the centrality of the evolution-creation debate to the modern religion-atheism debate, and any constraints it has placed on us, is a coincidence of the here-and-now. The medieval church already had its go at cosmology, whereas three-quarters of a century ago there was a famous trial about evolution. This is actually unfortunate, for several reasons. First is that this is a subject that nonscientists frankly don't care that much about. I'm as "guilty" of constantly marvelling at evolution on Earth as the next scientifically-minded person, but really now: why does it matter in most of our daily experience that humans are primates? Yes, it matters enormously to who we are, but it's a given. Ask yourself honestly - what would you have consciously done differently today if this weren't so? Unless you're a biologist, the answer is almost certainly "nothing".

The second problem is that this focus on evolution selects spokespeople who, though they're biological or philosophical experts, are not necessarily the people whose words will touch the heart of a middle-aged woman in Kansas who is having questions about her faith. This lady is not worried about Conways game of life or bat echolocation or disputes with Stephen Jay Gould; she's worried about making her credit card payments and keeping her daughter off drugs, and whether that fight becomes harder for some reason if she doesn't go to church tomorrow morning. What we have now is a largely intellectual atheism, and what we need is more plain old common-sense atheism (imagine Grandpa on the porch drinking lemonade and telling you why he stopped bothering with religion). Of course, Dawkins and Dennett are intellectuals, and it's not their job to write inspirational rationalist tracts. This is exactly why, of the Four Horsemen, it's Hitchens and Harris who are (so far) the most valuable. Hitchens, in particular, is a very different breed from most "traditional" American atheists - a journalist, polemicist, literature-lover and dialectic thinker for whom rhetoric is his main (or only) responsibility - one which he executes effectively, to put it mildly. I think Dawkins and Dennett recognize this.

We could theorize about why 90% of NAS members are atheists - my personal speculation is that it's not science that makes scientists atheists, but rather pre-existing facets of their personality that lead them to think independently. We see the same streak in other productive endeavors which require original thought (like art and literature). This is consistent with the idea that the process of religious belief is essentially a social one. Hence, why we usually just so happen to encounter the same revealed truth as our parents - so spending time thinking about objects outside of typical human experience in a way less beholden to authority and more to observations, you're more likely to rise above group-instilled nonsense.

But the majority of people are not scientists, and are not that interested in science. Consequently we must start focusing on nonscientific (not unscientific) arguments to win hearts and minds - ones that focus on the trials and tribulations of every day life, and on better living through every-day clear thinking. The debate has to move out of what seems sheer esoterica to most people and into every day life - in which realm even hardcore theists largely make the same choices that atheists do. Religion requires doublethink - so the key is expanding the realm of critical thought from the negotiation with the car dealer, to what they're being told at church. You can do that without talking about "reason" and "critical thought", which work well as codewords to fellow atheists, but leave most people unmoved. There are a million concrete examples. Ask people why they exercise more judgment on a used car lot than they do when deciding how to live their life. Talk over the process of moral choices with friends and relatives; they invariably find that the vast majority of day-to-day moral guidance they need comes from inside their own brains just like yours does, and not any scriptural authority (which is silent on post-Bronze-Age matters). And of course there's the benefit of never dragging the kids to church! And not making guilt-ridden donations that you can't afford, and no more voting for people who you can't stand but are afraid of divine sanction if you don't support, and an ability to seek your own answers to questions that trouble you - all the while strengthening your morality and joy at the life we have!

This is also why we must start looking for role models in other walks of life who are not afraid to be open about their common-sense atheism - we need more Pat Tillmans and Lance Armstrongs and Pete Starks in athletics and the military and the government. We need marketing expertise. We need more diverse atheists (no offense, but we already have plenty of straight white men, of which I'm one). Thank goodness we're getting some media figures (with Bill Maher and Howard Stern). You may not even particularly like some of these people - and that's actually a good sign. When atheism becomes mainstream, you won't be able to love everyone. I'm shorter on names here than I would like to be and I hope that as this zeitgeist continues to develop I can add more. Feel free to add suggestions in the comments.

I have to throw in my lot with the Hitch when he says that religion will never be eradicated, but that as long as you want to be at home telling your kids about talking snakes, I don't care. It's public life - education and legislation and discourse - that matter, and our efforts must be directed toward expanding the rule of secularism in the public sphere. We can do this better by letting the theists continue to worry about Darwin. The rest of us will move on.

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