Sunday, June 29, 2008

Check It Out: The Science of Religion

In 2003 Richard Dawkins gave the Tanner Lectures at Harvard University. I spent most of the afternoon today listening to these lectures. Richard Dawkins is one of the many contemporary scientists I admire a lot. I have read many (if not all) of his books, including the most recent one - The God Delusion. I admire Dawkins primarily because of his knack of explaining complex ideas in a clear and logical fashion. I admire him even more for his polite yet forceful arguments against religious extremism, in fact religion itself and against irrational, non-scientific ideas like 'creation science' and 'intelligent design'.

In the first of the two lectures, Dawkins talks about the science of religion. The Darwinian framework of evolution through variation and natural selection is the most elaborate explanation we have to explain the evolution and diversity of life on earth. Any phenomena that have survived for millennia in human populations therefore beg an evolutionary explanation. Religious beliefs have appeared and continue to appear independently in human societies across ages in all parts of the world. The ubiquity of religious beliefs in human society makes it imperative to explore the evolutionary origins of such beliefs. Dawkins focuses exclusively on this topic in the first of the two lectures. Dawkins has devoted a full chapter of his latest book - The God Delusion - to this topic. I would urge anyone who is interested in this subject to listen to this lecture.

In my opinion this topic is of utmost importance today. Religious zealots are wrecking havoc in every part of the world. Islamic extremists in the middle east, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world; fundamentalist evangelical Christians in the USA, fundamentalist Jews in Israel, fundamentalist Hindu groups in India all want to impose their particular religious world view and way of life upon the society at large. Many, if not all of them are using violence to terrorize people into submission. Only by understanding the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs can we begin to treat the virus of religious extremism and perhaps some day cure ourselves of all faith based propositions.

In the second lecture, Dawkins talks about the Religion of Science. A common retort of people of faith against science is that science itself is a form of religion. They point out that the core hypothesis of science, that the universe is governed by a set of laws which we can reveal through careful investigation, is a faith based proposition in itself. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible." There is profound mystery, wonder and awe in the universe. There are befuddling questions such as why are the laws of that govern the universe the way they are? Why do the fundamental constants of physics have the peculiar values they have? Dawkins draws out the stark contrasts between the scientific, - evidence based - world view and the religious - faith based - world view. He concedes that there may be questions which science in principle cannot answer but he lands firmly against the proposition that the scientific world view IS in itself some sort of religious world view.

The whole series is available in mp3 format on Dawkins's website which is a worthwhile place to visit for anyone interested in evolution, reason, atheism etc. There is also a seminar with Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Keith DeRose as a follow up to the lectures.

Happy listening!


mike said...

Transmogrified, it was great to read your posts. I liked your way of articulating thoughts and more importantly the practice of backing them up with solid facts & references whereever required. It gives a sense that you have studied the subject matter quite thoroughly.

But I have a bit different view on your comments on religion, Probably you are right in pointing out that we have to trace back the tree of religion down to its root to understand it better, but I don't believe that pure faith/religion is behind the kind of voilence going on in the current world.
Somewhere the politics to achieve Power is mixed up with religion. Religious extremism is a name given to it by the people in power to mislead people at large. If you look for its roots Politics & Power are solely responsible for the crisis in middle east and any where else.

First of all we need to clearly draw the line between religion & politics.

I dont think religion is that bad phenomenon invented by humans.

Transmogrifier said...

Mike, thank you for your comment.

I agree that religious extremists are hungry for political power. But it does not stop there. There is a stark difference between a secular minded person seeking political power and a religious zealot who seeks political power (through either violent or non-violent means). The religious zealots want to use their power to impose their religious beliefs and practices on the world once they achieve power. They want the world to conform to the ideas that 'their religion' professes.

The Taliban is a classic example. There are many instances in the world where political power was achieved by armed revolt/struggle (like in the USA in 1776) but secular/ democratic institutions were established by the victors. However when religious zealots like Taliban came to power they imposed their own brand of religion on the entire population (irregardless of whether the people subscribed to their religious ideas or not!).

Another example is the religious conservatives here in the USA who want to teach creationism in public schools. Why creationism? Why only the story from the book of Genesis? Why not teach the Hindu creation myths or the Nordic creation myths? Religious extremists are power hungry but they also want to impose their own religious ideas on the entire population.

Therein lies the difference. I have no problem with faith/religion as long as it is personal. If one's faith helps one to become a better person or guides one's life in a better direction, I'd say "to each his own". If some people want to teach their children that earth is only 6000 odd years old and there were dinosaurs on Noah's ark... go ahead and teach it to YOUR OWN children. But don't impose your religious ideas on me! I really doubt they will agree to that.

Now, one would ask, what's wrong with religious ideas? After all, we all try to convince others about something or the other. We try to convince people about our views on conservation, public policy, foreign policy etc. Why only make an exception for religious ideas. I guess this comment space is too small for that. I will think more about it and expand it into another post perhaps.

YZ said...

looks like you are Bostonian!...
spotted "irregardless" in your comment :)

godfusion said...

I dont know if this makes any sense to you, but let me ask -

If you get the gift called LIFE again and this time you have a choice to live in a world driven by evolution OR a world driven by creative intelligence, which one would you choose and why?

Transmogrifier said...

YZ and godfusion, thank you for your comments. Apologies for delayed replies.

@YZ: Yes I am

@godfusion: I am not a big fan of hyphothetical questions like this. I guess my answer to your question depends on what kind of a world the "creative intelligence" would create. For now, I am happy to say that I would like to be born in an evolved world. I believe we live in just such a world and seem to like it very much. So why not try it again?

But I would like to ask you a more important question: IF there is a creative intelligence that can create and drive a universe, what kind of universe would IT create? Will it look like the one in which we live or will it look different?

aykmeoc said...

What do you think about anthropic principle?

Anonymous said...

@godfusion's comment is not quite hypothetical, you are kind of living into that kind of world. And the god in this world is Government, especially if you are in the US. Our entire life depends upon the government, if they want they have the ability to monitor your life without your knowledge. In few more years government might have powers that you can compare to the GOD that we imagine today. here is the latest advancement towards becoming GOD -- "Researchers at Northwestern University in the U.S. have taken a step forward in monitoring brainwave responses to get into the mind's of terrorists and reveal specific details about attacks they may be planning." Minority Report is going to be real some day.