The Responsibility Of Religious Leaders For The Ignorance Of Religious Laypeople

A teaser excerpt from Richard Dawkins’s upcoming defense of evolution is up online. His boldest claim—evolution deniers are as bad as Holocaust deniers.

This book is necessary. I shall be using the name “historydeniers” for those people who deny evolution: who believe the world’s age is measured in thousands of years rather than thousands of millions of years, and who believe humans walked with dinosaurs.To repeat, they constitute more than 40 per cent of the American population. The equivalent figure is higher in some countries, lower in others, but 40 per cent is a good average and I shall from time to time refer to the history-deniers as the “40percenters”.

To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed! If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely “symbolic” meaning, perhaps something to do with “original sin”, or the virtues of innocence. They may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally. But do their congregations know that? How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically? Is it really so easy for an uneducated churchgoer to guess? In all too many cases the answer is clearly no, and anybody could be forgiven for feeling confused.

Think about it, Bishop. Be careful, Vicar. You are playing with dynamite, fooling around with a misunderstanding that’s waiting to happen — one might even say almost bound to happen if not forestalled. Shouldn’t you take greater care, when speaking in public, to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay? Lest ye fall into condemnation, shouldn’t you be going out of your way to counter that already extremely widespread popular misunderstanding and lend active and enthusiastic support to scientists and science teachers? The history-deniers themselves are among those who I am trying to reach. But, perhaps more importantly, I aspire to arm those who are not history-deniers but know some — perhaps members of their own family or church — and find themselves inadequately prepared to argue the case.

Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eye witnesses to the Holocaust. It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips . . . continue the list as long as desired. That didn’t have to be true. It is not self-evidently, tautologically, obviously true, and there was a time when most people, even educated people, thought it wasn’t. It didn’t have to be true, but it is. We know this because a rising flood of evidence supports it. Evolution is a fact, and [my] book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.

I couldn’t agree more with his chiding of the Christian leaders and intellectuals who profess to believe in evolution and support scientific thinking but do not vigorously enough clean up their religious traditions of their irrational habits of thinking.  In fact, this has been going on for centuries with the advanced, sophisticated philosophical accounts of theological ideas assuaging the intelligent believers’ intellectual consciences while they nonetheless perpetuated institutions that only incubated superstitions and other irrationalisms.

Religion survives on the bait and switch.  The more it demythologizes and stands only on its most chastened and naked but philosophically plausible formulations, the less emotional, symbolic, irrationalistic, mythic, ritualistic power it has over the average mind.  And that’s why those crude, dangerous, and subrational features of religion are the religion’s critics’ explicit targets.  Those authoritarian and emotionally manipulative dimensions of religious traditions are the parts that dangerously subvert human reason and give institutions power to exploit everything naturally irrational about the ways we all too humanly think.

For my extensive debate on this topic with my fellow graduate student, Shane, please complete reading this series of posts if you have not already:

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellecuals 1

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 2

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 3

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 4

On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices (5)

How Faith Is Not Like Other (Revisable) Reflexive Assumptions (6)

Against Faith and In Defense of Naturalism and Induction (7)

Shane’s Last Word

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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