19.12.06

The Trouble with Rod Liddle

I watched Rod Liddle's The Trouble with Atheism last night. It makes me sorry that I missed Richard Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? as this show was clearly intended as a response to it. I caught the end of the first part of Root where, after a series of encounters with religious nutjobs, Dawkins explained he was going to speak to a more moderate religious voice: a Jewish Israeli who had converted to Islam, and who Dawkins expected to have a sensible insider's view of religious conflict. Instead, Dawkins found himself sitting across a table from the most memorable lunatic of that year in television, a man who responded to one of Dawkins' questions with one of his own: "Why don't you [in the west] sort out your women?"

Liddle's show was an attempt to show that faith is not a problem and that disbelief can be as dogmatic and dangerous as the religions it opposes. I think that Liddle's attempts in this regard can be left as they are. "Atheism is a peculiar thing," Liddle told us early on, "it's a belief in a negative." No, it's just not believing in any gods. It's not peculiar: it's the way you're born. What I really want to tackle here is the reason that I watched the show in the first place, Liddle's rather embarrassing argument against 'Darwinism'.

Thankfully, Liddle, while ignorant, is clearly not stupid. He didn't take a creationist stance at all, instead an eminently sensible (but shamefully ignorant) scientific view of things. Darwin's The Origin of Species is atheism's 'sacred text' Liddle told us. After explaining how Darwin's fantastic intuitive leap described the natural process that shapes the variety of life on Earth, Riddle then claimed that 'Darwinism' is the keystone of atheism - atheists using it as dogma rather than science.

This would come as a surprise to population geneticist George Price. An atheist, Price was one of the main scientists responsible for our understanding of the evolution of altruism. Price was so astounded to see that goodness arose from natural law that it convinced him of the existence of God and he became a devout Christian. It also comes as a surprise to me. I lost my shred of religion while reading Carl Sagan muse about why we felt the need to invent supernatural and mystical ideas with no evidence to support them when such beautiful natural phenomena exist right in front of us.

So why does Liddle assert that Darwinism is such a big part of atheism? The obvious answer is that Darwin showed how natural law could lead to the beauty of the world, without recourse to a creator. This much, I'll agree, is correct. But, before Darwin came along, the lack of evidence for natural processes wasn't evidence for gods. And if we take Price's tack, evidence for natural processes isn't evidence against gods either. Liddle went further, asserting that Darwinism is the 'only' such natural law, and therefore is of fundamental importance to atheism. But what about continental drift? It explains how breathtaking mountain ranges were created by natural processes. Does that mean that before we had evidence for continental drift, that was evidence that Thor chiselled out the Himalayas with his hammer? And does it mean that continental drift is now an important part of atheism?

Liddle also asserted that atheists are taking Darwinism too far. He certainly got a few talking heads - philosophers and historians - to say that, yes, Darwinism is now being applied to things where it has no relevance. What exactly? Liddle gave us only one example: that Darwinism is being used to explain the existence of religions. Specifically, that religions are 'memes': viral ideas that propagate by a kind of 'survival of the catchiest'. Liddle rebutted this by speaking to a Christian immunologist who thought it was preposterous that religions were like 'viruses that infect you in your sleep'. While he was clearly being humorous here, it isn't much of an argument. If Liddle wanted to show that religion isn't viral he should perhaps have shown us how people choose religions by weighing up their pros and cons, rather than just being inculcated with the same one as their parents or culture. I wonder why he didn't? More seriously, he could have looked at the world's main religions and seen which one's have viral characteristics, for example which ones say that you'll go to Hell if you don't believe in them. I don't know, perhaps those ones are actually in the minority. I certainly didn't find out from Liddle.

Most embarrassing was Liddle's attempt to argue that Darwinism is dogma. It's '147 years old', Liddle tells us, implying that it hasn't changed in all that time. He failed to show us images of biologists in labs and jungles looking at nature, then consulting the Origin of Species and going, "Ah yes! It's really all in here!" Again, I wonder why.

It was when Liddle claimed that 'many scientists' believe that there are holes in Darwinism that I expected him to visit the Discovery Institute or something similar. Imagine my surprise when he spoke to an evolutionary biologist, and I realised that he was quite right. The problem is that he was also enormously ignorant. The biologist (who Liddle keenly told us was 'agnostic') argues that while Darwin explained how adaptions propagate, there is another (natural, genetic) explanation for where the adaptions come from. As near as I could tell, Liddle has been confused by one of the genuine controversies about evolution - the respective importance of natural selection and genetic drift. This scientist clearly felt that the latter was the more important - but did not dispute the fact of the former.

Liddle took the information that Darwin doesn't have the whole story as evidence of atheist dogma. Darwin will eventually be 'superseded' by a better understanding of evolution, Riddle asserts, as is the nifty way of science - thus flying in the face of atheists. And therein lies the spectacular ignorance - an ignorance whose perspective I've been writing from since the third paragraph. Liddle must be living in a cave, or have very, very old biology textbooks. 'Darwinism' has already been superseded by better science. In fact, our understanding of evolution is now properly called Neo-Darwinian evolution.

Lets go back to Dawkins. Dawkins acquitted himself very well in the show, but strangely didn't feature at all during Liddle's attack on Darwinism. Dawkins, when writing on evolution (he is an evolutionary biologist, lest you forget), asserts that, from the standpoint of evolution, all that matters are genes*. But hang on: Darwinism is 147 years old… and we've only known about genes for half a century or so! What's going on? Time travel? Perhaps Darwin wrote about genes, but no-one noticed it until recently? Or is Dawkins an anti-Darwinist himself? The fact is, Darwin didn't write about genes, because he didn't know about them. There were also things that he got wrong, and there are some aspects of evolution that Darwin proposed which are now under debate (such as sexual selection). The Origin of Species is not the holy book that Liddle would like us to believe. It's a scientific book, and as such has been tested, altered and expanded upon - by both atheist scientists and scientists of many different religions (although most scientists are atheists). No religion does this with their 'sacred text'.

To summarise:

Liddle says that Darwinism is a fundamental tenet of atheism.
-This is false. The only tenet of atheism is not believing in any gods.

Liddle implies that Darwinism is dogma.
-This is false. We have a much better and considerably different understanding of evolution than Darwin did.

Liddle says that Darwinism will be superseded by better science.
-This is sort of true and sort of false. It has already been superseded by better science.

What exactly was the point of that? I really don't understand what Liddle thought that this would achieve. I half believe that Liddle originally intended to launch a creationist assault on evolution, realised how stupid that would be and then tried to create a more nuanced, (mostly) scientific attack on 'Darwinism'. On the plus side, he may have given some religious crazies a mildly better understanding of biology. I can only hope that someone does the same for him.

*This is of course from the standpoint of evolution. From the standpoint of, say, everyday life, genes aren't important at all, instead things like kindness, sense of humour and taste in movies are what matters. In the same vein, from the standpoint of shampoo what matters is whether you're greasy, dry or frizzy, but this in no way implies that we should segregate people by their hair-type or something. More on this in my next post.

11 comments:

Geosomin said...

Interesting.
This is a point of endless debate with me, my husband coworkers and friends. Being a researcher I'm often questioned by my family and religious friends about what I believe and why. When I honestly say I'm not sure, they rant on about Darwinism and athiesm and their being a religion. I disagree. To me it is a theory, in the same way a religion is. When you theorise a truth, you place faith in it. Unless you can empirically prove it is true, you are believing it is. There are many theories from all sides and I'd rather learn all I can about all of them and perhaps choose one eventually, but I don't really think (believe?) you need to.
The best example I heard recently was from a student we had from India - there is an old folk legend there that all the world's theories and religions are like 6 blind men trying to identify an elephant by touch and smell, when they each only get to touch one part of it and they've never seen or heard of an elephant before. What they see and feel they interpret the best they can with whatever knowledge and background that they have, but it still isn't the big picture, and not entirely accurate when describing the whole animal. And if they would all just interact and learn from each other they might begin to understand what they have, but even then not comprehend what the heck is going on.
I am constantly amazed at the utter complexity of life and the more I research and dive in to the chemical and bioogical pathways of cancer and disease formation I am stunned. But yet, not entirely sure what I think. I'm just trying to learn all I can and make sure I appreciate the beauty of nature. I've always been bothered by books/people/theories that look at different religions and theories form a specific viewpoint. You can't do a biased study and be accurate...it's one of the first basic precepts of research. And yet...where am I going with this? Don't know. Should probably stop and get to work.
I was just reading while having my morning coffee and I'm just delighted to know that there are intelligent people out there thinking, reading and debating.
Restores my faith in the goodness of people and hope that things will be better in the work in the next year.
Have a good day.

Pacian said...

I pretty much agree with you, except for here:

To me it is a theory, in the same way a religion is. When you theorise a truth, you place faith in it. Unless you can empirically prove it is true, you are believing it is.

I may write about this at greater length at some point, but I don't think that we should put faith in anything. We have to put faith in the existence of a world outside of our own heads to function as human beings, but beyond that I think we should demand evidence for everything. We also have to accept that we can't prove anything. All of our ideas and understandings must remain uncertain to some extent, and we must be ready to reasses things as soon as new evidence is discovered.

Our scientific understanding of the world, while incomplete and, in ways that we do not yet know, incorrect, is our best match to reality because it is constantly tested against reality and amended as necessary. Religions frequently present themselves to us as absolute truths which we must have faith in without evidence, and which we mere mortals cannot change, even when they are incorrect or self-contradictory. This of course would be irrelevant if there was actually evidence to support a religion, but there is not. In the face of this I 'believe' in the world we have scientific evidence for and nothing more. Perhaps it is just a belief, but I think that it is the most sensible one.

Disillusioned kid said...

"I don't think that we should put faith in anything. We have to put faith in the existence of a world outside of our own heads to function as human beings, but beyond that I think we should demand evidence for everything."

I think we need to be wary of overstating this point. I happen to believe in evolution based on the writings of people who have spent their lives studying such matters. I haven't done massive amounts of research myself (beyond Dawkins' River to Eden).

On a day to day basis, we have to accept hundreds of things with minimal or non-existent evidence, because we simply don't have time to look into matters more thoroughly.

More generally Liddle's programme seemed somewhat strange to me, although I missed much of it. Unlike Dawkins' own effort, Liddle had at least made a point of talking to people who weren't entirely crazy, but his ultimate assertions about "human nature" struck me as implicitly conservative.

Pacian said...

I think we need to be wary of overstating this point.

I'm not saying that before I cross a bridge I need to see it safety-tested before my very eyes, but I do want to live in a society where it will be properly safety-tested by suitably knowledgable and sceptical people at reasonable intervals.

I think the relation of expertise to scepticism and science is an important and complicated one. Sagan wrote about it in a chapter in Demon Haunted World. Ultimately we have to resort to experts when looking into unfamiliar knowledge, but we must still look for evidence that they are reliable and that the knowledge they present us with has been suitably tested. We cannot take what they say 'on faith'.

On a day to day basis, we have to accept hundreds of things with minimal or non-existent evidence, because we simply don't have time to look into matters more thoroughly.

Obviously, this would be impractical, but I still think that it would be ideal, merely because a large proportion of the things that we accept on a day-to-day basis are incorrect.

Michelle said...

I think one of the problems here is religion itself. Organized religion and faith in a higher being are two entirely different animals, IMO. I could go on and on about the dysfunction of the church and its spokemen, but I'll spare you...

You said, "why we felt the need to invent supernatural and mystical ideas with no evidence to support them when such beautiful natural phenomena exist right in front of us."

When we see such wonderful things, we feel awe. Perhaps that very feeling of awe is part of God. I believe that God is so big that our minds cannot even begin to comprehend exactly what is even going on. It is the beautiful things in the world that demand that I believe in God....that, and other experiences that have been, for lack of a better word, mystical.

I wish I had the eloquence to be a better apologist. I never try to convert anyone, and certainly don't want to insinuate that I do not respect the beliefs of others, but I still hope for everyone to be open to the experience of God, which I believe is real. "Seek and ye shall find." I believe that is true. And no one is going to seek if they don't believe there is anything to be found, and so therein lies the dilemma.

Your post provided an interesting perspective, and made me wish once again that the fanatics would just shut their mouths.

Hopefully, you don't consider me one. ;-)

Pacian said...

I still hope for everyone to be open to the experience of God, which I believe is real.

And you're welcome to hold that opinion, although I clearly hold a different one on the matter. :-)

Although, I should add, my post is not intended to be primarily about atheism, but rather about Liddle's confusion over 'Darwinism'.

Hopefully, you don't consider me one. ;-)

Don't be silly. :-P

zhoen said...

Pacian,

Bravo. I have no respect for religion, only for those who feel the need to believe in them. And that's just because they are human, and I am trying so hard to be compassionate. And most can no more help it than those who can't stop drinking. Or itching.

I keep feeling that those who believe that they have a reward in some world to come are, at heart, greedy. All this glorious life all around, they get a ride, and spend it trying to figure out how to make it go on forever, make it better, get more. Or numb themselves to it as they whirl through life, because it's scary, or they didn't get the right colored hippo to ride on.

The religious nitpicking at scientists/athesists for not having all the details worked out, not knowing beyond all argument, is swallowing camels while straining at gnats.

Pacian said...

I didn't get any hippo to ride on.

Floraine Kay said...

I don't understand people who feel the need to attack atheism. Faith and reason have nothing to with each other and most people have little bits of both, or in my case, usually neither. When I am sitting with Henry, hoping he will get his energy back, which he seems to be, I may be prayerful. There's a scientist named Velakovsky I think who tries to show how the Bible and evolution are related -- and how things like the parting of the Red Sea could be caused by planerary movement.
He's fascinating and silly at the same time.
When Henry goes to jump and he is feeling weak, he closes his eyes and then goes for it. That's pretty much where I am. I'll take any help from any gods or godesses our there. But, that doesn't change or effect evolution or any science. It's just another element -- and the supernatural and the natural need not be evaluated in the same way ever.

T Doyle said...

Faith is not a thought, or a belief in any mystical sense, but a realization. How this realization is interpreted by the conceptual mind is very important, but secondary.

Please don't confuse religion and mysticism and throw out the baby with the bath- something secularists and atheists do with little awareness, usually.

Yes, atheism is a position of faith- but a heady, artificial kind of faith that is far, far, from a direct realization of Being, which can only happen directly through the heart, not the head!!!

Pacian said...

Please don't confuse religion and mysticism and throw out the baby with the bath

I don't object to religion per se, but to dogmatism and believing in things for no good reason. If you got rid of those parts of religion, I imagine that it might be a strong force for positive change. I guess that counts as throwing out the baby and keeping the bath.

Yes, atheism is a position of faith-

How so? If I saw convincing evidence for the existence of a god, I'd believe in him/her/it. Faith is believing without evidence.

a heady, artificial kind of faith that is far, far, from a direct realization of Being

Okay. o_O

which can only happen directly through the heart, not the head!!!

I listen to my heart all the time. It says things like, "Be nice to people!" and "I like kitties!" But when I ask it about the nature of the Universe, it just says, "Hey, don't ask me! I'm in your chest! If you want to know what the Universe is like, you'll just have to take a look at it."