Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dealing with religion in a respectful manner

Dan Dennett, in his TED talk, shows us how to deal with religion in a respectful manner. He does this by comparing it to a cow:

Rick Warren had been invited to the TED (Technology, Education, Design) conference and Warren gave this talk: Rick Warren: Living a life of purpose. Another link.

Dan Dennett gave the above talk as a response to Warren. However, Dennett doesn't really address Warren's talk but rather he addresses the subject of religion and Rick Warren's book, "The Purpose Driven Life." In many ways that book, as far as I can tell from Dennett's use of quotes, seems to betray the same abysmal ignorance of evolution I wrote about in my previous post about Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort.

Note how Dennett first introduces us to his own understanding of religion as a powerful set of social institutions that are subject to natural selection, like the cow, and that have, also like the cow, been influenced by human tinkering. He then compliments Rick Warren for his tinkering with religion. Dennett calls it a "brilliant book," and a redesign of traditional religion.

At no point does Dennett call Warren ignorant, but that charge is still heavily implied. Dennett does it by calling Intelligent Design a fraud and then pointing out that Warren endorses Intelligent Design, Warren perhaps even believes in Noah's flood and creationism. I also doubt whether Warren thinks he is "redesigning" Christianity, but I'm pretty sure the facts will bare out Dennett's view. Religion, when you focus on metaphors and symbolic meaning as Warren did in his talk, teaches whatever a believer wants to be believe. It just depends on how the believer cherry picks it.

Also note how it is only towards the end of his talk, after Dennett has explained his view of religion and then heaped on the compliments, that Dennett gets into what he sees as flaws in the book. He starts by merely saying, "I have some problems with the book... I don't think some of the bits are true." These problems then turn out to be monsterously significant no matter how much Dennett down plays them. Warren's book discourages scientific thinking, it argues against evolution and for intelligent design and then the book uses arguments like "don't argue with the devil, he's better at it than you," thus discouraging reason itself.

I can't say if what Dennett did was fair to Warren's book, I haven't read it, perhaps the quotes are taken out of context? I also wonder if Warren would object Dennett's ideas about teaching the "facts" of every religion to our children. If Christianity is true it should be able to stand on it’s own two feet when compared with other religions. I suspect Warren thinks he has studied other religions enough, but I'll bet it was a heavily spun "Christian" education in the "facts" of other religions that Warren got. I expect him to be as ignorant of other religions as he is ignorant of the theory of evolution.

Dennett doesn't have to explain much about the problems he sees in Warren's book because the TED audience is already clued in. This isn't the first time Dennett has spoke at TED. It was, I think, Rick Warren's first time at TED, and maybe his last. I've only found this one 2006 TEDtalk by Warren and I'm not sure he will return for another.

The heart of Warren’s message, which is that you can find purpose (and meaning and significance) in helping people, was not harmed by Dennett's talk, in fact, Dennett commended Warren for that part. Yet, if you think about the implications of what Dennett has said in the past, and hinted at here by reminding us of viral memes and the lancet fluke, certain aspects of Warren's religion still have that "fluke-like" quality of hijacking another organism for the benefit of the fluke.

When Dennett first talked about viral memes and lancet flukes the most comparable religious phenomena at the top of everyone's mind were the Islamic, Jihadist hijackers who crashed planes into the twin towers on 9/11. Just like the ant after its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke, the Jihadists did something suicidal for the benefit of another "organism," if we can think of a religion as a kind of cultural super-organism.

However the ant that climbs a blade of grass and waits to get eaten does so in order to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or cow in order to complete the reproductive cycle of the parasite. But what good did the Jihadists do for their religion? Maybe when such suicidal and combative behavior helped spread the religion it did some good, but it is more likely a maladaptive behavior now. The net result was the Taliban will likely be destroyed and that much damage has been done to Islam's reputation.

Dennett actually thinks that religion often serves a useful social and cultural function by bringing out just the kind of behaviors that Rick Warren wanted to preach on. Religion survived and spread because it was, at least at one time, an aid to survival. This is religion as a product of evolutionary psychology, based on aspects of human nature favored by natural selection over many thousands of years.

Religious people were favored by natural selection, and let's not forget artificial selection since heretics could get burned, because the religious tended to survive better. Religion is not so much parasitic, but rather symbiotic, conferring advantages on those who are infected. Recall how Dennett ended his earlier talk about the ant and the lancet fluke:

And, as with germs, the trick is not to try to annihilate them. You will never annihilate the germs. What you can do, however, is foster public health measures, and the like, that will encourage the evolution of avirulence. That will encourage the spread of relatively benign mutations of the most toxic varieties.

Dennett seems to consider Warren one of the more benign mutations of religion and not the most toxic type. In some respects I think he's right. Warren seems to be the up and coming new voice for the evangelical movement in politics and so far he isn't as bad as the old guard were, by that I mean people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. After seeing that both Obama and McCain showed at Warren's Saddleback church for what was essentially the first presidential debate and how friendly Warren got with each candidate I'm pretty sure Warren will become as much, if not more so, a fixture in future politics as Falwell and Robertson ever were. It looks like for those who care about politics we're going to have to start watching this guy carefully.

Here is Rick Warren's TEDtalk:

Working backward through Warren's talk, and not being as gracious and polite as Dan Dennett, I note how at the end Warren seems to shift away from the standard Christianity I was raised with. I think it's Warren's version that is more unbiblical than the version I rejected. In what verse of scripture did Jesus teach any of what Rick Warren was telling the people at TED? Warren says things like, "God smiles when you be you," and, "God gets pleasure watching you be you." (But, of course, it's not about you.) Did anyone ever ask, "is God smiling down on Dan Dennett when Dan is being the ultra atheistic Dan Dennet?" Did God wire Dan Dennett to be an atheistic philosopher?

When the ancients were building the Tower of Babel to "make the world a better place," was God smiling down on them and thinking how happy he was about that tower? If he was, then why destroy the tower and confuse their languages? Was God smiling down on the people he destroyed with a world-wide flood? The God of the Bible seems very unhappy with people just being people and doing things like worshiping golden calves or preaching the wrong gospel. Is he smiling down at all the people he condemns to hell because they were being what they were wired to be?

The symbolism of "what's in your hand" seems to be the kind of loose metaphoric, symbolic thinking that allows a believer to find whatever they want to be believe in the Bible. Then you can more easily cherry pick it and stretch it into all sorts of new shapes and meanings.

And is it about trying to be good, or is it about actually being good? I ask because I suspect that people like Tomás de Torquemada, the first Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition was trying to do good. President Bush was probably trying to do good when he authorized unlawful interrogation methods. If you think you can do good without spending a lot of time learning about how the world and people really work you're deeply misguided.

Then there were the odd comments like "I never met a pastor in it for the money." Well, I guess that Rick Warren never met Peter Popoff, Robert Tilton or Benny Hinn (which is actually quite probable since Warren isn't yet a televangelist or Republican and so he isn't hanging with that crowd). However, I wonder if when Rick Warren does met the other rich preachers whether he'd be able to tell if they are in it for the money. Then there was that old and moldy line, "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist" (even Kirk Cameron used that line) and even a hint at Pascal's Wager, "Everybody is betting their life on something."

As far as the whole concept of a "purpose driven" life goes, it strikes me that the idea of some singular purpose is flawed from the get go. Human beings have more than one purpose, and none of them require any God or religion. Today I'm writing this blog post and even this act serves multiple purposes. On one level I'm sharing information in the hopes of educating others, on another level I'm doing this for myself, educating myself about how the world and people work, on another level I'm trying to get noticed by lots of people because I want to write professionally, for money. I don't have to succeed in each purpose or goal to gain something that way.

Perhaps what Warren is really talking about is some supposed "cosmic purpose" for human life. However, whatever Warren means, this is obviously where the "brain hijacking" that Dennett's metaphor describes takes place. This is where, because it's not about you, your goals are subverted into achieving the goals of the social organism, the religion.

When Warren gives a million dollars to the poor, the AIDS victims, whatever, those people will remember it was also his religion which he claims instructed him to do it. That religion will then be deemed valuable to the person helped. Look around at the hospitals, the soup kitchens, asylums etc.. You will see many are Baptist Hospitals, Methodist Hospitals, Jewish Hospitals, Catholic Hospitals, etc., etc. "Where are the Atheist's hospitals?" many ask. There are rebuttals to that loaded question, but there is also a grain of truth to it. Religions often actively promote their good works loudly, they've been doing that since before Christianity existed. In ancient Egypt we find they left, in their tombs, resumes of a sort to provide their gods with information about the good deeds of the dead. They give us information on what the ideal for ethical values was perceived to be, even if this ideal was not always achieved. Protecting the weak, giving bread to the hungry, respecting parents, etc., all the supposed good Jesus would have preached was believed to be good by the Egyptians too, and it was also done for the gods sakes.

In ancient cultures, religion and medicine and charity were more heavily linked. The earliest known institutions that attempted to provide health care were Egyptian temples. Greek temples dedicated to the healer-god Asclepius might admit the sick, who would wait for guidance from the god in a dream. The Romans adopted this system also.

Part of what we have here is an image issue, or a propaganda issue, who puts out the humanitarian efforts? Do they come more from religious faith? Is it one of the positive fruits of a good religion? It may not convince you to believe in Christianity to know that Rick Warren gives 90 percent of his money to charity, but it may motivate you to, as Dan Dennett has said before, believe in belief.

It's not just the minds of believers that are hijacked, if you pay taxes and you're an atheist, then your money is hijacked too by things like the faith-based initiative program. These programs funnel federal tax dollars to local religious groups to help them provide services to the poor, to addicted persons and to others in need of support and religion gets the credit even though you, a non-believer, helped pay for it.

In spite of the religious label, most religious hospitals are more public than most people realize. They get revenue from Medicare, Medicaid, county appropriations, investments, and only a small part from charitable contributions that are not necessarily religious. While the 90 percent of Warren's book sales given to charities will, I imagine, do much good it is in the end a drop in the bucket compared to all the charity that goes down in this world and I don't think Warren will become another Norman Borlaug.

It's not too hard to name two atheists who have both given more than Rick Warren; Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Warren Buffet is the world’s second richest man and he gave $31 billion (not million) to Bill Gates' "Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation." However, I don't think either of them is giving 90 percent... maybe, what else can you do with tens of billions of dollars? Even if Gates and Buffet did give more than 90 percent they probably aren't living like Rick Warren, driving an old car, not taking a salary and such.

The point of all that is that Rick Warren's charity isn't really that impressive to me, and neither is the history of religion as a charitable institution nor Rick Warren's idea about purpose, meaning and significance being found in what we can do for others.

What does interest me, what even impresses me, is how Rick Warren has used his book and life style to become the newest big voice in evangelical politics. Even Dan Dennett is trying to be nice to the guy. While he isn't endorsing any candidates yet (as far as I can tell) he is shaping the opinions of both in ways I don't like. But I'll say more about that in a later post.

Questions to think about in the meantime are how Rick Warren tries to understand the nature of the world in which we are living. Does he see it as a world of miracle, magic and divine intervention, not a world of order, natural law and precise mathematical formulas that will enable us to predict with a degree of accuracy the evolutionary pathways of AIDS, poverty and political decisions? He may know that we can send spacecraft to the moon and to the planets because we know the laws by which such things as motion and gravity operate, but does he know that we also have insight into the problems we all want to solve?

Will Rick Warren carry forward the same misunderstandings and mistakes that have led to things like abstinence-only sex education and suppressing information about birth control. Will he, just like the Christian right of yesterday, take life as an absolute regardless of the consequences. Regardless of the life of the mother? Regardless of the quality of life Terry Schiavo did not have?

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