2001 : WHAT NOW?

timothy_taylor's picture
Jan Eisner Professor of Archaeology, Comenius University in Bratislava; Author, The Artificial Ape
Reader in Archaeology at the University of Bradford

When Martin Heidegger famously observed that 'science does not think' he was referring (in part) to the fact that it does not, of itself, supply a system of values. Thus the perversion of science known as Lysenkoism occurred (also in part) because the USSR, in becoming as wholly atheistical as Richard Dawkins, lost the touchstones of ethics, truth, and humility. By willfully misconstruing the insights of Darwin, the 'agrobiological' experiments of T.D.Lysenko, director of the Soviet Academy's Institute of Genetics, directly led to the deaths of millions in famines. It is not just religious fanatics, however defined, that commit atrocity. It was bad science, of course, but even good science is no more than a powerful way of finding things out. In the words of Dr Johnson "Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."

In appearing to blame the recent attacks in the USA on the existence of religion in general, Dawkins's scientism comes close to fundamentalism itself. His implication that all religion is concerned with ultimate ends is wrong, as is his assertion that nothing would be lost were Islam, Christianity and Judaism to be superseded by science as a form of life. At the same time as the founder of Sufism in Islam, Rabi'a al-Adawiyya (A.D. 717-801), was concluding that an authentic life was incompatible with either acting out of hope of reward or, equally, fear of punishment (she thought that to aim for Paradise would not only lack humility but would be an affirmation of something that was not God, and thus fundamentally false), other Arabic scholars were keeping the flame of Aristotle alive and creating the basis of modern university science. This is Dawkins's own scholarly and civilizational inheritance – one that, along with Bach's Passions and Kant's Critique of Judgment, is grounded in a profound religious sensibility. 

Obviously, like all things human, religion can go as badly wrong as science. bin Laden is religion's Lysenko. To extrapolate from his fanaticism that the complete demise of three world religions would be no loss, as Dawkins does, is curious. Perhaps it is his evangelical atheism that helps Richard Dawkins come to terms with the shock and disappointment all sane people feel at present. All I can say is that the religious enriches my life, so I for one would lose out in the brave new world he envisages, as would many who are at this moment finding that it is the church, mosque, synagogue or temple that provides solace and hope for continuing their lives beyond grief in the face of their particularly traumatic bereavements. From a prehistorian's perspective, it seems that our species has evolved aptitudes and sensitivities for both science and religion over many tens of thousands of years. Although they have often been antagonized in the history of civilizations, both play central, long-term roles in maintaining and developing our humanity. Ultimately, in my opinion, neither can be any good in the complete absence of the other.