Sir Elton John would like to “ban religion completely” because it stirs up “hatred toward gay people.” Like so many giants of the entertainment industry, Elton John probably does not hate religion per se but only Christianity. Christophobia is the religion of Hollywood. Ask Barbra Streisand; ask the top brass at Disney or DreamWorks.
The hatred of Christ takes many forms, and, since at least the 16th century, one of the most influential has been science or, more properly (since many great scientists have been believers), scientism, the ideology that claims to be able to explain all things human and superhuman by its formulas and equations. In the early days, promoters of scientism had to be cautious to avoid the trouble that Galileo’s big mouth landed him in. Descartes was so successful at disguising his project that he is still treated by the Catholic Encyclopedia as a sincere if capricious Catholic.
With the advent of Darwinism, however, the promoters of Christophobia began to take the gloves off. Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, in making claims about evolutionary theory that his master was reluctant to make, helped to inaugurate the two great obscurantisms of our time: fundamentalism and scientism. Of the former, it is enough to say that, at their worst, those who insist on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament have not only abjured truth but rejected fundamental Christian tenets. Of the latter, I can already hear the objections: Surely, you don’t mean to accuse scientists of obscurantism. After all, obscurantists are those who oppose the progress of knowledge, and science is the form of knowledge that has made the most progress in modern times.
Both statements are true, but, when famous scientists, such as James Watson and Francis Crick, step outside the boundaries of their discipline, they are often as ignorant as Elton John whining about “organized religion” and as dishonest and obscurantist as Pat Robertson talking about the fossil record.
I used to think that Carl Sagan had reached a plateau of stupidity to which no respectable scientist could hope to ascend. Sagan ridiculed the whole idea of God but insisted that there were extraterrestrials out there somewhere, beings that were powerful, intelligent, and benevolent. They had never contacted us simply because, at our stage of development, we were unworthy to receive them under our roof. Millions of dollars of sucker money were spent on efforts to persuade the ETIs to call us some time. Sagan’s popular TV show, Cosmos, was an often amusing farrago of juvenile impudence and textbook disinformation. My favorite passage was his discussion of Hypatia, the Alexandrian Neoplatonist killed by a Christian mob. The learned Sagan filched his text from an encyclopedia.
Since Sagan’s death, a new generation of obscurantists has risen to do battle against “the infamy.” Not content with Sagan’s pseudorationalist materialism, Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg have taken up the Elton John argument—that religious people are nasty beyond belief—and, in addition, they are naive enough to believe that they can (more or less) disprove the existence of God or at least prove the absurdity of theological arguments in favor of such a Being. Dawkins is simply a more brazen version of Huxley, a clever popularizer whose early writings on sociobiology contain patches of undoubted wit. However, as soon as he tries to step outside the sacred circle of evolutionary theory and enters the real world of historical man, he trips on the edge of the circle.
Well, an honest scientist might say, Dawkins was always a bit too clever, always willing to run ahead of the evidence. Real scientists are more careful.
Real scientists like, presumably, Steven Weinberg. Weinberg, who holds a named chair at the University of Texas at Austin, received the Nobel Prize in Physics (1979), the National Medal of Science (1991), and the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society (2004), which says he is—and here I am quoting from Professor Weinberg’s far-from-humble website—“considered by many to be the preeminent theoretical physicist alive in the world today.”
Physics is not a field for dummies, and, if science, as its teachers so often proclaim, teaches us how to pursue truth, Steven Weinberg ought to be able to undertake a rational critique of Christianity. A glance at some of his arguments (in, for example, Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries), however, reveals the same mixture of ignorance and conceit that has typified science’s attack on religion.
To be fair, Weinberg’s critiques of “Intelligent Design Theory” are quite telling, and his remarks on the “anthropic principle” (the theory that an Intelligent Designer must have made a universe that culminated in a species that would try to understand it) are also persuasive. I think he is right to lump the semiscientific arguments used by creationists into the same category as Anselm’s proof: They are useful in persuading a believer that the concept of God is not inconsistent with a rational or scientific view of the universe, but they cut no ice with an intelligent atheist. This is what we should expect. If God’s existence could be proved, what need would there be of faith? If Weinberg could confine his critique to what he knows and understands, he might force serious religious thinkers to be a little less glib in their assumptions.
As a man who lives by his intelligence, Weinberg apparently thinks that by refuting this or that argument he is striking a damaging blow to the cause of religion. In a BBC interview, he told Jonathan Miller that Cardinal Manning, after reading Paley’s Natural Theology, became convinced by “the wonderful adaptation of living things . . . that there had to be a creator.” His source for this is “Lytton Strachey’s wonderful little biography . . . in Eminent Victorians.” There is no hint that Strachey had an obvious agenda or that Manning’s faith is far too complex to be reduced to Anglican natural theology.
I know what Weinberg’s response would be. In his laudatory review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, he complains that reviewers have unfairly criticized Dawkins for his ignorance of theology and philosophy. “Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk?” I wonder how Weinberg would treat a book on the origin of the universe written by a theologian as ignorant of physics as Dawkins is ignorant of philosophy and theology.
Weinberg appears to have made some effort to attain the rudiments of an humane education, but he never seems to get anything quite right. When asked if he hates God, Weinberg responded that he hates Him the way he hates “Reverend Slope.” He has apparently read Barchester Towers, without understanding that Trollope invites us to sympathize with even his most odious characters. He has learned a bit about the Anglican Church, but not enough to know that Anglican ministers, unless they have advanced in the hierarchy, are typically called Mr. Slope and never Reverend Slope. It is a small thing, but just the sort of slip a pretentious novice makes when he tries to discuss matters he does not understand. In matters of literature, history, and philosophy, “Darwinian man, though well behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved.”
Weinberg’s problems go far deeper than his ignorance of the Anglican Church. In one section of Facing Up, which appeared first in the New York Review of Books, the preeminent theoretical physicist alive in the world today treats us to the usual clichés of village atheists everywhere: Religious fanatics killed Gandhi, Sadat, and Begin; the universe is too unfair and nasty to have been created by a benevolent Being; Christianity sanctioned as well as opposed slavery. It is surprising he did not throw in “ . . . unkind to blacks, Indians, women, and gays.”
In one short essay, there is not enough space to survey the vast field of Weinberg’s ignorance of historical man. Fortunately, he summed up his own position in a famous remark in 1999: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
Let us look at his reasoning. Evil people can always be counted on to do evil things, but it is only religion that inspires good people to do evil things. We shall come back to the question of what constitutes good and evil, but a rational person reading Weinberg would wish to ask him if he really believes that no one has gone to fight in an unjust war, for example, unless directed by religion. Were the two world wars of the 20th century religious wars? Were the communists and Nazis who killed hundreds of millions of people motivated by religion, or were they simply bad people out for a little harmful fun? Most leftists (and Weinberg is inevitably a leftist) would argue that many, if not most, Communist Party members were idealists who believed a good cause justified them in doing what the world regarded as evil. Unless we are prepared to accept the premise that political ideologies are only religions in disguise (a premise that would reduce Weinberg’s argument to triviality), his statement is worse than nonsense: It is a lie that anyone but a child should be able to refute.
For Jewish leftists, Hitler is the summum malum of human history. Weinberg does concede that Hitler was not a religious man, but he suggests the road to Buchenwald was paved by centuries of Christian antisemitism. Typically, he offers no documentation. For him, Christian antisemitism is a self-evident truth to be received uncritically, while his own Jewish anti-Christianism is a purely rational response to superstition, certainly not an ethnic or religious prejudice. However, to some observers of the 20th century, including many non-Christians, it has seemed self-evident that the rejection of Christianity and the adoption of a materialist worldview similar to Weinberg’s paved the way for Stalin’s and Hitler’s crimes.
If Weinberg is unable to deal rationally with the Third Reich, his approach to Israel is intellectually dishonest and morally repugnant. As a secular Zionist, he admires Israel as a “liberal”—by which he must mean leftist—state. To justify his unqualified support for Israel, Weinberg claims it is a democracy in which Palestinians enjoy equal rights. Can he be serious? Does he know anything about the roadblocks erected to prevent non-Jews from owning, leasing, or working on most agricultural land? Has he ever tried to imagine what Muslims or Christian Israelis think of a national flag that represents only Jews? On Weinberg’s view, scientists are supposed to examine the facts before recklessly throwing out hypotheses. To be fair to Weinberg, he may simply be lying in what he regards as a good cause.
Presumably, Weinberg regards the Israeli leadership as basically good people, and yet these leaders have been frequently condemned by other Israelis for denying justice to the Palestinians, bombing apartment buildings where women and children live, and committing a long string of terrorist atrocities that goes back to the 1940’s. Of course, one might easily argue that the Palestinians are paying the price for their own terrorism, but even if, as I happen to believe, the Palestinians are currently acting worse than the Israelis, no morally serious person can defend, for example, Israel’s recent attack on Lebanon, much less the illegal use of U.S. cluster-bombs against civilians. The Israelis are not evil people: They are defending their homes, their families, and the land they have won, from enemies who will stop at nothing; but, if a reckless disregard for the lives of noncombatants is wrong, as leftists and liberals seem to think, then Israel is a textbook case of good people doing evil things for nonreligious motives.
If either Weinberg or Dawkins had been thinking honestly and seriously about religion, he might have applied his knowledge of man as natural being to the terrifying problems with which philosophy and theology have been wrestling for two-and-a-half millennia. Do good and evil exist, and, if so, what are they, and how did they come into existence? Is man a puppet of material forces, or does he have free will, and, if so, how does he have it, and what are the moral consequences?
On these topics, Dawkins is impossibly and deliberately stupid. Unable to explain free will, he simply denies that it exists. Even a schoolboy would then want to ask him why, if we are all puppets, it is important to attack religion. Dawkins told Jonathan Miller that he began to doubt Christianity when he realized that people in different parts of the world have different ideas about God. Why has he never stopped to ask if his own faith in science is not as much a product of 20th-century Europe as a Christian’s belief in the divine Logos is a product of Jewish religion and Greek philosophy?
Like most modernists, Dawkins is smugly complacent and satisfied with his superiority over other, more credulous, men. The arrogance of his most recent squib, The God Delusion, has been criticized by some atheists, and Dawkins even lost a fall to Stephen Colbert. In essence, Colbert asked him why he thought that a series of unintelligent natural processes had created a universe that ended up producing his intelligent book denying the existence of an intelligent being outside nature. In other words, how does the monkey-man come to make value judgments pro or contra the Creation?
In a rare moment of self-examination, Dawkins admitted he has a religious bent, though his religion appears to consist only of the worship of dead monkeys. In one of his rants against religion, Dawkins reveals himself as a fanatical true believer in scientism. After praising all that science has told us about the universe, he goes on:
Science has eradicated smallpox, can immunize against most previously deadly viruses, can kill most previously deadly bacteria. Theology has done nothing but talk of pestilence as the wages of sin. . . . Science has put men on the moon and hurtled reconnaissance rockets around Saturn and Jupiter . . . Science knows the precise DNA instructions of several viruses and will, in the lifetime of many present readers, do the same for the human genome.
What Dawkins does not like to talk about is that science has made atomic bombs and incendiary devices that have killed millions of civilians; that science has created new, deadly toxins and weaponized microorganisms to be put in the service of violence and oppression; that science has made possible the totalitarian governments that killed over 100 million people in the 20th century. To get to the point, science and its step-child technology have provided the weapons and techniques that made the 20th century a nightmare, and, once they really get going on the human genome—a prospect that Dawkins gleefully looks forward to—they shall be able to say truly, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Naturally, Dawkins and Weinberg would absolve scientists and put the blame on the evil political leaders who have misused science and technology. This will not wash for two reasons: First, Dawkins and Weinberg hold a religion (such as Christianity) responsible for all crimes committed in its name, even if its prophets and theologians have spoken only the language of peace; second, and more to the point, a vast amount of funding for scientific research comes from governments that are looking for ever more effective means of killing and subjugating human beings. Why has so much money been spent on Weinberg’s beloved particle physics? Ask the boys at Fermilab, and they will tell you that they are engaged in pure research that has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. That, presumably, is why it operates under the aegis of the Department of Energy. Why do we fund the exploration of space? Ask Dick Cheney and the advocates of SDI. Atheist physicists, when they are not snookering money from the pockets of Christian taxpayers in Texas, are pandering to the military-industrial complex. Yes, that last statement was extreme and unfair, but it is a good deal more fair than what scientists are writing about Christianity.
The inability to confront the dark side of science is a trifle compared with these scientists’ refusal to grapple with the problem of good and evil. Why does Dawkins think it is “good” to wipe out one species (e.g., the smallpox virus) to serve another? Perhaps he would say that we are higher on the evolutionary scale, but radical Darwinists may not use such language. Their teleology can be summed up by the phrase “stuff happens,” and the amazing proliferation of beetles (to use Haldane’s famous quip) is as significant as the evolution of man. If Dawkins, as a sociobiologist, would like to talk about fitness as the basis of morality, he would have to explain why I would be wrong to cut him up and feed him, piece by piece, to my children. I do not say it is impossible to deduce some kind of ethic from evolutionary biology. I made such an attempt in The Politics of Human Nature. But neither Dawkins nor Weinberg has the first idea of what an ethical system is.
As products of their culture, Dawkins and Weinberg cannot imagine any morality other than late 20th-century liberalism. Like most people, they are unreflective ethnocentrists, who feel (the only proper word) that their own culture is inherently superior to the rivals it intends to crush. In their obscurantism, they not only fail to offer any answers (good or bad), they do not know what the questions are. In Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega y Gasset made the oft-quoted observation that, “If anyone in a discussion with us is not concerned with adjusting himself to truth, if he has no wish to find the truth, he is intellectually a barbarian. That, in fact, is the position of the massman when he speaks, lectures or writes.” Ortega had no hesitation in applying this to the specialized barbarians who conduct scientific research. Worse than Huns and the Mongol horde, these Christophobic barbarians intend the destruction of human civilization. If their bombs and toxins do not get us, their obscurantism will.
Thomas Fleming is the editor of Chronicles.
This article first appeared in the April 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
For a discussion of this topic, please click on “Descent of Man, Ascent of Apes?“