science and religion

Reading Richard Dawkins’s memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, which I’m finding a bit boring, I’m led to question how much less interesting would an autobiography by a non-celebrity be, like the one I’m working on for example. Well, there may be some redeeming quality, say if it were very well written, or something that caught the imagination of the reader, expressing the zeitgeist or whatever … but I’ve always seen it as something of interest only to myself and, maybe(!), my daughter. My interest quickens whenever Dawkins deals with the evolution of his thinking that eventuated in his book, The God Delusion (reviewed on my blog and the DEW, May 2011). So I took a break from the book to go to YouTube to see some of his debates.

In a documentary titled The Enemies of Reason, Dawkins interviewed, or maybe ambushed is more accurate, certain high-profile “spiritual” teachers, astrologers, tarot readers, etc; I say ambush because he seems to have stopped them in a hallway or garden en route to somewhere else. They stand there, Dawkins peppering the victim with questions, the camera person wandering back and forth between the debaters and sparks not quite flying but evident in the tense and rapid repartee.

Of the clips I looked at, most victims were struggling mightily if ineffectively to hang onto their “faith”, masking the indefensible with theological jargon. Only those who wish to be deceived are fooled by this tactic though apparently the numbers are pretty high who so wish. Usually Dawkins’ questions are quite interesting while the answers he gets are nearly unbearable obfuscation, reducing usually to “faith” or “personal experience”.

Head Ache

Dawkins however came upon a worthy opponent when he waylaid Deepak Chopra. I did not know Deepak was an MD. I once saw a PBS documentary of one of his talks to a business group. I thought it was quite clever of him to counsel that audience to “go to the wordless space and envision your desire.”

Clever because when you get to the wordless space, as I understand it, and I’m sure how Deepak understands it, you have no desire. You are only in wondrous awe of the interconnectedness of all things. Business people of course, deeply involved in an enterprise where profit is the central motivation, would expect this “wordless space” to be a sort of magical process for getting one-up on the competition. That whole world would be subverted were they to actually get there and realize that other values arise … beauty, harmony, reverence, peace.

Apparently Chopra’s medical practice combines traditional medicine with “new age” notions of wholistic health. Dawkins probed this area, thinking of it as non-scientific and therefore vulnerable, actually using the word “mumbo-jumbo”. Deepak quite persuasively refuted the idea, saying we use the word “mumbo-jumbo” when we don’t understand something and “science” when we do, obviously the one being respectable and the other not. So Deepak itemized a list of complaints about traditional medicine, chief among which is the “fact” that going to it for treatment is fraught with serious risk, citing statistics that, if true, would justify any reluctance you may have to go to your doctor.

As impressive as the doc was, I have to say his references to treating the whole person seemed vague. What was impressive was his ability to spar on an equal footing with Dawkins and his skill at articulating the “spiritual” realm, admitting readily that 80 percent of “new age” stuff is superstition. They didn’t actually seem that far apart, Deepak’s weakness being a vagueness on some topics, Dawkins’ being a defense of science bordering on the dogmatic.

Chopra apparently used the word “quantum” from physics in some of his writings, metaphorically, but Dawkins thought this was an attempt to borrow the legitimacy of science for something that was clearly unscientific. Deepak addressed all charges without defensiveness, with great seriousness and eruditon (maybe only apparent, who knows, not me) and with some humor.

If anyone in this exchange was defensive it was Dawkins. He is right to be concerned about the carnage that religion has wrought. He substantiates in his writing and videography his claim that science can provide an experience of wonder and awe. He fails, however, to acknowledge that a parallel experience can be had via poetry, mythology or “religion”.

Words point at the ineffable and despite the charletons of literal religion and the occult, and their deluded followers, metaphor is as reliable a portal to this realm as science. In fact, being impressed by such things as the immensity of space/time, macro and micro, may actually be an inferior experience to the “mystical” sensing of interconnection. Or it may be that these words are actually pointing to the same thing. As does this seasonal(?) collection of my songs, Holy Whole.

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Tom Ferguson

Tom Ferguson

Tom is a painter, a cartoonist, a musician, a thinker and more. View some of his web sites:

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