I've been watching the Beyond Belief forum from last fall. Mainly I've been watching because I enjoy listening to smart people talk about smart things. The argument about religion vs. is science is one that finds me-much like abortion rights arguments- strangely ambivalent. That isn't to say that I think abortion should be illegal or that religion and science are both valid in equal portions. I don't think any of that stuff. Rather, I don't feel myself given over to strong emotions in either of these venues. I am interested in the conversation, and certainly find that I have things to say, but my enthusiasm investment is lacking.
Of course this conference exists in the orbit of the inimitable Richard Dawkins. I very much enjoy Dr. Dawkins, but I am starting to think that he might be the Anthony Bourdain of the science world. Bourdain probably isn't the greatest chef in the world, or the most knowledgeable expert on food -although he is assuredly far above average- but he is the most well-spoken, the best writer, and boundlessly enthusiastic. I find myself disagreeing with Bourdain on many counts but I always find myself listening to him. I feel the same pull to Dawkins. I am certain I am not alone in this respect, hence his ubiquitousness. Watching some of the other scientists, namely Joan Roughgarden, find themselves on the wrong end of Dawkins verbal cudgel, one can only shake their head and chuckle. I don't mean to imply that he is anything less than an amazing scientist, rather that he will always have a natural advantage over other amazing scientists in that he is a bad-ass motherfucker. His absolute, uncompromising nature is completely appealing and yet, to a large degree, absolutely futile. I think, in his great zeal, he has left out two very important considerations:
1. (this is the most important consideration on any subject) People don't give a shit. Really. they don't. Most people will never, ever care.(and if you think it is bad for science, try writing music) The best you can do is do the science, represent the science, and hope that means something.
2. (this is the argument I make) If it wasn't religion, it would be something else. Dawkins envisions a world without religion. You know what people would believe in then? Bad science. Why? Because people are stupid. And I say that with the utmost respect for people. If everyone threw down the yoke of belief immediately and took up the rigors of the laboratory, dinner conversation would center around such epoch-making revelations as, "Say ma, did you know your toenails keep growin' after you done died?" Nothing, really, would change. Of course his counter argument would be something to the effect of, "No, they wouldn't believe such trifling if they applied the scientific method and cared about the truth." But you see, there is the flaw. No matter what the focus, most people's brains just don't seem to work that way.(and I should be very specific that I don't mean that as a question of biological brain function-although it very well might be- i intend it in a far broader sense) I think we will keep progressing and keep growing, but people will never fully understand everything they see and hear and they will make shit up to fill in the blanks. Moreover, and this is where Dawkins really misses out I think, they will enjoy doing it. Making things up is fun. Thinking that baby Jesus was born on Christmas, or that dead people's hair keeps growing, or that Willy Mays was a 'three manhole man' feels good, even if it isn't really true.
In any case, watch the series if you get a chance. What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.