Richard Dawkins, the Spiritual Atheist

By Chris Mooney | September 20, 2010 8:03 am

Here he is on Al Jazeera, in the interview I quoted in my USA Today piece. The quotation comes at about minute 3:45. It is this:

Spirituality can mean something that I’m very sympathetic to, which is, a sort of sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time. All those things create a sort of frisson in the breast, which you could call spirituality.

But, I would be very concerned that it shouldn’t be confused with supernaturalism.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

Comments (26)

  1. Somite

    And it would be confused with dualism and supernaturalism. I prefer the term “saganism” or “asimovian” to more clearly reflect what we mean.

  2. Happy birthday, Chris. :)

  3. Jon

    You can avoid Cartesian dualism without being a materialist. Charles Taylor does it through Merleau-Ponty (French philosopher of “embodied mind” who borrows heavily from the German idealist tradition).

  4. Nathan Bupp

    @Jon:

    In terms of the human mind as an emergent or “embodied” biological phenomenon,
    William James and John Dewey got there way before Merleau-Ponty OR Charles Taylor.

  5. Jon

    Not doubting that. But Hegel got there before either of them. Charles Taylor has a two books out on Hegel.

  6. Jon
  7. cgauthier

    You can avoid Cartesian dualism without being a materialist.

    What’s the point? Were I to believe Wikipedia, the “embodied mind” is a materialistic concept. You don’t think materialists believe that brain matter is made of consciousness, do you? Do we also regard car engines as being made of explosions?

    The fact that consciousness is the emergent action of a clump of meat, rather than a magical property of that meat is materialism.

  8. cgauthier

    The fact that consciousness is the emergent action of a clump of meat, rather than a magical property of that meat is materialism.

    I should say, rather, that the evidence of purely physical emergence supports the idea of materialism.

  9. Dawkins could be an influential proponent of religious naturalism/naturalistic spirituality, were he to focus his energies in that direction. Quoted in Discover magazine, he says “Einsteinian religion is a kind of spirituality which is nonsupernatural….And that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow less than supernatural religion. Quite the contrary. . . It is something bigger, something grander, something that I believe any scientist can subscribe to, including those scientists whom I would call atheists.” From Stephen S. Hall, “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Discover, Vol. 26 No. 09, September 2005, http://discovermagazine.com/2005/sep/darwins-rottweiler

    There’s no essential rift between science and religion, broadly construed. About religious naturalism, see http://www.religiousnaturalism.org/ and about naturalistic spirituality see http://www.naturalism.org/spiritua.htm

    But the rift between naturalism (based in science) and supernaturalism (usually based in faith) isn’t going away, since it’s essentially one of differing epistemic commitments, http://www.naturalism.org/epistemology.htm

  10. Somite

    Hey! Why would you avoid materialism? Is the only concept supported by the evidence.

  11. Jon

    cgauthier: What’s the point?

    I think the biggest differences between the two views involves the assessment of how useful/true naturalist descriptions of things are:

    http://tinyurl.com/27jbz36

    Here’s my take, from what I’ve read of Taylor’s work: if the body is a kind of an inescapable lens through which you have to understand the world, certain purportedly neutral perspectives on things like consciousness are less valuable and possibly even harmful, and certain non literal, indirect, and symbolic ways of understanding things are more valuable. (Probably this is a terribly sloppy description. Again, just my take…)

    Around 42 minutes into this talk is Taylor’s take on Dennett: http://vimeo.com/7803207

    He doesn’t think much of Dennett’s computational-based views of mind.

  12. Jon

    Just to avoid confusion–not that naturalistic descriptions aren’t useful, but you have to be careful of becoming the person who, having obtained a hammer, thinks everything is a nail.

  13. Anthony McCarthy

    Materialism is an ideological position that isn’t based in evidence, it makes claims about the physical universe, which is pretty certainly there, but the claims it makes about that being the only thing that is are evidence free. I think you’ll find that religious fundamentalists make a lot of statements about the physical universe as well, and many of those aren’t based in evidence either. And that’s not to mention many theologians and philosophers who probably aren’t very well respected by Richard Dawkins.

    I really, really wish if people were going to get involved with dilemmas that philosophy in a number of traditions have not managed to solve in thousands of years of trying, that they would at least reach an understanding of the problems. I look at it and figure if they didn’t solve it in the Western tradition or the systems stemming from Indian philosophy – with the incredible effort and minute attention to detail– hasn’t solved these matters, it’s not going to happen.

    I’ve only looked into what Dennett says about natural selection and his irrational proposal to extend it past biology, which is entirely unsupported by any evidence, is undermined by the nature of natural selection in biology and genetics and is obviously a position that is a manifestation of his faith in materialism. Just presupposing that everything is a mechanical manifestation of materialism and using that as the ultimate evidence of far fetched speculations isn’t the same thing as having evidence. It’s the farthest thing from having evidence.

    I got into a discussion over the past two weeks where it became relevant to ask how physicists could arrive at an objective view of the physical universe, laws of nature, if they had to negotiate their way through a sea of undefined and vague “memes”. From what I’ve been able to figure out, the idea of memes, of which Dennett is probably the last serious proponent, would sink any claims that science has an objective view of the physical universe. Which I don’t think would make a materialist very happy, if they thought about it.

  14. Dark Tent

    “A focus on spirituality, then, might be the route to finally healing one of the most divisive rifts in Western society — over the relationship between science and religion. “

    The essential rift between religion and atheism is not over whether one feels a “sense of wonder at the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time” — or not.

    The rift is over how one goes about answering the questions brought about by such wonder(ing).

    The atheist tries to answer the fundamental questions (how did the universe and we humans come about?) through science.

    The religious person answers them with God.

    It’s not at all clear how stating the obvious (that most people — even atheists — feel a sense of wonder at the universe and their place in it) is supposed to somehow “heal the rift”.

    In fact, labeling the sense of wonder “spirituality” may actually just cloud the issue because the word clearly means different things to different people (many religious people equate it with belief in the supernatural)

    Getting people to agree that “we are all spiritual” for the mere sake of agreement is essentially vacuous.

  15. Jon

    The religious person answers them with God.

    Huge generalization. Not all religious people answer them only through “God” (and which “fundamental questions” are you trying to answer?), not all religious people have the same theological views, and not all religious people even believe in a God.

  16. Dark Tent

    (and which “fundamental questions” are you trying to answer?),

    Perhaps you might want to re-read my sentence :)

  17. Jon

    Yes, but are those the only ones, and the ones religion is most concerned about.. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was no religious flake, said “Science gives us major answers to minor questions while religion gives us minor answers to major questions.”

  18. Anthony McCarthy

    I’d imagine that many if not most religious people don’t throw up their hands at the ultimately unknowable questions about the universe and our existence and say, OK, I give up, so I’ll just say that a god did it. I can’t say that questions about origins have ever played a big part in my religious thinking. I figure it’s like those multiverses and extra dimensions that might or might not be there, there’s nothing I can do about it either way. Those questions seem to me to be some of the less important and profound ones in religion, moral conduct being something we can do something about and so a far more worthwhile and so serious one, instead.

    Materialists seem, in the face of the of those questions which don’t seem to have a known answer, to throw up their hands and say, well, that’s all there is folks, and, as seen in the more fashionable realms of cosmology and particle physics, to start filling in on what seems their best present day guess, without verifiability. I don’t really see all that much of a difference except in the ideological predispositions of the different sides. It’s been a real shock to look into it to see how its exactly the rigid materialists who are now proposing to make evidence in science optional. I’ve looked and haven’t found any religious scientists who are proposing that, though I’d like their names if any have. I’ve wondered if it isn’t that they don’t just presuppose that everything is part of a physical network whose nature is known to us and so guessing is OK that prevents them from doing that. Which would be fascinating considering how it would fit into the present dialect of “religion vs. science.”

  19. cgauthier

    jon:

    …if the body is a kind of an inescapable lens through which you have to understand the world, certain purportedly neutral perspectives on things like consciousness are less valuable and possibly even harmful, and certain non literal, indirect, and symbolic ways of understanding things are more valuable.

    Sure symbolism is a valuable tool for poetry or philosophical contemplation, but only as a way to get better perspectives on the poet’s subject or philosopher’s ideas. A person should still know that their useful symbols are imaginary and be able to derive an objective, naturalistic principle from them to apply in the real world.

    Symbolism doesn’t change the fact that we are meat machines churned up by a star out of another star’s corpse. No matter what symbols we use to figure something out, the only way to make it useful in the real world is with real action and the manipulation of material by our material bodies, which in turn are controlled by material minds. The fact that our material brains have to lie to themselves sometimes to work doesn’t give those lies any more truth. Seems to me they should be regarded as a necessary delusions, to be held in check and hopefully rendered unnecessary by naturalistic reasoning.

  20. cgauthier

    Anthony McCarthy… When a scientist throws their hands up and conjectures, they make use of known phenomena and mechanisms to extrapolate their way to a guess. They also usually will admit, outright, that the extrapolation might very well be found wrong by future experimentation or a more sound extrapolation. It is a much more honest and useful way of guessing than any alternative I know.

    And, of course, you are right, religious people don’t throw their hands up and say goddidit. They already know that god did everything, making curiosity irrelevant.

  21. cgauthier

    Oh, and Anthony, in an earlier comment you claim that materialism carries as much water as religious fundamentalism, which is a ridiculous straw-man. A rational materialist doesn’t conclude that material is all there could ever be and plug their ears up. A rational materialist understands that radiation and shellfish and minerals and everything else known to exist is, well, all that is known to exist.

    None of us can see in radio or infrared or ultraviolet, but we materialists have no problem acknowledging them as real. Those things came to be known because of real phenomena that led to our attempts at creating devices to measure them. As soon as spiritual energies are discovered and measured, then sure, I’ll acknowledge their reality. Right now every bit of evidence seems to support materialism as a possibility. Fewer lines of evidence can be claimed for supernatural phenomena, plain and simple. Materialism makes the least assumptions.

    I really, really wish that philosophers would learn to put away their thought-toys at the appropriate times.

  22. Jon

    Sure symbolism is a valuable tool for poetry or philosophical contemplation, but only as a way to get better perspectives on the poet’s subject or philosopher’s ideas. A person should still know that their useful symbols are imaginary and be able to derive an objective, naturalistic principle from them to apply in the real world.

    Here’s Isaiah Berlin on Vico:

    A utilitarian interpretation of the most essential human activities is misleading. They are, in the first place, purely expressive; to sing, to dance, to worship, to speak, to fight, and the institutions which embody these activities, comprise a vision of the world. Language, religious rites, myths, laws, social, religious, juridical institutions, are forms of self-expression, of wishing to convey what one is and strives for; they obey intelligible patterns…

    Myths are not, as enlightened thinkers believe, false statements about reality corrected by later rational criticism, nor is poetry mere embellishment of what could equally well be stated in ordinary prose. The myths and poetry of antiquity embody a vision of the world as authentic as that of Greek philosophy, or Roman Law, or the poetry and culture of our own enlightened age, earlier, cruder, remote from us, but with its own voice, as we hear it in the Iliad or the Twelve Tables, belonging uniquely to its own culture, and with a sublimity which cannot be reproduced by a later, more sophisticated culture. Each culture expresses its own collective experience, each step on the ladder of human development has its own equally authentic means of expression.

    Imaginary, eh? This is what’s missing from Dennett’s philosophy: there’s very little *hermeneutics*–understanding of humans and culture, everything is reduced to matters of physical reality. It seems to me that you can amass a lot of data about physical reality and actually go backward in understanding real humans, who have to, for instance, find common ground and get along with each other in that real world you were talking about.

    Materialism makes the least assumptions.

    I agree with Taylor in the video I linked to above that Dennett makes *tons* of assumptions.

    I really, really wish that philosophers would learn to put away their thought-toys at the appropriate times.

    Science doesn’t excuse people from thinking and dialog with each other. Science doesn’t entail push button insight, where you read a science textbook, do a correct lab experiment, and poof you’re an enlightened person.

  23. Anthony McCarthy

    cgauthier, first, I don’t mistake “scientist” as being a synonym for “atheist”. And I also don’t make the mistake of thinking that a scientist who is making assumptions about science is using the ideological holdings of philosophical materialism to make predictions, but what the data that is available might give them to go on.

    There is a great difference between science only considering the material aspect of physical phenomena in their work and extending that past the practical necessity of that into the realms of metaphysics, which is, contradictory enough, what philosophical materialists do. Though there are, obviously, a number of rather fundamentalist ideological materialists who practice science. I’m beginning to think that they are the ones who are in the habit of trying to insert their philosophical faith into science despite the widespread and groundless panic among many that it’s religious scientists who do that. I’m researching the question to see if I can find any religious scientists who are trying to bend the rules of science to accommodate professionally advantageous but unverifiable ideas in the way some of the dogmatic materialists are. So far I’m not finding any. Though I’m prepared to find out that’s a habit that could be more widespread than my theory predicts.

    As to the fact that a scientist practicing their profession strictly excludes anything that could relate to a proposed supernatural realm, so do carpenters and brick masons and laundry workers. All that tells you is the nature of their work which doesn’t refer to anything but the subject of their work. It tells you nothing about the validity of those supernatural ideas except in so far as any of those might impinge on the legitimate subject matter of science. And scientists don’t just work. I’ve known quite a few scientists who gamble and who show every sign of believing in luck, a number of them professed atheists. There is nothing about science that gives anyone insight into anything except the present day subject matter of science, not into a supernatural that it doesn’t study at all, not even about things in the universe of human experience that it doesn’t or cannot study.

    Oh, and I’m a music teacher, not a philosopher. Though I would recommend you read some before you mistake it for science.

  24. Anthony McCarthy

    Science doesn’t excuse people from thinking and dialog with each other. Science doesn’t entail push button insight, where you read a science textbook, do a correct lab experiment, and poof you’re an enlightened person. Jon

    I’d think that the assumption that everything that scientists hold to be reliable information is always contingent would preclude the devotees of scientism from believing that science produces enlightenment. About the most enlightened thing about it is the idea that any idea you hold might tomorrow be overturned by further evidence is about the most enlightened thing about science, and it hardly invented the idea.

    I’d rather think science produces our most contingently reliable information about those things it studies, which is difficult enough to do and hard enough to fund and get accepted by the general public and those with power. You’d think that would be enough to keep science occupied without getting distracted into areas where science can’t go and remain scientific.

  25. Jon

    This article seems confused:

    http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/from_divided_minds_a_specious_soul/

    To understand what does and doesn’t exist, first you have to get clear on what the concept of “soul” is trying to be. You could also say that “love” doesn’t exist (it’s just yadda yadda going through our limbic system, yadda yadda happening in our brains, blah blah blah). But love is a useful grouping of phenomenon, a useful concept for our cultural life (there’s that word again, culture). Is “soul” useful? You might argue that it’s not. But my first question would be “which understanding of the word are you talking about?” And then I’d convey my deep skepticism about the high handed intellectual game called eliminative materialism.

  26. ThomasL

    Just a point Anthony,

    We DO NOT, nor have we ever had, a “democracy”. We have a Republic, a very different beast, and a much better one. The closest thing to Democracy you could grant us is a representational one (if you knew more about what you are griping about you would know the founders had nothing good to say about democracies. I’ll agree that we have been moving towards a democracy, and all its failings, limitations and natural progression to destruction are already becoming apparent (all things the founders understood very well). Your complaint about small states having too much power is dealt with in understanding the differences between the two (Republic, Democracy) and asking yourself if there would even be a country without this “flaw” (which it isn’t – it is designed to do exactly what you complain about)– you might start by asking yourself why on earth any region would ever wish to become a state if they were just going to get bossed around by the larger states…

    You really need to read the founders (try the Federalist Papers as a start, but you really need to look at economics as well given what you posted) – you may discover they knew full well the bitches presented against it (including many of yours). They also knew there is no such thing as “perfection” in politics, just better and worse ways to do things. Anyone who doesn’t know that the founders knew full well that the slavery issue would need to be dealt with down the road hasn’t read anything about our constitution (though as in all things such does not prevent anyone from holding an opinion). What you trash was simply practicality in dealing with a social situation that had no good answer at the time and would have very likely led to an inability to create a working federal government if not compromised on (which doesn’t work in theory classes, but then theory is only somewhat helpful in dealing with the realities the world presents, in the lived world there is rarely “black and white” and there are almost never ideal solutions to human problems). Remember, this was the result of the Second Constitutional Convention – they were there to fix the problems with the results of the First Constitutional Convention (the one that gave us the Articles of Confederation). There was going to be slavery in the South (socialpoliticaleconomic reality), the question is was there going to be a functioning United States, or not?

    I used to think much like you seem to, given your posts. Then I studied it in depth and realized I hadn’t understood much of anything. We have an incredibly robust and alive Constitution. There are ways in which it can be modified and it attempts to balance a complex set of opposing and sometimes even contradictory desires. While you have gripes about how it works – it does work, and it does alter over time as political realities and social norms change also – but you might want to study a bit more before you throw the baby out with the bath water, as they say…

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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