Ways of knowing

Margaret Somerville
"Different ways of knowing"
The Ottawa Citizen, July 23, 2007, A9
Margaret Somerville
Citizen Special
July 23, 2007
Reproduced with Permission

Those who demand we choose either religion or science seriously undermine our chances of finding a common, shared ethics.

Richard Dawkins has done more than all religious people together to put God on the current public agenda. He is on a highly publicized, international campaign to convince the world that religion is at the root of much evil. I think he's seriously misguided, at best, and that his campaign is dangerous. Here are just a few of the reasons I think that.

Mr. Dawkins confuses religion and the use of religion -- I assume deliberately -- to promote his thesis that religion is evil. Religion itself is not evil -- just as science is not evil -- but it can be used for evil purposes, just as science can.

Using religion to convince the 9/11 terrorists to commit mass murder by knocking down the World Trade Center towers was a profoundly evil use of religion. Using airplanes to carry out that evil was a profoundly evil use of aeronautical science. However, Mr. Dawkins looks only at the evil uses of religion -- never the good it effects -- and only the good uses of science -- never the harm it does. Ethically, we need to recognize both the good and harmful effects of both religion and science, and to try to stop the evil uses and promote the good ones of each.

Reason is the primary "way of knowing" in science and it is fundamental to the scientific method that produces scientific knowledge. Mr. Dawkins' mistake is to see reason (and probably science) as the only valid way of human knowing and, consequently, as the only appropriate tool to explore non-scientific questions, such as profound ethical and existential issues.

Our multiple ways of human knowing, in addition to reason, that are essential to ethics include human memory (history, looking back seven generations); imagination and creativity (looking forward seven generations to hold our world in trust for them); intuition -- especially moral intuition; experiential knowledge; and "examined" emotions. These other ways of knowing generate our "gut reactions" that we check out with reason to make sure those reactions are on track, whether ethically, legally, spiritually, emotionally or in some other relevant way.

Very recent research published in Nature, backs this up. In an article, "The Moral Brain," researchers reported that people with the reasoning parts of their brains intact, but who had damage to the emotional centres, could not make good ethical decisions.

Basic presumptions matter in decision-making because they allocate the burden of proof. When there is equal doubt about an issue, the basic presumption prevails. Mr. Dawkins's basic presumption is that there is no God and, therefore, that those who believe there is must prove it. The equally valid basic presumption is that there is a God and those who don't believe that must prove it.

Because neither basic presumption can be proved or disproved, both are tenable and, therefore, both must be accommodated in a secular society.

In contrast, and, ironically, where Mr. Dawkins and religious fundamentalists are ad idem, is that each wants to impose their choice between these basic presumptions on everyone else. They differ only with respect to their choice of basic presumption.

The proposition that faith and reason are incompatible is at the centre of Mr. Dawkins' arguments against religion. But they are not incompatible and neither are science and religion. In positing these incompatibilities Mr. Dawkins, who is a fundamentalist atheist (atheism is a secular religion), and religious fundamentalists are again identical in that they all take an either/or approach to everything: my beliefs or yours; religion or science; reason or faith; and so on. They both seek to reconcile what they see as the conflicts between the elements in each of these pairings, by dropping one or the other of them. Mr. Dawkins' call for the elimination of religion demonstrates such a choice on his part.

This call is dangerous because the vast majority of people will not accept it and, therefore, it is likely also to escalate the culture clashes and "religious wars" we are seeing. As well, it will seriously undermine our chances of finding a shared ethics.

But while Mr. Dawkins is wrong to advocate eliminating religion, he is correct that religion can be used for evil purposes. That means we must address the question: How can we best reduce, to the minimum possible, the likelihood that religion will be used for evil purposes and prevent its evil use?

I propose that what we need to search for a shared ethics that can accommodate as many people of goodwill as possible. We will never find a universal ethics and we will never be able to accommodate fanatics at either end of the spectrum of human beliefs, but we can articulate and develop an approach that will accommodate many more people in a big ethical tent than is at present the case.

This is not a "gently, gently" approach, as Mr. Dawkins described it. It is a principled, pragmatic, ethical one.

To achieve that will require us to change in some ways.

Unlike Mr. Dawkins's proposal, which focuses on our differences, we should start from where we agree.

We should stop automatically associating having liberal secular values with being open minded and having conservative religious values with being closed minded -- liberal people can be very closed minded (as we can see with some uses of political correctness) and conservative people open minded.

We have to stop assuming all change in values is progress and to be welcomed, and revalue wise ethical restraint. That can require having the courage to say no -- which often takes more courage than saying yes.

The search for meaning and the desire to belong to something larger than ourselves -- the longing for transcendence -- is of the essence of being human. And humans have also always searched for morality. Religion is one way -- but I agree with Mr. Dawkins there are other ways -- that over vast periods of time, across all kinds of societies and cultures, humans have sought meaning, belonging and morality. We need to build a 21st-century societal-cultural paradigm that can accommodate, in creative rather than destructive tension, as many of those ways as possible, including religion.

Mr. Dawkins is the leader of a pack that includes Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), Michel Onfray (Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation). I was in Australia last month and four of the top 10 books on the bestseller list were extolling the merits of atheism.

We need to ponder what is going on in the zeitgeist that fundamentalist, neo-atheism is being given so much attention in the western world.

Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal. Her latest book is The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit.

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