Thursday, July 1, 2010

assorted reflections - biology, religion, etc

more of putting a face to the name - Jerry Coyne

I wrote my last post before reading Coyne's response [and those of his commentators] to Mooney, which covers the same ground, and then some. Maybe it would be better to read the whole to-and-fro before writing myself - but then I'd probably have nothing to say, it would all have been said. Anyway, I write to get clear about my own views. It has to be all for myself, since nobody reads this blog.

I agree with what Coyne says about the 'posters' [the commentators]. So often, after reading a piece I disagree with, I get all worked up to respond and refute, only to find that some commentator [or a dozen] has done so with more eloquence, brevity and wit than I could possibly muster in my apoplectic state. And of course, many of them are scientists, or specialists in one field or another, with bits of useful and enlightening knowledge always worth lapping up.

Having said that, on balance I more often find comments so irritating I want to reach for my water-pistol. Take this comment from one 'smijer' on Mooney's next post:
I’m all for “lessen[ing] the moral authority and hegemony of religion in our society “ [a quote from Coyne], but that has bumpkus to do with biology – and biologists who pretend it does are doing a disservice to their craft.
I'm not a biologist, so maybe I can say what I like, though this comment has probably already been shot down by other commentators, supposing they thought it worth the effort [the comment dates from over a year ago, but it's a perennial theme].

The moral authority claimed by religion has a lot to do with biological, or quasi-biological claims, and I've already dealt with some of these in the past. In the Easter attacks on atheists, George Pell, our most prominent conservative Christian, said that we had souls, unlike animals. The claim that we are not animals is a biological claim [what else could it be?], and the claim that we have souls is both a biological claim [about our human, biological nature] and a moral claim [our souls go to heaven or hell depending on how good or bad we are, or depending on whether or not we serve Yahweh - which seems to be the basis of Judeo-Christian morality]. To make a more general point, biology [and psychology, and even physics and cosmology] is all about finding out what we are, where we came from, and how we best survive and thrive. Religion also makes claims to answer these questions. This is why religion and science are in competition, and always will be. To me, this is obvious. And religions gain their moral authority and hegemony by trying to monopolize understandings of what we are, what we should be, how we should behave and so forth. We should confess to priests, we should listen to their sermons, we should respect the clergy as go-betweens and facilitators, pointing out to us the righteous path, etc etc. Biology and its many sub-branches, ethology, neurology tell us a different story, and a competing one, of what we are, why we behave the way we do, and how we should behave to maximise our interest and society's interest - and it also helps us to understand how our interest and the interests of society seem to differ and clash. Biology helps us a lot in our understanding of morality. The magisterial claim of 'smijer', delivered so bumptiously IMO, just rings hollow to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment