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This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

The Root of All Evil?

ABC’s Compass recently aired the documentary The Root of All Evil, featuring biologist Richard Dawkins and based on his latest bestseller The God Delusion. Dawkins is an unabashed atheist and makes no bones as to the purpose of his book and, by extension, of the TV series: to convert the believing reader/viewer to the prevalent rationalism of modern scientific thought.
Having read The God Delusion, I have to concede that Dawkins makes a powerful case against religion: the contradictions between faith and science, the indoctrination of children, the skewed morality of many zealous believers and religion’s role in stoking the fires of hatred and war are all discussed with alarming alacrity. Unless someone has a firm foundation in theology, especially of religion’s deeper mystical aspects, I believe it would be very difficult if not impossible to read Dawkins, or to watch his doco, without suffering an erosion of faith.
This is not because Richard Dawkins is an expert propagandist—though he certainly holds a big-time grudge against religion—but rather because most of his observations are true. Religion, especially of the fundamentalist variety, does indeed bear responsibility for much of the war, hatred and intolerance in the world. It discourages intellectual curiosity and relies instead on dogmatic beliefs that frequently fly in the face of reason. It instils innocent children with the fear of the “other” and, even worse, of the tormenting fires of hell awaiting sinners in the hereafter.
With all that, it is my view that rejecting the notion of God for the new, “enlightened” view of atheism would constitute a step backwards, not only in the spiritual sense but in the rational sense as well. To understand why this is so, it is first necessary to examine the underlying foundation of Dawkins’ adamant belief in a godless universe: evolutionary biology.
About a month ago, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote an article bemoaning the fact that, in a post-modern world where there is supposed to be no dominant paradigm, in point of fact, the paradigmatic truth of evolutionary biology has been thrust upon us willy-nilly with oppressive force. Brooks, a secular Jew, expressed his concerns for the moral and social implications that accompany this dominant trend.
Evolutionary biology claims to have filled in all the gaps that made Darwin’s Theory of Evolution a theory rather than an iron-clad law. (In that sense, it is mega-evolution or Darwin on steroids.) It states that all the developmental processes of life on this planet are fuelled solely by the need of genes to survive. In this model, there is no real telos, or goal of creation; random chance alone creates various genetic scenarios, some of which are successful, some of which are not. Rather than the religious view that labels a human being the “crown of creation” (in evolutionary ethics, this is the sin of specism), evolutionary biology might hold the cockroach, for example, as equal or superior to the human being, in that its ability to survive and perpetuate its genetic content is greater.
Make no mistake that evolutionary biology has made a great contribution to our scientific understanding, but is it the whole picture from which we can derive the meaning of existence? Should the entire pageant of human history be reduced to a playing field for the advancement of chromosomes? By doing so, I believe we eclipse another domain of existence beyond the view of the scientist’s microscope but no less valid and no less significant.
I originally borrowed the book The God Delusion from my son. When I asked him sometime later whether or not he had read it, he replied that he had started it but stopped after spotting a blaring contradiction of logic on the first page. There, Dawkins claims that without religion there would be no Taliban to blow up the renowned Bamyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan. As Eli pointed out, however, if there were no religion, we would have no Bamyan Buddhas to begin with!
For all of religion’s faults and defects, to completely ignore any of the positive contributions it has made in the collective evolution of humanity seems to me a mark of bigotry and intolerance no less than that of the theological sort. These contributions transcend the realm of mere aesthetics. Philosophy, law, morals and even science itself have been affected by people of faith. (Genetics, for example, Dawkins’ home turf, was established as a science in the 19th century by Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk.) Conversely, the developments in these domains continue to enhance and expand the nature of our beliefs. The ideas that the world was flat and the centre of our solar system were once held as religious dogma. Those who disagreed were deemed heretics and often suffered at the hands of religious authorities. With the overwhelming evidence of a round planet in a heliocentric system, religion gradually assimilated these ideas, and has only gained in credibility through this incorporation.
From a Jewish viewpoint, it is prudent here to mention the teaching of Maimonides that whenever a contradiction arises between scientific knowledge and Torah belief, it is incumbent on us to re-evaluate our interpretation of Torah so that it aligns with scientific facts.
In one sequence in The Root of All Evil Dawkins shows the ancient statues from the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods and blithely explains how very few moderns would accept these as deities, even though at one time in history their worship was predominant. An atheist, he maintains, simply goes one step farther and rejects the deity at the very top of the ladder: God. There is, however, a major flaw in this syllogistic reasoning.
The polytheists of antiquity gave concrete form to the concepts of their world: Aphrodite was the goddess of beauty, Ares, the god of aggression, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, etc. With the advent of monotheism, these material forms all but disappeared except as archaeological relics. The concepts they represented, however, are still with us today. We all understand, though we may not agree on, the meaning of beauty, aggression or wisdom. The thrust of monotheism was to bring all these multiple phenomenological realities back to a single creative source. We call that source God.
The only way that ancients could have any comprehension of God was through a depiction in anthropomorphic terms that had relevance to those cultures. The Torah is replete with descriptions of God as a “person” (male, of course) who breathes life into Adam, speaks with Moses, and extends an outstretched arm to the Children of Israel. In our blessings we refer to God using the patriarchal terms of “our Father” and “King.” There is not a single Jewish sage or thinker, however, who would instruct us to take these descriptions literally. Doing so, in fact, would be a violation of the Torah commandment to believe in one God.
I am not the first person to lament the paucity of the mythical picture of God that still persists to hold sway over many people. Rabbi Abraham I. Kook, one of the great Torah luminaries of the last century, wrote that atheism was only a means to obliterate this unfortunate misconception of a God created in our own image. If real religion were grounded in this outdated anthropomorphic picture of God, I would agree with Richard Dawkins’ assessment entirely. When one studies the wisdom traditions adjunct to the major monotheistic religions, however, a different “picture” of God—or, more properly, a lack of one-- emerges.
Whether it is Jewish Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism or Christian Gnosticism, in the mystical traditions God is transfigured into the absolute Oneness that God was always meant to be. In kabbalah, in particular, the patriarchal, masculine Deity becomes the eternal, divine union of the transcendent Holy One and the immanent Shekhinah, the feminine aspect or “the bride”.
This Oneness is something that can never be grasped by empirical or rational science, the explorations of which inevitably occur in the external, material world. No telescope or microscope can ever locate or substantiate that Oneness.
As an example, in cosmology for decades the dominant scientific wisdom favoured the Steady-State Theory, which claimed that matter was not created but existed eternally. Radio astronomy and the discovery of the receding periphery of the Big Bang disproved that theory. Yet, science is at a loss to explain what exactly preceded the Big Bang, since there are no scientific instruments to measure that which transcends both space and time. Kabbalah, however, has no qualms in conveying the concept of Nothingness, essential to the true understanding of a deity far beyond our mortal comprehension. Similarly, many other mystical traditions, not bound by the scientific confines of rational thought focused solely on objective reality, have the means to transmit this idea.
Evolutionary biologists are likewise imprisoned in their monological survey of the objective landscape, where their microscopes can find no trace of the Divine. Indeed, these days even the mere suggestion that there might be a Divine order—or Intelligent Design—in nature is met with cries from the scientific community of creationist sabotage and foul play. No matter how hard they search in the objective world, however, they will never find evidence of God’s “fingerprints”. For it is in the interior realm, the subjective domain that science altogether denies, where these sublime realities occur.
Anyone who has ever been moved by a beautiful poem or work of art; anyone who has ever witnessed the spectacle of a majestic sunset; anyone who has ever experienced the joys of love; or anyone who has felt the pain in losing a loved one understands that something is going on more than just a thrust of our genes towards their future survival. It is precisely in these subjective domains where religion, for all of its flaws, can provide guidance and comfort.
Furthermore, because it is the way religion is interpreted that determines its form, it is within the power of people themselves to re-interpret religious belief in a manner that rectifies its shortcomings. Shedding literalist, fundamentalist doctrines is the first step in that process. In the end, I think that the search for more meaning in those interior depths will prove far more rewarding than relinquishing millennia of religious traditions for a dubious belief in Dawkins’ chaotic, purposeless universe of random chance.
What, then, is “The Root of All Evil”? In purely Jewish terms it is neither money nor religion. It is perhaps best symbolised by Pharaoh, who deemed himself to be the supreme god and, in response to Moshe’s request in the name of the Almighty to free the Israelites, replied: “Who is God that I should know Him?” In this regard, evil is defined not by the belief in the Unknowable but rather by the belief that what we think we know is all that there is.


Paul Salahuddin Armstrong said...
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Paul Salahuddin Armstrong said...

I accept that Richard Dawkins identifies a number of truths. Some forms of religious practice do have a lot to answer for. Science and reason have indeed brought many benefits to humanity. We do not wish to return to the times of ignorance.

Richard Dawkins criticises the idols of the past, saying that nobody would accept them as gods today. Yet he has seemingly failed, to identify the worst form of idolatry. Pharaoh could not bear the thought, of there being a god greater than himself. One to whom even Pharaoh should give allegiance.

Pharaoh saw himself as god, and has since become an example, of this most extreme form of egoism. A warning to us all, of the most illusory delusion. Prophet Moses exposed him, and tried to get him to see his own reality.

Yet it is written that even Pharaoh, when drowning in the sea, called out to the God of Israel, the God of Moses to rescue him. I wonder how many atheists today would do the same, though they deny God in their day to day lives?