Before Darwin it certainly was very difficult to be an atheist or a nonbeliever – that is, an intellectually fulfilled one.1 At least that’s how Richard Dawkins usually puts it and I quite agree with him. It was not that the scientific method2 didn’t exist at the time, it was that the mystery of life was too big a mystery to even consider tackling through the ways of science. Yet that was what Darwin did.
The topic of this post does not have to do with Darwin, at least in a direct sense. The other day I was listening to Point of Inquiry, a podcast from the center of inquiry.3 They had Frans de Waal on and he talked about his latest book The Bonobo and the Atheist. There was a moment during the interview that the host, Chris Mooney, referred to him as being an atheist to which he replied saying
I am not necessarily an [atheist], because atheism has now come to stand for being very strongly opposed to religion which is really not what I am, I prefer to call my self either a nonbeliever or an apathetic meaning that, the agnostic doesn’t know if god exists, the atheist denies the existence of god, and I basically don’t care. I don’t think it is an important or interesting problem to discuss god. And as a scientist, I don’t know what to do with the god question. It will never be resolved, certainly not by science.
– Frans de Waal, On Point of Inquiry: Frans de Waal - The Bonobo and the Atheist
I can truly relate to his words. As much as I identify with people like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, being an atheist does not have to mean being opposed to religion. I can do that without being one. As a matter of fact religion and the institutions that promote it have done so much wrong to mankind that the logic behind them falls apart rather quickly.
What I can’t seem to get around my head is that despite that, religion is still a creation of humans and if I want to take the scientist’s approach I should accept it for what it is. That doesn’t mean, like de Wall suggests, that it cannot be replaced with something else. In his book, he argues that morality is something that is older than our species. Research suggests that many primates, and other animals, have a sense of morality. Meaning that they have impulses and self control mechanisms to resolve conflicts, to determine rules, etc.
In fact Massimo Pigliucci’s book Answers for Aristotle attempts to solve that problem by saying that we should lead a life that is both philosophically and scientifically pertinent. Going back to the whole being opposed to religion issue, I say, denying god gets us nowhere. The existentialist questions still remain and it says nothing about what’s the best way to lead a life. Our society is too big and complex to pretend that we shouldn’t pursue such questions. However, we should use the best tools we’ve got for the job, and in the twenty-first century these are not religion or theology.
To conclude I would like to say that we shouldn’t really attack religion for what it is or for being wrong, we should instead try to show the way with the best tools we have. Resolving conflict without invoking god. Discussing real life issues with the best evidence we can find. Addressing our questions knowing wholeheartedly our limits.
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