David and Goliath.
Last night I was caught up in a very interesting tweet exchange with Richard Dawkins. The great biologist-turned-atheism’s-prophet threw one of his traditional punches against religion:
He is right about how abhorrent these biblical principles are in modern day democracies after centuries of struggles and wars to conquer basic human rights in our constitutions. But the revisionism of measuring an ancient book with today’s values is a bit unfair. I called him on that:
Ancient cultures relied on the information technology of their time to keep track of their history. All political institutions (ancient and new) at their core what they aim to achieve is to write history. Record the events that led to the great triumphs and the fundamental lessons that define the identity of a community. The Bible was the political instrument within the rise of the monotheist mindset in a period of time where the knowledge of reading and writing meant power, and in the centuries where ink and paper meant sophisticated technology. Richard, regardless of his rationalist approach to life, is still a tempered passionate man:
He is right about that: a lot of people don’t care to think and question their given reality. And the dangers of having a 1st Century mentality in the day and age of nuclear weapons is a big threat. Yet reacting like a fanatic pointing his finger at me with a big uppercase YOU mirrors Richard with the same kind of people he is against: immediately after that tweet, a bunch of radical atheists started attacking me. Richard’s church is alive and well.
I don’t intend to confront with a man I consider a personal hero (mostly due to his original work in the field of biology). But the point I was aiming to argue with him is not regarding the goal (which we share) but the means. He’s attitude throughout the last decade as he became the spokesperson for atheism tends to polarize the debate. The danger I fear with that approach is that it’s very likely to turn radicals into extremists, and the latter into fundamentalists (and not the other way around).
Here I felt that at least we where able to find some common ground. Our main discrepancy is about what place we assign religion in our society. Richard has taken a rather extreme approach where religion has absolutely no role to play at all. And even though I agree that we can consider religious views absurd when it comments on science and politics, my claim is that the real danger is becoming the extremist of whatever value-system you have.
Having a literal interpretation of the Bible is missing the fundamental aspects of how it works. In ancient days the fine art of writing and reading was a privilege of the few. Knowledge had to be shared through storytelling, myths that were more compatible to be stored in human minds for oral transmission which hopefully carried the seeds of a lesson that helps to improve mankind’s behaviour. The poetic resonance evoked by the book of Genesis is not about a God that literally created the world in seven days, but rather about how all of us can achieve god-like virtue by working hard during the week (while being able to rest on the seventh day). Ancient societies needed an efficient scalable method to learn and share this knowledge so they could attain some degree of order.
And it’s true that biblical views on slavery, women and gays are sinister. Yet these books also operated as a form of social memory becoming the only place capable of securely storing events of history due to the power of the institution behind it. It was a political tool of the past and we must treasure it as such. But also, it is my belief that the current institutions of our modern day and age which derive from the printed press that gave us private contracts and paper money will end up fading as a relic too. Information technologies always lead towards new institutional paradigms and the Internet isn’t going to be an exception. Archeologists from a distant future will no longer be looking just at ancient books but rather to the data structures that are able to securely store the political events of the AI (After Internet) era.
Institutions are about trust. Mythological storytelling was a convincing force to impose trust in ancient times. But today we depend on the rational cartesian approach of modern capitalism with brands capturing our faith thanks to their market performance. But think about every single institution known to man and ask yourself: what does “President of the United States of America” really mean? What does “America” mean? As John Searle points out: at their core institutions exist to validate facts. There are two kinds of facts: those that cannot be denied under any circumstance (“the sun rises in the morning”, gravity or the cold weather of San Francisco) and institutional facts. The latter are always imposed truths that cannot be proven or disproven, they simply are because of the power behind it. Institutions are shortcuts that helps us make sense of the social world we live in. Solid manifestations of political struggles that led us to profoundly believe in the reality of virtual things such as Argentina, Mc Donald’s or the Republican Party. They exist only because they were able to establish a social convention that they must exist.
God isn’t the only delusion we fool ourselves into.
I took the opportunity of this exchange with Richard Dawkins to ask him a question that I always had in my mind when reading his books:
His honest answer restored my faith (sorry Richard) in him: