Thursday, December 21, 2006
In my Santa post below, I said we were 'better off believing.' Timothy Garton Ash comes to the same conclusion. Both the article and the ensuing comment thread are worth reading. The most important point made by TGA, an atheist, is that Christianity has done more good than harm - 'In my judgment as a historian of modern Europe, the positive side is larger than the negative.' It is this that leads him to disagree with the 'Dawkins school of atheists.' The problem with all these arguments, Dawkins' included, is the word 'truth'. TGA himself uses it in a very slippery way when he writes of 'proselytising believers in the truths discovered by science'. Science is, by strict definition, the sum total of statements that are true. You cannot 'believe' in such statements because they are demonstrably true. Of course, the number of statements that fit this strict definition is quite small and science spends most of its time getting by on the basis of statements that are not true in this sense at all. Newtonian physics is the obvious example. Scientific truth is thus a very narrow field, indeed. The field of useable generalisations is much larger and more effective. But, still, it is safest to say with Richard Feynman that science is purely descriptive - it cannot, by definition, tell us how to live or what to do. Yet the new militant atheism entirely depends on the view that we would be better off without religious superstition. This is why TGA's article is important. He says that we are, on the whole, better off for religion. To argue against this on the basis that religion is not 'true' is a category error as atheist TGA is arguing instrumentally. Furthermore, as science has only speculation to offer in the human realm - there are no theories in the human sciences comparable to those in physics and certainly none worthy of practical application - it is absolutely accurate to say that, in our daily lives, science is no more 'true' than faith. Indeed, truth here is not even the issue. All that matters is our disposition towards the world. This is a compound of many things, one of which may be the memory of a consoling belief in Santa Claus.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:55 am