Shame on Rea


            Michael Rea charges that Richard Dawkins and I “aren’t the least bit interested in mutual respect.” and are in fact guilty of the intolerance we deplore in religious people. Not so. Neither Dawkins nor I believe in God, but whereas Dawkins is convinced that belief in God, and religion in general, does far more harm than good, I have not yet made up my mind about that. I can see that a lot of good comes from believing in God, and it might still outweigh all the harm. I’m looking into this difficult question. It is an empirical question, in spite of all the variability in values that makes it hard to judge, but some of the goods and harms are clear enough to anyone. For instance, one of the manifest harms caused by religious belief is the way it can sometimes lure an otherwise honest and intelligent, even scholarly, person into shameful misrepresentations of the truth in defense of their creed.


            Michael Rea says:


 But Dennett has gone on record . . .  as thinking that this sort of religious view [creationism] ought simply to be confined to a ‘cultural zoo’. ‘Save the Baptists!’ he says, ‘but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world.


Rea draws these quotations out of context from my rather careful defense of religious toleration. What I was trying to establish in those closing pages of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea was the delicacy and difficulty of balancing the widest acceptable toleration of religious freedom, which I advocate, with the need for public safety in the face of dangerous fanaticisms–this some years before September 11, 2001.    I expressly contrasted fanaticism, which must indeed be caged, as we all now recognize (don’t we?), with the benign or at least less malignant forms of religious belief. And I lamented the fate of those waning religious traditions that are kept alive by anthropologists as mere cultural artifacts, “in cultural zoos.”  I invite you to read the passages from which Rea has drawn his quotations and ask yourself what, if anything, you find intolerant in them. You may disagree with me about particular cases–female circumcision or sacrifice of animals, for instance--but you surely agree with me that we have to draw the line somewhere: no human sacrifices--no fatwas--deserve the protection of religious toleration. Right?  Then ask yourself if Rea owes me, and his readers, an apology for letting his faith distort his integrity on this occasion.  


from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:


            But hasn't there been a tremendous rebirth of fundamentalist faith in all these creeds? Yes, unfortunately, there has been, and I think that there are no forces on this planet more dangerous to us all than the fanaticisms of fundamentalism, of all the species: Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as countless smaller infections.  Is there a conflict between science and religion here? There most certainly is. 


            Darwin's dangerous idea helps to create a condition in the memosphere that in the long run threatens to be just as toxic to these memes as civilization in general has been toxic to the large wild mammals. Save the Elephants! Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not by forcing the people of Africa to live nineteenth-century lives, for instance. This is not an idle comparison. The creation of the great wildlife preserves in Africa has often been accompanied by the dislocation--and ultimate destruction--of human populations. (For a chilling vision of this side-effect, see Colin Turnbull, 1972, on the fate of the Ik.) Those who think that we should preserve the elephants' pristine environment at all costs should contemplate the costs of returning the United States to the pristine conditions in which the buffalos roam and the deer and the antelope play. We must find an accommodation.


            I love the King James Version of the Bible. My own spirit rebels from a God who is He or She in the same way my heart sinks when I see a lion pacing neurotically back and forth in a small zoo cage. I know, I know, the lion is beautiful but dangerous; if you let the lion roam free, it would kill me; safety demands that it be put in a cage. Safety demands that religions be put in cages too--when absolutely necessary. We just can't have female circumcision and the second-class status of women in Roman Catholicism and Mormonism, to say nothing of their status in Islam. The recent Supreme Court ruling declaring unconstitutional the Florida law prohibiting the sacrificing of animals in the rituals of the Santeria sect (an Afro-Caribbean religion incorporating elements of Yoruba traditions and Roman Catholicism) is a borderline case, at least for many of us. Such rituals are offensive to many, but the protective mantle of religious tradition secures our tolerance. We are wise to respect these traditions. It is, after all, just part of respect for the biosphere.


            Save the Baptists! Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world. According to a recent poll, 48% of the people in the United States today believe that the book of Genesis is literally true. And 70% believe that "creation science" should be taught in school alongside evolution. Some recent writers recommend a policy in which parents would be able to "opt out" of materials they didn't want their children taught. Should evolution be taught in the schools? Should arithmetic be taught? Should history? Misinforming a child is a terrible offense.


            A faith, like a species, must evolve or go extinct when the environment changes. It is not a gentle process in either case. We see in every Christian subspecies the battle of memes--should women be ordained? should we go back to the Latin liturgy?--and the same can also be observed in the varieties of Judaism and Islam. We must have a similar mixture of respect and self-protective caution about memes. This is already accepted practice, but we tend to avert our attention from its implications. We preach freedom of religion, but only so far. If your religion advocates slavery, or mutilation of women, or infanticide, or puts a price on Salman Rushdie's head because he has insulted it, then your religion has a feature that cannot be respected. It endangers us all.


            It is nice to have grizzly bears and wolves living in the wild. They are no longer a menace; we can peacefully coexist, with a little wisdom. The same policy can be discerned in our  political tolerance, in religious freedom. You are free to preserve or create any religious creed you wish, so long as it does not become a public menace. We're all on the Earth together, and we have to learn some accommodation


. . . If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God's rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you: your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods--that the Earth is flat, that Man is not a product of evolution by natural selection--then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being--the well-being of all of us on the planet--depends on the education of our descendants.


            What then of all the glories of our religious traditions? They should certainly be preserved, as should the languages, the art, the costumes, the rituals, the monuments. Zoos are now more and more being seen as second-class havens for endangered species, but at least they are havens, and what they preserve is irreplaceable. The same is true of complex memes and their phenotypic expressions. Many a fine New England church, costly to maintain, is in danger of destruction. Shall we deconsecrate these churches, and turn them into museums, or retrofit them for some other use? The latter fate is at least to be preferred to their destruction. Many congregations face a cruel choice: their house of worship costs so much to maintain in all its splendor that little of their tithing is left over for the poor. The Catholic Church has faced this problem for centuries, and has maintained a position that is, I think, defensible, but not obviously so: when it spends its treasure to put gold plating on the candlesticks, instead of providing more food and better shelter for the poor of the parish, it has a different vision of what makes life worth living. Our people, it says, benefit more from having a place of splendor in which to worship than from a little more food. Any atheist or agnostic who finds this cost-benefit analysis ludicrous might pause to consider whether to support diverting all charitable and governmental support for museums, symphony orchestras, libraries and scientific laboratories to efforts to provide more food and better living conditions for the least well off. A human life worth living is not something that can be uncontroversially measured, and that is its glory.


            And there's the rub. What will happen, one may well wonder, if religion is preserved in cultural zoos, in libraries, in concerts and demonstrations? It is happening; the tourists flock to watch the Native American tribal dances, and for the onlookers, it is folklore, a religious ceremony to be sure, to be treated with respect, but also an example of a meme-complex on the verge of extinction, at least in its strong, ambulatory phase; it has become an invalid, barely kept alive by its custodians. (from pp515-20)



            So was I advocating that creationists be put into zoos?  Rea is not alone in making these particular charges, and I have chastised some of his colleagues who have done it before him. They are apparently incorrigible on this matter. They just can’t resist misrepresenting me for the good of the cause. This is an interesting datum, a small measure of the corrosive fear that can infect otherwise sound minds.  

            Is teaching creationism to a young child as evil as teaching them that, say, Jews–or Palestinians--are subhuman? No, but it is still the teaching of a blatant falsehood to an unsuspecting young mind. When these children grow up, in this Age of the Gene, they will want to know why you lied to them, why you hid the glories of evolutionary biology from them. Do you want to risk the credibility of your whole religious tradition by tethering it to a lie?  I agree with Dawkins that “it is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked). . .”  I think that it is particularly wicked to impose this ignorance on tender young minds. But I don’t advocate putting those who do it in cages or zoos. I advocate the much gentler course of trying to bring them to their senses by exposing their misrepresentations in public. I’m for telling the truth and letting people decide for themselves.