Category Archives: Religion

Value Crisis of Modernity

There are many examples in the modern world showing how this doctrine of the free market—the pursuit of self-interest—has worked out to the disadvantage of society.

— CAMBRIDGE PROFESSOR JOAN ROBINSON, 1977, cited in Buddhist Economics.

The approach used here concentrates on a factual basis that differentiates it from more traditional practical ethics and economic policy analysis, such as the “economic” concentration on the primacy of income and wealth (rather than on the characteristics of human lives and substantive freedoms).

— NOBEL LAUREATE AMARTYA SEN, DEVELOPMENT AS FREEDOM, cited in Buddhist Economics

In Buddhist economics, people are interdependent with one another and with Nature, so each person’s well-being is measured by how well everyone and the environment are functioning with the goal of minimizing suffering for people and the planet. Everyone is assumed to have the right to a comfortable life with access to basic nutrition, health care, education, and the assurance of safety and human rights. A country’s well-being is measured by the aggregation of the well-being of all residents and the health of the ecosystem.

Brown (2017, 2), in Buddhist Economics

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In the most dramatic moments of Italy’s debt crisis, the newly installed “technical” government, led by Mario Monti, appealed to trade unions to accept salary cuts in the name of national solidarity. Monti urged them to participate in a collective effort to increase the competitiveness of the Italian economy (or at least to show that efforts were being made in that direction) in order to calm international investors and “the market” and, hopefully, reduce the spread between the interest rates of Italian and German bonds (at the time around 500 points, meaning that the Italian government had to refinance its ten-year debt at the excruciating rate of 7.3 percent). Commenting on this appeal in an editorial in the left-leaning journal Il Manifesto, the journalist Loris Campetti wondered how it could be at all possible to demand solidarity from a Fiat worker when the CEO of his company earned about 500 times what the worker did.1 And such figures are not unique to Italy. In the United States, the average CEO earned about 30 times what the average worker earned in the mid-1970s (1973 being the year in which income inequality in the United States was at its historically lowest point). Today the multiplier lies around 400. Similarly, the income of the top 1 percent (or even more striking, the top 0.1 percent) of the U.S. population has skyrocketed in relation to that of the remaining 99 percent, bringing income inequality back to levels not seen since the Roaring Twenties. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 1-2)

The problem is not, or at least not only, that such income discrepancies exist, but that there is no way to legitimate them. At present there is no way to rationally explain why a corporate CEO (or a top-level investment banker or any other member of the 1 percent) should be worth 400 times as much as the rest of us. And consequently there is no way to legitimately appeal to solidarity or to rationally argue that a factory worker (or any of us in the 99 percent) should take a pay cut in the name of a system that permits such discrepancies in wealth. What we have is a value crisis. There are huge differentials in the monetary rewards that individuals receive, but there is no way in which those differentials can be explained and legitimated in terms of any common understanding of how such monetary rewards should be determined. There is no common understanding of value to back up the prices that markets assign, to put it in simple terms. (We will discuss the thorny relation between the concepts of “value” and “price” along with the role of markets farther on in this chapter.) (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 2)

This value crisis concerns more than the distribution of income and private wealth. It is also difficult to rationalize how asset prices are set. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis a steady stream of books, articles, and documentaries has highlighted the irrational practices, sometimes bordering on the fraudulent, by means of which mortgage-backed securities were revalued from junk to investment grade, credit default swaps were emitted without adequate underlying assets, and the big actors of Wall Street colluded with each other and with political actors to protect against transparency and rational scrutiny and in the end to have the taxpayers foot the bill. Neither was this irrationality just a temporary expression of a period of exceptional “irrational exuberance”; rather, irrationality has become a systemic feature of the financial system. As Amar Bidhé argues, the reliance on mathematical formulas embodied in computerized calculating devices at all levels of the financial system has meant that the setting of values on financial markets has been rendered ever more disconnected from judgments that can be rationally reconstructed and argued through.5 Instead, decisions that range from whether to grant a mortgage to an individual, to how to make split-second investment decisions on stock and currency markets, to how to grade or rate the performance of a company or even a nation have been automated, relegated to the discretion of computers and algorithms. While there is nothing wrong with computers and algorithms per se, the problem is that the complexity of these devices has rendered the underlying methods of calculation and their assumptions incomprehensible and opaque even to the people who use them on a daily basis (and imagine the rest of us!). To cite Richard Sennett’s interviews with the back-office Wall Street technicians who actually develop such algorithms: (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 2-3)

“I asked him to outline the algo [algorithm] for me,” one junior accountant remarked about her derivatives-trading Porsche driving superior, “and he couldn’t, he just took it on faith.” “Most kids have computer skills in their genes … but just up to a point … when you try to show them how to generate the numbers they see on screen, they get impatient, they just want the numbers and leave where these came from to the main-frame.” (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 3)

The problem here is not ignorance alone, but that the makeup of the algorithms and automated trading devices that execute the majority of trades on financial markets today (about 70 percent are executed by “bots,” or automatic trading agents), is considered a purely technical question, beyond rational discussion, judgment, and scrutiny. Actors tend to take the numbers on faith without knowing, or perhaps even bothering about, where they came from. Consequently these devices can often contain flawed assumptions that, never scrutinized, remain accepted as almost natural “facts.” During the dot-com boom, for example, Internet analysts valued dot-coms by looking at a multiplier of visitors to the dot-com’s Web site without considering how these numbers translated into monetary revenues; during the pre-2008 boom investors assigned the same default risks to subprime mortgages, or mortgages taken out by people who were highly likely to default, as they did to ordinary mortgages.8 And there are few ways in which the nature of such assumptions, flawed or not, can be discussed, scrutinized, or even questioned. Worse, there are few ways of even knowing what those assumptions are. The assumptions that stand behind the important practice of brand valuation are generally secret. Consequently, there is no way of explaining how or discussing why valuations of the same brand by different brand-valuation companies can differ as much as 450 percent. A similar argument can be applied to Fitch, Moody’s, Standard & Poor, and other ratings agencies that are acquiring political importance in determining the economic prospects of nations like Italy and France. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 3)

This irrationality goes even deeper than financial markets. Investments in corporate social responsibility are increasing massively, both in the West and in Asia, as companies claim to want to go beyond profits to make a genuine contribution to society. But even though there is a growing body of academic literature indicating that a good reputation for social responsibility is beneficial for corporate performance in a wide variety of ways—from financial outcomes to ease in generating customer loyalty and attracting talented employees—there is no way of determining exactly how beneficial these investments are and, consequently, how many resources should be allocated to them. Indeed, perhaps it would be better to simply tax corporations and let the state or some other actor distribute the resources to some “responsible” causes. The fact that we have no way of knowing leads to a number of irrationalities. Sometimes companies invest more money in communicating their efforts at “being good” than they do in actually promoting socially responsible causes. (In 2001, for example, the tobacco company Philip Morris spent $75 million on what it defined as “good deeds” and then spent $100 million telling the public about those good deeds.) At other times such efforts can be downright contradictory, for example when tobacco companies sponsor antismoking campaigns aimed at young people in countries like Malaysia while at the same time targeting most of their ad spending to the very same segment. Other companies make genuine efforts to behave responsibly, but those efforts reflect poorly on their reputation. Apple, for example, has done close to nothing in promoting corporate responsibility, and has a consistently poor record when it comes to labor conditions among its Chinese subcontractors (like Foxconn). Yet the company benefits from a powerful brand that is to no small degree premised on the fact that consumers perceive it to be somehow more benign than Microsoft, which actually does devote considerable resources to good causes (or at least the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does so). (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 3-4)

Similar irrationalities exist throughout the contemporary economy, ranging from how to measure productivity and determine rewards for knowledge workers to how to arrive at a realistic estimate of value for a number of “intangible” assets, from creativity and capacity for innovation to brand. (We will come back to these questions below as well as in the chapters that follow.) Throughout the contemporary economy, from the heights of finance down to the concrete realities of everyday work, particularly in knowledge work, great insecurities arise with regard to what things are actually worth and the extent to which the prices assigned to them actually reflect their value. (Indeed, in academic managerial thought, the very concept of “value” is presently without any clear definition; it means widely different things in different contexts.) (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 4)

But this is not merely an accounting problem. The very question of how you determine worth, and consequently what value is, has been rendered problematic by the proliferation of a number of value criteria (or “orders of worth,” to use sociologist David Stark’s term) that are poorly reflected in established economic models. A growing number of people value the ethical impact of consumer goods. But there are no clear ways of determining the relative value of different forms of “ethical impact,” nor even a clear definition of what “ethical impact” means. Therefore there is no way of determining whether it is actually more socially useful or desirable for a company to invest in these pursuits than to concentrate on getting basic goods to consumers as cheaply and conveniently as possible. Consequently, ethical consumerism, while a growing reality, tends to be more efficient at addressing the existential concerns of wealthy consumers than at systematically addressing issues like poverty or empowerment. Similarly, more and more people understand the necessity for more sustainable forms of development. And while the definition of “sustainability” is clearer than that of “ethics,” there are no coherent ways of making concerns for sustainability count in practices of asset valuation (although some efforts have been made in that direction, which we will discuss) or of rationally determining the trade-off between efforts toward sustainability and standard economic pursuits. Thus the new values that are acquiring a stronger presence in our society—popular demand for a more sustainable economy and a more just and equal global society—have only very weak and unreliable ways of influencing the actual conduct of corporations and other important economic actors, and can affect economic decisions in only a tenuous way. More generally, we have no way of arriving at what orders of worth “count” in general and how much, and even if we were able to make such decisions, we have no channels by means of which to effect the setting of economic values. So the value crisis is not only economic; it is also ethical and political. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 4-5, emphasis added)

It is ethical in the sense that the relative value of the different orders of worth that are emerging in contemporary society (economic prosperity, “ethical conduct,” “social responsibility,” sustainability, global justice and empowerment) is simply indeterminable. As a consequence, ethics becomes a matter of personal choice and “standpoint” and the ethical perspectives of different individuals become incommensurate with one another. Ethics degenerates into “postmodern” relativism. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 5, emphasis added)

It is political because since we have no way of rationally arriving at what orders of worth we should privilege and how much, we have no common cause in the name of which we could legitimately appeal to people or companies (or force them) to do what they otherwise might not want to do. (The emphasis here is on legitimately; of course people are asked and forced to do things all the time, but if they inquire as to why, it becomes very difficult to say what should motivate them.) In the absence of legitimacy, politics is reduced to either more or less corrupt bargaining between particular interest groups or the naked exercise of raw power. In either case there can be no raison d’état. In such a context, appeals to solidarity, like that of the Monti government in Italy, remain impossible. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 5-6)

There have of course always been debates and conflicts, often violent, around what the common good should be. The point is that today we do not even have a language, or less metaphorically, a method for conducting such debates. (Modern ethical debates are interminable, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in the late 1970s.) This is what we mean by a value crisis. Not that there might be disagreement on how to value social responsibility or sustainability in relation to economic growth, or how much a CEO should be paid in relation to a worker, but that there is no common method to resolve such issues, or even to define specifically what they are about. We have no common “value regime,” no common understanding of what the values are and how to make evaluative decisions, even contested and conflict-ridden ones. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 6)

This has not always been the case. Industrial society—that old model that we still remember as the textbook example of how economics and social systems are supposed to work—was built around a common way of connecting economic value creation to overall social values, an imaginary social contract. In this arrangement, business would generate economic growth, which would be distributed by the welfare state in such a way that it contributed to the well-being of everyone. And even though there were intense conflicts about how this contract should apply, everyone agreed on its basic values. More importantly, these basic values were institutionalized in a wide range of practices and devices, from accounting methods to procedures of policy decisions to methods for calculating the financial value of companies and assets. Again, this did not mean that there was no conflict or discussion, but it did mean that there was a common ground on which such conflict and discussion could be acted out. There was a common value regime. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 6)

We are not arguing for a comeback of the value regime of industrial society. That would be impossible, and probably undesirable even if it were possible. However, neither do we accept the “postmodernist” argument (less popular now, perhaps, than it was two decades go) that the end of values (and of ethics or even politics) would be somehow liberating and emancipatory. Instead we argue that the foundations for a different kind of value regime—an ethical economy—are actually emerging as we speak. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 6)

Laughing Buddha: Jesus as Messiah

One of my most memorable adventures as a cultural intermediary occurred about twelve years ago when I translated for a Christian colleague who was visiting the monastery in southern India where I was living. He was there working on a translation of a Buddhist text, and I volunteered my services as interpreter. One day, in the course of his conversations with one of the senior scholars of the monestary, it came up that he was a Christian, and my teacher asked him to share some of his beliefs. My friend chose to focus on Jesus’ identity as messiah. As I finished translating the words of my colleague, my teacher broke out in a fit of laughter, much to my embarrassment. He then proceeded to question his interlocutor in a kind of pointed and unabashedly adversarial way that is typical of the Tibetan monastic debate courtyard. There ensued a lively exchange, but when all was said and done, my teacher’s basic question was this: How can the death of one individual act as the direct and substantive cause for the salvation of others?

Behind this interreligious impasse there are of course operative several Buddhist doctrinal presuppositions that are in marked contrast (at times even in opposition) to those of traditional Christianity, not the least of which is the Buddhist vision of what constitutes liberation.

Several corollaries to the Buddhist view of liberation are especially relevant as responses to the Christian confession of Jesus as messiah. (1) Each of us is responsible for our own lot in life. We each cause our own suffering, and each of us is ultimately responsible for our own liberation. (2) Our salvation is not dependent on any one historical event. Specifically, our salvation is not dependent upon the appearance of any one personage in history. True, the actions of others can help us or hinder us on the way, but no action (or lack of action) on the part of another individual—whether human or divine—can seal our fate, either as regards salvation or damnation. (3) Soteriologically, there is no end to time, no time after which sentient beings will suffer, and thus long will there be the possibility of their liberation. (4) No being has the capacity to decide whether or not we will be saved. Salvation is not granted to us, or withheld from us, by some external force. It is self-earned. (5) No single action on our part can instantaneously cause our liberation. What brings about salvation is not mere belief or faith, even a faith that is sustained throughout en entire life. Certainly, it is not the instantaneous belief in something (e.g., the belief that Jesus is Lord) that brings about salvation, but the long and arduous process of radical mental transformation, which requires more than simply belief.22

Together these various tenants make it impossible for Buddhists to accept a messianic creed of the traditional Christian sort. Jesus may have been an extraordinary human being, a sage, an effective and charismatic teacher, and even the manifestation of a deity, but he cannot have been the messiah that most Christians believe him to have been.23 (Gross et. al. 2000, 27-28, José Ignacio Cabezón, A God, but Not a Savior, Iliff School of Theology.)

22 I am not unaware of the fact that in the history of Buddhism there have been movements that challenge this notion of the nature and path to salvation. Especially important to mention in this regard are certain schools of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. But again, I remind my readers that I am speaking here principally from an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist doctrinal perspective.

23 Of course, if the Jesus Seminar is right, than Jesus did not make this claim of himself. See Funk et. al, The Five Gospels, pp. 32-34.

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It is well known within the comparative religious studies field that there exists a phenomena whereby a founder reveals a teaching of experience and after passing another teaching about the founder develops in the minds of those who are tasked with creating the social institutions that perpetuate the founder’s teachings. It is the teachings of the founder distinct from the teachings about the founder that are important and often lost in historical time until recovered through critical religious scholarship. This of vs. about distinction is important. The teachings of Jesus are distinct and separate from the teachings about Jesus that developed after his death. The atonement doctrine which in light of modernity is nothing more than divine child abuse was a doctrine developed after Jesus lived, taught, and died and is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus as he revealed them through his life and teachings as exemplified in his many parables. The same can is found in the life experience of Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit/Devanagari: सिद्धार्थ गौतम Siddhārtha Gautama, c. 563/480 – c. 483/400 BCE) and many other religious teachers. Similarly the teaching of Honen Shonin were modified by Shinran Shonin’s teachings which were adapted by Rennyo Shonin’s teachings and so on it goes.

It may well seem to you that the gospel of Jesus did not include all that is high and holy in the Christian gospel as we know it. All those magnificent, transcendent, Christian beliefs seem absent from the original gospel of Jesus his “gospel” may seem minimal by comparison with the gospel! Missing from his gospel are not only where he came from (“conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”), but also what he came to do. Where, after all, is “the saving work of Christ”: dying for out sins, rising on the third day, appearing to the apostles resurrected from the dead? These are, after all, the gospel about Jesus, which you, understandably enough, believe and cherish. But if you really are committed to Jesus, then you should be committed to the gospel of Jesus, which is what I have written this book to try to help you see and understand: the “good news” Jesus offered people during his public ministry. (Robinson 2005: 225)

Robinson, James M. The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. New York: HarperCollins; 2005; p. 225.

Oracles of Science

[S]cientism“—an exaggerated and ideologically explainable respect for a certain mistaken image of science. Indeed, two of the most remarkable figures in thrall to “scientism” were Freud and Marx themselves. Their own theories must be reinterpreted in order to free them from this incubus.

Alexander Rosenberg, Philosophy of Social Science, 2016, p. 156.

[S]cientism is] an exaggerated and often distorted conception of what science can be expected to do or explain for us. One aspect of scientism is the idea that any question that can be answered at all can best be answered by science. This, in turn, is very often combined with a quite narrow conception of what it is for an answer, or a method of investigation, to be scientific. Specifically, it is supposed that canonical science must work by disclosing the physical or chemical mechanisms that generate phenomena. Together these ideas imply a narrow and homogeneous set of answers to the most diverse imaginable set of questions. Everywhere this implies a restriction of the powers of the human mind; but nowhere is this restriction more disastrous than in the mind’s attempts to answer questions about itself.

John Dupré, Human Nature and the Limits of Science, 2002, p. 2.

Science as Pseudo-Religion

Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, one of the greatest particle physicists of the twentieth century, assured his readers that the universe was “pointless” in his classic The First Three Minutes, still selling briskly a quarter century after its initial publication. We look in vain, says Weinberg, for a purpose for human existence or anything else and must console ourselves selves with the knowledge that science can lift the human experience above its natural level of “farce” and give it the “grace of tragedy.” (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 40-43)

[Oracles of Science argue] that outside science we cannot find respectable truth; this, of course, is scientism, not science…. Scientism is a belief that serves its adherents very well, assuring them that only science provides vides a valid paradigm for assessing knowledge claims. Scientism is, however, an obviously self-defeating ideology. Its claims about its own epistemology are not the consequence of any scientific investigation but rather reach outside itself into the very realm that it claims does not exist. The claim that there is no valuable knowledge outside science certainly cannot be supported from within science. This is an extremely simple philosophical error, akin to a child claiming that because all the people he knows are in his house, that there cannot be any people outside his house. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 565-570)

When we reflect on science—its aims, its values, its limits—we are doing philosophy, not science. This may be bad news for the high priests of scientism, who reject philosophy, but there is no escaping it. Dawkins is a good scientist and a brilliant communicator and certainly would have been an effective lawyer or politician, but he seems strangely unaware that he is an abysmal philosopher and an even worse theologian. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 570-573)

How a scientist becomes a disciple of scientism is mysterious, because science and scientism are incompatible. Science owes its success to its restricted focus—its acknowledged inability to even address questions like those raised by scientism, much less answer them. Scientists concentrate on very particular subjects, generally astonishingly narrow, and use rigorous methods to study them, submitting their hypotheses to careful scrutiny and avoiding extrapolations or unwarranted generalizations. In contrast, scientism is an unsupported generalization, bad philosophy masquerading as science or one of its consequents. This qualifies as a virus of the mind, to use Dawkins’s own terminology. Most of scientism’s disciples are casual and probably not even aware that they hold this philosophy, but when scientism is seriously adopted, it becomes a sort of pseudo-religion, providing a meaning to life, and an ideal for which one will fight. Conversion to this strong form of pseudo-religious scientism often derives from two related factors: a disillusionment with some form of traditional religion, and the discovery that science is wonderful and seems to provide meaning and values, in addition to knowledge. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 573-579)

There are indeed important values associated with scientific work, and the progress of science contributes to their spread. Progress in crucial aspects of contemporary culture reflects the spread of scientific values. But as most practicing scientists have discovered, one can work in science, easily mixing its values with unrelated extra-scientific interests. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 579-580)

Dawkins points, repeatedly and with enthusiasm, to the diversity of religions and concludes that their very diversity proves that no one of them is reliable. Of course, Dawkins’s ideas are themselves much debated among scientists, and serious disputes do indeed exist regarding the very aspects of evolutionary theory that he champions. This, however, hardly constitutes an argument that all these various points of view are equally vacuous and that there can be no serious discussion about them. Dawkins seems strangely unmoved by the large number of thoughtful scholars—including his colleagues leagues at Oxford University, like Keith Ward, Alister McGrath, and Richard Swinburne—whose religious beliefs are accompanied by serious reflection and considerations of evidence. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 580-584)

There is, to be sure, a great difference between the general unanimity of science and the diversity of religions. But there is a considered response to this. We reach the peculiar agreement and intersubjectivity of natural science only when we deal with repeatable patterns in the natural world. Scientists have the luxury of gathering together in laboratories to share common, repeatable, and predictable experiences. It is no surprise that when we pose problems related to meaning and spiritual realities, it is more difficult to reach agreement. When we insist on testability, empirical control, quantification, repeatability, and so on, we should be aware that we are confining our study to those realities that meet these criteria. This study is both wonderful and exciting, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the scientism that would impose its straitjacket on the human mind, denying the value or validity of other explorations. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 584-589)

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The Ideological Uses of Evolutionary Biology in Recent Atheistic Apologetics

Why should we be concerned about biology and ideology? One good reason is that the use of biology for non-biological ends has been the cause of immense human suffering. Biology has been used to justify eugenic programs, enforced sterilization, experimentation on living humans, death camps, and political ambitions based on notions of racial superiority, to name but a few examples. We should also be concerned because biological ideas continue to be used, if not in these specific ways, then in other ways that lie well beyond science. Investigating the past should help us to be more reflective about the science of our own day, hopefully more equipped to discern the ideological abuse of science when it occurs. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

One of the most remarkable developments during the opening years of the twenty-first century has been the appearance of a number of high-profile populist books offering an aggressively atheist critique of religion.’ This “clustering” of prominent works of atheist apologetics in the period 2004-7 is of no small historical interest in its own right, and is widely taken to reflect a cultural reaction against “9/11”-the suicide attacks tacks in New York in September 2001, widely regarded as being motivated by Islamic extremism. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

Yet the appearance of these works is of interest for another reason. A central theme of two of them is that developments in biology, especially evolutionary biology, have significantly negative implications for belief in God. Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, both published in 2006, express the fundamental belief that the Darwinian theory of evolution has such explanatory power that it erodes many traditional metaphysical notions-such as belief in God-through its “universal acid.” This represents an extension of the basic lines of argument found in earlier works, in which an appeal to biological understandings of human origins, subsequently amplified to include accounts of the origins of human understandings of purpose and value based on evolutionary psychology, which was made in order to erode the plausibility of belief in God. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

From its first appearance, some saw Darwinism as a potential challenge to at least some aspects of the traditional Christian view of creation. Yet it is important to appreciate that most early evolutionists, including Charles Darwin himself, did not consider that they were thereby promulgating or promoting atheism. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, serious ous Christian thinkers had come to realize that at least some metaphorical interpretation was demanded in considering the early chapters of Genesis, so that their possible incompatibility with evolution was not the major stumbling block for the intelligentsia that might be expected (see also Harrison, Chapter 1, this volume).’ Nor is there any shortage of later significant evolutionary biologists who held that their science was consistent with their faith, such as Ronald A. Fisher, author of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), and Theodosius Dobzhansky, author of Genetics and the Origin of Species (193’7).’ The emphasis upon Darwinism as an acid that totally erodes religious belief, though anticipated in earlier periods, appears to have reached a new intensity in the first decade of the twenty-first century. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

This chapter sets out to explore the emergence of this focused appeal to evolutionary biology in Dennett’s and Dawkins’ recent works of atheist apologetics, both considering it in its historical context and offering an assessment of its impact on the popular understanding of Darwinism in the early twenty-first century. This appeal to biology in the defense of atheism is complex and nuanced, and there are significant differences of substance and emphasis between atheist writers who adopt such an approach. Nevertheless, some common factors emerge, which suggest that this is an appropriate line of inquiry to pursue, of no small intrinsic intellectual interest to both historians and evolutionary biologists. (Alexander and Numbers 2010, emphasis added)

As my concern in this chapter is specifically with biological issues, I shall not engage with the more general argument, also embedded within some recent atheist writings, that the natural sciences as a whole make faith in God intellectually irresponsible or risible.’ This argument occasionally reflects an implicit presumption, generally not defended by an appeal to historical scholarship, of the permanent validity of a “warfare” or “conflict” model of the historical interaction of science and religion.” It is clear that this model has continuing cultural authority, especially at the popular level. It may have been radically revised, even discredited, by academic historians; it is, however, clear that this development has yet to filter down to popular culture. While this atheist argument merits close attention, as it has relevance for the calibration of traditional Christian approaches to evidence-based apologetics, it is not a topic that I propose to address further here. My main theme is the manner in which Darwinism has been transposed in recent atheist apologetics from a provisional scientific theory to an antitheistic ideology. My focus is on the ideological use of the biological sciences, especially evolutionary biology, in recent atheist apologetics, a topic which I believe is best considered under three broad categories: (1) the elevation of the status of Darwinism from a provisional scientific theory to a worldview; (2) the personal case of Charles Darwin as a role model for scientific atheism; and (3) the use of the concept of the “meme”-a notion that reflects an attempt to extend the Darwinian paradigm from nature to culture-as a means of reductively explaining (and hence criticizing) belief in God. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

Darwinism as an ideology

One of the most interesting developments of the twentieth century has been the growing trend to regard Darwinian theory as transcending the category of provisional scientific theories, and constituting a “world-view.” Darwinism is here regarded as establishing a coherent worldview through its evolutionary narrative, which embraces such issues as the fundamental nature of reality, the physical universe, human origins, human nature, society, psychology, values, and destinies. While being welcomed by some, others have expressed alarm at this apparent failure to distinguish between good, sober, and restrained science on the one hand, and non-empirical metaphysics, fantasy, myth and ideology on the other. In the view of some, this transition has led to Darwinism becoming a religion or atheist faith tradition in its own right. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

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Science as a Social Activity

Most sociologists and anthropologists agree on the definition and the domain of their disciplines; the same holds true for many psychologists, political scientists, and almost all economists. The same cannot be said for philosophers and philosophy. Philosophy is a difficult subject to define, which makes it difficult to show social scientists why they should care about it—the philosophy of social science in particular…. [T]he subject is inescapable for the social scientist…. [W]hether as an economist or an anthropologist, one has to take sides on philosophical questions. One cannot pursue the agenda of research in any of the social sciences without taking sides on philosophical issues, without committing oneself to answers to philosophical questions. (Rosenberg, Alexander. Philosophy of Social Science. Boulder, CO: Westview Press; 2016; p. 1.) 

(…) Questions about what ought to be the case, what we should do, and what is right or wrong, just and unjust, are called normative. By contrast, questions in science are presumably descriptive or, as sometimes said, positive, not normative. Many of the normative questions have close cousins in the social and behavioral sciences Thus, psychology will interest itself in why individuals hold some actions to be right and others wrong; anthropology will consider the sources of differences among cultures about what is good and bad; political science may study the consequences of various policies established in the name of justice; economics will consider how to maximize welfare, subject to the normative assumption that welfare is what we ought to maximize. But the sciences—social or natural—do not challenge or defend the normative views we may hold. In addition to normative questions that the sciences cannot answer, there are questions about the claims of each of the sciences to provide knowledge, or about the limits of scientific knowledge, that the sciences themselves cannot address. These are among the distinctive questions of philosophy of science, including questions about what counts as knowledge, explanation, evidence, or understanding. (Rosenberg 2016, 2-3)

PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS OF SOCIAL SCIENCE

If there are questions the sciences cannot answer and questions about why the sciences cannot answer them, why should a scientist, in particular a behavioral or social scientist, take any interest in them? The positions scientists take on answers to philosophical questions determine questions they consider answerable by science and choose to address, as well as the methods they employ to answer them. Sometimes scientists take sides consciously. More often they take sides on philosophical questions by their very choice of question, and without realizing it. The philosophy of science may be able to vindicate those choices [or undermine them]. At least, it can reveal to scientists that they have made choices, that they have taken sides on philosophical issues. It is crucial for scientists to recognize this, not just because their philosophical positions must be consistent with the theoretical and observational findings of their sciences. Being clear about a discipline’s philosophy is essential at the research frontiers of the disciplines, it is the philosophy of science that guides inquiry…. [T]he unavoidability and importance of philosophical questions are even more significant for the social scientist than for the natural scientist. The natural sciences have a much larger body of well-established, successful answers to questions and well-established methods for answering them. As a result, many of the basic philosophical questions about the limits and the methods of the natural sciences have been set aside in favor of more immediate questions clearly within the limits of each of the natural sciences. (Rosenberg 2016, 3)

The social and behavioral sciences have not been so fortunate. Within these disciplines, there is no consensus on the questions that each of them is to address, or the methods to be employed. This is true between disciplines and even within some of them. Varying schools and groups, movements and camps claim to have developed appropriate methods, identified significant questions, and provided convincing answers to them. But among social scientists, there is certainly nothing like the agreement on such claims that we find in any of the natural sciences. (Rosenberg 2016, 3)

The social and behavioral sciences have not been so fortunate. Within these disciplines, there is no consensus on the questions that each of them is to address, or the methods to be employed. This is true between disciplines and even within some of them. Varying schools and groups, movements and camps claim to have developed appropriate methods, identified significant questions, and provided convincing answers to them. But among social scientists, there is certainly nothing like the agreement on such claims that we find in any of the natural sciences. In the absence of agreement about theories and benchmark methods of inquiry among the social scientists, the only source of guidance for research must come from philosophical theories. Without a well-established theory to guide inquiry, every choice of research question and of method to tackle it is implicitly a gamble with unknown odds. The choice of the social scientist makes it a bet that the question chosen is answerable, that questions not chosen are either less important or unanswerable, that the means used to attack the questions are appropriate, and that other methods are not. (Rosenberg 2016, 4)

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The reason for the everlasting interaction between science and philosophy transpires clearly. The human mind musters an admirable ability to think up equations for physical systems. But equations need to be interpreted in terms of physical models and mechanisms. Science requires conceptual understanding. This understanding employs fundamental philosophical notions. (….) The scientific enterprise comes with philosophical commitments, whether the scientist likes it or not. The scientist needs philosophical ideas, simply because amongst the experimental and mathematical tools in the toolbox of the scientist there are conceptual tools, like fundamental notions. The despairing scientist may ask: ‘Will we ever get an answer?’ The philosopher replies: ‘Not a definitive answer, but a few tentative answers.’ Recall that the philosopher (and the scientist qua philosopher) works with conceptual models. At any one time only a few of these models are in circulation. They cannot provide the definitive answers of which the scientist is fond. But this is typical of models even in the natural sciences. (Weinert, Friedel. The Scientist as Philosopher: Philosophical Consequences of Great Scientific Discoveries. Berlin: Springer-Verlag; 2004; pp. 278-279. )

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Science is not above criticism. On the contrary, because of its influence on modern society, science and scientists need careful scrutiny as much as they deserve admiration and support. As Helen Longino eloquently puts it, science is a social process, and one that is far too important to be left in the hands of scientists alone. Perhaps the most dangerous fallacy a scientist can commit, often subconsciously, is to only do science and never think about it. Yet many scientists who I know are not aware of the broad discussion about how science is done (or shouldn’t be done) that permeates the literature in philosophy and sociology of science. Worse yet, when asked, they positively sneer at the idea of doing philosophy or sociology of science. (Pigliucci 2002: 247)

This lack of understanding of philosophy and sociology of science by scientists is, of course, at the root of … scientism … [When] a scientist of the caliber of Noble Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg can even go so far as writing a book chapter entitled “Against Philosophy,” in which he argues that philosophy is not only useless, but positively harmful to the scientific enterprise … [we see a] sort of hubris that offends many [religionists] … (not to mention philosophers), and they have every right to be offended. (Pigliucci 2002: 247)