Harry Hope's Saloon

This blog takes it's name from the setting for O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh -- a lousy gin-mill; a smoked-out, greasy dive where the habitues have all landed, it seems, permanently. Their lives, in each case, are paralyzed by fear and laziness. Like my own.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Why the unreasoning right?

The Dawkins interview mentioned by Scott in the previous post is, to my mind, both highly admirable and generally uninteresting. It's admirable that he's unwilling to give ground on the stupid "agnosticism" tactic. And it's admirable that he's willing to stand against the intellectual crippling of children and adults. However, most of the interview is spent knocking down easy targets, and the two really engaging questions it raises are never pursued.

One of these questions is how the advent of genome mapping, screening, and engineering will affect the future course of species and ecosystems, and especially the kinds of organisms we're willing to call "persons". I'll put this one aside, along with the question, developed by Scott, of how religion can interfere with the pursuit of meaning and goodness. For the time being, I want address the issue of the current American turn toward religious conservatism, and its relation to the Enlightenment spirit that inspires Dawkins. He says:

My American friends tell me that you are slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age. Which is very disagreeable for the very large number of educated, intelligent and right-thinking people in America. Unfortunately, at present, it's slightly outnumbered by the ignorant, uneducated people who voted Bush in.

But the broad direction of history is toward enlightenment, and so I think that what America is going through at the moment will prove to be a temporary reverse.


But what isn't mentioned, and absolutely ought to be, in this segment of the interview, is the impressive momentum throughout the twentieth century of intellectual systems which, while godless (at least in principle), were nevertheless immune to the enlightenment of science, rooted in wholly unreasonable conceptions of human nature and history, and often as deeply threatened by the insights of evolution as is any godly religion. As a short list of isms, I'll mention Marxism, racialism, modernism, radical egalitarianism, second-wave feminism, deep ecology, and Ayn Rand's Objectivism. It's important to reflect on the rise of these belief-complexes in order to remind ourselves that we don't avoid the pitfalls of bad religious belief (what Dawkins calls "delusion") merely by disbelieving in an Old Man In The Clouds; but also, with more immediate significance, it allows us to more soberly, and less fearfully, assess present ideological trends in the USA.

The idea that we're heading into a "dark age" for science, and in particular for evolutionary theory, is a tough conclusion to avoid, if we were to tacitly accept that the major enemies of "the right" (from either side's perspective) are in fact mostly Enlightenment, pro-science value systems. At an anecdotal level, I'm not at all convinced that that's the case. As one example, the "left" in this country has managed to deeply entrench a taboo against considering genetic contributions to psychological differences between the sexes and races. (Dawkins' head should be shaking at the obvious dearth of endocrinological and evolutionary biological expertise among "gender studies" departments.) As another example (and somewhat contradicting the first, if reason is to be our tool), a more recent taboo has developed against research concerning environmental contributions to sexual orientation. Not always, but far too often, the wrath of the academic and political left has descended upon researchers who attempt to quantify and test a broad hypothesis which (to my mind) is patently obvious: that such undesirable behaviors as rape, sexual harassment, adultery, bigotry, and male-on-male violence are largely manifestations of genetic patterns that have had great reproductive power for our ancestors. (As opposed to their primary cause being, say, the propaganda of a patriarchal conspiracy, or the alienation brought on by technological developments.) Having read most of Dawkins' books, I'm virtually certain that he'd agree with me in condemning these taboos. Among Salon readers especially, he should have taken the opportunity to mention them, and to expressly connect them to the harmful aspects of religion.

Ultimately, what I'm suggesting in mentioning these points is that the broader social dynamic which we're undergoing, of which growth in the religious right plays a crucial role, is probably not as simple as Dawkins makes it seem in the interview (a temporary swing away from enlightenment, to be followed by a larger swing back toward it). It may actually be more comparable to an immune system response, against so many godless anti-enlightenment movements of the last century. That is, it may be an indication to the contemporary left to thoroughly purge itself of its own delusional and dangerous ideologies, and to more fully embrace the teachings of legitimate science and history when it comes to our biologies and our social structures. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I'm increasily noticing indices of precisely that dynamic.

And, after all, Andrea Dworkin is out of the picture. Let Dawkins be the new left, then -- hallelujah.

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