Monday, March 12, 2007

Douglas Adams Speaks About Religion

Coturnix reminds us that yesterday was the birthday of Dougls Adams [Happy Birthday Douglas Adams]. Most of us remember the funny Douglas Adams and, in that vein, Coturnix posted a number of humorous quotations.

But there was a serious side to Douglas Adams and I'm going to post an extended quotation of Adams that I first saw in A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins. As most of you know, Douglas Adams and Richard Dawkins were friends—Adams introduced Dawkins to his current wife. [Lament for Douglas]

The quotation in A Devil's Chaplain is taken from a speech that Adams gave in Cambridge in 1998. The complete text of the speech is at [Is there an Artificial God?]. You can also listen to a podcast of Douglas Adams giving the speech. Here's what Douglas Adams says about our attitude toward religion.

Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I'm sure we'll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn't withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn't seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That's an idea we're so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it's kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? — because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'Fine, I respect that'.

The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking 'Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?' but I wouldn't have thought 'Maybe there's somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics' when I was making the other points. I just think 'Fine, we have different opinions'. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody's (I'm going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say 'No, we don't attack that; that's an irrational belief but no, we respect it'.

It's rather like, if you think back in terms of animal evolution, an animal that's grown an incredible carapace around it, such as a tortoise—that's a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it; or maybe like a poisonous fish that nothing will come close to, which therefore thrives by keeping away any challenges to what it is it is. In the case of an idea, if we think 'Here is an idea that is protected by holiness or sanctity', what does it mean? Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that's holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we've just got used to doing so? There's no other reason at all, it's just one of those things that crept into being and once that loop gets going it's very, very powerful. So, we are used to not challenging religious ideas but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you're not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be.
We've discussed this issue many times. What is it about religion that makes us bend over backwards to avoid offense? We wouldn't hesitate to criticize those who fall for "The Secret" or those who are taken in by Sylvia Browne. We challenge those people who claim that the moon landings were faked. We debunk urban legends. We question homeopathy.

But if a man says he can't turn on a light switch because it's Saturday we say nothing. Why is that? Is it because the orthodix Jew is expressing a personal belief that's none of our business? If that's it then what about conspiracy buffs or those who think they've been abducted by aliens? Aren't those harmless personal beliefs as well? Is Adams correct to assume that it's "religion" that's out-of-bounds?


  1. Douglas Adams was a remarkably intelligent and insightful chap. I miss him. If you get a chance, someday pick up and read his book Last Chance to See about looking for, and at, several very endangered species of animals.

    What is it about religion that makes us bend over backwards to avoid offense?

    Very deeply-ingrained training, coupled with common sense. How often have you heard this line, or something like it: "there are two subjects that are always guaranteed to start an argument: religion, and politics"? Everybody knows religion is the third rail of personal interactions, so everybody stays away from it except in two circumstances: 1) when you're among people whom you know all believe the same way you do; or 2) when you're explicitly trying to convert others to your religion.

  2. Other subjects that share this "bend over backwards" quality with religion: in the U.S., race relations; in Canada, natives/aboriginals and to a lesser extent, language (French vs. English).

    These subjects share to some extent or other the quality that one is born with these characteristics or inculcated in them by parents when too young to critically assess the information (that would also include politics for most folks). So criticizing another's religious beliefs, politics, native language, or ethnic group has a quality of "Yo momma!" about it, and thus it's not at all surprising that these are subjects less susceptible than many others to rational disagreements.

  3. I disagree that religion is uniquely protected from open dispute. As other commenters have pointed out, contra Adams, politics is also not a "safe" subject (unless the Brits are more sanguine about it than North Americans).

    I also think his chosen example is a poor one. The deference with which you choose to treat the light switches in your house is on par with your taste in wallpaper or which nights you have sex with your spouse -- None Of My Business, and it would be rude of me to criticize it. That's not to say that religion should be immune to critique in any and all contexts (and Dawkins provides examples in TGD of places where religion does get an illegitimate free pass), but the nitty-gritty of personal rituals ain't it (may as well criticize my insistence on having a large mug of tea right after breakfast, every morning, without fail).

  4. I feel religion is the most "no-go" subject of them all, because, if one is religious, then that religion permeates all aspects of one's life, including one's ability to view things from a rational prerspective. The problem with religion was most starkly outlined for me in the moivie dogma, where Chris Rock's character points out that it's better to have a good idea, than to believe, because faith leaves no room for growth, most especially blind faith.

    Religionists appear to belive there is some kind of honour in believing blindly, while I can only view it as stupidity. No offence intended.

  5. Eamon Knight you have completely missed the point. The chosen example expressed by Mr Adams was not that of a personal nuance of switching a light on, on a Saturday. He refers to Orthodox Jews, who believe any work on the Sabbath is against their religion. There are specific tenements about what constitutes work , one governing this is the idea that completing a circuit or using electricity is against their religion, it constitutes the rule of "acts of creativity" and to some violates the very rule of "make fire"

    It would pay you well to research Orthodox Judeism, and in fact other religions before wading in and offering opinion on them. It is much akin to religious groups debating against science without having any specific knowledge on said science.