Let's Be Rational

by Theodore Dalrymple (Dec. 2006)
 
Not long ago, I spoke at a colloquium attended mostly by American conservatives. They were, at least to me, a highly congenial audience, friendly, humorous, polite, cultivated and very well-read (not always, let us be quite frank, the first characteristic of conservatives in any country). I happened to mention on the platform during one of the sessions that I was not religious, unlike the other members of the panel. I cannot now remember the precise context in which I made my terrible confession.
 
I was surprised afterwards that several of the audience approached me and thanked me for it. What was there to thank me for? They said that they, too, were without religious faith, in short atheists, and it was a relief to them that someone, otherwise of like mind with the majority of the audience, had confessed it.
 
I found this strange, perhaps because I come from a country in which irreligion is now the norm and no one feels obliged to hide his disbelief, rather the reverse: it is faith that one feels obliged to equivocate about in polite company. In Europe, it requires more courage to be religious than irreligious, at least if one has achieved more than a certain level of education. One of the most important differences between Europe and America, we are often told (and I myself partly believe), is that in the former religion is dead as a live social force, whereas it is very much alive in the latter. I find myself in the rather peculiar position of thinking that this is much to the advantage of the United States, though I cannot myself assent to any kind of religious belief. It is, after all, the truth that is supposed to set you free, not a convenient myth.
 
An atheist who would disagree with me very strongly is Richard Dawkins, the biologist and formidable polemicist. In his latest book, which is quite likely to become a worldwide best-seller, though not perhaps in Islamic countries where it is needed most, he evinces a hatred of religion that I, who have no faith, and believe some at least of the things that he believes (for example, the rather unpleasant nature of the deity as portrayed in the Old Testament) am quite unable to feel. I don’t hate religion, in fact I am rather in favour of it; I am like Gibbon, who said admiringly of Roman religious syncretism that the people believed that all religions were equally true, that the philosophers believed them all equally false, and that the magistrates believed them all equally useful, without any of them coming into conflict over the matter. Religion was useful, that is, from the point of view of improving human behaviour and keeping it lawful.
 
In his book, Dawkins maintains that atheist Americans are afraid openly to avow their disbelief; and because he seems temperamentally inclined to overstate his case, whatever the subject matter, I did not really believe him. On the other hand, I recalled my experience at the colloquium, and I telephoned an American friend of mine, a conservative intellectual in that modern Babylon, New York, and asked him what he thought. I was a little chagrined to discover that he thought there was an element of truth in what Dawkins had written; I was chagrined because I was reviewing his book, and wanted another stick to beat him over the head with.
 
Now of course a sample of one is not a very large sample, indeed it could hardly be smaller, even if supported by my experience at the colloquium. But my friend is a man with antennae that are sensitive to the American Zeitgeist, as it were, even though he lives in Manhattan, and I believed him.
 
But still I have many points of disagreement with Dawkins. He is an unreconstructed believer in technical progress, as if such progress is not sometimes equivocal and does not bring in its wake new and unanticipated problems. He seems to believe that the more technical progress we make the happier we shall be. This seems to me to be unrealistic. 
 
He cites the example of in vitro fertilisation (IVF), as a result of which many parents have experienced the inexpressible joy of parenthood who would otherwise not have experienced it. This is undoubtedly true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth by any means, which is more complex.
 
IVF is successful in at best a quarter of those who undertake it. It is very expensive and time-consuming. It therefore has various effects, besides the joyous denouement of a new baby.
 
In the first place, it makes the condition of childlessness worse than it might otherwise be. What cannot be cured must be endured; by holding out the hope that childlessness can be cured, it prevents, or at least delays, the acceptance of what is destined to be a lifelong condition, and therefore prolongs suffering unnecessarily. It raises hopes that are more likely than not, by quite a wide margin, to be dashed. In the meantime, people will spend a large amount of money and focus their attention exclusively on a single object, to the detriment of their psychological balance. It is far from unknown for couples to break up when IVF finally succeeds or finally fails. The idea that life will be perfect on condition of x is rarely constructive.
 
IVF, moreover, has created moral dilemmas. Who should be entitled to it? Anyone who asks for it? Should there be any requirement that the mother-to-be (if the procedure works) has certain qualities that will make her a good, or good enough, mother? After all, people who wish to adopt children are made to jump through all sorts of hoops before permission is given them, and justice requires that people should be treated equally in morally equivalent situations; should the recipients of IVF be made to jump through the same hoops as adoptive parents, therefore? We are faced with a dilemma: either we make no demands of the woman receiving IVF, in which case we are emptying behaviour of important moral consequences, or we make such demands, at the cost of inflaming ideological conflict about such matters as what it means for a woman to be a proper mother.
 
In Europe, we have seen the strange phenomenon of women in their 60s undergoing successful IVF. Of course, we do not yet know that women in their 70s make bad mothers: perhaps they will make excellent mothers, provided that they survive, because of their long experience of life.
 
But the overall cultural effect of such pregnancies is to propagate and reinforce the notion of life as an existential supermarket, in which you can live any way you choose by fetching a way of life down from the supermarket shelf, in the same way as you choose breakfast cereal. In this brave new world, there are no intrinsic limits that you must accept if you are to be free, balanced and happy. Here I recall Burke’s famous dictum that men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion as they are prepared to place a limit on their own appetites. The realisation that ‘having it all’ is not a realistic possibility, that every pleasure entails foreclosure on other pleasures, that hard choice is always necessary and that reality always bites back against those who refuse to make such choices,  is an important stage in the achievement of maturity. Oddly enough, the acceptance of frustration is the precondition of happiness. One way to avoid permanent misery is not to demand more of life than it can yield.
 
Dawkins might answer in two ways. First, he might say that, with further experience, experimentation and technology, IVF will become more successful: indeed, it is the only way IVF can become more successful. At some point (perhaps, not certainly), the ratio of success to failure will change: instead of being 1:4, as it is now, it will be 4:1. Then there will be no possible doubt that the sum of human happiness will be increased by it, which must be doubtful now.
 
This is a good argument, but it relies more on faith than on reason, precisely what Dawkins, as a rationalist, would wish to avoid. It is of course possible, even likely, that the results of IVF will eventually improve, but we cannot know this for certain in advance of all experience. It is possible that they will not. When William Harvey made perhaps the greatest physiological discovery, the circulation of the blood, in the history of medicine, he had faith that eventually such knowledge would lead to benefits for humanity. In fact, it was centuries before it did so: his belief was faith-based, and for a very long time would have had no rational support in its evidence.    
 
The second argument is that Man has made a Promethean bargain and it is impossible for him to go back on it, even if he wanted to. Just as Time’s arrow flies in one direction only, so there is no way where science and technology is concerned except forward. Moreover, it is a matter of empirical fact that our increasingly secular and technological culture has also brought, or at least co-existed with, genuine moral advance. There is no reason to suppose that such advance will not continue.
 
There are no decisive arguments about the moral effects of technology. It seems to me likely, for example, that nuclear weapons have so far saved more lives than they have taken: that without them, an armed conflict in Europe between east and west would have been much more likely, and that therefore millions of lives might have been lost if nuclear weapons had not existed. (This is quite apart from the argument over the justification for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)
 
Proliferation of nuclear weapons, however, might in the end tip the balance against them, especially if they fell into the hands of terrorists or leaders with apocalyptic visions. The jury is out, and out for ever, at least until a nuclear holocaust actually takes place, when the verdict will be clear enough, if anyone is left to hear it.
 
 I do not disagree with Dawkins that, in some important respects there has been moral progress. The casual acceptance of racism in large parts of the world, for example, is now a thing of the past, and even people who still harbour racist ideas are afraid either to express them or to act upon them. I can’t think of this as anything but moral progress.
 
And yet Dawkins disregards other important aspects of morality in which regression had undoubtedly occurred. To give only one example: the rate of indictable offences has increased 40 times in the country of his birth, Britain, in his lifetime, notwithstanding an enormous increase in wealth and the standard of living as measured by consumption of material goods. And this rise of crime alone has had a terrible effect on the quality of life of millions of people, who justifiably live in  constant fear and who arrange their lives accordingly. The old, for example, are under perpetual curfew, imposed by some of the young, in Britain.
 
In other words, matters are more complex than Professor Dawkins would have us believe. Progress is possible but not inevitable, and certainly not without its ironies either. (In our new-found happiness, 10 per cent of us feel constrained to take anti-depressants.) An old-fashioned rationalist, he does not acknowledge that a perfectly self-consistent way of life, based purely upon reason and nothing but reason, is not possible. And in his latest book he portrays the typical believer as an ignorant bigot who goes round shooting abortionists, or slaughtering people who deviate in the slightest from his doctrine. You might as well say that Lenin was the typical atheist, who wants to kill all priests - as Lenin had thousands killed in no time at all.
 
Dawkins’s latest book is an example of the nothing-but school of historiography: European history is nothing but the history of warfare and genocide, American history is nothing but the history of exploitation and oppression of the blacks, and so forth. For him, the history of religion is nothing but the history of bigotry, savagery, ignorance, intolerance. Of course, all of these are to be found in the history of religion, and bigots still abound. The problem with the nothing-but school of history, apart from its incompleteness and untruth, is fuels the very thing against which it rails, bigotry and hatred. 
 
 

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