Science and Unreason: Richard Dawkins

This week, I had the opportunity to see renowned British scientist Richard Dawkins speak as part of his new book tour (his book is aimed at children and teens, and is quite creative and appealing). Dawkins is one of the most prominent thinkers in 20th-21 first century biology and natural sciences, and certainly, his contribution is indeed remarkable. But Dawkins is notoriously pro-science and anti-religion, to which I say—-why the schism? I myself am the daughter of a Hindu scientist, and am a very serious spiritual practitioner with a background in biological anthropology (though my degree was in Anthropology: Social Sciences). Why does he overlook the religious traditions that are pro-science, such as Buddhism?

Perhaps one of the most pro-science, high profile individuals in the world today is HH Dalai Lama, the great leader of (the Yellow Hat branch of)Tibetan Buddhism. He himself has said that, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” His Holiness has done much to assist with the field of neuroscience and the scientific study of the brain and mind; one need only do a Google search with the words “Dalai Lama” and “science” to see the plethora of articles on the interconnectedness of Buddhism and science. The basis of Buddhism is impermanence and change, the evolution of thought, and seeing what is—-all concepts that relates well to the fundamentals of modern scientific thinking and scientific methodology.

Dawkins fails to clarify that “religion” as he uses the word really refers to “Judeo-Christian” religion as well as more basic or fundamentalist types of ideas from any world religion. His thought processes reveal a narrow-mindedness that is a common process in any system of thought or philosophy or religion that bills itself as the ONLY way of thinking without any room for input from the opposite side, a dogmatism that one can see in fundamentalist Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, politics, or any culture. It is rather ironic that Dawkins himself is rather caught up in a rather emotional, dogmatic campaign to promote his brand of scientific rationality as the only answer.

Also frustrating about Dawkins is his mission to eliminate non-scientific explanations of natural phenomena. It seems a bit like the schoolyard child with the pin trying to pop your balloon. There is nothing wrong about myths or non-scientific explanations to explain the wonders of nature; they simply need to be contextualized as such, and not taught as- and confused with scientific truth. And vice versa: scientific truth is (if we look at it very, very simplistically), a method-tested, results-repeatable, quantitative, analytical, logical explanation for the wonders of nature. It is a tool which has allowed us to manipulate the world to a degree deemed impossible for centuries if not millennia. It has allowed us to make exponential progress (and, if we look at the state of the environment, regress) and achieve advances in technology that have changed the course of human history in a very short time. Science and myth/religion/storytelling are perhaps two sides of the same coin, quantitative and qualitative explanations for life.

No, we cannot let the religious right prevent us from teaching evolution in schools. Yes, our politicians are generally very misinformed and fearful of science and scientific rationality. Yes, faith often gets in the way of rationality. But we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater and completely dismiss religion as though it is all irrational, emotional, extremist poppycock. And for those of us not from the Judeo-Christian tradition, we cannot continue to allow the faith vs. rationality schism to persist.

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Differences between Postcolonial and Macedonian literature—-Guest Post

By Kalina Maleska-Gegaj, PhD

We have seen that postcolonial and postcommunist literatures have certain characteristics in common. There are, on the other hand, significant differences between them as well. One of the differences certainly comes from the geographical locations – whereas the postcolonial countries in general are situated further away from the Western countries, on continents other than Europe and North America, the postcommunist countries are direct neighbours of the developed nations of the West. Therefore, Macedonians feel more as part of Europe. The geographical locations have certainly contributed to different historical contexts, so that Eastern Europe has never been colonized by the more developed Western states.

After Macedonia’s independence, what is noticeable about its literature, especially the literature produced by writers who speak English, French, German or another of the Western European languages, is a relation of acceptance of a literary expression which is a combination of Macedonia’s own culture and the culture of the Western world. This relation is very different from that which exists between the postcolonial nations and their colonizers.

In this context, it is important to emphasize that Macedonia has never been a formal colony in the sense in which India, Kenya or Nigeria have been. Therefore, there is no strong criticism and definite rejection of foreign culture in Macedonian literature or literary criticism, although there may be some exceptions. It can be said that there are more similarities with Rushdie’s procedures than with the more stringent approach of Achebe. Therefore, the response of Macedonian postcommunist literary theory and practice is quite different from the response of postcolonialism.

Although Macedonia does not display such a strong hostility towards the foreign domination, it does face certain dilemmas in trying to find its own identity. Those dilemmas are: to what extent the foreign influence can be a creative stimulation, and when it begins to represent an obstacle for the growth of one’s own literature. How much does the cultural variety from abroad enrich and how much does it deny one’s own culture? Should authors create their works following theoretical and critical Western framework or should they find their own individual expression?

The answers to these questions can be largely ambiguous. In the colonial countries, there seems to be much stronger rejection of the Western European (formerly imperial) states than in Macedonia. In the Balkan context, Macedonia is aware of the discrepancy between itself and Western European countries, which view the Balkans as a less civilized and wilder place. Thus, on the one hand, Macedonia may and partly does identify itself with the colonized states, while, on the other hand, it advocates the Western values, as it has always been geographically part of Europe. Besides, it is a fact, proven by many surveys, that its citizens in the beginning of the twenty-first century tend to be part of EU, and the Macedonian writers certainly feel as European, which is very different from the case of the postcolonial writers.

Dr. Kalina Maleska-Gegaj, Ph.D. is an Assistant in English Literature at Blaze Koneski Faculty of Philology
Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje, Macedonia

Mama Africa

This post is a sort of counterpoint to the previous one, I suppose. A couple of years back, in order to get myself out of a bad mood, I decided to search online for some information related to poverty, as my status as a well-educated American is certainly a very enviable one, globally speaking. I happened upon some Human Development Index (HDI) charts, and they brought me to tears. At the bottom of the list were the nations of sub-Saharan Africa. I think Niger was at the bottom of the list. And it struck me, as it has struck me many times before—–
Why is it that the darker the skin, the poorer the man?
Why is it that the poorest countries have the darkest-skinned people? Or,
Why is it that, in every country (even in populations where everyone is dark-skinned), the poorest people or the people at the bottom of society are the most dark?

The negative effects of this are numerous. Not only is there the obvious issue of racial discrimination, but also issues of public health, education, political access, and economics. The causes are also numerous: colonialism, capitalism gone wild, internal strife/civil war, the interaction of genetics and culture (social Darwinism), the caste system (in India; caste means “color,” but it also relates to labor and one’s particular social group). People of non-white cultures will most certainly freely admit that there is discrimination among them, and lighter-skinned people are considered “better.”

But when this issue is on such a continental scale, when the poorest nations are all centered on one continent, one cannot help but ask why this is so, and why more effective efforts are not being done? What is it about the intertwining of capitalism and race that has led to such social stratification? One person alone cannot provide all the answers; even governments and institutions struggle with this and have been struggling with this for centuries.

Perhaps part of it begins with those of us in the developed world examining our perceptions, or shall we say, misperceptions of Africa as all one monolithic place. The continent is a conglomeration of many races, religions, languages, and cultures. Over 50 countries comprise the continent countries which can be perceived as various regions, such as Egypt and the Maghreb (the Muslim north); the Saharan countries which are so sparsely populated and often nomadic; Western Africa, from where American blacks trace their ancestry, with oil-rich Nigeria; the cradle of human origins in Eastern Africa, mountainous regions as well as plains; Central Africa, former colonies which are still undergoing much political strife as well as being developed for harvesting natural resources, and the world’s poorest country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Southern Africa with its ever-continuing legacy of European settlers and high rates of AIDS. These are but crass generalizations, but it is imperative that people see Africa as a continent with great diversity connected through geography, history, and, sadly, poverty and a lack of development.

It is not simply fashionable, leftist rhetoric to raise these questions and correlate poverty with skin color; the statistics speak for themselves. This is the beauty of the social sciences, to be able to connect theories about society with the hard data that backs it up. We must examine the manifestations of poverty in each of our societies and communities in which we live. We must be willing to ask the hard questions and examine the hard answers. Yes, it may be ugly. But so is the reality that billions of people all over the world, not just in Africa, are facing.

In Defense of the Canon

Why the disturbing trend over the past couple of decades toward secondary sources and a dislike of, or sometimes, hatred of the Canon?  Yes, virtually all of it is by Dead White Men, a cohort of individuals whose life experiences were indeed limited and shaped by their particular geography and Judeo-Christian values.  But what is ironic is that even the greatest post-colonial writers or ethnic minority writers, such as Nobel laureates Derek Wolcott and Toni Morrison, are themselves extremely well read in the classics and the Canon, and it informs and influences their works.  Without the Canon, one’s scope is limited, as is one’s understanding of history, classic literary themes, tropes, motifs, allusions, et cetera.  There is a certain “flatness” to the work of many scholars and writers of recent times, for it smacks of excessive self-absorbed individuality or literary disconnect.  In my opinion, this reflects the underlying problem of a general lack of historicity in many people’s perspectives in American academia.  American culture places such a high value on individualism and the now that context—-and along, historical context of hundreds if not thousands of years—-seems to have no importance in shaping one’s mind.  I find literary scholarship and criticism often very guilty of this, with reading into earlier works from a current perspective:  really, shouldn’t Elizabeth Bennet have earned her own living as an investment banker and just hooked up with Darcy on weekends?   Shouldn’t Madame Bovary have just gotten some therapy and a divorce?  But seriously, scholarship based purely on feeling or an individual’s psychological needs reads as somewhat juvenile.  (There are those who maintain that Americans are the teenagers of the world.)  Needless to say, those scholars who have no exposure to non-white, non-Western, colonial and post-colonial works or ideas are just as bad—-they come across as living in some bizarre sort of time warp, dinosaurs of an academic age that is long past.  (I myself suffered through a couple of these professors during my graduate studies).  Aren’t they missing out on Rushdie’s pastiches of literary genius?  Pamuk’s tremendous insight into Turkey’s position between East and West?   Scholars who come from cultures and civilizations that are 10 times as old as their American one?  But for any writer, my feeling is that the Canon is a must.