Darwin and humanity: Should we rid the mind of God?

A special debate between Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, author of "Dawkins' God" and "The Dawkins Delusion" and Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, well-known atheist and supporter of Richard Dawkins, as seen on Channel 4's "The Trouble with Atheism".

This event was organized jointly by the University of Edinburgh Philosophy Society and The Christian Union. It was held in George Square Lecture Theatre which seats 500, however was overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to attend, over 300 people had to be turned away.


Fretbuzz said...

Well here is yet another "debate" deciding to play the rules of: Science vs. God. Again, I don't see big questions being answered here, but I did appreciate the topic of what are the limits of knowledge? I think this question holds more weight than any other part of the debate. What strikes me is that these 2 people are discussing the limits of conscious attention - that is a "spotlight" type of thinking which focuses, specializes and gets detailed. Is there any room from discussion about awareness type thinking - ie. the "floodlight" mind which is equally perceptive to the world and life, and yields such wonders as intuition, "vibe" etc. Is this the mind that ponders the existence of God? If so, then is the basic problem that the narrowed spotlight is trying to understand a more global principle like the root and ground of being, but simply can't because it is specialized and not big picture thinking?

Holy Crap, I don't know if that made sense but it did to me ..

Anyways, to take a page out of the Eastern traditions, as soon as you try to talk about ultimate things, you are at a loss for words. I guess I feel that like some Pentecostal preachers and way out Mystics can be sick, so can the solely Rational thinker. If we have the capacity to focus, as well as to be aware then doesn't it follow that utilizing both types of mind are the healthy way to go?

Joe B said...


Put more simply, there's a creative part of the brain and a reasoning part. I've heard that called the child brain and the adult brain.

I am consciously aware of both of these in my own thinking. I imagine things from the mundane to the fantastical. I dream. My adult brain analyzes the possibilities, finds ways to express fantasy in responsible and attainable ways.

I found that, in my xian life, the church took over my child brain. It imposed a set of fantasies and charged my adult brain to make sense of it. In the end, my rationalizations were fruit of a poisoned tree.

As an ex-xian, I'm taking charge of my imagination again. I've got my own dream of living productively, progressively, respectfully, and happily. My rational mind is figuring out how to do that.

Nvrgoingbk said...


Perhaps the reason humans persist on believing in and speaking of a supernatural realm is because there is one. Perhaps man's need for a god of one kind or another points to the fact that there IS something beyond what our five senses can percieve. It doesn't seem that any of the other animals ponder such things. I don't know if I would want my mind rid of god, if we are supposed to as a species keep looking for him/her/it. The supernatural seems almost hard-wired into our brain.

As Joe said, when I was a Christian, the church tried to rid my mind of rationality. I don't appreciate ANY fundamental way of thinking, because it leaves no room for creativity either way. THe reality of our existence is too big to be boxed into purely religious OR rational thought. Science should not seek to destroy mystical thinking, and the mystics should not seek to destroy science.

Fundamental religion is something else altogether. It seeks to take mystical musings, collect them into a pile of how-to's and must-nots and then Lord them over the populace and destroy anyone who dares to disagree. Fundamental Athiests scare me too, though. Some of them are opposed to any talk of the supernatural. They want to put the universe in a box, and narrow everything down to the mathematics and science of how things happen to be and how they work. But I don't think Science will ever be able to stifle the mystic mind.

I just don't know why the two areas of thought can not live harmoniously together.

Joe B said...

Why do so many people believe in God?

Easy to understand really. It's the natural selection of religions. There were lots of gospels. Some have passed the fitness test, others failed to do so. There have been lots of cults. Some rise to prominence and are sustained, others self-destruct or cannot survive in the competition with others.

Daniel Dennett portrays religion as an evolved extension of humanity. He makes a great point that applies here.

Why do lots of people believe in xianity, Islam, etc. It's because these religions evolved to have purchase on the minds of the masses. They are articulated to capture people at a modest literacy level (where most people are). Those that required a lot of high-end philosophical arguments can thrive only in very specific niches. Those that tend to confront the host government/society tend to go the way of the Branch Davidians. Religions that can't change with the times go extinct when the environment changes.

I'm continually shocked to hear academics use arguments from popularity and appeals to authority to defend views.

Anonymous said...

Well, Sam Harris has a take on getting rid of religon: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." (p. 53, The End of Faith.)

So Sam Harris, one of the leading atheist gurus, will tell us what BELIEFS...not ACTIONS...are so dangerous that the people BELIEVING them may be killed.

Shades of Trotsky.

webmdave said...

Grady, I just looked up your reference. Whatever you think you are quoting, it certainly is NOT on page 53 of Sam's book.

Want to try again? I'll assume you made a mistake and aren't blatantly lying.


Anonymous said...

fretbuzz -

what you are referring to is the conscious vs the subconscious brain.

our brains are pathetically limited, but it is often hard for people to see and understand the fact because well, we are the product of our brains. It's difficult to see something from the outside when you are inside the thing you want to see.

Our conscious brain is very limited in the amount of stimuli from the outside world it can process. Consider the amount of data one must also process coming internally as well and it's not hard to see how our brain often has to "fill in the gaps" or make guesses assembling stimuli from the outside world.

But although we can only consciously process in a narrow focused zone, we are very adept at a detailed analysis of that narrow field of view. As such much of the tasks of processing "everything else" has been regulated to the subconsciousness of our brains.

What people often call "intuition" or "vibe" is what our senses pick up but do not process consciously. The fact that someone's pupil dilates when they are interested in you, someone's voice changes in pitch as they lie, someone's eye muscles have not moved even though their mouth is smiling, or the movement of their body seems opposed to what they say are often picked up by our subconscious and fed into our brain system. By alerting our bodies subconsciously and releasing the brain chemicals as part of its process, our bodies are already prepared by the time our conscious mind decides on its response, especially in fight or flight situations.

Like the peripheral vision in your eyes, the subconscious that operates almost autonomously can quickly process the vast amount of incoming data. Regulating our heartbeat, breathing, blood/sugar levels, pain awareness, discomfort awareness, hunger, danger sensitivity, it's pretty much business as usual until something unusual, important or possibly dangerous arises.

We think we understand ourselves because we are what we are, but I believe that our conscious brain only barely understands our subconscious and how it works. Our consciousness is busy constantly trying to put the puzzle pieces together, analyzing, processing, testing, re-analyzing the results, testing again, filling in gaps, making assumptions, extrapolating. There is a lot of noise (extraneous data) that our conscious brain has to try to cut thru to find the "signal" out there. Ever taken a shower and swear that you heard someone at your home calling out to you? Or hear strains of music just barely audible over a loud fan? Our brains will always try to pick a signal from the noise, regardless of whether it is really there or not.

Our subconscious is there, constantly processing a stream of information, making advance preparations in the physiology of our bodies, adjusting it for possible responses that gives us the best advantage for survival. Why best for survival? Because all ones who did not died. That is our evolutionary history.

Our conscious mind is limited but has become very adept at filling in the gaps. It fills in the holes in our vision, it fills in gaps in our senses. It tries to make sense out of all the data, comprehensible or incomprehensible, it doesn't matter. But it's not always correct.

Flying saucers become explanations for fast moving lights in the night sky. Did I mention our night vision sucks?
In the dark room, an unexpected shadowy figure in the corner.. actually a pile of clothing on a chair.
Tell a blindfolded man it's milk, but give them orange juice and they will tell you how delicious the milk was. Our sense of smell and taste suck as well.
Creaks in an old house become a ghostly apparition dragging chains.
An accident at home becomes bad feng shui.
A comet in the sky becomes a malevolent omen.
Lighting becomes the weapon of Thor.
A fatal accident in which you are the only survivor becomes an act of god.

we are excellent indeed at filling in the gaps.. if only we weren't so often so absurdly wrong.

Anonymous said...

oh .. i forgot to add, fretbuzz, no I don't believe that it is the subconscious that ponders god, superstition or aliens. the subconscious is tasked with our survival, our instinctual/wired responses, regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

it is the conscious mind that struggles with explaining and rationalizing the the dissonance of data

Anonymous said...

one more thing... unfortunately the conscious mind is shackled the inadequacies of the subconscious.

they are not separate entities, but two sides of the same coin. our bodies are mechanical gap fillers, whether conscious or subconscious, and tempered by the release of neurotransmitters and other chemicals in our body. The problem is that even our own mind does will not be aware when the internal system has broken down and has begun to affect our mind's operations. Our perceptions, our delusions, our illusions and our capacity for rational or irrational thought..

we don't even know when we've gone insane... we can't

Joe B said...


I don't think we're talking about the conscious/subconscious divide here, but rather the developmental divide that leaves us with two conscious capacities -- to imagine and to reason. There's a healthy tension between the two dimensions of thought, unless some pressure comes in to override the reasoning part to suggest that the imagined (or implanted image) must be true.

Jamie said...

I haven't read the Sam Harris book...a quick web search reveals that the quote is indeed in there (more or less), but is lifted out of it's context considerably. I found on this website the full text of the quote:

The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:

Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.

What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.

The link between belief and behaviour raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas. (The End of Faith, p52-53.)

Anonymous said...

There's a lovely article in the New York Times awhile back (March 4, 2007) titled, 'Darwin’s God' by Robin Marantz Henig. She essentially argues that the human species evolved and adapted in a manner where group affiliation and support was necessary for survival. Being a member of a group, whether it is religious in character or not, provided humans with more opportunities to survive. Henig goes on to infer that religious affiliation, rather than being negative, actually benefited the human species. And those activities which hindered this organization of humanity were not benefitial on an evolutionary scheme of things. Therefore, she argues, athesism, which desires to rid humanity of religious group formation, may actually have a negative impact on the survial of the species.

It is a humorous propostion, indeed.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem with this debate is that people have been given a false dichotomy. You either believe in God or you don't. Why should we be forced to make this decision to begin with? Why does everything have to be so binary? It's like the human race is just one giant multithreaded computer processor. If someone had never been exposed to God, would they "need" to make the decision as to whether or not he exists? Animals don't seem to need to make this decision.

A. Ford

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