Soulful Science

I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense that he inevitably espoused as a man of his time.” – Richard Dawkins, Science in the Soul, p. 279.

Photo of Geoff at Refugee Rally, Melbourne, Australia, 7 December 2019, photo by Michael Barnett.

It may come as a surprise that Richard Dawkins has not only written about Jesus, but has done so respectfully, upholding Jesus as a potential role model for us all.

Dawkins’ book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (New York: Random House, 2017) contains a collection of his eclectic writings from varied sources, including Atheists for Jesus, a column originally published in Free Inquiry in December 2004.

Dawkins does not explore in any great detail the question of whether or not Jesus was an actual historical figure, and he certainly dismisses the mythological aspects of virgin births and other miracles that violate known physical laws. But he also acknowledges what he calls the superniceness of a man whose teachings, whether real, fictional or mythological, stand in apparent contradiction to Darwinism (and in contradiction to religious organisations that amass great wealth or who foster ‘epidemics of evangelism’).

Of course, Dawkins’ analogy becomes strained when pondering the reality that Jesus’ teachings were not without their shortcomings. Nor were his ideas unique – many other philosophies and religions have echoed similar doctrines of benevolence and optimism, and similarly failed to deliver. This includes the failure that Carl Sagan assigns to science: ‘Many of us [scientists] didn’t even bother to think about the long-term consequences of our inventions… In too many cases, we have lacked a moral compass.’ (Billions and Billions, New York: Ballantine, 1997, p. 164).

Perhaps part of our role as Humanists is to raise a voice, and take an ethical stand in a secular world that seeks principles. In line with Dawkins’ idea, I have heard it said that Humanism is, “Christianity without Christ”. If this is true, I wonder if we align more closely with liberation theology (liberation for the poor and oppressed) than with prosperity theology (faith aligned with prosperity). Inverting the “Christians without Christ” concept, was Jesus actually a Humanist despite his veneer of pre-scientific religion?

As atheists and Humanists, perhaps we should ponder Richard Dawkins’ words to consider superniceness as something that we can learn from alleged religious principles. Not only would this help create a nicer world, but it may also build a bridge between us and religious progressives.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

2 thoughts on “Soulful Science”

  1. © 2020Hi Geoff. The “superniceness” of christianity possibly owes its origin to Darwinian Evolution. It seems to me that it is no accident that humans are by far the most highly socialised animal on the planet (“social insects” don’t count as they have family {genetic} rather than non familial or social ties. Have we not “evolved” to socialise and co-operate because this has increased our evolutionary fitness? Perhaps many religions simply follow and re-inforce our genetically inherited imperative. Perhaps as humanists we should promote better socialisation (superniceness) as the purpose or meaning of life?

    1. © 2020Hi Tony, thanks for your thoughtful response. Yes, religions, like all human constructs, must surely adapt to survive as our species evolves, and ‘superniceness’ may be be one aspect of this increasingly secular humanist evolution. Your last question is a good challenge to all Humanists.

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