On the Guardian website, Tufts professor Daniel Dennett and British Lord Robert Winston have engaged a fascinating exchange on the role of religion and reason in public life. Dennett mainly argues that illogic is hopelessly bound up in all religious devotion, and therefore comes to be a dangerous part of our (gently) Judeo-Christian mainstream. He notes:
It used to be the case that we tended to excuse drunk drivers when they crashed because they weren't entirely in control of their faculties at the time, but now we have wisely inverted that judgment, holding drunk drivers doubly culpable for putting themselves in that irresponsible position in the first place. It is high time we inverted the public attitude about religion as well, finding all socially destructive acts of religious passion shameful, not honourable, and holding those who abet them - the preachers and other apologists for religious zeal - as culpable as the bartenders and negligent hosts who usher dangerous drivers on to the highways. Our motto should be: Friends don't let friends steer their lives by religion.
He relies basically upon a presumption that other institutions that encourage irrational exuberance--such as sports or the arts--are openly branded as such, while the fluid boundaries between religious morality and everyday behavior make religious exuberance less discernible, and therefore all the more parasitic.
Winston, of course, will have none of it, and actually invokes Pascal's Wager (only Paley's argument by design is flimsier) as a justification for the obvious empiricism of religious devotion. Religious moralism (he doesn't specify which kind) is rational, it is right, and even if it isn't, it is hard-wired into the human brain and must be acknowledged as such. He then goes on to discuss how a self-righteous "certainty" pervades nonbelievers and their evidenciary science as well:
The problem is that scientists now too frequently believe we have the answers to these questions, and hence the mysteries of life. But, oddly, the more we use science to explore nature, the more we find things we do not understand and cannot explain. In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man's uncertainty. Perhaps the paradox is that certainty, whether it be in science or religion, is dangerous. The danger of Dennett's relatively gentle brand of certainty is that it increases polarisation in our society. With inflexible positions on both sides, certainty surely is the biggest threat to rationality, and to science.
I must say that Dennett makes a better argument regarding the increased polarization of civic debate--if only because he skewers that unique politesse that sanctions most religiously-underpinned statements and behaviors and decisionmaking, however extreme, and because Winston sees this trend as more civil, rather than less equal. Both have a point, especially regarding the strange role of uncertainty itself. I'm sure rebuttals and more will fly during their live debate (where can the Americans get a load of this?).