The Right Reverend Professor Tom Frame responded to my email — and quite a nice response it was. He’s given me permission to publish it here. A big thank-you to him for engaging!
Dear Andy (if I might be informal)
Thanks for taking the trouble to write to me after a busy day.
It might help you to know that I didn’t produce the “extract” that appeared in today’s SMH. It was put together by the publishers (UNSW Press) and the editor of the Op Ed page. In fact, I wasn’t aware that it was appearing this week until I began to receive email this morning. As most of the email has been abusive and combative, your carefully considered email was a pleasant change.
The sentences to which you refer do not appear in that order in the book, they are from two separate chapters and were merged to give an impression you won’t find in the book. I am pleased that you intend to acquire a copy (which is some 110,000 words in length) and examine the arguments that I present in the depth and in the order that I present them. It is neither anti-Darwin nor anti-evolutionary theory.
There is one matter I want to touch on here. In a forthcoming book on unbelief in Australia (it will appear in Nov 09) I have identified and differentiated the two common strains of atheism in Australia: positive atheism and negative atheism. Positive atheism contends that God does not exist whereas a negative atheist is someone without a belief in God. You are plainly a negative atheism whereas many of the people who have emailed me today are positive atheists. It is difficult to have a conversation with a positive atheist and, these days, I don’t even try.
I hope you find the book useful. It is, in essence, an account of the influence of evolutionary theory on Australian thinking and popular culture. What appeared in today’s newspaper was not an accurate reflection of its objective. I would be interested in your thoughts after reading the narrative.
WARNING: This post talks about Atheism and religion. I am an Atheist. If you feel you might be offended, or are unable to tolerate the idea of anyone questioning your particular religion, I would encourage you to skip this article.
For the first time in a long time, I felt moved to write a letter in response to an article I saw on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website. I’m not normally the type to engage, especially on this particular subject, but I felt that there were some serious misrepresentations of the standard Atheist position in the article (which I would encourage you to read first, if you plan to read this blog post).
However, I fear I must make an objection to some of the views you expressed in the article. Specifically (and I quote):
“A dedicated Darwinian would welcome imperialism, genocide, mass deportation, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, euthanasia, forced sterilisations and infanticide. Publicly, he advocates none of them.”
Only a madman could truly agree with any of these policies! As a staunch atheist (despite a dedicated Catholic upbringing) and what you might call a ‘Darwinist’ (though I might object to that title myself) I can only object to the ‘logical conclusions’ you think Darwinism should take us to.
Evolution goes a long way to explaining the way the world around us is now, but it does not take into effect future societal factors — our development of symbolic reasoning, which in turn has given us technology (of all sorts), has freed us as a species from the normal effect of evolution. The laws of evolution apply only loosely to human beings now — medical science gives us the ability to survive all manner of illnesses which would once have proven fatal (and this is surely for the best).
We are no longer primates swinging from the trees; as a species, we plant, harvest and cultivate the trees. Of course, our technology does raise certain problems — to express the situation harshly, there are individuals passing on their genetic information who would not have had a chance to do so, two thousand years ago. Some illnesses which would once have been fatal to a given expression of genes (ie. a valued individual of our species) no longer have an evolutionary effect, and are becoming more prevalent.
One could draw the conclusion that these people should not be saved, if one was to take a ‘harsh’ Darwinist stance. However, I would argue that the same technologies that save these individuals gives us the opportunity to eradicate these diseases; given that we have the means to make life better for ourselves as a species, and as individuals, there is no need for genocide, eugenics, ethnic cleansing or the like (all of which are reprehensible acts, Darwinism or no).
Of course, whether or not we should use those technologies raises still further debates — which I shall not enter into here!
Further, you state the following: “Crudely naturalistic science leaves no room for poetic truth, refuses to honour any spiritual element in physical things and cannot accept the existence of a human soul.”
Again I must object — Atheism does not preclude God; rather, an atheist usually takes the position that there is (as yet) insufficient evidence for God’s existence. Science cannot prove a thing’s non-existence and God may very well exist, but atheists choose to live their lives on a different basis than assuming he does. This does not make us cruel or terrible people — every life is still unique and valuable to the whole, whether or not it was divinely crafted or not. Nor, I feel, does atheism reduce in any way the beauty or aesthetic value of a sunrise seen from Mt Buffallo, or trivialise the feel of sand between ones’ toes on the beaches of Queensland. Whether these experiences are divinely crafted or not, they are experiences unique in all the Universe; each moment is valuable and precious whether or not God planned it to be so.
Finally, I would argue that science may indeed be incapable of asking if life has any intrinsic meaning, but this frees us to ask if we want to give it any particular meaning as a species. Navel-gazing about our divine origins boots us nothing; what matters is how we treat the people around us, and whether we choose to make life better for the denizens of our planet. A sense of divine entitlement can only be detrimental to our attitudes towards the unique world we find ourselves inhabiting — we should, as ever, approach the world with a sense of humility, and ask not whether God has given it to us (or not), but ask what we can give back to the world to make it a better place.
I fear this is probably sounding very “secularly humanist”, and if so, it’s an accusation I’ll happily take on the chin. Nevertheless, I thank you for your writing, which I found edifying and engaging, and look forward to reading your book.