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Nick and Matt’s Faith-Based Chat

Anyone who’s met Nick S. knows he’s smart, insightful, and delightfully droll. When he calls you out on something, it’s worth taking a hard look at yourself. He left a comment on my last post, Three Vague Words on Pottery Prove the Bible True, in which I claimed it was a wild leap of exaggeration to take an archaeological artifact of dubious value and hold it up as evidence of the literal truth of a Biblical parable. (Read the comments thread here.)

His comment was:

Yes, religious minded people can accept silly things to support their view of the world. It’s a consequence of a preference for convenience and comfort rather than truth, I suspect. But then, the non-believers accept equally silly “truths” in their longing to discredit a worldview driven by faith and powered by something bigger than themselves.

Isn’t it just as silly when people say things like, “hey I read the The Da Vinci Code, so now I know the truth, and I can stop thinking about such things”? Scientists too, in their sometimes-mad quest for more knowledge can also believe silly things. (Eugenics anyone?) Last time I checked there wasn’t a lot of compelling evidence to sustain string theories and an 11-dimension universe, but people still talk about those ideas, and ideas like them, as if they were uncontested fact.

I value both faith and science, but I think if you wish to point out the foolishness of some religious folks, then it is only fair to also point out the excesses and foolishness of the knowledge-worshiping or narcissistic non-believers.

Nick, I can always count on you for a thoughtful and challenging comment! I wrote a response but it was too long to go in the comments thread, so here goes:

I think we can agree that anyone anywhere can accept silly things to support their view of the world. So we’re basically in agreement on your point there. Still, I hope you don’t mind if I make what I think are important corrections to some of the points I do disagree with.

For example, you mention that “non-believers accept equally silly ‘truths’ in their longing to discredit a worldview driven by faith and powered by something bigger than themselves.” I’ll set aside the fact that this contains an assertion, “powered by something bigger than themselves,” which you don’t define and if you did would probably be simple to argue convincingly against all by itself. So then, first, I hope you aren’t generalizing “non-believers” to mean “ALL non-believers,” because of course many non-believers have no such longing. (By non-believers, incidentally, I hope I’m correct in assuming you mean non-believers in religion and supernatural intelligence.) Second, among those who DO have such a longing— who publicly promote their own opinions on the matter of supernatural belief—most do not speak out of a desire to discredit rivals, but rather out of a commitment to intellectual honesty.

To speak for myself on the matter, I do not contradict a competing belief because it is a competing belief, but because it is wrong. (A claim I must then corroborate.) A fact isn’t true because I believe it; I believe it because it’s true. This is the difference between faith and reason. Any “non-believer” who accepts a silly truth becomes a believer.

A self-proclaimed rationalist who fails in her commitment to intellectual honesty, and accepts something as “truth” which has not earned the title, is just as foolish as any religious believer who does so. Atheists, for example, are just as capable of using poor critical thinking skills as the devout. So we definitely agree that all people, no matter their personal ideals, are susceptible to bad judgment. The point I make is that a person who is guided by a rational commitment to intellectual honesty has a built-in mechanism for the correction of error. Yes, you will find atheists who have no such guidance; anyone who’s an atheist but doesn’t know why is just as irrational as a person who is religious but doesn’t know why.

You will notice that I do not promote atheism, but rather reason and intellectual honesty. Faith and atheism are not enemies. Faith and reason are. Unlike faith, reason—and I say it again because I believe it bears repeating—has a built-in mechanism for the correction of error.

Reason, the way I describe it, says:

  1. Believe things which are true.
  2. Do not believe things which aren’t.
  3. Find out which is which.

That third point is the “correction mechanism.” Science is merely taking this mechanism and deliberately applying it to the world. “Science” is an expansion of that third step, and can be simply described as:

  1. Test.
  2. Never lie about the results.
  3. Accept the results until better tests arrive.

So if a scientist is wrong, science itself provides the correction. Vapours and humours were supplanted by spontaneous generation, spontaneous generation supplanted by germ theory, germ theory succeeded by a kaleiodoscope of theories regarding bacteria and viruses. The aether was supplanted by the vacuum, the vacuum by the cosmological constant, the cosmological constant by dark energy (with dark energy undoubtedly to be succeeded by something else). Each provided a better model of the world based on what we knew of it. And each time, scientists who believed in a certain theory fought tooth and nail to defend it, then completely abandoned it when the evidence was clear they were wrong. Those who did not were bad scientists. (Just like those who prosecuted witches with torture were bad Christians.)

Now I’m guessing you would point out that science works more like this:

I love science jokes. Anyway, of course, that does happen but when it does it isn’t science.

Moving right along: your DaVinci Code remark I quite agree with, and anyone who reads that book, clearly marked “Fiction,” and takes it as true just because it’s in Dan Brown’s book, is an idiot. I don’t know why you connected that to scientists, though, by saying “Scientists, too” which, to be frank, is a confusing non-sequitur. It’s like saying “Some people believe hot dogs are made out of leprechauns. Scientists, too…” Just kinda weird. There’s no way to respond to a non-sequitur except merely to point it out.

You mention string theory and claim that “people still talk about those ideas, and ideas like them, as if they were uncontested fact.” The only people who talk about string theory like it’s an uncontested fact are overly excited laymen or well-meaning new-agers who think it proves the Law of Attraction. Scientists themselves are deeply divided about it, and even its strongest proponents don’t claim it’s literally true, but rather a new and promising theoretical model for describing the world and making predictions about it. It’s still brand-new and under vociferous debate, so much so that only this year was its very first experimental prediction made. So if you say that “people” talk about string theory like it’s uncontested, you are right in a general sense, but probably incorrect if I rightly inferred the context of your statement to apply to scientists. I doubt you would find a single actual physicist who talks about string theory (or even ideas like it) like it’s uncontested fact.

Most importantly, I don’t think I can let the little “Eugenics, anyone” comment pass without comment. It reminds me a bit of Ben Stein’s outrageously offensive proclamation that “the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed.”

Eugenics was not a science, nor was it supported by science. It has a sciency-sounding Latin name which rhymes with “genetics”—but then so does “Athletics,” and nobody argues that Oakland’s professional baseball team is a branch of science. Eugenics was actually a social movement based on the tenets of animal breeding, whereby animals which display what the breeder considers inferior characteristics are prohibited from reproducing. This principle was applied to humans by several leading social philosophers, who suggested it might be good for our species to cull the mentally and physically handicapped. (Actually, Nick, do you know Chip Fortier? He co-wrote a screenplay on the subject; it was pretty scary.) Such breeding restrictions over unwanted members of a population (by force, separation, sterilization, or outright killing), whether for medical or ideological reasons, has taken place over many centuries and for many reasons, many well before the development of the scientific method. The fact that a handful of scientists signed up for it in the 1900’s is no more an indictment of science than a handful of racist gardeners is an indictment of gardening.

So I believe you have in that instance committed the fallacy of Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, with a lesser dose of Guilt by Assocation. In any case, I hope you’ll grant my point on eugenics. If you have a better example, I’ll be glad to take a crack at it, but that one I have to say is flawed.

Furthermore, I’d argue (and this point is merely an opinion and, unlike a logical fallacy, debatable) that if you look with a historical eye you’ll notice that the more societies have come to embrace a scientific (evidence-based) worldview, the less likely they have been to fall for eugenics and other such damn-fool ideological crusades.

As for it being “only fair to also point out the excesses and foolishness of the knowledge-worshiping or narcissistic non-believers,” you make an excellent point. I’d talk about ’em if I knew any, but none come readily to mind. Outside of the fictional Faust, I can’t think of anyone who worships knowledge—and if they did, they would cease to be “non-believers,” since worship and non-belief are necessarily exclusive. Narcissism, however, I agree is worth condemning—but anyone can be narcissitic (and I should know it—I’m writing a publicly personal blog, for goodness’ sake, which is inherently self-aggrandizing!) but in such a case its the narcissism that’s the problem, not the belief it stands in service of. I dislike dogmatic thinking wherever it appears—a few months ago I read an atheist’s blog and he made a moronically irrational comment just to get a knock in against religion, and I posted a rebuke. But I have to admit I think it’s harder to find irrational statements on behalf of reason than irrational statements on behalf of faith—and yes, maybe it’s merely because people of religious faith so vastly outnumber those without. However, I myself believe it’s also because many more atheists arrive at that position via critical thinking than religious people do. For every CS Lewis (a famous deep-thinking religious apologist) you will find a thousand who are merely followers due to parentage or emotional comfort. Whereas with atheism, I think the numbers would be reversed: for every thousand unbelievers who have deeply and critically thought their way into their position, you might find only one dunderhead who’s only an atheist because his parents were, or for emotional relief. (It doesn’t make sense to turn for emotional comfort to something which puts you in the nation’s most reviled and distrusted religious category. For three recent examples, see US Trust Lowest for Atheists, Arkansas, 5 Other States, Ban Atheists from Public Service, and Atheist soldier sues Army for ‘unconstitutional’ discrimination.

I guess what I’m saying is that while of course it’s quite possible, and there are cases of it, it is hard to be an atheist without first being a solid critical thinker. On the other hand, it’s easy to have faith without ever becoming one. The former rewards critical thinking, while the latter at best does not require it (and at worst punishes it). That’s why, even though it is indeed “fair,” as you say, to point out excesses of non-religious people, it is rarely because of their non-belief that they are behaving foolishly. So I don’t often find something there worth pointing out. Though this blog is new and I haven’t had much chance to do it yet here, I cheerfully point out foolishness wherever it occurs on non-religious subjects as well (see The Choice No One Should Have to Make and You’ve Got to be Shitting Me) and did so a lot more on an older online journal I don’t keep anymore.

Also, fairness does not require giving equal time to religious foolishness versus atheist foolishness if one occurs vastly more often than the other. In fact, fairness demands only that they receive coverage in proper proportion to their rate of incidence.

I should also point out that since this is a personal blog, not a news channel, I have an actual point of view I’m actively advocating and so have no obligation to advocate on behalf of its opposite. The fact that do so at all might in fact be considered a credit to my fairness, rather than my lack of airing contrary opinions in equal proportion being a strike against it. I actually think fairness is not so much about giving equal time to points of view one disagrees with, but rather being sure not to misrepresent them in order to advance one’s own. Fairness does not mean giving equal time to opposing views, it means that on those occasions when you do represent them you do so with intellectual honesty.

Anyway, thank you Nick, for giving me so much brain food to chew on. It may be boring to read, but it was fun to write!

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