Questionable Motives

September 13, 2011

Why is the creationist movement so dangerous?

Because it is anti-intellectualism writ large. It most often an anti-science, anti-evolution stance (even when it pretends to be compatible) and it is infecting half of the governing parties of the US to the extent that someone who recognizes evolution and global warming as built on scientific foundations commits political suicide in the Republican party. Nearly 70% of Republicans reject evolution. So how does this reflect anti-intellectualism and anti-science to believe in creationism?

Too often too many of us buy into a notion that this difference of opinion between – let’s pick one particular science-based position – evolution and creationism means a difference in where we place our beliefs: with one side claiming some form of belief in an active, intervening creator – one who intervened and created humans either directly or intervened at some historical moment to instil into humans qualities which links the specialness of being human to our divine Designer – and the other side presented as exercising the same kind of belief in science – that all life on earth today descended from common ancestors subject to natural selection over a great deal of time. But this framing is a false dichotomy – one that favours the notion that everyone is a similar kind of believer differing only where we place our faith-based beliefs: in god or science . This, of course, is simply not true.

Faith-based belief lies entirely on the one side that false divide, one that favours the POOF!ism (or POOF!-insertion) of an intervening diety. On the other side of this divide are not those who apply the same kind of faith-based belief whatsoever; people who respect evolution are those who respect science. They respect that inquiry into the nature of the universe means to inquire into it using a method that provides us with testable, practical knowledge about it, knowledge that works reliably and consistently well for everyone everywhere all the time. That’s not faith. That’s not a faith-based belief. That’s a method that uses reality. Because this inquiry relies on reality to arbitrate what’s true in nature, it is not a faith-based belief that relies on something supernatural to arbitrate what is and is not true by the authority of god… in whatever form that message may seem to appear (scripture and revelation). Confidence in the results of the scientific method is not – in any way, shape, form, or fashion – a similar kind of faith-based belief that presumes the truth of an untestable conclusion as a premise but rather a method of inquiry that follows the evidence wherever it may lead and that reveals only what’s true from testing in that reality.

These two positions are not similar, nor do they produce equality of confidence. They are neither compatible methods of inquiry nor mutually supportive ways of knowing. They stand diametrically opposed when in conflict – like they do between belief in creationism versus confidence in the mutually supportive and overlapping causal evidence of evolution (the micro/macro qualification introduced by theists is scientifically incoherent) and are uneasy allies only when faith-based beliefs align with what’s true in reality, although many organizations responsible for promoting good science will claim that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Although technically true if no conflict is present, the position is untenable when it is. Only creationism that places intervention in such a way to not stand in conflict with the irrefutable evidence for evolution seems at first glance to be compatible, but on closer inspection reveals a decisive incompatibly, namely, the difference between evolution properly understood as a mindless, agency-less natural process versus one that is guided in some way – presumably with purpose and intention – by some mind with agency. The two are not compatible descriptions of evolution at all, any more than it would be if someone were to insist that gravity or erosion is guided by mindful agency when no evidence is available to support these claims about these process in reality.

There is no middle ground to be found here that is mutually supportive; one position is either true in nature or it is not. With no way to test the faith-based claim that there really, really, really is agency, there is no way to avoid a fundamental conflict over whether evolution is a natural or an unnatural, supernatural process; whether evolution is a mindless, unguided, purposeless process or a mindful, guided, purposeful process. Evolution in reality cannot be both. Theistic evolutionists would argue it’s possible, but only when the language becomes so befuddling that no one knows what anyone is actually describing. Metaphysics plays a central obfuscating role in this regard. Clarity, however, is the first but by no means the last casualty in this rearguard action by the faithiests.

Creationism, then, is one expression of a faith-based belief that stands contrary to science. There are no scientific results that support it. Those who say there really, really, really are results that can only be ‘explained’ by inserting a supernatural agency (followed closely by the assumption that this divine mind just so happens to favour Jesus’ over Thor’s as the inevitable result by a vast margin) do so only by grossly misrepresenting data, exaggerating both what is known and unknown by ruling out any role for plausibility, and even outright lying by presuming they can speak as if informed on what they cannot by their own admission know… keeping in sight the same sense of the term ‘know’ as they do of the influence of gravity and erosion.

Yet there are scientists who support creationism, so surely there must be something scientific to their belief. Nope. When their theistic evolutionary beliefs are examined, we find they believe for entirely the same reason as anyone else: as a faith-based faith.

So why is creationism so dangerous?

It is dangerous because it is politicized to bring benefit to those politicians who elevate faith-based beliefs over and above the findings of science if they just so happen to be contrary and incompatible to the faith-based claim. This means that respect for science as a method of inquiry and respect for why science’s findings inspire a higher level of confidence when something is true for everyone everywhere all the time are held as a value to be lower than, and secondary to, faith-based beliefs that have no such requirements. When this trust in faith-based beliefs plays out in other political areas where the results from scientific inquiry is incontrovertible but contrary to some faith-based belief, guess which side these politicians will support? Faith over science… what is believed to be true over and above what is true in reality. And this is exactly what we see in the political considerations from climate science; the results show anthropomorphic global warming leading to significant effects in climate refuted by many of the pious not on the basis of good science where 98 out of every 100 climate scientists concur, but by the faithful elevating the 2 scientists who disagree on theistic grounds to be an equivalent ‘side’ of some imaginary ‘debate’. But the debate is not in the scientific community (other than very normal, highly typical, quibbles); it is between those who respect faith-based beliefs as the primary revelation of what is true in nature and those who have confidence that reality arbitrates what’s true in reality. When leadership hopefuls don’t really care about reality, then surely the vast majority of citizens being asked to vote will judge this lack of caring to be a significant liability. It is a liability in every other area of life, so that should offer us a clue if we aren’t sure.

This incompatibility between faith-based beliefs and science cannot inform wise public policies when we have conflict between them. And because those who support faith-based beliefs cannot even agree among themselves what is true in nature, I see no reason to think that anything will or even might change should such people get into public office intent as they are on serving first and foremost those reality-deniers who put them there. Not only will science be relegated to a supportive role of faith-based beliefs, which I think is bad enough, but to the shock of no one except the colossally stupid I think we find it inevitable that we will have public conflict between those who support competing faith-based beliefs. How can those who view faith-based beliefs as equivalent to what’s true in reality not make faith positions part of our political discourse? How can they not use the state to influence policies that will tend to favour one set of faith-based beliefs over another? Even those who hold faith-based beliefs superior to what’s true in reality really have almost as much to lose as those who respect science by supporting a winning faith-based politician. This is where accommodationism leads, where belief in the compatibility between science and religion will take us: into the political and into public office and into the public domain and all its institutions. We already see this on the Supreme Court of the US, its military, its public education in ongoing battle with ‘teach the controversy’ and ‘academic freedom’ to teach Oogity Boogity as some kind of alternative yet compatible science.

The danger of the creationist movement is to replace our quest to know about reality backed up by what’s true in reality with the assumption we already have the ability to answer all the questions we might have through faith, and can then safely ignore – like we are doing with AGW’s causal link to climate change – reality’s role in telling us we are wrong in our beliefs. Nothing good can come from this delusional trust of Oogity Boogity, and that’s why it’s dangerous to have any confidence in those who are so willing to reject reality and present themselves as the champions of what is indistinguishable from a collective of ignorance.

January 28, 2010

Is atheism fundamentally a Straw Man argument?

There is a reprehensible opinion piece posted online at the New York Times by Ross Douthat that supposedly offers us an “illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.”

Specifically, Douthat criticizes Dawkins for using Pat Roberston and his diatribe of god-sanctioned blame for the devastation suffered by Haiti as an example of a ‘real’ christian (read my previous comment on Dawkins’ article and why he argues as much). This is a failure of critical thinking by Douthat. By asserting that atheism requires a Straw Man approach, Douthat fails to comprehend Dawkins’ central argument: that a willingness by today’s theological apologists to grant any credence to a religious interpretation of some holy text that focuses on what is meek and mild without accounting for the parts that are vicious and genocidal is intellectually dishonest.

Douthat’s counter argument that quotes New Testament passages to negate Robertson’s interpretation is exactly Dawkins’ point: one biblical reference is not any closer to being true or accurate than the other. The only difference is that Robertson’s interpretation takes into account the capriciousness and violence of the christian god, making such an opinion based on biblical interpretation more ‘real’ in a christian vein than one like Douthat’s which simply ignores the Old Testament’s accounts of a god that is unconscionably cruel and immoral in favour of specific passages that casts Jesus as benevolent and forgiving. Let us all remember, however, that it is from Jesus we first gain a biblical account for eternal damnation… hardly one that enhances the CV of hope and love people so often attribute to Jesus’ message.

I have read repeated criticisms of Dawkins and other New Atheists as creating a Straw Man religious argument, that is to say, that these atheists create a Robertson-ian god as the one that defines the christian god and then tear it down by revealing its obvious malevolence. But the god worshiped by most christians, this argument points out,  is not this god – the one believed in by some fringe and/or extreme fundamentalists as the one so vehemently opposed by ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ atheists – but one that is actually benevolent and wise and compassionate. The faulty conclusion then held by so many moderate religious apologists is that Dawkins and his cohorts aren’t criticizing their religious beliefs but merely the ones held by hard core fundamentalists.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

New Atheists care about what is true. They care about knowledge – about what’s probably accurate, probably correct, probably true. They care about coming to a better understanding of the natural world, of promoting honest intellectual and scientific inquiry. They also respect the rights and freedoms and dignity of individuals within a secular society. They are concerned about any influence that intentionally impedes any of these cares, and there is no greater single impediment than the false certainty of religious belief. But rather than criticize specific people’s beliefs, the New Atheists’ approach is to enter the public forum and expose unjustified beliefs – regardless whether the unjustified belief is religious, superstitious, supernatural, or just poor thinking. To do this, New Atheists point out why the unjustified foundational belief of a Robertson is no different in quality of belief than someone who insists on holding a Jesus is Love assumption. Nor is there any difference in the unjustified foundational beliefs upon which the complimentary and alternative medicine industry has been built. Belief in the supernatural, whether it be god or evil spirits or the memory of water, cannot be honest knowledge: because such ideas are beyond our ability to be examined in the natural world under natural conditions subject to natural forces and natural efficacy all which can be naturally measured, supernatural belief cannot be justified by any other measure other than more assumption and assertion. Assumption and assertion that cannot by definition undergo natural testing and rational criticism because it is supernatural is immune from honest critical inquiry. Asserted beliefs are assumed to be true because they are believed to be true. That is not a justification for the truth value of the belief but an excuse, an allowance, a willingness to suspend critical inquiry. So it doesn’t matter whether or not it is a Pat Robertson’s unjustified belief or an Ayatollah’s unjustified belief or a Pope Benedict XVI’s unjustified belief or a Sarah Palin’s unjustified belief – the common denominator pointed out by New Atheists like Dawkins is that supernatural beliefs in their entirety are equally unjustified.

When a Pat Robertson makes another disparaging public statement about suffering people deserving their suffering and backs it up with theology, it is an opportunity and not a requirement for atheists to once again point out that if not for the acceptance of the moderately religious, then the foundation of unjustified religious beliefs would be treated with the same scorn and disgust aimed at Robertson for his outrageous truth claims. Robertson and his ilk have an audience because there is widespread acceptance by religious apologists to excuse, allow, and suspend legitimate criticism in matters of religious belief. That’s a public problem and it requires a public solution.

Is unjustified belief in the supernatural and all its various promotions in the public domain in need of public criticism? My answer is an unequivocal Yes. The New Atheists like Dawkins don’t just say a meek and mild yes to this question in the privacy of their own minds; they DO something about it by bringing their arguments and expertise into the public domain to tackle the problem of a Robertson, an Ayatollah, a Pope, a Palin, head on.

So the answer to the title is No, atheism is not fundamentally a Straw Man argument but a call to action, a growing movement that will continue to challenge anyone who doesn’t care about what is true but what is unjustifiably believed to be true, and who would allow unjustified beliefs the right to take a place at any table in the public domain.

January 9, 2010

How scary is it when Jesus makes the news?

Filed under: Christianity,Entertainment,Jesus,Media — tildeb @ 9:50 pm

Mark Morford is one of my favourite columnists because his writing is so refreshing no matter what the topic. In this piece, he comments about some of the topics we’ve covered on Questionable Motives, and does so as only Mark can do. Check this piece out at the San Fransisco Chronicle’s SFGate, called When  Scary Jesus Makes the News.

Enjoy!

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 84 other followers