Leading Horses to Water
Ancient Greeks began the way of
thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call
science. Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in
an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.
In other words, pretty much like the present. These musings are
aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even
nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world. I can
try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you
wish to drink from these waters.
#7 - Arguments with religious and political believers
American Heathen: aired: 28 January 2012
Arguments about religion and politics are notoriously pointless and
very different from scientific arguments. Religious and political
arguments arise because many people have strongly-held opinions, and
often are motivated to defend their views vigorously. Based on my
experience, I’ve learned that I enjoy these arguments up to a point,
but beyond that point I rapidly lose interest.
I particularly enjoy arguing with my colleagues about scientific topics
precisely because it’s a way of testing my understanding. A clash
of ideas with another scientist often leads to new insights for me, and
this can be very satisfying, even when the notions with which I entered
the discussion prove to be wrong.
When it comes to politics and religion, however, the arguments have
some annoying tendencies. Perhaps first and foremost is that,
unlike arguments between scientific colleagues, both sides of the
debate are unlikely ever to be persuaded by the arguments of their
opponent. Since religious beliefs are an article of faith – using
“faith” to mean belief without evidence – the position of a religious
believer is unshakeable because it’s essentially irrational. No
rational argument based on evidence (or its absence) can be convincing
if your beliefs are rooted in faith.
I have no problem with believers believing whatever they want, insofar
as it doesn’t harm others. It’s a Constitutional right all
Americans have. I find it mostly annoying (but also mildly
amusing) when they try to rationalize their faith, however. If
you have such faith, you’ve explicitly denied the relevance of evidence
and reason in any debate about your faith. How can a rational
argument be used to defend an irrational faith? Any attempts to
put religion on any sort of rational footing is an implicit admission
that faith simply isn’t enough. But of course believers never
want to admit this.
Some of believers assert that a position in favor of rational,
evidence-based arguments is a kind of faith, as well. Nothing
could be further from the truth, of course. My belief in logic
and evidence is based not on faith, but rather solidly on my personal
experience (that is, evidence), which has shown me ways of
understanding that actually work in the real world. Logic and
evidence have given us a deep understanding of the universe that has
enabled us to go far beyond the late Bronze Age myths contained within
the sacred documents upon which abrahamic religions are based.
Rational thinking is demonstrably effective, whereas religious
mythology is at best a comfort in troubled times, but at worst a
In science, the correct path is to modify hypotheses to improve the
match to any evidence. It’s profoundly unscientific to try to fit
any evidence to the hypothesis. Believers either consciously or
unconsciously cherry-pick and distort the evidence to match their
belief system. By far the majority of believers are simply unable
to remove the blinders they’ve chosen to wear; to admit that their
beliefs aren’t rational. Hence, most attempts to show believers
the logical problems with their faith are doomed to
pointlessness. It’s like arguing with an air conditioner vent,
standing in a relentless blast of hot air.
Politics is quite comparable to religion in many ways. Many
political party members are like religious believers – and there’s a
disturbing trend for politics and religion to merge these days.
What frightens me is when a particular partisan affiliation is so
strongly engrained in political “believers” that they actually hope
that rival politicians elected to office fail in their leadership of
the country. It’s irrational to hope that our national leaders
fail at their jobs. But many Americans now get their predigested,
scripted talking points from political pseudo-pundits – spokespersons
for the religious right often masquerading as journalists. They
don’t want to think beyond stereotypes and what amounts to political
dogma. Our politicians traffic in fear and ignorance, hoping to
gain and keep political power, apparently to impose their beliefs on
the whole nation.
If a US President were to declare that plates of spaghetti are a danger
to national security, requiring an immediate ban on pasta, I think
impeachment proceedings would begin right away. It clearly would
be unacceptable for our nation to be led by someone inflicted with
paranoid delusions. Yet we find ourselves in a position where
many people in the USA see it as mandatory that every political
officeholder embrace an inherently irrational religious belief – no
openly atheist candidate could be elected President at this time.
Does anyone besides me see the contradiction and danger in this?
We need freethinking rationality more than ever, but we live in at a
time when most Americans embrace irrational myths!
is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for
themselves about the natural world. Its primary characteristic is
its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain