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 dangerous delusion.

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!

Science 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 believable answers.