Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Taking it on faith?

Well, here's a surprise....or is it?  The NYTimes reports results from a survey that tests peoples' knowledge about religion.  And guess who know their faith the best?  Atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons.  Other 'Christians' fared worse, often not knowing even basic things about the tenets of their faith.  (Here are the results of that survey.)

Well, ignorant and proud of it might be one response: the whole idea of religion to many is that it must be taken on faith. Let the pastor or priest tell you what's what.  Don't ask questions.

This might be OK in the sense that if religion can't be proven by scientific means, one must get it from the experts in costume who must somehow get it more directly and authoritatively.  Details don't matter. 

But this is a difficult position to square with the widespread aggressive assertions of religion against what we actually know about the world, the real one, the one we live in.  These assertions purport to give real-world reasons for the Faith and against the marauding of science.  If science is actually so evil (especially, those nasty evolutionists!), then what are the counter truths on which its opponents' knives are whetted?

We won't say more about this than that many of our strident Christians seem not to have read the fundamentals, like the Sermon on the Mount.   At least, the 'religious' engage in enough greed, hate, and inequality to suggest that, as we're seeing in the US these days.  (And Christians are not alone: plenty of Muslims cite what is convenient from the Prophet, assuming those strapping bombs on their chests have actually read any of it.)

More relevant  is that this shows the symbolic, cultural, nature of the science-religion divisions in our society.  This is about cultural power and influence, partly perhaps in terms of access to wealth but probably mainly access to psychological and symbolic 'wealth'.  Don't bother me with the facts!  It's highly tribalistic in that sense, about membership, waving the right banner, and that sort of thing, more than it is about the facts of the world.

The story has some symmetries.  Many in evolutionary biology and genetics do not have a very sophisticated or complete knowledge of what is actually known, and cling to various beliefs of their own--beliefs that life is simpler or more deterministic than we actually know is the truth.  The belief in Darwinian essentialism--you are what your genes are--is as deeply invoked, regardless of the evidence, as theological beliefs.  Or, scientists proclaim as if science somehow could prove the falseness of religion (i.e., that there's no God), showing that they, too, haven't understood the limits of their own field.

So, when we're in a cultural conflict, what role do the facts actually play, and does knowledge of the essentials that are purportedly behind one's expressed point of view matter?  Of course, in a democracy it is perfectly legitimate to vote  however you want without having to give a reason--or even without having to have a reason.  So does a democracy decide relevant questions, such as the legality of stem cell research, based on facts of some sort (religious or scientific), or is this mainly about planting one's flag in the enemy's territory?


Holly Dunsworth said...

Wow. Great post.

Ken Weiss said...

Politicians often descend to demogoguery--appealing to imagined or real fear, distrust, and the like. But so do religions (pass the plate and get into Heaven). Emotions are easier to manipulate than dry facts.

The problem about 'education' is that I don't think it stands up to scrutiny (much as, in a paltry way, I've spent my life there).

And if 'education' means showing people why evolution is true and religion is not true, then how is one to distinguish that from just one side of a propaganda war? The idea that if only people were educated they'd come around to our side of things is widespread among us in the evolution business.

Maybe--probably?--humans somehow want to rally behind a flag, even unto death. Is it part of our nature? To what extent do people really want peace, rather than victory?

Ken Weiss said...

When I said 'education' doesn't withstand scrutiny, what I meant was the bleak view that education only 'sticks' when it fits peoples' perceived circumstances--in prepared cultural soil, so to speak.

For example, communism was officially atheistic, and communist countries flooded their population with Marxist 'education'. It was also formally egalitarian. But the USSR collapsed, became rampantly capitalistic, and has seen a huge growth in rather fundamentalistic religion (Christian and Islamic).

Education seems to work most when it applies to technology, things that are emotionally safer and stay away from the kinds of culture wars we're involved in.

And besides such safe things like reading and writing (arithmetic? not in this country any more!), what is taught is largely determined by culture rather than objective empiricism, I think (unfortunately).

Holly Dunsworth said...

I deleted my comments because they controlled for education so I don't want to open up that can of worms.

Ken Weiss said...

My point is not to disagree with empiricism, or education, except that it's often not as clear-cut and truly objective as we like to fancy. What counts and what doesn't are subjective or even socio-political judgments.

I'm arguing against my own personal predilections, of course, but trying to be an anthropologist--standing aside and understand our culture as an observer might, rather than as a participant.

In that context I say that 'education' is more a part of 'acculturation' than we may like to accept.

Anne Buchanan said...

What it means to be educated isn't necessarily straightforward. I heard an interesting discussion on one of the BBC science shows on radio yesterday, with novelist Marilynne Robinson talking about why she disagrees with the New Atheists. She's read all the right books, and says that these guys are so reductionist that their science is bunk; how can they argue that, no matter how you look at the brain technologically, you can't find a mind, and therefore the mind doesn't exist when we all know through experience that we've got a mind? And a similar argument could be made for faith, of course.

She's a very educated person in many ways, and surely accepts evolution and so on, but she's not going to be 'educated' out of her beliefs by a kind of science that doesn't accept faith and intuition as evidence.

Jennifer said...

ok, what difference does it make? I mean, if the religious side and the educated evolution side are each their own propaganda, then probably no one will really know the truth for real until after they are dead.

So, what if an evolutionist studied the issue from a religion point of view and a creationist studied it from an evolutionist point of view? Or even better, taught it from that point of view?

But my original question was, why is it such an issue? Why can't it just be 2 different opinions? Why is it such a strong point of contention? Agree to disagree. It doesn't hurt the creationists to believe that and if the evolutionists want to risk going to hell with their beliefs, that's their decision

Ken Weiss said...

Right. But there is at least one difference. Science does, truly, show how the world we live in actually works here, not in Heaven. We can't answer nearly all the questions that are asked about the world. But we do have understanding of at least some truths. Those of us who think science should be taught, argue that at least teaching true facts rather than false ones is important.

Religion is, and should be, separate from that in schools for various reasons. And science should acknowledge where our methods just don't apply. Of course, a scientist who, after looking at the world, simply doesn't see even the immaterial claims of religion as likely to be true, has a right to that view. It's his or her assessment, but to date it's not something that can be proven in the usual way--despite what Stephen Hawking may think about the origin of everything.

Anne Buchanan said...

The problem is that it's not really about the Truth as anyone sees it, it's about power. Who decides what gets taught in schools, whether stem cell research gets done, whether abortion is legal or not, and so on. It's not about what happens when we die, it's about what happens now, and who decides.

Ken Weiss said...

We're anthropologists and should at least try to separate our personal views within our society, from what we can see if we try to stand aside. So, I'm playing the Devil's advocate here, since I wholeheartedly agree with your basic position.

First, what counts as evidence is often very slippery, as many of our posts and our book tries to point out. Facts are often in the eye of the beholder, including vested interests. So who decides what is 'substantiated' evidence? Also, politicians are often people who shied away from science in school, partly because they didn't understand it. So where do they get the evidence on which to case their votes? From experts

Thus, even where we would agree about what facts are solid, and how best to act in regard to unclear assessments (where the evidence is statistical or probabilistic), we would like some use of that evidence. But how to use it and who to listen to, given that history shows that experts are notoriously inaccurate. Should economic policy be based on the economic 'facts'? It's scary to think of the answer!

Third, in a democracy, someone who believes truly that God speaks to them, has as many votes as you do. There are many in the religious community who are mainly proclaiming strong sociopolitical views because they've been influenced by demogogues, but there are polarizers on the left, as well, and many true believers really are true believers. From their point of view, your reliance on 'repeatable substantial evidence' is irrelevant to many decisions in our society--like war, welfare, pledges and oaths, abortion and capital punishment, and so on.

I have no ready answers! I think these are the perplexing, endless, struggles of human social existence. We write a lot to try to nudge science to stay with the facts, being as undriven by vested interests as possible. But it's not all that possible in many areas where the decisions make a big differerence.

Finally, the turn to serious empiricism via education has to come not from college professors such as all of us, but in K-12 or even earlier. And who, on campuses, is going into education, and what is the curriculum they're being taught?

The problems are rife....probably always.

Anne Buchanan said...

Here's an issue we've been discussing in class, because it's a good example of how much -- or how little -- science can bring to a societal debate. How much does it help us to know about the science behind stem cells before we decide whether we think federal funds should pay for the research or not? Does it help at all?

Anti-stem cell researchers -- embryonic stem cells, at least -- think it's killing, that because the embryos from which these cells are derived are potential lives, the research shouldn't be done. They don't need to know the details of how the cells are extracted from the blastocyst, or that they are grown on mouse feeder cells, or how they are differentiated into cell types. None of that would change their belief that this research is murder.

Similarly, many people in favor of stem cell research really have no clue about the science either. It's probably fair to say that pro-stem cellers believe in science, and feel that the benefits of the research outweigh the disadvantages, without knowing much at all about how the work is done.

So, the question is, can science adjudicate these kinds of questions? And is it science education or lack of science education, no matter the details one has learned, that explains which side people come down on? If so, does that mean that science education is propaganda? It tends to make people pro-science, no matter the issue? I know little of the science behind the climate change issue, for example, but I believe the scientists on this one.

Ok, like Ken, I'm basically playing devil's advocate here, but I do think the question of what science education means, and the role science can play, in a society in which a lot about science is taken on faith, even by those who believe in evidence-based decision making, is a real one.

Holly Dunsworth said...

"all points of view are not, in fact, created equal."

Ken Weiss said...

Well, I happen to agree generally with this guy's personal assessments and politics. But who decides what is 'equal'? Some people simply do not accept the evidence that climate change is anthropogenic. I happen to be convinced....but I am not an expert, so this is my hunch and trust of the scientists whose work I read.

But let's really play Devil's advocate when it comes to points of view being 'equal'. I have my point of view, which says that killing other people because of their religion is totally wrong. But does that actually make it wrong? If so, by what criterion?

Certainly not evolution, or our tendency to religious slaughter would have been removed by natural selection. But then what? That it impairs a tranquil and civil society? But that is a value judgment?

If the facts in question have to do with the measured strengths of steel beams in regard to what size to use for bridges, then if we agree that bridges should be safe (a value judgment) we know what size beams to use.

But how much of what we teach is within these safe factual limits?

Again, whether professors should voice opinions in class is itself a value-based issue. But it can't escape from the problem that facts are not always so clear-cut.

Again, I'm trying to view this 'objectively' as an anthropologist. Even if I probably would agree with this professor on most issues of the kind he's referring to.