Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Religious Thinking Corrupts Political Thinking

In a new piece, P.Z. Myers takes issue with statements Bill Donohue recently made about the 'special place' the catholic church has reserved for reason:

"I agree that the Catholic church has assigned reason a special place: apologetics. Rationalizing the irrational. Throwing up a smokescreen of scholarship to hide the fact that deep down, they're worshipping a jealous bronze age patriarchal myth wedded to a howling crazy Eastern mystery religion. But they aren't any different than any other religion: for instance, the Baptists found universities and pay lip service to logic, too. As Hawking said, science works, and every charlatan in every church dreams of hitching a ride on its record."


This statement can be made about all religious apologetics, not just catholic apologetics. The ‘obfuscatory dust cloud’—as I call it—is a common tool of the educated religious class, and it is a tool that is used in bad faith, because those who use it should know better.

It also stymies inquiry and understanding.

The underlying apparatus of the religious mind is the same apparatus that animates the mind of the religious right: a reliance on truth as delivered from authority and revelation. Now, many liberals hold to sacred dogmas too, some of which I will probably challenge at some point in the future; but this election cycle isn’t about liberal taboos. It is about economics, war, and the environment.

The war issue is more complicated than ideologues in either party are going to admit. To the party out of power, the issue will always be clear cut. To the party in power, all of the many nuances of the situation will be evident. The difference here is that the ideologues had the megaphone in the Republican party while they were in power, and the ideologues have the megaphone in the republican party now. While President Obama may have tipped his hat to the ideologues in our party from time to time during the campaign, he has always essentially been a pragmatist and realist on the war issue, and when war is the issue, we want pragmatism and realism.

The ‘bomb the fuckers!’ line of the tea party crowd is based on a belief in the myth of American exceptionalism, and our inherent righteousness. Tea Party foreign policy is in its very essence a religious doctrine.

The same pragmatic realism versus dogmatic religiosity conflict can be seen in the argument about the economy; except rather than ‘bomb the fuckers!’ the tea party crowd is chanting ‘tax cut the fuckers!’

The right wing approach to the economy is embarrassingly simple minded, and overtly religious. In the place of god, we have the ‘invisible hand of the market’, which can do no wrong. Tax cuts is always the answer, whatever the question may be. Pragmatic Democrats will consider tax cuts when they are appropriate. In our current economic situation, one simple answer is unlikely to yield lasting positive results. Our economic policies may be more complicated (and thus harder to explain sufficiently), but they are not dogmatic, and are subject to change.

The same can be said of the climate change argument. There are authorities upon whom we can put some faith in, and that is the climate scientists. The reason we can put some faith in them is because they—on the whole—subscribe to the scientific method, which is empirical and replicable. Their findings can be examined by the public.

Those who question the impact of climate change are relying on the authority of non-scientists who are not trained in empirical methods nearly as well as they are trained in political rhetoric and hyperbole. The ability to craft a self-serving analogy or metaphor is not the same thing as the ability to rigorously test and examine data.

PZ continues his piece with this statement:

"There is an inherent conflict between science and religion. Mr Donohue believes a cracker turns into a slice of god in his mouth; he thinks there is a magic man in the sky who speaks to the Pope; he believes a series of rituals will allow an invisible ghost in his body go to Disneyland in Space after his meat dies. He also believes that one young species of ape on this planet somehow plays a "pivotal role" in affairs on Jupiter. These are irrational, unscientific beliefs — they are anti-science, because he believes in arriving at conclusions because they are what he wishes to be true, or because the dogma has been repeated to him enough times, or because someone claims a supernatural revelation."


It all boils down to religion. Be your religion secular or supernatural, you’re going about your thinking in the wrong way. If you’re unable to change your opinions in the face of new evidence, if you feel comfortable making claims about things that you cannot possibly have any knowledge about, or approach issues with the one-size-fits-all confidence of the dogmatic, your mind is in trouble.

Basing your opinions on religious dogmas, and looking to unquestionable authorities for revelations about ultimate truths is bound to infect all of your thinking. The subject of our nation’s religious attitudes is absolutely apropos to our current political climate.


cross posted at The Daily Kos

21 comments:

the elegant ape said...

I find great comfort in the deist view of "God" Deists believe in the existence of God, on purely rational grounds, without any reliance on revealed religion or religious authority or holy text. It removes a lot of the the desire to give a deity a dog in any ideological conflict.

Steppenwolf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steppenwolf said...

Government must be secular if it is to be democratic. It must represent all faiths and points of view. I believe that's what the intention was when your beautiful constitution was drafted. In Europe we find the influence of your religious right flabber - gasting. You're nations relationship with Isreal seems to be predicated by the book of revelations and the notion Isreal must be pre-eminant for Jesus to come back. Pressure groups should never be allowed to derail the democratic process. I don't imagine the the majority of Americans are anti abortion - pro Isreal or religiously intolerant - but we only seem to hear about these zealots - who frankly do make America seem a little ridiculous. You really do have a great country, a prince of nations. But when I hear it described as 'Gods country' or 'specially chosen' I worry, the speciall chosen think they got a special right to choose - for everybody else.

Spencer Troxell said...

Elegant Ape: Here's a Richard Dawkins quote that gets closest to my thoughts on God:

"If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed."

I'm not worried that using my brain would ever offend a being like that.

Steppenwolf: Religious opinions about real estate give me the creeps too. I call the group within my country that you're referring to 'The American Taliban'.

I absolutely agree with you. Secular Democracy is the only way to go.

the elegant ape said...

There is a reason that the Danes are the happiest people in the world. Secular societies do not encourage or promote the tribal or grouping hostilities that are epidemic in non secular settings.

Spencer Troxell said...

What do you think about the argument that Geert Wilders makes that secular societies invite their own undoing by being too multicultural, i.e., allowing too many ostensibly non-multicultural groups (muslims) into their countries?

the elegant ape said...

tolerence is a doubled edged sword.
The best cure for radical elements is employment and advancement within the structure. The irish were quite fond of killing each other over parades until the celtic tiger came on the scene. People with good jobs and a strong social net are less likely to shoot their neighbors.

Spencer Troxell said...

Well said. I've heard conflicting reports on this. On the one hand, I've heard plenty of anecdotal reports that living in a successful and pluralistic society secularizes folks. On the other hand, creepy anti-cartoon protests and the murder of Theo Van Gogh (and threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali) are pretty attention getting.

I haven't sought out any serious data on this issue though. I imagine it would be hard to parse.

Steppenwolf said...

In the modern world migration takes place at much greater scales than ever before. It's an inevitable consequence of mentaining low labour costs in global markets. The strange thing is government here and the US know how many immigrants will be required. But they set up no mechanism for integration. People end up in ghetto's, of various guises, and the multi - cultural society is reduced to a disperate collection of estranged tribes.

Willie Y said...

I think Canada has got it right. I don't think you can imigrate till you have a promise of a job. It seem the logical thing to do.

Spencer Troxell said...

A lot of countries seem to have that job policy.

Would adopting it for the U.S. go against our 'give us your poor, huddled masses' idealism too much?

Are we still that country? Were we ever really that country?

grape ape said...

http://www.kentucky.com/2010/06/12/1303777/paul-prather-new-atheists-embody.html

Spencer Troxell said...

Grape: I'll see your article and raise you two:

http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/03/fundamentalist_.html

and

http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/03/myths-and-truths-.html

If you'd like to discuss all three of these articles once you are finished reading them, I'd be more than happy to.

Sam the Rhesus Monkey said...

One article is an argument against the use of the term fundamentalism. The author uses it then defines it. While you may disagree with the use of the word, I think it is a minor issue and not worth dicussing. "The irony is that this current brand of aggressive atheism is just another form of fundamentalism. These particular atheists are zealots on the subject of faith who see no shadings of gray, only black and white. They're dead-set against religion but weirdly obsessed with it."

The first op-ed posted does not say all aethiest fall into the stereotypes listed in your articles. It just points out that many of the more vocal who preach aetheism do exhibit some of those traits. He identifies these as new aetheists, and I will agree that it should not encompass all if that was his intent. I believe his point is the MOST aetheist when they preach are smug, arrogant, call religious stupid, and just generally intollerant on this subject.

Spencer Troxell said...

I'm not sure what you're looking for from me.

If you just wanted to know my reaction to the piece you posted, I would say that I thought it was a tiresome and silly piece of hyperbole. You may think a certain group of people are jerks, but that doesn't count as evidence that they are wrong.

I'm sympathetic to the feelings that probably caused the author to write that piece. I was a christian once too, and (although I wouldn't admit it out loud) felt threatened by rational arguments against my religious beliefs. I understand the compulsion to sophistry that many educated religious people have, and I understand how scary it is to be faced with questions that--if answered honestly--would undermine deeply held beliefs.

I'm sorry you didn't get more out of the Greta Christina pieces. I think she's a really good writer.

Koko the Silverback said...

I feel pretty much the same about the articles you posted, however one does admit that some aetheist are "assholes", her words, not mine. I wasn't,looking for anything from you other than some tollerance. The arguments you call rational now may not be rational, logical or true. They just make sense to you based on percieved knowledge. When they threatend you, you did not percieve them as rational. It really comes down to personal perception.

Spencer Troxell said...

"The arguments you call rational now may not be rational, logical or true. They just make sense to you based on percieved knowledge. When they threatend you, you did not percieve them as rational. It really comes down to personal perception."

I'm not sure what you mean by this.

Spencer Troxell said...

PS: Can you point to the hyperbole in Greta's pieces?

The writer of the piece you posted basically says 'the new atheists are jerks, and they're just like fundamentalist christians'.

You may think someone's a jerk, but that doesn't mean they're wrong.

When someone responds to a challenge against their ideology with 'hey, you're rude! You're intolerant!' that makes them seem suspect. Like they don't have a good argument to stand on. Not that it's bad to be wrong. We learn a lot from being wrong. I admire people who--when presented new information--are able to integrate it into their worldview, and allow it to change their opinions on things. I think that's brave and wonderful.

and on the fundamentalist thing, it's just not accurate. It's hyperbole. The label is technically not appropriate, and-- as Greta demonstrates--is not even metaphorically appropriate. Atheism doesn't have a dogma. It's just a lack of belief in God. Atheists end up in all kinds of places ideologically. I'm not even going to attempt to defend atheists, or anyone's stereotypes about them. They're not a group. They're not a church. They're just people who don't believe in God. Ideologically, and behavior wise, atheists are as varied ice cream lovers.

Cheetah the Chimpanze said...

First, you don't know my "ideology". I don't mind pointing out rude and intolerant, anywhere I see it. I stumbled onto your site after seeing the article, thought you might find it interesting, It seemed to apply. Fundamentalism is applied everywhere today to talk about the most radical and extreme of many groups. Responding that someone's idea is flawed because they did not fit the most strict definition, makes me beleive their ideas may be suspect. Thinking someone is a jerk doesn't make them right. Atheism has dogma. Everything humans believe has dogma. http://www.atheists.org/ must be the website of some bunch of individuals with no connection at all. Within any church you will find people just as individual as any aetheist and some just as annoying with their dogma. The article points out the authors beleifs that the outspoken aetheist tends to degrade, belittle and attack people because of their religion. I think this is accurate.

Aetheism is not noble, brave, rational, pragmatic or exciting. As you point out, it is the lack of belief in God, nothing more. It's the ego of the "lack of believer" that wants to make it more.

Spencer Troxell said...

I can't tell if you're the same cowardly & near illiterate anonymous comment stalker that used to frequent this page or not. You're either that person, or all idiots write in about the same way.

Either way, you're silly, and way behind on your argument. You're not even making sense half the time, and when you are you're making some kind of half baked ill-informed community college argument that gets really old fast with people who actually take this subject seriously.

So I'm not going there with you. If I thought you had any kind of intelligence I would gladly and respectfully debate you, but you don't seem to, so I won't.

Read a book, and next time try spell check.

Spencer Troxell said...

PS: I know my response will confirm in your mind the truth that all of the new atheists are assholes, but nothing was going to change that opinion of yours anyway.

Think about it from my perspective though, for just a minute.

I've spent years studying the arguments about God, and belief, and science, and philosophy, and the relationship all of those things have to each other. I've taken these issues very seriously, and have talked and written seriously about them. I have agonized over the various opinions and facts, and have attempted to arrive at the most honest and objective conclusion possible, and am still not a true believer.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment.

Now imagine that some smug, snotty, obviously selectively informed (and poorly so at that) idiot comes up to you with a handful of sloppy and asinine arguments against a position you have very carefully arrived at, and not only does this idiot do that, they also demands by extension--just by the obvious poverty of their understanding of basic concepts--that you suddenly fill in all of the gaps of their poor education too, just so that you two might argue at somewhere approaching the same level. Talk about a sense of entitlement. Then imagine that multiple individuals similarly demand such reciprocity over and over and over again, and you might have some idea why I'm frustrated with you.

I am not being paid to give you a course in rudimentary critical thinking and logic. If you want to have a serious conversation with serious people, don't come to the table wearing clown shoes.