Monday, May 07, 2007

Psychological Literacy

If scientific literacy calls into question the book of Genesis, then psychological literacy apparently rules out faith completely.

David Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, makes the case against faith in "The DNA of Religious Faith" published in the April 20, 2007, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

He announces that "the era of deference to religious belief is ending."

Religious faith, which he defines as "belief without evidence," is dangerous to society. In fact, "the very teaching of religion to defenseless children is a form of child abuse."

Psychological literacy has excluded religious faith for quite some time. "Scholars have found it easy to explain religion: They've done it hundreds of times, in psychological, psychoanalytic, sociological, historical, anthropological, and economic terms."

The problem, as he sees it, is that evolutionary theory hasn't been able to explain the survival of religious commitments in evolutionary terms. "It often appears that religious practice is fitness-reducing rather than enhancing." He writes, "Think of the frequent advocacy of sexual restraint, of tithing, of self-abnegating moral duty and other seeming diminutions of personal fitness, along with the characteristic denial of the 'evidence of our senses' in favor of faith in things asserted but not clearly demonstrated."

But riding to the rescue are "the four horsemen of the current antireligious apocalypse," Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Carl Sagan, "all passionate advocates of reason, committed to the proposition that religion is essentially unreasonable."

"Part of the attention-grabbing novelty of the Four Horsemen has been their refusal to abide by" the idea that science and religion are two independent domains, "insisting that when religion makes egregiously false 'truth claims' against science, it must be confronted, and that, moreover, religion itself can and should be 'naturalized'— that is, subjected to the same scrutiny that science brings to other phenomena."

Barash celebrates the iconoclastic work of the "Horsemen" in destroying the historic arguments for the existence of God. He takes particular glee in the attack on the argument from design, which he puts in quotes (presumably because it is not a legitimate argument or because only the scientifically illiterate would see design in biologically complex organisms). In spite of the "absurdity" of the argument from design: "This chestnut has had numerous stakes driven through its heart, but like a cinematic version of the undead, it keeps resurrecting itself, staggering, zombielike and covered with flies, back into public view."

He also addresses the "fine-tuning" argument. "Both Dawkins and Sagan examine this argument, which Dawkins caricatures as 'god-as-dial-twiddler.' Such twiddler-twaddle is oddly tautological, in that if the universe were not as it is, we indeed would not be here to wonder about it." Then he shows his disdain for articles of faith, theories that are not falsifiable: "The anthropic principle can also be 'solved' by multiple universes, of which ours could simply be the one in which we exist. This might apply not only to horizontally existing multiverses, but also to the same one occurring differently in time, if there have been (and will be) unending expansions and contractions. Moreover, it isn't at all clear that the various physical dials are independent, or that the physical constants in the universe could be any different, given the nature of matter and energy."

We wouldn't want our children to commit intellectual suicide by putting faith in "the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible." It is so much more intellectually rigorous to think that universes are multiplying at every quantum event happening all over the "current" universe, whatever that word means.

Not only is there a universe where I never made this post, but there would have to be an infinite number of universes where I made an infinite number of different posts. There would even be a universe where Richard Dawkins is a TV evangelist. But we can't have people believing in things that can't be proven. That is why Sam Harris feels a "need to take the United States in particular by the scruff of its neck and rub its nose in the dangers and absurdities of religious belief."

But the last stronghold of religion to be destroyed is the idea of transcendent moral law. Barash asserts that "God is no longer needed to explain 'Moral Law.'" Biologists have shown that "kin selection, reciprocal altruism, group selection, third-party effects, and courtship possibilities, as well as simple susceptibility to social and cultural indoctrination" taken together or in various combinations provide sufficient foundation for a transcendent morality.

Professor Barash is well within his rights to refuse to believe in Christianity or any other traditional faith, but he doesn't seem to realize that his own plausibility structure is loaded with unprovable assumptions. If he chooses to place his faith in multiverses rather than a personal God, that is understandable since his assumptions exclude the existence of such a being. But surely he could spare us the patronizing lecture.

While I would agree with his view that scientific truth and religious truth are not two completely separate realms, I am not prepared to adopt materialism as my "scientifically-proven" religion whose "articles of faith" are not open to scrutiny. I prefer my religion to be transparent and honest about what it wants me to believe.

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"


M. Pease said...

Hi Pastor Rod;

If there is to be an end time tribulation, where Christians are to be murdered for their faith, I believe you're looking at the seeds of it right here with these people and their teachings.

They characterize all people of faith as being both ignorant and deceived, and they insinuate that there is something less than human about us. They also ignore all good done in the name of God but list the evils without regard for historical accuracy while totally ignoring the atrocities of completely secular governments.

If I didn't have my faith in God, I would be terrified.

daniel the smith said...

I skim-read the article.

Really, this is not just an example of the scientific PS. This is the fundamentalist version of it, and just like christianity or islam sound quite a bit different when told by a fundamentalist, so does the scientific PS.

From the rigidly scientific PS, there are only two choices when explaining religion:

1. It developed because it conferred benefits to the practitioners; or
2. It is a mind-virus.

The atheist-fundamentalist, as part of their worldview, must argue for #2-- because if #1 is true, then they undermine their argument: if religion confers survivability benefits, then it would be a good idea to believe *even if it isn't true*! (As far as I can tell, this argument, and nothing objective, is why they argue so vehemently for #2)

I find it very ironic that campaigning so violently against religion makes these people sound exactly like radical fundamentalists (both to us and to others within their own PS). I would suggest (speaking from within their PS) that they have co-opted humanity's "evolved," built-in religious tendencies and directed it towards something that requires less faith.

I also think that it's a little unfair of us to pick apart the worst examples of atheist reasoning (like this)-- just like it's not fair of them to pick apart the worst of religion (inquisition, etc)...

Pastor Rod said...


I think my sense of Dawkins and company is that they are not as far out on the fringe as you see them.

This is exactly the same view that Pinker holds.

There may be different levels of passion exhibited by members of this PS. But the basic assumptions are widely held.

I would also argue that Dawkins and Pinker are simply being consistent in explaining what they believe. In other words, this position is the logical resting place of the naturalistic, materialistic PS.

I don't really see this as faulty reasoning as much as an inability to see their articles of faith as having any legitimate alternatives.

Sounds like we could have a good discussion on this issue.


Pastor Rod said...


I think it was C. S. Lewis who said that the most dangerous people were those who set out to "help" people against their will. He gives a good description in That Hideous Strength.


daniel the smith said...

This is a short and incomplete response, but--

I would argue that they are only following their worldview to its end result correctly if a few conditions are met:

A) It can be proved conclusively that all religions are mind-viruses and do not confer any net positive benefits to their adherents.
B) Since they detest one worldview forcibly asserting itself above another, they must say what makes it OK for them to do it. That they're right? Everyone else has said the same, and it did not excuse them.
C) They have a better alternative; IOW, atheism provably confers evolutionary benefits to its adherents.

I would say that most living in a scientific PS would be quite hesitant to embrace A (accepting A, I would argue, is what makes someone an atheist-fundamentalist). C is debatable, though probably a little more popular than A. B is a real philosophical puzzle.

Proposition A is a really hard pill to swallow. I personally don't think I've ever met anyone who would buy it.

Pastor Rod said...


I would agree that many who hold to the materialistic PS would be reluctant to say A. But I would argue that it is the logical conclusion of the materialist position.

Here is a quotation to this point:
Most contemporary scientists agree that science and religion can have nothing to do with
one another. For example, the Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences decreed in a
resolution dated 25 August 1981: “Religion and science are disparate and mutually exclusive
realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding
of both scientific theory and religious belief.” What scientists who make statements like this
really mean is that religion is emotional nonsense, expressing nothing but our fear of death
and the primitive view that the natural world is animate.

Frank Tipler, The Physics of Immortality, p. 5.

He is speaking from within the PS of materialism.


Pastor Rod said...


Here's another one.

Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.
Bertrand Russell

This is nearly universally accepted within the materialistic PS. Sure Dawkins is extreme because he is actively trying to hasten the process. But most materialists see their worldview as "obvious." They believe that the adherents of all other worldviews are misguided, though maybe not dangerous.


daniel the smith said...

Not to be argumentative, but... :)

Without knowing the context, I have to say that it certainly appears that Mr. Tipler didn't do a very good job paraphrasing the statement he quoted. Sounds to me like the scientists said that science and religion are two separate domains, with different knowledge bases, answering different questions. IOW-- religion cannot answer questions of science, and science cannot answer questions of religion. I don't find this objectionable.

Good scientists, I think, recognize that science doesn't have meaningful answers for questions like "why am I here" and, unlike Dawkins and his ilk, don't try to force their ignorance on the rest of us. A good expert witness will not testify outside of his field; same with scientists.

Maybe this is another difference between holding a scientific PS and being a fundamentalist-atheist: a recognition of the limits of the authority of your domain...

daniel the smith said...

I actually think Russell's quote is the normative result of a scientific PS, and that this is very, very different from Dawkins. Dawkins is much more passionate than the old-school atheists. I'm not sure how I'd go about proving this, but I think my propositions A and C separate the moderate atheists from the fundamentalists.

Pastor Rod said...


It's quite all right to be "argumentative." I enjoy a good substantive discussion.

I think our experiences are quite different. I agree that a "good scientist" will try to keep science and religion/philosophy separate.

But I would argue that there aren't very many materialists who do that successfully.

I'll try to collect some anecdotal evidence to support my position.


Pastor Rod said...


My argument is that the passion is more about personal style that anything else. I see Russell's view as essentially the same as Dawkins's.

If you agree that Russell is the logical conclusion for a materialistic PS, then I'm not sure that I'll spend a lot of effort finding anecdotal evidence. That is the position that I was looking to support.

Here is an interesting quotation I did find (which is off topic), "There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment." This is from Russell's essay, "Why I Am Not a Christian." You don't hear too many people arguing that Jesus was morally suspect.


daniel the smith said...

It's certainly possible that I've self-selected my anecdotal evidence...

When I run across things like that I tend to roll my eyes and move on. Christian fundamentalists give me all of that kind of rhetoric that I can handle...

"Good scientists" may indeed be rare. Most people love attention even if they aren't strictly qualified. This item covers most of my disagreements with Dr. Hugh Ross' books... ;)

daniel the smith said...

Ah, I see a fundamental difference in Russell and Dawkins.

Russell: Religion is wrong, but mostly harmless (or maybe even good). It does not confer real benefits on its adherents, so it will die out eventually as people see the light.

Dawkins: Religion is a cancer that must be eliminated. Like a virus, it hijacks the mind's normal abilities to replicate itself. It cannot be eliminated without outside assistance.

I can't really reasonably expect much better than the view I've ascribed to Russell above from an atheist, can I?

Pastor Rod said...


I see that we are also using different words. You are using "atheist," and I am using "materialist." While they all end up with the same conclusions, I suspect many materialists would not think of themselves as atheists.


daniel the smith said...

Hmmm... I notice that now that you mention it. I guess it all depends on what exactly materialism is. I don't usually think of it as a PS. I've been thinking of it as an attitude towards possessions...

Pastor Rod said...


I was using materialism in the sense of naturalism, the idea that only matter exists.

A materialist would say that there are no non-material beings, so they would essentially be atheists. But most would not call themselves atheists, I suspect.


daniel the smith said...

Ah, then I think we are talking about the same thing. I think the "natural" result of that PS is the view I ascribed to Russell a few comments ago.

Actually, I think more people in practice end up going for a "there might be a god, but if there is he's clearly irrelevant to my life" sort of thing.