Friday, June 25, 2010

The Anti-Rationalism Meme is confirmed by science

One of my favorite topics (I wrote about it in The Religion Virus) is called The Anti-Rationalism Meme. It's the idea that faith is more powerful than reason, that when there is a conflict between your mind and heart (more scientifically, your logic and your emotions), that faith must ultimately win.
"Divine revelation, not reason, is the source of all truth."
– Tertullian of Carthage (150-225 AD)
Strong words indeed. Basically the Anti-Rationalism meme declares that all of physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology and archeology can be dismissed out of hand if you believe something is true.

So I couldn't pass up this headline: When science clashes with belief? Make science impotent. The article describes some clever social experiments where they investigated people's willingness to discard scientific evidence or dismiss science as irrelevant.

The basic problem is that everyone wants to feel well educated and modern. They want to think of themselves as enlightened and informed. You can't just dismiss science as wrong and still get any respect. So science still rules the roost when it comes to respect.

And yet ... what do you do when you want to believe something that science says can't be true? The researchers found several strategies that people use, which are generally grouped under the concept of "scientific impotence."
  • Source degradation: the scientists have an agenda and are lying to us. Evolution is an atheist conspiracy, immunizations are a pharmaceutical conspiracy, global warming is a plot to take over the world.
  • It's beyond science: it's too complex to understand (the climate), it can't be duplicated in a laboratory (evolution).
  • It's unknowable: science answers what, religion answers why.
Towson University's Geoffrey Munro conducted the study, and found one more interesting correlation: people who degrade science on one topic tend to do it for many topics. It fits with other blogs I've written like The Liar's Club: Vaccines, Creationism and Global Warming.

Professor Munro is confirming scientifically what I'd observed by studying religious history, that the Anti-Rationalism meme is alive and well. People believe what they want to believe even if it directly conflicts with clear, compelling scientific evidence.

Scientists have a long, uphill battle, one that will probably last centuries. The problem with science is that it is incredibly complex. Back in the heady days of Newton, Kepler and Galileo it was possible to be a Renaissance Man, one who had learned pretty much all that was known.

Today we have teams of twenty biochemists teasing out the secrets of a chunk of DNA, and each of the twenty might be a specialist. How can a team like that possibly explain their findings to a religious zealot in a convincing way? How can a climatologist explain the results of a month of atmospheric number crunching on a tereflop supercomputer to a farmer in Wyoming? How can an archeological team that includes anatomists, physicists, biologists, paleontologists, computer scientists and geologists explain an evolutionary discovery to schoolkids?

Yes, we have a long road ahead, and the Anti-Rationalism meme will be with us for a long time.


  1. The only roadblock for more people accepting science is science itself. Look at your title- "Anti-Rationalism". Off the bat, using a slogan like that, you can tell that the end objective isn't to try and show people what science offers. Rather, the objective is to separate and call the 'other' group stupid and make yourself feel better. It's just disguised animosity.

    What do we expect to happen when we try and talk to people with opposite viewpoints like that? We're effectively going into a room saying "Hey morons!" Of course they're going argue with anything you say, sources you give, etc. You're battling for ego supremacy, not helping out humanity.

    Here is a suggestion: instead of being more scientific about promoting, well, science, let's use some common sense instead. How about going in with some love for our fellow humans, understanding that they most likely grew up surrounded by the ideas/beliefs they might currently have on the world, and being patient with their responses and addressing their concerns with genuine compassion for where they stand on an issue? Accepting another view point takes time, and creating 'memes' to make ourselves feel superior doesn't speed up the process.

    Or we can, as usual, divide ourselves up and hate each other, call the other group 'irrational' and what not, and get off on that? I've read a few posts on this blog and it's the same old thing: hate and insecurities that are disguised very well. Hardcore believers and atheists have a lot in common ironically.

    In any case, it's not a 'long road' that we have ahead of us. Rather it's that our vehicle is incredibly slow.

  2. Ahms - Sorry, but you're completely wrong on this one. Many religious people brag that they reject rational thought. You're assuming that the title "Anti-Rationalism" is an insult to them, but it's not. It's actually a philosophy that they embrace. Do a bit of historical research about the Greek invasion of the Middle East and how the Greek rationalists (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and their schools of thought) affected Judaism and ultimately Christianity. Anti-Rationalism is something that is actively embraced and taught. Just look at the quote by Tertullian at the top of this blog; that is the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

    I wasn't calling anyone stupid. I was merely pointing out what many, perhaps most, Christians believe: if rational thought disagrees with religion, the rational approach must be inadequate.

    As to the "love our fellow humans," atheists are the most reviled group in America. In poll after poll, atheists come below criminals and even child molesters in the list of who a Christian would trust. This, in spite of the fact that atheists are the most law-abiding demographic group in America.

    We atheists sometimes have to be blunt and in-your-face, because that's the only thing that gets anyone's attention. For years, atheists have been an oppressed minority, subject to all sorts of illegal and immoral discrimination. Christians, Jews and Muslims are hostile and oppressive to atheists. Calls like yours for atheists to "be nice" are reminiscent of what the "establishment" said to the American Blacks when they started demanding their rights. An oppressed minority doesn't make any progress by being nice. And it's doubly ironic that you're accusing me of doing the very thing that Christians, Jews and Muslims have been doing to atheists for thousands of years, and still do today.


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