Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Praying for the Answers

“God talked to me and gave me understanding of his reality.”

The irony of some Christian positions is the willingness to openly assert lots of claims about reality: God is real, morality is real and from God, Jesus Christ was real, there is an afterlife, etc., but in the end, when pressed for the ultimate arbiter of this so-called knowledge, they appeal to some inner dialogue, “prayer with God,” in which they arrived at some strong feelings that X is true. The willingness to invoke and then suspend the notions of rationality, evidence, argument and reasons at will to sustain such a powerful and implausible ideology is shocking, dangerous, and irresponsible. The irony is that they have so frequently accused the non-believer of being a relativist, a nihilist, and of denying reality while engaging in this ostrich behavior of sticking their heads into the sand of prayer and “consultation with God,” in order to address hard challenges or the incoherencies in their view. Faith gets invoked as the catch all response to every problem when reason fails. The only reality, it would appear, that they are willing to accept is the one that they construct for themselves in their heads. Claiming to aquire truth from God in prayer is selfish, nihilistic, and inhumane.

We tend to think of this prayer practice as quaint and harmless, but what’s gone wrong here is that they’ve abandoned their responsibilities to society, to the human race, to the future of humanity, and to history. The only judge of truth, the only arbiter of reality becomes this self-consultation activity--checking one’s own feelings. And why should we trust those feelings? Because they feel like truths from God. This, I propose, is the consumate act of moral, social, and intellectual irresponsibility to the rest of us. This refusal to acknowledge the hopeless inconsistencies and absurdities of trying to apply a Stone Age ideology to the 21st century, cloak it as the height of moral virtue, and then smuggle it by the rest of us under the protection of religious toleration, is flatly, objectively, morally wrong.

There are good arguments to be made for valuing human flourishing and well-being above other priorities. That is to say that we all have a set of moral, social, legal, and rational duties to ourselves and to the rest of humanity to do our part. We have an obligation to have true beliefs, to justify those beliefs to ourselves and others with the strongest appeal to reasons and evidence we can muster. We have an obligation to educate ourselves with the best corroborated results of our scientific inquiries. When we make important decisions about politics, society, wars, presidents, school boards, scientific funding, education, and so on, each one of us has to work hard to draw from the best pool of information and research that we have. It would be grossly irresponsible, for instance, to get elected to state governor and then consult the books of Nostradamus for guidance on how to lead. It would be dangerous and negligent for a modern doctor to revert to the Medieval scheme of the four vital fluids—phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood—in order to try to cure disease. It would be unacceptable for a modern school teacher to present earth, air, fire, and water as the four basic elements of matter as the ancient Greeks did. It would be worse for the governor, doctor, or engineer to merely consult their feelings as the source of truth about matters that are of life and death to the rest of us.

A person should not operate in an intellectual vacuum as if none of the important discoveries and advances in our knowlede of the world in the last 2,000 years occurred or mattered. (Much of the support for “school choice” seems to arise from a desire to perpetrate exactly this sort of misrepresentation and willful ignorance of reality on unsuspecting children who may never realize what a bill of goods they’ve been sold.)

So when the Christian believer resorts to a consultation with the voice of God they feel in their heads to answer hard questions, it is this set of duties to humankind that they violate. They take decisions that affect the fate of everyone and trivialize them. They say, “The only accountability that I will have for my decisions is checking my feelings.” With their refusal, they say, I’ll demean you, diminish you, dehumanize you, even kill you, and give you no say in the matter. I’ll reject thousands of years of the hardest efforts by humanity to learn about the world. I’ll just opt out for those principles or that ideology that I find intuitively and emotionally satisifying, the one that the magical voice in my head tells me is right, with no concern about its fit with reality. You don’t matter, humanity doesn’t matter, science doesn’t matter, the future doesn’t matter, children don’t matter—all that matters is whether or not I’ve had some non-disconfirmable, highly unreliable intuitions or feelings.

You don’t get to just opt out of all the hard work that the rest of us have done. You don’t get to just consult your feelings and then choose to ignore some well-corroborated fact like you’re picking items from a restaurant menu. Our current understanding of evolution, for example, represents the best, hardest, most carefully vetted and critiqued work that the very best minds in the world have produced. You don’t get to earn a C in a high school biology class, read a few half-baked creationist blogs, and then just announce that carbon dating doesn’t work. You have to earn your view, just like the rest of us. And you have to earn it in the context of the latest, broadest set of scientific conclusions that we have available to us in the 21st century. Once that argument is out there, and once the evidence is there with the theoretical models and predictions to back it up, you can’t reasonably reject it on the basis of some inner contemplation where it feels like you are communicating with God. You don’t get to ignore the mountains of evidence and the countless examples of transitional forms that we now have and then just prounounce, “There are no transitional fossils, therefore evolution is false.” The standard that science holds itself to, and the standard that the rest of us must face is if there is counterevidence that defies expectations or violates our predictions, then we have to adjust what we think is true. A single example of a Jurassic fossil in the Triassic period, or a single appearance of a mammal in the Palogene strata would falsify the predictions of evolutionary theory. But the praying believer blythely tolerates no such disconfirmations of their inner voice. If something doesn’t make sense in their Stone Age world view, if it harbors contradictions and inconsistencies, they happily write them off because that inner, self-affirming voice that no one else gets to check assures them that it is true.

Cross-checking against the evidence, against predictions, and against the critical eye of others is perhaps the single most important method we have ever come across for promoting the state of human knowledge. Nothing else separates fantasy from reality or truth from falsehood faster. But the praying believer who opts for all their ultimate answers in their “communications with God,” has ignored that. They’ve done an end run around what the rest of know and have worked hard to justify in order to arrive at the conclusion they want. They’ve opted for gross intellectual dishonesty by refusing to accept any arbiter of their ideology except their own feelings about the matter. And this is not to mention the free ride they take on everyone else’s hard work the rest of the time. They’ll get that vaccination to prolong their lives, and they’ll use the cell phone transmission network, and they’ll reap a thousand other concrete advantages that the scientific method has brought to their lives. But when those scientific investigations produce conclusions that are unpalatable or that don’t satisfy their feelings, then they jump ship and confidently declare that here science is wrong or worse, here science cannot provide us with answers. The truth hurts sometimes. But that doesn’t justify someone in just opting out, particularly when your opting out has such clear deleterious effects on the rest of us. The rest of us are waiting for you to catch up, and our patience is getting thin.

In the recent Republican primaries, when asked if they believed evolution, Huckabee, Brownback, and Tancredo proudly announced that they did not, as if it was perfectly acceptable for someone to just take or reject the conclusions of science at will without any regard for the reasons or evidence that support those claims. Do I get to just declare that there’s $1,000,000 in my bank account, or that microwaves don’t heat up my food, or that measles is not a virus too? How did that get to be up to Mike Huckabee to decide? And how did we get to the point where we would applaud him deleriously for doing it?

Only checking in with yourself, which is what prayer amounts to, is not an epistemically or morally acceptable method for deciding what’s true.


Anonymous said...

If prayer is truly harmfull, then we should see improvements as the total amount of prayer decreases?

For all your appeal to scientific reasoning, I see alot of your post(s) as expressing untested prejudice at religion. If there are no gods then prayer, and theistic religions are more dangerous to themselves than they are to anyone else. We should be leaving them in our evolutionary dust. (Occaisionally not going to the doctor, should make enough of a difference in evolutionary fitness)

Trying to pin 21 century problems on stone age ideologies seems to be ignoring the most relevant information. You have to do mental cartwheels to explain why a superior race like the Germans, could be foiled by only a handful of Jews).

As the numbers and intensity of the theists falls, you need to attribute ever more nefarious characteristic. I don't believe that religion (atheist or otherwise) has all that much sway against the forces of evolution. And the older they are (say stone age religions) should like the old diseases be pretty harmless by now.

Bill Maher is not required to prove his gut feeling that religion is responsible for most of our problems. Are you really so worried about prayer, or only those gut feelings you disagree with?

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for your comment, PaulV. But I confess, I have read and reread your post and I just don't understand what you're getting at. You seem to think I am mistaken about something, but I don't see an argument or any real objection here. I'm arguing that in general, people shirk their epistemic, moral, and social duties if they reject the hard won conclusions of scientific investigation that they don't like and then appeal to some self-consultation in prayer as their justification. You think that's false? Or you think that doing that really isn't so bad? Ok, it's not axe murder. But that's not a reason to defend it.


Anonymous said...

If there are no gods then prayer, and theistic religions are more dangerous to themselves than they are to anyone else. We should be leaving them in our evolutionary dust.

The ill effects hurt everybody, not just the religious. When God tells the U.S. president to invade a foreign country searching fro nonexistent weapons, everybody suffers. Except, I suppose, the defense industry.

Anonymous said...

I will try to be clearer. And this is probably far too long to remain on your page so you may remove it with my permission.
I guess I start by what I see as the scientific method, and ask myself, if the things you say are true, what corroborating evidence should we see? Your assessment of using prayer as a justification: "the hopeless inconsistencies and absurdities of trying to apply a Stone Age ideology to the 21st century, cloak it as the height of moral virtue, and then smuggle it by the rest of us under the protection of religious toleration, is flatly, objectively, morally wrong."

Since I don't believe God talks to these people who pray, then I ask myself what is actually happening. For the moment I have concluded that they either a) try to imagine what Jesus or Mohammed would have done, or b) end up with their gut feeling. This is more than only checking in with themselves in most cases. It would not be much of a democracy if we were obligated to choose what someone else deemed as best for us.

Option a) is not really different than someone of any of the various atheistic religions (substitute belief system for religion, if the word religion is unpalatable) meditating on how Ayn Rand, or Carl Sagan or Buddha would have approached a particular question. They are trying to approach a problem with the values they trust, or respect, or to some degree find plausible (I am not sure values can be proven absolutely)
I see no reason for moral outrage here.

Option b) They go with their gut feeling. At first this option seems to warrant the disdain you show for it. Hitler had a gut feeling about the Jews, many self-proclaimed religious have "gut feelings" about homosexuality, atheism etc... (the full list would be quite long). The problem I have is that there are also many instances where artists, politicians, and even scientists do precisely that (ignore some of the data, and the accepted view in favour of a gut feeling) (The Trouble with Science by Robin Dunbar lists many examples). And while I do agree that there is a moral obligation for the individual to examine all the evidence, in the end I can't morally fault an individual for going with his gut feeling. So I also place a moral obligation of the rest of society to verify other peoples gut feelings, before adopting them. This is the same obligation that Lee Smolin laments has been absent from String Theory (The trouble with Physics).
So while you are correct in asserting we should not stand by and let those who pray "choose to ignore well-corroborated facts". It is this search for corroborating evidence that is present in the works of other atheists like Scott Atran, that I believe ultimately results in his more realistic view of religion, and that I find lacking in this post. There are neuro-science works on prayer as well, that do not characterise it as a willy-nilly choosing of what facts to accept or ignore. You make many claims (by assertions) about what prayer is, but there is little data to back it up, and little discussion of alternate explanations. In effect I see you as committing the same error that you claim to be so opposed to. ie. Ignoring valid data, and sticking with your gut feeling that appeals to prayer (and perhaps all theistic religion) are both immoral and dangerous ( for society as opposed to just the individual).

Even though I agree that that theistic religions have in many (but not all) instances killed atheists almost to the point of extinction. (Aug 27, Revised Critiques of Atheism and why there wrong) A look at the viciousness and ultimate outcome of the 5 year war among Jane Goodall's chimpanzees, shows that evolving animals may have a tendency to try to wipe out any competition, and that this capability predates religion and the idea of god. It is then conceivable that some early theistic societies may have wiped out preceding atheistic and theistic ones. (and the opposite may also have happened) . But this then would not be proof of a particular defect in either type of religion, but rather a deeper evolutionary instinct. If theism or atheism alone could account for this debauchery, then all theistic regimes should have similar levels of violence, and all theistic regimes a different but uniform level. How does one account for the various levels of violence among societies that have atheism or theism in common. Assuming that their true nature is bound to come out sooner or later is a decision to ignore a particular bit of data. So counting whether atheistic or theistic regimes have killed more people in total will only show who has been around the longest, or the most often. The fact that you don't even consider dividing the number killed by the number of regimes perhaps only confirms that you are a philosopher not a scientist.

I digress but I think the problem stems from a desire to show that atheism is not a religion, and hence free of all the dangers of religion.
If we define one’s religion as one’s set of beliefs and values (some values may derive from the beliefs) then clearly everyone who is conscious has their own religion. The absence of a belief in god does not make a rock or a chimpanzee an atheist. (Re: your sidebar about not playing chess). Beliefs are necessary even for science (which you point out gives no reason for a theist to reject science since they don’t hold that faith is bad) (Dunbar thinks we need to believe knowledge is possible to do science). Rand atheists believe (but cannot prove) that reason is paramount, and nothing other than this first premise should be accepted without proof. You (I think) believe in an objective morality, and you certainly believe that god is not required for an objective morality. has lists of things that great thinkers believe but cannot prove. We agree that faith is not to be valued for its own sake (Is there a religion that does, ie. that invents successively harder and harder things to believe in, so as to increase the faith value) I agree with Sam Harris (I forget who he quoted,)that the world may be stranger than are capable of imagining, so I can’t fault a religion solely on its implausibility. Certainly the conviction of communists that they understood history (and science) and hence the true nature of religion (opiate of the people) may account for why they let down their guard, and were on average unable to envision that a communist could ever exploit his comrade. I see a similar over-confidence with some atheists (Alonzo Fyfe “The atheist ethicist” blogger cannot conceive that an atheist could ever be so deluded that he might kill theists , or atheist traitors(for the good of the country, or the cause). I am not so easily convinced that the god idea is uniquely or supernaturally the most dangerous (or most uplifting). Communists were “black swanned” by the Bolsheviks, or at least by Stalin. Atheism should assume its place among the great religions of man, and not ignore the lessons that come to us from the stone age or before. Nowhere do I propose that atheists stop advancing atheism (or their brand of it) as the best religion around. Or not point out the dangers and inconsistencies of other religions.
Godel’s theorem (as I understand it) says that some level of inconsistency is necessary .
In Canada (which has a similar religious history (Western Christianity) and like the states we end up with politicians who say what we want to hear , we have very few denials of evolution. If the appeal to the virtue of prayer is accepted in the states because of an genetic susceptibility to belief, or due the proliferation of a Stone Age meme, then why do we have such a different outcomes? Why do Americans vote for Mike Huckabee in far greater numbers than in Canada? How will getting Mennonites to trade in their horse and buggy for the scientific internal combustion engine, save us from global warming. The problems of the 21st century, don’t seem to be related to the failure to abandon stone age idea’s, but rather the inability to predict the consequences of new ones (like the side effects of the internal combustion engine, or the ability of microbes to develop drug resistance). Maybe more Americans are rejecting stem cell research, because they are more afraid of tinkering with the genome, than they are of other fields of research that get little interference. Perhaps if so many (stupid) scientists did not frame the scientific endeavour as a battle against religion (as opposed to a search for truth, or a fight against ignorance) more people would be receptive.
Dunbar argues (convincingly to me) that science is not new, is not uniquely a product of western civilization, and is not purely negation , or that it achieves absolute proofs. He does strangely argue that the failure of Soviet agriculture might be due to ideological interference promoting Lamarckian versus Darwinian evolution? I am not so ready to absolve collective farms. He makes this and other arguments in a vein that tries to show that science only goes wrong when interfered with. But I see no mechanism by which science decided to stop experimenting on prisoners or revised its treatment of animals solely on the basis of scientific evidence. It seems to me that it is not immoral for society to decide on scientific priorities. This is not the same as ignoring or rewriting the results of experiments. Besides right wing religious fundamentalists are not the only people who distrust science and scientists. PETA does not appear to be coming from a theistic framework. Science has flourished in an environment that was permeated with an unquestioned belief in a god. The historical evidence seems to show that science is more dependent on economic health, than religious or state approval or freedom. (How else do we explain the rise of Chinese and Soviet science?) The fact that many scientists died in the inquisition does not prove that the church did not support science. It was a significant (if not most significant) funder of higher education at a time when the state either did not see the merit of it, or could not afford it. The church was perhaps more interested in turning out priests, or educating wealthy patrons for profit, but the net effect is not totally reflected if we mention only the inquisition and censorship. We should be careful not to add excitement to creationism by too strict a nihil obstat. We need to be confident that truth will ultimately be recognized. Today’s students are not any stupider than Darwin, or Galileo. What has changed the most about the way we do science since the time of Galileo, is the influence of the state and corporations. I do see motive for the corporations that are trying to patent genome sequences and produce name brand drugs, to lament any interference. And it is easier to arouse fear about old dangers, than new ones. If we are concerned about saving science, or ensuring true progress, then we can’t just assume that religious agendas are “[undermining] science, the public good, and the progress of the human race”. The notion that a group of people is somehow stopping a larger group of people from reaching their full potential, like the Jews in Nazi Germany, should I think be treated with great care. Harris argues that we should not let misguided ideas religious tolerance stop us from defending our views. I have no argument with that, although I do find he overplays religious dangers, while ignoring many of the other dangers science faces. You state it differently, and see an appeal to prayer as an “ opting out [that] has such clear and deleterious effects on the rest of us”. This is an assertion that I feel requires much corroborating evidence, because it is reminds me of the Jewish question.
How has science or the public good been undermined? What proof do we have that the progress of the human race, (or the Aryan nation) has been significantly compromised? Have I read right past them? I just see assertions the risk is real, and frightening? There is a hypothetical invention or discovery that is being delayed, which we will only know about when it is made. European scientists might leap ahead (but if China has closed the gap with the west, it is very likely that we would have been able to do likewise or if we let Europe focus on this, while we explore complementary options the net result will be the same). There is also a risk that our “fixation” on ethical standards will cause us to lag the Soviets who are not encumbered in the same way. Should we drop these requirements in the name of advancing science or progress?. A new treatment option may have been delayed by years. I agree that these are not trivial risks. But we also need to ask, who is going to benefit from this research. If we are to really equate number of lives saved with the public good, then should we include how many people die in Africa of curable disease today, while we fund potential cures for tomorrow. How many people should we take off Medicare, to fund additional research? This is where I get a bit too morally indignant; when people accuse those opposed to certain lines of research as giving say Michael J. Fox a death sentence. If the cure for Parkinson’s comes from a different direction, then they (who blocked complete freedom for stem cell research) will have inadvertently reduced his sentence. If you can conceive of an end of science (that all that is knowable is known) or even that science may have limits, then in theory it becomes the correct moral choice to stop research at that time, and even to slow it down at some stage when diminishing returns are reached. I am not proposing any of the above; I just find the appeal to progress and the public good too vague. Democracy works on the assumption that we all get to choose the public good. It can’t be the public good if a majority of the public does not want it.
In conclusion, you insinuate great dangers from stone age religions and practices (like appeals to prayer) and don’t provide any corroborative data (other than plausible causes). I feel (in my gut) and as per the arguments above (granted plausible, but not much hard data) that this is focusing too much emphasis in looking at old, stale and ultimately irrelevant battles in our quest to solve 21st century problems. Near the end you give what could be a veiled threat “The rest of us are waiting for you to catch up and our patience is getting thin”. What pray tell are you prepared to do if your vision of progress continues to be blocked?

With respect
Paul Van Esbroeck

Anonymous said...

i would give all my schooling for just a day of relgious experience...

Anonymous said...

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Hamlet, Act I, scene v


Anonymous said...

Anyone using a decision making process that ignores emperical evidence too often, should quickly be at a disadvantage (the coin tosser can only get 50% of the decisions right). He should be hurting himself far more than he can hurt society as a whole. Any group that used a poor method consistently should be less fit from an evolutionary standpoint, so how would they have survived so well from the stone age to now. Yes they hurt society, but unless you attribute diabolical power, they should not be able to completely thwart it.

I think that the only thing we can do in a democracy if we cannot get a majority to see things our way, is to say we don't yet have the necessary approval to proceed, and that while our patience may be failing, we will continue to try to convince our fellow citizens of the value of our vision for the future.

Democracy ultimately means we risk delaying or even abandoning ideas until a majority is convinced. The social contract prohibits us from proceeding with impunity regardless of how right we feel we are. Is the present situation so dire, that we need to abandon this principle to save ourselves.

Anonymous said...

atheists are so full of crap with their skepticism. Take them to your local haunted house and watch them run out screaming.i bet they will be the first to open that bible..."oh jebus i am so sorry for my egotistical philosophies"