suspending critical thought on society’s demand

May 22, 2011

Over the years, I’m sure that many of you have met a very particular phenomenon that manifests itself in more volumes of theological platitudes than most of us would even care to count, the insistence that because what we know about the universe by the scientific process changes over time, we must turn to religion as the only constant and steady source of information. Humans tend to like constancy and we are very much creatures of habit, sometimes to a glaring fault. Just watch how people react when Facebook rolls out a minor tweak or a nearby bar they frequent closes shop or moves to another part of town. In fact, in IT, we brace for a user revolt every time we make a serious update requiring a change in their daily routine. But does that mean that since we’re creatures of habit we must not adjust our views on existential questions and that any change must be a bad thing? So what if people question and update what they know? Why must our supposedly divinely guided preachers, clerics, rabbis, and monks put up a fight and use their close-mindedness as a mental firewall so they can block new ideas coming from the world around them, and why should we praise them for this?

Let’s say that you and a friend go outside and he insists that if he stands in one exact spot, it will never rain in your city. He’s sure because he read it in a book which said that rain can be warded off by humans standing on some exact geographic coordinate and that book was completely accurate because it said that it was in a lengthy preface. You decided to take him on his challenge and wait if it will rain. Sure enough, a few hours into this exercise, rain comes and your friend gets soaked. Gee, that didn’t work, you say. Your friend says that he probably just got the instructions wrong, goes back to the book, stands in a new spot, and waits. Again, rains come as he keeps repositioning himself, rereading his book over and over again. Meanwhile, you start doing some experiments and talking to meteorologists, and find out that where someone stands in a city hasn’t the slightest effect on whether it rains or not. Newly educated, you return to your soaked friend and tell him that he doesn’t have to do what he’s doing anymore because you did a lot of research and discovered that his ideas won’t work, so he may as well come in, dry off, and you can do something else. But your friend growls that you must be too lazy to help him confirm his notions which is why you went off and found a way to say that it’s just impossible and that all he needs as proof of this assertion is that you changed your mind.

Now, normally, you’d call your friend obstinate and proceed to criticize his ideas as erroneous. Sure, you may have thought it was possible at first but you learned, you changed your mind based on evidence, and you can now move on to other things. He’ stuck and insists on being stuck, angry at those who decided that his ideas are very unlikely to work. And funny enough, few people will object and come to your hypothetical friend’s help by praising his devotion to his notions when the topic is influencing rain. Change it to religious beliefs and all sorts of justifications are invented for the friend in question. How dare you call him obstinate? How dare you call him stuck in the past? Can’t you see how devoted and passionate he is about his faith? Can’t you do the right thing and respect his beliefs by not telling him about what you found? Why do you insist on challenging his cherished ideas with something you recently found out? Who asked you to go and find things out anyway, can’t you see he’s happy the way he is? Despite how much we seem to prize learning new skills and trying a new concept every now and then, when it comes to religious matters, learning is suddenly the enemy and an engaged, curious mind looking to learn something new and update what it knows is viewed as a poison. We change what we think we know every day on almost every possible topic. And yet somehow, we decided that all this learning must now cease when religion is brought into the picture. Why? Because we said so.

Obviously, when you try to make believers doubt, you’re going to get a defensive reaction and many will be all too quick to raise the volume and repeat their beliefs in an endless loop, thinking that by quoting what they’ve memorized often enough is sufficient proof. But that happens with every type of believer, be they followers of a pseudoscientifc New Age strain of woo, 9/11 Turthers, bin Laden deathers, or self-appointed prophets of the end of the world. Why will we dismiss the first three but listen to the fourth one even when we know he’s dead wrong? And why do we feel no problem ridiculing a blathering post-modernist hack but decline to criticize the claims of a priest saying something very similar but using the worlds “God” instead of “quantum” and “prayer” instead of “subjective intent?” I can come up with hundreds of examples of claims we could all easily debunk and dismiss for a lack of evidence, theist and non-theist alike. What I can’t fathom is how theists will suspend the very same logic and critical thinking they use when approaching UFOs, naturopaths, yogis, and self-styled shamans for those in search of something to believe, and swallow whatever they’re told, ceasing to demand some shred of evidence for what they’re being fed. How does that happen? And why should we praise people on their ability to suspend critical thought when seeing or hearing certain words?

[ illustration by Koren Shadmi ]

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  • Paul

    “count, the insistence that because what we know about the universe by the scientific process changes over time, we must turn to religion as the only constant and steady source of information.”

    That would be reasonable if that ratcheting best-guess of science was driving us closer and closer to a specific religious model. Ie, if there was a religion that had predicted evolution, particularly human decent from chimps-via-apes-via-monkeys-via-lemurs/etc. And/or predicted the formation of the solar system, the existence of galaxies, time-spans of 13.7 billion years for the universe, 4.5 billion for Earth, etc.

    Hell, describing a spherical Earth in a heliocentric solar system would be a better prediction than any religion actually had.

    (I liked the rain-stopper analogy, and intend to shamelessly steal it.)

  • Bruce Coulson

    The basic tenets of most faiths (i.e. be nice to each other) are difficult to argue against.

    It’s when the leaders of those faiths begin to expand upon the basics that the system breaks down.

  • James

    (Paul) The Holy Bible mentions the earth being spherical several times, (Is. 40; Ps. 19) In addition the bible revealed that the heavens (stars, galaxies, constellations) were themselves rotating and the earth also.

    The scriptures do not address the heliocentric solar system as such, (likely because it was such common knowledge it did not qualify as “revelation”), but did beat “science” to many of the principles of physics, geology, biology and many other scientific disciplines by thousands of years. (The big bang, Billions of stars, each star is different, the earth is round, light travels, air has weight, the life of the body is in the blood, evaporation of water into the air, things we see are made of things we can’t see, theory of relativity…etc.)

    Not bad for a bunch of “ignorant” shepherds and fishermen. But of course none of this information really means anything unless you know something more than just the facts. the scriptures were not given to be used to teach scientific facts, but to give those facts meaning. that is the real tragedy that you are caught up in, “ever learning, but never coming to the knowledge of the truth”. Everything you have learned to this point in your life about the universe will one day be “debunked” by new discoveries, but the bible will still be standing and inspiring millions of people to believe, love and serve their God and His creation.

  • aya

    generally speaking no body has to believe what others tell him …..preachers, clerics, rabbis are not god ,we were gifted with our minds in order to use them …the way our society sanctify religieous men is the reason why we refuse to see their faults .eventually, they are humains just like us , only god is totally right ..and I think we will be satisfying him if we renew our ideas every day otherwise we won’t be doing what we are supposed to be doing on earth

  • Dar Norris

    @James. I see you’ve been taught the mechanics of religion well; Take ambiguous, misleading, and out of context things out of the bible. Then overlay them on whatever it is you want to take over. Like pagan festivals and rituals of other religions. Christmas trees have nothing to do with Jesus. Nor does gift giving. Or easter bunnies. But that wasn’t what I was taught in bible camp when I was a kid. Now there’s a “war on christmas”, “they’re trying to take away christmas from us.” Christian’s up in arms about a holiday they stole! Now your claiming relativity, physics, geology, and biology !!!! I think the word you use after that says it all. Etc…. which means any knowledge we acquire will be used to prop up your dead god.

    And to imply that since we don’t have an imaginary friend we cannot possibly be inspired, love, or have any meaning to our lives just shows how much religious kool-aid you’ve had. As far as serving goes, I’ll take the contributions of one scientist over a church full of people with their eye’s shut, mumbling to themselves any day. Like Greg said, Prayer. It’s the least you could do. Literally.

  • PortalPress

    @James. Poor lost soul … God will not even be found as a fossil as the cartoon says. Why? As God never existed. And every believer in an imaginary friend is … a poor lost soul. When you die, it will end … it will not even be black; it will be nothing.

  • AG

    The rain-believer metaphor doesn’t capture the point of faith. Belief in God is a relationship (whether God exists or not; if not then it is a fictive relationship, but it still works as a relationship). To believe that it won’t rain in the city when a person stands in a particular spot is superstition. Magical thinking is a shared trait of both faith in God and superstition, but superstition is impersonal and fragmented (a collection of random rules), and doesn’t imply a relationship.

  • AG

    @James, I am currently reading the Bible and have come to Kings 14:1. I have not run into any of the things you mention in the Bible yet – (relativity theory, light travels, Big Bang, that the stars rotate, and so on) and I strongly suspect that you are reading something into it that isn’t there.

    So far, all I have encountered in the Old Testament is politics, conquering land, genealogies, almost autistically detailed rituals, genocide after genocide (approved by God, who only really minds if people have other Gods) and a very jealous God deeply immersed into furthering the political interests of certain human clans against other human clans. Do I believe that has really anything to do with God? Nope. All very far fetched from the teachings and spirit of Jesus, and certainly also very far from science of any kind.

    Christianity would be much more convincing without trying to stretch the Old Testament to

    1) be about Jesus and the ideals he fought for (and fight for, if you believe he is still alive), because they stand in sharp contrast to the events and God of the Old Testament

    2) encompass science. Because it doesn’t have anything to do with science, and stretching it that way just makes Christianity overall look ridiculous in the eyes of anyone who is not under pressure from a religious community to think in certain ways.

    Wrong way.