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The Mind Shuts When There's No Evidence

In a commentary in USA Today called “Secularists, What Happened to the Open Mind?,” Tom Krattenmaker takes secularists to task for “leaving their critical thinking at the door” regarding religion. In trying to strike a middle ground, Krattenmaker commits numerous fallacies of equivocation (previous post) and fails utterly to engage his own critical thought. The primary focus of his column, like so many other journalists who wish to avoid taking sides, is the idea of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria):

Discussing the relationship between science and religion, I had expressed my view that religion should leave scientific research to the scientists and devote itself, along with the fields of ethics and philosophy, to the mighty issues of the human condition: good and evil, the meaning of life, the nature of love and so forth. To which my correspondent replied: Why would something as inherently foolish as religion deserve a place at the table for discussions of that magnitude?

As someone who has studied religion and attended progressive churches, I was aghast. I had expected an articulate and intelligent advocate for the non-religious worldview to display a more nuanced understanding of that which she stood against.

The philosophical position of secularists is one of monism. There is no divide between the how and the why, spirit and matter, or mind and body. Rather, we should approach all questions, both evidentiary and those of meaning, with a scientific orientation. This includes ethics, love, and the origins of life. A sonnet may tell us how love feels, but explains nothing about what it is. A creation myth may provide an archetypal analogy, but adds nothing to knowledge about how we actually got here. Notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ tell us nothing about why the human brain sometimes comes up with a cure for polio, and other times produces a sociopathic personality.

We can dig and dig, we can get a doctor of divinity degree. But nowhere in religion will we find any knowledge of real substance. We get less epistemology than we would in a first year philosophy course. We get less science than we learned in grade school. Above all, we find no evidence. This is what closes our minds. No matter how complex a theology, it is built in some fashion on either ancient scriptures or some kind of modern unaccountable ‘revelation.’ When a humanist responds that religion has “no place at the table,” it is not out of bigotry, but rather a desire for epistemic clarity. We would not ask history professors to weigh in on the latest advances in medicine. As such, rejecting religion is not an insult, but a choice to leave behind investigative methods which have proven to yield little consensus or correspondence with observable reality.

Krattenmaker continues by wheezing out the time-worn theistic accusations laying the blame for the atrocities of murderous 20th century regimes at the feet of atheism. His clumsy invocations of the names of genocidal maniacs prove nothing:

Yes, many religious people behave in foolish and obnoxious ways, and some do cause harm in the name of their belief system. Yet the same could be said of non-believers. When a Stalin, Pol Pot, or Hitler commits monstrous deeds in connection with an ideology opposed to religion, does that somehow prove the inherent delusion and danger of non-belief?

No, what it proves is the dangers of following demagogues, whether secular or religious. And it also proves that powerful personalities backed by mobs can be a powerful inducement to abandon reason. A more accurate view of the history of the 20th century would see its bloody dictatorships as state religions or as the penultimate evolution of of the “divine right of kings.” State atheism dovetailed nicely with the desire of tyrants to make their cult of personality supercede all ideological rivals. Of these, traditional religion had been the most potent. Thus under communism or fascism, huge portraits and statues combined with incessant propaganda and even new scripture (Mao’s little red book, for example) to inculcate the masses with the image of the leader as god. The tendency of totalitarian regimes to deify their leaders continues to this day with North Korea’s Juche. Krattenmaker’s bankrupt critique of secularism fails spectacularly on this count. As god-like figures demanding unquestioned obedience, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and Hitler have far more in common with Moses, Abraham, Jesus or Muhammad than with Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, or Voltaire.


Comments (8 comments)

a / August 20th, 2007, 12:37 pm / #1

As god-like figures demanding unquestioned obedience, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and Hitler have far more in common with Moses, Abraham, Jesus or Muhammad than with Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, or Voltaire.

Nice post. I will quote this.

John P / August 24th, 2007, 11:35 am / #2

Thanks for pointing me to this.

It does seem that the difference between atheists and theists always seems to revolve around the question of evidence. We insist on it, they don’t.

Black Sun Journal » Archives » Priest of the “Middle High Ground” / August 30th, 2007, 11:51 pm / #3

[…] Now comes Don Rogers at the Vail Trail doing just that. He looks a little too much like Chuck Norris for my taste. But that would be fine. I’m more concerned with the wrongness behind his eyes than his appearance–which is a poor way to judge anything. But his words betray the intransigence of what I would call the militant agnostic. And he quotes the commentary by Tom Krattenmaker that I destroyed last week. (previous post) For such an indecisive and bull-headed agnostic, there is fierce pride in a kind of closed-minded skepticism that avoids coming to conclusions even when logic demands it. Rogers sees virtue in appearing to remain non-committal, and can’t stand the concept that some among humanity may actually have thought things through and have some of the answers (not all). I believe our religions — all of them — are too puny to explain the beyond. And our science is at the beginning of understanding even what can be sensed about existence, never mind what defies science. Science, after all, is a tool and not an end in itself. It’s ultimately too puny, too. […]

Valhar2000 / September 6th, 2007, 9:27 am / #4

As god-like figures demanding unquestioned obedience, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and Hitler have far more in common with Moses, Abraham, Jesus or Muhammad than with Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, or Voltaire.

You could not be more correct! You could try, but you would not be successful.

That is a point that often gets missed by people: the problem with religion is not one particular book or one particular ritual, it is a way of thinking (or of avoiding thought, if you will) that very often leads to problems.

Such habits of thought, while endemic to religion, are not necessarily unique to it.

Furthermore, it is these ways of thinking that the world would be better without, not just religion itself, though we often fail to make this qualifier. Obviously, ridding the world of religion is not going to do much if people are just going to kneel in front of something else.

Brandon Sergent / June 3rd, 2008, 1:16 am / #5

There is no divide between the how and the why, spirit and matter, or mind and body. Rather, we should approach all questions, both evidentiary and those of meaning, with a scientific orientation.

Wrong. How and why are totally different. How is a function of physical reality, the chain of causality, Why is a function of subjective abstract interpretation.

Like hawking said, why does the universe go to all the trouble of existing in the first place?

What enforces the physical constants? There is no scientific way to answer that question because science operates from within the physical constants. There is no exterior objective reference, there is no control group.

The realm of “why” will ALWAYS be in religion’s court. That is simple inescapable logic. Saying science answering ALL is just as absurd as saying god is all powerful, or my dad can kick your dad’s ass.

Secularism is quickly turning into a new dogmatic blind faith, because just like the other parasitic memes it has lost its ability to admit weakness or fallibility.

P.S. I’m glad to see yet another concept I virtually invented showing up in the public media domain. I’m tired of only famous people getting credit.

BlackSun / June 3rd, 2008, 8:31 am / #6

Wrong. How and why are totally different. How is a function of physical reality, the chain of causality, Why is a function of subjective abstract interpretation.

Like hawking said, why does the universe go to all the trouble of existing in the first place?

Brandon Sargent,

I’m really surprised that you don’t see the flaw in your logic. Sure, how and why are different questions, but that little rhetorical sleight of hand doesn’t suddenly award the prize to religion as the arbiter of the “why.” If you acknowledge that “why” is subjective, then it can only be answered subjectively and not definitively.

If such “why” questions could be answered more broadly they would be answerable by science, not religion. If Hawking is asking why the universe exists in the first place, you think the Pope or some other religious figure is qualified to give the answer? Hardly. They’ve had thousands of years to come up with the goods, and still nothing but flowery words and empty rituals to show for it.

Hawking is posing an unanswerable question. By your own statement:

There is no scientific way to answer that question because science operates from within the physical constants. There is no exterior objective reference, there is no control group.

What do you have to offer to validate religion’s claim of being able to access a reference point outside of space or time?

Absolutely nothing except circular scriptures and self-referential subjective and solipsitic claims of personal experience of believers. Sorry Brandon. Your argument, like all previous apologetics, falls completely flat and proves nothing.

Ronok / July 14th, 2008, 5:05 pm / #7

I believe the answer to why that you are thinking of falls under the banner of philosophy, not religion.

Religion says: This book holds the answers!

Philosophy says: I wonder what the answers are?

Black Sun Journal » The Mind Shuts When There’s No Evidence « Nemi Jones / November 11th, 2009, 7:38 pm / #8

[…] Black Sun Journal » The Mind Shuts When There’s No Evidence Black Sun Journal » The Mind Shuts When There’s No Evidence. […]

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