bookmark_borderSearching for Design

There’s an interesting review, by Logan Paul Gage, of Francis S. Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In a backhanded way, Gage makes a good point: Collins is very eager to find design in physical cosmology (not his expertise), but soundly rejects a similar form of reasoning in biology (his own field).

Sigh. At least intelligent design proponents are somewhat consistent. They see design all around. It’s a gross mistake, but hell, if you’re going to screw up, might as well do it in style. What I don’t entirely understand is the sizable group of more liberal-minded theists who see design in areas that just happen not to be their particular expertise. Collins just makes an ass of himself in his discussion of physical cosmology. I’ve also encountered a handful of physicists who have no interest in introducing any designing intelligence to solve physics problems, but who entertained a suspicion that biological entities were just too intricate to be assembled by natural means. Naturally, biology was not their strong suit.

bookmark_borderFaith in faith

Normally, I don’t take faith—of the blind faith, leap in the dark, I have a feeling down deep it’s true varieties—too seriously. It’s intellectually worthless, and too transparently an attempt to protect some claims from criticism.

That doesn’t, however, mean that the faith-attitude isn’t widespread and effective. This past week I encountered a lot of it in the classroom, as I let my students’ discussions wander without steering them too heavy-handedly. I teach a course I call Weird Science, devoted to arguing about paranormal and fringe-science claims. This year I’m starting them off by having them discuss the nature of science, and the question of “well, homeopathy/astrology/creationism/whatever might not be scientific but it might be true nonetheless” came up. I naturally have an overwhelmingly Christian-majority class, and soon many started bringing up the notion of faith, and religion as something that was out of bounds to science but nevertheless true.

Now, most of my students didn’t seem to have an overly coherent view of faith—they could say that faith was something without evidence, by definition, but on further questioning some thought that faith was mainly trust in a community or institution, which need not have connotations of a complete leap in the dark. To futher confuse matters, it turned out that a good number thought of “truth” as being personal, as opposed to “fact.” Anything a person believed in was “true for them,” but a fact was more public and objective, something “proven.”

To try and get a better feel for how my students thought (by now it was getting obvious that the way I’ve been brainwashed and the way they’ve been brought up are very different), I asked what I hoped was a more concrete question. I invited them to imagine themselves to be in a situation where they need to figure out whether astrology was factually correct. Maybe a roommate swears that astrology works wonders and is trying to convince them to follow astrological advice, or maybe they’re simply paid to take on a research project where they have to figure out if astrology works as claimed. Then, I had them think of two alternative scenarios. One is where the first information they encounter about astrology is that the astrology proponent (their roommate or the author of a pro-astrology book) claims that astrology is scientific, that it is a very ancient and well-proven science, and that lots of evidence supports astrological claims and predictions. The other scenario is where the astrology proponent immediately states that astrology is not scientific, but insists it is correct nonetheless, and that they know this because it is a spiritual kind of thing, and that they have this deep conviction in their heart that astrology works. I now asked them in which of the two scenarios would they be initially inclined to think that astrology might be correct. They’d have opportunity for further research and experience later, but what would their gut feeelings be?

It turned out that except for a few students who stated they were more skeptical by temperament, many in the class said that the feeling-in-heart scenario would inspire more trust in astrology. Some went all the way with that, and others said a mixture of the two scenarios would work best for them, but by and large, the whole feel-down-deep aspect of the pro-astrology position impressed them.

Very interesting. I’m not sure what to make of all this; I’m not even certain I’m understanding my students correctly at this point. But I’m tempted to speculate that this is an instance of the faith-attitude being more generalizable than I expected. The classic skeptical approach to a claim like faith in the Bible is to point out that there are other people who take rival truth-claims on faith, such as Muslims believing without question in the Quran. So how do you sort out who, if anyone, is right? A common believers’ response seems to be to acknowledge the intellectual difficulty posed by this symmetry, and either adopt a confused relativism or simply end up reasserting their own faith. After all, the job of faith is to insulate a belief from criticism, and that attitude tends to be learnt pretty well. But when a faith-claim does not immediately seem to be a rival, as in the case of astrology (since they don’t know too much about it), it might seem that they can have both faiths, and the warm associations of the faith-attitude more readily generalizes.

OK, sheer speculation. But if I ever want to devise a paranormal belief (a lot more money in that than physics, certainly), I probably should include a lot of faith-linked warm-and-fuzzies. It seems to be a good way to get people to lower their guard—but only if it doesn’t obviously go against their already established faiths.

bookmark_borderThe Secular Bible

Let me recommend Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously to readers of the Secular Outpost. It’s a damn good book, and raises questions that nonbelievers and secularists will want to wrestle with.

My primary interest lies in the science and religion area — which, in practice, usually becomes natural science and religion. But among nonbelievers, questions regarding scriptures and interpretation probably attract more attention, even if it’s at the level of naive Bible-bashing and lists of contradictions. So it’s particularly relevant to have Berlinerblau address Biblical interpretation. He charges nonbelievers with falling down on the job, with misunderstanding or being ill-informed about religion while defining themselves against the very thing they know so little about. His focus is naturally on the academy; he observes that religious studies as a discipline is the territory of committed religious people, even though they take non-fundamentalist approaches to the texts they study. Indeed, he argues that the secular intellectual tradition concerning religion is experiencing a crisis. The crisis involves a lack of interest, lack of fresh ideas, and even abandoning the serious study of religion to the religious.

Having thus set the stage, Berlinerblau goes on to describe his explicitly secular approach to reading the Bible. His explanation of how the Bible generates multiple meanings and impossibilities of meaning due to its process of composition will particularly interest secularists, and indeed anyone frustrated with the ability of religious figures to find practically anything they want in the texts they interpret. He brings up a very good question: why is the Bible so opaque, and why have its readers historically been compelled to spend so much effort trying to interpet it anyway? His answers are invariably thought-provoking. I can’t say I was swept away (I can always find nits to pick, and I have to say that I found the chapter on the Quran vaguely unsatisfactory), but I was impressed, and continually found myself engaged in arguing with and sometimes against Berlinerblau. You can’t ask for more from a good book.

That being said, I have to wonder if Berlinerblau’s portrayal of secular thinking about religion as being in a state of crisis is entirely accurate. He may be correct to say that the field of religious studies is dominated by liberal-minded believers — it certainly fits my experience. But I am not sure that religious studies is the only, or even the best, perspective to bring to studying religion, particularly for nonbelievers. My impression of religious studies is that it suffers from an ideology of intellectual isolationism — its practitioners take it for granted that religion is sui generis, that it can only be understood from the inside, that their job is to uncover meaning rather than explanations. These are attitudes that can be found throughout the humanities, where an anti-scientific, “anti-reductionist” flag is often raised. But they seem especially intense in religious studies, serving to insulate their beliefs in transcendent realities from any external criticism.

If that impression I have is roughly accurate, then I also have to ask if especially science-minded nonbelievers have good reason for not being deeply interested in Biblical interpretation and so forth. That various scriptures are easily understood as human products rather than supernatural inspirations is old hat, after all. There does not seem to be too many prospects of significantly new knowledge coming from investigating that question. If we add that secularists don’t see various scriptures as relevant to their lives anyway, a lack of interest is understandable, at least. Even more so if getting seriously involved means having to deal with the irritating intellectual isolationism of religious studies departments.

Now, some of us still remain deeply interested in religion as a human phenomenon. But even in that case, I suggest that the more interesting ideas are not to be found in Biblical interpretation, but in areas Berlinerblau does not mention. For example, these are very exciting times if you are curious about the psychology of religion. There is a lot of good, new work going on now that brings together cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, and evolutionary theory to try and understand universal human beliefs in socially relevant supernatural agents. Such work takes an implicitly secular perspective, and is perhaps more likely to attract the attention of science-minded nonbelievers today.

So I’m not sure about secular thinking about religion being in a state of crisis. I don’t want to deny that Berlinerblau has a valid point, and that it would be good if there was more explicitly secular reading of the Bible going on. This would have immense practical value, and it might even help break the isolationism within religious studies. Nevertheless, there’s a lot more secular thinking about religion going on that Berlinerblau does not recognize. And in this wider context, I suspect that a certain lack of interest in the Bible is more understandable.