Monthly Archives: September 2009
Recently, in the course of a heated debate about science and evolutionary biology a “friend” let slip some of his true feelings about me (Mojo) and my atheism/skepticism. In his defence, he was upset and may not have known what exactly he was saying, but as you may have already guessed, I no longer consider this person a friend as I once did.
Chances are, if you read this blog, you are a skeptic or critical thinker and you may even be an atheist. If this is the case, you may do well to remember this article as a bit of a warning. If you are not a skeptic but have friends that are, maybe this article will help enlighten you to what it is like for them and perhaps increase your tolerance to their way of life. Either way, this is purely a cathartic experience for me to get a few things off my chest.
1. We skeptics cannot pretend to be fence-sitters for your sake. Keep this in mind when you broach “controversial” topics like evolution, UFOs or alternative medicines. It would be a lie to everyone involved if skeptics simply shrugged away catagorically wrong statements of fact as if they didn’t care. If you’re not prepared to go all-in with these types of discussions, don’t bring it up.
2. Try to ignore your personal feelings when discussing science. If you are going to discuss these things and don’t like being told that you’re wrong, again, back away slowly. A skeptic usually doesn’t treat any topic as a sacred cow. If you are personally invested in this topic for any reason, you should remember that as a scientist, your skeptic friend will debate the topic… not you. If he/she discounts your claim as false, try to keep it there and don’t take it as a personal attack.
3. Not everything is a matter of opinion. Very often, people who realize they have inadvertently opened a proverbial can of worms that is a skeptical debate will attempt to end the conversation with statements like, “That’s just my opinion” or “Well that’s just what I beleive”. We have all learned from a very young age that most people will not challenge beliefs and opinions because everyone is entitled to their own. Matters of science and the nature of reality however, are not matters of opinion. Skeptics MUST have evidence to say something is real or not. We have a hard time understanding how people can turn statements like “Big foot is real” into a matter of opinion. As such, don’t expect to get off the hook that easily with a skeptic. In all likliehood, a skeptic will brush that comment aside and get back to the topic at hand.
“There’s nothing wrong with believing…” a friend of mine once said…and if only belief, and the right to believe, were simple matters, not such a proverbial can of worms. I would like, in an ideal and simple world, to fully agree with my friend’s statement as is. Unfortunately the reality of the situation is neither ideal nor simple.
I’ll try to articulate my views as best I can at present…
Belief is a complex matter, for belief-structures are complex, and they do not exist in the substrate of anyone’s brain in isolation. Any particular belief in this structure must be put in context with others held by that same person, and it is our beliefs that shape our actions, for our actions are undertaken on behalf of decisions based on what we think to be true, to maximize their chance of success. Our beliefs, ranging from dogmatically held to frequently self-questioned, often define how we view ourselves and the world.
This is true whether or not the proposition of discourse is itself true or rational.
As a skeptic, I sometimes find myself in opposition to those who harbor or promote irrational views, especially those ideas with potentially, or actually harmful consequences, and those that result in infringement of the rights of others or to their physical, psychological, or financial detriment. This is especially true of claims propagated by way of force or deception. People should be allowed the right to their own views, of their own free will and full knowledge.
All views are equally worthy of a fair hearing, but not all views are equally valid in terms of truth content. It is not irrational or closed-minded to reject an idea on the basis of its evidence or logic once it has had its fair hearing, and has been found wanting.
Whether a questionable claim is promoted through force of law or force of arms, or whether the deceiver is oneself or another is unimportant: irrationality is being imposed on someone, by someone against their will or against their better judgment. Actions undertaken on the basis of such ideas are likely to be less successful, even if ostensibly harmless, but this depends on the specifics of the belief thus promoted, and the degree to which it contravenes reality.
Let’s briefly discuss the matter of belief in witchcraft, and the fear that this has instilled in those places and times it is strong, and finally, some of the consequences it has. Note that I’m not referring to Wiccans(I know a few, and they’re decent people for the most part), but to those stereotypical cackling broomstick riders so feared, because they are believed in, by various conservative and fundamentalist religious congregations across the world who harbor a literally medieval mindset.
As humans, we tend to fear those things we consider dangerous, and we typically consider dangerous only those things that are part of our reality-equation and that we see as threatening.
Belief in malevolent witchcraft, and witches, without and despite evidence, is one such thing.
Historically, witchcraft has been viewed…unfavorably, and those who harbor and actively promote this delusional belief in it tend to fear those whom they think to be witches, often to the point of organizing mobs, posses, or what-have-you to apprehend the accused and ‘bring them to justice.’
It is often the case, and has been, that anyone can be accused, even in many third-world nations today, particularly those with widespread religiosity, often with fatal results regardless of the age or status of the accused whether they are given a trial or not.
It matters only that they are accused. Such unfortunates are considered to be guilty until proven innocent, their accusers often thinking this enough to convict, and often, torture, maim, or even kill them out of fear of magical powers that don’t exist. Those who so accuse them have unshakable faith in their guilt.
Children, men, women, the elderly, people from almost all walks of life have fallen victim to witch-hunts throughout history. Whether by the Medieval and Spanish inquisitions, or in a less organized fashion, in modern Africa and South America, people accused of possessing and using evil magic powers that don’t exist have lost their lives or their limbs, and whole families have been destroyed, their homes burned, because of fearful superstition. Nothing more.
Because of this tragic state of affairs, it’s sometimes difficult to avoid getting impatient when a believer has the nerve to ask me, “What’s the harm?” and naïvely answers his own question with “None!” But try I must: harboring equally irrational indignation accomplishes nothing.
Spreading unwarranted fear of vaccines is another thing, as especially during a major breakout of a viral disease it is both irresponsible and dangerous.
The upshot is this: Each idea must be considered for both its relative truth value, and for its benignity in terms of consequences. Some irrational views are more dangerous than others, and in different ways, and it is these whose advocates I often find myself the most critical of.
Widespread social irrationality is also problematic in the long term, even if not physically, psychologically, or financially harmful, for the widespread acceptance of such claims can and does impede a society’s scientific literacy, which is dangerous for democracies: despots love to control people who can’t or won’t think critically, and having advanced technology and scientific knowledge in combination with a population which has almost no real understanding of it is potentially lethal. In the long term, we can no longer afford to keep an understanding of science and its process in the hands of a few experts, and doing so will just blow up in our faces.
Good science education should be for everyone, not just professionals.
I respect the civil liberties of others to hold their own views, and I respect their feelings regarding those views. There is only one reality in which we all live, though no one true way to represent that reality. The map is not the territory. We all have a right to free expression (at least in the U.S.), but one’s right to promote a belief-system using this free expression ends where the rights of others begin. Ia! Troythulu ftaghn!