Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A skeptical skeptic

Two magazines I read on a regular basis are Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer.  Both are smart, thoughtful and intelligent, though I find Skeptic to be the better written and more entertaining.  (Any magazine that has the Amazing Randi on its editorial board is practically guaranteed to be entertaining.)  They take a reasoned and skeptical (duh) approach toward popular controversies, asking critical questions about commonly held beliefs and assumptions, and they make me think.  I rarely finish reading an issue of either magazine without being forced to confront an unconscious preconception at least once. 

(The most recent issue of Skeptic, concerning global warming, is particularly good -- while making no bones about the reality of global warming, and the likelihood that humankind's activities contribute to it, the magazine also makes a strong case against relying on climate model predictions to understand the process.)

So, I like these magazines.  I like their approach, and I enjoy reading them.


One of the topics they both cover, over and over, is the social and political battle in America between creationism (or its stalking horse, "intelligent design") and the theory of evolution, and, by extension, the "debate" between science and religion.  I don't think I've read an issue of either magazine that hasn't contained an article or a book review attacking creationism  or the religious world view.  And, honestly, I'm tired of it.

Understand, I agree with the premise that religious belief is fundamentally irrational, and, in a strict sense, delusional.  I think creationism and intelligent design are an anti-intellectual fraud.  I shudder when I read that large portions of the American population "doubt" or "don't believe in" evolution.  (Evolution isn't something you "believe in."  It's an established fact and isn't subject to "belief" or "doubt."  You might as well "doubt" the law of gravity.)  And I worry for the health of our democracy when so many voters are so ill- or mis-informed.

But here's where I part company with the editors of Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer.  I think it's futile to argue the case for evolution and atheism on any kind of rational level, as these magazines do, because belief in creationism and a personal deity is, by definition and in practice, irrational.

Just as evolution isn't a subject for belief, creationism isn't a subject for reason.

Belief in creationism and a personal deity doesn't result from a process of reasoning (the Jesuits notwithstanding), and can't be addressed by rational argument.  If it were, and if the people who held these beliefs were open to reason, there would be no debate; the question would be resolved, the subject would be closed, and we could move on to something else.

(Actually, I wonder if there is such a thing as rational thought.  According to some recent brain research, the mind apparently comes to a decision before the reasoning process even begins.  In that case, a human being isn't so much a rational animal, as a rationalizing animal.  In other words, to rephrase Descartes, the formulation shouldn't be "I think, therefore I am," it should be, "I think I think, therefore I think I am.")

No, you can't debate a creationist or a theist.  Because the basis of their world view is emotional, not rational, reason doesn't apply.  But that doesn't mean you shouldn't fight their efforts to make the rest of the world "think" the way they do.

The way to fight an emotional belief isn't by trying to reason with the believer; the way to fight an emotional belief is through emotion.

Give up appealing to their mind; appeal to their emotions.

Embarrass them.

After all, that's how proponents of creationism and theism deal with the proponents of evolution: through ridicule.  They mock the idea that "your uncle was a monkey."  They ridicule science for "leaving God out of the equation."  They laugh at our insistence that the human mind can understand anything outside "the word of God."  ("God said it, Moses wrote it, I believe it.")

So fight fire with fire.

Make fun of 'em.

"Creationism is proof Darwin was right, because only a monkey would believe the world was created in six days."

"If you're going to base your beliefs on a book, at least pick a book that's consistent and well-written, with likable characters and a plot that makes sense.  My book is Lord of the Rings.  I believe in Frodo, Gandalf, and Galadriel."

You may not convince them you're right, but there was never much hope of that anyway, so at least you can have a laugh at their expense.  That's got to be worth something.

Then, could we please move on to something else?

1 comment:

Ron Hanna said...

XLNT POST, Gerry... Like you, I try to keep an open mind, but many hard-core fundamentalists REALLY frustrate me... There was an article in the Washington Post today Re: "Alien Life" and how it fits into "God's" plan. I was surprised to read that the Official Astronomer for the Vatican stated bluntly that (paraphrasing here): It's certainly possible that since God created everything in the Universe, Alien lifeforms can be seen as God's sense of variety, and DOESN'T conflict with the Catholic Church's beliefs, so if there ARE Alien Lifeforms, they are also a product of "God"... Considering the Catholic approach (and many other Fundamentalist's beliefs), that seemed almost like Heresy to me (coming from the Vatican itself)... Personally... All I know is that in my youth, I studied PsychoPharmacolgy in College... and after taking multiple LSD trips (all supervised in a scientific setting, as well as personal use)... Well, once you take a "trip"... you will NEVER percieve "Reality" as others do... Again, an excellent post... Anything that makes people "think" is always good to see... Ron