One interesting opinion piece that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times, was Peter Wehner’s “Seeing Through a Glass, Darkly.” He has a political party affiliation, I don’t, and he’s a Republican, I’m not; but the piece itself is about confirmation bias, and about how it “is far more difficult to overcome than most of us like to admit.” As he states, we are “particularly tempted by delusions if they constitute bricks in walls we have built and live behind.” His prescriptive advice for conquering our current toxic political divide, is “to begin with people in our own tribe, with people who have standing in our lives. We need to emphasize greater epistemological modesty on our side and greater appreciation for the perspectives of the other side.” That’s good advice, in general.
He also suggests that while “we all struggle with confirmation bias,” some of us might be “closer to seeing the truth of things better than others. Objective reality exists, truth matters, and we have to pursue them with purpose and without fear.”
“Truth matters” is a good lead-in to a topic I want to write about today: religion. (See also the previous post on this page.) American Atheist magazine has a page at the back of every issue for one atheist’s response to the question “Why I am an atheist.” While I can easily fill up one page — or ten or twenty — in answering that question, all I really need are these four words: I believe truth matters. That’s what it comes down to.
If a senator stood up on the floor of the U.S. Senate and started saying things like “By the grace of Zeus,” or “May Zeus bless America,” I don’t think they would have a very long career in the Senate. So why isn’t that the case when they say things like “May God bless America?”
To paraphrase a quotation attributed to astronomer Lawrence M. Krauss, which I saw in a Center For Inquiry mailing: The fact that nonsense can be uttered with such impunity, in public discourse, is deeply chilling. [His actual words, from Scientific American: “The increasingly blatant nature of nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling.”] These words come echoing back to me every time I’m listening to a primary or presidential debate, and, inevitably, at some point, the candidates start talking about how important prayer is to them, or how they don’t believe in evolution, or that it shouldn’t be taught in schools, and so forth …
One reason why I find this kind of stuff so disturbing, is because I feel that if we can’t agree on the obvious, then how can we ever agree on anything? And make no mistake about it, whether they are sincere or not, they unequivocally state, in no uncertain terms, that they are devout, unquestioning believers.
Just prior to putting up my website, I consulted a friend who teaches (psychology) at several institutes of higher learning, and his emphatic advice to me was “You’ll get the funding. If you leave out that stuff about religion.” But I told him I can’t do that, because it’s much too vitally important to leave that out. And, I pointed out, I’m not the only one saying that. “Fine,” he relented, “but first you have to become well known, yourself, before you can express those sentiments.”
“Do you want to get the funding,” he asked, “or don’t you?”
“No,” I said, “it’s not about getting funding, it’s about saving the planet. And changing society’s prevailing religious proclivities is just one crucial aspect concerning what we need to do, to do that.”
We went back and forth like that, but my point is this: I’m not going to play that game. If I don’t get funding, I don’t get funding — so be it! I won’t be dishonest about what we need to do. And I’m so glad E.O. Wilson (someone of his stature) has said the things he’s said. I only wish he would speak out more forcefully on this issue.
Here’s one way I sometimes explain it. And people usually agree with this point — even if they only do so, slowly and hesitatingly, after I’ve asked the question more than once. I simply ask them: “Wouldn’t you agree, that there will certainly come a time, at some point in the future — if not within 100 or 1,000 years from now, then certainly within 10,000 or 100,000 years from now (hypothetically speaking, assuming mankind survives on this planet that long) — that today’s popular religions will no longer exist?”
As soon as they agree with that, I continue: “Well then, if that’s going to happen, eventually, anyway, why not start designing that new paradigm, right now (sooner, rather than later), and, simultaneously, do so in such a way that we maximize our chances of saving the planet?”