Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web
March 26, 2012
The topic this past Sunday on the show “Up w/ Chris Hayes” (MSNBC) was the statistical correlation between deniers of global warming and religious believers. Participants included such luminaries as Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” and Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” a new book arguing that the world has gotten less violent as the tide of fundamentalist faith has receded and given way to the dictates of reason. It was no surprise that the panel’s default position, stated almost explicitly by Susan Jacoby, was that religion clouds the mind of those who, if they were only sufficiently educated, would arrive at the conclusion supported by the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence and reject the blind adherence to revealed or ecclesiastical authority that characterizes religious belief.
The self-congratulatory unanimity that presided over the discussion was challenged at one point by Hayes, who posed the following question: If you hold to the general skepticism that informs scientific inquiry — that is, if you refuse either to anoint a viewpoint in advance because it is widely held or to send viewpoints away because they are regarded as fanciful or preposterous — how do you respond to global-warming deniers or Holocaust deniers or creationists when they invoke the same principle of open inquiry to argue that they should be given a fair hearing and be represented in departments of history, biology and environmental science? What do you do, Hayes asked, when, in an act of jujitsu, the enemies of liberal, scientific skepticism wield it as a weapon against its adherents?
Dawkins and Pinker replied that you ask them to show you their evidence — the basis of their claim to be taken seriously — and then you show them yours, and you contrast the precious few facts they have with the enormous body of data collected and vetted by credentialed scholars and published in the discipline’s leading journals. Point, game, match.
Not quite. Pushed by Hayes, who had observed that when we accept the conclusions of scientific investigation we necessarily do so on trust (how many of us have done or could replicate the experiments?) and are thus not so different from religious believers, Dawkins and Pinker asserted that the trust we place in scientific researchers, as opposed to religious pronouncements, has been earned by their record of achievement and by the public rigor of their procedures. In short, our trust is justified, theirs is blind.
It was at this point that Dawkins said something amazing, although neither he nor anyone else picked up on it. He said: in the arena of science you can invoke Professor So-and-So’s study published in 2008, “you can actually cite chapter and verse.”
With this proverbial phrase, Dawkins unwittingly (I assume) attached himself to the centuries-old practice of citing biblical verses in support of a position on any number of matters, including, but not limited to, diet, animal husbandry, agricultural policy, family governance, political governance, commercial activities and the conduct of war. Intellectual responsibility for such matters has passed in the modern era from the Bible to academic departments bearing the names of my enumerated topics. We still cite chapter and verse — we still operate on trust — but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.
The question is, what makes one chapter and verse more authoritative for citing than the other? The question did not arise in the discussion, but had it arisen, Dawkins and Pinker would no doubt have responded by extending the point they had already made: The chapter and verse of scriptural citation is based on nothing but subjective faith; the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence.
The argument is circular and amounts to saying that the chapter and verse we find authoritative is the chapter and verse of the scripture we believe in because we believe in its first principle, in this case the adequacy and superiority of a materialist inquiry into questions religion answers by mere dogma. To be sure, those who stand with Dawkins and Pinker could also add that they believe in the chapter and verse of scientific inquiry for good reasons, and that would be true. But the reasons undergirding that belief are not independent of it.
People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.
Vary the assumptions (and it is impossible to not have any), begin by assuming a creating and sustaining God, and the force of quite other reasons will seem obvious and inescapable. As John Locke said in his Letter on Toleration, “Every church is orthodox to itself,” and every orthodoxy brings with it reasons, honored authorities, sacred texts and unassailable methods of verification.
It is at bottom a question of original authority: with what conviction — basic orthodoxy — about where truth and illumination are to be found do you begin? Once that question is answered satisfactorily for you (by revelation, education or conversion), you cannot test the answer by bringing it before the bar of some independent arbiter, for your answer now is the arbiter (and measure) of everything that comes before you. Your answer delivers the world to you and delivers with it mechanisms for distinguishing good evidence from bad or beside-the-point evidence and good reasons from reasons that just don’t cut it.
So when you come across someone who gives the wrong kind of reasons (global-warming deniers and creationists) or subscribes to the wrong kind of belief (Holocaust deniers), you don’t give them the time of day; they are just obviously the wrong sort and you don’t have to deal with them until they have gone away and read the right books and taken the right courses and so have acquired the ability to engage with you in a rational discussion.
What this means is that the rhetoric of disinterested inquiry, as retailed by the likes of Dawkins and Pinker, is in fact a very interested assertion of the superiority of one set of beliefs. And accompanying that assertion is a conviction that those who are not persuaded of those beliefs can be dismissed out of hand. Dawkins gave a wonderful illustration of the point when, to Hayes’s evident distress, he rejected the distinction, central to enlightenment liberalism, between the public realm, where you make decisions (like the decision about whom to vote for) on the basis of non-sectarian reasons, and the private realm, where you can hold and cultivate any sectarian beliefs you like. Because the two realms are separate, the argument goes, you should consider only the public views of a candidate and allow him the latitude of his private religious convictions.
Dawkins demurred and cited the example (hardly hypothetical) of a candidate who believes that a man named Joseph Smith was led by an angel to a set of golden plates buried in upstate New York. That candidate, said Dawkins, believes something crazy, and even if I think his tax policy is good, I’m not going to vote for someone with crazy beliefs. In short, no matter how cogent that candidate’s policy positions might be, I am not going to consider him because he’s not the right kind of person; he’s not on my side, where “my side” is not just a tribal designation, but the designation of a worldview that spills over from the private realm into the realm of public decision-making.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not criticizing Dawkins, but thanking him for affirming the argument I made last week in Campaign Stops, the argument that despite invocations of fairness and equality and giving every voice a chance, classical liberals, like any other ideologues (and ideologues we all are), divide the world into “us” and “them.” It’s just that rather than “us” being Christians and “them” Jews or vice-versa, “us” are those who subscribe to the tenets of materialist scientific inquiry and “them” are those who don’t, those who, in the entirely parochial judgment of liberal rationalists, subscribe to nonsense and superstition.
Again, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not criticizing liberals for standing up for, and with, their own, only for pretending that they are, or could be, doing something else. Liberals know, without having to think further about it, that those who oppose global warming on religious grounds are just ignorant nuts; and they know that those who deny the Holocaust, no matter what so-called facts and statistics they marshal, are just bad people; and they know that those who want creationism taught in the schools are just using the vocabulary of open inquiry as a Trojan horse. (Incidentally, I agree with all three of these liberal positions.)
But the desire of classical liberals to think of themselves as above the fray, as facilitating inquiry rather than steering it in a favored direction, makes them unable to be content with just saying, You guys are wrong, we’re right, and we’re not going to listen to you or give you an even break. Instead they labor mightily to ground their judgments in impersonal standards and impartial procedures (there are none) so that they can pronounce their excommunications with clean hands and pure — non-partisan, and non-tribal — hearts. It’s quite a performance and it is on display every day in our most enlightened newspapers and on our most progressive political talk shows, including the ones I’m addicted to.