18 October 2015

Innate tendencies toward irrational religious beliefs and the U.S. cultural wars

Paul Bloom, in his lecture titled There's Nothing Special About Religion, makes some interesting points about belief. He talks about studies showing that both children and adults are influenced by pre-programmed systems of understanding related to animism, creationism and dualism. He also talks about how people employ a strategy of "double deference"--which is say that most of us rely on experts regarding both the content of our beliefs and the details. In abstract form, this argument could be interpreted as confirmation of the popular notion that science and religion aren't different--they're just a set of beliefs ("choices", as if were). Bloom doesn't actually agree with this, noting that science involves a very different process that isn't found in religion.

The talk is interesting in the way it illuminates some of the dark corner of America's current cultural wars. I just rewatched the documentary The Revisionaries about the right-wing attempt (mostly successful) to rewrite Texan textbooks so that they're anti-evolution and pro-right in terms of their political slant. One canard used by the right-wingers on the committee was to say that the K-12 students should be encouraged to question the theory of evolution. As one scientist at the hearings pointed out, students at this level would have absolutely no way to carry out a scientific line of inquiry to question the theory. The insistence on this language calling for skepticism was simply a Trojan horse. (One wonders how the pro-Christian right would feel if the standards had instead explicitly said, "Students will be taught to question their religious beliefs.")

If I had a hand in creating the standards, I'd add something along the lines of the following: "By going through some examples, students will gain an appreciation of the rigor of scientific inquiry and will appreciate the importance of considering the current scientific consensus as the default position (which is always open to revision) in rational discussions." To take just one example, our consideration of political policies regarding the environment should assume that the consensus regarding global warming is (until proven otherwise) correct. As for the sensitivities of religious people, I really feel that the tension is inevitable. Religions do make statements about the world that can be shown, using scientific methods, to be false. Ultimately, we're left with a choice: to do, as the Taliban and ISIS have done, and simply ban science, or to allow our children to learn about science, aware (at some level) that this education may have the effect of eroding religious superstitions.

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