Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Two Religions

I sometimes cause inadvertent confusion in friends and acquaintances when I ascribe to the word religion two related but different kinds of meaning. The most obvious meaning is religion as a human social organization involving spirituality and formal codes of doctrine. The other involves an informal collection of prejudices and biases that a person holds, and applies more or less thoughtlessly to problems of the day. Such prejudices can involve belief about how the world works that is not always well examined, at least in its application to specific events. You've no doubt heard the expression that a thing is "against his religion," meaning that as a default position the thing is rejected out of hand, without needing to think much about it. That's the gist of my second meaning.

The two meanings of religion are related because they both give precedence to closely held faith about the nature of reality; that faith generally defers to dogma and personal intuition more than objective fact. Evidence isn't nearly as important as ardent belief, and indeed, sometimes facts are utterly beside the point, a nuisance to be shooed away when they impinge upon faith. Such shooing away of facts can be subtle or extraordinary. I know a person who believes absolutely that the earth is 6,000 years old, because that's what he thinks the bible tells him. He cannot abide any science that requires that the earth be older. Sadly, he has no idea of the immense amount of science that excludes.

When my acquaintance asked how I knew the earth was substantially older than 6,000 years, I asked him if he'd ever seen the Grand Canyon. I explained how the Grand Canyon was formed by millions of years of erosion by the Colorado River, in conjunction with the gradual uplift of the Colorado Plateau——things we can see and study, even as they are happening. My "young earth" friend held that the Grand Canyon was formed by a "big flood." That is what his faith informs him, and that is what he believes. What use are facts, evidence, and reason compared to that?

The second kind of religion can be as big a problem as the first, and individuals who are susceptible to one seem equally susceptible to the other. The other night I was watching Rick Santorum on C-SPAN. As usual, he was contemptuously dismissive of the notion of climate change (a.k.a. global warming), calling it phony science. In Santorum's telling, climate change has been disproved, is a fraud, and is not generally believed even by scientists.

Climate change, therefore, is against Rick Santorum's religion. Not his formal religion, mind you, because the Catholic Church has taken halting steps in the recognition of climate change, and some in the church view it as a moral concern. But there seems little doubt that Rick Santorum has a strongly held faith that climate science is fraudulent, and he wants you to believe that fraudulence is widely acknowledged. It's easy to imagine how his diatribes hold great sway with the uninformed, many of whom no doubt incorporate them into their own unexamined belief systems.

What is fraudulent, however, is Rick Santorum's characterization of what scientists believe. Say what you want about climate change, but one thing you cannot accurately say is that scientists generally don't believe in global warming, since the scientific consensus on the matter is overwhelming, and is based on dozens of complex models, many independent lines of evidence, thousands of researchers, and tens of thousands of papers published in scientific journals. I use the word "overwhelming" intentionally: 97 percent of American scientists accept the reality of climate change. Climate change is explicitly acknowledged by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the national academies of most of the world's advanced countries, the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the Geological Society of America, by NASA, and by many others. And by the way, it is acknowledged by the Vatican's own Pontifical Academy of Sciences. (See also this footnote.)

What we have before us, then, is a collision between fact and faith. Between evidence and religion. When that happens, faith wins. That this is so suggests some very disturbing things about human thought processes.

After all, the facts are what they are. They are available for human discovery using all the tools available to us, in conjunction with our ability to think and reason. At a certain point in that discovery, anybody with a reasonably well functioning brain ought to be able to join the consensus. Anybody opposing the consensus must do so on the basis of strong, carefully considered evidence. Unexamined prejudice, including religious belief of both kinds, is not sufficient.

Sam Harris said that faith is a conversation stopper, and indeed it is. If my facts conflict with your faith, there is nothing I can say to change your opinion, because, by definition, faith trumps fact. You are impervious to evidence. You are not persuadable by process of reason. Logic has no effect on you. Faith, in principle, submits to none of these: that's what faith means. You've constructed a wall of belief that's impossible to penetrate. It should be obvious that this state of affairs makes it hard to advance human understanding or reach consensus. After all, when evidence doesn't matter, we're just arguing past each other, and the debate over climate change is but one example. When the only possibility for common ground lies in the accidental and arbitrary intersection of subjective belief systems, addressing humanity's pressing problems becomes a lot harder than it would otherwise be.

Facts are crucial, but they're just the beginning: collection of facts is the first of several steps in problem solving. Once we agree on the facts, we can talk about their significance, and after that about whether anything should be done, and after that about what specifically should be done. All those later steps involve not just objective facts, but also our subjective value systems. Thus, agreeing on the facts doesn't mean everybody will agree on a course of action. You may choose to not be concerned about the consequences of global warming, even though you acknowledge that it is happening. Shame on you if you think that, but at least you are being merely selfish or callous——not in denial about reality.

Of course, reality is layered. When engaging our value systems, a full grasp of the facts at all the pertinent layers is obviously important. In deciding how to think about global warming, you may conclude that the up side is that you can play more winter golf in Kansas, and the down side is that your summer air conditioning bills will be higher. You may consider that to be a perfectly good tradeoff. But if that is the reasoning you employ, then it's likely you have a gross lack of understanding about the consequences of climate change, so collection of additional facts is in order.

The interaction of facts and values is complicated. It requires effort, honesty, and a commitment to rational thinking. But if you're like Rick Santorum, where climate change is simply against your religion, you're an intellectual cripple. Why should anybody listen to you? More important, if you're like Rick Santorum, there is no possibility for you to join in reasoned consensus, and thus no possibility of your helping to solve the problem at hand. All you can do is try to persuade others to join your mindless religion. You bring nothing to the discussion except made up assertions. In Rick Santorum's world, we're reduced to arguing about faith, not facts; that's very unstable ground from which to view reality. So it's not surprising that our ability to take thoughtful, purposeful, collective action is diminished.

Religion of this second kind is exceedingly common. I know someone who's faith includes opposition to labor unions and to big government, and everything that happens in the public arena is viewed through that distorting lens. Thus the auto bailouts by the government in the recent financial crisis were anathema, even though they were spectacularly successful. (GM is once again the world's biggest car manufacturer, and has recently reported record profits. Three years ago, who would have thought that possible?) To my friend, the loss of an additional million jobs in the upper midwest (at a time when the economy could not bear it), and all the collateral damage that would entail, is nothing compared to the need to maintain ideological purity, to adhere to one's faith that government intervention is illegitimate. And like my "young earth" friend, he invents all kinds of alternate explanations (that are probable only in his warped view of reality) in order to bring observed events into line with his faith.

That's how faith works, with both kinds of religion.

Footnote: The opening declaration in the Pontifical Academy's report says: "We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home. By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life."

Copyright (C) 2012 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved