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Searching for Rational Religion

Professor of Philosophy David Kyle Johnson went to a conference hoping to find the ever elusive believers who eschew pseudo-scientific thinking. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but the article he wrote is a good read.

Source: Is Religion Pseudoscience?

As an atheist, and a logician, I’m often tempted by the notion that religion is just socially accepted pseudoscience (with tax breaks). After all, the arguments in favor of ghosts, alternative medicine and ancient aliens, are very similar to the arguments for angels, the “power of prayer” and God. Sleepparalysis and hallucinatory visions are taken to be evidence for ghosts/angels, post-hoc reasoning is used in arguments for alternative medicine/prayer, and “unexplained mysteries” are counted as evidence for aliens/God. But as tempting as this notion is, it’s difficult to see it all the way through. Although I know plenty of people whose religious belief is steeped in pseudoscientific thinking, I also know religious people who pride themselves in their critical thinking abilities. Does this mean that religion isn’t steeped in pseudoscience, or are these religious people who say they are critical thinkers just fooling themselves? I’d hate to think the later is true. 

I was partially successful in my conversations, where I met some wonderfully rational religious people who understood and cared about science. They helped me hone some of my own arguments and I hope I helped them hone theirs. Unfortunately, I also found creationists, people who believe in demons, new-ageism, and even defenders of the pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake. Some even refused to say Dawkins’ name—saying instead “the D word”—because (as someone suggested)  he was like Voldemort. If you say his name, especially in Oxford, he might appear. And then there was the New Testament scholar who insisted that the idea that 21st century medical doctors are more qualified to distinguish illness from death than 1st century Palestinians was just a conclusion driven by “western bias.”

But what was most disappointing were the headliners—the keynote speakers, none of whom were academic lightweights, and all of whom were there to speak at the request of the foundations. Although a few of the talks were interesting, far too many were tinged with pseudoscience—and the biggest names seemed to be drenched in it.


Scientia Salon is Off to a Good Start

Not much progress on the blogging front here. I have a handful of half-written posts that I’ll return to eventually. In the meantime Massimo Pigliucci’s new blog Scientia Salon is churning out some pretty great content. Massimo is a former evolutionary biologist turned philosopher. I’ve been a moderate fan ever since he started doing the podcast circuit several years ago, usually to debate creationists. His last blog Rationally Speaking was decent as well. So far though, the new blog surpasses anything he’s done in the past. He’s got together several great writers in the rationalism/naturalism/science/skepticism community to produce some pretty “heavy” material. I’m just going to link to what has gone up so far.

In Spelling out Scientism, A to Z John Shook lists off 26 possible meanings of the word Scientism. Scientism is a word that often gets thrown around when some group feels threatened by the knowledge produced by the sciences. It’s can be a statement that the person feels that the science supporter has overstepped their bounds in some way. They’ve trusted too much in science or trusted it in a domain where it doesn’t apply. As you might imagine it gets used quite a lot by people defending some pseudo-scientific belief or another. However, it also gets thrown around within the rationalism community as well. It has reached the point where it seems to be more of a vague pejorative than anything. Shook’s piece is both a call for more clarity for those charging the crime of scientism, and for those defending to say more clearly what they are defending.

David Kyle Johnson has a three-part piece defending the notion that there is a conflict between science and religion, and just what that conflict is. No “non-overlapping magisteria” for Johnson , where religion and science occupy different realms of “knowledge” and therefore can’t conflict with one another. Unfortunately for me, this totally overlaps one of the pieces in my queue, and is much better than anything I’ll probably produce. Oh well, mine is much more narrowly focused on a particular claim made by some Christians so I’ll get it published here eventually. Here are the pieces: Identifying the Conflict between Religion and Science — Part I  and Part II and Part III.

Finally we have another three parter by the famous, in some circles, Alan Sokal. In 1996 he sent a hoax paper to a postmodernist journal to see if they would accept it, as long as it conformed to their ideological stance that science was just another socially constructed truth. The paper itself was filled with wonderful gibberish such as (quoting the linked Wikipedia article):

“it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality'” is fundamentally “a social and linguistic construct”. It went on to state that because scientific research is “inherently theory-laden and self-referential”, it “cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities” and that therefore a “liberatory science” and an “emancipatory mathematics”, spurning “the elite caste canon of ‘high science'”, needed to be established for a “postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project”.

Anyway, his current piece up at Scientia Salon is about three opponents of scientific progress. In What is science and why should we care? — Part I he tackles those same post-modernists and social constructivists, while at the same time advocating a leftism that takes science seriously. Part II turns to pseudo-science, like alternative medicine and religion and Part III finishes up with propagandists and spin doctors.


The Psuedoscience of Whole Foods

Source: Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience

But you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market.

Nearby are eight full shelves of probiotics—live bacteria intended to improve general health. I invited a biologist friend who studies human gut bacteria to come take a look with me. She read the healing claims printed on a handful of bottles and frowned. “This is bullshit,” she said, and went off to buy some vegetables. Later, while purchasing a bag of chickpeas, I browsed among the magazine racks. There was Paleo Living, and, not far away, the latest issue of What Doctors Don’t Tell You. Pseudoscience bubbles over into anti-science. A sample headline: “Stay sharp till the end: the secret cause of Alzheimer’s.” A sample opening sentence: “We like to think that medicine works.”