On Dying Fish, Fundamentalism and the Blindness of Faith

Written by Jason Dias

It seems we should have other things to worry about then basic human rights issues. And that’s the problem with blind faith …

aNewDomain — I worry about fundamentalism. I also worry about variety.  Whether religious or not, I am concerned that absolute belief in something only teaches us how to argue our way out of reality when reality is inconvenient.

Maybe the most public spectacle highlighting these effects is the infamous Ken Hamm/Bill Nye so-called “debate.”  It was no debate. It really was more like two hours of two dudes talking past one another and never addressing one another’s points, which wasn’t really an argument, but anyway.

The Argument Clinic video: Monty Python YouTube Channel

Hamm wants to deconstruct everything in science like Bill Clinton wonders what “is” means.

He contends that all the means we use to date physical evidence disagree by large factors. And he claims there are peer-reviewed papers published in a journal showing how the things we think must represent deep time could have been formed in shorter periods. He never reveals that the peers are Biblical scholars and the journal is his website. 

And the most outrageous claim: that we can know nothing about the past, because we weren’t there.

That’s completely true and completely false at the same time.  We can’t know anything about anything, and not because we weren’t there, but because “truth” does not literally exist in the environment. 

The best we can do is closer and closer approximations of reality through disciplined inquiry. What makes the claim outrageous, though, is that with the other side of his face, Hamm insists that the Bible must be literally true because it was written by God.

Bill Nye failed to ask the one, simple question that would shut down the whole proceedings. He should have asked: Really? How do you know God wrote it?  Were you there?”

It’s all a matter of what you put faith in. 

Now Paul Tillich might find Nye to be more faithful than Hamm.  It’s about how one defines faith.  For Tillich, this is belief in the presence of doubt.  The science side of this “debate” allows for doubt and humility; the fundamentalist side allows for no doubt at all.  The complete and total belief in the Biblical account of events absent any possible ambiguity does away with faith completely.

Which is all besides the point.  The point is, Hamm starts with an inflexible assumption (creation through divine action) and constructs reality around that beginning.  It doesn’t matter where the evidence points; he attacks the evidence far past the point of reason if it does not agree with his pre-established position.

Evolution is a basic aspect of reality.  Biology as a discipline is based on the theories of evolution.  How we understand the world is tied up in these concepts.  But we are stuck – still, in 2015 – apologizing for teaching science in science class, and fighting legislation to bring particular religions into it. 

This is a symptom of a bigger problem: our tendency to make our decisions then adjust our reasoning to fit.  It’s an uncomfortable truth and nobody is immune.  Watch this bit on choice-blindness, for example.

Video: ChoiceBlindnessLabs YouTube Channel

We tend to vote along party lines without even knowing very much what our candidate stands for. It’s as if we’re voting on just what color jersey they are wearing.

Some of my more religiously conservative friends cover their ears and walk away if I even mention meditation, out of a conceit that contemplating anything but their faith transgresses that faith.

We decide about race on even worse bases than those.

Ask a white person if there is racism in the criminal justice system. Chance are she will say “no.” 

Present all the data, though, and that makes it very plain that indeed there is racism in criminal justice. Rather than accept that we need to proceed towards reform, the white person is more likely to become *more* racist.  In other words, they will endorse the idea that the justice system is just, at the expense of certain kinds of people.

We know that people are liable to strengthen their beliefs in response to weak arguments – but did you know we even strengthen our beliefs in response to strong contradiction?  Simply arguing with a person of faith – any kind of faith – causes that person to think of counter-arguments, not to critically ponder their own position.

Here’s the worry: We can induce this kind of questioning on any topic, which is why Popular Science disabled comments on its website. And we do.

So you want to elect a Democrat to the presidency? Well, now. First you have to run the gamut of ridiculous, distracting, irrelevant questions. Is he a Muslim?  Was he born in the US?  Does he pal around with terrorists?  Is his pastor anti-American? Why doesn’t he show us his birth certificate, and high school GPA?  No, not the reprint from the hospital, the whole certificate given to his mom on his zeroeth birthday.

And you want legislation on climate change?  We can focus endlessly on a couple of guys who stiffened their data in the 90s and then insist that means all of the science is tainted and flawed. 

And we can look credulously at the camera and say well, it’s pretty cold here, now. So, therefore, global warming must be a hoax.

Video: Greenman3610 YouTube channel

Video: Jon Stewart YouTube channel

We can refer to environmental scientists as eco-terrorists, with one word changing the way we think about scientists and therefore science.  The folks watching this stuff might not be able to pick an ad-hominem attack out of a line up, but things wouldn’t change even if they could.

So you want change on race relations?  But haven’t you heard? Nope, no such thing! The only voter intimidation out there is one aging Black Panther. And the the only racism left is reverse racism.

A hundred laws meant to keep black people from polling places escape our notice when we are diverted onto how White rights are being violated by activist Puerto Rican judges, and how affirmative action is keeping our sons and daughters from fair consideration at universities.

Let’s move this all one step further: The people making these arguments can also legislate them. 

In other words, we stand to lose our basic civil rights to people whose fundamental understanding of reality is flawed by their preconceptions and biases.

In other words, we’ve got SCOTUS saying racism is over while we have to fight to reopen all the polling places in neighborhoods of color, just for starters.  Voter ID laws explicitly designed to disenfranchise Democratic voters go unchallenged.  We’re at square one.

fundamentalismWhile the planet is dying — hello! there might not be fish in forty years! —  we are busy fighting for our most basic civil rights.

Like the right for people to marry who they want. To have the government out of our bedrooms.  For women to attend their own reproductive health.  To be able to vote.  To be able to congregate.  To not be shot by police.  To not be shot by white people who “feel threatened.”  To have news that informs us rather than misleading us, making us angry at nothing, getting us to argue the small stuff and scoff at the big stuff.

Can you manage the kind of self-honesty it is going to take for us to dig our way out of all this?

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

Fish gif: By Karthik Easvur (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons