28 November 2006

Boycott the Super Bowl? Responding to Fundamentalist Scientism

The attitude of the staunchly anti-religion faction in the pseudo-debates about evolution are equivalent to my refusing to attend, or even play, any ball games because I believe the Superbowl is a phenomenal waste of money and energy which could be better spent in other, more constructive, ways. To throw out religion as a whole because some people’s religious beliefs are disagreeable, and more importantly because they have succeeded in touting their beliefs, can only be based on a failure to appreciate the difference between religion and one set of religious beliefs. Putting the focus of attention on the conservative fundamentalist factions of the religious and scientific communities and their pseudo-debate is a waste of time, except for the advertising that it sells. Media loves a pseudo-debate because both sides are entrenched, unwilling to compromise and can spew forth hot air time ad infinitum.

Consider my social critique of the Superbowl, which is the most famous specific instance of a single ball game in the United States. There is no reasonable argument against the fact that this particular game takes up a huge amount of resources. And I believe it would be very difficult to argue that the use of those resources has any significant positive effect on the world’s most pressing problems, such as global warming, poverty, war, etc. So, as a staunch supporter of using our society’s resources to resolve our problems before they should be given to making the elite owners of the sports world and their media counterparts richer through entertainment of the masses. Then I realize that even more is spent on the World Cup, not to mention the World Series, and then throw in all the other professional championship ball games and how utterly fanatical so many people are in their devotion to these frivolous activities, then you have to conclude that all those ball games must cause people to become delusional idiots who just don’t see the tragic reality we live in. Therefore, we will all be better off of we just boycott all ball games.

Here’s the problem with boycotting all ball games: Games involving the use of balls are a universal human activity. Ball games provide children with opportunities to learn vitally important motor skills and allow adults to exercise in a way that is engaging. Ball games are an excellent way to access optimal states of mind when the challenges of the game are well matched to the skill levels of the players. Accessing optimal states is an important way to increase the capabilities of individual minds. Thus, eliminating ball games entirely would deprive the world of important opportunities for learning, exercise, and personal growth.

The problem with the analysis that led to the conclusion that ball games should be eliminated is that it only looked at the social consequences of a particular kind of ball game, namely, professional championships that are widely covered in the mass media. A more sensible analysis would be concerned with how our society has chosen to depend on elite owned sporting and media sources for providing methods of accessing particular states of mind, like belonging, order in consciousness, purpose, etc. By looking at what kinds of positive experiences people are getting out of the events then more sensible courses of action, like promoting direct participation in amateur sports, would be evident.

Here’s the problem with the fundamentalist scientism argument against religion: Religion, when understood in the broad sense suggested by Ninian Smart to include dimensions of ritual, mythology, doctrine, experience, social interaction, and ethics, is a universal human activity. Religion provides people with opportunities to consider ultimate meaning and purpose in their lives. Religion can provide adults with a forum for engaging in social and intellectual interactions that can influence their ethical choices. Religion is an excellent way to access optimal states of mind when the challenges of the religious practice are well matched to the capabilities of the practitioner. Thus eliminating religion entirely would deprive the world of opportunities for individual meaning, ethical and social development, and personal growth.

The problem with the analysis that led to the conclusion that religion should be eliminated is that it only looked at the doctrinal dimension of one kind of religious belief, namely the doctrines of conservative fundamentalism which is mistaken to be a salient example, or central prototype, of all religious beliefs. A more sensible analysis would be concerned with acknowledging the other important dimensions of religion, taking a critical look at what examples of religious belief are actually representative (or whether such representation is even possible), and with how our society has chosen to rely on elitist doctrines for providing methods of accessing particular states of mind, like belonging, order in consciousness, purpose, etc. By looking at what kinds of positive experiences people are getting out of the conservative religious organizations then more sensible courses of action, like promoting direct participation in liberal religious organizations where doctrine is open to more inclusive democratic debate, would be evident. One logical course of action would be to promote, develop, or start scientific organizations that provide similar kinds of experiences and could compete directly with the conservative religious organizations, but I doubt that science is capable of producing an equivalent institution.

Religion is a multi-dimensional universal human institution and serves the needs of people in a variety of ways, just one of which is to cultivate a story about the universe and our place in it. Science is exclusively focused on the development of stories, true stories, ideally. I call the furor over evolution a pseudo-debate because the scientific truth is settled; what is happening now is a cultural growing pain, not a debate. The only problem right now is the proper role of science in our society. Does science have a monopoly on truth or do other institutions still have a say?

What I believe is that science, by it’s nature, is limited to making claims that it can back up with both converging evidence, logically consistent theories, and a psychologically valid story that enables us to acknowledge both the positive value and limitations of all previous stories on the subject. Evolution, as a body of converging evidence and a logically consistent theory, is already established truth. In order to have complete ownership to the claim of truth that the scientific community desires then they need a cultural story to put the previous stories on the subject into proper perspective.

The ones doing the real work of providing a cultural story that will make a real difference are people like Ron Schmidtling, Micheal Dowd, and Connie Barlow. Ron is a paleontologist, musician and artist who champions evolution through art that is respectful of the religious perspective (http://www.dinosounds.com/). Micheal, an ordained Christian minister, and Connie, a degreed scientist, are itinerant preachers of what they call the Great Story, a blend of evolutionary science and religion that puts evolution in religious, as well as scientific, perspective (http://www.thegreatstory.org/). I am sure there are other people doing the work, too, but these are the few people that I know about. They do not get as much media attention, but they are the ones who are doing the real work that will ultimately bring the conflict to resolution.

(I owe Rev. Bruce Bode, of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship where I am a member, an acknowledgment for his “Dimensions of Religion” Sermon Series from September and October 2006. You can find the sermons on the web at http://www.quuf.org/sermons/sermons.html)

The articles that got me thinking on this topic:

WIRED magazine, November issue
"The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science. Inside the
Crusade against Religion"
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/atheism.html

and

NEW YORK TIMES, November 21, 2006
"A Free-for-All on Science and Religion"
http://tinyurl.com/yj3dy3
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