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

2 comments:

Kwil said...

Your example may well fail because you haven't compared things that are of similar scope.

Religion is much narrower than ball-games.

Spirituality and self-exploration is much broader than professional sports.

Were you to recast your comparison into saying that rejecting religion is equivalent to rejecting professional sports, and that rejecting all ball games is equivalent to rejecting spirituality and self-exploration, I tend to think you'd be comparing things of similar scale in the human experience and come to a conclusion more likely to be true.

One does not need religion to explore their own motives, ideas, and psyche.. their "spirituality" if you will. Similarly, one does not need professional sports to have ball games. Yes, they both provide some benefits with accessibility issues to their respective fields, but neither is truly necessary for their respective field to exist and even thrive.

Those who say their rejecting religion based on creationism are simply not stating the full case. What they are rejecting is a prosetylizing of false-hoods and a rejection of evidence. But that doesn't sound so neat and tidy, just like someone who says their rejecting professional sports based on the Superbowl is simply not stating that they're rejecting professional sports based on the waste of resources, time, and attention that these things draw away from vital areas of the human experience.

Don Berg said...

Thank you, Kwil, for your comment.

It seems that I did not make the distinction between religion as a universal mode of being and religion as an organizational identity adequate. The fundamental point I am making by bringing in Ninian Smart’s analysis is that religion, properly understood, is broader than merely the manifestations of organized religion, in particular the doctrinal aspect that is at issue for creationists, and which is implied by your phrase

rejecting religion is equivalent to rejecting professional sports.

This is the narrow sense of the term religion that I reject as inadequate in the face of how multi-dimensional religion is in reality. I understand religion in the broader sense that encompasses the experiential aspect that you refer to as spirituality and self-exploration. And I agree that organized religion is not necessary to that aspect, or any of the aspects of religion.

Here’s an excerpt from a talk that inspired my view:

“Let me give the following analogy:

“Most people would agree that we are 'social beings.' Biologically, genetically, we have evolved and are structured as social creatures. More than most species, we need the support of others for many years just to survive and make it into adulthood, and the urge to interact and be with others of our kind is strong throughout our lives.

“Indeed, there are many kinds of social organizations to which one can belong: clubs, guilds, societies, associations, parties, teams, and so forth. Such social organizations both reflect our nature as social beings and help us meet our needs as social creatures. But we are not social beings because we belong to some social group or another. It’s the other way around: we create social organizations because we are social beings.

“Now, it’s true, there are some individuals who prefer not to belong to social organizations. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t social beings. It’s just that they may not find social organizations helpful in meeting their social needs, and, instead, find other ways of expressing and meeting these needs.

“And one more thing: we might regard the beliefs and practices of some social groups to be ill-conceived and wrong-headed. We might judge some social groups to be dangerous and even destructive to society at large, and some individuals within these groups to be selfishly seeking personal power or financial gain. I doubt, however, that we would say we should get rid of all social groups or try to repress our social nature.

“And now to complete the analogy and make my point with regard to humans as religious beings:

“I am arguing that we are religious creatures in much the same way that we are social creatures. Biologically, genetically, we have evolved and are structured as religious beings – that is, beings who must question the meaning and value of their life in the face of the knowledge of their death; beings who must orient themselves within this vast cosmos and determine how they will live their lives and what they will give themselves to and serve.

“Religions and religious organizations of many kinds have emerged as a way of responding to and dealing with these religious needs and concerns. These religions and their organizations both reflect our religious nature and are attempts to deal with that nature. But we are not religious beings because we belong to some organized religion. It’s the other way around: we create religious organizations because we are religious beings.

“Again, not everyone chooses to belong to a religious organization. But this doesn’t make these persons less religious. It just means they may not find religious organizations helpful in meeting their religious needs, and that they find other ways of expressing and meeting those needs.

“And, finally: We might regard the beliefs and practices of certain religions to be ill conceived and wrong-headed. We might judge some religious groups to be dangerous and even destructive to society at large, and some individuals within these groups simply out for personal power or financial gain. But does this mean we should try to get rid of all religious groups or try to repress our religious nature?

“As I recall, the Communists tried to do this in various parts of the world in the 20th century. They identified religion as an opiate and enemy of people and progress, and attempted to suppress and smash religious institutions, acting as if humans were not religious creatures. By the time their attempt to rid society of religion and its organizations imploded, it proved to be a dangerous and destructive experiment; and, indeed, the Communist Party itself bore many of the marks of being a religion and a religious organization.”

The preceding is from Rev. Bruce Bode and his Dimensions of Religion sermon series given in September and October 2006 http://www.quuf.org/sermons/sermons.html

If you can accept this broader view of religion, then we seem to be in agreement.

What they are rejecting is a prosetylizing of false-hoods and a rejection of evidence.

The irony of this statement is that both sides are rejecting the same thing, they simply have fundamentally different standards of truth versus falsity and what counts as evidence.

Part of the point of the latter part of my post is that simply attacking a cultural story that you have rejected does not give other people a framework for accepting your story as a better one. Thus the mere rejection of the Other does not make a positive contribution to the resolution of the conflict, instead it perpetuates the conflict.

The primary beneficiaries of conflict are not the people getting hurt by it, or in this case confused about the reality of religion and science by it, but the media and the fundamentalists who believe their organized religion (or organized scientism) is the only valid religion that can exist. Those of us who are more inclusive, accepting of diversity and respectful of those who disagree with us are excluded from the “action.” But the real action is not what is in the media, the real action is the people who are doing the work to create a cultural story that includes both religion and science.