Saturday, 1 September 2012

Source of Faith

I've previously discussed John Locke's irrationality argument against religious persecution: that it's irrational to persecute non-believers because it's simply not possible to make people believe something they think is untrue. Jeremy Waldron successfully counters this by pointing out that beliefs can be affected indirectly, by, for example, restricting a person's access to material:

A man may be compelled to learn a catechism on pain of death or to read the gospels every day to avoid discrimination.The effect of such threats and such discrimination may be to increase the number of people who eventually end up believing the orthodox faith. Since coercion may therefore be applied to religious ends by this indirect means, it can no longer be condemned as in all circumstances irrational.
By the same token, religious indoctrination can be achieved (without such threats!) through childhood education; this is plain when we consider how religious belief varies according to geography. Climate is not the causative factor, but indoctrination is; simply teaching that the prevailing faith is true. From birth, what we believe grows, bottom up, through interaction with our environment, and with those we mix, and with those who teach us. These foundational beliefs are difficult, sometimes impossible, maybe, to unpick.

Churches and the religious understand this, so expend much effort on early years education to ensure a supply of adult tithers in the future. One such initiative is Test of Faith. This is run by the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion, an institute that is based, sadly, at St Edmund's College, Cambridge. No-one will be surprised to hear, given its pre-occupation with the reconciliation of science and faith, that it is Templeton funded.

It's important to appreciate that this is not some secular approach to education, looking to make space for all faiths and none in our education systems; it specifically pushes Christianity. An illustration of this has just been released by them: a homeschoolers' course in Science and Christianity which 'aims to equip US-based homeschooled high school (and advanced junior high) students to think clearly and biblically about science and faith'. Here's the complete course.

Check out the graphic for chapter 1:

It starts with the old canard that because some scientists have faith, there is therefore no conflict between science and faith. In fact, it says, any conflict is a result of Victorian scientists with an anti-clerical bent! This is slack. Certainly the so-called 'conflict thesis' originated with Draper and co. in the nineteenth century, but to say that any modern day media interest is mainly stirred up by him and his fellows is bizarre.

Here's a graphic for chapter 2:

This is promising, in that it cautions against the God of the Gaps argument, but only applies this to primary explanations; and it does this not because God of the Gaps is just a bad argument, which it is, but because it's not a good apologetic tactic. It then brazenly uses a God of the Gaps argument for the ultimate explanation.

A discussion and questions section follows:

They ask 'How do I know what I know?' and amongst the answers they slip in 'Divine revelation (the Bible)'. There is no evidence that anyone has ever had a divine revelation, and there is no evidence that the Bible, as opposed to the Koran, or the book of Mormon, is divinely revealed; quite the opposite, in fact.

This is the sort of misinformation that Jeremy Waldron might point to if he wanted to justify his counter argument to Locke. Templeton want kids to accept that the Bible tells the truth. There's no mention of the myriad holy texts that claim similar, but contradictory, 'facts' to those that the Bible claims.

These three propositions are not equivalent. The first two are supported by the weight of facts and the last one isn't. But the course material wants to put them on a level footing. This really isn't a fair thing to do to kids, particularly home-schooled ones who are already more closeted than normally-schooled kids.

There's lots more of the same; on evolution, for example, they say:
Some evolutionary biologists say that the world is without design or purpose. They think that it came into being through a meaningless process, ruled by random chance.
Evolutionary biologists aren't the ones to ask about the origin of the world, so the implication here is that they think that evolution by natural selection is ruled by random chance, which is the opposite of the truth. This, in fact, is a standard creationist meme.

It's disappointing to me that this poorly thought out apologia is being marketed to US home-schoolers by an organisation based at a major British university. 

Francis Spufford, in the Guardian and elsewhere, has tried to defend an emotional, rather than a fact-based, faith: 
The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don't talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue. If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you will conclude that I am trying to wriggle out, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is. I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don't have the feelings because I've assented to the ideas.
"I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings". But where do the ideas come from in the first place, for the feelings to attach to? What has planted the seed? Divine revelation, or religiously-motivated schooling? Anyone, from anywhere, could say the same thing, in defence of a faith that contradicts Spufford's. What should someone 'from outside' conclude from that? Surely that the ideas are arbitrary and mostly not true, even if they appeal to those who, like Spufford, let their feelings ride roughshod over precautionary principles.

So Spufford ignores the overwhelming amount of disinformation to which we are all subjected as we grow up in these theistic societies, of which the Test of Faith course is just a drop in the well-funded ocean. Do we have an antidote to this? Yes, to a degree; we've discovered a method that provides some objectivity. A method that sees feelings as a potentially corrupting influence on its conclusions, not a reason to affirm them. 

The Test of Faith course and Spufford's article are more evidence of the incompatibility of science and religion.


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