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The comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought February 28, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Politics, Reason, Religion.
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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said he “almost threw up” after reading John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech in which he declared his commitment to the absolute separation of church and state. Santorum also criticized President Obama for having “some phony theology … not a theology based on the Bible”. Santorum, meanwhile, believes that Satan is attacking America, that evolution is a lie and global warming is a hoax, and that “our rights come from God — not any god, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. And of course, those rights do not include equality for homosexuals or abortion for women.

How is it possible that Santorum is a serious contender for the U.S. Presidency in 2012? How can so many Americans be so deluded? The spell of dogma and authority is surprisingly hard to break. In his 1962 Yale University Commencement Address, President Kennedy (with apologies to Santorum’s stomach) discussed how myths distract us from reality, how our dialog is “clogged by illusion and platitude”:

As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our own time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality.

For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

Belief is like an orange, and other fables February 9, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Democracy, Religion.
3 comments

According to a recent study by the Guttman Center, 85 percent of haredim and 49 percent of religious Jews in Israel say they would follow halacha rather than the law or democratic values in case of a clash between the two. And yet, writing in Haaretz, Yair Sheleg of the Israel Democracy Institute insists that believing in God — as 84 percent of Jewish Israelis said they do — is not a problem:

It seems that many people consider this finding to be despairing testimony regarding the inability of Israelis to maintain a rational policy and/or democratic worldview.

Yet it is precisely this reaction that endangers the future of democratic and even rational discourse in Israel, much more than the actual belief in God. This is because anyone who relies on a rational outlook that is not just philosophical, but also considers the human reality with open eyes, immediately understands that those 84 percent are not expressing devotion to any orderly theological doctrine. Rather, they are expressing a psychological need for belief.

This is a need that began at the dawn of humanity, when man first began to recognize the power of forces over which he has no control and the chaotic potential they harness. From that moment on, man began to believe in a supreme power, and he developed the desire to believe there is order behind the chaos. What’s more, he developed a special desire to believe that it is within man’s ability to influence supreme powers through his deeds.

… belief is nearly a part of man’s nature — not his biological nature, but definitely his psychological nature.

It is Sheleg whose eyes are closed to reality. First of all, the claim that those Israelis who believe in God are generally not devoted to any “orderly theological doctrine” is ludicrous, and is contradicted by the Guttman Center’s findings: for example, 65 percent of Israeli Jews think Torah and mitzvot are a divine order, 67 percent think the Jews are the chosen people, and 51 percent believe in the coming of the Messiah.

Furthermore, the claim that belief in God is inescapably built into humans seems dubious when you consider countries like Norway and Sweden, where a majority of the population are nonbelievers. In any case, just because something is in our “psychological nature” doesn’t mean it is desirable. We know of many cognitive biases that reliably cause us to believe things that are wrong and to behave in ways that are counterproductive. That is why we must use the tools of science and reason to figure out what is actually true about our world. Sheleg just doesn’t get it:

Therefore, the key question is not whether to believe in God, but rather what the nature of God is: Is He an inclusive God, a merciful and compassionate God who takes all of mankind created “in his image” under his wing? Or is He an exclusive God, a jealous and vengeful God who demands of his believers that they fight anyone who is different from them and who is perceived as not fulfilling His commands?

Sheleg seems to think that we can just choose to believe in whatever we please. But shouldn’t we want to believe in whatever actually exists? The rational way to decide what gods to believe in, if any, is by examining the state of the evidence. And there is no good evidence for the existence of a creator God at all — much less a merciful and compassionate one.

That doesn’t stop Sheleg from concluding that there need be no conflict between believers and nonbelievers:

It’s like the famous fable about the coveted orange. Two antagonists engage in a bloody struggle over the orange, until finally it becomes clear that one needs the peel while the other needs the flesh. To that end, it is better for the secular person not to define themselves in terms of their decision to disavow religion, but rather in terms of their positive values.

Nice try, but Sheleg’s profound fable is not at all relevant to our situation — apples and oranges, you might say. The conflict between religion and democracy is not just a big misunderstanding: religious people are disproportionally resistant to democratic values, because of the things they believe about God. Their belief in magic books and invisible super-beings is what motivates many of our neighbors to oppose civil liberties and the rule of law. The solution is to replace superstitious, dogmatic thinking with rational, evidence-based thinking. It is dangerous to confuse fables with reality.