Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Chris Mooney's Peace Anthem for Science and Religion

Mooney's got an article in Playboy touting his most recent tactic for denying the science/faith conflict, the one I call the Spirituality Gambit. The basic ploy is this: If you use a rather fuzzy definition of "spirituality" -- you might call it a feeling of awe or transcendence -- then it is true that scientific understanding can inspire this fuzzy "spirituality" in even the most secular-minded folk. So there you go! Everybody, theist or atheist, experiences "spirituality". Why not work there for common ground?

I must confess to not having read the current article. I don't feel I need to, because the Spirituality Gambit is a mess. The main criticism is that Mooney is engaging in semantic trickery. "Spirituality" is an ill-defined word. Certainly it no longer retains its etymological roots denoting a belief in spirits. But even then, many religious people mean it much more specifically than this fuzzy "feeling of transcendence." Even if they don't, I think it is safe to say that most people who would identify as "spiritual" believe there is something literal about what they feel, i.e. it is more than a feeling.

But that's already been well-covered (see here and here). I want to focus on a different, and equally serious problem with Mooney's Spirituality Gambit, one I have mentioned before in comments on other blogs, but which I think deserves its own post.

If you've never heard Tim Minchin's Peace Anthem for Palestine, you owe it to yourself to scroll down to the bottom of this post and check it out. The song consists of one repeated refrain:

You don't eat pigs, we don't eat pigs
It seems it's been that way forever
So if you don't eat pigs and we don't eat pigs
Why not not eat pigs together?

At the risk of ruining a good joke by explaining the punchline, the song is funny because it naively suggests that a long-standing enmity between two violently opposed groups can be resolved by focusing on a superficial similarity -- in this case, that both Jewish and Muslim orthodoxy prohibit the consumption of pork. Of course this is absurd, because the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims has nothing to do with dietary requirements. While finding some common ground is often a first step in conflict resolution, it's usually expected that the common ground will have something to do with the conflict in question.

And so it is with the Spirituality Gambit. Yes, it is true: To borrow Obama's inaugural phraseology, "people of all faiths and none" experience feelings of awe and transcendence. Your point? We also all (presumably) wipe our asses after going to the bathroom, but that hardly addresses the epistemological divide between scientific inquiry and revealed truth, does it?

Even if Mooney weren't engaging in clever word games, his point would still fall flat. In fact, many people have maintained that this is an argument in favor of discarding faith -- countless people, myself included, have found that they can accept the reality of a harsh uncaring universe without giving up their sense of wonder and fulfillment. This helps dispel the myth of secularists as some kind of emotionless Spocks, and undermines one of the more common arguments against embracing a nontheistic worldview.

The Spirituality Gambit is nothing more than a distraction. If it tells us anything, it's that atheists aren't as scary as many people make us out to be. But it tell us nothing about the epistemological (il)legitimacy of faith, nor about the societal effects of religion. Calling it a red herring would be an insult to Clupea harengus.

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