Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Tom Johnson" inadvertently highlights the epistemic peril of religion

"Tom Johnson" has been outed, and I can't say I feel good about the whole thing. Just bad feelings all around, nothing much to be learned at this point.

But, one interesting thing is that we now have an article from OnEarth which appears to be a first-person account of the event on which the original fabricated "Johnson" story was based. The climax of the story turns out to provide a potentially valuable teaching moment about the extent to which accomodationist-like tactics are appropriate, and where they can go off the rails:

[A]n elementary-aged child asked me the usual question that comes up when I show animals to a crowd.

"Why do these things even matter?"

Here was my chance, my opportunity to lecture about amphibians' contributions to energy flow in ecosystems, about their intrinsic value as biodiversity, why anyone with least bit of education should understand why we need to protect diversity. Before I had my chance, an older man in the crowd piped up.

"Because God created them, and it's our job to make sure they stay around," he said simply. A rumble of "mm-hmm's" and head nods rippled through the congregation...

Could it really be that simple, finding some common ground for conservation? I'd like to think so. Here I was, my head full of fear-inducing facts about biodiversity loss and data from published studies, and the older man's answer was more than enough to satisfy the child. My name-dropping of famous environmentalists and quoting of influential studies was going to have little more impact than speaking in Latin would have. Our reasons may have been different, but our goals were the same: conservation in the name of morality, of science, of God - whatever you wanted to call it.

Now, I'm not sure whether Wally Smith went on to give his favored answer anyway -- "My [answer] was going to have little more impact..." (emph. mine) could imply that he went ahead and gave his answer anyway, even knowing it would have little impact ("was going to" signifying something about to happen); or it could imply that he decided not to ("was going to" signifying something that had been planned to happen, but no longer). If the latter, he did those kids a serious disservice. And in either case, his touchy-feely ecumenicism in regards to the motivation for conservation contains some serious hidden dangers.

First, let me make clear what I am not suggesting. Nobody thinks that Smith should have said, "Well no, that's not actually true, because God doesn't exist. The real reasons are..." That would have been needlessly confrontational, and would obviously have undermined the important message he was trying to get across. Does anyone really believe that even the most fiery of the Gnu Atheists would have responded that way?

I'm not even suggesting something like the somewhat more innocuous, "Well I don't know about that, but..." He was there for the primary purpose of getting these folks on board with conservation, and he was presenting to a group where (unfortunately) even the merest hint of skepticism would have undermined his credibility. I get that. As strong an advocate I am of being "out" as an atheist, I acknowledge there are rare occasions where tact and/or tactics legitimately dictate reticence on that point.

An appropriate way to continue would have been something like, "Not only that, but.." or "It's also been observed..", etc. But in any case, it was imperative that Smith continue on and give the secular answer, even if most of his audience couldn't care less beyond the old man's godsaidso explanation. I'll quote from a comment I left at the article:

How do you know that amongst the chorus of "Mmm-hmmms", there weren't a few kids remaining silent, kids who had started to realize the worldview in which they were raised had serious cracks? What if that little girl gets a little older and suddenly "godsaidso" isn't a good enough answer for her anymore? Hell, what if she doesn't even leave her faith, but moves to a different town with a pastor who says that none of this matters because the end times are coming soon?

Smith states that "our goals were the same: conservation in the name of morality, of science, of God - whatever you wanted to call it." But the problem with this attitude is that morality1 and science are real, and God is not. This matters. If I may wax biblically for a moment, this is the difference between building your house on a rock and building your house on the sand.

Because there are no epistemic underpinnings to faith-based beliefs, there is no mechanism for sorting good ideas from bad. If my commitment to conservation is based on facts, then if someone wants to modify my beliefs they will have to challenge those facts directly, by showing that either I was mistaken, or that other factual concerns outweigh the ones I was aware of. If my commitment to conservation is based on some old guy's interpretation of what a mythical being wants me to do, there are countless vulnerabilities that could be attacked. Not only might I some day come to realize that said being is in fact a myth, but much more trivially, someone could simply argue that the old man's interpretation was wrong. Who's to say? We are talking about the commands of a fictional being, of whom the only "official" account we have is a very long book written thousands of years ago and riddled with contradictions and obvious errors. There is no mechanism by which we could even in principle test whose interpretation was right. So ultimately, my commitment to conservation has literally no grounding whatosever.

There is an important qualification to be made here. I recognize that fundamental beliefs tend to be far more resistant to change than derived beliefs, and that could seem to contradict what I am saying. After all, it probably would be easier, for example, to convince someone like me that anthropogenic global warming was a hoax than it would be to convince a committed Christian that Jesus never existed. I doubt I ever shall be convinced of such a thing, but we could easily talk in principle about what kinds of new information and arguments would convince me; whereas it is impossible to say what would convince a committed Christian to abandon her belief in Jesus, because it would require a fundamental shift in worldview.

But here's the thing: I don't think that conservationism is a fundamental belief for most conservation-minded theists, certainly not for the sorts of folks who would be at an Alabama gathering of the Southern Baptists. I think that conservationism for them is derived from other beliefs -- if Smith's account is to be believed, primarily from faith-based ones. It is probably fair to say that no matter how convincingly Smith might have argued for a secular motivation behind conservation, there is probably no way he could have made that belief more resilient than the audience's belief in Jesus, etc. But that doesn't say a damn thing about the resilience of the audience's belief in faith-inspired conservationism!

The audience's fundamental belief in their religion may be rock solid, but because that belief happens to be hollow to the core, with no epistemic grounding to speak of, any derived beliefs based solely on their religion are inherently arbitrary, and are therefore quite weak.

Again, I don't know what Smith actually did. Maybe he did just what I thought he should do, maybe he continued on with the secular explanation anyway. And for what it's worth, I think that given the crisis situation we are in regarding the environment, it is probably a legitimate tactic to exploit theists' beliefs to bolster their commitment to conservation. But if we let that be their only commitment to conservation, that is a massive blunder, both a tactical and a strategic failure. Even from a hardcore accomodationist perspective, I don't see how anyone could argue otherwise.

1Okay, I realize error theorists, relativists, and non-cognitivists might well disagree with me here. Let's leave the meta-ethics discussion aside for the moment, as fascinating a topic as that is, because I don't feel that it is crucial to the point I am making here.

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