There used to be an old barn in a field near my house in Oregon that had a saying painted on the wall that faced the I-5 freeway: "Soldiers of the Lord, armor up!"
I appreciated the martial passion and energy, but not the theology. Yeah, that's what we really need in the world right now, more frenzied religious extremists.
What is needed, though, are Defenders of Reality -- soldiers of science, reason, and demonstrable evidence. Astronomer Carl Sagan sounded the warning of an attack back in 1995, in his book "The Demon-Haunted World."
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before?
Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us -- then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
We churchless have a responsibility to defend the territory of our shared reality.
This is not only the domain of scientists, but of everyone who seeks the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind in commonality, not division, in what binds us together, not what separates us.
Around the world at this moment people are courteously gathering together in the name of science and the scientific method. Discussing. Debating. Learning. Researching. Studying.
It doesn't matter what country these people are from, or what religious beliefs are common in each person's culture. Science seeks a shared understanding of the natural world that we all inhabit, our common ground.
When my two-year-old granddaughter starts school (not far off), I want her learning about what's real in the world, because this is what a child in China, Zambia, Indonesia, Chile, or anywhere else should also be learning.
It's too idealistic to think that humanity can ever inhabit a war-less, poverty-less One World. But science is one of the most powerful means we have for bringing about an ignorance-less Earth.
All that's needed is enough people willing to armor up in defense of reality. Which means, embracing Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit ("baloney" is American slang for nonsense).
Then it's up to each of us to decide how vigorously we will employ it. Carl Sagan said in his book:
Imagine that you enter a big-city taxicab and the moment you get settled in, the driver begins a harangue about the supposed iniquities and inferiorities of another ethnic group. Is your best course to keep quiet, bearing in mind that silence conveys assent?
Or is it your moral responsibility to argue with him, to express outrage, even to leave the cab -- because you know that every silent assent will encourage him next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice?
Likewise, if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition -- even when it seems to be doing a little good -- we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and vigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.
...As I've tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes -- an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the ruthlessly skeptical inquiry of all ideas, old and new.
This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track.
You said it all and very well!
Posted by: Rain | August 08, 2009 at 04:19 PM
Brian, man this latest one is such a good and timely post!
And I also want to say thanks for sharing, for turning me on to that Baloney Detection Kit site. That info is right along the lines of exactly what I have been becoming more and more interested in as time goes on. Thank you ever so much. I also want to say right-on! to all that you have written and brought to attention here in this latest smokin article of yours. I'm really rather stoked about it! You done good.
Posted by: tAo | August 08, 2009 at 05:02 PM
Just this one point spells doom to all religions and mystic traditions.
"Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, is it testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?"
This would include such topics as:
- mystic transport
- shamanic journeying
- transubstantiation (changing bread and wine into spiritual substances)
- spiritual transmission
- religious dogmas
- perfect living masters
- Jesus as Son of God
- and the list goes on endlessly!
I guess we have to ask - what drives humankind toward beliefs that cannot be substantiated, and even among the most educated?
IMO, it boils down to an inherant fear of death. We long for some sense of security or certainty, when in reality, it all may be over with our last breath and final sunset. And then, it may not. We just don't know.
Posted by: Bob | August 08, 2009 at 09:14 PM
Bob, Sant Mat Mysticism gives the promise that we can know. The bottom line is that I don't know, and I'm not willing to speculate or believe that others do. Nor am I going to waste any time beyond a point, of trying to know or thinking that it's valuable to attempt such, just because someone charismatic said so.
As far as fighting the good fight is concerned, I don't like militaristic language at all. In fact, add a tune to some of it and a crowd can get quite mesmerised. I think 'Onward Christian Soldiers' has rightfully been banned. As for arguing with the racist taxi driver is concerned, this should be done with strong and repeated counterviews. His registration should be taken and he should be reported. This blog successfully does that w.r.t. religion.
Posted by: Catherine | August 08, 2009 at 11:04 PM
Bob, you are both correct and incorrect, your premise that a claim or set of claims need only be proven false in order to discredit the belief is correct, but you perhaps do not understand the process of proof?
Consider science equivalent of mystic transport, the Star trek transportation system. We cannot prove this cannot be done, in fact, there are indicators that in a few tens or hundreds of years, we will have this technology. the relationship between science ans science fiction is testament to what in one era is impossible to then become a reality.
Science is full of unknowns, its what makes it exiting. Scientists need to have belief and faith in order to run the experiments and learn more. So far, it has not been proven, as in mathematically sound proof, that God does not exist, neither is it proven that spirit may be non-physical. Some theories exclude this possibility and still fit most of observed data, other theories do not exclude this possibility and also fit observed data. A good scientist should operate on the principle that all is a possibility until proven not possible, and even then, be cautious, given Godels theorem, its impossible to prove anything from within the confines of that system.
Its about being open, so tAo, keep in mind that a good scientist will remain open to just about anything, finding no need to spit poison words at people who do not share their biased view of the world
Posted by: JAP | August 08, 2009 at 11:36 PM
"Its about being open, so tAo, keep in mind that a good scientist will remain open to just about anything"
-- Where do you get the idea that I am not open? Either you are confusing me with someone else, or you are new to this site, or both. In any case, you are mistaken. Next time, look deeper before you jump to conclusions.
"finding no need to spit poison words at people who do not share their biased view of the world"
-- I have no such "biased view of the world". You know virtually nothing about my view. Also, exactly what "poison words" are you referring to? If you are going to make an assertion such as this, you need to back it up with some evidence, not just jump to conclusions. So... just how "open" are you in this case?
Posted by: tAo | August 09, 2009 at 01:38 AM
JAP, scientists are indeed open. That's a central point of the Baloney Detection Kit. But they also have to be skeptical about hypothesized facts that lack demonstrable evidence. Otherwise baloney will flow into our minds unimpeded.
One of the Kit's strengths is not falling for the "absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence" argument, which you bring up. As I often say, this isn't how science works, nor how we operate in everyday life.
Meaning, we don't go around saying, "There isn't evidence a gnome isn't making the flowers in my garden grown, so I'm going to believe in this." Other positive evidence does exist, so we go with natural causes.
Similarly, positive evidence of God or any other metaphysical entity has to be offered up. And that's where religions are lacking.
What experiments are you referring to that point to the existence of God? I'd be curious to know what they are, especially if you're referring to a personal God who intervenes in the world in miraculous ways. (If "God" is just considered to be all of nature, then sure, "God" exists -- but this is just another way of saying everything exists.
Have you heard of Victor Stenger? He's a physicist who has written "God: The Failed Hypothesis" and other books. He does a good job of demonstrating that a monotheistic God isn't supported by what science knows about the cosmos.
Posted by: Brian | August 09, 2009 at 06:51 AM
I hear your concern with the RS issue - I spent 23 years practicing RS mediation and never did get any confirmation that the teachings were true or untrue. And, as far as I'm concerned, the RS gurus never presented any solid evidence to support their claims either.
Therefore, calling RS the "science" of the soul is bunk precisely because no evidence has been presented to prove its case. And, even for those having inner experiences (wherever you are, LOL!) there is no way to verify whether a person is traveling to the astral or casual regions, etc. or just experiecing certain aspects of their subsconscious mind.
So, IMO, this is a classic case of a so-called "truth" that is not falsifiable. It cannot be disproved or proved one way or the other.
I'm all for "possibilities" but until the evidence supports the claim - well it's just that - a possibility - and not truth.
Personally, I'm open to the Divine Mystery or possibility that something vastly more exists than is currently understood. But, I'm not willing to label it as truth as many so-called spiritual paths and religions do until the evidence supports the claim.
Posted by: Bob | August 09, 2009 at 02:10 PM