Is it a bad thing that the scientific community is supposedly intolerant of religion?

Matt Nisbet recently implied that it was a bad thing that the scientific community can be as intolerant of religion as religious people can be of science. Is this really a bad thing? Would Nisbet imply that it is a bad thing for the scientific community to be intolerant of contemporary belief in phrenology, astrology, alchemy, psychics, or witchcraft? Shouldn’t we be “respecting” these believers’ beliefs? Don’t we have any compassion? Any civility? Aren’t we for equality and fairness? How dare the scientific community not respect the beliefs of Sasquatchians!

I understand that religious people can invest a lot of their identity and sense of meaning and purpose in their religious beliefs. But is that the scientist’s problem? Should that make it uncivil to criticize certain beliefs while leaving other forms of irrationality smack-dab in the middle of open-season? This is the sort of thing that happens when a bunch of people link their personal and community identities and their sense of meaning to a particular belief. They can become dogmatic and intolerant of people giving their beliefs fair treatment, and because of their numbers they can propagate and create an illusion of justice for their intolerance of free inquiry when it applies to their beliefs.

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20 Responses to “Is it a bad thing that the scientific community is supposedly intolerant of religion?”
  1. Doc says:

    Therein lies the paradox. In the name of science and pursuit of truth we become intolerant of other inquiry into matters spiritual. Yes, it is a bad thing to be intolerant of astrology, alchemy, etc. al etc…, just because you disagree doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable. These things are products of free inquiry as much as science. You seem to be saying since my form of free inquiry tells me this, others are not entitled to their views. One could easily state that as scientific community grows, they too, it seems, create an illusion of justice for their intolerance of free thinking when it applies to their system of inquiry, just because they feel it superior.

  2. ronbrown says:

    Ever heard of a little thing called evidence? How about rationality? From your email, which includes the suggestion that you are Mormon, I would figure that you might have a bias against rational examination of evidence, given that you seem to believe in a religion that was created by a known charlatan who couldn’t reproduce the same scriptural message twice from memory (providing pretty obvious evidence that he was making it all up on each transcription); moreover, you believe in a religion that claims that native Americans are descendants of an Israeli tribe—a claim that has been swiftly falsified by DNA testing.

  3. Sampsa says:

    I think every theist scientist who does hes work is more an enrichment rather than a danger by default. Methodotical naturalism implies that results should be repeatable by anyone no matter metaphysical view. Although there has been a case against religion in science at least a hundred years, naturalism isn’t unchallenged in the field of philosophy and free inquiry is as needed there as anywhere. As science ultimately depends from philosophy of science, there’s no reason to exclude people because of their metaphysical stand.

  4. Doc says:

    I am shocked, SHOCKED, that you would come out with an attack on my religion, but you are only proving my point. Your prejudice colored by your scientific worldview has you convinced that I cannot tolerate free inquiry in society. You cannot understand me or the relationship of my religion to science because you won’t engage it. You are demonstrating the one sidedness that comes from your beliefs. Ridicule and prejudice are the enemy of inquiry. I, on the other hand, understand the scientific worldview actually quite well because I engage it, consider it, and am not afraid of it.

    It seems to me that not only is this habit counterproductive in provoking enmity and fear among religious adherents, but you really are an example of how the problem is human nature itself. Whether a question of tribe, ethnicity, religion, or science, we want to define the difference between the good us vs the evil them. This is the root of political strife, warfare, and in extremity the death of ideas. So in answer to your question, yes, intolerance is a bad, bad thing.

  5. ronbrown says:

    Ridicule and prejudice? I am ridiculing your ridiculous beliefs because they are ridiculous. Free inquiry has shown them to almost definitely be wrong. The free inquiry that gave rise to genetic research, which is rooted in the strongest theory humanisty has come up with has shown a key tenet of your beliefs to be wrong. What evidence do you have for your beliefs?

    As I see it, you illustrate the problem in refering to beliefs as possessions (“my religion”, “your beliefs”). You have identified with your beliefs and you cannot handle people arguing against them on rational grounds. Intolerance of other people is surely problematic—so long as those others are not doing injustice. Intolerance of beliefs is only problematic when people identify with those beliefs. When a person speaks truthfully against your beliefs and you cannot handle it, YOU HAVE THE PROBLEM. When someone cannot handle having their beliefs honestly critiqued, it is they who needs to question their relationship to the belief, not the criticizer who needs to question their freedom to present honest rational arguments.

    Imagine how much you would have been laughed at if you were a believer in Sasquatch and had said “I am shocked, SHOCKED, that you would come out with an attack on my belief in Sasquatch.”

  6. ronbrown says:

    You seem to think that your religious beliefs are special. Whereas certain beliefs can be subject to rational scrutiny, others (i.e., religious beliefs) may not. This is a truly pathetic double standard. Actually, that is not what you say. In your first message you imply that we should not be intolerant of any kind of absurdity. Would you have it that we should never disagree with any claim ever, so as not to be “intolerant”? You say we shouldn’t be intolerant of alchemy or astrology just because we disagree. It’s not about disagreement. It’s about EVIDENCE. When ideas are not borne out by evidence, at some point it seems reasonable to write them off, or at minimum to simply not believe in them while leaving open the possibility that they are true but unsubstantiated. This is how science works. This is how rationality works. If it were simply about disagreement, we wouldn’t have quantum physics because scientists would’ve just said “what, that makes no sense. that’s ridiculous. forget about it.” But no, they entertained the idea, considered the evidence, and revised their beliefs accordingly. They were honest enough and wise enough not to emotionally commit themselves to their beliefs and were thus able to modify them when evidence demanded it. If only more people were willing to do this we wouldn’t be wasting our time discussing nonsense like Mormonism as if it were a respectable idea.

  7. ronbrown says:

    Sampsa: I surely don’t think religious people should be excluded from science. But I do think that irrationality is fair game for scientists to criticize, whether we classify it as religion or not. Moreover, I think the scientific community has every right to criticize religious scientists who try to pass off religious views as science when this happens (e..g, Intelligent Design), just as I think that police officers should be able to criticize other police officers who tell lies about what is legal and what is not.

  8. Doc says:

    Did you really think I used the word shocked with anything other than sarcasm? Here is the thing. I am not surprised you attack my religion because you are engaged in polemic boundary reinforcement and tribal warfare to the point you are willing to cite frankly bad science.

    I fully understand and accept that there genetic evidence points to the preponderance of Native Americans ancestors also Ancestors of modern day Asians. I don’t expect you to accept the Book of Mormon as history. That is fine. But you have to admit that no one in the scientific community is seriously going to jeopardize his career looking at the very specific question of whether a small group tribe from the near ancient East could have colonized part of the New World in addition.

    Even if such a collection of data was able to get funding from a neutral party ( is anyone in this argument really going to be neutral?), the science quickly becomes complex. Could there have been a genetic bottleneck from a natural disaster? What about drift? founder effect?

    I could go on but I have a feeling it would be a fruitless venture, with both sides to dig in their heels causing more heat than light. I admit I am coming at the question with a bias, but I can also see your raging bias quite clearly. Frankly, I don’t care to waste time discussing whether you think Mormonism is a respectable idea either. You brought it up. You see, the function of religion is fundamentally different in my life than the function of science. I assure you, I am not so threatened by science. I am not looking to go around hanging Galileo, or burning scientists, or textbooks. I am not advocating homeschooling to protect myself from the Godless heathen.

    I am not trying to pass off my religious views as science, really. My point is simply that prejudice and ridicule hamper the free exchange ideas. Intolerance is threatening to free society. You seem quite happy to waste time spreading the message that what “these people” believe is absurd. In the end this only polarizes.

    It also is clearly tilting at windmills. Scientific evidence would seem to me to indicate that human nature is drawn to look to a higher power, to ask the questions of why am I here, or what is the purpose of existence. Do you hope to kill this impulse off? Because the only result I can see is a cultural war that ultimately will only agitate the other side, eventually threatening your own freedom of thought or wiping out theirs with some kind of horrid and rigid regime.

  9. ronbrown says:

    My bias is for honesty and rationality. For instance, I will say that I am not very well-versed in what you said about the science of investigating the claims of Mormonism with regard to community linkages, though I am not ready to say that no scientist would investigate this. Surely a Mormon scientist could get funding from Mormons to do so, and the broader scientific community could say all they want that the research was biased but they would still have to provide substantive rebuttal rather than simple accusations.

    As to ridicule and prejudice hampering idea exchange, this is true to a point. When ideas are treated in such ways despite the fact that there is good reason to speculate on the ideas, it would be a hinderance. But it would also be a hinderance to continue to not ridicule and be prejudiced against ideas that are simply ludicrous—stemming from no evidence or grounds for reasonable speculation, or that have already been strongly argued against in research. To not ridicule and discriminate against these ideas would be to allow them to waste the time of current and future thinkers and create the illusion that they haven’t already been effectively disqualified.

  10. Mark says:

    Hi Doc,

    I can agree if you want to state that we should not “ridicule” and discriminate others based on religion, but not respecting someone’s religious ‘beliefs’ is a completely different thing. There is no more reason we should respect someone’s religious belief-system than we should, for example, respect the belief system of the Nazi’s. In the 1930s, people weren’t sitting around saying, “It isn’t the moderate Nazi’s we need to be concerned about, it is Nazi fundamentalists!”. I realize I’ve given an extreme example, but it is to make a point… Where do you draw the line for respect and tolerance of beliefs?

    There certainly is a time, a place, and a way to challenge and confront unreasonable claims, a way to respect an individual, but it most certainly does not entail drawing back to respecting the belief itself.

    It is rather “respect for evidence and rational argument” that makes peaceful cooperation possible. Nothing is more sacred than the facts. No one, therefore, should win any points in our discourse for deluding himself. The litmus test for reasonableness should be obvious; anyone who wants to know how the world is, whether in physical or spiritual terms, will be open to new evidence. There is no good reason for simply out-and-out respecting a belief/religion.

    Furthermore, we should not allow every human being the right to practice whatever faith or religion he/she wants to believe and practice. The practice of Sharia law is NOT permitted in Canada. Nor would be actually upholding by performing most of the laws in the Old Testament.

    It is absurd to imagine that we can continue to respect everyone’s drastically conflicting religious beliefs equally. Most Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God and, therefore, divine; and if you don’t believe in Jesus you will perish for eternity in hell. Muslims, however, believe that Jesus was not divine and that anyone who thinks otherwise will suffer the torments of hell (Koran 5:71-75; 19:30-38 ). This difference of opinion offers about as much room for compromise as a coin toss.

    If there is common ground to be found through interfaith dialogue, it will only be found by people who are willing to keep their eyes averted from the chasm that divides their faith from all others. It is time we began to wonder whether such a strategy of politeness and denial will ever heal the divisions in our world.

    True dialogue requires a willingness to have one’s beliefs about reality modified through conversation. Such conversation can not demand respect for a belief. Such an openness to criticism and inquiry is the very antithesis of dogmatism. It is worth observing that religion is the one area of our lives where faith in dogma — that is, belief without sufficient evidence — is considered a virtue. If such faith is a virtue, it is a virtue that is completely unknown to scientific discourse. Science is, in fact, the one domain in which a person can win considerable prestige for proving himself wrong. In science, honesty is all. In religion, faith is all. This is about as invidious as comparisons get. Being honest does not demand respect for any particular belief.

    Article for thoughtful consideration:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/in-defense-of-witchcraft_b_53865.html

    Do I think we should all respectfully engage in discussion with people of other faiths and beliefs? Of course! But let’s be clear, it is engaging in a respectful way, but not a respect for their beliefs.

    “Respecting” a belief ‘just because’ IS in fact the PROBLEM with religion. That it teaches people to not criticise, but rather just to respect the religion/belief.

    Cheers,
    Mark

  11. Eddie says:

    Tolerance is not acceptance. I can tolerate most woldviews regardless of if I find them silly (flat earthers for instance). But I believe the important point is that science as an endeavor can not tolerate inclusion of falsehoods without loosing it’s credibility and becoming useless pseudoscience.

    But science investigates claims and either verifies them or falsifies them. The imperfection lies in the investigator being human. Religions make claims and religious and non-religious people investigate but a properly designed experiment will not allow the scientists views to cloud the results (see double-blind experiments). On top of that, all someone needs to do is substantiate their claim with hard evidence and science will change it’s mind (albeit slowly).

    Including religious tolerance in science simply because something is labeled a religion is dangerous. For instance we know certain medical problems can be cured by blood transfusions but some religions prohibit these transfusions. Should science therefore keep quite about these cures? Should vaccines not be offered or even mentioned to communities who “don’t believe in them”?

    No. Science is a package deal. If you use a computer/cell phone/plane/car/etc you have accepted science since all technology is interrelated via science. If people really believed in religion they would see a priest when they got sick.

    For science to tolerate religion it would have to either ban itself from some lines of inquiry or not disclose the information. That would be unethical. So it is up to the believer to reconcile their religious beliefs and science and for science to continue to try and save and improve our lives. After all religion had 8000 years and blew it.

  12. ~The Nut Cracker~ says:

    Well,as a man of science I am fully with Ron Brown.My good friend(Doc,I think was your name),there’s a clear a difference between intolerance and discrimination.As man of science it might disturbing to free thinkers of science to just wait and see people doing the most horrible things on Earth,all under an unseen figure from sky.Like Ron Brown,my bias is also for Truth and what I see.I am very suprised by your comments.
    Mahtma Ghandi once said:
    “The most henious and the must cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives.”
    As men of science,as people who think freely,do you expect us tolerate all this extremism,that is beautifully disguised under religion.You can expect,but you won’t get it!!!
    To all of you who follow Doc,I have this to say.
    Richard Jeni once said:”You’re basically killing each other to see who’s got the better imaginary friend.”
    Ron,I need you to see this post I made about Ron Paul’s faith:
    http://mithilaum.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/i-lost-faith-in-ron-pauls-faith/#comments

  13. ~The Nut Cracker~ says:

    Says Doc:”This is the root of political strife, warfare, and in extremity the death of ideas.”

    I repeat again,Ghandi said: “The most henious and the must cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives.”

    And you seem to agree on it.

  14. Doc says:

    Yes you and I agree religion has led to many of the most heinous and cruel crimes in history. What you are not understanding is that the insistence that rationality is the only respectable path to any knowledge leads to the exact same problem, which isn’t religion per se, but in our nature.

    We learn through dogmatism (and make no mistake, insistence that rationality is the only path to truth and anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot is by definition dogmatic) there are worthwhile people and subhuman people. Before you know it, in the name of truth, war, carnage, genocide are committed. My observation is share by someone I am sure you would find a respected authority. Carl Sagan said,
    “People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.”
    and
    “The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.”

    For example your assumption that I could have no rational basis for my beliefs at the very beginning of this post diverted you into ad hominem attacks, quoting bad science, reaction emotionally without having really objectively studied things, you put up a straw man argument.

    These are logical fallacies that are caused by the same emotional and human component in yourselves that you decry. It might behoove you to understand human nature before than condemn it. But then again, why take my advice, I’m only a Mormon. To hell with me. I enjoyed the conversation but I think I’m going to have to call it a wrap. Peace

  15. Mark says:

    Hi Doc,

    Thank you for your well put response. You’ve said you are calling it a wrap, but if you do return, I am genuinely interested in your response to the question at the end of the first paragraph in my previous post… read the example I gave and then I ask, Where do you draw the line for respect and tolerance of beliefs? I am not sure of the entirety of the answer myself, but I do know that there are indeed beliefs that we can not, and should not respect or be tolerant of. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, so I appreciate your input.

    Regards,
    Mark

  16. ronbrown says:

    Doc:

    First off, my comment about you being a Mormon and thus having a bias against rationality was not based simply on that you were a Morman. It is based on you saying that we should dignify beliefs in such things as astrology AND you being a Mormon, perhaps the major religion for which there is the most explicit evidence against. That you would encourage us to respect absurd beliefs and that you yourself hold beliefs that have been sliced and diced by rationality is a pretty good case that you don’t think as much as scientists and rationalists do of rationality.

    Next, you’re pegged me correctly. I am dogmatically rational. I do not dignify the claim that there are other ways to know things about the objective universe than through rational consideration. Your religious experiences, I argue, are evidence for absolutely nothing other than the experiences yourself, just like the experience of love is evidence for nothing more than the experience itself (not, say, that cupid exists).

    There is no reason to believe that anything other than rational investigation has any real grasp on external reality—the only exception being the nature of conscious experience being evidence for itself.

    The double-standard that religious persons create for religion, saying that there are other ways to know (i.e., our way), is nothing but a self-serving justification to continue believing things for which there is no good reason to believe.

  17. rabbit says:

    Obviously many scientists are critical of religion. I don’t know any scientists that are intolerant of it – that is to say, they don’t say that religion must be suppressed or forbidden.

    Scientists are intolerant, on the whole, of religion within science. This is because science is an investigation of the natural world, pretty much by definition.

  18. Mark says:

    HI Rabbit,

    Unless you pack the god of a particular religion into a box such that it never interacts with the natural world, then if the god does interact in some way with the natural world, then it indeed does enter the realm of scientific inquiry.

    Are you familiary with Victor Stenger’s book “God: The Failed Hypothesis”?

    Cheers,
    Mark

  19. DivisionBell says:

    Religion:

    Religion must be taken on faith, either you believe or you don’t. If you bash religion you are a heretic. If you believe you must not question, or seek explanations that are not given by the documents that come pre-packaged with your religion of choice. You will have a human leader who will answer your question and judge you on behalf of the divinity worshiped.
    You will have acquired brothers and sisters whose function is that of indoctrinating you and making sure you are 100% effective in your role of spreading the word.

    Science must not concern you, as you take your religion on faith. You can’t be bothered by scientists, for you will deny their claims based on the faith of your religion. As far as you are concerned, science follows a different book and you will not tamper with it, as conflict with opposite and incompatible views is unnecessary and will draw violence in words and actions. You are both right in the light of all that is real and just. Science and religion will not coexist, they will live separate and each will move at its own pace.

    Science:

    You are all men and women driven by questions and facts. You are curious and seek beyond your apparent limitations. You try predicting the outcome of your actions and must not be bothered by religion. They view the world within limits set by their books and words. You are not restricted. You are free. for you the Universe is limitless and large enough to accommodate people of faith who do not accept your mindset. Learn, question, but be kind and understanding, for the world does not revolve around you… it revolves around everybody.

    Division Bell

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