Memes are the lowest form of argument. Sometimes, however, they’re the medium of our discourse, so the bite-sized bits of our thinking that they represent should at least be in the ball park. I’m going to look at three memes that I think misrepresent freethought and critical thinking.
A Thought Experiment With No Thought
“If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.”
― Penn Jillette, God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales
Penn Jillette is a great magician, but even he can’t make an agenda disappear. Saying science is better than religion isn’t saying much, but let’s not make science seem like something it’s not.
If the human race, for whatever reason, had to do it all over again, would science be created the same way? This sounds like another case where science fans think evidence magically gives rise to the methodology and institution of science. The facts of Nature are what science deals with, according to this simplistic view, facts are eternal and immutable, and so science would recreate the exact same picture we have of nature. Isn’t magical thinking adorable?
The development of modern scientific inquiry took place in a certain historical and cultural context. I keep saying that it’s not like we discovered the scientific method like mountaineers discovered snow-capped mountains in equatorial Africa. Just like the art or language of that era, science is a creation of its time.
Science was developed by men in a very male-centric culture. Europe at the time was developing colonial empires. Thus, science had to reflect the influence of a mindset where domination and control were all-important. The obsessions with making measurements and relevant distinctions derived from a political and economic context where quantification, division and the establishment of borders were crucial to society. Technology had developed to a point where men could make observations of celestial bodies or microorganisms that weren’t detectable by the human eye, so the entire concept of observation itself needed to be revised. A civilization interested in racial and gender hierarchies naturally created such orders and hierarchies in elements, living things and even among scientific disciplines. And a society whose foundation was authority had a vested interest in creating a mode of empirical research that was unquestionable.
Who’s to say that science would develop in the exact same way if a more egalitarian society had to recreate it? Humans impose their cultural and personal biases on all their activities, science included. If people had a less rigid, conformist outlook, and our civilization were geared less toward power and private property, maybe science would be conducted differently enough that we’d have a less mechanistic and control-oriented view of our universe as a result.
The Facts About Facts
“Atheism is a conclusion, not a belief.”
“Atheism: It’s what happens when intellectually honest people look at the facts.” – Steve Briggs
Come on. Belief or lack thereof is more a function of personality, or the bonds you formed (or didn’t) with the faith community in which you grew up. Some people are more comfortable with the prospect of making a Type I error rather than a Type II error. The idea that the foundation of our worldview is nothing more than data processing, and everyone would come to the same correct conclusion if they really thought about it, is something that panders to our self-image as rational decision-makers but isn’t accurate. There are plenty of emotional needs in play when we talk about religious belief as well as the lack thereof, and we’ve all just learned to rationalize beliefs we didn’t arrive at through rational means.
I’m not sure what facts Steve Briggs is talking about, but the way we approach facts is by how well they fit into what we already believe. Sure, in the context of a jury trial or a scientific experiment, facts should be pretty persuasive. But in terms of the way we interpret and make meaning of our experience of the world, I don’t think mere data points are going to have the same effect.
Exploiting the Suffering of the Innocent
“17,000 kids die from starvation every day. Where is God?”
There’s so much wrong with this meme I don’t know where to start. Let’s begin by admitting that, on the spectrum of sophistication for arguments, bad-things-happen-therefore-God-doesn’t-exist is on the crude end. I honestly couldn’t care less about theological discussions, but if you’re going to talk about religion and suffering, then you’re obliged to recognize that the matter has been addressed more than a few times by theologians.
Take religious people to task for their credulity, bigotry and hypocrisy all you want. But at least acknowledge that religious people don’t deny that children suffer. They don’t claim that their suffering is a good thing. And if they say it’s “part of God’s plan” or whatever, the fact that they engage in charity work makes it clear that they don’t think The Big G wants them to think it’s no big deal.
Furthermore, for those of us who don’t think God exists anyway, shouldn’t an image of starving children make us feel bad about our helplessness to create and maintain stable societies that can feed everybody? Shouldn’t the caption read, “Where are YOU?”
Which brings me to my final point, that using this kind of image to bait religious folks doesn’t display any of the compassion we’re accusing God of lacking. What kind of people are we if we exploit the suffering of the innocent for anti-religion yuks in the digital sandbox?