Picture a science fiction author of the 30s imagining a superscientific world like our own — with the entirety of human knowledge in the palm of a person’s hand. Would he have conjured a worldwide web of proliferating falsehoods and fabrications drowning out demonstrable — even scientifically proven — facts? And that those established facts would be branded FAKE NEWS! by the president of the United States of America? A future existence where sharing reality is as easy as pressing a button, but as hard as changing human nature?
He — in the first half of the 20th century a SF writer would very likely have been male — most certainly could never conceive of parents refusing vaccination for their children in the name of protecting them. After all, polio was still the terror of every parent.
Who would want to read about, let alone live in a dystopia of mass misinformation like ours?
It’s enough to make anyone who values truth, justice, and the scientific way despair. But Jeff T. Haley and Dale McGowan take the loooongview in their new book, Sharing Reality, as they suggest ways to bring about a post-post-truth age of universal acceptance of, as they put it, the scientific way of knowing.
I should first point out that Dale McGowan is our benevolent overlord here at Patheos Nonreligious. (Dale isn’t just our editor; he’s a fellow Patheos blogger as well, writing The Lucky Ones.) I also started out as a contributing writer for Dale’s group blog, The Secular Spectrum.
I will, however, do my best to be as objective as possible as I contemplate the thesis of Sharing Reality, really a roadmap for building a better world by promoting universal acceptance of consensus facts arrived at using the self-correcting, peer-review system of the scientific community.
Sharing Reality doesn’t specifically aim to spread atheism, despite the fact that Dale McGowan is the author of Atheism for Dummies. Instead, the authors want to lay the foundation for a world where even religions themselves give up the god idea as not supported by the scientific consensus. As the authors state:
We should encourage each religion to get out of the business of spouting bogus facts and get into the business of promoting good values, offering community, offering rapture through practices such as music, dance, yoga, and meditation, and doing whatever can honestly be done to make people feel like they have a purpose.
Dream on, you say? Haley and McGowan acknowledge the formidable obstacles in the next paragraph, stating:
But encouraging religions to change doesn’t have a long and glorious history of success.
By example, they cite the infamous 359 years it took for the Catholic Church to apologize for the arrest and censure of Galileo for daring to claim that the earth revolves around the sun. In 1992.
We knew we put that card somewhere.
Given these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, how do they hope to transform the world by creating a culture based on, as they put it, the scientific way of knowing? They have coined a new term for this peer-reviewed, consensus-fact worldview, free of the baggage of previous descriptives: evidism.
Hey, it’s gotta be better than brights. Are you serious? You’re really going to adopt a moniker for yourselves that insults everyone else?
Yeah, that’ll really rake in the masses.
And that’s part of their point (and one I’ve often argued). The New Atheists’ habit of insulting theists — a tack embodied by Richard Dawkins — is spectacularly counterproductive.
What’s your reaction when someone is insulting you? I’m guessing it’s not…
Hmm, maybe he has a point. I am a moron.
And the authors further point out that atheists aren’t all evidists who accept the scientific way of knowing in all ways. This too jibes with my personal experience.
I’ve known an atheist who watched a cable “documentary” purporting to prove that the moon landings were faked…and thought it had some good points. He also believed that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t a lone gunman. In both instances I was unable to convince him of the mountains of contrary evidence (or lack thereof).
I’ve also spoken with a woman attending a Center for Inquiry West event who swore by the efficacy of homeopathy. Jim Underdown did a much better job than I did in arguing against this thoroughly disproven, pseudoscientific nonsense. Yet, I doubt either of us convinced her. She may have thought of herself as a skeptic, but she certainly wasn’t a consistent one.
As the authors convincingly argue, simply self-identifying as a skeptic or an atheist doesn’t guarantee that you accept all areas of knowledge arrived at by peer-reviewed consensus. Yes, these conclusions can and do change in science. That’s why the third basic rule of scientific understanding they urge people to share is, “Nothing is known for certain.” (The first is: Science is reliable. Second: Everyone can look up what is known.)
However, according McGowan and Haley, adoption of secularism is the necessary step on the way on the way to an evidist future. As defined in Sharing Reality, secularism isn’t synonymous with a disbelief in religion. To them, secularism isn’t simply a way to prevent religious coercion or state religious preference, but also a credo of toleration and freedom required for the peaceful functioning of society and interpersonal relations alike.
Sharing Reality: Is it Evidist to Believe in Universal Evidism?
Okay, so how do the authors propose to convince religions to abandon supernatural beliefs? Do they really believe that Southern Baptists will one day accept that humans created the concept of god, simply because that is the scholarly consensus?
Not tomorrow, of course. They aim for change in individuals first. If you want to transform religions you have to start with the religious.
And that’s where the sharing reality comes in. Once former theists personally accept an evidist point of view, instead of leaving the fold of their faith, the authors suggest that they should stay and try to reform their congregations from within.
As a case study of a religion evolving from theism to a majority of nonbelievers, they cite the Unitarian Universalists. On a personal note: I had no idea that the Unitarians started out as a Christian denomination when I was an adolescent member. (Unitarian originally referred to the belief that God is unitary, not some kludgy Trinity that even theologians can’t understand.)
I’ve written extensively about how the Unitarian Sunday Schools I attended imparted nothing more than nonreligious, humanist and liberal lessons (though we went fossil hunting and made donut holes in my favorite one).
Slavery is another apt example they give. Slavery is not only accepted in the bible, it’s is actually encouraged. The bible even provides helpful tips on how to enslave others, a kind of Slavery for Dummies.
But how many religions still support slavery? While a proportion of the Southern population still identifies with the Confederacy, they don’t argue for the restoration of slavery.
That’s still a long way from religions abandoning belief in the existence of gods, you may be thinking. And I would agree.
I can’t say I believe the atheistic, fact-based utopia Sharing Reality hopes to achieve is possible in the foreseeable future, at least to the extent depicted. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth striving for.
As the authors point out, in the US, 35% of evangelicals accept that humans and other living creatures evolved over time. Biblical literalism dropped from 66% in 1963 to 30% in 2008. That’s real progress.
And how many lives will be lost due to science denialism? Indeed, the very future of our planet is at stake.
We may never get to universal adoption of the scientific way of knowing. The phrase evidism itself might go the way of “brights.” Yet it’s a goal worth aiming for.
At the very least, we can still achieve incremental progress toward the acceptance of expert, peer-vetted knowledge and the scientific way of ascertaining truth.
False facts may spread like measles through the unvaccinated, but reality is accepted one mind at a time.
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