Friday, December 29, 2006

In Non-Belief More Prevalent Among Social Scientists?: Some Comments on the Harris/Prager Debate

In an online debate with conservative talk-show host, Dennis Prager, Sam Harris responds to Prager in the context of a discussion on the prevalence of belief in God among scientists:

An article in Nature recently reported that no scientists doubt the existence of God more than biologists, followed closely by physicists and astronomers. I’m not aware of the data you cite on social scientists, but if it is as you report, and they are more atheistic still, it would not surprise me. After all, these people spend a lot of time thinking about things like self-deception, wishful thinking, cognitive biases, and the other enemies of intellectual honesty that keep religion in such good standing in our society.

Prager specifically wrote the following:

My point remains valid, as you graciously concede. Scientific knowledge hardly invalidates belief that there is a God. On the contrary, there are more believers in God in the natural sciences than in the social sciences. This suggests that it is the virtual absence of God in education, not knowledge of science, that likely accounts for the atheism of academics.

Given that anthropology in general and archaeology specifically are considered “social sciences” and that my professional experience and training are in both, allow me to comment. First, I do not know that social scientists are less likely to believe in God than natural or physical scientists. Prager threw that out there without any data to back it up and so it remains nothing more than personal opinion. Secondly, I do not know what Prager is implying here. It almost seems as though he considers “social sciences” as non-scientific relative to the natural sciences and that therefore the supposed absence of belief among the former must be the result of a general state of education and not familiarity with science. I don’t know if that is what he means, but if so, the argument is completely fallacious. I spend significant time in my Anthropology class dispelling this mythical dichotomy between the “hard” sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) and the “soft” sciences (biology, anthropology, etc.). Most of the social science disciplines are as equally versed in the methods and philosophy of scientific investigation as their “hard” science counterparts and so I reject the notion that scientific literacy has something to do with differences Prager perceives. Nonetheless, his suggestion that there may be fewer “believers” among social scientists than natural scientists deserves further exploration. Harris documents some good reasons for why he thinks a greater prevalence of non-belief among social scientists might not be surprising: these people concern themselves with the all-too-human characteristics of “…self-deception, wishful thinking, cognitive biases, and the other enemies of intellectual honesty”. Certainly, the human propensity to deceive other humans for purposes of gaining political (i.e. religious) power combined with the evolutionary establishment of humans as pattern-seeking primates (hence, being willingly deceived) is a common theme throughout history.

But there are other historical observations that can be added to this mix by those of us who study the past. Archaeology has shown that the number of gods and deities (and their attentive human populations) that have fallen wayside over the millennia are legion. There is some historical substance to Dawkins’ claim that all of us are really atheists in the context of the multitude of gods who have come before – he and others just choose to go one god further. Humans have changed the nature and beliefs about their gods so often that it is mind-boggling. What makes the current iterations any different than those that have come before? In addition, once writing was established we know that these “religions” all found justification in ancient texts, described as divinely inspired for those who bought into whatever version was being offered at the time. It is hard to fathom the smorgasbord of religions, no different in substance or justification than the current suite, that have come and gone through the ages.

As anthropologists most of us have also witnessed first hand the despicable behavior of missionaries bringing the “word of god” to indigenous cultures. We have certainly familiarized ourselves with the numerous historical accounts of missionaries spreading religion by force, be it the Hittite invasion of the middle east, Boer occupation of South Africa, Cortez and the Spanish friars brutalizing the Aztec people, or Native Californians enduring the mission “concentration camps” (which, by the way, is how most Native American friends of mine describe them). It is difficult to buy into a just god who would tolerate such behavior from his messengers. When you look at history, it is really difficult to envision any religion that wasn’t ultimately used to further economic and political gain among a small proportion of its advocates.

Given this I can certainly understand why social scientists may exhibit a higher proportion of non-belief, although again, I have seen no statistics to suggest this may be the case. But another question arises. What is meant by “non-belief”? Prager and other religious conservatives equate belief directly with church attendance – anyone not “active” in a religious institution is effectively an atheist. My anecdotal experience would suggest that this is probably the case among social scientists I know: almost none actively or regularly participate in religious organizations. Or are we talking non-belief in religion as an institution? I would argue that “spirituality” is not the same as “religion” – this is a distinction we have ingrained in our children. If this is the case, I would certainly argue that most of my colleagues pursue spirituality in any number of ways, none of which involve regular church attendance.

I am sure this is not a satisfying answer to Prager and other religious conservatives who prefer allegiance to religious institutions. In fact, I would bet that Islamic fundamentalists are held in higher regard among the “religiously active” than those who seek spiritual enlightenment along other paths – after all, at least Muslims suicide bombers go to church regularly!


patch615 said...

another question is, In this scheme is agnosticism considered non-beleif. Agnostics generally seem to be more aware of the ways in which religion leads them astray, but are still open to looking for anything and everything (a bit more of a scientific approach I suppose, though I'm probably biased as I myself am agnostic and would like to think I'm not so easily maleable by the tricks of religon)

beepbeepitsme said...

RE: belief
Belief Puzzle

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