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Public Enemy #1: Religious Obscurantism

Religious Obscurantism

1) Introduction

Religious obscurantism is to human intelligence a bit what gravity is to airplanes. Everywhere, always, airplanes must fight against gravity. As soon as they stop fighting, or that they are poorly maintained, or badly piloted, airplanes are inevitably dragged down to the ground, sometimes violently.

It's roughly the same thing for human intelligence. As soon as we stop actively fighting against religious obscurantism, as soon as we begin to believe stupidly without having any proofs, we head toward a catastrophe.

2) First symptom: Religious obscurantism starts by obscuring its own nature

One of the first symptoms of a society "infected" with religious obscurantism is that the very nature of religious obscurantism becomes obscured. The general population starts to believe that Obscurantism is defined as "the disease that we can't have". When you pronounce the words "religious obscurantism", the average Joe thinks of weird Muslims with turbans in a country filled with sand and oil, or crazy Christians who try to fix their car by reading the Bible, instead of an Automotive Repair book. The average Joe doesn't start by examining himself to see if he's tainted with religious obscurantism.

How should we define "religious obscurantism"? I would propose:

"The social disease whereby citizens start to unify or separate the subject from the predicate for a reason other than evidence, without realizing it".

Let's try to explain this definition. Remember that asserting something means "unifying or separating the subject from the predicate". For example, you can "unify" the subject "my hand" with the predicate "five fingers" by asserting:

"My hand has five fingers."

This assertion will be true or false, depending on whether you've been careful or not when using your power tools! Seriously, if your hand has five fingers, and you see and feel it with evidence, you know the assertion is true, based on something "internal" to the assertion. You assert because the evidence is there, not out of some belief.

Believing something is not necessarily religious obscurantism. For example, if your Physician says: "Take these pills to lower your blood pressure", you will probably believe him. But you know that you believe him, you know that you don't currently have the medical knowledge to understand what is in those pills, and why they can help you (See also "100% of all religions are false ( 1%)" for more explanations on beliefs).

Religious obscurantism starts when you begin to believe, without even realizing it. Notice the two parts of the expression: "religious" pertains to believing that an assertion is true, and "obscurantism" pertains to the fact you don't realize you're believing, as opposed to knowing.

3) Second symptom: Religious obscurantism attacks Science

Another typical symptom of religious obscurantism is that Science is attacked, often by scientists themselves, and scientists who don't even realize they are attacking Science! These days, not only is it easy to find ordinary citizens who believe in Science without even clearly knowing what Science is, but many scientists also fall into this trap (See also "Isn't believing in Science anti-scientific?", as well, Chapter 3 of [Gauch, Hugh G. Scientific Method in Practice, London, Cambridge University Press, 2003] about "Science Wars").

Some examples:

3.1) Philosophy is no longer considered a Science. This seems to be caused by an incorrect definition of "Science", and a lack of knowledge of the "Philosophia Perennis" (or correct philosophical tradition).

3.2) Scientific knowledge is confused with "what some scientists say". Instead of considering scientific knowledge as the product of a demonstrative syllogism, science becomes "what is said by the majority of people generally considered to be scientists".

3.3) The foundations of Science are laid on faith instead of evidence. Many claim that logic and facts can only "take us so far; then we have to go the rest of the way toward belief" [Brown and Keely, Asking the Right Questions; A Guide to Critical Thinking, 6th Ed., p. 196], or that "Science rests on faith" [Hugh G. Gauch, Scientific Method in Practice, p. 152. But please note that I consider this one of the rare shortcomings of Gauch's book, which otherwise appears excellent to me].

3.4) Metaphysics is replaced by experimental Physics. Many popular sophists these days make all kinds of claims about God, our spiritual soul, intelligence and free-will (or, more usually, our lack thereof!). Their arguments (usually bad and sophistical) are philosophical, but they pretend to base themselves on some conclusions of experimental Physics (heavily "interpreted", of course!).

3.5) Scientific knowledge itself becomes very uncertain. "What was scientifically true yesterday is no longer true today, and what is scientifically true today will be false tomorrow", claims religious obscurantism. Of course, things like the Pythagorean Theorem are never mentioned, nor the fact Newtonian Physics are still valid, under certain conditions (which Newton himself couldn't have been aware of, and hence didn't mention). Scientific knowledge becomes a foggy, changeable blob, constantly being modified by culture, language, etc.

3.6) Popular philosophers of Science, like Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend attack the very foundations of Science. Hugh Gauch talks about the "Four Deadly Woes" of Science, i.e. the four steps whereby Science is progressively destroyed:

3.6.1) "Elusive Truth". Karl Popper said science cannot prove a theory is true, but only that a theory is false ("falsifiability"). "Hence, the best that science could do was to offer numerous conjectures, refute the worst with contrary data, and accept the survivors in a tentative manner. But that implies that although "we search for truth, we can never be sure we have found it"" [Karl Popper, quoted in Gauch 2003, p. 82].

3.6.2) "Underdetermined Theory". According to Popper, all observations are "contaminated" with theory. "But if observations are theory-laden, that means that observations are simply theories, and then how can one theory falsify (never mind verify) another theory? Curiously, the full implications of this little complication were not fully grasped by Popper, but by Imre Lakatos: not only are scientific theories not verifiable, they are not falsifiable either" [quoted in Gauch 2003, p. 84].

3.6.3) "Incommensurable Paradigms". Gauch summarizes Kuhn thus: "A paradigm is the broad common ground and disciplinary matrix that unites a particular group of scientists at particular times". Paradigms are incommensurable, i.e. "no common measure or criterion can be applied to competing paradigms to make a rational, objective choice between them". Science according to Kuhn is "arational". Incommensurable paradigms imply arational choices. In other words, Kuhn does not permit truth to be a criterion of scientific theories" [Gauch 2003, p. 86].

3.6.4) "Redesigned Goals". Traditionally, Science has had the goals of rationality, truth, objectivity and realism. But Feyerabend and others like him, fighting against the so-called "tyranny of truth", claim that "Equal weight should be given to competing avenues of knowledge, such as Astrology, Acupuncture and Witchcraft" [Paul Feyerabend, quoted in Gauch 2003, p. 88].

3.7) Some scientists help destroy Science. "There are very good reasons why twentieth century philosophy of science, under the malign influence of Popper through to Feyerabend, is profoundly hostile to Science itself... It is indeed unfortunate that many scientists, through ignorance, quote these philosophers approvingly. The most effective victories are those in which the losers unwittingly assist their opponents" [quoted in Gauch 2003, p. 91].

Etc., etc...

4) Third symptom: Religious obscurantism attacks Morality

A third symptom of Religious obscurantism is that Morality is attacked, as well as Politics, which has many connections with Morality.

Some examples:

4.1) Ethics is replaced by Sociology. "Good" and "evil" become a simple consensus of such a population, in such a territory. When you ask people infected with Religious Obscurantism to define "good" and "evil", they'll never say: "OK, let's approach that problem scientifically". On the contrary, they will assert with great certainty that Science can't define good and evil, even though they can't define Science or explain what Ethics is!

4.2) Public discussion of political problems is reduced or eliminated. A good example here in Canada is the problem of same-sex unions. I haven't seen a good debate on the topic yet, especially since "Step One" for such a debate has not occurred, as far as I know.

4.3) Marriage is defined as "that which cannot be defined". I continue to be amazed at the reactions of couples living in unmarried cohabitation. If you ask them why they are not married, they'll explain with great certainty that marriage is not for them. If you then ask them what "marriage" is (since of course they can't have rationally decided to forego marriage unless they knew what it was), you'll often get verbal abuse instead of a definition! They just believe marriage is bad, and refuse to consider the matter any more!

4.4) Human rights are all-important, yet few know why we have them. Try this experiment: ask somebody whether they have rights. "Of course!" is the inevitable answer. Then ask them why. "Because the Law says so!", is a usual answer. But what if the Supreme Court legalized rape, would rape become a right? "Ooops! My car is double-parked!" is a typical answer.

Etc., etc...

Society having run off the cliff of Reason
(Source: [broken link] www.barkbarkwoofwoof.com/looneytunes18.gif)

5) Conclusion

If there was such a thing as a calamity, what would it look like? What is the correct definition of "doom"? Certainly, a total nuclear war would qualify, as well as a "global killer" meteorite that would strike planet Earth. But I would also suggest that Religious Obscurantism can become a catastrophe. After all, acting well is acting according to Reason, so if we abandon Reason, nothing prevents us from falling into the worst evils imaginable.

If we don't stop Public Enemy #1, i.e. Religious Obscurantism, there is no limit to the damage that can be done.

"Indeed, the debate whether or not science has credible rationality is an enormously significant matter"
[Gauch 2003, p. 77].

"The only alternative to rights based on Metaphysics, is rights based on Might"
[Kreeft 2002, p. 24].

In my opinion, Religious Obscurantism is a threat, and we are at risk of losing everything. The only metaphor I can think of, to describe our current situation, is the Coyote who has run off the edge of a cliff while pursuing the Road Runner. The Coyote is standing on thin air, but momentarily he remains suspended above the precipice.

Sometimes it seems we have run off the cliff of Reason while chasing Pleasure, and we have not yet realized that our Universities, our Laws, and our Morality are standing on thin air...

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