Monday, April 17, 2006

Lerner on Scientism

Via P. Z. Myers I came across this essay, from The Nation, by Rabbi Michael Lerner. The good Rabbi makes the familiar argument that the electoral problems faced by liberals and progressives stem from the antics of mean old secular relgion-haters. They scare away religious people who might otherwise care about basic social justice and vote accordingly, you see.

Lerner writes:

In my research on the psychodynamics of American society I discovered that the left's hostility to religion is one of the main reasons people who otherwise might be involved with progressive politics get turned off. So it becomes important to ask why.

I suspect that Lerner's psychodynamical reasearch consists mostly of anecdotal evidence. But more to the point is that Lerner's assertion paints a very dim picture of religious believers.

To see how ridiculous his claim is, simply turn it around. If an atheist in the nineteen sixties argued that he would like to be involved in the civil rights movement, but he's turned off by the role that churches are playing within it, no one would be sympathetic to him. Likewise for Lerner's religious believers. He's effectively saying that it's the fault of atheists and secularists that more religious people can't be moved to fight for basic social justice. It is possible that this claim is true (though I'd like to see some evidence for it). But if it is true it reflects very badly on religious believrs.

But that's just a warm-up. Lerner's real point is to wag his finger and yell J'accuse! You secularists think your soooooo rational and unemotional. Well, take this:

Science, however, is not the same as scientism--the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don't rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification--all these spiritual dimensions of life--are dismissed by the scientistic worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.

Scientism thus extends far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the role of science in society. It has become the religion of the secular consciousness. Why do I say it's a religion? Because it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system. The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents. Spiritual progressives therefore insist on the importance of distinguishing between our strong support for science and our opposition to scientism.

If Lerner scoured the Earth I suspect he'd be unable to find even one person who accepts scientism the way he describes it. Absolutely no one believes that only things that can be empirically observed (as opposed to unemprically observed?) and measured are real. In fact, scientists seem pretty solidly united behind the idea that science has little directly to tell us about morality and ethics (thought it can bring to light facts that might be relevant in answering moral questions.)

Om the other hand, truth claims have to be defended on some basis, and if Lerner can't provide any actual evidence for his relgious beliefs that surely it is unreasonable for him to expect the rest of us to take them seriously. And if he further agures that his religious beliefs are in some way relevant to setting the publi policy of the country, then we have the right to actively oppose him.

Now let's see if we can help Lerner out. He's trying real hard, but doggone it, he just can't seem to figure out why secularists are so hostile to religion. The best explanation he can come up with is that they are in thrall to an absurd worldview that no one actually believes. I mean, what else can it be?

Let me suggest that secular hostility to religion comes from exactly one cause: The various truth claims made by Lerner and his fellow theists have no rational foundation at all. The assertions they make about God and His will have no more basis in fact than a child's beliefs about the monster in his closet.

That's it! That's the reason. Nothing more complicated than that. Lerner even tacitly concedes this, by lumping God's existence in with other areas he believes are not open to empirical investigation. Doing so allows him to sidestep the unoleasnt fact that there is ample reason for rejecting the idea that the world is superintended by an all-powerful, all-loving God (the problem of evil).

Lerner blathers on at great length about people's spiritual needs, even preposterously arguing that it is the Democrats and the left that have become too enamored of the view that all concerns are economic. Democrats understand perfectly well that people have spiritual needs, they simply reject the idea that the political system is the proper venue for satisfying them. It is not the job of government to attend to whatever religious needs people are said to have. Rather, the government should be providing the environment in which people are free to attrend to their own needs in whatever way they see fit.

Near the end of his essay lerner offers this:

I don't mean that the secular left ought to give up its secularism. I am not suggesting that a secularist should convert to some particular religion in order to garner popularity and win votes. What I do mean is that a leftist secularist ought to approach other belief systems with a greater spirit of humility, recognizing that secularism is one possible answer among many to the question of how to understand the universe and how to live one's life. Secularism is not “the rational approach” but “a rational approach” among other rational approaches. To be effective, a social change movement will need to make a place for everyone who shares the same political values, even though they may belong to different religious traditions or hold different philosophical positions. Speaking from a religious perspective should be normal in political meetings or at public events sponsored by the left--and the left should work as hard to create an inclusive feel for this as it does to include any other constituency.

For some reason I'm reminded of Stephen Colbert's line: I know the Pope's infallible, but that doesn't mean he can't make mistakes.

First of all, Lerner is unfairly conflating secularism with atheism. In a political context, secularism is effectively equivalent to the separation of church and state. That is a principle all religious people should be able to get behind. Secularism is not a statement about how to understand the universe.

Secondly, by his own admission God belief is not rational. Not if by rational you mean, “based on sound lines of evidence equally available to everyone.” By what possible definition of “rational” does it make sense to say that the world is run by an all-powerful, all-loving God who wants us to do certain specific things, and we know this because an ancient holy book tells us so?

Next, elsewhere in the essay Lerner implies that he supports the separation of church and state. If he really believes this, then he should also recognize that people's religious beliefs have no relevance to public policy. Consequently, casting policy discussions in religious terms makes no sense. If I walked into a church meeting and started giving a lecture on mathematics, no one there would take kindly to it. Would that mean that the church is hostile to mathematicians? It is not excluding religious people to say that the minutiae of their beliefs is not relevant to questions of public policy.

There are many liberals who are not fond of religious belief (I am one of them). There are many others, like Lerner, who are not fond of atheism. That really shouldn't be of any relevance in the fight for social justice, or in the fight for people to be free of government intrusion in their daily lives. It's that simple. Instead of trying to blame others for the failure of religious liberals to do their part in supporting liberal and progressive candidates, he should be chastising his own flock for being “turned off” by the thought of having to share space with people who don't share their religious beliefs.


At 8:20 PM, Anonymous yeahyeah said...

A religious conservative preaching to liberals on the ideas of tolerance? I'd love to see him direct his sermon to fellow worshipers.

The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents.

However, it is a view with a HUGE advantage over others. We can agree on empirical evidence, we can repeat the results. Therefore, we can have a very high degree of confidence in cause and effect.

Anything else is just "I think this, but you think that." All other views are equal to each other, and, thus, equally unlikely to be true.

Could all the laws of physics stop working tomorrow? Sure. We have no idea why they work.

But I'm betting my life on what empirical evidence and my senses tell me, not on a theory from my imagination. Virtually every religious person in the world is doing the same; the rest are insane.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Ginger Yellow said...

I know it's cliche to point this out, but Jesus did say his followers should turn the other cheek. If religious people are being discouraged from doing good works because other people doing good works don't like religion, it's the religious people's problem, not the atheists' or secularists'. What matters is doing the good works. In case you hadn't noticed, Mr Lerner, there's a huge amount of hostility toward atheists in America. It doesn't stop them doing whatever it is their moral code tells them to do.

At 10:02 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

so many posts! I'm behind because I've been working too hard.

"As a religious person, I don't rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important"

ha ah ah ha hmmm how about

"As a scientificly aware person, I don't rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important"

or "As a gardener, I don't rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important

At 12:53 AM, Anonymous Kelly said...

After your first quote of Rabbi Michael Lerner, you attempted to 'turn around' what you labelled a ridiculous claim. I don't believe your comparison was accurate.

Lerner said that one of the main reasons that people who might get involved with progressive politics but don't stems from the left's hostility to religion.

In your comparison, you talk about an atheist who is turned off of civil rights activism because churches play a role.

A more comparable way to express it would have been an atheist who avoids being involved with civil rights groups who are hostile to his beliefs.

Hostility from opponents and those who are foriegn to your enviroment are not difficult to tolerate. However, facing hostility from your own peers can be daunting and emotionally painful.

Political causes can unite those who we would otherwise consider different. The union is more difficult when intolerance to issues that are not germaine are manifested (or even the misperception of manifestation).

The last paragragh suggests that beliefs have no place in establishing and refining social justice. However, I don't think you can find a way to seperate the issues. The term 'social justice' was coined by a priest and is about compassion, dignity, respect and human values. You won't observe those with a scanning electron microscope.

Fortunately, we all (I dislike generalizations, but there you go) have beliefs which allow us to define those terms, apply them, and measure both the application of them by others and the effect they have.

In response to ginger yellow, Lerner did not say (that I saw) that christians (you say religous people, but refer to Jesus) did not do good works because other people don't like religion. He said they limited their involvement in progressive politics. Politics is not the only way to do good works. And progressive politics is not the only politics that wants good things to happen.

At 11:41 PM, Blogger Aquaria said...

Well, quite honestly, kelly, you seem to have a reading comprehension problem. Just put a diaper on Lerner, because he's wetting his pants from those mean old liberal secularists for reasons that make ZERO sense.

I find the comparison to atheists not get involved with civil rights during the 60s more than apt. Hell, it would have given me pause, as an atheist, because religious people are far more hostile to us than we've ever been to them. They, after all, tend to kill, torture, beat and harass us in innumerable ways, and have been doing a damned good job of it for many, many years. And yet we got involved in the civil rights movement (and many other social justice causes). We could work with people of different beliefs. We've had to do it all our lives. Too bad "religious" people can't bite their tongues and work with us.

I'd say that these whiny Christians using this lame-ass excuse but wanting respect need to treat others with respect first (do unto others ring a bell?). But that makes me laugh. Few of them do.

This is just an excuse for them not to get involved, because they might have to deal with people who won't let religious people shove religion down their throats.

Besides, I don't think this type of religious person can manage working with people of different beliefs, period. Their idea of it, especially with us atheists, is for us to throw ourselves at their feet and scream, "You were right and I was wrong, so terribly, abjectly wrong! How could I have been such a fool as not to heed your sage and brilliant advice and insight? Why, the power of your God is strong in you to have swayed one such as me! Preach some more to me!"

That's THEIR idea of working with different believers, from my experience.

People that warped aren't going to care, really, about social justice, as non-relgious and more tolerant religious people would. What these fanatics care about is helping people like them, and burn everyone else. Oh, is that too harsh? Well, as a famous Christian once said, "By their fruits ye shall know them." Centuries of rotten fruit is available for evidence of how a certain religious sect treats people who disagree with their beliefs.

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Phil Baley said...

Is that really the truth? Good that I have another opinion on this.

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