Alternative title: Truthiness and Political Power
Reading this post over at Deus Ex Malcontent a while ago reminded me of some thoughts I had bouncing around my head since I started listening to the How to Think About Science broadcasts that I mentioned even longer ago. In his post, Chez states that society requires a common basis for facts and methods for ascertaining them. I agree with that statement in principle, but it does not preclude religion. The thing is, a state-wide accepted pool of knowledge can come in many forms, and until relatively recently it was usually in the form of a state religion. In many ways, a non-science based approach is more attractive for a ruling party as there is more control. When the belief system in question is a religious or philosophical system (I include the philosophical system to cover things like Confucianism) the ruling party is completely unconstrained in what the knowledge they impart upon their subjects entails. If they are careful enough (and, to be entirely honest, "careful enough" doesn't really have to be all that careful) they can even entirely change their stance on an issue and convert the people under their care from pacifists to bloodthirsty crusaders like magic (or some other such dramatic change). To a certain extent, this might even be a desireable situation if the ruling party itself is able to see through their own nonsense and rule in an enlightened manner (like Plato's dream of benevolent philosopher kings). However, since true enlightenment and benevolence are awfully hard to come by, I think this can be safely ruled out and non-reality based systems of knowledge can be assumed to inevitably be used to serve the interests of those making the knowledge up.
Which leads me to science. Science is designed as well as we currently know how to default knowledge to what is real. While evidence can be spun and twisted and even sometimes outright manufactured, eventually the truth should come out. It is for this reason that it is so often at odds with the powerful and the elite, who would much rather have people believe whatever they are told regardless of the actual truth. To give perhaps a simplistic example, if a powerful ruler wants a rainforest destroyed so he can put in a golf course and a resort, it is much more convenient to have people believe that the Earth is created by a benevolent deity who will provide for mankind's prosperity than have to deal with facts of the disastrous ecological fallout that is likely to result. However, I fell into the same trap that skeptics and rationalist so often fall into and defaulted to a religious example. It isn't just religion that does this. Stalin did the same thing by trying to exercise complete control over the beliefs of his subjects. Jackasses like Dinesh D'Souza perpetuate the talking point that atheism is clearly morally bankrupt due to the abhorrent "atheist regimes" of the 20th century (he then goes on to list Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Sometimes Mao is in there too). Leaving out the fact that I have seen pointed out to Dinesh D'Souza in multiple debates (but which seems to fail to penetrate his mind) that Hitler and the Nazis were decidedly not an "atheist regime", this historical tit for tat of "look at the crusades", "Stalin killed more people" and so on is a complete mischaracterization of the rational secularism (as I understand it) being argued for by those I find intellectually inspiring on this account (namely, Richard Dawkins).
The debate, which so often is framed as religion vs. atheism, isn't and shouldn't be about that. Rather, it should be about a rational, confirmable world view as the paradigm one accepts for truth vs. a socially constructed dogma. While it is unreasonable to expect to completely get rid of dogma (as there will always be the temptation to at least try to warp or spin evidence to fit a previously expected result or to come up with a policy in favour of those performing the spin), requiring a knowledge base to be as evidentially based as is humanly possible provides the most protection for those not in decision making power. This, in essense, is what secularists are striving for. The cultural relativism of freedom of religion is a wonderful thing as long as it is restricted to the philosophical domain of non-practical matters. If people find comfort in the deistic notion that the Big Bang was caused by a powerful entity one would like to call God, that is perfectly fine. Likewise, if people find comfort in the spiritual community of weekly church attendance, that is also fine. What is not fine is when the freedoms of other people become infringed upon under the protection of one's right to the freedom of religion or when a religion is used as a position of authority to propagate a non-evidential base for knowledge and moral judgement used to inhibit the actions of those who do not adhere to the same belief structure (such as the limits on same-sex marriages or birth control). As I believe I have mentioned before, whenever the freedom of religion and other freedoms and rights conflict, I have yet to hear a rational argument for why the freedom of religion should not be overruled by the right with which it has come into conflict.
Somehow, I am back on religion again, and I apologize. I hope what I have written here makes sense, although I am not entirely sure I have said what I wanted to say either coherently or completely. Anyone else want to chime in?
Note: Not to distract from the possibility of a good debate this post might inspire, but one should note that I have used a quotation for the title, so it is part of my new figure-out-where-the-title-came-from contest. This one is somewhat obscure, so I'll give the hint that it is the opening line to a song.