Science, the cruel stranger

The secularist left was caught flatfooted in 2000, when George W. Bush’s election demonstrated, in quite dramatic fashion, that the political organization of the Christian evangelical movement was paying real dividends in American politics. Ever since, there has been a rush to the cultural barricades. Figures such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens may garner all the headlines, but the real work, I would hazard, is being done in postsecondary classrooms around the world, where it has become almost obligatory to make religious fundamentalists the butt of sarcastic asides.

Even though this cultural tug of war is undoubtedly an important one, for many people, especially those involved or interested in the growing field of cognitive neuroscience, there is something decidedly old-fashioned about the whole affair.

Belief has itself been the object of scientific study for several decades now. During this time, a veritable mountain of evidence has been amassed, most of it supporting what the ancient Greek skeptics argued thousands of years ago: Human beings are theoretical invalids.

The research suggests that what we believe typically depends on who gets to us first and how the issue is framed, which is why Christians typically come from Christian households, Muslims from Muslim households, and so on. Once we commit to this or that belief, our myriad biases and the complexity of the world assure that we can always convince ourselves of our rectitude. Not only do we game ambiguities, cherry-pick evidence and make inferences where none exist, we even rewrite our memories to bolster our cherished convictions. Our feeling of certainty, that sense of lucid, “but-it-has-to-be!” clarity you get when you think about God or economic justice or what have you, typically has little or no connection to the cogency, let alone the truth of the claims that trigger it.

Read the rest on The Globe and Mail.

Tags: belief, neuroscience, science, skepticism

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