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Hi, I’m Seth Kurtenbach. Some hubbub recently developed regarding a recent Science article, or rather, its title. Like most of the respondents, I haven’t read the article, but that’s okay, because I mean to comment only on the responses to it. I’m told by a very reliable source that the study itself, consisting of five experiments approaching the issue from a variety of angles, was well-designed and well-executed, and that in the article the authors carefully discourage overly-zealous inferences from the results. I want to focus on two things here. First, I’ll seek an explanation for why Professor Ernst, the very reliable source, is so accommodating to religious belief, while elsewhere in his blog he is confrontational toward political positions rather than religious ones, appealing to similar rhetorical techniques as the atheists he decries. I think this difference among his treatments of positions with which he disagrees is explainable in terms of social taboos. Second, I will take a look at this theist’s intuitive response to Scientific American‘s report on the Science article. His response is a good illustration of why intuition is a poor guide to critical thinking.
In his article on the religious belief stuff, Ernst writes,
But I also don’t come down on the side of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the rest who often resort to rhetoric when it comes to questions of faith. I think they do everyone a disservice, and that a lot of people on all sides of this issue deserve a lot more respect.
This is interesting for two reasons. First, earlier in his blog, Ernst explains that he’s an atheist, and that he’s not one of those “what’s true for some may not be true for others” sort of atheist,
I’m an atheist, and have been for all my adult life (and much of my life before that, too). I’ve never been shy about being an atheist, and I definitely don’t take the view that atheists and religious believers can both be “right” in any meaningful sense. If anything is true, it is that God either exists or does not exist, and there’s no middle ground to be had. Someone has to be wrong about the question of the existence of God. My opinion is that people who believe in God are wrong…
Now, I know Ernst personally, and I bet he’s got some pretty damn good reasons for being an atheist, and for disagreeing with the conclusion of theists. I bet his reasons against theism are about as good as, if not better than, his reasons against free-market libertarianism. He describes his position in that debate thus [his emphasis],
Of the people who profess to believe in the efficiency of unfettered free markets, there are actually two types: wingnuts and hypocrites.
Of course, after making such a strong rhetorical claim, he proceeds to give reasons backing it up. They are good reasons, in my opinion, and I agree with him on the issue.
So, why the difference in treatment regarding theists and free-market libertarians? Why so polite and respectful to theists, but so rhetorical and confrontational to free-market libertarians? I think the explanation is simple: it is still somewhat socially taboo to criticize religion, but political beliefs are perfectly fair game. Dawkins and Dennett are often quick to point out this inconsistency of behavior. There’s no reason that religious beliefs should be free from the exact same type of aggressive criticism that political beliefs receive. I know Ernst thinks that there are at least two types of theists: dishonest (Plantinga) and deceived (Plantinga’s acolytes); why not give them the royal treatment as well? It would make people feel uncomfortable, and probably hurt some feelings, but why is that a reason against such rhetoric, when exactly that type of rhetoric is used in political discourse?
Speaking of hurt feelings, let’s take a look at Trent Dougherty’s response to the title of the Scientific American article. Trent tells us that the article in Scientific American caused him to become angry and annoyed, and that these emotional responses prompted him to write a rhetorical, snarky response. He also tells us that he’s writing the article in a rush, as he’s on his way to a conference (perhaps ironically, the conference is called LOGOS), so he doesn’t have time to remove the emotional snarkiness. However, he also indicates that he deems his angry response appropriate after giving it some reflection. I’m not sure how he had enough time to reflect on his anger’s appropriateness, but wrote the resulting article in a rush, late for a LOGOS conference. Due reflection tends to calm me down considerably. But then, I’m on quite a bit of Prozac.
It seems like Trent is primarily reacting to the title of the article, “How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God: Religious belief drops when analytical thinking rises.” My limited knowledge of magazines suggests that titles are often the work of editors, interested in generating attention and controversy. Trent also notes that most of his anger is due to the stuff
“around” the article: that the study would be run the way it was, that so many important questions go unasked, the propagandistic title, the responses to and uses of it etc.
But, Trent mostly directs his anger at the article itself, primarily because it does not support the zeal of the title,
Now look back at the title. What a joke. There is not even a suggestion in the SA article about loss of faith in God. It is not even mentioned.
So, he’s mostly mad about the title, because it is about God and the article is not about God, yet nonetheless he’s determined to
go through [the article] line-by-line to keep focus during the rage.
I’m not sure Trent actually read the original article in Science, but he nonetheless critiques it in virtue of Scientific American‘s report on it (or at least the title of the report). It seems his emotional response is causing him to completely lose focus on the proper target of his criticism. This is a potential side-effect of intuitive thinking, I’d say.
Part of Trent’s critique defends theism in virtue of its intuitive appeal, asking, “Don’t we *want* people to think intuitively? Isn’t that better than the alternative?” Given that the alternative is discursive, analytical thinking, I’d say ‘no’, intuitive thinking is not better, especially with respect to fundamental questions of reality. I think Trent’s article is the result of mostly intuitive thinking, and it seems to highlight the problems with intuitive thinking.
Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy Master’s student and computer science PhD student at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality. He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers. Feel free to contact Seth at firstname.lastname@example.org with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!