Thursday, July 10, 2014

Religion, Science and Dogmatism

Note:  I shared this post on a popular blog site recently and to my surprise, was immediately accused of "attacking atheists."  That certainly was not my intent.  If anything, I was "attacking fundies" and reassuring the atheists that despite what they may have heard, liberal/progressive Christians are on their side in terms of public policy!  The main point of this post is that dogmatism and uncritical thinking of any variety is dangerous.  I apologize that the point did not get across.


In the wake of recent events, particularly the Supreme Court ruling that corporations owned by fundamentalist Christians can obtain a religious exemption from insurance coverage of birth control, there has been an understandable backlash against religion.  My atheist friends have been commenting, even more so than usual, that religion is the source of all human misery and must be stamped out if we are ever going to have a truly civilized, enlightened, rational society.  They perceive religion as rejecting science, oppressing women, gays and other minorities, and seeking to impose as law an archaic “morality” from a mythological book written thousands of years ago.  This perception is, again, very understandable in light of recent events involving not only Christian fundamentalists here in the U.S., but also Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists in other parts of the world.  But, what the atheists don’t seem to understand is that the fundies do not represent all religious people and in fact, we liberal and/or progressive persons of faith stand solidly on the side of secular humanism when it comes to public policy!

As discussed in my previous blog post, Another Look at Religion, we do believe in science!  And we know the difference between science and mythology.  We understand that religion and science are two totally separate fields of human experience which serve completely different purposes.  We do not follow “biblical morality,” nor do we want to base our laws or public policies on scripture.  We believe in equal rights and social justice for everyone.  Therefore, my atheist friends, we completely sympathize with you and we do not deserve the accusations which are properly aimed at the fundies.  If anything, the fundies annoy us more than they do you, because they make religion look bad and in addition, they have somehow managed to convince you that they speak for the rest of us, which they do not.

With regard to the assertion that religion is the source of all ignorance and misery, I would argue that it is not religion per se, but rather, uncritical acceptance and imposition of any dogma, which is the source of humanity’s woes.  An example from history would be the completely barbaric “communist revolutions” in places like Cambodia and China which inflicted considerable suffering on their populations although they had abolished religion.  In modern times we need look no further than our American atheist conservatives like S.E. Cupp who, despite their rejection of a belief in God, persist in almost religiously pushing the conservative political agenda as if it were gospel truth.  And while atheist conservatives are relatively rare, they are certainly nowhere near as scarce as unicorns; according to a recent Pew Forum survey, 19 percent of conservatives are unaffiliated with any particular religion, and 14 percent of atheists identify as conservative.

So it is possible to be an atheist while at the same time being a dogmatist, and converts to atheism do sometimes (not always!  and by no means all or even most atheists!) transfer their former religious zeal onto a new object of worship, usually science.  Perhaps the human psyche needs to believe in something, and when religion is thrown out, we look for some other focus of devotion to fill that void.  It could be argued that science is a more appropriate object of worship than a mythical Mean Old Man, Santa Claus or Wish-Granting Genie in the sky.  However, as we have discussed previously, religion is not science, nor is science is religion, and therefore worship or uncritical acceptance is not an appropriate response.  Unlike [fundie] religion which insists on blind faith in ancient and unchanging dogma, science encourages that we remain open-minded and educate ourselves as new data arises, rather than clinging to current scientific theories as if they were eternal truths. 

It can be difficult to keep up with the changing data, in that science has many different specialties and we cannot be experts in every field.  I adore quantum physics, but because I took “Advanced Physics for Liberal Arts Majors” I don’t have sufficient education to really understand it in any depth.  The best I can do is to read popularized books on the subject such as Taking the Quantum Leap by Fred Alan Wolf or Wholeness and the Implicate Order by David Bohm, or articles in Scientific American.  I would imagine that if you’re going to have blind faith in anything, math might be a better object, because as far as I know, they don’t change the rules and there isn’t much controversy there, although I could be wrong because I only got through integrals in calculus and maybe at the higher levels of math there are disputes or changing theories that I don’t know about.

What I can tell you, though, is that I see a fair amount of blind faith on the part of atheists in a field with which I am very familiar, namely medicine.  Those of us who love science are naturally enthusiastic about “evidence-based medicine,” although more often than not, it isn’t.  Rather, at least here with our for-profit medical system, it’s often marketing-based as opposed to evidence-based.  Unfortunately the layperson has very little opportunity to become educated enough to be able to tell the difference.  This is in part due to the information available to the public being limited, on purpose.  Most of the articles on breaking new data are published in association journals such as JAMA and BMJ which require membership in order to read them, and the information eventually trickles down through the popular media in a watered-down form and usually for purposes of marketing.  E.g., The Wall Street Journal, which depends on advertising from the pharmaceutical industry, likes to publish “research” that conveniently coincides with the impending release of a new drug by one of its corporate sponsors, and avoids publishing research supporting alternatives/ competitors, or that raises questions about the safety or efficacy of its sponsors’ products.

Medicine makes an attractive new object of religious zeal, in part because it is already set up that way.  The doctors are the High Priests who hold power over life and death, and guard their secret knowledge from the laypeople.  In addition, medicine offers rituals like mammography and sacraments such as vaccination whereby people can receive from the Priests the blessings of life and health, and ward off the evil spirits of sickness and death.  Believing these procedures and medications to be evidence-based, scientifically-minded people enthusiastically participate in and proselytize these sacraments and harshly criticize anyone who does not share their faith.  Fancying themselves modern-day Grand Inquisitors, some even make it their personal mission to promote medical dogma as unassailable Truth, condemning anyone who dares question any aspect of it as a heretic.  Meanwhile, those of us who actually work in the field know that medicine is constantly evolving and we retain a healthy skepticism, not because we “oppose science,” but rather because of our familiarity with medical science and our awareness of new developments and controversies that we learn about in the course of our occupation.

Recently some of my friends jumped on the bandwagon promoting the pertussis vaccination for everyone, on the mistaken belief that the outbreaks which have been happening were the result of a decline in vaccination rates.  Even people in their 50s went out and got the sacramental shot, confident that in fulfilling this religious duty they were protecting the people around them such as infants or the immunocompromised by helping to increase “herd immunity.”  Unfortunately, their faith was unfounded, as I learned recently during my ongoing study of the latest medical literature which has not yet filtered down into the popular media.  It turns out, vaccination rates were surprisingly high among the populations infected, and the reason for the rise in pertussis cases was that the vaccine was found to wear off more quickly, and be less effective, than was originally hoped.  In addition, and very alarming from a “herd immunity” standpoint, fully vaccinated persons can be asymptomatic carriers of pertussis and unknowingly transmit it to the very people whom they were trying to protect!  While the shot will probably protect you for a few years from getting symptomatic disease, it unfortunately will not prevent you from carrying the disease if you are exposed, and inadvertently passing it along to others.

When I discovered this information, I did share it on Facebook, but I did not engage in any discussions about it with laypeople.  Doing so would have certainly provoked pointless arguments with medical devotees who passionately believe in one of the central doctrines of mainstream medicine, namely, “Vaccines are safe and effective in preventing disease.”  To question that dogma at all, even in a specific case such as pertussis (1) is heresy!  Indeed, when I shared the new information about the pertussis dilemma, I was immediately accused of being an "anti-vaxer."  The fact that simply discussing the well-documented ineffectiveness of one particular vaccine qualifies as "promoting the anti-vax agenda" suggests that medical dogmatism among laypeople is alive and well.  A scientific approach entails being open to new information and examining the data, not immediately rejecting it because it contradicts our existing beliefs.  Meanwhile, the infidels would argue that the pertussis outbreak proves all vaccines are bad and ineffective, which of course it does not.  There are many different kinds of vaccines and the situation is a lot more complex than most people realize.  The discussion is very technical and beyond the scope of this blog, which in any case is not about vaccines, but dogmatism.  I am merely using the pertussis problem as one example of how blind faith in our beliefs about medical science can have undesired consequences.

Those whose skepticism has caused them to leave religion behind should be mindful to ensure that they are not simply replacing one dogma with another, including the dogma that all religious people are ignorant science-deniers.  It is very possible to participate in liberal/progressive religion and enjoy the rituals and pageantry while also being scientific and open-minded.  Reasonable people who understand the difference between science and mythology can work together to create a better society.  My atheist friends, we are right here now, standing with you against fundamentalism.  It is not religion as such that is the source of our ills, but rather, dogmatism of any variety.


(1)  or the oral polio vaccine (which we now know can cause polio and therefore is no longer used in the United States), or the flu vaccine (the effectiveness of which is probably 60% at best).

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