Evidence and Belief:
It is important to establish the ground rules when dealing with evidence that may challenge strongly held beliefs. A tried and tested method for closing down debate is to use the ’emotional reaction’ to uncomfortable facts. By this I refer to the response of perceived hurt when someone’s religion or politics are countered with strong arguments. Another defence is based on the power relationships between the challenger and the challenged. Those with power tend to do their best to keep it. This can be the use of violence, sanctions or community pressure. It may be that in more relaxed times the defenders of belief will engage in constructive debate. All to the good I say and I will not demean those willing to argue their case in open and fair discussion. I do the same I hope. While gratuitous or aggressive debate can be painful it is not for most of us to be infantilised into accepting or not challenging ideas we disagree with. I mention religion above but under this title I include secular beliefs as well as the more traditional definitions of the word.
Let me begin with direct statements on some of the commonly held systems that are worthy of challenge. The most widely in the society I live in are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Humanism plus a host of political ideologies.
Christianity has a long history of suppression of challenges from both inside and out. When contradictory scientific ideas appeared the stronger the power of the church the more willing it was to stamp on them. This is not the place for a historical round up of the horrors of religious persecutions. Fill in details of these yourselves. In the present day the there are many Christians who propose enlightened interpretations on their beliefs. Many biblical accounts are claimed to be analogies. This opens the door to discussions and dialogues with scientists and rationalists. This is fine as far as it goes but I think intellectually this is more of a problem for the proponents of such interpretations than those who hold onto the old certainties. Schisms and splits were bound to follow. The traditionalists who hold to various literal interpretations have the comfort of unreality. To accept many of the fanciful stories in their dogma they must ignore evidence and alternatives. That can only be maintained by hiding from genuine examination and debate. Many do this. It is a comfortable if sterile position. In stressful eras like our own it is simple to hold immutable concepts. If a community or individual can dismiss challenges life is perhaps more tolerable. This is a common feature of many who hold onto certainties, not just Christians. There are curiously strong boosts in popularity of literalist movements in religions both theist and secularist at times of stress. Also never under estimate the need of many to hold firmly to what they have proposed in the past simply as a psychological defence mechanism.
At this point I think it is valuable to stress that many religious believers and theologians have well developed and credible positions. In no way do I wish to imply they live in a dishonest way. The debate of belief is complicated and I suggest that no position can lay claim to being definitive.
In Judaism ( the religion I was brought up in) similar traits to Christianity are present. I suppose it would be reasonable to say there has rarely been a period when there have not been a times of stress for Jews. The horrors of the first half of the twentieth century were but a cumulation of millennia of persecution and challenge. Hence there is a natural tendency to either retreat into isolationism, both physical and intellectual or to explore the ideas and be part of the wider world. In the current era serious movements are once again attempting to make anti-Semitism mainstream. This is a subject for anther essay but isolationism is once again a major force among Jews. This can take the form of religious purity. There is an equivalent to the literalism of Christianity mentioned above. An added dimension for Jews is the retreat into community exclusiveness. As I have perhaps indicated this is a long standing feature of Jewish life. The intellectual aspects of this manifest themselves for some in a rejection of modernity and many of it’s awkward challenges. At the same time counter movements of intellectual enquiry also have strong traditions. It has been said that the enlightenment was often lead by dissenting Christians, free thinkers and Jews. These were all groups a bit on the outside of mainstream of European society. For the majority of Jews though (especially those in the hinterlands of the Tsarist and Austrian Hungarian empires) these moves to modernity were not part of their lives until the great emigrations and revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For those who are fully committed to religious Jewish lives rationality and religion do not co-exist in a meaningful way. If science provides evidence to contradict Torah then science is wrong. Again as with Christianity some believers try to form a link between evidenced based rationality and religion. As with Christianity there are huge problems this throws up. The intellectual history of Europe has been influenced by both these religions and in turn has been effected by their responses to them. The counter forces against modernity in western societies have been great and are felt across the world as much now as ever. Part of the isolationism in the past has been to reject outside intellectual movements. I do not have the citation but I once read an account of a rabbinical injunction to avoid Greek thought. This was centuries ago and a minority opinion even at that time.
The the Islamic world is in turmoil and the opposing forces of modernity and literalist religion are creating huge fissures in those societies. It is important to stress that these are there is no single Muslim world but a range of countries and traditions that differ from each other as much as they do from anywhere else. The tragedy of this comes in stark contradiction to a period in Islamic history of major scholarship taking in influences from around the then known world. So different from the narrow misunderstanding of that culture as propagated by certain political Islamic movements that are causing such havoc in our era. Recently a professor of Physics was to lecture in the middle east. When he told the authorities he would be talking on the Big Bang his invitations were withdrawn as such science was deemed to be ‘not halal’. So as with Judaism and Christianity if theories are seen as contradicting belief then they might be repressed. The power of organised religion in the west is severely reduced which tends to allow for wider expression of pluralist ideas. This is not the case in many parts of the world. It would be tempting to claim that it is the monotheist religions that tend to restrict debate more than others but this is not a provable hypotheses. The hyper violence in many parts of the Islamic world can be seen as an illegitimate response to the modernity that challenges ancient accepted ideas. So claiming evidenced based challenges as outside acceptability is a facet of most extremely held religious beliefs.
The literalist religious based groups described above tend to take firmly held views on social issues. Some misogynistic, some homophobic others extreme sectarian or xenophobic. It is a curious phenomenon that certain secularist movements on the left or right make common cause with the most medieval movements while opposing those in religious groups who in theory are closer to their positions. As indicated above it might be a tad unfair to describe literalist extreme religious movements as medieval.
For the most part I will not comment on systems of thought from Asia as I have less contact with them. Confucianism, Daoism, neo-Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism do have a tradition of pluralism but as with Confucianism can be very dependent on ritual. This is a feature they do have in common with Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
There was a version of pre-enlightenment Humanism which was more a description of certain individuals attitude to knowledge and education than a coherent movement. Modern Humanism is a development of the European enlightenment. It should by it’s nature be very open to influence of evidence based rational debate. It tends to be thought of as a version of agnosticism and atheism but that is perhaps a crude simplification. I tend to self describe as a humanist but I recognise that the world itself is probably not rationalist. Developments in science, particularly Physics and neural science seem to indicate that the rationalist project is going through rough waters. So Humanists need to constantly re-examine their beliefs. The militant atheist coming from a political perspective (say Marxism or Anarchism) can be as closed off from evidence based counter arguments as any religious zealot. I do not see these individuals as part of the Humanist tradition. The Humanism I tend to associate with is more to do with standing apart from certainties and from admittedly a pre-accepted viewpoint engage in open debate without the hyper restrictions imposed by set piece dogmatic thought. As indicated above no ideology such as Humanism can provide definitive answers to our worlds conundrums as in reality there are no such solutions. I will stick to a Humanist standpoint for the time being (without really defining it) simply for the want of anything better. This does not preclude me from interacting with opposing belief systems.
I now look briefly at secular systems. There are some such as Democratic Socialism, Liberalism and Conservatism that do not rely on gods and ritual. At their best they work in a relatively open and democratic way. Unfortunately there are times with all these movements when they degenerate into static and corrupt power structures. This may not be built into the basic underlying philosophy of such systems but we humans have this horrible tendency to seek certainty. A big mistake! I do not condemn these ideologies wholesale (in fact I am a Democratic Socialist) but only a naïve would not recognise how corruptible such systems can be. Other belief systems rely on a single or narrow ideas base. Think of Greens. In recent elections in London and the United States some Greens have claimed there is no difference between extreme right wing candidates and their relatively mild opponents. The lack of a wide perspective from such individuals and movements can lead to major errors of judgement. Everything is subsumed to a narrow message. Similarities to sectarian religious belief are many.
There are some secular movements such as Marxist-Leninism and Fascism that take on many characteristics of narrow religion. Unshakeable dogmas, personality cults, conspiracy theories, hate figures or groups and the rest. In times of social stress and instability like religion, these find an appeal. Simple solutions in a complicated world. One common characteristic that Marxist-Leninism shares with Fascism is the admiration of authoritarianism. The radical challenge posed by scientific and evidence based arguments are a direct threat. Hence they may be suppressed. To take an extreme example, in Stalin’s time Darwinism was seen as not fitting in with current ideology. A more compliant theory from a scientist called Lysenko became official policy in Soviet Biology. According to his theory individuals in some way learned physical traits and passed them on to their offspring. There is no evidence for this but it fitted in a curious way with what was is ‘scientific materialism’. Some may know the Jewish joke that for countless generations baby boys have been circumcised but somehow new male births insist on having foreskins. How reactionary is that?
Similarly in Nazi ideology Relativity, Quantum mechanics and Freudianism (along with much other psychology) was rejected as ‘Jewish Science’. Admittedly Freudianism has major question marks attached to it but not because of Freud’s lineage.
To conclude I claim that strongly held belief systems can easily degenerate into systems for the rejection of evidenced based challenges. The firmly held set of dogmas can certainly add a form of coherence to peoples view of the world but when that is taken to the level of rejection of any challenge or rejection of evidence that counters belief, then real dysfunctions occur. There may be no definitive set of ways of interacting with the world but at the very least scientific method tries to link evidence to theory and allow for development. Many will use methods to close down debate but certainty can be a counter to reality. The world is complicated and nuanced unfortunately to make sense of it takes more than a set of fixed certainties.
Mike Berkoff July 2017