September 21, 2007

Scientific literacy as a means to inoculate against religion

"My only wish is…to transform friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers, devotees of prayer into devotees of work, candidates for the hereafter into students of the world, Christians who, by their own procession and admission, are "half animal, half angel" into persons, into whole persons."
– Ludwig Feuerbach

There’s a current billboard in Toronto that reads, “Literacy is a right.”

Now, we’ve all be told to believe that rights are nonsense on stilts, but there is a certain significance to these sorts of proclamations. Clearly, when someone declares something to be a ‘human right’ they are making a very serious claim. They have pinpointed something they feel no person should have to do without, whether it be protection against racial discrimination, access to clean water, or in this case, the ability to read.

The impetus behind these sorts of social efforts is the assurance that persons be guaranteed the most basic tools and protections required to get through life fairly and safely. In the case of reading, it is generally acknowledged that illiteracy debilitates a person to the point where they experience undue difficulty engaging in all that life and society has to offer.

Interestingly, there’s a normative aspect to these sorts of ‘endowments’ and privileges. A few centuries ago most people did not need to know how to read to get through life. Today, however, it is near impossible – hence the call for literacy as a basic right.

But it’s not just the ability to read that is crucial today. Given the intricacies of the modern age and the ever-growing complexification of ideas and technology, it can be said that a scientific education is also increasingly necessary; if literacy can be considered a basic right, then so to must scientific literacy.

Yet, far too few people truly understand science and technology today. This is proving to be extremely problematic, particularly at the dawn of what looks to be a transformative future. Scientific illiteracy, quite unfortunately, appears to be an issue that will only get worse and create a slew of social problems.

Including the ongoing entrenchment and spread of religion.

We currently live at a time when rationality and tolerance have never been more important to the human species. Religion, with all its prejudices and devotion to ignorance, continues to present a threat to not just healthy and inquisitive minds, but to civilization itself.

Consequently, we need to place a much higher value on a scientific education. Simply put, there’s no better way to inoculate against religion and other forms of misinformation and unhealthy thinking habits. Our children deserve the right to a scientific, critical mind.

Soft memetic engineering

Indeed, the only truly effective and ethical way to combat viral religious memes is to nip them in the bud and prevent them from taking root in the first place. Prevention is what’s required rather than a cure.

Memetic theory -- the notion that ideas replicate by spreading from mind to mind – suggests that memes are only effective if they find a home in a sympathetic brain. The ability of a meme to take root in someone’s consciousness is a reflection of its ability to exploit human psychology (consequently, memetics can be thought of the science of understanding how human psychology responds to information). But this is only part of the story. Not all minds are alike, and not everyone is subject to the same information acquisition/transmission tendencies.

There are currently 6.6 billion human minds on the planet in various states of memetic receptiveness. Owing to new technologies, many these minds have unprecedented access to the world’s information. The current memepool is an anarchic mix of ideas bursting open like the Cambrian Explosion --each idea waiting for the opportunity to copy itself from one mind to another.

These conditions are the result of human ingenuity, creativity and tolerance. In free societies memes remain largely unchecked and are allowed to proliferate and mutate at will. In liberal democracies we consider freedom of speech and the right to free expression as among our highest values.

We also live in a world, quite thankfully, where people cannot be coerced into adopting a specific mindset. This was attempted in the 20th century by totalitarian Marxist regimes who, in the case of religion, banned spiritual practices, burned down churches and executed priests. The end result, particularly in post-Soviet Russia, was a religious community who survived the persecution only to come back with more power and fervor than before.

In other words, it backfired.

Indeed, this kind of ideological ‘memetic engineering’ is very much frowned upon today and should not be considered a viable solution in the struggle to maintain cultural health.

Unfortunately, however, there are consequences to having an anarchic memepool, namely the unchecked proliferation of misinformation, superstition, and of course, religion. These types of ideas are more than mere falsities, they create problems as well. Recently in Canada, for example, Catholic girls were nearly denied vaccinations for for human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease. As a result, these girls were put at risk of developing cervical cancer on account of religious sexual taboos.

As Thomas H. Hulxey once noted, “Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.” As we can attest to today, religious notions are interfering with the quality of human lives, whether it be public health issues, hallucinations of an intelligent designer or the blood lust of a suicidal would-be martyrs.

Thankfully, there is a gentle and elegant way to steer people in the direction of truth and rationality – what we can call a soft form of memetic engineering. I’m speaking, of course, of scientific literacy. Given our society's laws and values, the best we can do is to prime minds in such a way that they are equipped to fend off superstitious nonsense. A mind in tune with scientific methodology can better sterilize religious memes, and at the same time guard against other psychological pot-holes like pseudoscience and conspiratorial paranoia.

A way of thinking

A scientific education consists of more than just memorizing the periodic table of the elements or understanding Newton’s basic laws. In addition to these things it is the acquisition of the skeptical mind and the capacity for critical thought. Carl Sagan once noted that, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

Skepticism should be considered a virtue and a redeeming characteristic. Physicist Richard Feynman agreed, “There is no harm in doubt and skepticism, for it is through these that new discoveries are made.” Conversely, Richard Dawkins describes the religious mind as being unimaginative, not poetic, not soulful. “On the contrary, they are parochial, small-minded, niggardly with the human imagination, precisely where science is generous,” he says.

Needless to say a number of things have to change. The education system needs to be reformed, while popular media needs to take on a more positive outlook when it comes to science.

Take school, for example. In addition to regular science classes students should have lessons dedicated to critical and healthy thinking (including lessons in emotional intelligence). These classes should teach the scientific method, empiricism, how to recognize biases and extraordinary claims, and how to properly source data and work with credible sources.

This would go a long way in making the learning of science much more palatable for students. Today, most students, particularly girls, find it off-putting. It’s geek stuff. It’s supposed to be hard. Moreover, science is often relegated to the sidelines in favour of easier or more romantic and exciting subjects, including athletics.

Districts should establish pro-science campaigns and bring in expert speakers and science-focused entertainers. Schools need more money, better equipment, and enthusiastic teachers. Students should have more time allocated each week to learning about science and critical thinking. Pop culture needs more positive role models like Bill Nye and outspoken individuals like Richard Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan.

Science can be sexy. It just has to presented that way.

Liberal education and home schooling

All of this, of course, cannot happen in a vacuum; science most certainly needs to be part of a broader liberal education. Students should understand the width and breadth of the world and avoid the insular thinking that characterizes religious minds and communities.

To this end, schools should introduce students to psychology, history and cultural studies at an earlier age. World religions should be taught to expand otherwise limited faith-based views, thus greatly reducing xenophobia and general lack of awareness. It would also establish a sense of humility and reduce notions of cultural relativism.

As for the issue of home schooling, yes, parents deserve the right to keep their kids at home or send them to private faith-based schools.

But such a decision may eventually come at a price. Standardized testing should be implemented and no student should be able to earn a high school diploma without a solid grasp of the basics of science and its methodology. Should some parents insist on teaching creationism instead of evolution, their children will have to face the consequences. The outcome may be that faith-based schooling will eventually carry a stigma. It’s conceivable that these children will have low employability and have difficultly earning admission to universities.

Democratic process

An implicit assumption in a democracy is that the collective actions of an informed populace will be to the benefit of both individuals and the community. The world, in order to be properly comprehended, and for an individual to fully engage in life, is increasingly dependent on persons having a scientific rather than a metaphysical interpretation of existence. Today, without critical thinkers, democracy and effective governance is in peril.

Moreover, given the complexity of today’s technologies and the dire consequences (or benefits!) of their development, the need to address global scale problems has never been more important. Scientific minds are absolutely necessary to not just identify these problems, but to solve them as well. Today we face such calamities as global warming and the spread of catastrophic diseases.

It should be noted that many Christian evangelists are global warming deniers -- not because they claim any special scientific knowledge, but because they are skeptical of any scientific claim, and any other 'belief system' like environmentalism that could rival their own. This is a recipe for disaster.

Close-mindedness is not what's required here; instead, we need dynamic and effective people to help humanity deal with problems like climate change.

Helping people and society

Scientific illiteracy is an impairment. Individuals without the capacity for critical and rational thought are increasingly having a difficult time understanding their world and relating to ‘mainstream’ society. There is a growing divide between the secular and religious worlds, giving rise to two distinct cultures who are increasingly unable to converse with each other.

Worse, those individuals who embrace more extreme or fundamentalist versions of religion feel increasingly alienated by modern society. The urge is to rail against the tide rather than seek a kind of reconciliation or understanding; cultural relations ends up regressing to an 'us versus them' mentality.

But a common ground does exist. Science is the universal language.

If literacy can be declared a right, then so too must scientific literacy. The health of individuals and society depends on it.


Justin said...

Even the neoconservative-run United States has hope for a change. If what you're saying is correct, then the percentage of atheists will grow rapidly as more and more of them hit the voting booths.

Roko said...

"Thankfully, there is a gentle and elegant way to steer people in the direction of truth and rationality ... I’m speaking, of course, of scientific literacy."

Unfortunately, this just doesn't work. Most ordinary people find science boring - teaching people more science at school will not make people like science more, it will just make people more bored.

So, why do people find science so boring? Why do religion memes spread so well on their own, whilst science struggles to spread with lots of help from the government, and has the advantage of actually being true? The answer is that religion has evolved specifically so that it spreads well. Just like the human cold virus has evolved specifically so that it infects lots of new hosts, religious ideas are those ideas with the specific property that they will easily enter the minds of lots and lots human beings.

Science, on the other hand, is not designed AT ALL. The scientific theory is completely determined by reality. It is in no way optimized to make people invest emotionally in it, and it doesn’t give people any emotional reward if they spread it.

Now I don't want to get all negative here: I do think there is a solution to the religion problem, but it's not the solution George has in mind. Religion is specifically adapted to spread in a population of humans. How? It spreads in humans because humans have certain mental needs – and religion satisfies those needs. People ask themselves “what the point of life is”, but they aren’t clever or motivated enough to read a philosophy book; people feel lonely and depressed, but they don’t have anyone to comfort them; people need a “group” to belong to, because they need to feel a sense of belonging; people are frightened and depressed by death. There is even a theory that religion has co-evolved with humanity – genes which coded for a tendency to be taken in by religion were more likely to spread (there are various reasons for this).

Armed with this knowledge of the mechanism of the spread of religion, what can we do to kill it off? We get rid of its habitat. We create a society of people who do not suffer from any of the above problems; that is a society of people who:

* are happy with life, but still eager to make it even better
* are very rarely depressed, even if they are on their own
* are almost always friendly to other people in the society
* do not have to die if they don’t want to
* are not taken in by lies, even if those lies may be comforting
* do not have to spend 40 hours a week doing jobs that they hate
* feel empowered because they have a large degree of control over their own lives

Religion will not thrive in such a society.

Anonymous said...

god is the atheist's whipping boy. What a shame we must suffocate him quietly. They wouldn't give us the same civility, which I suppose is why we walk upright among the sheep.

F the baby jesus yay!

Anonymous said...

If you are going to use memetic analysis of science and religious memes, then you can't separate science and religion into two mutually exclusive catagories. They are both just memes. People continue to misuse information, and to misapply information they know. Knowing a bunch of scientific facts doesn't solve the world's problems. Knowing lots of psychology doesn't make a person well adjusted or mature. All the nutritional information we now know about foods is misused by people to create new fad diets. Even the readers of this column buy into seductive meme that says science and religion are opposed to each other. This meme that religion and science are locked in mortal combat has been spreading like wildfire, because dualistic memes are very powerful (dualistic memes are the most destructive memes in many religious circles) So, the new radical atheists are imitating the very thing they hate about religious people.
Just look at the content of this blog and its comments, and ask this question with the mind of a scientist, "is this writing 'science' as in it follows the scientific method, or are these comments 'preaching' evocative writing designed to persuade.

Anonymous said...

Xalem, I see your point, but note that George is advocating the development of critical thinking skills, rather than just acquiring knowledge of "scientific facts". The specific facts are unimportant in this context - what matters is the ability (and desire) to think systematically and logically, and always to consider the source and validity of any information.


Roko said...

@Xalem: I'd like to pick up on this:

"and ask this question with the mind of a scientist, "is this writing 'science' as in it follows the scientific method, or are these comments 'preaching' evocative writing designed to persuade."

The answer is that my writing (I don't want to speak for George) most definitely is designed to persuade. I most definitely am making normative judgements - I am saying what I think is right and wrong, what I think is a good way of living and what is a bad way of living. However, this does not make me religious. Religion does not have an a priori monopoly on being normative. There are other life-philosophies out there - such as transhumanism - which allow us to make judgements about what is and what is not good. From your comment I can see this comes as a shock to you.

Anonymous said...


Before getting into a critical dialogue, I want to say that you have good taste in movies and music (for the most part).

Also, it is fascinating that someone who has an explicit bias for material reality (vs. metaphysical reality) would be interested in Buddhism and meditation. (But, please, don't waste your time responding to this statement. The important stuff is below.)

After the fact:
I sincerely apologize for the disparaging tone of my rantings, but I don't really have the time to soften them up, and I figure you might rather I go ahead and post it, than leave it unsaid (since I did spend some time on it).

A note of caution: Read the following if you like, but I think I've gotten caught up in your category mistake. Namely that there is "science" and there is "religion."

There, in fact, are many "sciences" and many "religions," and these terms have been used in reference to so many belief systems and institutions that they no longer have any unambiguous meaning.

Your dichotomizing is inherently flawed.


Your blog is straight out of the 18th century, a la Condorcet. Maybe even further back to, say, Plato's (or Socrates's) "to know the good is to do the good." This should come across as a compliment as they were both beautiful minds. However, you may also want to take umbrage since they were both rather intransigent.

I admire your optimism and your dedication to improving the human condition.
It is an admirable end.

However, your means are rather suspect.
Before I go any further, I'll give you some notion of where I'm coming from. I'm a graduate student in Science in Technology Studies. From your references to T. H. Huxley, Feuerbach, and even Dawkins, I have good idea of where you are coming from (though I did take the time to thoroughly read your blogpost).
Though, if you haven't already, you may want to take a moment to read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Also, a good deal of feminist scholarship in the sciences (Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Helen Longino) might help temper your belief in the inherent right-ness of "good science" (if such a mythical beast even exists). Though, I'm fairly certain that you've read some Haraway, given your transhumanist perspective.

"But a common ground does exist. Science is the universal language."
Maybe not "universal," but at least global. Or, perhaps, a language of globalization.
I'm being a bit silly, but my semantic drift is meant to bring light to the fact that science does not exist outside its institutionalization. The practice of contemporary science is dependent on a technological infrastructure to even function. What most people mean when they discuss the science and technology is largely Western in character. Yeah, I don't buy that science is value-free. (And, not to be rude by being preemptively dismissive, but don't come back with that old story that value-laden science is simply "bad science." Instead, Show me some "good science," and I'll show you how it too is value-laden. However, I'm not so narrow-minded to think that value-laden science is "bad." Instead, I believe that a concerted, literally "in concert," effort should be made to make sure they are "good" values.)

So, are you saying we should colonize indigenousness populations with our science memes to protect them from their silly superstitions? What if, religious thought is intrinsically bound with other modes of cultural existence such as art, dietary habits, etc. etc. Would we have "rational" grounds to dismantle their culture in order to "help" them? Yes, perhaps, we'll just dismantle it softly.

It is easy for you to say that "science is the universal language" because it is the language that you value. By making it "universal" you are telling everyone to play by science's rules, and science's rules haven't served us all this well throughout the 20th century. Oh wait, I mean, they've served "us" well because you and I and other well-to-do westerners (or northerners, depending on how you allot the differential distribution of wealth and power across the globe) have benefited a great deal by the 'rational,' global expansion of technology and science.

Your notion of the secular/religious divide is a myth generated by people like T. H. Huxley (and Bishop Wilberforce) and perpetuated by popular culture, cultic figures such as Dawkins, and ridiculous corporate entities such as the Discovery Institute. Today, no small part is played in the continuation of this myth by bloggers such as yourself.

What you seem to be describing as a "scientific education" more closely resembles a humanities education or, perhaps, even an MA in Liberal Arts from St. John's.
I'm not sure what "science" has to do with skepticism and critical reasoning. Both these modes of intellect existed long before the practice and institutionalization of science (before the terms "science" or "technology" were even recognizable in their contemporary senses)

George said...

Hi Taylor, thanks for your comments.

First off it wasn't my intention to present science and the adoption of the scientific mind as a panacea to all the world's problems, nor as a complete answer to the problem that is religion. I've tried to argue that it's our best first step in the war against obscurantism.

As for characterizing science as a common language, I'm pretty serious about that. Institutions and various methodologies aside, the process of diligent inquiry and falsification, along with its impact on culture and politics, cannot be understated as a crucial component to rationality and human betterment.

In terms of my motivations, I don't see science as an end unto itself. It's about the application of science to reduce human suffering and to fulfill human potential. So yes, cultural uplift is on the agenda -- not to protect them from silly superstitious, but to provide them with medicine and other benefits of science.

As for rationality or critical thinking existing outside of science, I do see your point. I find it useful, however, to conjoin the two owing to the scientific method, empiricism and falsification.

Anonymous said...

I just had to laugh at this:

"Conversely, Richard Dawkins describes the religious mind as being unimaginative, not poetic, not soulful. “On the contrary, they are parochial, small-minded, niggardly with the human imagination, precisely where science is generous,” he says."

Regardless of the macro argument (which, as other commenters have pointed out, is hardly new), it takes a special type of historical blindness to fail to admit that essentially 100% of the great artists, poets and other creative types, both in the West and the East, have been religious, many fervently so. (Yes, I know there are some examples of artists who were not.) Religion may cause problems, but they are not of the human imagination.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately with low educational standards and an unmotivated cohort of kids, poor attendance records, misbehaviour, endless other distractions, teaching them anything scientific requires a daily dose of miracle working. Basically, kids just don't want to do anything short of listening to their ipods and checking their mobile phones for some kind of stimulation in the form of contact from mythical friends.

Roko said it clearly in that if we somehow change the environment and so will the perceptions about science will change (and for the better).

Thinking completely outside of the square: it would seem the only thing that can save science education is a two pronged approach.

First, bring back religious education to teach them theology and start a regimented assessment process (like that which is in place with science curricula today). Second stop or greatly reduce any form of assessment requirements for science and start making science seem more like play. Measure kids performance simply on their participation in the play. How motivating is that!!

It may take some time, but probably not all that long before a whole generation of kids start seeing science in a whole new light. Sure they may be more religiously aware (and maybe not so gullible to all sorts of religious claims) but on the other hand, kids will naturally gravitate back towards the sciences simply because religious studies puts too many demands on kids having to do work.

After-all how did we get into this state in the first place. We made science education really inane and boring with over-zealous assessment practices. It stopped being about exciting play for just play sake, with learning as you go, and learning mainly from mistakes.

After all didn't science start off being all about play (in one form or another) driven by curiosity about the natural world. So what if kids don't get every nuance about the scientific method, nor learning everything there is to know. Most of those kids probably wouldn't have put any effort into science anyway... so no great loss. They will however have in their memory a better appreciation of what was achieved in science class. Surely that is a more positive meme regarding science than the current crop of drudgery they have to face. Once kids decide they want to specialise in science then the kind of literacy that is being discussed can then be taught to a captive audience. It becomes a win-win situation.

Another way to look at it is that, I am sure science teachers would also appreciate not having to mark endless poorly worded practical reports, research papers that are simply cut and paste jobs from online sources etc. It would let them relax more and have more fun with the subject. Surely that too will reflect more positively on science.

Interesting that the current crop of educational administrators think that we need super-teachers to teach science when I am sure most people who loved science loved it because of the excitement they got when they first figured something out for themselves. How empowering is that! What a powerful meme that can be. The only superlative we need for science is to make it fun again.

Paul said...

Bridging Science and Spirit

Some scientists are beginning to tackle those deep questions which often cause people to look for spiritual or metaphysical answers.

The study of the subjective and social sciences is still controversial because it is difficult to quantify interior states. Some will dismiss anything dealing with "consciousness" as pseudo-science.

David Bohm was one of those physicists who began the bridging of science and spirit. Another such thinker is Fred Alan Wolf.

The spiral dynamics of Don Beck has been championed by philosopher Ken Wilber and sheds light on some of the problems discussed in this blog entry.

So if science can begin to determine the role of the observer in the outcome of the experiment and paint a more "living" picture than the old cartesian dualism, then a few folks might reject the domgmatic orthodoxy of many religions.

Anonymous said...

There is a simple reason why atheism will fail and we willenter a new age of faith:

Atheists don't breed.

How many atheists have any kids, let alone large families? Meanwhile the Mormon family down the street just had their sixth kid.

Inability to propogate marks secularists and atheists as Darwinian failures. Which is kinda ironic when you think about it.

Many atheist claim that they can rely on memtic propagation of their belief system. There used to be another group that made the same claim. They were called the Shakers.

They didn't last very long.

Anonymous said...

We should teach children world religion and the history of religion early on. It may help them to be less ethnocentric and more tolerant of other people and their beliefs. Thats a start... tolerance is a start. We should also educate our children about ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism. Just learning how Judaism and Christianity developed through the combination of Zoroastrianism and ancient Judaism would deter many from viewing them as viable religions. Once a person realizes that todays Christianity is just a rehashing of an older religion, many will see it for what it is, mythology.

Zoroastrianism Christianity
Ormizd God
Ahriman Satan
Spenta Mainyu Holy Spirit
Saoshyant(virgin born) Savior
Yazatas (heavenly hosts)Angels
Dew (demons) Devils
Druj Sin
Amesha Spentas Archangels
Fravashis Guardian Angels
Hamistagan Purgatory
Mashye/Mashyane Adam/Eve
Garothman Heaven