"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.
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.