Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology

Truth Wars: The Bitter Divide Between Conservative and Progressive Belief Systems

Originally published on The Huffington Post, May 23, 2012

Every so often, a truly great book comes along. When God Talks Back: Understanding the Evangelical Relationship With God by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann is certainly one of these.

Let me recount briefly the main argument of Luhrmann’s book. Doing so not only helps us to understand better the Christian evangelical mind, but strangely enough, why Democrats and Republicans are divided so strongly. In a word, Luhrmann gives us deep insight into the nature of different belief systems and why the battle between them is often so bitter and prolonged.

People are drawn to Christian evangelicalism for a variety of reasons. Among the more typical are: life-long struggles with addiction, alcoholism, a history of bad relationships, loneliness, social isolation, and the general feeling that they are missing something deep and fundamental in life. Accompanying these is also the feeling that one not only needs, but is ready to forge a personal relationship with God.

In terms of belief systems, the initial reasons are technically known as “initial inputs or starting beliefs.” More fundamentally, they are “tentative ‘truths'” that the system will “operate on” in highly specified ways so as to produce a “final state of truth” or more generally “state of Being.” This “final state” is typically not an abstract proposition but a strong prescription to engage in actions of some kind to change either oneself and/or the world. The “final truth or state” is also known as the “output” of a belief system. Since it is generally regarded as “established beyond doubt,” it is therefore regarded as “The Truth.”

Luhrmann shows in great detail what the “operators” are in Christian evangelicalism that “transform” the “inputs” into “final established Truth.” In short, they are a carefully orchestrated and prolonged series of “special spiritual exercises” such as distinct types of praying that train the mind first to imagine and then experience via all the senses a different reality.

The “output” is a “direct, personal experience and a day-to-day, on-going, permanent relationship with God!” One no longer just “believes in God” in the abstract but “knows God intimately” as one would a personal friend. The derived benefits, and thereby additional “outputs,” are enhanced calm and peace. The ultimate end is a “heightened emotional state.”
One of the most important components of a belief system is the Guarantor. The Guarantor is the set of underlying beliefs that are accepted without question. They are undeniably true. As such, they constitute the absolute, foundational bedrock of the entire system. In Christian evangelicalism, the Guarantor is the unquestioned belief that The Bible is literally true and that God exists without doubt.

As I read Luhrmann, I thought constantly of the recent, drawn-out, and bitter debates between the Republican candidates. Although both parties constantly use emotional appeals, I believe that it is not an exaggeration to say that with its extreme tilt to the right, the Republican Party is much closer to a Christian evangelical mindset than the Democrats. For example, I am still struck by the extreme emotional belief systems of Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum, not to mention Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

In effect, nearly everything in their so-called arguments” is pure “output.” That is, the sheer outrageousness of a claim, i.e., the “output Truth,” is simultaneously the “input,” “operator,” and the “Guarantor.” No wonder why liberals and progressives who believe so deeply in Reason are so offended and feel a deep sense of revulsion. Everything is not only hopelessly confounded and entangled, but sheer emotional drivel. There are no independent corroborating facts as it were.

Nonetheless, as I have argued repeatedly in HuffPost, I would strongly caution liberals and progressives not to eschew emotion altogether. The proper moral of the story is that more than ever, reason and emotion need to work together. So-called logically pure belief systems may move scientists, but they are hardly sufficient to move the larger body of people to think great thoughts and/or to undertake great actions. At present, Luhrmann shows that conservatives understand this far better that liberals and progressives.

We liberals and progressives are not as smart as we would like to believe we are. We have a lot to learn about belief systems.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, May 23, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology

The Need to Fight Ignorance on the Left and Right

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, March 14, 2012

The confusion that reigns in the “marketplace of ideas” is as great as it’s ever been. To say that the Republicans candidates for president exploit this state of confusion for their own benefit is a gross understatement. (Indeed, they provoke it by spreading vicious lies. In this sense, “confusion” is too nice a word.)

Nonetheless, to lay the entire blame for confusion wholly on Republicans is not only not fair, but inaccurate. Liberal Democrats are confused on many of the same issues as well.

Perhaps the biggest part of the blame has to rest with the American people themselves, e.g., our incredible ignorance concerning basic issues, our general unwillingness to become better informed, coupled with the delusional belief that that we are already well informed, etc. There are of course the other perennial whipping boys that account for our appalling ignorance: the poor state of American education, the “media,” blah, blah, blah.

Nonetheless, I stand by my primary contention that Republicans lead in exploiting confusion and spreading lies. For instance, on March 13, Rick Santorum told attendees at the Gulf Coast Energy Summit in Biloxi, Mississippi, that climate change is “a liberal myth.” He went on to say, “The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.”

Let me tackle just a few of the many thorny issues on which there is so much confusion.

A primary issue is the oft-repeated assertion, mostly by conservatives and fundamentalists, that evolution is just a “theory.” It is not a “scientific ‘fact’ or ‘law’.” Therefore, alternative views such as creationism as to how humans first arose are just as “legitimate and valid.” They certainly deserve equal time in school curricula.

The same is true of global warming. The fact that not all scientists agree that humans are the primary cause as to why the Earth has been becoming warmer proves for many that global warming is not a “valid explanation.”

Most people don’t understand the difference between a scientific “law” and a “theory.” Generally speaking, everything in science is a theory. To call something a “theory” is a sign of great respect, i.e., something is taken so seriously by the scientific community that it is accorded an honorific term that is reserved for only the most important ideas.

In general, “scientific laws” — e.g., Newton’s Law of Gravitation, why balls fall to the Earth when tossed into the air — are merely descriptions of some phenomena. A “theory” on the other hand is an explanation of why a phenomenon behaves the way(s) it does, i.e., why balls fall to Earth.

To call something a “theory” does not mean that it is merely a run-of-the-mill explanation. For something to be a theory means that the scientific community has repeatedly tested it empirically and conceptually such that it accords with the best facts and ideas available at the time. This doesn’t mean that as new facts and ideas become available that older theories such as Newton’s are not replaced by better theories such as Einstein’s. It also doesn’t mean that to be a theory something has already passed stringent empirical tests, but just that it is very promising. In other words, it’s a “provisional theory.”

Science is one of the few fields of inquiry where the continual testing of provisional as well as accepted ideas, plus their overthrow, is a fundamental part of the enterprise — not that all scientists necessarily love this aspect of science when it comes to demolishing their pet ideas. Evolution and global warming have passed, and continue to pass, highly stringent tests. Indeed, the tests have become more severe over time. This too is a fundamental part of science.

In this sense, even though the theories of evolution and global warming are always subject to modification and replacement, they are not “provisional.” Yes, there will always be doubters even in science, but until they come up with equally compelling theories that can be tested empirically, they will not be taken seriously. And, they shouldn’t.

This is precisely why creationism is not science. It’s not even good philosophy.

I obviously can’t go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that creationism is a self-sealing, closed belief system. It is closed because its beliefs are its own evidence for its beliefs. No independent evidence has been offered that would either serve to affirm or refute it. Thus, to say that creationism is circular is putting it mildly. In short, to believe in creationism is to be in a state of mind “beyond refutation,” and refutation is one of the chief hallmarks of science. This is why no reputable scientist takes it seriously. As Wolfgang Pauli, one of most famous scientists of all times, once put it in responding to an idea, “[It is] so bad [that] it is not even wrong.”

Metaphysics is undoubtedly the most confusing and thorniest issue of all. Briefly, metaphysics is the study of the most basic assumptions and ideas that we have to posit, i.e., assume, in order to be able to have experience in the first place, let alone make sense of anything in the second. For instance, science wouldn’t even be able to get off the ground unless it first assumed that the world and universe were basically orderly and intelligible. One doesn’t “see” orderliness when one looks through a microscope or telescope. All one sees are shapes. The mind then turns them into intelligible patterns and ideas. The mind thus presupposes orderliness and intelligibility in order to be able to engage in the act of “seeing.”

The preceding paragraph is a prime example of metaphysical reasoning. It shows what we must presuppose in order to engage in the act of seeing and hence knowledge itself.

I obviously don’t expect conservative and fundamentalists to get this, for most liberals and scientists don’t “get it” as well. Most people don’t know that historically the ideas of the orderliness and intelligibility of the universe come from religion, not from philosophy or science. Science owes far more to religion than it realizes.

But far worse, when science argues that “it has no need of philosophy,” it has just staked out a philosophical position without its realization. For another, when it argues that “natural laws are sufficient to explain everything,” it has also uttered a metaphysical proposition without its knowledge or awareness.

If we are justified in getting angry with conservatives and fundamentalists for their basic lack of knowledge — and at times, intelligence itself — we ought to be just as angry with liberals when they pretend to be informed and smarter with respect to certain subjects when they are not. We need to fight ignorance equally on the right and left.

Our dependency on science grows daily. Indeed, we are more dependent on it than ever before. But so is our dependency on philosophy. The great difference is that we where we generally recognize and celebrate science, we do not give philosophy anywhere near the recognition it deserves.

But science and philosophy both have their limitations. Science can’t explain why we live in a universe that has evolution as a prime mechanism, i.e., ordering principle. Philosophy can’t explain it either, but at least it knows that it can’t. This is precisely where religion steps in because it knows that humankind cannot live with much uncertainty. The anxiety of not knowing is too much to bear.

Liberals in particular have yet to really understand that there are many good reasons for believing in religion. What kind? That’s another discussion, especially those that embrace science and philosophy.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post, March 14, 2012

Blog, Media + Politics

The War of Words: Are Certain People and Words So Reprehensible Such That They Should Be Ostracized?

Originally published on The Huffington Post, March 9, 2012

The recent “reprehensible outburst” — if that’s what it really deserves to be called — by Rush Limbaugh towards Sandra Fluke has predictably set off a War of Words between conservatives and liberals.

Liberals, among whom I enthusiastically count myself, are completely — and in my view, rightly — disgusted not only by Rush Limbaugh’s choice of words, but his general behavior and demeanor.

Limbaugh’s latest flap is merely the latest in a long line of sickening attacks. Though I am somewhat shocked by Limbaugh’s reprehensible and unjustified assault on Sandra Fluke, I am not really surprised by it. Coming from someone who has made his entire career by continually being way over the top, there is virtually nothing he won’t say to get attention. He has certainly gotten it this time.

In the last few days, I have heard my liberal friends say on more than one occasion: “Limbaugh has shown himself to be just plain ‘evil.'” I couldn’t agree more. Certain actions are so far beyond the pale of normal decency that they and the person who committed them deserve to be labeled “evil.”

Limbaugh’s so-called apologies have just made things worse. It’s not just the case that his initial choice of words was “poor” — which they were of course — but he totally misses the point. His whole argument and demeanor with regard to contraception and sex are so terribly flawed that he is beyond redemption.

In response to the “liberal” attacks on their hero, conservatives have gone wild. They have dredged up the times when comedian Bill Maher has uttered equally disgusting words, in this case towards Sarah Palin. Maher not only called Palin a “tw%t,” but even worse a “c$nt.” And, Maher has fared no better in his defense saying that he doesn’t have sponsors to worry about because he is on HBO. As though this makes his case totally different from and better than Limbaugh’s.

While I certainly have no love or respect for Sarah Palin — I find her so ignorant of human affairs that I question her basic intelligence — for once I find myself agreeing with conservatives, something that surprises and pains me to no end.

While I do not believe in banning words and speech of any kind, I find myself just as offended by Bill Maher. Maher is no less arrogant, narcissistic and self-righteous than Limbaugh. Because he is a comedian, he believes that it somehow gives him the right to use contemptible language. After all, “Can’t you take a joke?” is the typical justification for such behavior. When it’s not vicious and truly funny, yes I can take a joke.

If it’s completely unacceptable for Limbaugh to use words like “prostitute” and “slut” in referring to someone he doesn’t agree with, then why is it not just as unacceptable for Maher? Why shouldn’t liberals be just as outraged?

It’s not that I believe in a simple-minded consistency in politics and human affairs, but that anyone who uses the most reprehensible language towards women need to be roundly condemned no matter what their political affiliation. Not to do so is hypocrisy of the highest order.

What I wrote previously with respect to Rush Limbaugh applies equally to Bill Maher. “In the end, Rush is his own worse enemy. His is also one of our culture’s worst enemies as well. As much as Rush assaulted Sandra Fluke — the innocent woman he so wrongly and viciously attacked — and women in general, the real tragedy is the continual assault of what is left of decency.”

Originally published on The Huffington Post, March 9, 2012