Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Parents Who Lost Their Kids For Warning Them About The Flying Spaghetti Monster

Via Reason's Hit and Run comes this piece in Wired about The Battle For the New Atheism.

Essentially, the piece is about militant and intolerant atheism, the sort that suggests that we need not treat people's religious beliefs with any more respect than belief in the "flying spaghetti monster." Here is one of the more radical (or perhaps most insane) suggestion from the piece, from biologist Richard Dawkins.

"How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents? It's one thing to say people can believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?"

In essence the piece documents those who believe that rational and reasonable people ought not to give credence to irrational and superstitious ideas, regardless of how deeply rooted in tradition and culture such ideas are. And as a libertarian and an atheist, I find such notions incredibly offensive. There is a strong argument to be made against those who seek to impose their religious views on other people through the law. (The same argument ought to be made about those who seek to impose other controversial moral values or ideas.) But there is a tremendous difference between fundamentalists and simple believers, between forcing others to believe and keeping one's beliefs a private matter between oneself, one's family, and God.

Once again, this seems to be another battle between science and religion. The silly thing is, it isn't a battle that need be fought. One can be a religious person and one can believe in God without having to compromise anything in the scientific realm. The real issue isn't religion, but faith- the belief in something that can not be proven or disproved.

Penn and Teller's Bullshit! (which I've blogged about before) has done a tremendous job of debunking ghosts, psychics, and even irrational religious beliefs. (What is an irrational religious belief? Well, one that is contradicted by scientific evidence. Belief in God is not irrational, but belief that the world is actually 6,000 years old is irrational.) When it comes to the show or any sort of skeptical debunking, the point that many people miss is that such debunking is not meant to question people's faith, but to point out those who would hold up their own faith as fact. Belief in ghosts, psychics, or God is fine, but you're asking for hostility when you try to claim your faith as fact and when you try to label your faith as science.

But this is a different sort of issue from faith itself. And is it really a problem that people have faith? Well think of it this way- in the same way you can never prove God does or does not exist, you probably can't prove whether or not your wife has been cheating on you. If you're in a healthy relationship, you're going to trust you're wife and put you're faith in the notion she's not cheating on you. Now this is different in some ways, but in the end you're still talking about faith. Yes, harm can come from mischaracterizing your faith as fact or forcing your faith on someone else, but is there a real harm in merely having faith or teaching it to your children? I doubt it.

The point about children made above amounts to a call for thought police- imagine, the government deciding what our children can and can't believe and what values they're to have. In a free society, we all have the right to hold whatever beliefs we want to hold, and absent a Marxian destruction of the family we all have the right to teach values to our children.

Some philosophers will point out that science is the new religion, but the problem with this argument is that science is valueless. Questions about morality, about right and wrong, are questions that can't be answered scientifically, and religion is one place people look for those answers. Does it really matter of people's moral codes come from a secular humanist view of the world, from Moses and Jesus, or from a flying spaghetti monster? In the end, the important debate is the debate about values, not the debate about where those values come from.

Just as science is often misunderstood by ghost hunters, psychics, and proponents of intelligent design, faith is equally misunderstood by some scientists. Faith and science can coexist, provided each maintain it's own role. Faith is inherently personal, while science inherently concerns the entire world. Faith directly concerns values, while science is valueless. And most importantly, neither faith nor science provide public policy mandates, whether we're talking about gay marriage or global warming.


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