Wednesday, December 22, 2010
There is much I disagree with in his article, but New Humanist writer Michael Bywater asks a very interesting question about what he calls "the last really successful religion ... since Islam:" How did its science-fiction-writing founder pull it off?
[The] first [book] hits the perfect pitch of laying out mumbo-jumbo in just clear enough terms for people who think they're terribly significant but who aren't that bright (there are a lot of movie stars in the lists, wouldn't you say?) to think that they're grasping something terribly important which actually makes sense. And, secondly, it doesn't pose a Creator. Just a bunch of clever aliens. Whom we can turn back into if we have enough money.Among the things I strongly disagree with about this article is Bywater's eagerness to dismiss many of the followers of this religion as simply stupid. Hard-working is not a synonym of smart, nor is a lack of philosophical sophistication the same thing as a lack of intellectual ability. The full use of one's intellect requires effort guided by proper philosophical guidance. Omit either and even a genius can look (and might as well be) stupid.
But Bywater does have a point, however obscure he makes it, and it is related to the notion of the "God of the Gaps," which Wikipedia describes as, "a view of God as existing in the 'gaps' or aspects of reality that are currently unexplained by scientific knowledge, or that otherwise lack a plausible natural explanation." (In addition, our culture's philosophical chaos makes many philosophical matters (especially normative abstractions) look to many people like they fall into such a "gap.")
Bywater has a tenuous grasp on how, referring to, "Apotheosis without the Theos," but there's more to his point than that. Earlier in his article, he notes that:
We may think that supersymmetry or, even more scarily, M-theory are somehow truer or more real but that's because most of us can't see that mathematics is another language for telling stories in -- indeed, stories in which the most important thing, just as in Athenian tragedy, is not that they are necessarily true but that they are internally coherent.Bywater precedes this by nihilistically (and wrongly) calling basically everything (including, for example, gravity!) "bollocks," but yet he manages to come close to identifying a strand in the culture that predisposes otherwise intelligent adults to accept the quasi-scientific religion he describes. To the extent that many people respect science more than religion, and yet don't really grasp science, they will be susceptible to, shall we say, "cargo cult science ... cults."
In addition to holding a proper respect for science, most people have enough common sense to demand "internal coherence" of new ideas that they examine. That speaks well of our culture compared to more primitive times, but it is adherence to reality, not just internal coherence, that is the standard by which a belief system ought to be judged.
And so, we have an implicitly rational culture where science is revered, but which is also rife with confusion about philosophical issues. In such a culture, it is no longer enough to tell people that a message has come from on high. It has to look logical and scientific, at least up to a certain point even to fool people with poor training in science.
And so, into a gap perhaps being vacated by God, move other assertions whose quasi-scientific and coherent character manage, in today's culture at least, to mask their arbitrariness just enough to fool some of the people all of the time.