Links and Comments: Hand-Picked Truths and Moral Progress

First, taking the high road, an op-ed by NYT science writer George Johnson, in yesterday’s NYT Science section: The Widening World of Hand-Picked Truths. (The title in print was “The Gradual Extinction of Accepted Truths”.)

This speaks to the increasing divide between religious traditionalists and those who accept the “stunning advances in science”, triggered, Johnson suggests, by the infamous 1966 Time Magazine essay given the cover title “Is God Dead?”. The essay was not a denunciation of religion, Johnson says, but a calm consideration of “how society was adapting to the diminishing role of religion in an an age of secularization, urbanism, and, especially, stunning advances in science.”

Faith would steadily give way to the scientific method as humanity converged on an ever better understanding of what was real.

Of course this has not only not happened, the divide has gotten worse, fueled, as so much else, by the internet and the ability to filter reality to what other like-minded people think, never mind the eventually self-correcting process of science. I’m thinking this must be a consequence of some fundamental aspect of human nature, which, per PvC #2, is evidence of how the human mind is optimized not to perceive what is real, but to understand the world in only the terms that are advantageous for survival, in its many aspects.

Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the “dominant paradigm” — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version.

With references to creationists (of course), anti-vaxxers, new thinking about autism [the new book by Steve Silberman, mentioned earlier and to be mentioned again], and native resistance to a new telescope on Mauna Kea.

The widening gyre of beliefs is accelerated by the otherwise liberating Internet. At the same time it expands the reach of every mind, it channels debate into clashing memes, often no longer than 140 characters, that force people to extremes and trap them in self-reinforcing bubbles of thought.

In the end, you’re left to wonder whether you are trapped in a bubble, too, a pawn and a promoter of a “hegemonic paradigm” called science, seduced by your own delusions.

My own thought is that people who can see outside their bubble understand that science *works* (thus technology), and appreciate the irony of all those who reject the “hegemonic paradigm” of science while using the internet, and the global positioning satellites that link it, which all depend on the science of the past century that refutes the ancient religious myths, to naively spread their bubble worldview.


Fascinating essay by Adam Lee, Is Religion Inherently Authoritarian?, which I missed a few weeks ago when it appeared on Alternet. Subtitle: “Compared to secular reasoning, the religious establishment has been slow to act when it comes to moral progress.” This supports my own PvC about the arc of moral progress, and how, of course, resistance to such progress is generally religious. Quotes:

Human history is a story of gradual moral enlightenment. Over the ages, we’ve become less violent, less xenophobic, more tolerant, more committed to the ideals of democracy and equality under the law. Of course, moral progress is painfully slow, with many holdouts and local reversals, and we have a very long way left to go. But it’s hard to deny that the world we live in today is less prejudiced and more peaceful than the world five hundred years ago, or even just one hundred.

But a noteworthy exception to this trend of progress is religion. Secular moral reasoning, founded on considerations of fairness and human good, allows for continual self-questioning and improvement as less-privileged groups speak out to demand justice and call our attention to evils that we’d been overlooking. In sharp contrast to this, the immutable doctrines of religion are supposed to be elevated above skepticism. Even if we know more or see farther than the clerics who once came up with them, religious authorities tell us that we should submit our wills and believe without questioning.

The result is that, in most cases, moral progress has left the churches behind. Like the tide going out and leaving once-submerged rocks high and dry on the shore, the archaic doctrines of conservative religion are increasingly isolated and exposed as the immoral and vicious absurdities they are.

Followed by many examples and links.

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