The Tentative Apologist
2/14/10 at 08:13 PM 0 Comments

How to spot a brainwashed atheist

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What is it to be brainwashed? Unfortunately, the popular images that this term invokes often center on stereotyped images of a naïve Midwestern farm girl who has been sucked into a miniscule California cult and is now convinced her dear leader is the messiah. If you are one of today's brand of new atheist, that image gets widened substantially to encompass many if not all of those deemed the "religious". The whole lot of us are faithheads and fleas infected with a religious mind virus (to summarize the Dawkinsean view of things).

The key assumption among these atheists (and other skeptics, secularists, humanists and agnostics) is that the problem of indoctrination arises when one confesses adherence to a sacred text, deference to a magisterium (teaching authority), and/or assent to a creed. Since they accept none of these, they are allegedly free of indoctrinational biases in thinking.

This assumption is flawed two times over. Given the limits of time, I will raise one point here.The problem which I will discuss is that sacred text, magisterium, and creed are not essential to indoctrination. Instead, that essence is found in assent to egregiously simplistic binary oppositions between terms like "good and evil", "smart and stupid" and "rational and irrational" when those oppositions are used to indemnify one's own views from critical scrutiny. 

Thus, the devotee of the California cult is indoctrinated when she begins to think of her religious leader as purely good, smart and rational while all those who dissent from him are evil, stupid and irrational. It is not her assent to authority per se that is the problem, but rather how that assent is made.

This brings me to a recent example of such indoctrinational binary categorization in the blog. The example comes courtesy of TheOtherSorcero when he contrasts the "good scientist" with the "good theist".

A good scientist loves to be proven wrong; it allows them to learn a new, better proof in their field. A good theist hates being proven wrong; it forces them to re-evaluate a set of beliefs that they hold to be fundamentally true.

In response let's start with a news flash for TheOtherSorcero: nobody likes to be proven wrong. And scientists are no different here. Indeed, the history of science is replete with great rivalries driven by impossible egos. Just consider some of the great cognitive duels such as Newton vs. Hooker or Leakey vs. Johanson. Do you think for one second that Newton would have "loved" it if Hooker had proven him wrong at the Royal Society? The fact is that scientists, like anybody else, can have very big egos and sustain very deep feuds. And they can be very unreasonable in the way they dismiss contrary evidence and pursue their research program. If we accept TheOtherSorcero's lofty criterion for a "good scientist" then there probably aren't any.

And then we turn to the "good theist". Here the qualifier of "good" is not intended as a compliment: the more irrationally intransigent a theologian is, the "better".

But this too is an absurdly silly caricature. The same epistemic virtues that are valued in science are valued in theology. (Read Christian philosopher Linda Zagzebski's Virtues of the Mind (Cambridge, 1996) for a discussion of the common epistemic virtues of all critical disciplines.)

Now for another earthshaking fact of psychology: nobody relishes having their noetic foundations shaken. This has nothing to do with belief in God. I know a seven year old boy here in Edmonton who thinks the Oilers are the best team in the NHL. It will be very painful for him when he finally learns that they're actually the worst team. Are we to believe the boy would take it better if his parents were free thinkers?

Let's drag this out a bit further with a brief thought experiment. Dr. Theo is a world famous Christian theologian who has just encountered powerful evidence that God does not exist. Will Dr. Theo find this discovery to be a deeply disconcerting, even frightening affair? Of course. He faces not only the possibility that he has been wrong, but the fact of what this change of belief will do to his family, friends and entire social network (not to mention his career).

Dr. Atheo is a world famous atheistic scientist who has just encountered powerful evidence that God does exist. Are we supposed to believe that he will be excited at the prospect of having been wrong? That he will enjoy telling his elite friends at the NAS that he is becoming a Christian? It is always painful to have one's epistemic foundations shaken.

This leaves us with a deep irony which has afflicted so-called "free thinkers" since the sixteenth century. Supposedly liberated from sacred text, magisterium and creed, they throw open the gates and roll in their trojan horse of supposed epistemic independence, oblivious to the much more dangerous binary opposites tucked away inside.

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