When it comes to promoting science and intellectual responsibility, should we seek to entice people with kindness, or should we condemn those who choose to ignore these standards?
I came to this question while listening to Michael Ruse on The Infidel Guy Radio Show on Wednesday evening. In the course of the discussion, there were a couple of exchanges on the tactics to be used in promoting “free thought.” Ruse expressed criticism of the way in which Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, for example, attack religion. Ruse, in contrast, would prefer a constructive dialogue with people of faith. It appeared that his argument was that we can and should sit down with these people, discuss our differences, and entice them to the scientific view by virtue of its superiority.
At least, this is what I think he said. It's an interpretation.
Ultimately, I do not see this as an 'either/or' question.
When I write, I speak of four tools for altering behavior (by altering desires); praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. These are not the only tools, but they are the major tools that are relevant when one talks about morality.
Reasonable people can disagree over which tool is best for a particular job and how it can most effectively be employed. One option that I would certainly argue against is that of using only condemnation and leaving the other tools aside.
Yet, I would also have to argue against abandoning the tool of condemnation as well.
For example, it would make no sense to suggest that we should not condemn or punish the thief. The person who proposes that we fight theft merely by seeking to engage in dialogue with the thieves and to convince them of the simple joy and pleasure of earning one’s own money would not be thought of as giving us a rational option.
Nor would I be inclined to agree with any individual who asserted that we should not condemn or punish the rapist but, instead, limit ourselves to enticing them with the pleasure of consensual sex.
There are times when condemnation and, perhaps, punishment are in order – though punishment must be limited to cases when it is clear beyond reasonable doubt that it is necessary to promote an aversion to doing actual, real harm.
Here, I want to make it clear that what should be condemned is not religion. This is the wrong target. The proper object for condemnation is intellectual recklessness causing one to act in ways where they do harm to others. Harmless faith is harmless and, as such, there is no reason to condemn it. Harmful faith, on the other hand, is an intellectual activity that those with reason to avoid harm also have reason to condemn.
Intellectual recklessness is not like theft or rape – which are acts whereby the agent intends to do harm to others. Intellectual recklessness, however, is still a moral crime – one that is much like drunk driving, for example.
The drunk driver (or the person who, while sober, refuses to take precautions against becoming a drunk driver) is guilty of a callous disregard for the life, health, and well-being of others. He is not seeking to kill and maim us, our families, and our friends, but he does not care enough about their welfare to stop from being a threat.
The intellectually reckless individual also shows a lack of concern for the well-being of others that is sufficiently strong to prevent them from crashing their dogma into other peoples' lives. An intellectually responsible person, who sees that his actions will threaten the life, health, and well-being of others, would seek to make sure that their actions are well founded and secure, and will hold off on doing harm when its foundation is discovered to be insecure. For the intellectually reckless person, the harm they may cause is of limited concern – certainly not important enough to cause them to pause from reaching a desired destination.
Where an unsecured belief is a danger to others, we can hold those who wield it in as much moral contempt as we would have for the person who wields a loaded in a public place. The mere fact that the weapon might go off, that innocent people could be caused to suffer as a result, is sufficient to argue for moral condemnation
Prohibitions on gay marriage, a ban on the use of embryonic stem cells, prohibition on the use of condoms and other forms of birth control, a refusal to approve or to allow the use of a morning-after pill, obstructing the distribution of a vaccine against a disease that is an antecedent to cervical cancer, the miseducation of children about the discovered scientific facts of the universe, and forced ignorance are all examples of cases where reckless belief does harm to others. These are examples where people deserve as much condemnation as the drunk driver or the careless shooter.
When we look at the actions of these people we find intellectual laziness, intellectual recklessness, and often even intentional deception. We find these activities in defense of policies that do far more harm than any one drunk driver behind the wheel of a car could possibly cause. Intellectual recklessness on this level is much like being careless with the detonator to a nuclear bomb than with a car or a gun. In fact, it is hard to imagine any terrorist act that can do as much damage as these misguided laws – and terrorists themselves often (if not always) have some measure of intellectual recklessness at the root of their activities.
It is also relevant to note that, even the drunk driver cannot be condemned, if he engages in his recklessness on his own private property where he puts no innocent person at risk. We have little reason to be concerned with the ranch owner who drives drunk only on his own posted land where access is controlled. The same is the case with religion, where people who engage in this intellectual recklessness confine the ill effects to their own lives and do not use it to place burdens on others. It is when they make themselves a danger to others -- whether it be by justifying a crime of blowing up airplanes or passing laws that block sick and dying people from the benefits of medical breakthroughs such as from stem cell research -- that their recklessness has gone beyond the boundaries that morality prescribes.
Sure, we should teach the value of science and rational thinking. We should not hesitate that we have demonstrable evidence that the rational thinker has fed the starving and cured the sick; whereas any evidence that a deity has accomplished these things is sketchy at best. No God turned Hurricane Katrina away from the people it targeted, but science told us that it was coming and allowed a million people to get out of the way. We should, in fact, sing the praises of rational thought at every opportunity.
And yet, at the same time, there is good reason to apply the tools of social condemnation against the intellectually lazy and intellectually reckless, because of the harm they will do to the lives, health, and well-being of others. We clearly have reason to do more than simply shrug our collective shoulders and say that these harms do not matter.