I read an article today on why Muslims are still angry ay the United States. Rather than being a standard, "This is how the world appears to me from my armchair" article, this is allegedly the result of a five year study.
Trying to understand Muslims’ feelings toward America has been the focus of a five-year study I recently completed that included conducting focus groups and surveys throughout the Muslim world. I sat for many hours trying to understand as Muslims explained to me why they are so mad at America.
While studies of this type are of widely different quality, what interests me is the relationship between premises and conclusions – regardless of whether we accept the premises as true or false.
Here is a quick summary of the conclusion: The mainstream view among Muslims is that they are seeking to create a culture that combines liberal democratic values and Muslim traditions and the west keeps getting in the way. In some cases, it is by promoting autocratic regimes, and in other cases it is by secularizing government - leaving no room for religious values - which is seen as hostile to religion.
Steven Kull, the author of the article, gives this advice:
But perhaps most fundamentally, America’s relationship is most likely to improve as it comes to understand, accept and embrace the whole of Muslim society and the course of development that it has chosen for itself. Muslims believe that they are on a different path than the West. This path is central to their notion of their freedom to practice their religion. When they feel that America is threatening their religion and their aspirations, they grow resolutely hostile.
Now, some things, like supporting brutal dictators because they are "pro-American" and it helps to secure oil fields - the people of the Middle East have the right to get angry about. But there is a realm of action for which anger is simply not a legitimate response.
One of my first thoughts is that some people need to figure out how to hear others say, "You are mistaken," without blowing a gasket.
I think that this is an often overlooked difference between the scientific mind and the religious mind – at least among some religions.
The scientific mind hears a claim that, for example, the sun is the center if the solar system, life evolved, T-Rex was not a predator but a scavenger, a lot of planets orbit stars in the direction opposite the rotation of the star (which conflicts with traditional beliefs about planet formation), without strong urges to kill those who question long-held assumptions. This is why science keeps changing its mind (even as individual scientists are often reluctant to give up a favorite hypothesis).
We can well expect that the scientist of 100 years from now will hold some significantly different beliefs from the scientists of today.
And that is perfectly okay.
This is the key point. Scientists are not bothered by the fact that future scientists will believe that they were mistaken – well, not bothered in the sense that they want to lock current thinking into dogma that no future generation will dare challenge. We are not going to see a science cult that wants to abandon the corruption of “modern” physics and return to traditional Newtonian physics, or return to the days before plate tectonics infested geology and go back to the time when people believed the continents were fixed.
Science just doesn't work that way.
But science has a way of resolving disputes - through appeals to predictive power (evidence).
Religion – for those who take it too seriously - must be awfully frustrating. There is nothing to appeal to that counts as real evidence. The only persuasive tools that religion has are psychological bullying, brainwashing small children, and killing or ostracizing anybody who does not accept the doctrine being presented.
Consequently, people respond to religious challenges by getting angry. Without evidence to offer in support if its conclusions, the best defense us to simply shout down the critic – deny them a voice – close down minds to whatever the critic has to say. Some small percentage takes this type of reaction to an extreme. There is more than one way to silence a critic.
Indeed, what is Kull's advice in the face of this Muslim anger?
We are supposed to "understand, accept and embrace the whole of Muslim society." In other words, we are to refrain from saying, "you are mistaken," precisely because people in that culture respond to such claims with anger. Indeed, Kull wants to tell us that it is immoral to say, "you are mistaken."
Unfortunately, the effect of this is to side with the cultural value that says it is permissible – perhaps even obligatory – to respond to “you are mistaken” with anger. The other option is to tell those who are angry at America for these reasons that anger is simply not an appropriate response.
Civilized people simply do not respond to the claim "you are mistaken" with anger. They respond with evidence. Or, where there is no evidence, they keep those beliefs out of the public sphere.