Thursday, June 28, 2007

Epistemic Negligence in Teaching Religion

I have been spending the week writing a series on the wrongness of teaching religion to children.

I have argued that it is inaccurate to say that it is abuse (“Religion as Child Abuse”). However, it is still a bad thing to do to teach children false beliefs (“Teaching Religion”) and bad desires (“Religion and Bad Desires”) , and a great deal of this goes on in the vast majority of religious teaching. In order to combat these evils, we are morally limited to words and private actions (“The Wrongness and Freedom of Religion”). However, there has been far less use of words and private actions used against this evil than it deserves (“Condemning the Teaching of Religion”).

Today, I am going to add another level of complexity to this analysis. The claims that I have made so far apply to the common person – the individual who is busy raising children, holding down a job, and living a normal life, with little free time to look at the relevant issues in detail.

However, there is a group of people to whom this does not apply. Somebody who wishes to proclaim that they have studied an issue and has something important to say on the issue have a moral obligation to have gone through the arguments in some depth. If such a person makes easily motivated mistakes, they have shown themselves to be morally irresponsible, and should be treated as such

In the first essay in this series, I spoke of how a mother is not to be blamed for taking thalidomide (which causes birth defects in children) even when its harmfulness is known until and unless it is reasonable for her to believe that it is harmful. However, the doctor who prescribed it for her is under a different standard. As a physician, as somebody who has decided to accept the responsibility of informing others how to care for his or her heath, the physician has an obligation to know things which an average patient may be ignorant of.

The way that this applies to the question of teaching religion is that those who defend the false beliefs and bad desires of any particular religion are more like the physicians in the thalidomide example than the average patient. The instant that somebody picks up a pen or a keyboard and starts to express an opinion on an issue, that person takes on obligations above and beyond those of the average reader. The writer or speaker is professing some level of expertise, and is reporting that he has lived up to his obligation to become informed on the subject at hand. If he has not lived up to this responsibility, he may be permissibly and soundly condemned.

What this means it that the condemnation should not be against ‘religion’ as some vague and broad generality. Instead, a critic should focus on the specific statements made by specific individuals – taking names – and let the moral condemnation fly whenever it can be shown that the individual has failed to live up to the obligations incumbent upon an expert in any particular field. “Here is Person P, who has made the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been. This is why P is guilty of these charges. If you do not wish to make the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been, do not do what P has done.”

A conveniently recent example of this is Michael Behe, who has produced a new book defending intelligent design. PZ Myers at Pharyngula mentioned a couple of reviews of his book (mention 1, mention 2) Several critics have noted that what Behe did was totally screw up the mathematics in order to get a result that matches the conclusion that he wants to defend. These critics have accurately described the flaw – and that is all.

Something else is needed. I wish to address this comment to Mr. Behe himself.”

Mr. Behe, a morally responsible person would never have let these mistakes into his book. If you are going to use probability theory to support your conclusion, then you have an obligation to study and understand probability theory. You should have at least taken a course in the subject. Better yet, you should have shown your calculations to those who are skilled in probability theory and asked them if you made any mistakes. You should have said – to yourself, if not out loud – ‘I have an obligation to make sure that the arguments I place in this book are sound. In order to help ensure this, I must do the following.’

From Behe’s behavior we have good reason to infer that he does not care for truth. So, what does motivate Behe to produce this book? Perhaps he could be motivated by the praise and gratitude of those who want propaganda that they can use to advance their own agenda (where those ‘others’ have the same lack of concern for truth that Behe has). Perhaps he’s motivated by money, knowing that people will buy a book that puts lies and distortions in language that sounds impressive.

A morally responsible person would feel ashamed that he had let such a mistake into his work. He should feel like the mechanic on an airplane who, in working on a bus, did not rebuild the breaks correctly, and put a busload full of children at risk of injury and death. The humiliation and shame should be palpable. Because, in a society where people feel this type of humility and shame, people will behave more responsibly, and we will all be better off because of it. In a society where people do not feel this type of humility and shame, there will be more shoddy work, and more ill consequences as a result.

Behe’s real motives are subject to further questioning. However, a concern for truth is clearly not among them. For this alone, we should not be content with merely pointing out that his arguments are flawed. We should condemn the lack of concern for truth and sound reasoning that he represents. We should stand before our peers and, more importantly, the young, point to him and say in no uncertain terms, “You should be ashamed to become like that man over there. Don’t do it.”

This shame and humiliation must extend beyond the person who made such a mistake. If a school bus mechanic leaves the breaks on a bus partially repaired, the moral shame and guilt are attached not only to the person who is guilty of this carelessness, but to any who would defend him in that role. It extends to the manager who would dismiss his mistake as trivial and unimportant, and would extend in particular to those who would hold him up as a role model for all mechanics to follow. The latter is telling the world not only should we be unconcerned about the fact that he left the brakes on the bus partially repaired, but that we need more mechanics who would leave the brakes on busses partially repaired. A society is simply insane to actually promote this type of irresponsibility, or to praise others who would promote it.

So it is the case with Behe, that the shame and guilt should attach not only to Behe himself, but to any who would dismiss his moral shortcomings as trivial, and in particular to any who would praise his work as a model for others to follow. The latter are not only telling the world that we should not be concerned about careless mistakes in people who profess to understand the topics they are writing about, they are saying that the world needs more people who are similarly reckless. Such a statement is its own moral crime. A society is simply insane to actually promote this type of irresponsibility, or to praise others who would promote it.

Hopefully, from this, future generations will have fewer people like Behe, and more people with such an active concern for truth that they will struggle to make sure that their arguments are sound and that elementary mistakes do not seep into their writings. That would make the future world a better place than it would otherwise have been. Our children, grandchildren, and their children, would certainly benefit from being in such a world.

This is not censorship. Censorship means using violence, even the state-sponsored violence of legal threats – against those who offer unpopular opinions. In fact, only a hypocrite could charge somebody with censorship for complaining about intellectual recklessness – because the person who is charging censorship is, himself, trying to silence (through condemnation) expressions of an opinion he does not approve of. He is saying, “It is wrong to say anything critical of the opinions of others,” while, himself, saying something critical of the opinions of others. It is a nonsense position deserving of its own moral condemnation.

The fact that people are openly making embarrassingly foolish claims without embarrassment – the fact that the propagandist and the demagogue is rewarded – is a sign of a deep moral corruption in this society. Behe should be in hiding – not out of fear for his life (for no decent person would threaten harm), but out of shame and humiliation for letting such a simple error make its way into his book. To the degree that he actually holds his head up in pride, to that degree our society has room to institute some moral improvement.

1 comment:

Jacob Wintersmith said...

I think you over-emphasize the guilt of experts and ignore the more serious epistemic crimes of ordinary people.

...what started out as a brief comment grew quite a bit. So, I'm going to post it on my own blog, and just leave a link here: Expertise and Moral/Epistemic Culpability @ Winter's Haven.