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I have listened to a few discussions on the Christian Radio Rhema recently. Unusual for me, I know, but I have followed the current controversy around the problem of religious instruction in New Zealand public schools. This issue has been debated (and defended) a bit on Radio Rhema.

My post Mixing values and Jesus in secular education discussed the problem. Basically it involves getting around the required secular nature of public education by closing the school for the duration of the instruction, which is provided by a church-trained voluntary “teacher.” Some parents feel the system is being wroughted by tying this instruction to the values content of the secular curriculum. And although there is a theoretical opt-out provision, parents are often unaware of this, or of the religious instruction, until the children come home with strange stories about creationism or hell.

But back to Radio Rhema. What amazed me about the announcer and the Christian spokespersons he interviewed was their naive use of post-modernist arguments to justify religious instruction and creationism/intelligent design teaching. They rely on the simple claim that inevitably everyone has a “world view,” a belief system. So everyone must be biased. That whatever is taught is only just a belief. And that science has not more access to truth than religion has. One belief is as good as another.

Dragging science down to a “belief”

It’s not the only place I have heard such arguments. In fact this seems to be the inevitable fall-back position when science challenges religious ideas. In this case one spokesperson even said that evolution is just a myth, no better than the creation myths! Another pulled out the old chestnut that any belief system required faith – science requires faith just as much as any religious story! Yet another claimed that both “human caused” and “non-human caused” beliefs about climate change should be taught in schools. Equal tome for each belief – forget about the facts.

In one way these people are sawing off the branch they are sitting on because when they deny scientific knowledge, or the epistemic advantage of scientific method, they attempt to put it in the same basket they reside in. But I suppose if you can’t give a reason for your myths to be better than scientific knowledge this may be all you are left with. Dragging science down to the epistemic level of your own ideology.

But those who use such arguments and who treat scientific or historical knowledge as “just beliefs,” having no more support than beliefs derived from magical thinking, show at least a basic misunderstanding of science. Of course, their motives may actually be more malicious. They may consciously be attempting to misrepresent science. to advance their own beliefs

In contrast to the beliefs comprising religious “knowledge,” scientific knowledge is intimately connected with the real world. Scientific ideas and theories are based on evidence, derived from interaction with reality. And they are validated by testing against reality. This does not make scientific knowledge absolute and complete “Truth” – in the capitalised sense. But it does give a picture of reality which usually closely reflects the truth of that reality. Very often close enough to enable practical applications.  It’s a constantly improving picture as we get more evidence and more ways of interacting with reality.

The epistemic advantage of science

But importantly, its basis in evidence and its close connection with reality means scientific knowledge is not a “belief.” It is very different to religious beliefs which may, in fact, bear no relation to reality.

This means that science has an epistemic advantage – an advantage that society generally recognises. That is why concern about possible climate change has caused governments to consult climate scientists to summarise the findings of their science. Governments are not interested in beliefs – they are interested in the facts, or at least the best summary of the facts the experts can provide.

If the naive picture presented by the commenters on Radio Rhema was true then governments could save a lot of money. Instead of all the investment in field work, laboratory analysis and scientific and technical staff we could have solved the problem of cobalt deficiency in New Zealand soils by hiring a theologian. And surely even an interfaith committee of theologians, flash robes and lifestyles included, advising the government over climate issues would have been a lot cheaper than NIWA or our contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Especially if no international scientific research was actually carried out on climate and these theologians instead consulted the writings of their overseas colleagues.

Mind you, after attempting to read some of the post-modernist material produced by theologians I can just imagine how useless the recommendations of this interfaith committee would be. I doubt if they could even agree on anything understandable, let alone specific enough for a government to base policies on.

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