Raising the Sanity Waterline

To para­phrase the Black Belt Bayesian: Be­hind ev­ery ex­cit­ing, dra­matic failure, there is a more im­por­tant story about a larger and less dra­matic failure that made the first failure pos­si­ble.

If ev­ery trace of re­li­gion was mag­i­cally elimi­nated from the world to­mor­row, then—how­ever much im­proved the lives of many peo­ple would be—we would not even have come close to solv­ing the larger failures of san­ity that made re­li­gion pos­si­ble in the first place.

We have good cause to spend some of our efforts on try­ing to elimi­nate re­li­gion di­rectly, be­cause it is a di­rect prob­lem. But re­li­gion also serves the func­tion of an as­phyx­i­ated ca­nary in a coal mine—re­li­gion is a sign, a symp­tom, of larger prob­lems that don’t go away just be­cause some­one loses their re­li­gion.

Con­sider this thought ex­per­i­ment—what could you teach peo­ple that is not di­rectly about re­li­gion, which is true and use­ful as a gen­eral method of ra­tio­nal­ity, which would cause them to lose their re­li­gions? In fact—imag­ine that we’re go­ing to go and sur­vey all your stu­dents five years later, and see how many of them have lost their re­li­gions com­pared to a con­trol group; if you make the slight­est move at fight­ing re­li­gion di­rectly, you will in­val­i­date the ex­per­i­ment. You may not make a sin­gle men­tion of re­li­gion or any re­li­gious be­lief in your class­room, you may not even hint at it in any ob­vi­ous way. All your ex­am­ples must cen­ter about real-world cases that have noth­ing to do with re­li­gion.

If you can’t fight re­li­gion di­rectly, what do you teach that raises the gen­eral wa­ter­line of san­ity to the point that re­li­gion goes un­der­wa­ter?

Here are some such top­ics I’ve already cov­ered—not avoid­ing all men­tion of re­li­gion, but it could be done:

But to look at it an­other way—

Sup­pose we have a sci­en­tist who’s still re­li­gious, ei­ther full-blown scrip­tural-re­li­gion, or in the sense of toss­ing around vague ca­sual en­dorse­ments of “spiritu­al­ity”.

We now know this per­son is not ap­ply­ing any tech­ni­cal, ex­plicit un­der­stand­ing of...

  • ...what con­sti­tutes ev­i­dence and why;

  • ...Oc­cam’s Ra­zor;

  • ...how the above two rules de­rive from the lawful and causal op­er­a­tion of minds as map­ping en­g­ines, and do not switch off when you talk about tooth fairies;

  • ...how to tell the differ­ence be­tween a real an­swer and a cu­ri­os­ity-stop­per;

  • ...how to re­think mat­ters for them­selves in­stead of just re­peat­ing things they heard;

  • ...cer­tain gen­eral trends of sci­ence over the last three thou­sand years;

  • ...the difficult arts of ac­tu­ally up­dat­ing on new ev­i­dence and re­lin­quish­ing old be­liefs;

  • ...episte­mol­ogy 101;

  • ...self-hon­esty 201;

  • ...etcetera etcetera etcetera and so on.

When you con­sider it—these are all rather ba­sic mat­ters of study, as such things go. A quick in­tro­duc­tion to all of them (well, ex­cept nat­u­ral­is­tic metaethics) would be… a four-credit un­der­grad­u­ate course with no pre­req­ui­sites?

But there are No­bel lau­re­ates who haven’t taken that course! Richard Smalley if you’re look­ing for a cheap shot, or Robert Au­mann if you’re look­ing for a scary shot.

And they can’t be iso­lated ex­cep­tions. If all of their pro­fes­sional com­pa­tri­ots had taken that course, then Smalley or Au­mann would ei­ther have been cor­rected (as their col­leagues kindly took them aside and ex­plained the bare fun­da­men­tals) or else re­garded with too much pity and con­cern to win a No­bel Prize. Could you—re­al­is­ti­cally speak­ing, re­gard­less of fair­ness—win a No­bel while ad­vo­cat­ing the ex­is­tence of Santa Claus?

That’s what the dead ca­nary, re­li­gion, is tel­ling us: that the gen­eral san­ity wa­ter­line is cur­rently re­ally ridicu­lously low. Even in the high­est halls of sci­ence.

If we throw out that dead and rot­ting ca­nary, then our mine may stink a bit less, but the san­ity wa­ter­line may not rise much higher.

This is not to crit­i­cize the neo-athe­ist move­ment. The harm done by re­li­gion is clear and pre­sent dan­ger, or rather, cur­rent and on­go­ing dis­aster. Fight­ing re­li­gion’s di­rectly harm­ful effects takes prece­dence over its use as a ca­nary or ex­per­i­men­tal in­di­ca­tor. But even if Dawk­ins, and Den­nett, and Har­ris, and Hitchens should some­how win ut­terly and ab­solutely to the last cor­ner of the hu­man sphere, the real work of ra­tio­nal­ists will be only just be­gin­ning.