Increasingly religious beliefs are being classified as self-deception or a means to justify prejudice. Not too long ago, a couple who had chosen to wait until marriage would have been respected even by those who did not share the religious conviction. But if you had the opportunity to listen to some of the professors at NC State talk about it, you would quickly realize that they believe anyone who advocates for abstinence until marriage must be misinformed, ignorant, or oppressed. In the minds of modern skeptics, religious conviction lacks the necessary conditions from which belief is justifiably built.
From their perspective, adequate proof must exist prior to belief and beliefs must always exist in proportion to the evidence. Religious belief in their minds does not fit this criteria. Instead, religious belief requires no experimentation, changes from person to person, and is made up by the imaginations of people who are picking out what things they’d want to be true. It is like children who play house with none of the inconvenience of actually collecting an income, paying taxes, or mowing the lawn.
And so it is no wonder that skeptics who see religious belief in this way would look upon it with some, if not a great deal, of disdain. Of course, they are right that religious belief is a very different thing from what I most commonly hear called “scientific belief.” But they get two things wrong by categorizing belief in this way. Continue reading →
There is a facile enthusiasm about “believing” that is manifest every Christmas season and often enough in-between. Sentimental movies like “The Polar Express” and “The Miracle on 34th Street” chime in with their paeans to believing, and even works like “The Life of Pi” suggest that it is proper and even admirable to accept as true “the better story” even when it is the unlikeliest story imaginable.
At the front end, let me admit that there is a kernel of truth in these expressions. But there is also great danger is assuming that optimism can or should trump reason, and that belief in the truth of whatever appears good or lovely is itself necessarily good.
At least in questions where the relevant evidence is capable of being comprehensively considered, the proper formula is very simple: belief should be according to the evidence. Continue reading →
You have probably never heard of François-André Danican Philidor. If you were to see a picture of him, he would look like one of a hundred English aristocrats of the eighteenth century: Large nose, powdery wig, silk cravat, waist coat, the works. He was a musician by trade but is remembered today because he wrote a book about Chess. In it he explored nine different ways to begin a game. What he realized, and is remembered for saying, is that “good play of the pawns [is] the soul of chess.”
And why are they the soul of chess? Because they are practically stationary. If chess represented war, the queen, knights, and rooks would be the armies and the pawns the terrain. So the way you orient your pawns at the beginning, dictates so much of how the rest of the game is played. And once they are established, they will remain for the rest of the game relatively immobile. The play happens around them.
At the beginning of the summer, David and I set out to find a way to help people who disagree over polarizing issues—even passionately, and often angrily—talk productively together. Fed up with the antagonistic political discourse so prevalent (and aggravated by the current presidential campaign), we wanted to create a situation where people would actually listen to the other side. (For a glimpse into why this kind of conversation is so important, check out this YouTube about political discrimination.) To do this, we had to remove incentives to argue, create a situation where participants felt safe, and take away platforms for rebuttal.
In my last “Against Chronological Snobbery” essay I introduced the debate between the “progressive” view of American history (that America’s history has been one of clear moral progress) and the “non-progressive” view (that it hasn’t—i.e., that the question is at least subject to debate). I endorsed the latter position. Representing the “progressive view” was Justice Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion, together with Justice Marshall’s assertion that the founders lacked any remarkable degree of wisdom, and that the greatness of the Constitution is its more recent embrace of equality and individual rights. Representing the “non-progressive” view was Justice Robert’s dissent in Obergefell and Justice Scalia’s dissent in U.S. v. Virginia, both of which included a scathing rebuke of the majorities’ chronological snobbery.
In this essay, I hope to continue my attack on the “progressive” view by assaulting one of its citadels—the self-satisfaction of contemporary mainstream culture with regard to its own value system.
We live in an age obsessed with self-actualization, self-fulfillment, self-realization, self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-esteem, self-expression, self-help, self-image, self-identity, etc. Selfies, iPhones, YouTube, me time. We’re self-obsessed.
The idea of “being true to yourself” implies that there is a core-self at our centers to which we could, theoretically, be false. But I doubt that. Continue reading →