The pansy, a symbol of freethought.
After my recent post, “Outgrowing Religion,” I received the following from Jason, a former student who I admittedly do not remember. (I’ve taught approximately 10,000 students over a 30-year career.) Let me say that I have seldom been so moved by a correspondence. We often think our efforts are futile and then, seemingly ex nihilo, we find that somewhere in the long-ago past we had a positive effect on someone.
That being said, I don’t mean this post as a paean to my efforts on behalf of Jason’s education, but rather as a tribute to his open mind. For it was simply fortuitous that I was privileged to play the role of Socratic midwife for him. Had I not been there, someone else would have played that role or, alternatively, he would have come to most of his conclusions without any teachers. His desire for knowledge came from within.
While moved by this correspondence it also stands as a carefully and conscientiously crafted statement of freethought—the testament of one who thinks independently or freely, forming their opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority. It touches on many of the themes found in the great freethinkers like Voltaire, Hume, Russell, and Ingersoll. Here then is the correspondence.
Many years have passed since I was seated in your intro to philosophy class. I recall being somewhat apprehensive to the ideas discussed. Being a young father and very Catholic, you, and especially you, can imagine how upsetting it was to hear that most of what I had based my approach to child-rearing was nothing more than moonshine. I recall you mentioning that the indoctrination of children might just be the highest form of child abuse. As disturbing as it was, I found the idea to be self-evident soon thereafter. Beyond the course and a couple of Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett, and Kurt Vonnegut books later, the curtain was lifted and my Sunday’s were spent fishing instead of at mass. I can honestly say my enjoyment of Sundays became instantly immeasurable. The church crowd has its invisible deities, and my small family has a lifetime of great family memories and photos to boot.
This set me on a path to learn a new language, abandon racism, embrace the gay community, rebuke ethnocentricity, demand logic and reason, and hone a particular disdain for religions and willful ignorance. Today, I am still amazed when I explain that for a miracle to happen, the laws of physics have to be suspended on a whim, and all of science fails—well at least the scientific method does. And my Christian brethren agree and explain that their Lord works in mysterious ways. So it goes.
Instead of biblical teaching, I employed my education in philosophy and anthropology to educate my child. Her mother and I are often in amazement when we watch has easily our daughter absorbs new information when she doesn’t have to reconcile it with a religious indoctrination. She graduated with a 4.7, was a stellar athlete, heavily engaged in charity work, a non-apologetic atheist, and never any trouble. Already, at the age of eighteen, her ideological compass points towards altruism and she is off to study environmental science in college, taking with her a set of principles that will suit her well, and perhaps one day save her life.
We have watched our Christian neighbors live in a state of self-inflicted torment with many of their children, and they continually blame secular society. I live in Texas, it’s to be expected. As for me and mine, we will continue to embrace rationality, the physical world, and the whole of humanity.
I’ll end with a quote that goes out especially to Jason from a former teacher,
To all freethinkers, past and present, whose independence of mind isolates them from the sympathy and understanding of their community, but whose courageous and unwavering devotion to the scientific method has liberated their community from the dark ages.
~ David Mills
7 thoughts on “Letter From A Former Student”
I am not commenting here on the nature of the relationship between a student and his teacher. I wholly salute the well intentioned and honest transfer of knowledge, skills and attitudes between the two. This relationship, in my view remains sacred and private. However, I’ll be commenting on the nature of the lesson learnt by the student from the teacher which, in a nutshell, is; what science says about the world is true while what any particular religion says about it is false.
Science builds models of the world which, predict and can be utilised to engineer utilities. One obvious limitation of these models is that they tell you how and why within the confine of the model but inevitably hit two limits; first, the why of the fine structure of matter-energy and the fundamental laws of physics in the model prompting physicists to just say that they have found the universe to be so. And second, the why of the beginning or the Big Bang, prompting them again to say that there was just a beginning of time, space and matter-energy some 13.7 Billion years ago.
“Laplace presented to Napoleon a copy of his work on the mechanics of celestial bodies. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of God and Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace drew himself up and answered bluntly, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Napoleon was greatly amused by this.
But of course, there is no need for God in the model. The model was designed in order to avert such a necessity.
However, nothing in the model can close those two gaps or dress those two wounds. Therefore, in my view, the true agnostic is not the one who is not sure if God exists or not but the one who is willing to not forget the gaps in the model, leaves them open and lives with courage with this unknowing.
Some scientists and philosophers escape from facing those two limits by claiming that such questions are not valid, which is true, but only in the sense that our model of the world was not designed to address those questions. However, those questions remain valid within themselves. Therefore, scientism which claims to answer all questions about the world is false in this sense.
Religion is also false by trying to answer questions about the natural world without evidence. However, the impact of religion upon man’s history goes far beyond providing an explanation of the natural world and should not be looked at from this angle. Bypassing logic and the established status quo, religion has had transformative effects on people. As an example I am familiar with, consider what the advent of Islam had done to the weak and scattered warring tribes of Arabia. With it, the tribes united to forge a great force of transformation in world history. The same can be said about many other religions. In this sense the philosophies of the enlightenment are religions, capitalism is a religion, communism is a religion and scientism too is a religion.
Man has always been creating myths to close the gap between his experience of the impersonal universe and his need for some kind of meaning.
Those myths have the power to forge together large number of people of thoughts, literature and doers in order to lift the community from a stagnant status quo to a new level of being with people finding meaning in their struggle or efforts to achieve a better end; Enlightenment is from irrationality of the dark ages to the rationality of philosophy and scientific thinking. Capitalism; from feudalism to free labour. Communism; from ruthless capitalism to socialism which eventually led to a capitalism with a human face as in welfare states. Scientism; from myths and miracles to science as the grand explainer.
There is a baby in the dirty tub water of religion; don’t throw it away with the dirty water. Find it, take it out and nurture it, and only then throw away the dirty water.
I don’t know what or where this baby is, but tentatively it appears to be close to the mystic and dogma-free paths which I see in some religions.
You make various points in your post, underlining the value of a religious, or perhaps we should say spiritual, mindset. Your main point seems to be that scientific and religious explanation, or religious life, inhabit different domains and fulfill different needs. And you argue, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
I agree with you that religion in some cases serves functions that you allude to. Some people are deeply committed to religion because they see it serving fundamental needs that science doesn’t serve. These are needs for a personal sense of connection with something greater than themselves or for connection to a caring community. However, religion all too often it doesn’t seem to serve those purposes at all. For Jason, for example, and clearly for many others, religion has largely been oppressive, undermining free thinking and even empathy. Jason may wish to speak for himself. But his experience of religion doesn’t appear to be like the one you talk about. His experience is that his religion supported racism, homophobia, xenophobia. Further, it didn’t support intellectual development or curiosity. Rather, it claimed a dogmatic solution to every problem. Jason’s experience with religion is similar to that of many others. Now having this experience, are you suggesting that Jason or others like him should nonetheless continue to look within religion for some reserves of truth, because those are uniquely provided by religion?
I do not doubt that some — with strong religious impulses — feel a need to continue on some kind of religious quest, and possibly to rely on religion to address some of life’s questions that evade science. Various people seem to me to do this with a spirit of honesty. But I guess I don’t think religion is necessary for these purposes — as the source of connection or meaning, or for building community, or certainly for ethical action. I do think one of the issues with secularism is that it often does not do a very effective job of helping to meet some of the needs that religion does meet for some — of providing a sense of purpose, or a sense of belonging within the world, or a sense of community. This failure means that some secularists retreat from their communities and only are concerned about taking care of themselves. This doesn’t seem to have afflicted Jason. But in any case, I don’t agree that religion is the only way to address those failures. And in fact, many forms of religious life don’t solve but exacerbate the very problems mentioned. Think of the high incidence of suicide among transgender and homosexual religious youth.
Looking at the demographics of global population growth, I don’t expect the eclipse of religion anytime soon. So I hope that religions more seriously take up the needs that you mention than they now do and that they play a less adversarial role with science. If there are two domains, religion, too, needs to respect the one of science. Unfortunately, a look at demographics doesn’t lead me to think that religion will generally develop in these ways. Rather, it will develop much more in alignment with the way that opponents of religion see it working. It will all too often continue to offer simplistic dogmatic answers to questions scientific and non-scientific. It will all too often continue to defend bigotry, homophobia and xenophobia in the name of God and truth. It will offer insular communities. For that, I’ve little hope that the world will become increasingly secular, with populations of people with mindsets apparently similar to Jason’s, such as we find in Scandinavia. That’s a pity because it is on the whole those nations that have the most social forms of political and economic development and that have taken up climate change and environmental concerns seriously.
I’m with William James that religion meets a unique need for some, one not met by science. These tolerant forms of non-dogmatic religion will surely play a role for many in our immediate future as well. But many of the most humane people I have known have found no need for the kind of experience of the transcendent that James talks about. And they’ve no need for the kind of malformed community that religions all too often form.
For some of those, forms of community are lacking. Secularists need to do more to facilitate such forms of community and to emphasize possibilities for collective action in organizations like the Sierra Club or other such groups. The world we also be a better place if more people did what John does and tried to write clearly and approachably about questions of meaning from a secular perspective, so that those who find that religion does not resonate with them have some non-religious insights to draw on — the way apparently Jason has — in ways that give them a greater sense of a meaningful life. One of the most regrettable realities is that when people are going through individual crises, it is often fundamentalist religions that are first available to offer them (thoughtless) answers and entry into (malformed) communities.
To get back to your baby/bathwater analogy — if an analogy of that sort is appropriate, I’m not sure how much of religion is in the bathwater. Maybe meaning and value beyond instrumentalist reason is. But this, it seems, can be found in various ways.
One might say that pure science cannot be termed religious. However applied science can be: applied by the idiosyncratic/self-referential whims of engineers, managers, etc.
Response to comment on my letter
First, thank all of you for your response, it is most welcomed and appreciated. As noted earlier, there is limited opportunity for such a discussion amongst my peers here in Texas. You can probably tell in my writing that I do not have a professional background in the subject matter, but I am rather well-read and enjoy rhetoric immensely. And I can take a punch.
Quite often I light-heartedly end a friendly discussion with my inquisitive Christian friends by asking if we can agree that, “In the beginning, the gods made the heavens and the earth” and that “you are just making sh*! up after that”? It ends in a chuckle, both parties are placated, and we’re on to the next subject with our swords still sheathed—placated but never satisfied. I find this approach a one-off of Mr. Laplace’s explanation, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Furthermore, it is undeniable that religion has formed communities, carried people through hard times, and spawned beauty in art and literature. And for that, we all owe a debt of gratitude—kinda.
I would like to revisit the root cause of my argument; so many of the solutions religion offers is nothing more than solutions to the problems it created. This is a time-honored approach that is still in use today and definitely not unique to religion. Create a problem and then offer a half-baked solution, and the masses will champion your cause—I offer our current President/administration as a shining example. I digress.
Had we not been oppressed by the Church for well over a millennia, would there be less emphasis on ethnicity and sexual predisposition, would we have the cure for cancer, would we have devised political boundaries based predominately on other factors besides Catholic/Protestant or Muslim/Christian? I would say, without hesitation, the answer is overwhelmingly “yes”. The evidence is in the headlines of news-feeds every day. The argument that I pose is not a new one but is definitely something for serious consideration.
Darrell, from your response, I can glean that you too see the powerfully positive effect that religion has for some when science leaves them unfulfilled. But I would argue that if we continue to look for the “why” in religion and the “how” in science, we fail to see the science answers both. I would say that the arts and humanities have been overshadowed by science and math—public schools … Few argue that science and math define the “hows”, but I believe that the humanities will continue to be refined and quantifiable conclusions will continually result—thus answering the “whys”. Already, the humanities are adopting the same traits as sciences: measurable data, empirical studies, and specialization in the given field.
The “gods of the gaps” are continually vanishing and science fills the voids. It’s not always sexy and more suited for a peer-reviewed paper than a Hollywood production or political stump speech, but it is sufficient. I can’t think of a single instance where science lost its place and the gods came to fill the void. Can you?
When I first read Jason’s letter to Professor Messerly, my initial reaction was that he painted religious individuals too negatively, almost in the extreme. I found several things to rebut. In particular, when attributing the success of his child to her secular upbringing and the failures of Christian children to their religious upbringing, Jason is ignoring the fact that there are many children with a religious upbringing that become wonderful and highly successful adults. There is a large role that chance or luck plays in how successful any child will become as an adult; and Jason is overly self-congratulatory regarding his fortunate situation.
Alhazen Ibn Alhaitham then posted a very thoughtful defense of religion. Alhazen’s comment was probably spurred by a similar reaction that Jason was too negative. But in his discussion of science and religion, Alhazen muddies the waters by stating “In this sense the philosophies of the enlightenment are religions, capitalism is a religion, communism is a religion and scientism too is a religion.” No, none of those are religions in the normal definition of the word (which includes a belief in a supernatural deity). Alhazen also seems to describe those who believe in finding truth through the scientific method rather than through religion as practicing scientism, which is a somewhat negative term for individuals who have an excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge.
Dr. Darrel Arnold then posted an articulate analysis of Alhazen’s comment, which largely defended both science and Jason’s attitude toward religion. There is little to disagree with any of the statements made by Dr. Arnold. This seemed like a nice conclusion to the discussion. However, Jason posted a followup comment clarifying his original letter. In it, I would have to conclude that Jason is a little bit guilty of “scientism”, as defined earlier. His beliefs that we would have found the cure to cancer if not for the oppression of religion and that science can answer the “why” questions of the meaning of life are both a bit excessive, fitting the definition of scientism. So, perhaps Alhazen was more intuitive than I originally thought.
All in all, this was an interesting thread of comments and I congratulate Professor Messerly for spurring it through posting the original letter by Jason.
Well deserved congratulations on receiving such a gratifying letter! I’ve shared this via the social media channels of the North East Humanists, whose followers all applaud your efforts.
thanks much Ed, really appreciate your comments. JGM