Monthly Archives: November 2012

Why the arrogance argument won’t work in religion’s favor

As people become more educated, religion needs to be more and more convincing.

Because the ones getting smarter start thinking about the reasons why things happen themselves. You could say that learning about stuff is a natural process that makes mini-scientists and mini-logicians out of everyone. As they get smarter, they can start to question claims in writing that are not very old; a 100 years old Bible as well as a 100 years old book on physics. It just doesn’t match how we think about the world and ourselves today.

Now, religious proponents may claim that such “just a little learned” people are arrogant – that the world is so wonderful, large, and complex that “you think you understand more than you think”. A more blunt and perhaps more familiar way of saying this is, “Yeah, well, what do you know.”

But such an accusation won’t hold up against someone who has an actual personal claim that they understand a particular better; that they have gotten their hands dirty, as it were, and seen a clearer picture from an idea that they have examined and accepted; made theirs.

The arrogance argument will not be convincing to that person; not as convincing as all the work he or she has done to reach this clear picture, connection, or understanding — such as just studying half-earnestly for 9-12 years in a public school that teaches all kinds of things about life and the world, including religions. Because of the asymmetry between how much Science has to say about those things and how much religion does, that’s all it takes. This is why nobody needs to be a scientist to question world views; only a normal education is needed.

When this is brought up, there is also a counter-argument that is directly negative for religious proponents, and that is that holy scripture from all cultures contain gross oversimplifications of the real world. What if they start to really look at how the scribes perceived the world? This is surely dangerous.

Thirdly, there’s the risk of an immediate natural emotional response to this claim of arrogance, and that’s throwing your hands up and say, “Well, what’s the use in learning anything then!?”. This is also dangerous, since they might investigate how much education has helped humanity live longer, stay healthy, increased their welfare and govern themselves.

These are three reasons why I consider this particular response from religious proponents not only unhelpful to them but damaging in that it will actively turn some away. Today, religion is big, so it can afford to lose the educated skeptics. But this will not be so tomorrow.

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I want to also say that embracing and valuing Science doesn’t exclude belief per se – and many intelligent believers of course see this. But for many, at some point in their life “push will come to shove”, and they will look at the reasons they believe something about the world that Science says, and what scripture says about the same thing, and learning about the world will have won out; “here’s something I used to believe, and now I see it goes against this clear picture I’ve built by learning about the world.”

There have been many commendable attempts at understanding the world from, so to speak, proto-scientists millennia ago that have improved our perception of the world, but I think that today, religion has to offer a better reply to “Why should I believe the world view in holy scripture over Plato’s or that of the Incas?” than “Because ours never gets outmoded, because it’s really true.”

I think and hope that in the future there will be many people who will examine the world as these “proto-scientists” did. Like them, some will be wrong, some will be on the right track, some will be arrogant, and some will actually turn out to be right and educate us all.

What I think is required from religion is a recognition of this, and in the case of the fellows that show us world views that are correct, acknowledge and incorporate those world views — even if it mismatches religious world views grossly. Without it, where is sincerity? Nothing else would be convincing.

Perhaps what is required is asking too much. My view is that it’s a minimum requirement for starting the debate.

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