We often joke about religious people clinging to their beliefs no matter what the facts say. No amount of evidence in favor of evolution will convince a diehard Creationist to change his mind, right? But religions — not every believer, but faiths at large — actually adapt with society all the time. Scientists were once burned at the stake. Now even the Catholic Church is on the side of science (at least when it comes to issues like climate change and evolution).
Even in our lifetime, we’ve seen a tremendous shift at how Christians see homosexuality. What used to be completely taboo within the church is now accepted, if not fully embraced, and there’s a good chance evangelicals will come around to supporting marriage equality within a generation. That’s because we (society) led them down that road. And we’re all better off because of it.
The real question is how we can nudge religion in the direction of liberalism and inclusiveness even more. Name-calling doesn’t (always) work. You need patience. You need to be able to communicate so that your ideological opponents will listen to you.
Jeff T. Haley (an attorney and scientist) and Dale McGowan (who has written extensively on atheist relationships) have teamed up to write a new book all about how we can communicate effectively with religious people.
It’s called Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World (Pitchstone Publishing).
In the excerpt below, the authors write about why the scientific method is so reliable and how to spread that understanding:
To accept the scientific consensus on the facts (evidism) does not require an understanding of scientific methods or any ability to practice them. Acceptance can be taught by rote, such as by parents or teachers. Here are the three minimal elements of scientific understanding that should be taught to everyone.
(1) Science is reliable because it is vetted, and (2) you can look up the answers.
Some science-minded readers will gasp at this. Look it up?! Science is about rigorous, repeatable experimentation, careful observation, and presenting one’s findings to competent peers for review and critique! You’re right, of course. That’s exactly what the practice of science is about. But most people do not need to understand this or be able to practice it.
Most of the knowledge you and I have about the world and universe around us was not gained by first-hand experimentation and peer review. It was gained by accepting the findings of others who demonstrated their own respect for and adherence to the methods of science by putting it through the gauntlet of rigorous peer review. Consider your opinion that the earth orbits the sun rather than the other way around. How did you come to that conclusion? Not by observation, since the apparent “rising” and “setting” of the sun each day clearly suggests the opposite of the truth. You, like most people, learned that the earth orbits the sun from parents and teachers who in turn were delivering the findings of scientists over the centuries who did the hard first-hand work of figuring out this exceedingly nonintuitive truth.
The first and most important step in accepting the scientific consensus on facts (evidism) is understanding that the facts determined by science have been developed by the collective efforts of large numbers of people who have checked and criticized one another’s work to achieve a reliable consensus. Science has a system for weeding out what is false. This makes the scientific consensus on facts worthy of reliance by everyone. But the longer the chain of intermediaries between you and the science — in other words, the longer the game of Telephone that takes place in passing the information down to you — the greater the chance of introducing errors and misinformation.
Fortunately, we live in an age of unprecedented access to information via the Internet. It is hard for many people to recall a time before Google made its stunning mission to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” a practical reality.
The second important element to teach about science is that anyone with an Internet connection can look up the scientific consensus answer to nearly any factual question using resources such as Wikipedia or the simplified Wikipedia pages. You don’t need a strong scientific education to do this, so there is no longer an excuse for being a science denier.
(3) There is no 100 percent certainty for any fact.
The third element for accepting the scientific consensus on the facts (evidism) is understanding that each “fact” has an associated probability of being correct, and no facts are known to 100 percent certainty. Human knowledge is a constantly improving fuzzy approximation of reality. Each “fact” reflects a “model” or “theory” of reality, and each of our models of reality might turn out to be not quite right. For example, until Einstein improved our understanding of physics, it was an established “fact” that there is no limit to the speed that a moving object can achieve. Now our current model of reality has a firm limit equal to the speed of light.
Well, what about simpler and more obvious facts — that your body exists, for example, and that you are reading this book? It is fair to be extremely confident in these things, but can you really say you are absolutely, 100 percent certain? The existence of your body and your reading of this book might be taking place in a dream. That is not at all likely. The chances that your body exists and you are reading this book are very, very high — but they are still not 100 percent.
Thus, for people who accept the scientific way of knowing (evidism), the words “true” and “false” are not absolute as they seem but merely shorthand for particular probabilities. We accept as “true” those facts that have a very high probability of being true — likely enough that we rely on them — and we dismiss as “false” those proposed facts that have a low probability of being true. For proposed facts with a middling probability of being true, we might take no position or we might make branching decision plans with branches based on each possibility. These are the cases of “maybe.”
For example, there is a very small but larger than zero probability that leprechauns exist. If you happen to believe in leprechauns, to get an idea of how small the probability is, substitute “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Both are equally unlikely. For any proposed “fact” with such a small probability, we can describe it as “no more likely than leprechauns” and the shorthand is “false.”
Of course, science does not have an answer for all factual questions, and there are areas of factual inquiry where the present best answers are tentative and of moderate probability. These are areas where there is honest difference of opinion and we assign middling probabilities to each possible answer (the realm of “maybe”). However, in the last one hundred years, science has reached the point of having clear answers to nearly all factual issues relevant to understanding the reality of human experience.
It is important for everyone to understand that nothing is known to 100 percent certainty. Failure to understand this causes endless failures of communication on the subject of knowledge and great difficulty for students who just want answers. When we say we “know” something or that something is certain, we are speaking in shorthand. What we mean is that it is almost certainly true, likely enough true that we rely on it, not that it is impossible for it to be untrue. In our shorthand, anything that is no more likely than leprechauns is said to be “false” even if it might in fact be true.