Science, knowledge, belief – and faith
Most people in Australia regard those who refuse to be vaccinated in an epidemic as behaving irrationally. The same goes for those who think that climate change does not pose a real threat to us all. And they would think the same of those Americans who think that the last Presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, or that the attack on the Capitol was a harmless protest by people with a real grievance.
Some would give the benefit of the doubt to those who think that the Book of Genesis is literally true. I would not. In my view, that proposition is as demonstrably false as a suggestion that the earth is flat. Just when irrational behaviour might be characterised as madness depends on your point of view – and it is a matter of degree.
But as I see it, we have passed the time when people can claim a right to be irrational because that irrationality aligns with their faith. Among other things, faith is beyond logic – by definition. Faith is not irrational – it is beyond rational, or. if you prefer –it is non-rational.
And in my view, too many people of faith have abused the rights allowed to them by others. Take, for example, the role of Evangelicals in the degradation of the United States; the role of Pentecostals in our treatment of refugees; or the quite vicious campaign against the gay community by such a frightful outfit as the Australian Christian Lobby. It is hard to know which of those three words is more objectionable in this context.
I was brought up in that faith and I have lost it. But the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth are part of my fabric, and I am revolted by the outrages against humanity perpetrated by people purportedly in his name.
We need to do more to understand what drives people to irrational beliefs and behaviour. It looks to come from our anxiety about uncertainty. The craving for simple black and white is the undoing of the weak and the fate of the dunce.
Even intellectual giants like Spinoza, Kant and Einstein rejected a personal God, but left room for a God who was the source of all of the wonder in the universe. That is not surprising, since it probably explains how religion gets off the ground in the first place. It is curious, then, is it not, that beliefs meant to help us deal with what we cannot comprehend are used to justify beliefs that we cannot logically defend?
Another source of this infection is what is called inequality. There were few of life’s winners in the attack on the Capitol. The mix of anxiety and grievance are blood to a tiger for monied mountebanks like Trump, Farage and Palmer.
People who hold opinions that others see as irrational, if not downright mad, claim that their rights and freedom are infringed by those who seek to give legal effect or protection to the contrary views. They also say that there is no law against irrational behaviour.
Any law affects the rights and freedom of others. To object to a law merely because it does what any law does is irrational. Similarly, government reacts differently between people who comply with the law and community standards and those who don’t –such as murderers and rapists. It is equally fallacious to stigmatise this conduct of government as bad by applying to it the label of ‘segregation’. That makes as much sense as calling a sausage dog a greyhound.
Enforcing traffic lights affects the rights or freedoms of all of us. As does the ban on blind people or colour-blind people driving a car. The question in each case is whether the restriction is warranted in the interests of the welfare of the community.
In a democracy, that decision is made by the majority of the community. If you are a member of that community and you do not like the decision of the majority, you face choices. If you are not a member of the community, the choice is simple. If you are not prepared to pay the price, you don’t get in.
Yes, irrationality is not of itself against the law, but our obligations to others in our community are not limited to those imposed by the law – and God save us from those who say that they are.
Irrational thinking can lead to behaviour that is, when objectively viewed, harmful to others in the community, whether or not it is contrary to law.
While people may to an extent be legally ‘free’ to behave irrationally, they might at least have the courtesy to stay away from those who upon reasonable grounds – the only relevantly qualified opinion – believe that their irrational behaviour may be harmful to the others who are behaving within the expectations of the community as a whole.
And as it happens, our governments have made laws to give effect to that simple proposition.
That, then, takes me back to those who believe in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis – because, say, they believe that that book is the word of God, or that faith in some curious way trumps science.
The abstract word ‘science’ – which comes from the Latin ‘to know’ – may be misleading. It took a long time for science to establish that the earth goes round the sun. It took longer to demonstrate the process of evolution and that the universe has been here for millions of years longer than the bible allows. It took almost as long for science to prove that a lack of cleanliness can lead to illness and death. But now, in 2022, we know all those things as matters of fact.
And we also know that vaccination can reduce the risk of the incidence or severity of illness. And we know that one such illness is that associated with the Covid virus.
People who want to defy the common sense that underlies each of those propositions are playing silly word games that bespeak a failure of education and are as attractive and as safe as the solemn dedication of little boys’ playing with matches.
And next time you hear someone utter that banal statement ‘I accept the science’, ask them what that means over and above ‘I know that the sun rose again this morning.’
Now, for the first time in this discussion, we go from knowledge to belief.
If we want to understand the stars, we go to those who are learned in astronomy, not those who subscribe to the magic of astrology. This is because we prefer to take our advice from those who know what they are talking about to those who don’t. To do otherwise is to act irrationally – to the point of madness.
So, if we are confronted with a choice about how to react to a serious issue involving the law or medicine, we take advice from people whose professional training and practice over many years qualifies them to give that advice. None is perfect and there are many bad apples, but the professional people offer the best chance of advice that derives from their membership of a learned profession.
So, in dealing with a pandemic, we and those we put in government act with advice from the medical profession. It’s been a very long time in our part of the world since we went to priests, or Tarot card readers, for advice on issues of health.
We do this because experience teaches us to believe that this is the most sensible way to proceed. We believe that we should act on the advice of doctors about the prospects of the vaccine being of use or offering risk to each of us – because we think that the doctors are the people best placed to express the relevant opinion. Then we make decisions for ourselves, and our governments make decisions and laws for our community at large.
The medical experts advise us that the more people who are appropriately vaccinated against Covid, the better off will be the whole community. I can say that I know that to be the case, but whether that proposition is expressed to be one of belief or knowledge, it is one that it is proper for me and those elected to government to act on in deciding how we should best face the risk of the pandemic.
I work out how I might best protect myself, including by getting vaccinated, and the government makes laws to seek the best protection possible to the community at large – including laws requiring people to be vaccinated, or dealing with those who wish to act against what a clear majority believe to be in their best interests by not getting vaccinated.
The issue then gets stuck because you cannot argue with most of the people who hold irrational views about vaccination (or with most supporters of Donald Trump). The refusal to respect and act according to the laws of logic is at the heart of the irrational person’s condition. It is not just that the conscientious objector, if we may use that phrase, does not agree with the majority. He or she opts out of the rules that are indispensable to sensible dialogue. It is in my view a form of repudiation of the social compact.
It is like the person who opts out of any discussion of abortion by defining abortion as murder and saying that murder is non-negotiable. I see no real difference between those two people and one who says: ‘Don’t talk to me about traffic lights. I am colour blind, devoted to my freedom, and I regard Clive Palmer to be as saintly as Donald Trump and Craig Kelly to be smarter than any doctor.’
All that looks to me to be very dangerous – because as well as being irrational, this behaviour is also downright selfish. And there you have a source of conflict that is likely to lead to a breach of the peace between the two conflicting groups. As when people who have complied with community expectations who need medical aid cannot get it because their bed has been taken by a selfish person who has not complied with those expectations – because they have put their interests over the interests of others.
Which leads me to one proposition that cannot I think be dismissed as merely ad hominem. The people who hold out against vaccination do so, they say, because of some misgiving about medical advice. One thing seems clear. One thing seems certain. For most of them, most of those misgivings go clean out the window from the time they ring triple 0, get into the ambulance, and cross the threshold of the hospital – all funded by me and others who have done what the community expects of us. Those who once opted out have now opted straight back in, with all the electrified zeal of the groom on his wedding night.
These other people, then, are not just stupid and selfish, but they are plain shifty and gutless.
And the history of the world is tragically littered with crimes committed and wars undertaken under the aegis of faith. If you want to know how corrosive religion may be, just look at how the bible was taken to the natives of Africa and both of the Americas. Look at what the white people did to the aborigines in Australia, and the way that we treat refugees now. Or just read the shocking but brutal banality of the wording of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. (If you have forgotten, the hymn came from a song created to celebrate the life and death of a fanatical religious zealot whose cold-blooded murders so accurately encapsulate the spirit of what Americans call 9/11 and reveal that dreadful lesion of violence in the American psyche. That is some hymn.)
Why in dealing with the trouble we have with irrational people, do I refer to the trouble we have with non-rational followers of faith? Because both here and in the U S, people of faith are seeking to have our laws conform to dogma that they seek to justify by reference to their faith. In doing so, they show a self-interest which is beyond justification by logic alone. They end up just as badly placed as people whose selfishness is driven by irrationality.
Religion is not so much a back door as a front door to unreason. But many of its manifestations bear frightening resemblance to the plague of conspiracy theories that now pose as serious a threat as Covid.
Take the major faith followed in this country. Its essential premise is that a Jewish hasid who was barbarously executed after a show trial that became a lottery later rose from the dead. A dispassionate lawyer would describe the evidence supporting the story of the resurrection as at best problematic. But millions have died over disputes about drinking the blood of the deceased or whether the godhead comes in three parts. (The doctrine of the real presence was denounced by act of parliament in 1539, and Isaac Newton of Trinity College could never understand the doctrine of the Trinity.)
Another major faith allows the virgin birth, but denies the crucifixion. One cult may or may not be a sect of our major faith, but you might get a knock on the door from people who love money and multiple marriages and who believe that their faith in Israelites sailing to America was set down in golden tablets brought down by an angel. Just how you rate these against QAnon[GG1] is I suppose a matter of degree – or taste.
However that may be, it is arithmetically inevitable that most people in the world believe that most religions of the world are baseless – in truth downright silly. Unless the resulting tensions are well managed, you get lethal conflict. In the result, religion is behind so much of the conflict in the world.
But their tendentious bases do not dampen the political ambitions of the faithful. So, we get these nonsensical claims that people should be protected in the freedom of their religion by being free to sack people because they are gay. This is not just selfish and irrational – it hurts real people and it endangers the social fabric of our community.
In my view, the ambitions of the faithful are now so large that not only should we resist their demands for more legal protection – we should also stop giving them relief from paying tax. That is another way that these people have not been pulling their weight. And it is time that they were told to pull their bloody heads in.
The time for allowing legal privileges to churches of any shape or colour has long since passed – not least because those who follow Scientology claim the relevant benefits. Scientology is as ugly a virus in the body corporate as you could imagine.
And as Kant remarked, no ruler can come between you and God. It is only when you seek to practise your faith in public so that it affects others that you become subject to the laws of the land. Your freedom ends when others get hurt. The Vatican did deals with evil people like Napoleon, Hitler, and Franco, but even those people could not stop people praying to their God.
There are now disturbing reports in the press of the Liberal Party’s being infiltrated, if that word may be permitted, by people from very odd religious sects, whose views on life would almost certainly not match those of most of the electorate. And who don’t mind dabbling in corruption.
There certainly appears to be a cabal of Pentecostals in the federal government. That is led by a man whose devotion to the teaching of the holy man who gave us the parable of the good Samaritan is revealed by his keeping a plaque on a wall celebrating his part in sending in armed forces against unarmed refugees. Does this man of faith really say that he does not know why that makes so many people feel sick?
It is not just that we have a government that is intellectually challenged and morally compromised – but we have a return of the infection of our politics by religion – which we thought we had shed about half a century ago.
Let me conclude by disclosing my main bias in all this. I am 76 years old, with a heart condition including one heart attack, terminal lung cancer in remission, and incurable emphysema. This virus, in any mutation, could have me for breakfast without stopping for its or my breath. I have been kept above the ground by the care and skill of the nurses and doctors in the best health care system in the world.
It is appalling to think that all of that may be undone by a few selfish fools. In truth, I see these people as suffering from a kind of madness. And if you wish to be reminded just how dangerous such people can be, take another look at those mad, bad people who attacked the Capitol last year – and the awful clown who inspired them.
Anti-vax – freedom of religion – Liberal Party – Morrison – Conspiracy theories