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Friday, November 24, 2006

Reason and faith are not equivalent

Discussing a report by a committee at Harvard, Steven Pinker writes:
My second major reservation concerns the “Reason and Faith” requirement.

First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion.” An egregious example is the current administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” so-named because it is more palatable than “religion-based initiatives.” A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.

Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.” It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.
There's more, read the full thing.

Indeed, it astonishes me that people can think of science and religion as two parallel, equally respectable forces. They're not. Science tells us truths about the world that have been arrived at by observation, experiment and the rigorous application of reason. Religion, on the other hand, is essentially, as Pinker put it, "believing something without good reasons to do so." (By "good reasons", I mean "good reasons to indicate that it's true" and not "good reasons to believe in it", for there are plenty of such reasons, such as the comfort that religion brings. But a comforting story isn't necessarily a true one.)

This does not mean that I am anti-religion per se, or wish that everyone becomes an atheist. People have the right to believe in whatever they wish to believe in, but just because I respect that right does not mean that I should respect that belief. And it is outrageous and unreasonable to demand that those beliefs be placed on the same pedestal as science.

But when have the faithful ever cared about what is unreasonable?

Update: Ravi Venkatesh writes in:
The last line of your piece reminded me of this line from H2G2 by Douglas Adams - "I refuse to prove that I exist because proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing."
On that note, I can't resist pointing you, for the umpteenth time, to this marvellous interview in which Adams explains why he is an atheist.
amit varma, 4:20 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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