Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Slate, Unthinking, on Scientology

I found this Slate article on Scientology (with the requisite Tom Cruise picture) via Jason Rosenhouse, who viewed it favorably. Actually, he (Jason) didn't review the article beyond providing a couple excerpts and stating that they "sound about right." So I'll take a gander at the same excerpts. As it turns out, I have a different perspective.

Mark Oppenheimer, the author of the Slate article writes, (boldface added):

Some Americans may consider Scientology perhaps a cult, maybe a violent sect, and certainly very weird. And, like many, I find the Church of Scientology odd, to say the least. But Scientology is no more bizarre than other religions. And it's the similarities between Scientology and, say, Christianity and Judaism that make us so uncomfortable. We need to hate Scientology, lest we hate ourselves.

Oppenheimer congratulates himself on having reached such an insightful conclusion.

But what exactly are these similarities between Scientology and Christianity and Judaism? Oppenheimer doesn't say. Well, I'll bet him a bottle of blended scotch that I can overwhelm his unlisted, vaporous similarities with factual, substantive differences. I will speculate, without much risk, that the alleged "similarities" amount to little more than "they are all religions." Like stating baseball is similar to golf. After all, they are both games that employ a ball. True at some level, but not very meaningful. The claim: And it's the similarities between Scientology and, say, Christianity and Judaism that make us so uncomfortable. We need to hate Scientology, lest we hate ourselves. is just unsubstantiated psycho-babble. (Aside: Scientology doesn't make me uncomfortable at all—I find it amusing.)

Jason, in his post, provided another excerpt from Oppenheimer's Slate article:

Does Scientology embrace pseudoscience? Absolutely—but its "engrams" and "E-meter" are no worse than what's propagated by your average Intelligent Design enthusiast. In fact, its very silliness makes it less pernicious.

Here we assume that Oppenheimer refers to ID in its full blown Dembskian-Wellsian-Beheian glory. But even that, which comes under regular criticism on this blog, does not rise to the same quality of error as "engrams" and "E-meter". ID's blunder is that it takes a reasonable conjecture: life, even at its simplest levels, is too complex to have arisen from purely natural processes and applies it beyond its domain, calling it science when it isn't, and then compounds the error by dishonestly claiming that the "science" of ID has nothing to do with religion—in an unconscionable end-justifies-the-means approach. But, at its heart, its life-is-too-complex conjecture, though it may be wrong, and though it is not science, is not an inherently unreasonable speculation.

To argue that a superficial similarity makes one mistake no worse than another is intellectual laziness. At most, the common thread linking ID to Scientology is that these are examples of beliefs that claim to be scientific but, in fact, are not. But that goes without saying—and such a simpleminded conclusion (Scientology is no worse than ID) is only meant to add a faux-gravitas to what is already understood. And why stop there? Like ID, String Theory is something that claims to be science yet makes no contact with experiment. Is believing in engrams and trusting the E-meter "no worse" than String Theory? Of course, that would be an absurd conclusion. But that is what you get if you rely on simpleminded arguments.

This all reminds me of the oft-repeated, virtually mantra-like insistence among the e-atheist crowd that belief in God is no different than belief in Santa Claus. It's a stupid remark that, from an atheist perspective, is at best superficially true. An intelligent atheist would recognize that the presence of billions of adults, many highly educated and including many scientists, who believe in God and organize their lives around that belief, is substantively different from the simple Santa Claus myth that we knowingly, with a wink and a nod, foist upon our children. A smart atheist would sense that, even though both are beliefs that are not based on scientific evidence (the superficial similarity), there is obviously something quite different going on in the one case as opposed to the other.

Alas, there doesn't seem to be many intelligent and prominent atheists these days—nobody in the league of the intellectual God-haters of the past. Dawkins's arguments, for example, boiled down to their essence, and it takes very little heat, amount to "Religion is bad" and "If God made everything, then who made God?" The so-called "New Atheism" is a movement badly in need of sound intellectual footing. At the moment, it is being led by bumpkins.

No comments:

Post a Comment