Monday, July 28, 2008

Teachers and Critics

A week ago I returned from the 2008 CFI Student Leadership Conference. Lasting from Thursday evening until Sunday at noon, the conference saw a wide variety of lectures, discussions, and activities. Saturday and Sunday in particular were filled with information useful to leaders of community and campus groups. The three other officers of the IU Secular Alliance who attended and I will have plenty to work on and discuss before September brings about the return of the student body.

Although there were a lot of positive things I could write about (the discussion on representation and diversity could warrant a blog of its own), I felt like there was one leftover thought from Friday's sessions that I needed to exorcise, a thought that briefly came up today during a "Russell's Tea Party" here in Bloomington.

Despite reminders throughout the weekend that the conference was not an atheist conference, during the Friday sessions there was an inordinate amount of war rhetoric, sometimes subtle and sometimes plainly stated in the "us vs them" terms of allies and enemies. I'm certainly sympathetic to the notion that we are engaged in a culture war, but as advocates for a democratic process and reasonable debate, the metaphor seems like an inappropriate way for us to characterize the relationship. Do we really want to play the role of religion's adversary? Is the purpose of the skeptical/secular community to be simply critics and fact-checkers?

I think we have more to offer. We possess the narrative that relates us to our world, and it's not simply a narrative of facts, its a narrative about how we know what we know, about how we are constantly able to learn more, and about how anyone, anywhere, can expand our knowledge about ourselves.

As critics and antagonists, a number of our voices are failing because they speak without listening. Not a small percentage of vocal atheists have a tendency to define the terms of religion for the religious and ignore the many different forms of belief. Just as creationism varies from YEC to Deism, even the various traditions of a single religion like Christianity runs from those who believe they know their god's will to those who treat religion as a learning experience. When some atheists insist that religion is purely dogmatic or based on blind faith alone, it leaves out the many believers for whom naturalism and debates with nonbelievers are means toward understanding their god and our place in creation, and it leaves out those who have had deeply moving personal experiences.

To avoid such strawmen, we need to let the religious be in charge of their own definitions. We need to become aware of the disagreements between theists and begin our work there. The most important questions we can ask are "how do you know this?" and "how would you know if you are wrong?" More likely than convincing believers to deconvert is the possibility that we can convince believers that they can gain a better understanding of their religion if they adopt an improved method of verification. Contemporary disagreements show that the problem of communication isn't just an abstract proof, it's something religious groups and individuals struggle with daily. It's at the very heart of the translation issues that divides denominations and keeps grammars in Biblical Hebrew in stock at Christian bookstores.

In fact, that's a prime example of an area where we can do better. Everyday people are interested in learning more about the life of Jesus and early Christian history. This has spurred The Da Vinci Code and the many books that debunk it into the bestseller lists. With all of the multiple theories put forward, one can't help but find some common ground with any particular individual, no matter what they believe: at least some version of the Jesus story must be false in their view. The question is how they determine which are false and which are true and why their preferred theory passes those tests.

In American education, there has long been an on-and-off focus on constructivism: the concept that complex ideas aren't memorized so much as they are reconstructed within the mind of an individual student as they become familiar with the evidence and continuously evaluate the idea. In a constructivist's classroom, students are treated less as robots being fed code and more like miniature scientists set on the task of demonstrating some claim. It shifts the instructional focus from "ix X right?" to "how could we know X?" Many of the topics that come up in a religious debate are best served by the constructivist approach, especially as neither side typically has access to all of the data. We cannot show that Jesus never existed (if we even wanted to), but we can help show that if we accept the evidence for a life of Jesus as described in the Gospels it would lead us to criteria that demand we accept many other claims about the ancient and modern worlds that many Christians would be reluctant to accept.

Of course, this approach has the possibility of appearing smarter-than-thou, as if we are educators and possess all the answers. But this is a misunderstanding of both education and our position (albeit not a misunderstanding held by believers alone). We do not have the answers and never will. Skepticism isn't founded on statements like "Bigfoot doesn't exit" or "remote viewing is bullshit." Modern skepticism is about questioning the validity of the processes and reasoning that lead to claims and the acknowledgment that human psychology is predisposed to think irrationally without safeguards. A war narrative seems inappropriate for what should be a negotiation between multiple voices in a secular, democratic state. We are not here to combat the religious. We are here to show how effective homespun science is uncovering reality.

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