Jun 30, 2010

On Dawkins and Yellow Walllpaper

The Huffington Post is running a series on the conflict between science and religion. I largely think this perceived divide is the false construct of the most dogmatic extremes at both ends -- religious fundamentalism and scientism. That said, there is no arguing that many avowed atheists with incredible antipathy towards religion and spirituality point to science as an absolute "truth" which disproves religion. Worse, the new trend among atheists is to define such beliefs as a form of mental illness. That view is typified and galvanized by books like Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. (See previous discussions here and here.)

Knowing a little something about mental illness, psychology professor Matt J. Rossano takes on the religion as delusion argument.

Calling religion delusional has become an increasingly popular strategy for its critics. To my ear, there's more to this than just a benign slight -- there's at least the hint of the pathological. Religion can be delusional, but to think it inherently so is to misunderstand both religion and delusion.

Having spent my entire professional career around psychologists, I'm all too aware of how clinicians cringe when diagnostic terms get tossed about willy-nilly. So let's begin with what the latest APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV-TR, p. 821) says about delusion:

A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).

Psychology is an even softer science than evolutionary biology so it isn't surprising that Dawkins would be unconcerned about bastardizing it. But the larger problem for the "religion as delusion" camp is that, as a matter of pure science, it's awfully hard to prove a negative. (Example: Before germ theory was proven by developments in microscopy and analysis, belief in bacterial causes of illness was also considered a delusion.)

Rossano continues:

First, religions largely traffic in beliefs that stand outside of easy evidentiary evaluation -- in other words, religious notions tend to be neither verifiable nor falsifiable. For example, most of the global religions have long-standing rituals designed to provide cleansing of the soul or forgiveness of sins. There's a far shorter history (if any at all) of rituals that protect one from bullets or other lethal projectiles. Rituals claiming to accomplish the latter are simply too easily refuted by evidence. What gets winnowed out of religions over time are those practices or notions that place too great a strain on credulity. The ideas that remain are stubbornly oblique to empirical analysis. It's very hard to prove or disprove whether a benevolent God exists, or that the universe has purpose, or that man has a spiritual as well as material nature. Whatever evidence one might raise on these questions is, at best, ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. [Emphases mine]

As Deepak Chopra explains, it is not only a belief in God or the spiritual world that is subjective and impossible to evaluate empirically but inner life more broadly.

Children believe that their mothers love them. The proof they have is the same as the proof of God - a subjective feeling. The fact that God is subjective doesn't make the deity unreal, but it radically shifts the burden of proof. All subjective states are personal and therefore impossible to verify objectively. There is no way to tell if two people looking at a daffodil see the same shade of yellow, much less that they are referring to the same thing when they use the word "God." Even brain scans provide nothing more than a rough location for where such thoughts occur, nothing about their validity.

Skeptics make hay out of this situation. In his wildly popular book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins marshaled the force of science against God almost entirely by making one point over and over: God can't be objectively verified. He didn't seem to realize that the point itself is pointless. Beauty, truth, love, morality, ethics, and every other aspect of our inner life cannot be verified by science, either. Shifting the burden of proof to the inner world leaves scientific measurement behind, but it doesn't make beauty, truth, morality, and the rest false. If I find Picasso beautiful and you don't, our disagreement isn't a matter of who's right and who's wrong. Each person's consciousness is a domain of personal experience that relies on itself. Having a right to your own opinion, however bizarre, is the same as asserting your own awareness.

It is this core fallacy, propounded endlessly by dogmatic atheists, that shows them to be proponents of scientism; not science. Such scientism says that that which can't be empirically demonstrated is disproved. A genuinely scientific approach, on the other hand, would consider it unproven. Big difference.

In reading the above, what popped into my head was that staple of college lit classes, The Yellow Wallpaper. (Text can be found here.) The largely autobiographical short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman -- who, herself, suffered from post-pardum depression and was subjected to Weir Mitchell's "rest cure" -- graphically demonstrates how the cure was worse than the disease. The story, told in first person narrative, is a searing indictment of the best approach medical science of the time had to offer for the range of emotional and hormonal disruptions to which the "weaker sex" is prone. Confined for her "rest" to a room with hideous, faded, yellow wallpaper, she begins to decompensate. The wallpaper becomes a kind of giant Rorschach blot reflecting her devolution into madness. But this is not simply a story of progressive insanity. What drives the protagonist completely mad is not the post-pardum depression. The problem we find as the narrative unfolds is that creativity, love of beauty and nature, and sensitivity are all treated as part of her "pathology." She is colorful and imaginative but it is not her "fancies" that drive her inexorably into madness. Rather, it's the suppression of them. We see her soul crushed by the relentless empiricism, impatience, and intolerance, of her doctor husband.

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.

As we view this story, a century later, it serves as a telling reminder of science as an evolving study; not a dispenser of unassailable truth. Neurosurgeon Weir Mitchell was wrong and even admitted that Gillman's story caused him to reevaluate his approach. Gillman's decision to trust her own intuition and inner drives over doctor's orders saved her sanity. She chucked the rest cure and went back to pursuing her passions. Her tragic, fictional heroine followed the regimen and lost her mind. The real genius of the story is in how it depicts the disastrous effects of man's scientific and medical certitude -- his dismissal and devaluation of her inner truth -- on his wife's life and health.

Dealing with a lot of the New Atheists is just as maddening. The smug certainty that they've got the real lock on truth and that anyone who perceives a world of spirit is loopy makes me... well... not want to deal with them. I have all these "notions" about how people are entitled to their own interpretations of the world around them... and within them.

Psychologist Stan Grof goes farther still, bristling at the limitations of psychology itself for dealing fairly with the experiential awareness afforded by entheogens and other shamanic practices. Whether or not one pursues a shamanic or mystical path, we need the freedom to explore our own consciousness, even when these experiences cannot be seen or understood by others. It's a path towards, not away from, sanity and wholeness. It's having our spirits crushed by the relentless invalidation of  dogmatic prescriptivism, whether religious or atheist, that can be ruinous.

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