On Stenger’s narcissistic America, and picking and choosing what science to believe

People may criticize the view as unfair to religious scientists and something which fans the flames, making Science appear more incompatible with religion than it is, but I think atheist leader Dr Victor Stenger has a point. Interviewed by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Dr Stenger was asked:

Dr. Stenger, you have said our addiction to magical thinking may “doom” humanity. Could you explain what you meant by “doomed”?

He replied:

I of course was thinking of climate change and possible disasters like nuclear war. This is a place where Richard, the four horsemen and I differ greatly from other atheists. I read all the time that we should be more accommodating and sensitive to religious beliefs. But if we don’t work towards the elimination of magical thinking, I just don’t think accommodation will do us any good. We can’t make decisions based on faith and ancient texts written by primitive people living in the desert thousands of years ago. That doesn’t mean we have to eliminate various cultural aspects of religion, such as rituals like the marriage ceremony, music or art. I enjoy these things too.

To another question, Dr Stenger replies (emphasis added in quotation):

You cannot use scare tactics with people, who won’t listen. Americans are narcissistic; to make changes, they have to see the advantages individually. It’s amusing that Oklahoma’s governor wanted to tax solar panels. But many conservatives had solar panels on their houses and loudly objected to new taxes. Now the governor supports solar panels and wind power. People must see a benefit to themselves. Al Gore’s “the sky is falling” approach did little good. It’s time to take a more optimistic approach, and that includes me getting rid of my own pessimism.

I think the two points are related. Individualism in the United States has trumped and triumphed over most other cultural values, at least since the 1980s. The icon of modern individualism is the so-called “smart phone”, and the iconic smart phone is the chic, sleek iPhone. It has extended to the point that some Americans feel if they cannot understand something technical immediately, it is the explainer’s fault or the fault of the material, and, so, they should not invest the effort trying to understand it. I personally trace this idea to a form of “magical thinking” where, since the theology of the Great Awakenings, “all that matters” is the relationship of the individual with a Personal, Divine Savior, and all understanding is unimportant except that relationship. I don’t want to pick on Personal Divine Saviors. People who place New Age crystals or Wicca preeminent are just as misguided. No doubt this practice by individuals distorts original meaning, but the effect is to bless the “gut feel” as being the paramount means of decision, whether in personal lives or polity, or choice of television program. The idea of extended preparation, the long study, the careful training is relegated to the Old Way, or extremely exceptional, or to unimportance in the “real world”. In this world, TV series and sports rule.

The notion extends to business as well, even technical fields, such as in many Web-based businesses where the ideal product is one which demands but an incremental change and brings large profits. Sure, it is sensible to pursue these when they arrive. But it is foolish and unrealistic to think most products will be of this kind, in the same manner that Garrison Keillor’s residents of Lake Wobegon believe “… all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”. Most products demand cultivation. Most technical products have, historically, demanded investment, development in proprietary circles, and ultimately release. Financial products may be an exception, but I won’t speculate upon the relationship between those and the movement to demand the same of technical companies.

To the degree that religions promulgate immediate experience of reality and tolerate and even encourage various forms of magical thinking, I agree with Stenger, Dawkins, Harris, Dennet, and Hitchens.

Accordingly, it is of no surprise to me that people pick and choose what science they want to believe, as described on Dr Dan Satterfield’s AGU blog. This was featured in a piece on MSNBC by Chris Hayes called “Unscientific American”.

Nature is Nature. Physics is Physics. Professional study can make some aspects of Nature and Physics easier to understand, but they ultimately demand their own understanding, in their own terms.


I am an atheist, and a physicalist. Despite that, I affiliate with the Sherborn congregation of the Unitarian Universalist movement, specifically in Sherborn, MA, where I am hardly the only atheist. The relationship is decidedly bumpy, but one needs to affiliate with some welcoming group and, alas, the Ethical Society of Boston is too far away for weekly visits, costing too much CO2 at present. I do go there when I know services at UUAC will probably be intolerable.

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This entry was posted in atheism, history, humanism, politics, rationality, reasonableness, science, Unitarian Universalism. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On Stenger’s narcissistic America, and picking and choosing what science to believe

  1. Pingback: Taking advantage of the natural skepticism and integrity of scientists and their co-workers, and their commitment to scientific process | Hypergeometric

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