Rigorous What?

There’s a bizarrely idiotic argument from a commentator on NPR here. The subject is religion, and the Brights, and Dennett’s editorial again. The commentary starts off with the name, which I have no intention of defending: I think it’s absurd, and I’d rather be nibbled by sharks than call myself a Bright. But then it goes on.

55% of people with post-graduate degrees (lawyers, doctors, dentists, and the like) believe in the Devil. 53% believe in Hell. 72% believe in miracles. Remember these are people with post-graduate educations. 78% if them believe in the survival of the soul after death. 60% believe in the virgin birth. And 64% believe in the resurrection of Christ. You can’t get a post-graduate degree without being taught rigorous examination of evidence – figuring out which symptoms indicate a particular disease, or what facts could justify a lawsuit.

Sure you can, if you pick the right subject. I believe there are PhDs in theology, for instance, and in Critical Theory. And besides that, learning rigorous examination of the evidence that applies to one field is not automatically the same thing as learning what counts as evidence in general. Don’t we all know that? Don’t we all know people who are expert in their own field and lost in the fog as soon as they leave it?

Skeptics would say that the human need for something beyond the realities we can touch is so strong that even highly educated people end up manufacturing delusional belief systems. But there is another possibility – that some of these rationally oriented people have found actual proof for their beliefs. Maybe they’ve had a personal supernatural experience with prayer that makes them believe in God or an afterlife. Maybe they’ve found a compelling logic to their views. Perhaps they’ve looked at the universe and said, “something made the big bang happen.” For some highly educated people, faith is not a matter of faith. Rather, they see around them evidence. Evidence that is, to be sure, hard to explain or prove to others, but is nonetheless quite compelling to them.

Our commentator, for instance, seems to be pretty much lost in the fog. Just for a start, ‘actual proof’? A ‘personal supernatural experience with prayer’ constitutes ‘actual proof’? Is that the rigorous examination of evidence Steven Waldman was taught when he got his postgraduate degree? First, to say proof when he means evidence, and then to take someone’s ‘personal supernatural experience’ as evidence? And third, to claim that evidence that can’t be explained or proven to others is nevertheless evidence? Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron? If evidence is convincing to no one but the person who presents it as ‘evidence’ then it really isn’t evidence, is it, it’s something else. By definition. One would think that would be one of the very first things one would learn when being taught this ‘rigorous examination of evidence’ Waldman says all these highly educated believers in the Devil and Hell and the resurrection of Jesus are in fact taught. Perhaps Waldman skipped class that day.

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