Values, Science and Religion

It seems to me that the obligation to expose religious beliefs as nonsensical is an ethical one incumbent upon every anthropological scientist, for the simple reason that the essential ethos of science lies in an unwavering dedication to truth. As Frankel and Trend (1991:182) put it, “the basic demand of science is that we seek and tell the honest truth, insofar as we know it, without fear or favor.” In the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the evidence is the only thing that matters. Emotional, aesthetic, or political considerations are never germane to the truth or falsity of any propositional claim. (There are moons around Jupiter, just as Galileo claimed, even though the Catholic Church and most Christians at the time did not like him for saying it.) In science, there is no room for compromise in the commitment to candor. Scientists cannot allow themselves to be propagandists or apologists touting convenient or comforting myths.

It is not simply our desires for intellectual honesty and disciplinary integrity that compel us to face the truth about religious beliefs; as anthropologists, we are specifically enjoined to do so by our code of ethics. According to the Revised Principles of Professional Responsibility adopted by the American Anthropological Association in 1990, anthropologists have an explicit obligation “to contribute to the formation of informational grounds upon which public policy may be founded” (Fluehr-Lobban 1991:276). When anthropologists fail to publicly proclaim the falsity of religious beliefs, they fail to live up to their ethical responsibilities in this regard. In a debate concerning public policy on population control, for example, anthropologists have an ethical obligation to explain that God does not disapprove of the use of contraceptives because there is no such thing as God.

We also have an obligation not to pick and choose which truths we are willing to tell publicly. I think, for example, that the political threat from the oxymoronic “scientific creationists” would be better met if anthropologists were to debunk the entire range of creationist claims (including the belief that God exists as well as the belief that humans and dinosaurs were contemporaneous); otherwise the creationists will continue to criticize us, with considerable justification, for our arbitrariness and inconsistency in choosing which paranormal claims we will accept or tolerate and which we will attack (see Toumey 1994).

I am convinced that our collective failure to stake out a firm anthropological position on paranormal phenomena has compromised our intellectual integrity, weakened our public credibility, and hampered our political effectiveness. Carlos Castaneda was able to use his anthropological credentials to buttress the credibility (and the sales) of his paranormal fantasies, partly because, as far as the general public knew, the discipline of anthropology accepted the reality of hundred-foot gnats and astral projection (de Mille 1990). While it is true that most individual anthropologists rejected Castaneda’s paranormal claims, few did so publicly or effectively (Murray 1990). In fact, our discipline as a whole has a lamentable record when it comes to public responses to paranormal claims. There have been notable exceptions in archeology and biological anthropology, where a number of scholars have responded forcefully and well to the ancient astronaut and creationist myths (e.g., White 1974; Cole 1978; Rathje 1978; Cazeau and Scott 1979; Godfrey 1983; Stiebing 1984; Cole and Godfrey 1985; Harold and Eve 1987; Feder 1980, 1984, 1990), but cultural anthropologists have been remarkably remiss in responding to the myriad paranormal claims that fall within their domain (see Lett 1991).

Margaret Mead, for example, maintained a lifelong interest in paranormal phenomena and was an ardent champion of irrational beliefs (Gardner 1988). She was apparently persuaded that “some individuals have capacities for certain kinds of communications which we label telepathy and clairvoyance” (Mead 1977:48), even though the most casual scholarship would have revealed that that proposition has been decisively falsified (the evidence comes from more than a century of intensive research that has been thoroughly documented and widely disseminated–see Kurtz 1985; Druckman and Swets 1988; Hansel 1989; Alcock 1990). In 1969, Mead was influential in persuading the American Association for the Advancement of Science to accept the habitually pseudoscientific Parapsychological Association as a constituent member. In all of this, Mead used her considerable talents for popularization to promulgate nonsensical beliefs among the general public. However sincere and well-intentioned, her efforts were irresponsible, unprofessional, and unethical; worse still, they were not atypical of cultural anthropology. (See Note 6)

Even those anthropologists who do not share Mead’s gullibility have been notably reluctant to confront the truth about paranormal beliefs. Anthony Wallace, for example, in all likelihood thought he was being purely objective when he decided to avoid the “extremes of piety and iconoclasm” and to regard religion as “neither a path of truth nor a thicket of superstition” (Wallace 1966:5). In science, however, being objective does not entail being fair to everyone involved; instead, being objective entails being fair to the truth. The simple truth of the matter is that religion is a thicket of superstition, and if we have an ethical obligation to tell the truth, we have an ethical obligation to say so.

I find Wallace’s equivocation on the truth or falsity of religious beliefs to be particularly regrettable, because his Religion: An Anthropological View is one of the justly celebrated classics in the anthropology of religion. Wallace, of course, would not agree that his stance is anything less than fair and appropriate; indeed, he is very forthright in declaring and defending his value position. In the opening pages of his book, for example, he states that “although my own confidence has been given to science rather than to religion, I retain a sympathetic respect and even admiration for religious people and religious behavior” (Wallace 1966:vi).

I suspect that most anthropologists would be inclined to agree with Wallace. Eric Gans (1990:1), who has urged anthropologists to “demonstrate a far greater concern and respect for the form and content of religious experience,” is one who clearly shares Wallace’s sympathy for the religious temperament. Whether Wallace and Gans are justified in according religious people respect and admiration is a debatable question, however. No reasonable person would deny that religious people are entitled to their convictions, but an important distinction must be made between an individual’s right to his or her own opinion (which is always inalienable) and the rightness of that opinion (which is never unchallengeable). With that in mind, it could be argued that individuals who are led by ignorance or timidity to embrace incorrect opinions might deserve empathy and compassion, but they would hardly deserve respect and admiration. Respect and admiration, instead, should be reserved for individuals who exhibit dignity, courage, or nobility in response to the universal challenges of human life.

The philosopher Paul Kurtz (1983) articulates just such a position in a lengthy rebuttal to religious values entitled In Defense of Secular Humanism. From Kurtz’s point of view, religious people live in a world of illusion, unwilling to accept and face reality as it is. In order to maintain their beliefs, they must prostitute their intellectual integrity, denying the abundant contradictory evidence that constantly surrounds them. They exhibit an “immature and unhealthy attitude” that is “out of touch with cognitive reality” and that “has all the hallmarks of pathology” (Kurtz 1983:173). Religious people fail to exhibit the moral courage that is the foundation of a responsible approach to life.

The physicist Victor Stenger (1990) shares Kurtz’s disdain for religious commitment, and he is one of many skeptical rationalists in a variety of fields who do so. Religious people, Stenger argues, fail to accept responsibility for defining the meaning and conduct of their own lives; instead, they lazily and thoughtlessly embrace an inherited set of illogical wish-fulfillment fantasies. By refusing to fully utilize their quintessentially human attributes–the abilities to think, to wonder, to discover, to learn–religious people deny themselves the possibility of human dignity or nobility. It is only those with the courage to reject religious commitment, Stenger (1990:31-32) suggests, who deserve admiration; in his words, “those who have no need to deny the reality they see with their own eyes willingly trade an eternity of slavery to supernatural forces for a lifetime of freedom to think, to create, to be themselves.”

It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I concur completely with Kurtz and Stenger. Nevertheless, my personal values regarding religion are entirely beside the point; I mention this only to point out the irony of our discipline’s frequent sympathy for religious commitment. In Western culture, the concept of religious “faith” has a generally positive connotation, but there is nothing positive about the reality masked by that obfuscatory term. “Faith” is nothing more than the willingness to reach an unreasonable conclusion–i.e., a conclusion that either lacks confirming evidence or one that contains disconfirming evidence. Willful ignorance, deliberate self-deception, and delusionary thinking are not admirable human attributes. Religion prejudicially regards faith as an exceptional virtue, but science properly recognizes it as a dangerous vice.

In the final analysis, however, it is irrelevant whether religious conviction deserves respect and admiration, as Wallace and Gans propose, or contempt and disdain, as I believe. My point instead is a very basic one: as scientists, we all have an ethical obligation to tell the truth, regardless of whether that truth is attractive or unattractive, diplomatic or undiplomatic, polite or impolite. As anthropologists, we have not been telling the truth about religion, and we should. The issue is just that simple.