Thursday, September 30, 2010

Understanding does not mean what John Reynolds thinks it means

john_mark_reynolds So I just stumbled across this piece by John Mark Reynolds in a recent column in The Washington Post entitled, “Trivia kings, but bad thinkers: understanding over facts.” In which he writes his opinion on the newest of a series of religiously weighted surveys, this one done by the Pew Forum. This recent survey shows that atheists (along with Jews and Mormons) are dramatically more likely to know facts about the religious doctrines of other cultures whereas the religious grade much more poorly. His assertion is that atheists, bolstered by the Internet and books, happen to be good at learning facts but do so without understanding what they’re reading. Thus the title of his piece which boils down of the survey’s results to “atheists are good at trivia.”

He blames the entire society of the United States for having become an entertainment culture where people don’t actually read, spend time ruminating, or actually examine their opinions. As he comments on entertainment culture, he points out that Christians make up a majority of the population yet,

Weirdly, Christians must clean up the mess of broader culture, but we have had little power to create pop culture in the last fifty years. The poor and the disadvantaged are always the first to bear the brunt of bad cultural ideas and only the religious remain on the ground to try to help.

Also weirdly, the poor and the disadvantaged are more likely to be religious, and since “three-quarters or more of the American general population” happen to be Christian... They're more likely to be mostly Christians. So, according to him these bad cultural ideas are coming from a strange minority but being absorbed gluttonously by the Christian majority the very same majority who must “clean up the mess of broader culture.” Something tells me that Reynolds doesn’t seem to get precisely what the word “broader” means.

In this sense it is easier to be an agnostic or atheist. You have rejected the mainstream of American history, which means you don't have to take responsibility for its failures, though you can appropriate its successes.

What the hell is he talking about here? Atheists (and agnostics of both stripe: theist and atheist) don't reject American history as a matter of their atheism or agnosticism in relation to the existence of a god or gods. This sentence sits here all by its lonesome. He cites absolutely no evidence for his assertion and fails to support it with even a single scintilla of rationale. American citizens both suffer the failures of our history and appropriate the successes of it. Perhaps this is a veiled attempt for him to prop up the false notion that the United States is somehow a Christian nation when the Constitution and its supporting documents go out of their way to cultivate a secular government.[1]

Third, we must demand that our government schools teach religion, not just the "facts" but with understanding. Wisdom will only come when we recognize why billions of the world's people believe what they do. This means that majority Christians must also accept charitable expositions of other faiths. When the state of Texas demands less coverage of Islam this is a bad step.

This “understanding” that he’s been crowing through most of this strangely sanctimonious article is actually what the rest of the world would refer to as indoctrination. What’s really odd about this is that he refers to the Pew research and notes how theists fail awfully at knowing even their own doctrine, but claims that they understand their doctrine. He then went winging around about how a person can know a bunch of trivial facts but not understand them; but he really didn’t get around to how precisely a person can have no grasp of any of the facts yet maintain an understanding of a subject nonetheless. After all, that’s exactly how he describes the theists who took the test.

Sure. Teach religion in government schools, but he’s going to be in for a nasty surprise when people realize he’s just basically stated that he wants government schools to teach children to be religious not just about religions.

He will really have to clarify that position before it’s even readable. Certainly he could explain exactly what the difference between knowing that Catholics believe that the communion becomes the actual blood and flesh of their god and understanding that bread and wine turn into bodily fluids and tissue. (This is one of the questions in the survey.)

We must do unto others as we would have them do to us. We must allow students to read books that come from different traditions, from atheism to paganism. The intellectual growth that will result will not be the sort that can be captured in a fill-in-the-blanks or multiple choice exam. Instead, we are going to have to support government school budgets that to allow for small discussion classes that can produce a deeper understanding of important ideas.

We already do this. No special, soppy religious understanding is needed in social studies. Answers are already available with an anthropological context as to why Catholic doctrine includes transubstantiation and the Ancient Greeks believed that their gods rested on Mt. Olympus and sometimes turned people into spiders and skunks. These aren’t even important ideas on the grand scale of living our lives among one another.

For example, one of the most influential books first published by an American is the Book of Mormon. It appears in almost no American government school curriculum, though it exercises a global influence and impacts the lives of millions of Americans. This is foolish. I am, to say the least, no Mormon partisan, but there are entire states in our nation that cannot be understood without some grounding in Mormon thought.

This unsourced claim isn’t for a moment backed up with anything more than mentions of Salt Lake City and Utah. The state is a secular entity due to the force of the Constitution of the United States and while Utah may contain a large number of Mormons, it doesn’t mean the state government gets to run off with their religious convictions in their throats. Utah isn’t some island nation separate and untouched by the rest of the United States. Want to read something extremely influential first published by an American try The Federalist Papers.

Places where he does hit the nail on the head, however, seem to be when he’s talking about trends of anti-intellectualism that seem to be rooted sternly in the austere grasp of American Christian thought. He mentions that Christians “should demand that their churches do more intellectual work.” If only it didn’t seem compelling that this is actually the source of the problem. The Pew Forum survey shows not only that Christians are the worst at knowing basic facts about other religions but they largely know neither their own doctrine’s facts nor could they understand them either (in Reynold’s logic).

He seems to make the weird argument that atheists and non-Christians, according to recent surveys, show better in IQ surveys, general knowledge of culture, and reading level & comprehension because atheists are simply good at absorbing facts. He argues that the intellectual elite reject the religious from their ivy-covered towers, and so forth. When he himself must rail against the brick wall of anti-intellectualism rooted deeply within organized Christianity.

I am not convinced the problem lies where Reynold claims it does.

[1] America is not a Christian Nation

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