John Wilkins discusses the utility of believing in nonsense. He knows some members of a branch of the Plymouth Brethren down there in Australia; they’re a pretty distinctive sect here where I live, too. The interesting thing about them is their intentional isolation. They don’t proselytize, they don’t even talk much to us outsiders, and as John says, these are probably survival tactics for the sect — silly beliefs can flourish if you only talk to other people who share the same silly beliefs.
So what do you do when your opponent avoids engagement?
What does this mean for practical purposes? How do we counter these false beliefs? There is no simple answer. In the short term we can insist that our functional bureaucracies and social institutions do not give credence, but that will only harden those who deny the facts in their beliefs. At best it will slough off the fence sitters, and reduce the core denialists to a rump. That is one good thing, but we want people to face reality when it really matters. A better, but longer term solution is to insist that education teaches not the facts, but the methods by which we understand those facts, in order that people can develop their cognitive stances appropriately. This denies the next generation of denialists their replacements, until they become at best an extremely small minority. Education is the solution, which the denialists well understand. This is why we have objections to even discussing these “controversial” matters in schools, and why the denialists (whether of evolution, global warming, or whatever) continuously try to insert their agenda into public education. An uneducated community is more easily controlled and manipulated.
This is a good general approach, not just for dealing with creationists, but for teaching the general population. Teaching to the test just generates competing authorities, and we can’t win that battle; parents, peers, and coercive religion hold all the trump cards. But teaching kids to think for themselves…now that’s where we totally rule.
But I think there are a couple of issues that John didn’t engage in that blog post. Yes, please, better teaching. But what about these problems?
The Brethren or the Amish or any other sect that withdraws from the larger society really isn’t a long-term problem. They’re going to fade away or evolve eventually. The reality is that, at least in America, we have to deal with evangelical religions: Answers in Genesis or the Southern Baptist Convention aren’t simply retreating into their own navels, they are actively proselytizing bad beliefs. Simply trying to erode their base away with good teaching hasn’t worked here, at least (or possibly, we just don’t have good teaching), and direct and aggressive opposition is necessary.
Even religions that have insulated themselves and just want to be left alone do harm. Consider just the problem of faith healing; we have laws in the US that shelter ideas that lead to dead children. Unless we’re willing to say that society as a whole has no interest in kids, and parents are free to abuse them intellectually and medically, intervention is often called for. Our local Brethren aren’t proselytizing directly, but apparently they have quiet clout: they’ve compelled the school board and local businesses to avoid ‘controversial’ issues by threatening to withhold their custom or withdraw their kids from school. They’re smart and are using passive techniques to prevent kids from getting good educations.
Finally, if we’re going to concede that creationists are following a rational social strategy (and I do!), then we also have to recognize the godless complement: while many scientists and naturalists certainly follow the similar tactic of cloistering themselves with their like-minded colleagues, many of us are rationally pursuing a strategy of active, public opposition to believing in silly things. While teaching children how to think and learn is part of our goal of taking over the world, another important aspect is consolidating and reinforcing a non-believing community.
The inward-looking community is one approach to sustaining and strengthening a group: look to those Brethren or most academic departments, for instance, and you’ll see that in action. But the flip side is forming outward-looking communities — Answers in Genesis has a little bit of that, poorly done because they can’t really afford to engage the evidence, but it’s a fairly natural direction for science-based communities to take … we’re supposed to be evaluating new ideas all the time.
Also, we do it for the lurkers. Exclusive sects aren’t very good at gaining new recruits.