A Frightening Epidemic: America's Obsession With Religion and Unfounded Denial of Science (#I-HEART-BOOBQUAKE!)

I took this amazing shot on my iPhone of the gysers in Yellowstone National park and of the Thermophiles that change the collor of the water to blue, green, and orange.

On the flight over to America (from Japan) I felt bad for the guy sitting across the aisle to my right. He was stuck with two overly devout Christian missionaries who in short order found out he wasn't a believer in the Almighty Christ (TM). 

Before you knew it they had their tray tables down and their Bibles open. 

For the entirety of the jet being taxied onto the runway (approximately 27 minutes) and the takeoff (10 minutes) and the first couple of hours of the flight they preached and proselytized and professed their deepest felt beliefs. Again and again. And... again.

They hit him with every apologetic tactic they had, and as Evangelicals, the arguments were of course all outmoded, outdated, mostly irrelevant, canards that two seconds of thought could reveal as entirely invalid. 

The poor atheist said, "It's just not for me. I'm fine without religion. And I don't need to believe in a book riddled with errors to feel good about my life."

They took horrible offense at this and proclaimed that the Bible was the perfect word of God and had no detectable errors in it. 

My fellow atheist then admitted he didn't know all the historical details off the top of his head, but that he recollected the Bible getting a fair amount of historical details wrong. To which our prostrating missionaries, gun-ho for Jesus, hit him up with, "But did you know the Bible is the best attested book in history? It has more surviving copies then any other ancient manuscript too."

My eyes rolled so hard you could probably have heard them tearing our of their sockets. 

They went on like this for several more hours. 

It was exasperating.


Then it dawned on me. It wasn't just that they were recycling twice-baked order made apologetics without thinking about what they were saying that bothered me. It wasn't even what they professed to belief that bothered me. And although their rude encroachment on someones personal space just to share the "Word of God" with some stranger was certainly annoying, that wasn't even the worst part.

What really bothered me about them was their complacency with the questions they raised themselves. Not a single thought ran through their minds that wasn't already preprogrammed for them. 

The beliefs they had were not beliefs they had come to on their own via due diligence and long hours of investigating the issues of religious history and faith. Rather, they simply believed because they had reasons. Not their own mind you, but they had reasons nonetheless.

And that got under my skin.

I so badly wanted to chime in and demolish their arguments one by one and see them get flustered and hot under the collar as an atheist superior to them countered their arguments, put up road blocks to their beliefs, and littered their faith with a minefield of devastating questions ready to set off a daisy chain of intellectual explosions that would get them to think for, well, probably the first time in their lives.

But, alas, I bit my tongue. After all, it was a freaking eleven hour flight. I didn't want to start it off by making enemies. 

I did however feel bad for a fellow atheist. So I gave him reassuring nods as he valiantly tried to state his case amid sudden interruptions and nonsensical changes in subject. I gave him a thumbs up a couple of times and cheered him on. And after the blather of the missionaries died down and the headphones came out, I made a promise to myself to step into the ring and tag my friend out if they tried to double team him again with more senseless proselytizing. 

Luckily, however, it didn't come to that.

I'd only been back in America a week, and I already had found out that a large portion are Evolution deniers. 

I made the horrible mistake of asking a religious relative of mine what part of the science they didn’t feel was valid, and suddenly the conversation became an exasperated defense of his faith.

I realized I had inadvertently made him defensive by talking about the *verity of evolution, to which he didn't believe in.

I was handed the argument that my *belief in evolution took at least as much "faith" to believe as any religious belief they might hold.

Of course, I politely corrected myself and said, "Sorry, I misspoke. What I meant was, the evidence for the truth of evolution is undeniable, and I wanted to say I think that since all the evidence seems to support it that I would be really curious to see how one might falsify these scientific facts."

Suddenly, I got the 'carbon dating' defense and the statement that things evolving forms just didn't make sense.

But I get it. Evolution is hard to grasp when you have no scientific understanding and very little in the way of imagination.

But I didn't say this, obviously, because that would have been rude.

Instead, I mentioned the fact that antibiotic resistant bacteria (and here) are a prime example of evolution working in real time, I mentioned the yeast experiment genomics, I talked about the Drosophila (fruit fly) genomic studies of Jerry Coyne (I may have even dropped the name of his book Why Evolution is True), and as for the radiocarbon dating not being entirely reliable, I mentioned that there were other methods of radiometric dating, such as:

There are other methods of radiometric dating:

* argon-argon (Ar-Ar)

* fission track dating

* helium (He-He)

* iodine-xenon (I-Xe)

* lanthanum-barium (La-Ba)

* lead-lead (Pb-Pb)

* lutetium-hafnium (Lu-Hf)

* neon-neon (Ne-Ne)

* optically stimulated luminescence dating

* potassium-argon (K-Ar)

* radiocarbon dating

* rhenium-osmium (Re-Os)

* rubidium-strontium (Rb-Sr)

* samarium-neodymium (Sm-Nd)

* uranium-lead (U-Pb)

* uranium-lead-helium (U-Pb-He)

* uranium-thorium (U-Th)

* uranium-uranium (U-U)

Just to name a few. 

Actually, I only named uranium and rubidium dating in the moment, but I added a few here just to drive the point home for any of those that still think that carbon dating doesn't cut it because it doesn't always yield accurate results for anything 4,000 BP (before present). The simple fact of the matter is, it doesn't, which is why scientists don't use it for dating the really old stuff. They have other methods of radiometric dating better suited for the ages of really old object, whether it is a fossil or a rock layer.

All this is painfully obvious to anyone whose stayed awake during a college level Chemistry course, so this basic information shouldn’t even be contested, but for some reason people seem to be ignorant of it. I realized that perhaps some simply want to use science denail as a kind of like a way to segue back into talking about religion. I imagine the conversation might go something like this:

“I am religious. I don’t believe in science.” 

“What?! You don’t believe in science?” 

“No, now let’s talk more about religion.”

“Well, okay then. But… science is so much more interesting. *Sigh.”

At any rate, my relative gave me a nice compliment saying that with all this scientific knowledge I was spouting off from the top of my head, I probably should have become a science teacher. It was quite flattering, and I smiled and said thank you. But my deeper concern lied with the fact that he didn’t think he should be scientifically literate, he just didn’t think he really needed it, and perhaps worse was the fact that he was proud of his science denial. It gave him a reason to talk about religion whenever anyone mentioned science.

Then I realized something quite troubling about the whole situation in America.

There are people who would gldaly learn about science, talk about science, and who could be genuinely excited by it, if it wasn't for their religious beliefs making them think that science was problematic somehow, or that it wasn't reliable enough somehow, or because their religious beliefs weren't compatible with it somehow.

In other words, instead of wanting to learn about the world and how everything works, they want to maintain an archaic view of the world because it’s less challenging for them – requires less work to understand, and well, they don’t need to stress out over every new discovery since it all can be explained by God anyway. The entire notion of the scientific method, of observing, measuring, scrutinizing, and critically evaluating everything was just too much work. It’s easier to be religious. In religion everything can be answered by simply asserting “Because God.” It’s much harder to aspire to be scientific minded, whereby you have to work to earn your answers.

Then I thought again about those missionaries on the plane. They only knew what they had been told. They didn't know how to critically evaluate, skepticism was alien to them, and having to analyze their own beliefs--don't even think about it!

And I saw this same phenomenon happening in my family with regard to their feelings on science. They only know what they have been told about science. They don't know how to critically evaluate the scientific method let alone apply it, skepticism was a foreign concept and so they never had any real reason to invoke scientific concepts like falsification, things were taken at face value and this kind of faith lead them to be entirely lazy when it came to scientific ideas.

Instead of having to grapple with scientific ideas and concepts, they merely waved them off and held fast to their religious beliefs, beliefs which they hadn't come to on their own via due diligence and long hours of investigating the issues of science and the scientific method, but rather, they simply believed the information the received from those who reinforced these religious beliefs rather than challenged them on it.

Naturally, I couldn't help but feel horribly vexed by all this. This prevailing misapprehension of science, the hypersensitivity toward anyone who would question religious ideas or concepts, the general unthinking nature of religious faith, and the way in which this wide-scale scientific ignorance and unthinking acceptance of religion work in tandem to form a mind skeptical of everything but that which it should be skeptical of.

Welcome to America, folks. The land of religion and scientific ignorance.

All this weighs on my mind and on my conscience. It's not just that I think we need science, it's that I think we need to understand it too. Maybe not to the same degree as a well trained scientist, but like our reading, writing, and arithmetic, I do feel we should probably work toward developing a better scientific understanding in American culture and perhaps elsewhere as well.

I found the best way to expand people's scientific knowledge is to simply to challenge them to read popular science books in areas of science they may be interested in. Of course, this requires talking to them first and getting a feel about what interests they have which may have a scientific component. But once the recommendation is made, I let curiosity hand the rest.

I know I won't be able to change one person's mind, especially when that mind is settled by an ever growing wall of misconceptions. But if I can point out the easiest path, the best trajectory, that will take them over that wall, and the books I recommend are good enough, well written enough, and even entertaining enough then their inborn interest and curiosity will do the rest. 

But this requires I stay ahead of the curve. How can I hope to recommend any good science books to anyone if I haven't read any lately myself?

So the challenge to fix America's scientific ignorance epidemic is two-fold. We must not only challenge others but ourselves as well to become better acquainted with science.

It's that simple. 

But as with most things, I suppose, it's easier said than done.

My fear is that if something isn't done, and done soon, America will sink deeper into the quicksand of scientific ignorance while growing even more entrenched in the religious beliefs which smother their intellects and cause their minds to enter into an noncognizant slumber. 

This could only lead to a world as scientifically illiterate and science weary as many of the Islamic states in today's Middle East. I find that a terrifying concept. Pretty soon #Boobquake won't be a funny thing we laugh about at the expense of an ignorant Hojatoleslam several world's away, but rather the bleak future this trend points to, a trend of scientific ignorance taken to such extremes it trespasses into the realm of every imaginable absurdity, will be the norm for America too.

Let's not let that happen.


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