Science vs the humanities to combat religions

I found this debate on Opposing Views

[i]What Best Debunks Religion: Studying Science Or the Humanities?
Opinion by John W Loftus
(8 Hours Ago) in Religion / Religion in Society
Science steadily but effectively acts as a corrosive to religion. That’s why we must insist our students become more scientifically literate. But a recent study done by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research shows that what produces the most religious skepticism among college students is when they study the social sciences.

In other words, humanities and social sciences, much more than biological and mathematical sciences, challenge you to imagine the world though the eyes of others. And this exercise in imagination undercuts religious dogma far more effectively than any science lesson can.

This study shows us,

…both the Humanities and the Social Sciences see dramatic declines in attendance and even more in religious beliefs. Now, this might simply be because they were more religious to start with - but then, so were those who went into education. So I suspect that broadening world views is the major reason these students lose their faith - a conclusion also suggested by the fact that, in the Spirituality in Higher Education Study, participation in a “study abroad program” also created increased skepticism about religion.

The Univ. of Michigan study concludes: “Our results suggest that it is Postmodernism, not Science, that is the bête noir of religiosity.”[/i]

Have any similar studies been done in SA? Any views or comments? In my view this opens up interesting alternatives to fighting the mind-numbing paralysis that religion causes. However, we would need to approach a research finding like this with caution in order to verify, replicate and triangulate its findings in similar research elsewhere and ideally in SA.

Just a view. My humanities education certainly wouldn’t have led most students to endorse religion. But at the time, the nineties, it was deeply mired in the bogus post-modernist philosophies of the likes of Foucault. The relativism that springs from this can be almost as bad as religion - where any claim to fact or evidence is regarded as the result of a particular ‘discourse’, no more real than any other discourse.

From this you easily get to the point of view that female genital mutilation is reasonable within the context of the societies in which it is practised. From this you easily get to the point of regarding homoeopathy as a valid medical system (with a different ‘discourse’). From this you easily get to the notion - still widely embraced by many of my classmates - that there has been no progress in society, because it all comes down to your definition. In other words, the increase in life expectancy at birth, the reduction of famine, violence, etc. throughout the 20th century, is only impressive to people who endorse a “western, progressive, capitalist,” point of view.

This perspective breeds significant apathy when so much improvement to life can patently be made with fairly modest effort, and dramatic improvements (the eradication of small-pox) by concerted efforts.

This perspective was dealt a strong blow by the Sokal Hoax ( in which a purposefully meaningless paper was accepted by a mainstream post-modernist journal. This should not have been surprising. Once the veil is lifted, post-modern writing is about legitimacy through obfuscation. So hopefully things have changed a bit in the humanities department.

But if you visit the South African Museum in Cape Town right now, you will see a grotesque display of this thinking as an exhibition done by a UCT Fine Arts professor. Aside from the fact that the text is obviously purposefully convoluted (there is no such thing as a clear post-modern piece), it is designed to imply that the biological model of disease is merely a cultural phenomenon. That this anti-scientific artwork is endorsed by a monument to science is highly disturbing.

This kind of thinking leads to “liberal,” “athiests,” endorsing the woo-bloated view of instruments such as the Huffington Post - with its strong anti-vaccination stance.

So yeah. Not religious maybe. Evidence led? I’m not so sure.

To expand slightly on singemonkey’s post (welcome, BTW), I suspect that another significant reason for studies in the humanities being more effective than those in the hard sciences when it comes to challenging religiosity is to be found in how they view “truth” individually. Without fail, religions make a big fuss about how they are dispensing eternal, transcendent and unchangeable Truth™ (and never mind that history tells the completely opposite story). Hard sciences search for robust truths (or laws, if you prefer) that are objective, observer independent, supported by evidence and as general as possible. In contrast, the humanities in many cases give more than a passing nod to relativism, i.e. that there is no such thing as an unassailable truth because “truth” is largely fluid, malleable and subjective, as determined by a person’s cultural upbringing, experience and mindset. Thus, the humanities tend to take a view of “truth” that is even more at odds with that of religions than is that of the hard sciences, and this marked difference probably adds sizeably to a person’s susceptibility to rejecting any claims of “absolute truth,” as usually instanced in religions.


I recently had a debate with a friend from a scientific background who rejects creationism and miracles, but remains convinced that The Bible is a good moral guide. I suspect that a large segment of the population may fall in this category. This outlook limits the contribution that natural sciences make in curbing religious influence.

I share singemonkey’s (welcome) concern about moral relativism. On another thread Peter Grant refers us to speeches by Sam Harris. I want to highlight this extract, in case you missed it, since I think it illustrates the fallacy of moral relativism well:

At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. She holds a degree in genetics from Dartmouth, a masters in biology from Harvard, and a law degree, another masters, and a Ph.D. in the philosophy of biology from Duke. This scholar is now a recognized authority on the intersection between criminal law, genetics, neuroscience and philosophy. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing wellbeing—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.

She: But that’s only your opinion.

Me: Okay… Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human wellbeing?

She: It would depend on why they were doing it.

Me (slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head): Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, “Every third must walk in darkness.”

She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

This is not religious reasoning; it is the ugly face of moral relativism.

What is the difference between moral relativism and moral subjectivism?

Interesting data. It looks like tertiary education has an influence on people’s world views.

Moral relativism holds the rights of cultural groups to establish their own moral codes in such regard, that it rejects widely accepted concepts of morality. Practices that are commonly regarded as unacceptable by international standards may include slavery, racial oppression, gender oppression etc. Although guides such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights might include elements of subjectivity, it seeks to promote the wellbeing of humankind, whereas certain cultural practices, as illustrated above, are inhumane and cannot be justified.

I agree, moral relevatism is not the best way to promote the wellbeing of humankind. I would just like to know what are the meaningful differences between moral relativism and moral subjectivism and whether moral subjectivism is a better way to promote the wellbeing of humankind?

Thanks singemonkey and welcome. It would seem as if the postmodernist lable may have distracted me as well. The term ‘humanities’ is an exceptionally wide description which includes many fields of study which I believe, demand disciplined and scientific study. These would include law, literature, economics, languages, art, music and even religions. From what I can deduce, the US approach to the study of humanities has defined it more narrowly to what the Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities defined as:"Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason.
This definition is loaded and paints a student into a moral corner and I would suspect has inter alia led to the ridiculous postmodernist ‘anything goes’ philosophy.

Thanks Hermes. Here’s how I see it. What is morality? It’s essentially a code of values that seek to guide man’s (generic) choices while ethics deals with the process of discovering and defining such a code.The standards/norms for the definition of the principles underlying ethics has been one of the most debated issues in philosophy for centuries…does society decide and if these are evil, is it ‘good’ because society has decided it is in the ‘interest of society’? Mystics held sway and used ‘the will of God’ as the standard and the validation of their ethics. By implication, both these false standards deny three things, viz:
reason, man’s mind and reality.
The Bible is none of these and demands faith and an unquestioning mind. The truly evil people in this world are those who ask man to forfeit his questioning mind and ‘believe’. Martin Luther (the reformist)said ‘A questioning mind is the enemy of religion’ Is this moral? He also wrote a book titled 'On the Jews and their Lies"! (Just for the sake of some trivia!)

I am not familiar with the terms “moral subjectivism” and it is not clear to me what is meant by it. Moral systems contain elements of subjectivity. The worst are often the ones based on mythology (so beware Hermes’s mail >:D). Seeking an objective foundation to assess morality is somewhat ambitious.

I like Dawkins’s idea that morality is not unique to humans, but occurs in other species as well. These “morals” revolve largely around survival issues, such as adults not drinking the milk or eating the eggs of their own species. In gregarious communities it evolves into complex rules where different members of the troop perform different functions, eg. sentinels, raising the young, etc. Obviously in a society as complex as mankind, the ethical system becomes complex and difficulties arise in distinguishing what is morally acceptable.

In another thread I discussed the immorality of the Paradise story in Gen. 3, pointing out that the only possible “sin” was eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Discouraging the distinction between right and wrong and encouraging blind obedience to a religious code is indeed “evil”, as you point out.

Been doing a bit of research (on wikipedia ::slight_smile: ):

Habermas versus Postmodernists

Habermas offered some early criticisms in an essay, “Modernity versus Postmodernity” (1981), which has achieved wide recognition. In that essay, Habermas raises the issue of whether, in light of the failures of the twentieth century, we “should try to hold on to the intentions of the Enlightenment, feeble as they may be, or should we declare the entire project of modernity a lost cause?”[10] Habermas refuses to give up on the possibility of a rational, “scientific” understanding of the life-world.

Habermas has several main criticisms of postmodernism.

* First, the postmodernists are equivocal about whether they are producing serious theory or literature. [this is why their stuff is never straightforward.  They refuse to say whether it's an argument, or an artwork]

* Second, Habermas feels that the postmodernists are animated by normative sentiments but the nature of those sentiments is concealed from the reader. [they're taking a stand on something - it's just that they won't say what the heck it is]

* Third, Habermas accuses postmodernism of being a totalizing perspective that fails "to differentiate phenomena and practices that occur within modern society"[10]. [I admit, I don't know what he means by this, but I suspect he's saying that you can't say anything about anything with post-modernism]

* Lastly, Habermas asserts that postmodernists ignore that which Habermas finds absolutely central - namely, everyday life and its practices. [It's clear that no post-modernist would argue that not walking in front of speeding cars is a culturally determined habit]</blockquote>

These are just my first reflections. I’m not sure if I’m getting it all straight.

In terms of secular morality, there are a few contentious positions advanced which I had a quick squiz at (isn’t that nice with so lofty a subject :smiley: ). One thing that comes to mind though, is that these arguments may sometimes lead places that we’re not culturally all that comfortable with - or perhaps places that reason can take us, but our evolved responses may rebel at:

Peter Singer, for example, argues that abortion can be justified because it is not always wrong to take an innocent human life; that a foetus can not experience suffering or motivations up until a certain point in its development - and this incapacity must be weighed against the great sufferings or aspirations of its mother. He also argues that:

"…newborns similarly lack the essential characteristics of personhood—“rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”[17]—and therefore “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.”[18]

That’s clearly not going to win us any friends. Baby-killing atheists we’ll continue to be :-\

Baby-killing atheists we'll continue to be

Personally I have no problem with (early in the term) abortion, so stick that label on me pls. ESPECIALLY if there’s rape involved, or the parents are already suffering. Birthing that baby isn’t going to do it any favors, and not everyone is cut out to be a model parent. However I prefer putting it up for adoption in that context. (Moreover though, in SA there are already too many kids up for adoption that aren’t finding homes)

Call me a cold-hearted bastard, but I reckon the world has too many people already. If people want to be the solution rather than the problem, that’s fine with me. Now, killing newborns, it gets a bit thorny for me at that point (everyone has their line in the sand I guess).

I agree with you that there are too many of us. Way too many. In fact, I am quite sure that the roots of the vast majority of problems faced by humanity stems directly from the fact that there are just too many of us.

What is totally missing from the argument is consistency. If you believe abortion is OK, surely you must believe capital punishment is OK also. Somehow, the PC position has become to be OK with abortion (the taking of a life for the sake of convenience), while being strongly opposed to the death penalty (the taking of a life to prevent the taking of innocent lives). This is hypocritical. Either life is sancrosanct, or it is negotiable.

Personally, I believe we as a species are way overdue for a nuclear war, black plague, meteor strike or some other measure to reduce our numbers significantly. And before you ask, Yes I will be happy to be one of those who don’t make it.

Agree…I think humans are a virulent virus that has infected the world and destroy as we go along, mindlessly…but then again we’ve done some awesome things as well…umm let me see :-\

Either life is sancrosanct, or it is negotiable.

I think reality is much more nuanced than that. But yes, I don’t believe life is all that sacred. If a baby is still a clump of replicating cells, is it OK to kill it then? When it’s fully developed? When it’s 1/2 developed? When it’s born? Do we take the bible’s stance on his (If you kill a child below 2 years old you simply pay a fine).

An animal is quite happy to kill his competitors’ babies to give his offspring a better chance, and nature in general is a cruel death dealer at the best of times, in the name of simply “disposing of the weak”. To believe we’re above all that is a nice ideal, but our track record shows we’re FAR from that ideal. You have nuances like is capital punishment OK? What about sending young men to war? When engaging in a war, is it OK to kill the enemy, simply because by circular reasoning he’s very willing to kill you for the same reason, so both sides have the “self defense” claim? Should we really get upset about civilian casualties when tons of soldiers are dying on battlefields across the world for seemingly no good reason? Is it OK kill one innocent to save millions? …

These to me are the nuances of reality, which never matches our will to make black-and-white judgements. I don’t like it when people (skeptics or woo-woo’s - usually the latter) try to make black-and-white distinctions about these things. Reality simply is not in check with the ideals we try to set for ourselves.

The Peter Singer views which singemonkey refers to pertain to the birth of deformed babies and whether the parents should have an input in deciding whether to raise such a child or kill it. Singer bases this reasoning on the gradual development from conception to adulthood and points out that birth is in nature not such a significant event as in law, where it is the barrier between abortion and murder. Even so, there is a significant moral spectrum difference between killing a deformed baby and broad infanticide for the purpose of curbing population growth.

Darwin explains natural selection as the product of a struggle for survival. Nature produces far too many individuals for the environment to sustain, resulting in the survival of only the best fitted. Among humans we run the risk that altruism may merely postpone inevitable poverty, unless population growth is curbed. We have the tools to achieve this in a much more humane way than infanticide. What we don’t have, is the political means to achieve it.

It is interesting that in Roman Law as well as in Roman Dutch Law, the ‘killing’ of a ‘monster’ (deformed etc) at birth, was acceptable …unfortunately the law for obvious reasons is/was unable to define what it meant to be ‘a monster’. This ultimately meant that no ‘monsters’ were put down. I know of many adult monsters I would like to put down!

Returning to the original post/topic: I have not been able to link up to the url you provided, so I cannot comment on the methodology used in the study. What I do find to be a very common flaw in many of these type of studies, is that correlation is misinterpreted as causation. This distinction is absent in virtually every newsreport that covers research you may come across in the general media.

Explanation: Where there is a statistically significant correlation between two data sets A and B, there could be three possible causes: A causes B; B causes A; or C (an external factor) causes A and B. This very important principle in statistics is often overlooked.

Before accepting that the field of study is the cause of any religious adherence or rejection, the other two possibilities must also be considered. Clearly religiosity cannot cause the course content of the student, so the B causes A possibility is eliminated. However, it is quite conceivable that a person’s personality traits can cause both his religiosity and his choice of study field (C causes A and B).

The quoted section of the Michigan study mentions that one population could have been more religious to start off with, but that does not satisfy me that personality traits have been properly filtered out.

Totally agree hence my original caution as well. It’s an interesting thought/hypothesis though and possibly worth a Masters or PhD…wonder if Uncle Angus would sponsor this or maybe that preacher guy who married the prostitute…forget his name ???..AAAGH the Alzheimers!

Ray McCauley.