Advocating cooperation among nonbelievers – Pearls in a pigsty

When I was very young, about 12 or 13, I heard my minister give a sermon from Matthew 7:6 and Mark 6:11.

Matt. 7:6: “Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.”

Mark 6:11: “If a place will not welcome you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

The sermon was both advice and a warning about how to deal with people who would not accept the Word of God. In a nutshell our minister was warning us that some people would just refuse the “good news” and that we should then sorrowfully leave them.

This kind of thinking is prevalent in people with alternative beliefs. People like Dr. Ruper Sheldrake, Oester and Gill, Kent Hovind and Robert Bigelow are all quite sure that they have “The Truth” and that we are all ignorant for not picking up on their pearls of wisdom. Believers in pseudoscience often paint themselves as martyrs, like Christ, or as heretics to the wisdom of “conventional” science. They believe that we brush away their ideas at our own peril, and so they go to misguided lengths in order to convince us.

Michael Shermer picks up on this in his essay, “How Thinking Goes Wrong; Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things”. In his seventh fallacy he points out that thinking you are a modern heretic does not validate your beliefs. And in the 17th fallacy he warns us that just because we don’t like a person, we should not discredit his or her ideas without examining them.

After hearing the words of my minister so long ago, I remember that I tried to explain the lesson to one of my friends, and got it hopelessly mixed up. I should have spoken about having ideas ignored by those who were ignorant or uninterested, but I instead spoke about finding pearls of wisdom anywhere, even in a pig’s pen. “If you find a pearl in a pig wallow,” I said, “it doesn’t mean it’s not valuable!”

Yes, I phrased it like that. (The tortured English still haunts me.) As I grew up and learned a little more about nature I realized that any acidity that naturally occurred in pig’s wallow would partially dissolve hapless pearls that landed there, reducing their value. So I started substituting the word “diamond” for “pearl”, and worked on phrasing it better until I got to the maxim, “Like diamonds in a pigsty, true wisdom is valuable wherever it’s found”.

But “Pearls in a Pigsty” is so poetic! The alliteration is worth the scientific inaccuracy, so that’s how I will phrase it.

To reject a pearl of wisdom just because we don’t like the person who presents it is called an “Ad Hominem” fallacy. Online debates between religious believers and non-believers, and between skeptics and the credulous are filled with charges of “Ad Hominem”. Some are warranted and some are not.

Skeptics tend to reject those people who have a proven track record of ineptitude or dishonesty in their methods of discovery and science. Rupert Sheldrake is rightly dismissed for his poor scientific methods – his findings, even if they are true, are meaningless because of the methods he uses. The motives of Oester and Gill and Kent Hovind are extremely suspicious, their findings of “truth” always seem to be aligned in such a way as to ensure profit or to increase their influence. But in the case of Robert Bigelow we have to step more carefully – his ideas about space habitation for humans seem very workable, they are testable, and Mr. Biglelow has hired real experts to test his ideas, and has even launched a working prototype. However his belief that Earth has already been visited by aliens who might even be here now, is really without merit and is supported by little more than hearsay. The true Skeptic will fish the pearl of “space habitation” from the pigsty of “aliens among us”.

Unfortunately, Atheists and other nonbelievers do not seem to be as willing to accept pearls of wisdom from anyone who does not have an identical belief system. This came to my attention after I started noticing the polarizing effect upon nonbelievers from two prominent Atheists, Sam Harris and Dr. Richard Dawkins.

Some Atheists dislike Richard Dawkins because he seems unwilling to acknowledge moderate positions on science by religious believers. Unlike Dr. Stephen Gould, Dr. Dawkins does not believe that religion and science can coexist without conflict, and Dawkins is not afraid to take the position that religion, any religion in any quantity, is in conflict with science and therefore ultimately counterproductive to humanity.

Atheists also disagree with his tone and worry that Dawkins does not allow sufficient scrutiny of his position. I have seen several blogs assert that Dawkins will marginalize other Atheistic viewpoints if they are not in agreement with his own viewpoints.

Sam Harris has also polarized Atheists due to his remarks on spirituality and mysticism in the last chapter of his book, “The End of Faith”. Secular Humanists have been especially critical of the spiritual language used by Harris in his discussion of Eastern religions and meditation. Mr. Harris’ assertion that no one really knows if consciousness can be explained due to a purely physical brain has been taken to mean that he believes in a supernatural component to consciousness; a position that many Atheists deny and one that Mr. Harris does not seem to endorse.

Sam Harris uses the language of religion and mysticism in order to describe a meditative state wherein a person can ‘turn off’ their sense of self. He uses religious language because there are no other words, and because the religious language is poetic, which seems to suit the experience.

Dawkins may disparage an Atheist’s efforts to work with scientists who also happen to be religious in order to encourage the spread of rational thought. Harris may use religious terms to describe consciousness while contending the possibility that consciousness might not arise out of the physical brain. For these positions many Atheists have condemned both to the “pigsty” of irrationality, and refuse to be associated with Dawkins or Harris. By so labeling these gentlemen other nonbelievers can automatically ignore other contributions from these gentlemen. I think this is wrong and shortsighted.

I think the Atheistic ideas that Dawkins and Harris stand for are pearls of wisdom that are valuable on their own merit. It would be unwise to ignore either of these people just because they hold beliefs that might differ from my own. I think this would be similar to disregarding Isaac Newton’s contributions to physics and calculus because he was also an alchemist and fervent Christian.

This isn’t to say I’ll stop being vigilant – certainly some people would instantly claim the status of Michael Shermer’s ‘heretic’ if it would procure their credibility, and likeability is of course no measure of a person’s ability to speak truth.

What I am advocating is a reasonable response – to take reasonable precautions against the pigsty of woo and bias while sifting out the pearls of rationality and science. The polarization of nonbelievers into different camps makes all nonbelievers weaker. It makes us weaker at the worst possible time, when advocates of religion in America have learned to ignore their differences in order to achieve common goals.

I’m advocating that we all see each other both as unique individuals and as part of a family of nonbelievers. Since we are unique, we are allowed to disagree on many points while at the same time we all agree as a family that rational thought is better than religious dogma.

I believe that cutting people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins out of Atheistic circles because they rub some the wrong way is literally self-defeating, for without their very vocal presence all nonbelievers are weakened. No matter what you may think of them as people, the ideas that they stand for are pearls.