Teach them scientific method and they think they know everything

I went by the Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair this afternoon, bought a few books, and stayed for a talk. I was hungry, and I’d bought enough books that they were a drag to lug around, so I didn’t stay long, but I thought I’d pass along some impressions.

First, there was a bustle to this event that I didn’t perceive the last time I went. Interest in anarchism—or at least this book fair—seems to have increased.

As I sat in on a talk, there seemed to be an optimism I hadn’t seen before, that perhaps capitalism would crumble and there might be a chance for a fairer society. One thing always to be careful of in the San Francisco Bay Area is that this is the San Francisco Bay Area; it’s a bit insulated from more conservative parts of the country. But it is also the case, as I have repeatedly argued, that the present system is failing to address dire needs and that this failure must in part be attributed to the fact that the elite have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. It’s probably safe to say that most of the people in attendance at an event such as this would agree with this claim.

I was, however, a bit more disturbed to see anti-religious messages on sweatshirts and other articles worn by a number of participants. I was wondering whether this comes from a “no rulers, no gods” notion that domination—whether by humans or gods—is evil or because science ticks off some conservatives. I suspect the latter because what I saw seemed to align atheism with science against religion.

Atheism, of course, is a proclamation of faith. It asserts without empirical backing that there is no god. Such a claim is even less provable than the claim that there is a god because, as any logician will tell you, it is impossible to prove a negative. Furthermore, I’m increasingly troubled that when you teach a kid positivist scientific method, s/he all too often seems to think s/he knows everything (including that there is no god).

I’ve previously discussed this. Positivism was a significant advance over previous forms of inquiry but it cannot be considered an entirely honest form of inquiry because it averts its gaze from significant methods and ways of knowing, especially those ways of knowing that do not derive from a patriarchal, privileged European orientation. There are, in fact, serious methodological and epistemological problems with positivism. Furthermore, by excluding so much of human experience, positivism actually functions largely in support of the status quo.

Anarchists need to be much more careful than this. For if we are not, we will only establish a new tyranny, based on the universalist claims that positivism makes in the name of what it calls objectivity (which cannot in fact exist since all views of evidence are inherently subjective and partial). I have to think that it would be disastrous, if in the name of justice, we adopt methods and a way of knowledge that denies, as positivism does, values—including justice. Yet this is precisely what we would do if we treat religion and spirituality monolithically, as a faith in scientific method would have us do.

If anarchists get a shot at overturning the present order, we will only have that one shot. A mistake like this, borne from a sheer arrogance promoted by positivism that we know best, that everyone else should adopt our articles of faith, is a mistake we cannot afford.

UPDATE: If further evidence is needed of the faith-based nature of atheism, one need merely turn to the comments on the Open Salon copy of this posting.

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