Science vs. Religion and Other False Dichotomies

In the early days of unraveling my New Age career, I felt that if I could just find a way to help my readers understand and access critical thinking, I’d be doing a great service. I struggled to devise ways to introduce and then link to cultural skeptic’s sites (such as The Skeptic’s Dictionary or The Skeptical Inquirer, etc.)  from my own website, but I couldn’t find the words to prepare my readers for the painful experience I knew they were in for.

The communication style in the skeptical culture tends toward mockery and condescension (words such as fraud, sham, scam, dupe, charlatan, etc. are used regularly), and it can be a very harsh experience. I think I mocked up nearly a dozen web pages before I finally gave up in 2004 and pulled my entire website down for five years. There was just no way to bridge the chasm with words.

Since then, I’ve studied what I now call “conflict cultures”* of all kinds: skeptics versus New Agers; liberals versus conservatives; pro-choicers versus pro-lifers; Israelis versus Palestinians; Muslims versus Christians; atheists versus theists, and so forth. Though each conflict may seem distinct, the behavior of the people within the conflict tends to be similar — if not identical.

*Sociologically speaking, a culture is any group of people who consider themselves unified by shared referents. A culture can be as large as the human culture, or as small as the drama club at your local middle school. A subculture is generally regarded as a group that unifies around differences from the norm, as minority groups, disability rights groups, high IQ clubs, and political parties do. My term conflict culture refers to a subculture that organizes itself around opposition, as the New Age and skeptical subcultures do, rather than mere difference.

photo of an angry mobConflict cultures tend to encourage intense loyalty and cohesion because they have something to fight against. No matter which conflict culture you belong to, you can easily become ideologically enslaved; you may devolve into a true believer. You’ll learn to categorize and dehumanize people who do not share your views, and you’ll attack them as a matter of supposed honor. True believers and the behaviors they adopt can make the world a very ugly place indeed.

I know; I was a true believer as a young person. Western* medicine was cruel; science was hyper-rationalism divorced from ethics; the AMA was evil; the New Age and the East and alternative medicine had all the answers; nothing in the health food store could hurt you, but all conventional medicines were poison…

*My brother Matthew can’t hear the phrase Western medicine without laughing, because it brings up visions of cowboys riding into town, yee-ha! and whompin’ folks over the head with healin’.  I now call it conventional medicine so that Matthew won’t start giggling.

I was fortunate to have been involved in a cult and then in that troubled psychic school at such an early age, because I was able to witness how easy it is for an interesting idea to turn into a nightmare when true believers and controlling group dynamics are involved. As I grew up, I worked hard to avoid being a mindless group member, and I tried to understand views that were different from my own. However, it was difficult because I was a full-fledged member of the New Age conflict culture (but of course I wouldn’t have called it that then!).

As an adult member of the New Age conflict culture, I couldn’t really find a way to leave my career that wasn’t conflicted and reactionary. Instead of just walking away, I needed to go to the other side of the conflict – to the cultural skeptics and the militant atheists – to understand them, and to see the world through their eyes. I thought, after all the difficult work of ending my career, that I would find my true people in the skeptical culture, but I didn’t. Luckily, time, self reflection, and my sociological education helped me figure out that it wasn’t just the New Age or the skeptical subcultures I had to leave behind; I had to walk away from conflict cultures altogether.

So in 2004, I completely let go of my identity as a member of any subculture, and I worked to stop reacting in culturally-derived ways (this is an almost Herculean task, but it’s good to try). I even had to stop being a liberal Democrat to the extent that I had been. This task was made infinitely more difficult by the Bush administration! It was nearly an Olympic event for me not to dehumanize hard-right conservatives, homophobes, creationists, warmongers, and No Child Left Behind-ers, but I did try. I’m still trying. We’ll see how I do. One thing at a time is what I tell myself: One thing at a time.

What I’m looking at now, after separating myself from multiple cultural identifications (to the extent that I or anyone can, since humans are culturally constructed animals) is the silliness of splitting people into any form of us-versus-them, and the extreme fallacy of imagining that alleged opposites such as science or religion will save us all.

The thing that will finally save us

You hear it all the time, everywhere. Conservative values will save us. No, liberal values will. No, the scientific method will. No, faith will. No, capitalism will. No, rationalism will. No, religion will. No, communism will. No, socialism will. No, democracy will. No, libertarianism will. No, skepticism will. No, atheism will. No, but spirituality without religion will. No, but skepticism without disparagement will. No, fundamentalism will. No, compassionate fascism will! You can see where this is headed. This paragraph could go on forever. But I will save us all and end it.

What strikes me as bizarre is that people don’t realize that these alleged saviors can’t do anything until a person adopts them and then acts based upon his or her understanding of them.

A religion can’t do anything and it can’t make you do anything. Religion isn’t alive. Science can’t do anything and it can’t make you do or think anything you don’t want to. Science has no capacity to act, think, or grow — because it isn’t alive. Conservatism, liberalism, spirituality, skepticism, communism, democracy, religion, capitalism, socialism, fundamentalism, atheism, humanism … these concepts are bandied about as if they have power in and of themselves, but they don’t. They can’t; they’re not alive.

None of these things can make you do, be, think, say, or believe anything if you don’t agree — and none of them can make you a better person if you refuse to become one. Each is just one of a multitude of ways to engage with and think about the world. Some ways certainly seem better than others, but none of them can act through you without your consent. You can’t simply open up a can of science or religion or communism (etc.) and suddenly become an intelligent, exemplary, or ethical person. None of these systems can save you.

And while many of these systems seem oppositional, they all have one extremely important thing in common: they were all created by humans. All forms of science, all political and legal systems, all philosophical systems, all educational systems, all religious and spiritual systems — all cultures, subcultures, and conflict cultures — were created by humans; therefore, all of them are as brilliant as humans are, and all are as deeply flawed.

Simply put, mere systems and mere cultures cannot save us, because they are only as good as we can be. They are only as smart and compassionate as we are, and they have only the ethics we bring to them.

You and I have met or heard of excellent Christians and horrible ones, courageous conservatives and cowardly ones, humor-filled communists and depressive ones, calm pro-lifers and wild-eyed ones, ethical capitalists and immoral ones, brilliant New Agers and confused ones, loving atheists and mean-spirited ones, peace-loving Muslims and warmongering ones, lighthearted feminists and hard-faced ones, open-minded scientists and deluded ones…

No matter which system they wrap around themselves, people are still people. No systems have the intrinsic power to save them, or us. Only people can do that. Therefore, spending any time fighting about whether Science or Religion will save us, or whether New Age Spirituality or Skepticism (and so on) will save us is absurd: In each of these cases, we’re wasting our lives in the cognitive badlands created by utterly false dichotomies.

Identifying a False Dichotomy

Before we look at false dichotomies, it’s important to understand that there are true ones.

photo of mathematical kittenA true dichotomy splits things into two exclusive, non-overlapping categories. For instance, in mathematics, a true dichotomy splits numerals into even and odd categories.

If a whole number (such as 2, 4, 28, or 36) is evenly divisible by 2, it must be even. If a whole number isn’t evenly divisible by 2 (think of 3, 9, or 17), it must be odd. There is no whole number that exists in both categories. A whole number can only be even or odd – never both. Odd and even whole numbers are an example of a true dichotomy.

Dichotomies present you with two opposing (and exclusive) categories or outcomes. Dichotomies usually portray issues as black versus white or right versus wrong so that you are forced to choose one side or the other — is it even, or is it odd? Choose! However, in a false dichotomy, the choices aren’t actually opposites at all.

Here is an example of a false dichotomyEither you’re gonna return to college and get your degree, or you’re gonna end up a bum!

In the example above, a false dichotomy is pushed at you: You’re either a college student or a bum, with nothing in between. False dichotomies can arise from ignorance of the true complexity of an issue, but they can also arise when people want to enforce their viewpoint and shut down all dissent. They can entrap and bind you, and they almost always place the argument (and the needs of the arguer) far above your needs. They can also waste an amazing amount of your time.

False dichotomies are all-or-nothing, either/or fallacies that guarantee unworkable and unrealistic conclusions. For instance, the old nature-versus-nurture debate is a perfect example of a false dichotomy, because both nature and nurture affect living things. You can waste an awful lot of time debating nature-versus-nurture, because they aren’t opposites at all!

Similarly, conservatism versus liberalism is a false dichotomy, because each one of us is conservative in some areas and liberal in others, regardless of our political affiliations. To be only conservative or only liberal is not only impossible but absurd.

In a false dichotomy, your options are reduced to the point of absurdity, though in many cases, it’s hard to see that absurdity dead on. The trick to rooting out false dichotomies is to find more options and see if they could fit.

For instance: When you’re presented with an either/or argument such as the college student-versus-bum example, ask yourself: Are college or vagrancy my only real options? What about getting a job, traveling, doing an apprenticeship, becoming in a live-in caretaker, and so forth? As you can see, the dichotomy is false because there are many options other than college or vagrancy.

If you can find the options, you can expose the false dichotomy. And when you have options, your approach to the issues can become resourceful and functional once again. When you can expose a false dichotomy, you can restore your intellectual and personal freedom.

Here’s another example of a false dichotomyEither I saw a UFO last night, or I’m delusional. Since I’m not delusional, it must have been a UFO.

Okay … delusions or the existence of alien flying craft; are these the only possible explanations? What about weather patterns; a comet or meteorite; a trick of the eye; the possibility that you were dozing off; a prank; explainable aircraft from Earth, and so forth?

Again, you expose a false dichotomy by proving that the two choices are not opposites. When you can open up a false dichotomy, you can open up the argument and restore your options. Thinking about what you might have seen in the sky is far more interesting and mind-expanding than forcing yourself into an unworkable either/or fallacy.

You don’t have to play that game

It’s important to understand that false dichotomies arise when people lack information or insight, when they wish to manipulate the situation, or when they feel pushed to the wall.

Here’s the  problem: when people present you with a false dichotomy, it’s often nearly impossible not to choose one side over the other — and yet that forced choice will reduce your options, waste your time, and stymie your intelligence. The game is rigged!

Science versus Religion? Well, I’ll choose Religion because Religion is righteous and Science is evil, or vice versa. No, Religion is more evil because of this, that, and the other thing. No! Science is more evil because of this, that, and these other things! We could waste the rest of our lives arguing about which is better – Science or Religion – without ever realizing that we have become hopelessly mired in an utterly false dichotomy.

Let’s not do that. Let’s think outside of the boxes we humans love to trap ourselves in. Let’s not suggest that any system – in and of itself – can save us as if by magic. Let’s continually remember the human factor involved. Let’s also remember that all systems are socially constructed by humans, and that none of them can make us better than we are willing to be, just as none of them can force us to be evil if we don’t consent to be.*

*Social scientists Philip Zimbardo (The Lucifer Effect) and Stanley Milgram (Obedience to Authority) wrote seminal books on authoritarian social structures that tend to foster evil (violence, brutality, dehumanization, and fierce “othering”).  However, both Zimbardo and Milgram found a small but significant percentage of people who refused to behave in evil ways, even though social pressures and majority behaviors predicted that they would. We all have a choice about how we react during conflict, and how we respond to social pressures and conflict cultures.

Here’s a fun game! The next time you’re involved with a conflict culture, see if they create good-versus-evil narratives and other false dichotomies about their opponents. My working hypothesis is that a conflict culture can’t exist without its false dichotomies.

Quick & easy answers for three famous false dichotomies

If people ask you to choose wealth or fame, choose wealth.

If people ask you to choose between fervent faith or fervent skepticism, choose neither.

And if people ask you to choose between being very, very clever or very, very kind, choose both.


Next post series: The Reality of Atlantis



Filed under Cognitive Biases, New Age, Psychology, Sociology

15 responses to “Science vs. Religion and Other False Dichotomies

  1. You were born brilliant. Your experiences have made you knowledgeable. Your work has made you wise.


  2. Thanks for the article; I enjoyed it as much as I did your interview with the CSI and I think it’s a shame that the people who would benefit the most from this article are the ones who probably won’t read it.

    • Thanks James. About people who should read things but never will: I remember a funny piece from the National Lampoon about a street grifter who was demonstrating three-card Monty. He said, “Sometimes I’m so smart, I fool my own bad self.”

      I read that when I was ten or so, and it has never left me. Useful!

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  4. Pingback: The Reality of Atlantis, part 3 of 3 | Missing the Solstice

  5. Pingback: Why I am not a psychic — or a skeptic | Missing the Solstice

  6. Why choose wealth? Is wealth objectively better than fame in some way? (I haven’t really thought about the question enough)

    • Hello! I am being a bit snappy with the false dichotomy of fame versus wealth, but I also tend to see fame as a monster that eats children and can never be sated. Success is fun. Renown is workable, but fame, especially in the age of the interwebs, can take people on a nasty ride and drop them off in the middle of nowhere without a quarter for the pay phone. Of course, great wealth can also be a complete hassle, as many suddenly wealthy lottery winners have discovered. But I’ve done fame and dealt with the many problems it brings, and now I’d like to try on the problems that come with wealth. Kidding, really.

  7. Brilliant! I love this. I need this. I need to read it a few times. P.S. Western YAHOO medicine cracked me up.

  8. The problem is that we need false dichotomies. For people, belief isn’t just about evaluating evidence, it’s also about social factors. It’s really important for a victim of abuse to be capable of believing that she can appease her abuser. At least in some circumstances, that belief can save a person’s life.

    Of course, on the other hand, lots of times survival hinges on recognizing that escape is the best option. Only intuition can inform us when we need to abandon evidence and trust our gut.

    So how can we tell when we need to calmly evaluate the facts, and when we need to throw caution to the wind? Perhaps the answer is beyond words, something we know at a level deeper than thought. I think it is.

    Certainly, we are all familiar with the phenomenon of reading about something, but not really getting it until we actually have relevant experience. Experiment, trial and error are inevitably informed by thought. And just as inevitably, that ineffable creative spark is equally necessary.

    I wish I could analyze further, but I can’t. It’s absolute zero, the smallest unit of matter. At least, that’s what I believe now. While I’m open to change, I have to stick with that as my working hypothesis.

    I’m using your term, it’s true. Or at least a term you used in this essay, anyway. But I think we mean different things by it. More specifically, different levels of commitment. I don’t as a rule like speaking cryptically, but there are situations where I haven’t yet found a better way to communicate clearly :-/

    • Hello Ira,

      As I read your comment, I’m thinking about faith, which is portrayed as an absurdist thing by some — as if it’s the opposite of logic. I don’t agree at all that it is, but I’m wondering if your hypothesis is about having faith in something, separate from evidence or statistical likelihoods? Faith can be an excellent survival strategy, and I’m also thinking about how it keeps relationships going — that I have faith that my loved ones will not hurt or betray me, even though I have no concrete assurance of that.

      But thinking the other thing — that everyone might hurt me or betray me, wow, that is really detrimental to my mental health, even though it might be more “logical” to distrust people. Am I making sense?

      • Yeah, I think I’m talking about faith. Maybe. And uncertainty. Definitely. Trust also, no doubt.

        For every trustworthy person who makes a mistake, there is a con-man whose one mistake is a sign of his hidden agenda. I’m trying to get at the question along the lines of “how do I know when my faith is misplaced/on the mark?”

        Even trying to articulate it seems to bring me to the precipice of paradox (an alliterative area.)

        Jumping back in, I will offer a personal example. Throughout childhood and into adulthood I have trusted my mom at a level that, if I had similar evidence in my experiences with another person today, I would not even come close to. Still, it’s hard for me to say why I continued to have so much faith. Many people see through their parents’ lies much more readily than I did. I can still be gullible and prone to self-deception. On the other hand, I have always been forgiving.

        Well, I hope that landed. Or at least that my parachute opens when I pull this cord…

      • It landed with me! I’ve also been thinking about studies that suggest that a slightly depressive outlook — wherein someone leans toward a pessimistic view of life — is actually found to be preferable to traipsing through life with unwavering optimism. Overly positive people can have problems in planning for the future, being naive about consequences, in gauging the reliability of others, in having realistic awareness of their own skill sets, and in making realistic predictions about future outcomes. Whoops!

        Don’t tell the positive psychology theorists, though, yeesh! They’ll want to cry and get angry, but their worldview won’t allow them to, and they might implode a little bit. ;)

  9. Depends what you mean by preferable.

    Me, I prefer reacting to polyannas in one way: withering criticism.

    But you can only get mono by kissing someone. Hard lesson of adulthood.

    (Hmm, I just learned that Filatov’s disease not only affects mostly younger adults, but is also harder on those over 40. Wisdom for risk? I’ll take that.)

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