Despite what I consider my strong refutation of the idea that “faith” is pervasive in both science and religion, that idea persists. I won’t go through the arguments that I made in Faith Versus Fact or, more concisely, in an article in Slate, “No Faith in Science,” but people nevertheless persist in their nescience. The latest attempt to argue that science is faith-based is in the pages of The Post Millennial, a conservative Canadian news magazine. It’s just so tiresome in every way that I get no pleasure from putting fingers to keys. But since that rag is fairly widely read, I’ll say a few words.
The article is really a disguised harangue about how mandates to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic are infringements on our liberty. In other words, it’s the right-wing libertarian argument against masks that we see so often in the U.S. And, says Andrew Mahon—identified as “a Canadian-British writer based in London who has written for the Spectator, the Daily Wire, Conservative Woman, New English Review, Brexit Central, Catholic Journal and others”—the notion that masks reduce Covid-19 transmission is based on faith, because there’s supposedly no evidence behind it.
Click on the screenshot to read and weep:
You can read my Slate piece to see that when scientists use the word “faith”, they use it differently from believers. Scientists use it to mean “confidence born of experience.” And when people say “I have faith in my doctor” or “I have faith in Anthony Fauci’s views”, they mean that they trust authority figures who have a good track record. That’s not the same as religious faith, characterized by philosopher Walter Kaufmann as ” “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”
Read my piece if you want more. The upshot is that the scientific notion of “faith” does not turn science into a religion, as Mahon implies in his headline. If you look up “religion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you find this definition:
Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.
Even if science were based on a religious-like faith, which it isn’t, it couldn’t be described as a religion. We have no obedience to or reverence for gods or the supernatural. End of story.
Mahon, who I suspect is a believer, has a weird notion of religion, claiming that it is not based on evidence or claims about reality. That’s of course untrue, but it does adhere to the Gouldian “Non-overlapping magisteria” view of science and religion:
The religious impulse cannot be avoided. Alongside faith, everyone participates in ritual and follows prohibitions in one form or another. We do it in every human interaction, and we certainly notice whenever anyone doesn’t follow conventional norms. The question becomes where to direct the religious impulse. And, leaving aside the truth or falsehood of its claims, what Christianity achieved was to direct man’s religious impulse to the ideal place, away from the empirically knowable. Unlike other religions, Christianity directed it wholly towards things unknowable, unprovable and unfalsifiable. This effectively freed up the knowable world, severing it from the realm of faith, and allowed the scientific method to step in and transform human civilization.
Away from the empirically knowable? But if you’re a Christian, don’t you have to have some “knowledge” about the existence of Jesus and God, and of their powers and their plans? In fact, empiricism is the only way to know about these things, making the term “empirically knowable” a bit of an redundancy. I guess he’s talking about “other ways of knowing,” i.e., revelation, authority, and sacred books, which are non-empirical. Neither are they a way to arrive at the truth, as we know from all the contradictory claims of the world’s diverse religions. As Mike Aus, a pastor who quit the church, said:
When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.
So, although Mahon gives credit for science to religion’s wise decision to step away from empirical claims, I can’t be all that grateful. And I wish that religion would keep its mitts off evolution. But of course Mahon’s claim bespeaks a profound ignorance of religion, many of whose proponents really do make claims about reality that they believe absolutely, and are constantly trying to buttress with evidence (viz. Biblical archaeology, miracles, and so on).
But the “religious impulse” that “can’t be avoided” is now, argues Mahon, directed towards the pandemic, in particularly those nasty mandates to wear masks. He gets into his anti-mask argument slowly, as he doesn’t want to look like a crazy right-winger at the very beginning.
Step 1: A general assertion:
The rush to accept the claims of scientists with blind faith rather than insisting on proof is a distinct sign of our times, as is the demand for proof of unprovable tenets of Christianity. In thrall to this topsy-turvydom, many scientists expect politicians to trust them in the absence of evidence and many Christians try to construe the book of Genesis as if it were a scientific treatise.
Step 2: Mahon gets more specific:
Surely, given the unprecedented disruption to people’s lives, the suppression of basic liberties and the destruction of the economy, the decision to shut down society ought to have been evidence-based rather than faith-based. But with few exceptions, our politicians didn’t insist upon evidence, choosing instead to defer to (or should we say, hide behind) their scientific advisors, who presented them with predictions, models, worst-case estimates and beliefs.
And of course those scientific advisors, who were blindsided like many of us, initially went on the best guesses they could make from evidence derived from previous coronavirus epidemics and from epidemiology. In other words, they went on evidence, scanty as it was at the beginning of 2020. They weren’t always right, but they did not rely on revelation, sacred books, or mere unevidenced pronouncements of authorities. And of course those scientists eventually presented the politicians with a vaccine. That vaccine wasn’t, of course, based on faith.
Step 3: Mahon reveals his real animus:
Take mask mandates. People who believe in wearing masks think that they’re basing those beliefs on science. But if that were true, they’d be able to show evidence. What you get instead is a patronizing cartoon of people peeing on each other, or Paul Rudd trying to be funny and then yelling at you from his celebrity pedestal. “It’s science!” he shouts. But is it?
Wearing masks makes some people feel better. It also satisfies a naive intuition. The mask is clearly a barrier that will at some level prevent fluids travelling through fabric, just like your pants. But that doesn’t constitute scientific proof that masks prevent the spread of a virus. Scientific proof in this case would take the form of randomized controlled trials. There was one five years ago which compared medical masks to cloth masks and found that “Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.” This was the line that most governments were taking at first, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. But then they altered course without any new evidence, and the vast majority of people now accept it as an article of faith that masks save lives.
There has been a grand total of one randomized controlled trial conducted to determine the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The Danish study that initially struggled to find a publisher conclusively showed that there is a statistically insignificant difference between wearing a mask and not wearing a mask. Add to this the fact that masks are disgusting, unhygienic sneeze receptacles that in practice are rarely washed or replaced, that people touch their masks and faces constantly before feeling up avocados in the supermarket, that because of the false sense of security, people wearing masks are less likely to do other, more effective things, like wash their hands, and finally, that there is little to no evidence of asymptomatic transmission, and we have to wonder why all these healthy people are still walking around with their faces covered. The answer is quite simply that their faith is misplaced.
Now let’s grant that we lack the direct controlled, randomized trials that we need to show with absolute certainty that masks are useful in helping contain the epidemic. (Of course other things are very useful as well: hand-washing, avoiding big social gatherings, quarantining, and so on.) Doing those types of experiments would be unethical. But we have correlational evidence that show mask wearing by symptomatic and asymptomic people, whether the latter be infected or not, reduces the incidence of transmission; that masks contain respiratory droplets, a source of infection; and so on. All the evidence is summarized in this post on the website of my doctor, Alex Lickerman—a post I’ve mentioned before (click on screenshot to read it):
You won’t find any faith in the post above, just data—data sufficient to buttress the argument that we should all be wearing masks.
At the end, Mahon reprises his claim that mask-wearing is a religious act, and makes what I call “The Argument from the Norm”:
Not wearing masks is the norm, freedom to visit family and friends is the norm, freedom to conduct business is the norm, and evidence should be required to displace by legal compulsion each and every one of these norms. But too many people aren’t interested in that, preferring instead to trust in the government’s claim to be following “the science,” and if challenged, they often react the way a religious person reacts when his beliefs are criticized — offended and scandalized.
Well, read Alex’s post above and see if you think there’s no “science” behind mask mandates.
But the best part of Mahon’s argument is his claim, at the very end, that because the erosion of Christianity in our society has also eroded the distinction between “the knowable and the unknowable”, then perhaps a return of Christianity will actually help revive science! I kid you not:
I’m not sure whether a return to Christianity is necessary to salvage the unknowable/knowable partition and preserve the utility of the scientific method. But whatever direction our society chooses to go in future, one thing’s for sure: we will have a religion. We may not have science.
Can you believe that? Mahon’s not even wrong here. Eventually religion will largely disappear from Western society, but science never will because it cannot. In the modern world, we don’t really need religion that much, but we’ll always need science. How else would we have gotten a vaccine? Science is the only good way to materially improve humanity, whether it be through technology, nutrition, or health. And, of course, it’s the only way to satisfy our insatiable curiosity about the cosmos.
The Post Millennial was in fact irresponsible in printing this piece, implying as it does that mask-wearing has no effect on viral infection rates. Mahon may have the right to endanger Canadians with his pabulum, but the paper should exercise better judgement in allowing columnists to make misleading statements about science, particularly when they affect public health. If this column were on Twitter, it would have gotten one of those “false tweets” warnings.
p.s. If you saw a mattress ad, ignore it. I had to turn off adblocker to get the article, and accidentally copied that ad. It should be removed now.