Greg Cootsona: The Endorser


I used to hate this expression:

"We engage people with arguments, not arguments in abstraction."

I hated that phrase because I believed that the truth of an argument ought to be enough to convince us. I wanted human beings to be the thinking machines that evaluate opinions purely on their merits, not on who presents them. You see, I've heard the ad hominem fallacy-we can't disregard an idea based on (of an argument or reaction) directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining-like their education, their clothing, their political affiliation... or their halitosis.

But then I took some time to ponder the ways I've actually changed my mind, and I realized that it's about who presents the argument, as much as what they're saying. I realize life is lived in relationships, not in abstract isolation. (And, yes, for attentive readers I am reading Jonathan Haidt.) The importance of trust leads to the critical need for "the endorser": a credible voice in one's key group that opens us to engage new ideas.

Let's take this into the arena of science and religion. There, as I've noted, most Americans-and 69% of 18-30 year olds-would like the two get along, and not be in conflict. Calvin College sociologist Jonathan Hill has discovered that friends and family are critical for opening oneself to explore how faith meets mainstream science. Often, Hill notes, it's not even a college professor that might open our minds.

"For most students, then, it matters little what their professor teaches... What their friends, parents, and pastor thinks is going to be far more important, because their social world is inextricably tied up with these significant others." Jonathan Hill

The endorsement of science by a pastor or of faith by a trusted scientist can have an extremely positive effect. This is why, when I set up the Scientists in Congregations program, we had scientists within a church demonstrate how they bring their faith and their scientific work together. 

So far, all good, but we arrive then at two problems: First of all, finding endorsers in unusual places. Even though there are statements from prestigious organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, who state,

"Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist" (National Academy of Sciences )

the discussion on the Internet-which powerfully affects the opinions of emerging adults-is largely hostile toward religious faith. As one post stated: "The Internet will kill religion." And another opined: "Jesus will soon go the way of Zeus and Osiris." And there is the series of memes like "Let me introduce you to my bronze-age sky god" when ridiculing Christianity and Judaism. In the Internet particularly, these comments create great "click bait," provocative snippets of articles that demand our attention by their outrageous or adversarial claims. We are, it appears, naturally, neurologically stimulated by threat, novelty, and conflict. (Interestingly, this fact seems itself to have a scientifically discernible basis: human beings have evolved to be highly attuned to threats, through, among other systems, the stimulation of the amygdala in the limbic system.) 

Another key problem here is that emerging adults don't seem to be aware of the key voices, which present the kind integration of these disciplines that most endorse, such as Francis Collins or Kenneth Miller. For example, in their Religious Understandings of Science survey with 10,241 respondents from the general adult population (though, admittedly, not targeting emerging adults), Christopher Scheitle and Elaine Howard Ecklund (behind paywall) found that only 4.3% had heard of Francis Collins as opposed to 21.4% had heard of Richard Dawkins. In other words, the public is almost five times more likely to hear Dawkins's voice than Collins's and therefore about conflict between science and religion. And yet, as I noted above, most emerging adults lean toward Collins and away from Dawkins.

I'll close with questions: Who will we trust? Who are the endorsers? I'm not sure those are as yet entirely answered.

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