June 03, 2005

Shortell Proves His Ignorance With Eloquence

I once told a friend of mine that the only difference between the average person and one with a PhD is that the PhD may have the ability to express his stupidity more eloquently. Brooklyn College's Professor Timothy Shortell seems intent on proving the point.

Shortell is deep in controversy over online comments he made in an essay called “Religion & Morality: A Contradiction Explained”. The basic premise of Shortell's essay is that religion is irrational, inherently violent, creates immorality, and that the human condition will only improve with the eventual shunning of religion in favor of pleasure-seeking rationalism.

Shortell has just won an election to become the department chair of the Brooklyn College sociology department, but has not yet been confirmed to the position. Students began protesting Shortell's election as department chair once his essay became public, and now his chairman ship seems in doubt.

According to Fox News:

The school president must still approve the vote and has convened a committee to examine Shortell's qualifications. Members of the board of trustees at the publicly funded school are anxious to see the committee's report.

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who is a member of the board of trustees, said, "He hasn't done anything within the classroom, at least as far we know and as yet that would amount to what might be called ... an impeachable offense."

Mr. Weisenfeld is correct.

The topic of the essay, while very controversial and confrontational, should not disqualify Professor Shortell from his duly elected chairmanship. Intellectual freedom to discuss controversial topics must be protected if higher education is to develop and encourage a new generation of thinkers.

The excretable quality of his essay, rife with contradictions in logic, unsupported accusations, and often unintentional comedy, is another matter entirely. If this essay's quality of writing is indicative of Shortell's academic prowess, I can only hope that the Brooklyn College facilities maintenance department has tenure-track positions.

Shortell's essay begins:

French Sociologist Émile Durkheim observed that religion was the root of science. Religion, he said, was the first human attempt to systematically explain the world. Durkheim thought that religious rationality would wither away in modern times (for him, the early twentieth century) because scientific rationality would replace it, by virtue of its superior explanatory power. Alas, he seems to have gotten this one wrong.

But Durkheim was right about the genealogy of thought. Modern religion is an elaboration of a belief in magic. In the absence of a scientific explanation of events and institutions, faith in magical powers, fetishization of nature, and overinterpretation of random variation are inevitable. Durkheim expected religion to fall out of fashion as the outright belief in magic had, for the same reason. For anyone with the least education, the superior power of scientific thinking is obvious. Only a willful ignorance could lead to any other conclusion.

Scientific thinking is indeed superior for many purposes, but it is smug arrogance to proclaim that a scientific approach is applicable to all situations. Someone should remind Shortell that Durkheim's revered scientific rationality was insufficient to deal with the emotional loss of his son in World War I. Durkheim withdrew within himself and could not even bear to have his son's name mentioned in his presence, a patently emotional, decidedly non-scientific response.

Professor Shortell further evangelizes:

Religions have persisted, despite their inability to explain the modern world. Here, in fact, we have a stunning reversal: religions play up the "essential mystery" of modern life. Since the world is too complex to understand all at once, in its entirety—even for the scientist—all of us will sometimes shake our heads in wonder at the turn of events in which we find ourselves. Many will find this uncertainty anxiety-provoking, and will look around for a convenient escape.
Once could presumably reverse the argument and also make the valid point that science still exists despite its inability to explain the modern world.

Despite research going back well past the time of Archimedes, mathematicians still cannot fully compute pi, the mathematical constant that is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. Should we not believe in mathematics or circles until pi is proven?

As social organizations, religions have a dramatic power that hides their essential irrationality. They persist today because they are so effective at constructing group identities and at setting up conflict between the in- and out-groups. For all religions, there is an "us" and a "them." All the ritual and the fellowship associated with religious practice is just a means of continually emphasizing group boundaries and hostility. It is no accident that the history of world religions is a history of violence, hatred and intolerance. The in-group has exclusive access to the truth, so the out-group need not—indeed, should not—be listened to; they can only deceive. And, being liars, and thus, evil, they forfeit their rights as equal members of the community. This is the poisonous logic of religious irrationality.

All modern religions are ideological: they insist on a total, though contradictory, system of beliefs and evaluations. Complete acceptance is the only way to escape the uncertainty of modernity. For this reason, religion without fanaticism is impossible. Anyone whose mind is trapped inside such a mental prison will be susceptible to extreme forms of behavior. All religions foment their own kind of holy war.

Shortell selectively targets religions as having a history of violence and intolerance, while ignoring that the greatest mass murderers of the past century were secularists. Stalin and Mao shared the good professor's dislike of religion, and Shortell seems unable to reconcile his cherry picking of the historical record with actual reality, and so proselytizes onward once more.
The reader might point out that some believers are more bland and mild than fire and brimstone. Those whose devotion is moderate are, perhaps, only cowardly fanatics. They want the fellowship and the security but ignore the logic of the system to which they grudgingly adhere. They may be more numerous than the overt fanatics, but they will always have less influence. This is simply the operation of the rule of the lowest common denominator; in response to uncertainty, the exaggerated sense of confidence of the zealot will win over the crowd. If you doubt that this is true, consider modern politics. The same dynamic applies. This is why our political system has given birth to the "war on drugs" and "family values."
Shortell preaches that anyone faithful to the tenets of their faith—no matter which faith—is a fanatic, while those who are less adamant in their religion are cowardly fanatics. Once again, Shortell shows a cultish divisiveness of his own, insisting that you must believe fully as he does or face being labeled an infidel.

One might also be amused to note that Shortell seems to be counting on his own zealotry to “win over the crowd” that he rails against.

Faith is by definition not rational—that is, it is belief in the absence of verification. (If you do not think this is a fair definition of faith, look it up. I got this from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, item 2b.)
Perhaps not surprisingly considering his track record thus far, Shortell "accurately misquotes" Merriam-Webster's item 2b, which defines faith as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof .”

I find it every much as interesting that he chose that particular definition, as faith is also defined as an allegiance to duty or to a person, and also as loyalty, fidelity, and a sincerity of intentions.

Shortell seems against loyalty and suspicious of fidelity, and it isn't hard to see this in disturbing detail. In addition to the text of this essay, Shortell also includes a collection of original artwork he created.

In the majority of these pictures, we see the same solitary, dark, limbless human silhouette about to be crushed by elements of his environment.

In one image the figure is in the path of giant dominoes about to fall; in another, it sits helplessly in front of boulders careening down a hillside. Yet a third shows the torso about to be overrun by an oncoming pair of headlights. Shortell seems obsessed with stark loneliness, feelings of abandonment, helplessness, and impending death.

To put it mildly, he's got "issues.”

If every assertion were subject to question, the faithful would have to admit that they hold their beliefs without rational basis. If the public sphere were to promote the free contest of ideas, religious belief would wither under the scrutiny of scientific rationality, just as Durkheim expected. As with nationalism, faith is secured by appeals to emotion, not critical thinking. Emotion in crowds tends toward panic or violence.
While I'm sure the good professor finds it infuriating, the marketplace of ideas has been around for quite sometime, and scientific rationality seems to have done religion no harm. Faith isn't based on science, or pseudo-science, but upon a core human desire for something greater than this plane of existence, which is found in the vast majority of cultures in human history.

Shortell seems hell-bent on stripping us of humanity in a mad pursuit of cold objectivity. Perhaps he has spent a bit too much time imagining life as a Vulcan.

His comments about the tendency of crowds may or may not have a degree of merit, but I would think that if his theory is correct, then there should be bloodbaths during every NASCAR race, Broadway show, and PTA meeting. I remain unconvinced.

In order to be protected from the harsh light of rational argument, the faithful want to make religion a taboo subject. Orthodoxy is supposed to be beyond question. Just like in totalitarian states, where criticism of the government is a capital offense, the faithful would like to enforce an intellectual gag-order so that the barbarity of their regime goes unchallenged.
Professor Shortell does not desire a rational discourse. He dismisses the merits of religion out of hand. Nobody has censored him nor put him in prison for his views, but neither has he the courage to stand up for his accusations. He claims, "we should be able to debate the issue in the public sphere without fear of retribution," but refuses to debate. He hits and runs, making me suspect he does not desire the rational argument he claims, but instead simply wishes to stand alone on his soap box inside an echo chamber.

This only addresses roughly the first half of Shortell's essay, and the rest is as agonizingly tiresome. He bloviates on, making one unsubstantiated statement after another. Feel free to read the rest, but you won' t miss much other than more projections of Shortell's apparent insensitivity and insecurity.

His thesis is simply this, “Can there be any doubt that humanity would be better off without religion?”

I think we can answer quite honestly that, "Yes sir, after thousands of years finding comfort in religion in every corner of this world, and on others, there is obviously quite a bit of doubt."

Religions are well established worldwide, and the bulk of humanity seems to think we are better off with them as an intrinsic part of our collective social fabric. What is not so readily apparent is the value of Professor Shortell's relatively new cult of scientific rationality.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at June 3, 2005 09:47 PM