Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Religion, Science, and Open-Mindedness

During the past year, I have embarked on a new endeavour. The specifics aren't important for purposes of this blog, but I will say that becoming a beginner again at something has been both a humbling and an immensely rewarding experience.

In my real life, to brag a little, I am good at my job and a few other random things. Yet there are many more things that I am not good at and that I am completely ignorant of. As adults, I think we forget this and we don't always let ourselves be beginners at things. We like to think that we're good at life and have it all more or less figured out. There is a real comfort in being sure of things. New endeavors are valuable because they remind us of all the things we do not actually know.

In the scary space of uncertainty, the beginner's mind remains open, flexible, and receptive to possibilities. The expert's mind can be brilliant, indeed, but it can also be rigid and unwilling to change in light of new evidence. Oftentimes, you really can't teach old dogs new tricks. Not because old dogs are incapable of learning, but because they think they have nothing left to learn.

To be somewhat whimsical, I recently wrote about how my mind used to be closed off to certain types of entertainment that I mistakenly believed I did not like. Where before I had thought that my personality was fixed as a Person Who Didn't Like Musicals, once I watched one without that lens on, I realized that I did actually enjoy musicals and have enjoyed many a musical in my day. Contrary to what our society often tells us, it is okay to change one's mind. In fact, precisely because we are human and do not, actually, have all that many things figured out in the grand scheme of things, changing one's mind should be more of a virtue.

I am currently making my way through Pema Chodron's No Time To Lose, and as I was reading it the other day, I came across the following paragraph (page 83):

"Three attitudes prevent us from receiving a continual flow of blessings. They are compared to three "pots": a full pot, a pot with poison in it, and a pot with a hole in the bottom. The pot that's filled to the brim is like a mind full of opinions and preconceptions. We already know it all. We have so many fixed ideas that nothing new can affect us or cause to question our assumptions."

When I read this quote, I immediately thought of the influence that some religious traditions have historically had, and continue to try to have, on science and the pursuit for truth. This isn't true of all religions, of course. For instance, the Dalai Lama has written on the convergence of Buddhism and science and of the similarities "between the scientific empirical approach and the Buddhist exploration of the mind." Buddhist monks have been known to collaborate with scientific investigators to find out what changes occur in the brain during meditation. This spirit of inquiry and open-mindedness is a contrast to the conservative Judeo-Christian tendency to fear, disdain, and reject scientific inquiry.

In fact, when it comes to social policy, I think many people are working from a full pot. Their religious, moral, and spiritual beliefs have already filled their minds to the brim with fixed ideas and so there is no room for scientific understandings that conflict with these already-held beliefs. For instance, many believe that people should not engage in sexual activity before marriage and, therefore, that social policy should encourage teens to abstain from sex as opposed to teach teenagers about birth control. Their minds are not receptive to scientific evidence showing that such social policies do not reduce the numbers of teen pregnancies.

This abstinence-only value, as well-intentioned as it may be, has also unfortunately been used to inform some of the HIV/AIDS prevention work in Africa. After George W. Bush authorized US aid money to the continent through PEPFAR, "a number of the local evangelical preachers began to get excited about this and get involved in AIDS very rapidly.". Unfortunately, because PEPFAR had an abstinence-only funding earmark, some preachers were able to promote harmful anti-condom campaigns. While the HIV/AIDS rate in Uganda, for instance, had been declining after the advent of a relatively successful program that promoted condom use, "due at least in part to the chronic condom shortage, HIV infections were on the rise again." While federal HIV/AIDS funding generally requires organizations to use evidence-based interventions, because of the abstinence ideological earmark, PEPFAR "allows groups or organizations to avoid having to provide prevention treatment or care according to evidence-based criteria."

I wonder if any amount of evidence will lead some people to question their fixed assumptions and opinions about the world. In the case of PEPFAR and sex education, an abstinence-only ideology has thrived precisely because some people have fixed opinions about how the world should be, as opposed to how the world really is. They do not distinguish their ideological truth from evidence-based truth.

Confirmation bias is a noted psychological phenomenon among humans and I think it only grows stronger the more we think we know and the older we get. Always, it's a struggle to keep one's mind open to accepting the findings of legitimate scientific studies that condemn our own worldviews and to be aware of how we so readily accept the ones that comport with our own ideologies. Living in a more reality-based world, and thus having a more genuine relationship to truth, demands that we be aware of the ways in which our own perspective is tinted and to be open to recognizing that we likely hold many misperceptions.

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