Dismissivism & Exclusivism

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 2 of 10

In his presentation, Tart talks eloquently about ‘dismissive materialism’, a force I’d wager he’s battled more than most, and how we need to work at ending its hegemony. On this, I hear him. He sees it as a psychological phenomenon, which indeed it is partly, but I’d argue it’s also a cultural one. To define a couple of terms:

Dismissivism — The view that something doesn’t exist or is evil, (or strangely, often both), taken up so as to dismiss and overthrow a competing hegemony, ignoring all evidence to the contrary as self-evidently inadmissible.

Exclusivism — The view that one has sole access to truth of a certain kind, often the only important kind, which allows one to employ Dismissivism against those who do not have such access.

Dismissivist/Exclusivist statements make sense from within their worldviews, eg. the materialist ‘no gods or spiritual reality could ever be said to actually exist’ makes sense from within a dismissivist/exclusivist materialist scientism. But the worldview, the map, doesn’t match the reality, the territory, because that reality is ‘officially inadmissible’.

Dismissivism/Exclusivism (D/E for short) thus allows the coining of universal “certainties” by means of ignoring evidence to their contrary. One can win favour with people who like certainty by positing these universal ‘truths’, to which no contradiction is ever allowed. (I was going to make an acronym out of this ‘False Universal Certain Knowledge’, but decided against that, for a variety of reasons.)

D/E actually has a long history in the West. We are not here talking about a development that began with science.

Scientism, in overthrowing spirituality, did certainly come to claim that there was no divine reality, by means of D/E — dismissing not only Christian versions of the truth, but all spiritual and religious truth whatever, as false, and also as evil, since it stood in the way of the truth. By this means it declared Christianity, and any other spiritual system, unfit for purpose in the culture.

Interestingly, in doing so, as often happens, it also went against its own principles. After all, the statement that ‘there is no truth to any form of spirituality’ really only qualifies as a hypothesis, in scientific terms. By establishing it as a “fact” with the fiat of D/E, Scientism could avoid actually collecting any evidence and attempting to prove this hypothesis, thus keeping power by violating the principles it claimed to espouse. (Which is why, to some extent, it feels its own hegemony is threatened now, since said evidence has been collected by people outside Scientism, but still within the educational remit of the scientific method.)

But these more recent cultural moves reflect longer habits here in the West. Especially since the 4th century and Constantine, Christianity itself had employed D/E to impose its reality, to the effect that the Christian deific principles were the only real ones, and that all previous Roman religion was false, and also evil. By these means paganism was declared unfit as well, and on as little evidence, so a new hegemony could be declared — proof to the contrary (that paganism was real and did good for its members) was hardly thin on the ground, if anyone had cared to look for it. And again, the principles of the new hegemony were traduced in the enforcement of this “truth”, most obviously by the violent persecution of the pagans, including their torture and execution etc. (see MacMullen 1999, my review here.)

I’ll avoid detailing other interesting examples of Dismissivism/Exclusivism. Any time you see a reality enforced against mounting evidence in the traditional Kuhnian paradigm-defence, of course, you find D/E — but maybe not only then. Communism is a great example. Freudianism operated as a D/E through much of the 20th century, and Nietzsche’s entire philosophical method sometimes seems to me to have consisted of arrogantly dismissing everyone else without looking for any evidence on any topic! ^_^ But let’s stick to the territory Tart is in. This being a set of posts about evidence-based spirituality, the key thing to notice about D/E is that it becomes a way of not admitting evidence. You actually simply don’t see the contrary to the view you hold, always supposing you ever even think of looking for it.

Thus, Tart is quite right in saying, we are going to have to question Scientism, its dismissiveness of spirituality, and its claim to exclusivity of truth, in face of evidence of contrary truths. But there is a proviso: we will have to do all that without becoming in our turn dismissivist/exclusivist. That is, we will have to find evidence to justify our statements. And when it comes to religion, with which science has sometimes found itself in a bit of a fight, that could be tricky. Many scientists have felt above the task of knowing anything about religion for a long time. That habit is quite hard to break. I propose that we will need to know what we are talking about on all sides.

I don’t say that science and religion are never legitimately at odds, far from it. It seems to me to be an uncomfortable truth that, whereas science positively requires openness to evidence, some versions and aspects of religion (including Scientism, as stated) positively require closedness to it. Worse still, there is something to be said for the idea that such closedness allows for the very sense of ‘comfort’ that some religion brings, the sense of universal truth depending on that closedness, and that this tends to boost the popularity of the religion by making followers feel that ‘all important things are known’, giving a simplified worldview that can be resorted to by ‘faith’ in all circumstances.

Thus, certain aspects of the ‘impulse to religion” militate against examination of truths that the spiritual religions claim to address. And this of course is the reason one sees people like Richard Dawkins, as John Michael Greer has said, behaving ‘more and more like Pat Robertson’.

But, as I’ll show, this is hardly a characterization of ‘religion’ itself; it is true only of certain aspects of certain religions. Just as D/E Scientism is not the whole truth about the scientific aspects of our culture, the D/E elements of religion also are not the whole truth about them. The level of exclusivism varies amongst religions — not all claim they have the one universal truth, and even the ones that do exhibit considerable variety in practice. The level of dismissivism also varies as a result.

We do want to remove the straitjacket of scientism, but some aspects of the discourse about ‘evidence-based spirituality’ seem to me to have taken on the scientistic view of religion without thinking. Part of what I’ll be doing here is to point up different ways of looking at religion from the ones which science, and more importantly its Scientistic branch, has often ended up defaulting us to, so as to make the relationships more productive on all sides.

For example, how ‘stuck’ is religion generally? Or can it possibly develop in very evidentially beneficial ways? That’s my next topic.


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