None of this is special to religion. Researchers have studied those who have strong opinions about political issues and found that they often literally don’t know what they are talking about. Many people who take positions on cap and trade, for instance, have no idea what cap and trade is. Similarly, many of those who will insist that America spends too much, or too little, on foreign aid, often don’t know how much actually is spent, as either an absolute amount or proportion of GDP. These political positions are also credences, and one who holds them is just like someone who insists that the Ten Commandments should be the bedrock of morality, but can’t list more than three or four of them.
Many scientific views endorsed by non-specialists are credences as well. Some people reading this will say they believe in natural selection, but not all will be able to explain how natural selection works. (As an example, how does this theory explain the evolution of the eye?) It turns out that those who assert the truth of natural selection are often unable to define it, or, worse, have it confused with some long-rejected pre-Darwinian notion that animals naturally improve over time.
There are exceptions, of course. There are those who can talk your ear off about cap and trade, and can delve into the minutiae of selfish gene theory and group selection. And there are people of faith who can justify their views with powerful arguments.
But much of what’s in our heads are credences, not beliefs we can justify—and there’s nothing wrong with this. Life is too brief; there is too much to know and not enough time. We need epistemological shortcuts.
Given my day job, I know something about psychology and associated sciences, but if you press me on the details of climate change, or the evidence about vaccines and autism, I’m at a loss. I believe that global warming is a serious problem and that vaccines do not cause autism, but this is not because I have studied these issues myself.
It is because I trust the scientists.
Most of those who insist that the Earth is 6000 years old and that global warming is a liberal fraud and that vaccines destroy children’s brains would also be at a loss to defend these views. Like me, they defer, just to different authorities.
This equivalence might lead to a relativist conclusion—you have your faith; I have mine. You believe weird things on faith (virgin birth, winged horse); I believe weird things on faith (invisible particles, Big Bang), and neither of us fully understands what we’re really talking about. But there is a critical difference. Some sorts of deference are better than others.
It’s better to get a cancer diagnosis from a radiologist than from a Ouija Board. It’s better to learn about the age of the universe from an astrophysicist than from a Rabbi. The New England Journal of Medicine is a more reliable source about vaccines than the actress Jenny McCarthy. These preferences are not ideological. We’re not talking about Fox News versus The Nation. They are rational, because the methods of science are demonstrably superior at getting at truths about the natural world.