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Nerds vs. God

26/04/2010

So I guess this is the second matchup in the series? I’m going to talk about religion again, and the same disclaimer applies; I’m not talking about the truth or falsehood of any one religion, but rather, a phenomenon involving religion that seems to me pretty objective. But since I do come closer to taking sides this time, I will state obligatorily that there’s nothing wrong with being a nerd, some of my best friends are nerds and I myself am a closeted, self-hating nerd. I must really loathe myself because I am also a self-hating Japanophile and self-hating foreigner abroad. But I digress. My question is: what is the beef some (though by no means all) nerds have with God?

I was moved to reexamine the question in thinking about Star Trek. How in Gene Roddenberry’s words (though the man himself was quite tolerant and fair-handed), everyone in the future is “an atheist and better off for it.” How in Star Trek, and so many other sci-fi future-y things, man gets off the existential hook with cloning, immortality, or casting gods as powerful aliens. But how when you look closely, Star Trek doesn’t really alter the human condition; it just projects the problematic elements onto alien cultures.

It’s easy to see why nerds (myself, to some extent, included) like Star Trek; and it’s not just the space battles and busty women who are turned on by science. It’s characters like Spock and Data, who use logic to solve problems. Meanwhile jocks like Worf are relegated to standing behind the Tactical console and getting punched by aliens. The future is a world run by nerds; and a lot of these series cropped up in a time when it looked the present would be run by nerds as well. Then we realized that just like always, the present is run by a handful of grotesquely rich and mysterious people, some of whom do now happen to be nerds. But back to religion.

What bothers me is that nerdliness is now so in vogue that “nerdy” attributes, like math and science skills, are becoming increasingly identified with “intelligence.” Yes, they are one kind of intelligence. And just as with physical strength, if you constantly exercise one muscle, it can get pretty big. But while I’m all for nerds getting their due after years of being stuffed in high school lockers–they’re ultimately no better, or more qualified to judge humanity, than any group with a specific skill set. To me, real intelligence involves understanding, and participating in, the whole cultural continuity of the human race. It’s the interplay of history, art, religion, philosophy and yes, the physical sciences, that makes us what we are; and that sort of understanding is ultimately the only kind worth having. Falling short of it often means wanting to twist humanity into something else–trying to make people enlightened or peaceful–with disastrous consequences.

Above: Richard Dawkins

I know all this generalizing about “nerds” is rather crude; but if I can sum up the worldview of my strawman nerd, it’s that nothing he or she doesn’t understand has value. They live in an insular but highly sophisticated world of one subject and use it to interpret everything else. If you think you understand everything, it’s easy to see why religion gets on your nerves: so many people buy into it for no clear reason. When you confront them with logic, they try to weasel out of it; and you’re left on the outside. It’s just like the popular kids at school. The only way to validate yourself is to tear down the whole edifice of religion. That might seem hyperbolic–I mean, who really thinks all that?–but there are at least a few people who transparently do think it: these new atheists.

It’s clear that the likes of Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins don’t understand much about anything outside their fields of study; but they’ve honed their particular logic so well that they manage to “win” some debates as if by brute force. This just contributes to the increasingly partisan and mutually incoherent nature of intellectual life at least in America. Notice that Dawkins, at least, tries to pretend he’s a cultured man by randomly quoting obscure poets between the chapters of his books.

But if all that seems too obtuse–remember in Revenge of The Nerds, how the cheerleader leaves her football player boyfriend for the main nerd? “Jocks are always thinking about sports,” the proud little weenie says, “but nerds are always thinking about sex!” One could, by the same token, imagine Dawkins saying, “Theologians are always thinking about God (which is to say Everything), but I’m always thinking about Darwin!”

I wouldn’t dismiss the current debate between religion and secularism entirely, though I do think it’s largely cast in false terms. Neither would I deny the immense intellectual feats of which people who devote themselves to one branch of knowledge are capable. But still, there are days when I kind of wish someone would flush Dawkin’s glasses down the toilet.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 26/04/2010 2:50 pm

    “I know all this generalizing about “nerds” is rather crude; but if I can sum up the worldview of my strawman nerd, it’s that nothing he or she doesn’t understand has value.”

    I think you are biased (aren’t we all?) in that you assume that if someone dismisses something you value, then they don’t understand it. When it is very possible that the thing you value in fact doesn’t have value. Or perhaps not as much value as you give it.

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