Monday, January 21, 2013

The Cult of the Irrational

Hundred of years ago in Europe, during that period which we refer to as the Enlightenment, human beings began to replace many of their former superstitious beliefs with ideas that were the product of some of the most exquisite uses of human reason ever attempted by man. Our Founding Fathers were products of the Enlightenment and they clearly believed that the nation they were creating was grounded in the principles of natural reason (Jefferson’s self-evident truths).

The Founding Fathers would probably be dismayed to learn that, well over 200 years after this nation was established, so many of its citizens—and even a good number of its elected officials—would have mindsets that seemed much better suited for the Middle Ages than the 21st century.

For example, the clear scientific consensus on climate change—the view held by well over 99% of reputable climatologists—is that our planet is warming, that this warming trend is a consequence of the amount of carbon that human beings are spewing into the atmosphere, and that, unless we cap carbon emissions in some significant way (and how to do this is subject to legitimate dispute), the consequences for our future generations will be dire. Those are the scientific facts, plain and simple. And yet, despite all the hard evidence we have about climate change, a significant number of Americans either believe that the planet is not really warming at all, or, if it is, this has nothing to do with human behavior. One Republican senator, James Inhofe, went so far as to call climate change “the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people.” And he’s the former chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment, no less!

We’ve also know for quite a long time that our planet is billions of years old, that human beings as a species only evolved from lower forms of primates about 200,000 years ago, and that the dinosaurs were long gone before we came into the picture. However, a significant number of Americans—almost all evangelical Christians and the majority of Republicans—believe that the world was created literally in seven days and that human beings were placed on this planet by God on the seventh day. In order to explain the messy problem of dinosaur fossils that seem to predate human existence by millions of years, creationists have argued that humans and dinosaurs actually co-existed on the planet. There’s even a creationist theme park in Kentucky that shows children in primitive garb happily riding on the backs of friendly dinosaurs. If you think that these views are held only by the most ignorant Americans, guess again. Marco Rubio, who is very likely to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, recently responded when asked how old he thought the earth was, “Whether the earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to actually answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.” Keep in mind that there is a very good chance that this individual could be the next President of the United States of America!

There have always been irrational people in American society, but in the Age of Obama, they seem to be climbing out of the woodwork. From the very beginning of Obama’s presidency, there were people (again a majority of Republicans and evangelical Christians) who passionately believed he was a Muslim (he never was), a socialist (not even close) and that he was not really a U.S. citizen (even after the State of Hawaii produced his U.S. birth certificate).  

For Americans like these, reason, logic, and evidence don’t matter at all in terms of their beliefs. They are convinced instead by the proclamations of authority figures (religious leaders or political pundits like Rush Limbaugh), by the literal teachings of their sacred texts (the Bible, of course), and by their own dread of living in a world inhabited by people whose skin is a darker shade than their own or whose worldviews aren’t shaped by traditional Christian faith. It’s that basic underlying fear of a world in change that has these Americans clinging for dear life to their antiquated religious beliefs and to the Republican Party, which has for all practical purposes become the home for those who belong to the cult of extreme irrationality.

We can, of course, laugh at the silly, superstitious beliefs of know-nothing Americans, and dismiss these views as being the products of defective minds. But the men and women who hold such views now effectively control one of the two major political parties in the United States—a party, which very soon could once again be in charge of the U.S. government—and have a strange-hold over the education of children and the teaching of “science” in many parts of the country. What is needed, then, is the same kind of intensive campaign on the part of those of us who embrace the wisdom of the Enlightenment as has been waged for years now by the forces of irrationality.  

Fortunately, those who are part of the cult of irrationality are a dying breed. They tend to be old, white, less educated than the mainstream population, and confined to those parts of the country like the Bible Belt, where ignorance and superstition are positively embraced (or at least tolerated). The very know-nothing attitudes that are indicative of membership in the cult of irrationality also means that these individuals will be less likely to compete in an economy in which the possession of openness to new ideas, tolerance of differing viewpoints, and effective critical thinking ability will determine economic success in the information age.

But this doesn’t mean that we can’t weep for the children who, through no fault of their own, are being raised in families and communities in which the cult of irrationality dominates. It is precisely for these innocent children—many of whom will grow up wishing that they could ride on the backs of dinosaurs just like their ancestors did—that we need a concerted campaign to reclaim a primary role for reason in American society. The consequences, if we fail to do this, will be the existence of a permanent underclass of backwards Americans who cling to old-time religion and fixate on the joys of the next life, because the world and the pleasures it has to offer has ultimately passed them by.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

On Tragedy and Moral Responsibility

2012 is now officially over. Although the year saw some glimmers of economic recovery on the horizon and an Obama victory over the forces of rabid conservativism, it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a very good year for our country or for the planet. On the East Coast two events in particular caused the year to end on such a disturbing note, that you almost can’t blame people for wanting to move on as quickly as possible to 2013. These events, of course, were the destruction caused in the mid-Atlantic region by Hurricane Sandy in October and the shooting of 20 school children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut just a few weeks ago.

 Both these events can legitimately be described as tragedies. In the storm lives were lost, thousands were left homeless, and there was billions of dollars in property damages. At Sandy Hook innocent children and teachers were murdered by a deranged young gunman, Adam Lanza, who also took his own life and that of his mother. The only appropriate response to either of these tragic events is to feel immense sympathy for the victims and offer them as much emotional and financial support as we can to help them deal with their losses.

But there are two important lessons that we should take away from events like these.

The first is existential—the real recognition that human life is inherently tragic, that horrific things happen all the time to very good people, and that the attempt to insulate ourselves from the tragic nature of life is a fool’s quest. Indeed, one could argue that the entire life project of many Americans is precisely to try to forget as much as is humanly possible just how tragic life can be. We spend much of our time engaged in the most frivolous sorts of activities—shopping for unnecessary creature comforts, gorging ourselves on unhealthy food, traveling all over the world, building huge homes for ourselves and our bloated families—all in an attempt to forget that human life is inherently vulnerable and transient. 

The simple truth is that, as human beings, each of us will experience the death of loved ones as a regular occurrence, we will suffer physical and emotional pain as a normal part of living our lives, we will know failure, loss, and rejection, and we will eventually get sick and inevitably die. And all this must be done alone, because no one else can live our lives for us and no one else can suffer and die for us. It shouldn’t take a wall of water from the Atlantic Ocean sweeping our homes away or the murder of innocent school children to make us understand the tragic nature of the human condition; daily existence itself should teach us that—if we didn’t incessantly try to cover over this fact. 

In the end, however, try as we might to ignore the tragic nature of the human condition, ultimately we can’t really escape from it. Even the “Real Housewives of New Jersey” will get fat, will get old, and will die. And their children will die. And their children’s children will die. All of the riches and pleasures of the American consumeristic lifestyle can’t disguise the fact that all we really amount to at the end of our lives is a hunk of rancid flesh fit only for the consumption of the meanest parasites. That is the inevitable conclusion of our all too brief time on this little planet of ours and there is not much we can really do about it. 

Were we to embrace the inherent tragic nature of our human condition, instead of constantly trying to run away from it, I’m convinced that we would all be much happier for it in the end. And the happiness I’m talking about is not the shallow sort that comes from buying a new Ipad or designer outfit. It’s the happiness that comes from understanding that life is precious, that our time on the planet is fleeting, and that we should try to live the most meaningful existence we can, “for we shall not pass this way again.”

The second lesson, I believe, that we should take away from these two events is that, despite the inevitably of tragedy in our lives—or perhaps precisely because of it—we have a moral duty to do what we can to minimize the amount of unnecessary tragedy that innocent human beings are forced to experience. We also need to seriously consider how our own selfish, materialistic, consumeristic—i.e., American—lifestyles may contribute to making the tragedies that are the price we pay for corporeal existence more severe or more common than they might otherwise be.

Hurricanes, for example, are inevitable. And, as long as there are severe hurricanes, people will die as a result of them, and property will be destroyed. But just because hurricanes are part of nature, that doesn’t mean that we Americans are totally blameless for the swath of devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. Many climatologists, for example, believe that Sandy would not have been quite so destructive if water temperatures had not been artificially raised because of the climate change that we are responsible for. We should also reflect on the fact that American taxpayers essentially subsidize those who live in hurricane prone areas by providing them with government insurance that allows them to live on barrier islands, where no one probably should be permitted to live. The question that we need to begin to ask ourselves is what we collectively are going to do about facts like these to ensure that fewer Americans die as a result of disasters like hurricanes.

Similarly, there will always be insane people among us who are prone to violence. Arming every citizen in the county won’t prevent mass shooting, nor will putting a police officer in every school in the country. But we might begin to question our obsessive need to cut taxes at all costs, even if this cost is the kind of community mental health counseling that might have identified Adam Lanza as a troubled individual and provided him with the kind of help he desperately needed. Similarly, we might begin to reflect upon a gun culture in the United States that allows mentally ill individuals in many parts of the country to buy assault weapons with no background check. Perhaps it’s time to start questioning whether our first amendment rights are—or need to be—as absolute as the NRA would like them to be. If assault weapons and their ammunition were impossible to come by, Adam Lanza might still have been responsible for the death of innocent lives, but 20 children and 6 teachers probably wouldn’t be dead right now.

Ultimately, you and I are responsible for the misery, suffering, and death caused by both hurricane Sandy and the shooting at Sandy Hook. We are responsible not because we could have prevented events like this from happening, but because our mindless commitment to a selfish materialistic American lifestyle has made these events far more catastrophic than they needed to be.

The question is what, if anything, are we going to do about it?