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.

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