February 28, 2005


A Dawning Age of Unreason: In 21st-century America, people seem to prefer placing their unquestioning faith in divine mysteries than worshipping at the altar of science. (Will Englund, February 27, 2005, Baltimore Sun)

Reason has been taking a beating recently, and it's not hard to see why. If Americans are flocking to religious faith, to revealed dogma, to creationism, to a place where no one pays any heed to a logic based on if x then y, it's because reason gave us a world that hardly makes sense anymore.

Yes, I know - two centuries ago, America itself was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, and of a belief that people had it within their own power to make a better life for themselves, to throw off the shackles of superstition and build a more perfect union. And it nearly happened. Look what reason - as expressed through social, technological and scientific progress - gave birth to: the First Amendment, the Erie Canal, the cotton gin, the light bulb, the submachine gun, the income tax, the Model T Ford, the exit poll, the Edsel, the New Jersey Turnpike, the polio vaccine, the tonsillectomy, the nose job, death by lethal injection, and call waiting. [...]

The Age of Reason may have reached its glorious acme in the late 19th century. But in some ways it started to go off the rails soon after. Reason said that humans could be bred like peas or hogs to produce a better specimen - a line of thinking that reached its logical conclusion at Auschwitz. Reason said that energy and mass are related - as the residents of Hiroshima were to learn. Reason said that history and economics were decipherable by way of the scientific method; thus Das Kapital , and thus The Gulag Archipelago.

It's one of the more delicious ironies of the 20th century that the Soviets believed they were acting according to scientific principles - it was nonsense, but evangelical Americans, of all people, took them at their word. The phrases "scientific communism" and "godless communism" are so close in the meaning given to them by their respective camps that they are practically synonymous. Scientific was godless. In actual fact, the Bolsheviks had one great feature in common with Christian fundamentalists: adherence to tenets that were a matter of faith and could not be proved wrong by any amount of evidence. This is the philosopher Karl Popper's definition of the difference between religion and science -- science is always open to new facts.

Religion, on the other hand, as the bioethicist Peter Singer points out in The President of Good and Evil, requires its adherents to stifle doubt, not to act on it. Case in point is George W. Bush, says Singer, who goes on to make a pretty convincing case that doubt is not one of the commander-in-chief's major afflictions.

Did the death of communism mean that Americans could dispense with doubt, once and for all? Is America turning its back finally on the Age of Reason? Susan Jacoby, an author who early in her career wrote about the Soviet Union, traces in Freethinkers the battles down through the past 200 years between religiosity and reason in American life, and concludes that religiosity is stronger now than it has ever been before. Maybe that comparison to Romantic poetry wasn't quite on target. Evangelicals preach American exceptionalism, that God has shed a special grace on America and that faith goes hand in hand with prosperity. And then consider Justice Antonin Scalia, who, as Jacoby points out, has said that the "American government derives its ultimate power not from the people but from divinity." Strict constructionism? This isn't about the Constitution's more perfect union, it's about America as the Shining City on the Hill.

With religiosity comes certainty, and with certainty comes a complete lack of curiosity. Jacoby points out that religious belief in some common forms is antithetical to democracy itself. "Those who rely on the perfect hand of the Almighty for political guidance, whether on biomedical research or capital punishment, are really saying that such issues can never be a matter of imperfect human opinion," she writes. Not wanting to know might be the new American ethos.

The genius of the Founding, of course, was that, unlike Rationalism, it rejected the possibility of perfectability. It is based on religious authority that can not be doubted or the whole project goes bung.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 28, 2005 9:11 AM

Amen! Preach it, brother! (No joking, I really mean it.)

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 28, 2005 10:14 AM

Hubris is fun.

Posted by: creeper at February 28, 2005 10:17 AM

--Reason has been taking a beating recently, and it's not hard to see why.---

-- science is always open to new facts.

I think he just told us why.....

No, they're not.

Kyoto comes to mind.

Posted by: Sandy P at February 28, 2005 10:41 AM


Yes, the hubris of thinkg Man could inquire into morality was a killer.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2005 10:59 AM

Some atheist (whose name I've forgotten but who I encountered at pharyngula.org) said that in the 21st century, people would be dying of New Age.

Not only witty but true.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 2, 2005 3:31 PM