Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Let's Be Reasonable!

I’m sitting here at Chapters [well, Starbucks really, but it's IN the Chapters Bookstore…. all Canadians know what I mean…] and I’m reading Susan Jacoby’s excellent book The Age of American Unreason.
The book examines the last forty or fifty years of American culture [although it goes much further than this… back to the days of the “freethinkers” like Thomas Paine and Emerson and whatnot], and Jacoby traces the way in which “we” have arrived at the current state of rampant anti-rationalism that is evident in many areas of “our” collective life. Our culture.
She speaks about the failure of public education to create an informed citizenry, and she examines the triumph of video over print culture, which has led to this steady diet of “junk thought” that the Western world so loves to chew on.
What interests me most, I guess, is when she speaks about the upsurge of religious fundamentalism, and how this phenomenon has aided and abetted the ingestion of opinion over fact.
I just finished her major chapter on this latter concept. It’s called The New Old-Time Religion, and it makes me think of another book I read a couple of years ago.
Sam Harris’s The End of Faith.

I recall him saying in that book, “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”
Jacoby begins her book with a similar sentiment, from Thomas Jefferson (in 1816):
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

On a personal note, I really love the discussion and study of theological ideas and the history of myth/religion and religious idea in general. From 1987 to 1991 I studied theology on a full-time basis, and my interest has not waned since. If anything, it has deepened, and broadened.
One thing I really dislike, however, is stupidity.
In other words, as regards theology, if a “discussion” is not founded on an attitude of complete disinterestedness, it becomes nothing more than a biased taking-of-sides and/or regurgitation of preferred dogma. An exercise in inconsideration. In fact, it descends very quickly into what I would call “stupidity” and anything BUT valid discussion.
Harris would call it “lethal absurdity.”
The premise of this book [The End of Faith] is that certainty without evidence [which is what faith is] is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing.
Faith can be a very lethal thing.
Several years ago I would have considered that [the above sentence] to be a borderline-blasphemy type of statement. Something that God would strop his razor over, waiting to mete justice upon the speaker. But that is just the thing. That very expectation is something believed upon, in faith. It is purely a “faith” thing to feel assured of knowing exactly what it is that pleases and displeases God.
Harris’s book is a real eye-opener, it really is.
It is a pail of cold water, right in the face of this topic of “faith”!

He shows us that the religious world we currently live in is a veritable ocean foaming over with bad ideas. It is a world in which religious conviction has grown in inverse proportion to its justification. What passes for religious superiority is often nothing more than blind adherence to abysmal ignorance.

One of the things I most enjoyed was the chapter that focussed on discussing the difference between “belief” (believing) and “knowledge” (knowing).
The book is a definite plea to recognize the present-day ascendency of unreason.
But, at the same time, it does not (in my opinion) argue atheism as a dogma.
Nowhere does the book deny the importance of spirituality in our lives. However, it advocates finding approaches to ethics and to spiritual experience that make no appeal to faith. At first, that may sound quite confusing, even contradictory to some readers, but all I can say is… read the book. If the door of your mind is not welded shut, you will understand what is being said in here.
It is a cry to acknowledge the dangers inherent in the practice of unquestionable faith.
But it is not a battle cry against anyone. On the contrary, it is a realization that while we are undeniably bound to one another (in a global sense), it is the very exclusivity of faith-based religion that most greatly threatens to not only dissolve that interdependence, but ultimately, destroy us altogether.
Destroy us how? Read the book.
You will be properly horrified at the answer to that question.
It is from first page to last, a well-honed, clearly elucidated appeal to SENSE!
Extremely timely. Vital.
An antidote to unreason. Junk-thought's death knell!
Required reading for anyone currently alive.

I see it as one of the most important books I have read in a long long time.
And believe me, I read a lot.
As I am doing... even now. [I must go get another coffee... this would be the entirely reasonable thing to do!]

“Faith is the mortar that fills the cracks in the evidence and the gaps in the logic, and thus it is faith that keeps the whole terrible edifice of religious certainly looming dangerously over our world.” [from the Afterword].



Sam Sattler said...

Bravo! Very interesting post - and a new book or two for my TBR stack (just what I need).

Beth said...

“...faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1

Not very reasonable, is it?

Stefanie said...

Nice post Cip! I will dutifully add both books to my TBR list.

Anonymous said...

My husband posted a similar review for "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up… "by John Allen Paulos. It reminded me of yours since he also read the two you read, in the Starbucks, at the Barnes & Noble!

John Allen Paulos has written a breezy, but cogent, debunking of most of the "logical" arguments for the existence of God. Most of Paulos's arguments come down to Occam's razor. Positing the existence of God is not necessary to explain any of the phenomena discussed and is usually just an extraneous step in the ostensible argument. Some of the arguments for God's existence are merely logical ledgermain [sorry Anselm] that don't have God as a valid conclusion.

This book, like the recent efforts of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, is important in our absurdly pious and largely hypocritical political campaign. He seems to be saying to Americans, "Hasn't anyone here heard of the Enlightenment?" He quotes one of Voltaire's most telling epigrams: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

His final chapter is an exhortation to other infidels to make themselves heard since there are plenty of them, even though they are members of one of the least trusted categories of people in American society.

Cipriano said...

Interesting comments here.
I've stirred some soup!
Dear Rhapsodyinbooks, I read "Innumeracy" by John Allen Paulos and I loved it, I think he's brilliant. But this book you mention, wow. That sounds crazy interesting... I must watch for it. Put it on my Books to Buy list.