Friday, February 5, 2010

About Blind Faith and Conspiracy Theories

Here’s an interesting take, from a global perspective, on conspiracy theories.

Please pardon the profanity, but I believe the most interesting statement in this article is that “there’s a huge temptation among people to believe there is a master plan, because otherwise the suggestion is we’re interdependent and the world is chaotic — and that’s a mindfuck.”

In America, there are a very large number of fundamentalist Christians—people who believe that the Bible should be taken literally and that a savage (but somehow, at the same time loving) God personally orchestrates every little thing that happens on earth—from who lives or dies in the aftermath of an earthquake to who wins the Super Bowl. (No one’s ever satisfactorily explained to me how supporters of two teams can both deluge the heavens with their prayers, but one side or the other always loses.)

Surely it’s very comforting to think that nothing happens by accident and that everything we ever need to know can be found between the pages of a single book. But it’s also irresponsible. That kind of magical thinking separates reason from belief and makes people prone to believe pretty much anything. (In fact, it’s a tenet of many fundamentalist sects that God deliberately lays traps for reasonable people; a Ph.D. candidate in paleontology, of all things, once told me that God planted dinosaur bones in the earth to test our faith.)

Of course it’s easier to believe—especially if you hang out with a group of like-minded individuals—than to think. Thinking is hard work. But there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, “God helps those who help themselves.” If you believe that everything happens for a reason, then we have brains for a reason. I submit that there is no God in his (or her) heaven playing a cruel game of cat-and-mouse in which reality is never what it seems and truth is encoded in an enigmatic and self-contradictory tome to which only a privileged elect have the key. (And oh, how pleasurable it must be to see oneself as one of the elect.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disparaging either religion or Christianity—just fundamentalism, which essentially means blind adherence to a pre-packaged doctrine or set of beliefs. Nor do I think that everyone who attends church is prone to slavish, mindless obedience or blind faith. But the fact that religious beliefs are so often disconnected from reason and reality is one good reason to be adamant about ensuring the separation of church and state.

The intrusion of fundamentalism into the national discourse has caused a great deal of mischief, especially in recent years. The notion that “everyone’s entitled to their beliefs”—right or wrong, rational or just plain loony—is dangerous in a nation in which the beliefs and attitudes of the people continually influence and shape the government. I’m not at all sure that people are “entitled” to be wrong—especially when that wrongness is not the result of a mistake but rather of a stubborn, emotional adherence to beliefs that contradict reality on the basis of reasonable evidence. (Of course I'm speaking here about moral, not legal, entitlement.)

It takes open-mindedness to accept the fact that we are—increasingly—interdependent, both nationally and globally. It takes courage to concede that the world, if not exactly chaotic, is full of situations in which we may have to suspend judgment and struggle long and hard to find the truth.

Those are two things America could use more of—open-mindedness and the courage to tolerate uncertainty.


Sue said...

Well, you have to keep in mind that the "American experiment" in the separation of church and state is highly unusual in the history of humankind -- as is the belief that individuals are capable of informed, rational choices. And even the founding fathers didn't extend voting rights to all residents because they saw voting as a right that required some level of responsible behavior (owning property and being an involved citizen, for example). We've come a long way from those views; now even convicted criminals are being given the "right" to vote in spite of, in many cases, showing disdain for the values of society.

And it wasn't so many years ago that people who came to this country were expected to accept and support the values on which the country was based -- basically Judeo-Christian, western European -- and to fit into that prevailing culture. That didn't mean abandoning one's traditions and language, it did mean that in public one spoke English and behaved according to the country's values (no blood feuds or multiple marriages, for example). We used to talk of America as being the great "melting pot" to which all immigrants brought something to make the whole better. Certainly people maintained their religious beliefs, enjoyed their ethnic foods, and the like, but not in conflict with the prevailing societal values.

That's changed. With people now coming from all over and re-creating their homelands in little bits of America, and with so-called "minorities" becoming a significant presence in the country, it's no wonder that conservatism and fundamentalism have appeal to people who feel that the American way of life is being threatened. Being given a set of beliefs to follow can be very comforting.

We live in interesting times, which is both a blessing and a curse. I'm with you, Jane, that open-mindedness and the courage to tolerate uncertainty are important. Add to that a respect for the positions of others and a desire to recognize and accept the foundational values of American society (even if they are different than they were 50 or 200 years ago) will provide hope that we can continue as a strong society.

Six said...

Good post and interesting read CJ. The founders believed many different things... a much wider view of religion, religious beliefs and spiritual matters than most so-called 'conservatives' want to accept.

Sue - you seem to imply that we were somehow better off expecting people to conform in to some judeo-christian imagery of a society?

This is why I could never put myself in to the 'conservative' crowd... this perpetual belief that somehow things were better the generation or two before and if we could only restore the way that it used to be all would be better (ask that of the millions of African-Americans or the Chinese 'coolies')!

I have seen many, "Live free or die" and "Don't Tread On Me" bumper stickers pop up recently from the crowd claiming to want to restore 'conservatism', but when I have stopped to talk those (friends, neighbors, etc) who display it, they want to tell me how this country has lost it's way and we need to get back to the intent of the founders (in thier mind), which they think to mean dictating what I can do behind closed doors, who I can and cannot marry and even use my taxpayer money to support expressions of thier religion. They have some diluted imagery that the founders and God would want it that way.

The often-quoted by conservatives Thomas Jeffereson once said, "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."

Thomas Paine, the man who wrote the famous essay, 'Common Sense' that many argue was the most influential single article for independence famously declared, "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of...Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."

James Madison, the author of the Constitution wrote, "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." The AUTHOR of the constitution belived that about Christianity!! Do you think he turned around and then wrote the constitution in the image of what he belived to be 'Judeo-Christian' as he described above?

The Treaty of Tripoli which was written under the Washington administration and signed in the Adams administration - that recieved 100% affirmative votes to ratify in the Senate declared, "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." It was read aloud in the halls of the Senate and none of the 'founders' seemed to object.

Sue, you echoed a popular sentiment in saying we are based on a 'Judeo-Christian' values - I disagree, I believe we are more similarly organized on the beliefs of (classical) liberalism in the spirit dating back to the ancient Greeks and early Romans (dating prior to Christianity). 'Democracy' and the ideals of 'liberty' long-predate Christianity... they predate Christianity by a couple hundred years LONGER than the length we have even existed as a country - so how is that those ideas are somehow Judeo-Christian (when it was a bunch of polytheistic pagans that first adopted and practiced the ideas).

That is not to say the obvious that Christianity has not played a significant role in influencing this country culturally good and bad (imperialim and need to go 'convert' the rest of the world to our way of thinking?), or that many of the founders were in fact various sects of Christian, but to imply that it is what in fact our system of government and ideas about liberty are based on is wrong.

Citizen Jane said...

Many thanks to both of you for your thoughtful and interesting comments!

I'm reminded to point out that "fundamentalism"--a particularly insidious form of intellectual laziness--infests politics as much as it does religion. Many of those who profess to be about a "strict interpretation" of the Constitution and other founding documents haven't the faintest notion what they're talking about.

As a matter of fact, many of those fundamentalists are convening in Nashville this weekend--along with the crowd that's just mad at everything and proud of it.

Six said...

Your points about Fundamentalism are well made. As you describe it, "blind adherence to a pre-packaged doctrine or set of beliefs".

It's this overwhelming conviction that one is so absolutely right about something, that even in the face of evidence pointing otherwise, one ignore the evidence and even go so far as to cover it up - not for a nefarious reason, rather that one fears the evidence is merely misunderstood and all other evidence confirms thier position so they are in effect doing everyone a favor by trying to hide/lie about and otherwise coverup the misunderstood data. There is a rush judgement that there must be some persecution, conspriacy or otherwise great-evil working that needs to be condemned, called-out and rebuked. You see it with the religios groups (the history of the Catholic church could be a case-study alone) - but you also see it with modern movements as well... such as Global Warming fanatics.

A couple of months ago you posted a blog calling those that released of the data nicknamed 'Climategate', 'thieves', 'hackers' and perhaps other names too, I don't recall. At the time, I remarked that we didn't know what it was, so it was unfair to call them hackers - it could have just as easily been an inside job (when its something we like, we would call that person a 'whistleblower'!). The information was just being released, and rather than stepping back waiting for the information to come out - you were rushing to judgement with namecalling and a closed-minded desire to ridicule people for even bothering to talk about it. You indicated a likely conspiracy that this was done maliciously because the climate-conferance was about to start. Similarly on another incident, you made the same quick leap with the tragic death of the fed-worker in Tennesee blaming Glenn Beck and such for instigating the violence, insinuating hate crimes and other horrible actions - that turned out to almost certainly not to be violence at all - certainly not a so-called hate crime.

Just as in the Tennesee case, the climategate issue you rushed to judgement and ridicule on is turning out to be something very different. Here is an interesting story from a very left-leaning/friendly source about 'climategate' and it is looking more and more like this was NOT a hack job at all... rather just REALLY SLOPPY record keeping by the organization itself!!

It is worth noting that these emails have led to scientists feeling comfortable enough to voice other concerns as well - and eventually even some environmental organizations to question the quality of work from the ICCP. The Himilayan glacier-retreat debacle, grossly (criminally?) overstated claims about African Crop yeild declines, basing models on environmental advocacy commentaries (and anecdotal reports) rather than peer-reviewed science and the laundry list of corrections that have had to make in recent days to various reports - all of which has been sparked primarily because of the release of these emails and other information. If fundamentalists like you had your way, this would have been an open and shut case - and debate would have been continued to be shut down.

I don't believe these people were nefarious in thier actions, rather they are just so convinced of thier position, they are just fundamentalist in thier belief to the point of being blinded by it. They were so eager to use data that supported thier cause that they didnt bother to check it out and ignore data that didn't - going to the point of smearing anyone who questioned them. They are by your definition, fundamentalists.

Much the same way, I see 'progressives' (CJ?) as being just as fundamentalist - thier blind loyalty to the point of wanting to shut out any other debate because they are so convinced of thier position, they need not even hear any other point of view.