[Paleopsych] Alternet: The End of Reason

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The End of Reason
       By David Morris
       March 31, 2005

For Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, until 2003 the deputy head of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's most powerful
office, seeing The DaVinci Code in a Vatican bookstore was the last
straw. In early March he lashed out at Catholic bookstores for carrying
the book, and directed Catholics not to read it. Why? "There is a very
real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it
contains are true."


Dan Brown's phenomenal bestseller suggests that Jesus was an immensely
popular and prophetic leader who married one of his closest associates
and had a family. Archbishop Bertone and the Church maintain that Jesus
was at the same time a man, the son of God, and God himself, that a
virgin woman gave birth to him and remained a virgin, that a few days
after he was killed he came back to life and shortly thereafter was taken
up to heaven to spend an eternity directing the destinies of billions of

In a rational world the burden of proof as to which is fable would fall
on the Church. But there's the rub. For when it comes to organized
religion, no burden of proof is required. On the contrary, by definition,
religion requires faith and faith renounces evidence. Taking a
proposition "on faith" means to consciously and willfully refuse to
examine the facts.

There is a word for this type of thinking: Superstition. Many
dictionaries define superstition as "belief which is not based on human
reason or scientific knowledge." The American Heritage Dictionary defines
superstition as "a belief, practice or rite irrationally maintained by
ignorance of the laws of nature" and "a fearful or abject state resulting
from such ignorance or irrationality."

Of course, we all have our superstitions. I may refrain from walking
under a ladder, or throw salt over my shoulder after a salt spill to
avoid bad things from happening to me. But organized religion elevates
superstition to an entirely new level. It demands that we govern our
lives with superstition, promises us eternal salvation and bliss if we
do, and threatens us with eternal damnation and pain if we do not.

It is long past time we stopped giving a free pass to organizations that
refuse to be guided by reason and would force their unreason on the
entire society. A first step would be to stop calling these "faith-based
institutions" and start calling them by the synonymous and much more
instructive term, "superstition-based institutions."

No Other Superstition But This One

Organized superstitions might be more socially supportable if their creed
included a provision accepting the organized superstitions of others.
Unfortunately, modern religions do not practice tolerance. For example
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore gained widespread fame and even adulation
when he refused to obey court orders to remove from the Alabama
Courthouse a huge stone tablet on which was inscribed the Ten
Commandments. When he was asked how he would react to the suggestion that
a monument to the Koran or the Torah also be placed in the Courthouse he
brusquely declared he would prohibit such an installation.

A few months later, Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, the new deputy
undersecretary of defense for intelligence explained why he knew he would
win his battle against Muslims in Somalia. "I knew my God was bigger than
his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol."

The creationism vs. evolution debate also illuminates this intolerance.
Christians insist that their creation myth represent the creationist
side. But there are many creationist myths, many of which predated both
Christianity and Judaism. If evidence is not needed, why exclude any
superstitions? As Sam Harris notes in The End of Faith, "there is no more
evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh and Satan
than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon
churning the seas."

The impact of moving towards "superstition-based institutions" would be
highly controversial, quite educational, and on the whole exceedingly
salutary. Consider the impact on the audience if we switched the
interchangeable terms in President George W. Bush's following statement,
posted on a federal web site:

       I believe in the power of superstition in people's lives. Our
       government should not fear programs that exist because a
       church or a synagogue or a mosque has decided to start one.
       We should not discriminate against programs based upon
       superstition in America. We should enable them to access
       federal money, because superstition-based programs can change
       people's lives, and America will be better off for it.

Fanatics and Zealots Destroying the Liberty of Thought

In her magnificent book, Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby describes the
230-year-old battle in the United States between reason and superstition.
She discusses the post-Civil War period in which the battle may have been
most evenly matched.

Robert Green Ingersoll, possibly the best known American in the post
Civil War era and the nation's foremost orator, traveled around the
country arguing about the harm that comes from self-congratulatory,
aggressive and assertive organized religions.

He explained why the word God does not appear in the U.S. Constitution.
The founding fathers "knew that the recognition of a Deity would be
seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the
liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well
to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights
of man."

Ingersoll believed that reason, not faith, could and should be the basis
for modern morality. "Our civilization is not Christian. It does not come
from the skies. It is not a result of 'inspiration,'" he insisted. "It is
the child of invention, of discovery, of applied knowledge -- that is to
say, of science. When man becomes great and grand enough to admit that
all have equal rights; when thought is untrammeled; when worship shall
consist in doing useful things; when religion means the discharge of
obligations to our fellow-men, then, and not until then, will the world
be civilized."

In 1885, Elizabeth Cady Stanton explained how organized and assertive
religions around the world have restricted women's rights. "You may go
over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has
breathed upon this earth has degraded woman ... I have been traveling
over the old world during the last few years and have found new food for
thought. What power is it that makes the Hindoo woman burn herself upon a
funeral pyre of her husband? Her religion. What holds the Turkish woman
in the harem? Her religion. By what power do the Mormons perpetuate their
system of polygamy? By their religion. Man, of himself, could not do
this; but when he declares, 'Thus saith the Lord', of course he can do

Stanton's enduring motto was, "Seek Truth for Authority, not Authority
for Truth."

During the era when Ingersoll and Stanton spread their own form of the
gospel, the Church was making ever-more explicit its own hostility to
reason as a guide to human behavior. In 1869, Pope Pius IX convinced the
First Vatican Council to proclaim, "let him be anathema ... (w)ho shall
say that human sciences ought to be pursued in such a spirit of freedom
that one may be allowed to hold as true their assertions, even when
opposed to revealed doctrine."

His successor, Pope Leo XIII, in one of his best known encyclicals
maintained, it "has even been contended that public authority with its
dignity and power of ruling, originates not from God but from the mass of
the people, which considering itself unfettered by all divine sanctions,
refuses to submit to any laws that it has not passed of its own free

Other churches agreed. In 1878, geologist Alexander Winchell was
dismissed from the faculty of Vanderbilt University in Nashville for
publishing his opinion that human life had existed on earth long before
the biblical time frame for the creation of Adam. Most Methodists
supported the dismissal, arguing that Vanderbilt was founded by
Methodists and dedicated to the goals of the church.

Some 45 years later, the famous Scopes trial opened. Most of us know that
William Jennings Bryan was the lawyer for the prosecution of Scopes, a
biology teacher who in his classroom violated Tennessee law forbidding
the mention of evolution. What we may not know is that William Jennings
Bryan was a three-time democratic presidential candidate and Woodrow
Wilson's secretary of state. After the Wilson administration Bryan
devoted himself to campaigning around the nation on behalf of state laws
banning the teaching of evolution. For Bryan faith always trumped
science. "(I)t is better to trust in the Rock of Ages than to know the
ages of rocks; it is better for one to know that he is close to the
Heavenly Father than to know how far the stars in the heaven are apart."

That was then. This is now. A few months ago, a dozen science centers,
mostly in the South, refused to show Volcanoes, a science film funded in
part by the National Science Foundation. The film was turned down because
it very briefly raises the possibility that life on Earth may have
originated at undersea steam vents.

Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science
and History, said that many people said the film was "blasphemous." Lisa
Buzzelli, director of the Charleston Imax Theater in South Carolina, told
The New York Times, "We have definitely a lot more creation public than
evolution public."

Buzzelli's probably right. And that cannot bode well for America's future
economic and technological leadership. A 1988 survey by researchers from
the University of Texas found that one of four public school biology
teachers thought that humans and dinosaurs might have inhabited the earth
simultaneously. A recent survey by Gallup found that 35 percent of
Americans believe the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the
Creator of the universe. Another 48 percent believe it is the "inspired"
word of the same. Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of
creation; another 40 percent believe God has guided creation over the
course of millions of years.

The Politicizing of Religion

I know most people who are reading this are asking, "Would you ban
organized religion?" Of course not. Religion is an integral part of human
existence. For tens of thousands of years humans have sought to explain
the unknowable and have found comfort in believing that the death of a
loved one may simply be the transition of that loved one to another, more
sublime state.

But today organized religion has declared its intention to use its
influence far beyond its congregation. The politicization of religion and
the rise of a superstition-driven state may be the most important
development in this country in many, many decades.

Tom DeLay, House Majority Leader and arguably the third most powerful
person in Washington told an audience just a few weeks ago that the
problems in America began when "they stopped churches from getting into
politics ... Lyndon Johnson ... passed a law that said you couldn't get
in politics or you're going to lose your tax-exempt status ... It forces
Christians back into the church. That's what's going on in America ...
That's not what Christ asked us to do."

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a leading candidate to become chief
justice, has declared in oral hearings "the fact that government derives
its authority from God." In January 2002, in a major speech revealingly
titled "God's Justice and Ours," delivered to the University of Chicago
Divinity School, Scalia favorably cited Paul's announcement, "For there
is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." And
Scalia declared that the death penalty is God's will. "The more Christian
a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as
immoral," he observed. "I attribute that to the fact that, for the
believing Christian, death is no big deal."

One of President Bush's first acts in office was to create an Office of
Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Today 10 federal agencies have a
Center for the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The White House web
site gives churches Do's and Don'ts for applying for federal assistance.
It has funded 30 organizations to provide training and technical
assistance for religious organizations desiring federal grants. And it
guarantees that any religious organization in need of help will find a
ready and willing person on the other end of the phone.

After failing to persuade Congress to change the law, President Bush, by
Executive Order, rewrote the rules to allow federal agencies to directly
fund churches and other religious groups. In 2003 such groups received an
astonishing $1.17 billion in grants from federal agencies.

"That's not enough," H. James Towey, director of the White House Office
of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives recently told the Associated
Press. He notes that another $40 billion in federal money is given out by
state governments and "many states do not realize that federal rules now
allow them to fund these organizations."

In 2003, an independent study found little activity or interest by states
in contracting with religious groups. But federal intervention has
persuaded them that future funding depended on their having these groups
provide services. By Towey's count, 21 governors have established their
own faith-based offices.

The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives maintains, "There is
no general federal law that prohibits faith-based organizations that
receive federal funds from hiring on a religious basis." It further
explains that "for a religious organization to define or carry out its
mission, it is important that it be able to take religion into account in
hiring staff. Just as a college or university can take the academic
credentials of an applicant for a professorship into consideration in
order to maintain high standards, or an environmental organization can
consider the views of potential employees on conservation, so too should
a faith-based organization be able to take into account an applicant's
religious belief when making a hiring decision."

One major program funded by the White House is Charles Colson's Prison
Fellowship Ministries. It runs the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in
prisons in Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa and Texas. The Christ-centered program
offers prisoners privileges that include access to a big TV, computers,
and private bathrooms in return for a hefty dose of Bible study and
Christian counseling. As a condition of being hired, the program's
employees are required to sign a statement affirming their belief in a
literal interpretation of the Bible.

Superstition as a Lethal Force

Organized superstition in this country has begun to drive and guide
social policy. The clearest example of this is the recent enactment by
several states of laws that allow pharmacists and doctors and hospitals
to refuse to treat patients whose behavior conflicts with the their

The central problem with organized, assertive religion, of course, is
that it endows superstition with a moral and messianic fervor.
God-directed superstition can be a lethal force. Indeed, one might argue
that this type of force is behind much of the violence around the world.
The conflicts in Palestine (Jews v. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox
Serbians v. Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants v. Catholics),
Kashmir (Muslims v. Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims v. Timorese Christians)
and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims) constitute only a
few of the places where religion has been the explicit cause of million
of deaths in the last ten years.

Sam Harris discusses "the burden of paradise." Why are there suicide
bombers? "Because they actually believe what they say they believe. They
believe in the literal truth of the Koran ...Why did 19 well-educated,
middle class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of
killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed that they would
go straight to paradise for doing so."

To Harris, condoning the use of superstition as an important social force
enables and encourages extremism. "The concessions we have made to
religious faith," he maintains, "to the idea that belief can be
sanctified by something other than evidence -- have rendered us unable to
name, much less address, one of the most pervasive causes of conflict in
our world."

In 1784, Patrick Henry introduced a bill in the Virginia General Assembly
that would have assessed taxes on all citizens for the support of
"teachers of the Christian religion." The bill's passage seemed certain.
But then James Madison issued his Memorial and Remonstrance against
Religious Assessments, eventually signed by some 2,000 Virginians.

"What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil
Society?" Madison asked. "In some instances they have been seen to erect
a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances
they have seen the upholding of the thrones of political tyranny; in no
instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberty of the people."

The two-year debate over the assessment bill ended in its overwhelming
defeat. Instead the Virginia legislature in 1786 passed an Act for
Establishing Religious Freedom. The preamble to the original bill,
written by Thomas Jefferson, declared, "Well aware that the opinions and
belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the
evidence proposed to their mind; that Almighty God hath created the mind
free... ."

The final law contained only the last few words of Jefferson's preamble,
"Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free ... ."

After the passage of the legislation, Jefferson wrote Madison to express
his pride in Virginia's leadership on this crucial issue. "(I)t is
comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so
many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by
kings, priests and nobles, and it is honorable for us, to have produced
the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of
man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions."

In early February 2005, the Virginia House of Delegates easily approved
(69-27) an amendment to the state's constitution that would allow the
practice of religion in public schools and other public buildings. A few
weeks later the amendment was killed in a Senate committee (10-5).

It was a lonely victory for reason in this increasingly unreasonable
time. The battle between rationality and superstition continues.


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