Monday, September 7, 2009

Fundamentalism and anthropological naivety

We were channel hopping this weekend, looking for the broadcast of Penn State's first football game of the season (well, Ken was looking; Anne wasn't). That led us to pass through several religious channels that our cable service provides.

It is in a sense an incredible phenomenon. Someone, usually manifestly poorly educated, in a robe of some sort, spouting off patent non-sense and opinion, in a rhetorical and tonal style to appeal to unquestioning emotion, and audiences (sometimes very large audiences) nodding unquestioningly (often in tears).

It is incredible that in our supposed age of science, this can still occur. It is an unsavory dose of reality, that wealth, education, and comfort do not actually educate people (unless by some weird chance these preachers are right and the entire empirical world an illusion). This is culture in action. We scientists and intellectuals flatter ourselves that we're the enlighteners of a benighted world, but it's not really true. People are surrounded by science, including evolution, and still it doesn't sink in.

In fact, we probably err in bemoaning the degenerating world that these religious hawkers are selling (and selling is an appropriate word for much of it, of course). We are perhaps the most formally educated population in human history: by far more people with more years of school, more credentialist degrees, technical training, and access to knowledge. Nonetheless, today as ever before, it has only been a small elite that is really 'educated' in the sense that applies here. High levels of this kind of knowledge have never been the daily bread of the majority of people, and they aren't now either.

The arguments produced in favor of sacred-text religion are specious and in the US often culpably misrepresent the claims of science, and we have every duty to try to correct them. But the real issue is not the physical facts of evolution vs theology. It's a deeper cultural fact about people, and symbolic battles for power and feelings of importance.

People generally like simple answers that explain everything. And they need opiates to calm their unease about the harsh realities they know are part of life. Mysteries can be appealing but also frightening, especially to those who know they're mortal. Science is no exception--simple answers are very appealing--which is why we do our best to resist unquestioned genetic determinism or darwinism. There should be no Gods, or gods (whether the latter be Marx or Darwin, Michael Jackson, or $$). Gods are dangerous. People are still willing, sometimes eager, to die for them.

We saw a comment in the news this weekend to the effect that fundamentalism will be the downfall of civilization. The rise of fundamentalism, according to this British scientist, means that global problems, such as climate change and population growth, won't be addressed with the kinds of worldwide cooperation needed to solve them. We realize that this was meant as a bemoaning of the human strife caused, justified, or motivated by fundamentalist belief, and we share that view. But it's important to understand that, as stated, it's totally wrong. First, it's probably fair to say that economic differences rather than religious ones are preventing global agreement on climate change. And secondly, if anything, the most advanced civilizations have thrived on marauding justified by religion (theological or, as in Marxism, secular). Mass-scale malevolent treatment of groups of people by other groups of people is perhaps one of the characteristics of large-scale complex societies.

It may also be natural for there to be people of good will who resist these dire aspects of human culture. There may be no precedent for it, but we hope they will eventually prevail.

No comments: