A Dawning Age Of Unreason

The Argument

In 21st-century America, people seem to prefer placing their unquestioning faith in divine mysteries than worshiping at the altar of science.

February 27, 2005|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff

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.

But this morning on the way to work, I passed by a remote-controlled steamroller. The guy who was running it was standing to one side, frowning at the directional device he was holding in his hand and paying no attention, as far as I could tell, to the actual asphalt being flattened out. And here, I thought, was the perfect disconnect of the Late Age of Reason, when what you're doing (fiddling with a user-unfriendly electronic gadget) has little intuitive link to what you're trying to get accomplished (resurfacing Maryland Avenue).

Faith in technology has been an American cornerstone, and that was fine as long as people could grasp what the technology was all about. But now?

Once there were record albums, made with a stylus on a wax disk, and played with a needle that jumped up and down, and if the record started repeating you could reach over and give the needle a little shove. A CD, by contrast, has to do with digits and lasers, and it disappears into a box from which music emerges, except when something goes mysteriously wrong. When a typewriter jammed, you could unjam it. You could even take it apart and see how it worked and squirt a little oil here and there. A computer -- well, you get the idea.

For generations, Americans were great tinkerers, and tinkering leads to a faith in real things and in the power of the mind to figure them out. But our technology isn't approachable anymore, so the mind is free to cast about for explanations. God's will? Intelligent design? Voodoo? Why not?

Face it: People want Truth and Beauty. They want to be touched. They want mystery, because without it, life would be dreary indeed. In the early 19th century, the Romantic Poets turned against rationality and sought the Sublime in Nature. Americans today could reach for John Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn. They reach for the Gospels instead. (And I'll get back to the Greeks in just a moment.)

But what harm is there in rejecting reason? Take the argument over the age of the Earth. Scientists say that dinosaurs roamed 65 million years ago. Evangelical Christians say that God created everything 10,000 years ago. I'm with the scientists on that one, but it hardly makes a difference in my daily life because they're both big, big numbers and have little to do with the morning traffic on Maryland Avenue -- except when I'm cursing that Neanderthal who just cut me off.

Let me ratchet this up a little. 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, 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.

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