Monday, February 18, 2008

A little slow, just plain dumb, stupid, stupider, and religious

The Dumbing Of America -


Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?

Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason is apparently causing quite a stir, already. The New York Times article above was reprinted in my local paper this morning, and I found it quite interesting.

I know that as atheists, we often find ourselves seemingly defending education, science, and logic in a nation that couldn't care less. Or worse, pays them lip-service, all the while insisting that schools would be better or safer if we put prayer back, put god back, and plaster the ten commandments all over. I've noticed this attitude several places lately, usually in response to a school shooting. The most recent place I remember seeing it was over at Friendly atheist, citing this letter to the editor. Narika Kendrick opines (emphasis mine):

Just because you don’t believe in Jesus, who died for your sins and mine, don’t hold it against a politician who has done a heck of a job in the school system just because of your corrupted, immoral, individualistic outlook. By the way, the last time I checked, it’s people like you that cause Columbine or other school shootings to happen because you want prayer, the Ten Commandments, Christians and every other precious good out of the school system. That’s what’s wrong with America today. Be blessed and have a nice life. But leave the morally righteous people alone.

Ignoring the blatant grammatical errors, this attitude encapsulates what Susan Jacoby argues to be a climate of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism that holds sway over much of the populace. Atheists reading this will no doubt have their own experiences to bolster that claim. When (not "if") we win debates with the religious, their last line of defense often ends up along the lines of "Atheism is a religion too" or, "I have as much right to my opinion as you do, there's no proof that you're right."

The unique problem facing atheists is not that we lack facts, logic, reason, evidence etc...; clearly we have all of that in spades. The "debate" between belief or atheism has not really significantly changed in hundreds of years. All the arguments have been hashed out, posted on myriad internet sites and available to anyone who's curious. It's not that atheists are unapproachable, so unimaginably evil that we would drink the blood of anyone asking to know more about humanism or free-thought. The problem is that the religious are willfully choosing to ignore evidence contradicting their belief. They are wallowing in their own ignorance. From the Washington Times:
That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.

Which is why atheists cannot stand by and leave religion alone. It's not just a difference of opinion, it the difference between truth and lies. And those of you who CHOOSE to believe in lies are trying to hijack the government of this country and force it back into the dark ages!

In the wake of the "New Atheists" and their books, the most common criticism has probably been that they are "elitist" or somehow intellectually snobbish. I fail to see this as a criticism however, and I fully agree with the sentiment. I don't know how much plainer I can say it, but if you believe in something that you don't have good reasons to believe in, expect to get made fun of and demeaned.
All this helps explain the popularity of the New Atheists -- Americans as a whole may not be getting too much religion, but a significant constituency must be getting fed up with being routinely marginalized, ignored and insulted. After all, unbelievers are concentrated at the higher end of the educational scale -- a recent Harris American poll shows that 31 percent of those with postgraduate education do not avow belief in God (compared with only 14 percent of those with a high school education or less). The percentage rises among professors and then again among professors at research universities, reaching 93 percent among members of the National Academy of Sciences. Unbelievers are to be found concentrated among those whose professional lives emphasize science or rationality and who also have developed a relatively high level of confidence in their own intellectual faculties. (from Alternet)
Granted, there's still a stray scientist or two who profess belief, but overall that's quite a statement. Facts, evidence, study, research, a thirst for knowledge all seem to almost inexorably lead to atheism. Repression, denial, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are symptomatic of religion. I rather like Sam Harris' challenge to the religious to name one area in which we used to have a scientific explanation but now we have a generally accepted religious explanation that is better suited to explain the phenomenon.

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