You Gotta Believe

Birthers, truthers, and creationists threaten to take us back to the future
by Brian Trent, from The Humanist
January-February 2011
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Henceforth, people will be looking at the universe with the eyes of oxen. —Katib Chelebi, 17th-century geographer

 

“Barack Obama won’t show us his birth certificate,” says Steve, a Connecticut resident and small-business owner, while he’s shoveling his walk. “He’s a Muslim terrorist. And you know what really bothers me? He is doing exactly what Hitler did.”

Steve has plenty of other opinions relating to the American president, culture, and society. He can rattle off the prized talking points of this country’s culture of belief without missing a beat: The moon landing was a hoax; the world is ending in 2012; 9/11 was an inside job; creationism is valid science.

A hardworking fellow and family man in a postindustrial factory town of a blue state, Steve does not come across as fanatical. Yet his adherence to raw belief—a position unassailable by factual counter-data—is more than an inherently dangerous American mind-set. It is a deadly challenge to the aim of humanism.

The “belief” mind-set is pretty common in the news these days. Much of the believers’ ire seems directed at the current presidential administration, and it’s now getting legal attention: The U.S. Army is set to court-martial a soldier who refused deployment to Afghanistan because the soldier—Lieutenant Colonel Terry Lakin—shares with Steve the belief that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen. Neither Lakin nor Steve nor thousands of other “birthers” can put forth any evidence, documentation, or data that withstands the test of scrutiny. They just, well, believe it.

Their blind allegiance is precisely like the more extreme elements of their political rivals. While birthers are largely a Republican phenomenon, the “9/11 truth movement” stems chiefly from the liberal wing of American politics. Truthers are as fervent in their belief that the United States’ own government used controlled demolition to destroy the Twin Towers as the birthers are that Obama has perpetrated a global hoax to keep his birth certificate under wraps.

Clearly, the appeal of blind faith has been part of human history since the earliest days of Babylonia. In the United States, however, we have taken this tendency to disturbing new heights. Emboldened by the sharp rise of rabid partisanship and the ubiquitous presence of mass media, Americans have come to be belief’s poster children: reactionary, emotional, and almost blissfully willing to ignore facts if they contradict a cemented position.

The belief culture thrives on the false principle that all opinions are equal, even those without a shred of factual data, documentation, or reasoned methodology. It is a culture in which one in 20 Americans believe NASA faked the Apollo moon landings, and half the population believes the world was made in six days.

When the scholar Katib Chelebi spoke the words that open this piece, it was in response to a tidal shift in the culture of 17th-century Turkey. Chelebi was a cartographer, historian, traveler, philosopher, and writer. He had been exposed to the works of the ancient Greeks and appreciated their methodical approach to investigation. Yet the rationalist mind-set of Turkish schools was descending into dogmatism. It appealed to emotions and impulsiveness. It catered to the basement of the human mind, which today’s neurologists would call the r-complex. Chelebi keenly perceived this devolution and saw the road ahead, which diverged in the proverbial woods. He was aghast at the path his people were choosing.

There is a certain irony in the case of the United States, a nation founded on Enlightenment principles of rationality and now so eagerly becoming a culture of raw, unquestioning belief. When we hear about an alleged culture war, we tend to think of it in political terms like gay marriage or abortion. The truth goes deeper. As in Chelebi’s era, our real battle is for critical thinking. It is about our fundamental approach to the universe and is nothing less than a line in the sand between the logical and the delusional.

It would be comforting if we could trace this phenomenon only to the Internet, which by virtue of its anonymity provides an easy venue for irrational “trolling,” as it’s called. Mark Twain’s warning that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on is readily proven in the echo chamber of cyberspace: Saddam Hussein had connections to the 9/11 hijackers, Nostradamus predicted the fall of America in the 21st century, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a liberal plot, swine flu is God’s punishment against whomever, to name a few.

In the year 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum under a sea of hot ash. Predictably, many people who were alive at that time blamed the calamity on Zeus. Since geological science hadn’t been born, assigning divine character to natural catastrophe was the best explanation going.

Today we live in an age of rational methodology. Our laws are ideally derived from cogent debate—which is why we say “without passion or prejudice” in our legal proceedings—and we use the scientific method in dealing with worldly phenomena. A culture of belief rejects this in favor of a Neolithic worldview. The rational mechanisms behind hurricanes, plane crashes, and flu epidemics are eschewed by this crowd in favor of evil spirits, alien conspiracies, and prophecy.

That evolution and creationism are still butting heads 150 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species is probably the best testament to this slide from rational culture. In 2009 half the U.S. population accepted creationism; ours is one of the only developed nations where the subject is even a debate anymore. 

It isn’t that rationality must preclude emotion. What’s needed is not a society of cold intellectuals, but a culture that emphasizes reasoned debate. Perhaps the best illustration comes from Plato. Imagine, he suggested, that you have horses tethered to a chariot, and a charioteer holding the reins. Both the man and the beasts are necessary to get anywhere; it is the guiding hand of a clear-thinking charioteer that needs to be in charge.

The pages of history are filled with irrational decisions. Often these decisions have world-altering results. When the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed by fundamentalists, the classical age of scientific and artistic inquiry was obliterated. One thousand years of a dark age followed, during which, Mark Twain wrote, a “nation of men” was turned into “a nation of worms.”

Today, the situation is far more dire. Belief-stricken populations and their leaders can cause unthinkable devastation to modern society. In ancient Alexandria, an irrational policy abetted the fall of civilization. But while those book burnings required at least 451 degrees, tomorrow’s censorship will be done with a search-and-replace command. A global power, Chelebi reminds us, can become a global “sick man” in the blink of a historical eye.

 

Excerpted from The Humanist (July-Aug. 2010), “a magazine of critical inquiry and social concern” that inspires without preaching. It’s published bimonthly by the American Humanist Association. www.thehumanist.org 

jan-feb-2011-cover-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.


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PeteNRepete
2/2/2011 2:13:54 PM
The last few nights of Chris Matthews has been all about this issue. He's pulling no punches when calling people out for what this piece calls "a culture of belief." Hes been having birthers on, and death-panel fruities, and tore Michelle Bachmann a new @sshole for her weird version of American history where, according to her, the founding fathers completely eliminated slavery! I don't know why the media doesn't do this more often, you know, like actually calling out someone when they're wrong. Splendid and ballsy piece.

snacks
1/31/2011 8:59:57 AM
Karin, I appreciate your taking the time to understand and address my point. I agree with your characterization of the main point of the article, and to a certain extent I agree with that point. All of the individual examples are right on, I just thought the article used these examples selectively to support a simplistic thesis that is symptomatic of a polarizing trend in public discourse. I thought the argument was a bit tired, but more importantly, making a complicated issue simple is an underrated form of inaccuracy. I do disagree with your point that truth is only for philosophy classes. First of all, facts, and not just moral truths, are more complicated and hard to discover and interpret than you give them credit for. And even if we all know the same facts and prioritize them the same way that often doesn't settle things. Second, many, if not all, political debates are embattled by some combination of misinformation and deep moral disagreement so it can be hard to separate those two things. So if we stop at settling the facts, if that's even possible, we are missing a big part of the problem. Take for example the nasty debates about abortion and end-of-life health care. I've got my views, but I will grant to the other side that many of them seem to be engaged in a genuine and heartfelt debate about when human life truly begins and ends, and how best to value and respect it.

Karin
1/27/2011 7:49:29 AM
snacks, sorry but I have to take issue with you again. The article is not saying, as you claim, that "Truth with a capital T is always there to be found." It repeatedly makes the case that FACT is what can be found. And that's the difference. Facts are all around us, and the right technology and dedication has been uncovering facts since the dawn of history. Truth is for philosophy classes. Fact is what maks the world go round. I also take issue (again) with your misrepesentation of the article's point on faith. I thought Trent took a deft road when tackling religion; he didn't condemn it, as long as it didn't sideline rational decision-making. If you believe gay marriage is evil, for example, that's fine, but Trent is saying that when you attempt to pass laws based on that belief and have nothing rational to make your case (i.e. somehow showing facts that gay marriage is evil and will destroy America) then you are in the wrong. Beliefs are fine unless you're trying to shape public policy with them, when public policy should be shaped by a consideration of the facts. You keep trying to simplify the argument into a straw man. There are multiple things being discussed, and your tact is disingenuous at best.

snacks
1/21/2011 8:13:38 AM
Alright Karin I'll give it one more try. Sorry I got a little testy last time, but I don't like when someone misinterprets me and then accuses me of espousing "bull." If you had read my first post carefully, you would have noticed that I too don't need a god or a religion to "see the value in coherent governance." You would also have noticed--I was careful to say--that I would never advocate the defeat of well-made scientific observations by blind belief. In fact even poorly made scientific observations probably serve better for most purposes than blind belief. If you had read my second post carefully, you would have noticed that I was referring to my own point that you missed, not the point of the article. Believe it or not, I understand the point of the article well enough to quibble not with the accuracy of its examples, but with the over-simple dualistic premise: that Truth with a capital T is always there to be found, and that it is the ONLY thing that rational people base their collective decisions upon. And that this simplification leads people such as this author and yourself to take a disdainful tone with people of faith, which is at best unproductive in public discourse. I think that we should approach each other with compassion and humility, and to be honest I'm not sure whether that belief comes from some utilitarian idea that it would help promote order and peace in society, or from some secular-humanist spiritual ideal.

andy6914
1/19/2011 9:03:21 AM
One look at the state of politics is enough to confirm this. The Republican Party makes "belief" their platform. Who else remembers during the Republican primary when candidates were asked who believes in evolution, and only two or three hands went up, and McCain had to justify his position by saying that he also believes in God? Or how many times candidates are asked if they "believe" that American is a Christian nation (we're not) and that we have a Biblical Constitution? This is the era of the low-info voter, and low-info people think that whatever they believe is on equal footing with information-based positions.

Karin
1/18/2011 1:59:30 PM
No, Snacks sweetums, it's you who missed the point. The article is about how people subscribe to belief over factual evidence, and the examples were accurate. Evolution has scientific data behind it, Creationism does not. The idea that the moon landing was hoaxed is an interesting notion that shrivels up when we look at the evidence. Etc etc. You wrote: "The point was that there are many facts that science has not yet, and may never, uncover." This is NOT the point of the article. At all. A culture that believes things, and then votes on those beliefs or pressures schools into teaching those beliefs, is wrong when those beliefs are not predicated on data. If the data is later shown to be incorrect, then we revise and polish our theories (like gravity, which like Trent wrote, was refined from Newton by Einstein.) Some cultures believed that the world was stacked on giant turtles, without citing evidence for their worldview. You wrote: "There are also many questions of right and wrong, to which the word "fact" simply does not apply. Are we taught as children that it is wrong to hurt other people because of the result of some scientific experiment? No, we have laws that were founded on the logic of not letting people go around killing, raping, and burning each other's houses down so we could have a civilization, not anarchy. I don't require believe in a judeo-christian Overlord or a horned demon for me to see the value in coherent governance and Constitutional protection.

snacks
1/13/2011 4:07:26 PM
Karin, you missed the point. Of course blind belief is not part of the scientific method. The point was that there are many facts that science has not yet, and may never, uncover. And people make mistakes, and they disagree about what results mean. And if you believe social scientists, imperceptible biases and environmental factors influence behavior, including that of scientists conducting experiments. There are also many questions of right and wrong, to which the word "fact" simply does not apply. Are we taught as children that it is wrong to hurt other people because of the result of some scientific experiment? If you think that all of your thoughts and opinions about the way the world should be run (you appear to have some of those) are derived from the scientific method, then I'm sorry but you're wrong. And that's a fact.

Karin
1/12/2011 11:39:48 AM
This was one of the sharpest, best articles I've read in a long time. Trent has an interesting knack for discussing a wide range of topics in a central theme. I see this all the time. People only want to believe things. They don't investigate political issues, they just flock to their favorite talking head and let them tell them what to think. I disagree with the poster below who said "The truth is that we all fill the gaps in our knowledge with "belief" of one sort or another." That's bull. While there are some people who do this, the scientific method isn't about filling in the gaps with belief. It is only concerned with factual data. The world spins in 24 hours. That's not an opinion, but a measured fact. We need a fact-based society, because our superstition-based one, or our emotion-based one, hasn't been working out.

AEN ed483
1/11/2011 4:42:57 PM
I think that having beliefs is an important part of being human. However, beliefs can become skewed if a person doesn't have all of the facts. The internet is kind of a scary place because people can access thousands of articles to help form their beliefs but it turns out the articles they researched were just beliefs themselves. Researching is incredibly important. So research before you form beliefs so others can form their own opinions on the FACTS.

NH-ed483
1/11/2011 4:23:11 PM
I am not sure how the absurd beliefs that President Obama isn't a real U.S. citizen and our own government was behind the 9/11 attacks can be compared with religious faith or the belief in creationism. I think those are two completely different things and shouldn't be compared within the same article. People who want to believe in conspiracies like 9/11 being our government and President Obama not being a U.S. citizen will believe those things with or without help from the media.

JA ED483
1/11/2011 4:14:50 PM
I believe everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and that is an important part of being human. However, it seems today that we do not base our opinions on facts. Instead, we like to believe everything we hear because it sounds right or makes sense, or perhaps it fits what we already know, because we are afraid to explore what else is out there. I think the people of this country are often not open to other ways of thinking. I think this has something to do with the way our educational system runs. It seems like we are so obsessed with telling our students what is what, that we forget to let them learn and explore on their own and make their own opinions.

rs-ed483
1/11/2011 4:14:26 PM
As a future educator, I find it sad that society may choose to follow beliefs other than facts. When I am in the field, I will have to be more aware of the two and try to understand what my students are getting from lessons and discussions.

ch- ed483
1/11/2011 4:13:18 PM
I agree that people talk and that it can get around faster than the truth. I agree that we need people to think rationally. I don't like the horse and chatioteer anaology. Having faith in Christ does not it stops all rational thought. Faith is not a far flung thing. It is real. It is possible to have faith and think rationally.

rs-ed483
1/11/2011 4:11:58 PM
I find it sad that people and society are sometimes not accepting to the facts or truth in something. As a future educator, I feel as though I will have to be more aware of what students may be thinking. I personally feel as though educational facts should not be associated with certain beliefs, but it depends on the topic and what can be questioned from it.

rh-ed483
1/11/2011 4:11:04 PM
Believing just for the sake of believing is not right. Critical thinking and facts to back up a "belief" are necessary, but I have to admit that there are some beliefs mentioned in this article that I have personally felt were true. While these beliefs that I hold true to are based on my religion, I also know that scientific evidence has proven these beliefs inaccurate. I still hold these beliefs in a religious sense even though my rational mind tells me otherwise. Facts and critical thinking have helped me to learn the truth. It is imperative that all people use the knowledge provided to them to make a rational choice on their beliefs, but I am also aware that some people out there will just think what they want because they are "always right."

md-ed483
1/11/2011 4:09:22 PM
I was conflicted as I read this article. While I did find myself agreeing with some of the author's comments, I also found myself frustrated by some. People as human beings have always and will always base reality, at least partially, on beliefs. I think too much emphasis on memorization of scientific fact and not enough critical thinking and questioning of the information given to us is partially to blame.

K.B.S.ED483
1/11/2011 4:07:10 PM
This is a very interesting and frightening article. This past summer I had to work with a 50 year-old man who had some absurd beliefs. It can be very difficult to get along with these people as they are so close minded. I hope that this does not become the cultural norm for our future population.

Tiffany Giraffe
1/11/2011 4:05:23 PM
Hmmm, lots to wrap my head around. But is the US really the only developed nation that still believes in creationism? That statement seems pretty bold to me.

K.B.S.ED483
1/11/2011 4:05:21 PM
This is a very interesting and frightening article. This past summer I had to work with a 50 year-old man who had some absurd beliefs. It can be very difficult to get along with these people as they are so close minded. I hope that this does not become the cultural norm for our future population.

tr-ed483
1/11/2011 4:05:10 PM
I don't think that the epidemic of blind belief is as widespread as this article makes it seem. Although most of the population believes in creationism, there are no immediate proofs that creationism is false -- you have to rely upon the works and words of others. I think it is more of a problem of trust. Most people in the United States don't trust the media or scientific community. How widespread is blind belief in other countries? The article shows no polls about unbiased, fact-based belief elsewhere, so how are we to know that the United States is in fact worse than other countries? It could simply be that those beliefs to which we blindly submit are more immediately apparent than those in other countries. The article also doesn't prove or cite any correlation between the number of people believing in creationism and the technological/economic progress of a society. How are we to know that the two are even related? I think this article was too general.

Tiffany Giraffe
1/11/2011 4:04:51 PM
Hmmm, lots to wrap my head around. But is the US really the only developed nation that still believes in creationism? That statement seems pretty bold to me.

J.L.L.
1/11/2011 4:04:16 PM
This article is both enlightening as well as obvious to those who keep up with current events. A lack of logic, forethought, and critical, analytical thinking can be attributed to nearly every tragic and unfortunate incident that has occurred such as the attack on the Twin Towers. Religion will likely always cause conflict because when people feel passionately about their beliefs, they will often go too far to defend or perpetuate them. The concept of "belief" is not always negative and can be positive in order to fill in gaps or bridge them for our peace of mind. With that being said, placing belief before cold, hard facts should not be practiced or perpetuated in schools or in politics. There is a very good reason for a separation between church and state in this country and people would do well to keep that in mind.

lm-ed483
1/11/2011 4:03:32 PM
I agree with the fact that our society today does in fact make gross assumptions about a range of subjects. I would tend to argue that humans have always done this. Throughout history, human nature has been pulling societies into a realm where individuals assume things. This affects education and it's validity to an extreme degree. Yes, it is true the winners write history and teacher's opinions are brought into lessons, but the fact that throughout history humans have made wrong decisions about a subject based on no fact whatsoever just make education all the more important. I believe the only way to combat this problem is to implement investigative skills into your classroom teachings. Students must be taught to question even what you teach as a teacher to make the education system effective.

SN-ED 483
1/11/2011 4:03:04 PM
The comment about the "search and replace" command is very interesting considering how Sarah Palin has scrubbed her website of any violent rhetoric. This kind of culture is sad at best. I once had a father who i looked up to. I now have a very racist father who believes anything that Glenn Beck has to say regardless of truth. Even when shown the truth he will not believe it. As an educator it is sad what is happening to this country. I've been to other developed countries and i can say that we are falling way behind. If as a country we wish to become a "leader" again, something is going to have to change with education system. Perhaps starting with getting rid of creationism as an alternative to evolution.

JJB
1/7/2011 11:07:43 AM
I think it is already too late - it is already a nation of worms - Watch as Bill O’Reilly defends religion during an interview with David Silverman of “American Atheists.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/vp/40957027#40957027

jrock6467
1/6/2011 5:40:30 PM
I agree with "snacks".. this particular article was pretty lame.

snacks
1/6/2011 8:50:37 AM
I'm an atheist, and I too was less than impressed with this article, though maybe I tend to use the word "stunk" more sparingly. It is a simple, and not very interesting position to take that "reason" and "critical thinking" lead us inevitably to universal truths while "belief" only gets in the way. Like most appealingly simple ideas, it doesn't hold up very well with experience and a bit of humility. There will always be so many things in this world and in our lives that cannot be known, and about which reasonable people will disagree. Whether the questions are scientific or moral, we will never have all the answers. Of course willful and destructive ignorance exists and should be reckoned with, but the truth is that we all fill the gaps in our knowledge with "belief" of one sort or another. Rather than going any distance towards combatting the kind of ignorance decried by this author, this article presents a false dualism of its own. In my opinion it is a less destructive one, but it is still a good example of why self-righteousness tends to be unhelpful.

fd-ed483
1/4/2011 5:49:39 AM
This is a very disturbing trend. Having been an educator for over 30 years, the practice of placing beliefs before facts is contrary to everything the educational system tries to promote. This lack of critical thought and discussion is evident in so many facets of our culture. This article describes the effects very clearly.

rodeen
12/16/2010 2:44:31 PM
That article stunk. Interesting that 90% (a stat I dont really believe but people say it is true) of our population believes in God but 50% are creationist. Soooooooooo?








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