You Gotta Believe

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Zina Saunders /

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.

This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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