Friday, February 9, 2007

The Deeper Structure Beneath "Faith" and "Reason"

On February 6 Truthdig released a video clip under the headline "Evangelicals Make War on Evolution." Described as a "short documentary," the video actually seems to be an excerpt from Alexandra Pelosi's new HBO documentary about evangelicals in the United States. The excerpt focuses on two specific examples in which children are indoctrinated into creationist beliefs and taught to make fun of evolution. It also includes the image of a PowerPoint slide with a very popular motto in the evangelical community: "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!"

Since I try very hard to be careful with words, I should point out that "indoctrination" is one of the nouns that Truthdig used in their introductory material, along with "scary." In the interest of balance, however, the introduction also provides a link to Andrew Sullivan's blog involving a "blogalogue" he has been having with Sam Harris over the opposition of faith and reason. The specific item at the end of this link is entitled "Faith Unchosen" and is one of the best examples I have seen of why faith is not incompatible with critical thinking. In spite of the quiet tone of Sullivan's writing, most of the 30+ comments that have come in on the Truthdig site have been so strident that one wonders if their authors really think they are representing "reason" as a contrast to "faith." My reaction to all of this has been to view it as just one more instance where we need to seek out a metanarrative behind the narrative, in this case the narrative of the escalation of disagreement from the respective cultures of "faith" and "reason."

The first step in teasing out that metanarrative is to recognize that, as linguists would put it, the debate over evolution is a "surface structure" phenomenon. If we are to find a viable metanarrative, we need to look at a “deeper structure.” At this deeper level we need to resort to a more neutral lexical base, so I would like to say that the metanarrative is about a clash of two totally incompatible belief systems. On the one hand we have the fundamentalist conviction (abbreviated in the motto I cited above) that the only truth is the truth of God as rendered literally in the text of the Holy Bible. On the other hand we have what we could call a “Cartesian skepticism.” This basically posits that we should not take anything as a “given truth” and seek truth through systems of inquiry such as scientific method. The reason I have chosen the phrase "belief systems" to represent this deeper structure is that, because the "opposing sides" are systems of belief, neither is grounded on anything more solid than faith and dogma. The very word “enlightenment” is nothing more than a lexical game we play to stack the deck in favor of skepticism; but any good skeptic (such as Isaiah Berlin) has no trouble seeing through that game.

The unfortunate consequence of this state of affairs is that neither belief system can support tolerance of the other (which is why the skeptics invoke nouns like “enlightenment"). Indeed, when we take the long view of history, we discover that tolerance is in extremely short supply across those different social organizations that we dignify with the noun “civilization.” What is particularly ironic is that the Jews (so frequently held up as victims of the worst acts of intolerance) were often beneficiaries of such tolerance, during the Babylonian captivity (when those who wept by the waters were a decided minority while others were committing scripture to written text with “government support"), under the Persian empire, and, of course, in Moorish Spain, before the Inquisition turned the tables on them! Nevertheless, we now appear to have devolved (seemed like the best choice of verb in the context of the original Truthdig context) into fragmented social organizations who think nothing of “making war” against those whose belief systems are inconsistent with their own. I wish it were otherwise; but I suspect it is just one more facet of “the human condition.”

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