A call for people who can think and reason

June 18, 2007 by barbara

by barbara and The Big Easy

There’s an odd U.S. Senate race shaping up in Minnesota. It's for Paul Wellstone’s seat, which is currently occupied by Norm Coleman. Democratic candidates are popping up like dandelions. Al Franken (think “Saturday Night Live” and “Air America”) has moved back to his birth state to run. Perennial thinkin’-about-bein’-a-candidate, attorney Michael Ciresi (think MN vs. big tobacco) has thrown his hat in the ring. Some guy named Jim Cohen has also announced his candidacy. I have no idea who he is.

The latest possible entry is one Peter Agre, M.D., who, among other things, was born in Wellstone’s teaching town (Northfield, MN), is a Duke University School of Medicine professor, and was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Ho-hum. Just your average intellectual giant.

Some of us have been musing about whether an academic, yea verily an intellectual, candidate could have a chance in the state that elected Jesse Ventura and the country that almost elected George Bush. All of which prompted my new pal, The Big Easy to weigh in. Here’s what he has to say:

I've read about Peter Agre. He sounds like an interesting candidate and someone I'd like to see be elected to the U.S. Senate, but this ain't the Czech Republic where they voted a playwright and poet to be their leader, and this ain't Israel that was willing to make Albert Einstein its titular leader.

Shoot, let's face it, Americans don't exactly like intellectuals. From Adlai Stevenson to Gene McCarthy to Al Gore to John Kerry (gad, don't he look French?), we've rejected intellectuals and consider them geeks…. Americans think it's way too uppity to have smart people in elected office. How Bill Clinton ever got elected is beyond me. He was successful in playing down his Rhodes scholarship….

One of the catch phrases for W back in 2000 was, "He's the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with." Never mind that W was then and apparently still is a dry drunk. To ignore the message of 2000 is to do so at your own risk. The message of that election and most others is that Americans love a redneck who pretends to be a cowboy, drives a truck and talks like a hick. Okay, W is only at a 29% approval rating. The amazing thing is he has a rating that high, considering his abysmal policies and butt-ugly stupidity.

There's a current book title that picks up where (Thomas Frank’s) "What's Wrong With Kansas" leaves off. It's "Deer Hunting With Jesus" (by Joe Bageant).

If anyone seriously believes that a Nobel laureate can win a U.S. Senate seat, they are seriously deluding themselves. Consider this, three GOP presidential candidates have said that they don't believe in evolution and apparently have actually proposed a way that Noah loaded T-Rex and other dinosaurs onto the ark. A Nobel laureate for U.S. Senate? With all due respect, give me a break and pass me another beer.

(sigh) He's right, you know. And I gotta tell you that this dumbed-down, passive, unquestioning thing we have going in this country is making me cranky. I know, I know. Pretty much everything does.

But this particular thing about our candidates needing to be media gods/goddesses churns my breakfast. Had that been the criterion in Revolutionary times, most of the founding fathers would have been voted off the island. And that too-tall, sad-faced depressive Abe Lincoln wouldn't have made the cut either, never mind that his intellect ran deep, deeper, deepest.

I don't have a big wrap for this post, friends. I'm just brooding and musing. Muse along with me, will you? I'd love to hear what you're thinking. I'll go catch up on the latest Paris Hilton gambit while I wait for you to check in. (sigh)

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Comments

perhansa (not verified) | June 18, 2007 - 10:16am

You can go back to Richard Hofstedter's book in the sixties on anti-Intellectualism in America and see that it runs deep (and long as Al Gore's new book argues).

In James Hillman's The Terrible Love of War, he argues quite persuasively that America IS indeed a "christian" nation, in the sense that the christian philosophy is inculcated culturally and psychologically into us, like it or not. And the christian philosophy is anti-intellectual, anti-science, victim-based/savior-based and pro-war/pro-violence despite its' rhetoric. The god of the Old Testament is a violent, warring god who prefers ignorant obedience over knowledge. The root of our love of war is in the victim mentality of the monotheistic religions.

The anti-rational/intellectual inculturation is so contrary to the enlightenment-based impetus that began this country it's sad to think how far off base we've gotten. The dream of the enlightenment has died a quiet death and the dumbing of America is in full force. How can you have a functional democracy without an informed citizenry? How can you have an informed citizenry if a majority are scientifically illiterate or deliberately misinformed (as your earlier stats on evolution) reinforce.

Welcome to the upcoming dark ages.

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susan in Seattle (not verified) | June 18, 2007 - 2:36pm

Joe Bageant is one of the funniest writers around. I've been following his essays at www.Joebageant.com for years, and we exchange hilarious emails. His screeds make our rants seem lame. So, buy the guy's book. You'll laugh out loud, and he could use the dough.

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barbara aka babs (not verified) | June 18, 2007 - 7:37pm

Dang, Perhansa. For a minute there, I coulda sworn you're an intellectual. Worse yet, I think I might have understood what you were saying. Is there a 12-Step group for people like us?

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perhansa (not verified) | June 18, 2007 - 9:13pm

"I thought for a minute you were an intellectual."

Was that a compliment or a criticism? If I do qualify as an "intellectual" I keep it under wraps and my careless spelling and grammar reduce suspicion...It's not safe to come out of the closet these days, either as a homosexual or an intellectual and damn if you add in atheist. It's even worse if you're left handed or have red hair--. If Hillman is correct, I think we need a damn good culture war. Maybe it could cleanse us of the "christian" inculturation that led us to such anti-intellectualism and aversion to science. I think the 12-step programs only work if you're willing to change...I'm happy (contrary to some people's opinions) just as I am. I'll take what the painter Francis Bacon called the "brutality of the facts" over intellectual infantilism or religious fundamentalism any day. I suspect you're happy to be insanely sane too.

If he's still posting/reading, I want to thank Poet for recommending Chris Hedges book. I finally finished it and I found it very informative.

I'll have to check the new recommedation.

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barbara aka babs (not verified) | June 19, 2007 - 6:58am

Well, let's see. If I admit it was a compliment, I out myself, too, don't I? And really, I'm not sure I've got the right stuff to be an intellectual. I have always described myself as one who, with respect to knowledge, is a mile wide and a quarter-inch deep. Which means I can talk about almost anything for 12 seconds. Ah! There's that number 12 again. As in Steps. As in a dozen. As in Twelfth Night. As in the Apostles. As in months in a year. As in . . . oopsy, my 12 seconds is up/are up/am up.

Actually, I find your comment (about it not being safe to come out as an intellectual ) chilling in the raw truth of it. I hadn't thought of it that way before. But you're right. And it brings to mind Margaret Atwood's novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," a prescient work about a society in thrall to an immensely conservative government that rules every single aspect of the people's lives. Think Taliban. Think Bush.

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perhansa (not verified) | June 19, 2007 - 10:44am

One of the things that I appreciate about the C-line is that you've made it possible to talk about things at both an emotional and intellectual level. Whatever "intellectual" means--to me it is pure enjoyment of the life of the mind. At the same time, as an artist, I see the world less as a stereotypical intellectual ("egghead") because I also see it in a mythic/poetic/romantic sense as well. The challenge is to stay clear about the mythic/poetic/romantic and the "truth" it provides versus the "truth" I find in science and reason. Some would say "head" and "heart" but I don't find it that simple or clean cut. Art can be intellectual and thoughtful and reason and science can generate some of the deepest emotions. I am equally moved by Van Gogh's "Starry Night" at the MOMA in New York and the live views of the starry night (Saturn or the Andromeda Galaxy or the Orion Nebula) through my telescope. I think Robert Pirsig did a wonderful job of portraying that balance/struggle in one of my all-time favorite books, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". He called it the "classic" and the "romantic" mind. People tend to come down on one side or the other and then harbor a fear of its' complement. Religion, especially the monotheistic triad have taken that to its' extreme. Zen has tried to eliminate the duality and embrace both.

What I find terribly frightening is what this means for the future of our democracy. The dumbing down, the watering down, the regression to irrational beliefs and ancient perspectives that were grounded in a worldview that thought heaven floated above the earth and gods were born of virgins and came back from the dead to rise up to heaven to monitor our carrying on down here. How can anyone truly believe, except in a mythic/poetic sense that some guy named Noah loaded T-rex on a boat along with the millions of different species of plants. animals, insects, etc. to save them from a catastrophic flood brought on by a angry god? How can we entrust the future of our country to leaders who say they don't believe in evolution, simply because it conflicts with their pre-scientific book of fables and campfire stories? Or, if I can be so cynical, who confess something they don't believe in to dupe the religious right into electing them into office.

I didn't mean to carry on this long, but it really frightens and saddens me to think that we, in the technological/scientific age will resort to pre-scientific beliefs, fables, and thinking to govern our future. There won't be one worth looking forward to if that's the case. You're right, think Taliban--think crusades, think Inquisition, think...I'd rather not.

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Anonymous (not verified) | June 20, 2007 - 10:07am

So, how do we address the matter of faith to devout enlightenment materialists? Perhaps we should use logic.

Since the days of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume mankind has had a couple centuries to free himself of the trappings of myth, religion, and legend. Using the German rationalist approach education from K-post-graduate level has nurtured and supported the idea that mankind is basically good and with sufficient knowledge and effort perfectable as a species.

Rational materialistism has bequethed more wealth to a larger number of people than any other system known to recorded history. Life span has been lengthened, diseases conquered, travel enhanced, the world itself has shrunk to the size of a global village.

The Internet is our new Tower of Babel with search engines and translator programs making more knowledge accessable to more people than has ever been known to mankind. Knowledge itself has been so enlarged that the time it takes to double knowledge has shrunk from decades to months.

Yet with all that the last couple of centuries have seen more bloodshed, more violence, and more danger for the extinction of all life from the planet than ever known in recorded history.

From a rational, materialistic, and logical point of view, thinking and reason has been insufficient to better mankind's existence. So logically we are left to conclude either that knowledge and reason are insufficinet or that improvement of mankind is impossible, or that improvement of mankind is impossible without some other factors included.

So we see, in the finest rationalist tradition, the willingness to boldly go where mankind has been before by reexamining superstitions, magic, myths, and traditions to see if there is something there that will do what plain knowledge and reason has been unable to do.

This is the insolulable dilemma of reason and knowledge--its permissiveness sows the seeds of its own destruction.

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Poet (not verified) | June 20, 2007 - 10:09am

The above comment is mine--forgot to ID myself in the appropriate block.

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perhansa (not verified) | June 20, 2007 - 11:40am

Poet old friend writes: "From a rational, materialistic, and logical point of view, thinking and reason has been insufficient to better mankind's existence. So logically we are left to conclude either that knowledge and reason are insufficinet or that improvement of mankind is impossible, or that improvement of mankind is impossible without some other factors included."

Then I guess we're all just hosed aren't we? Don't limit the choices to these three Poet. Perhaps reason takes time to transform mankind. After all, religion and irrationality have been the norm for at least 50,000 years. The Enlightment is only 300 years old and look how the world (and the human condition) has been transformed in that time. Or maybe there are "other factors" but they're genetic, not faith-based. Or perhaps, since we're just now beginning to understand the mind, we haven't really understood how to nurture kind, thoughtful, compassionate human beings without the trappings of religion/faith. Or,...

Faith in gods and 50,000 years of religious belief/superstition certainly haven't improved the plight of man nor human behavior (they have brought us the dark ages, crusades, witch hunts, inquisitions, wars, etc.), so I'm not surprised that a mere 300 years since the enlightment haven't turned the world around. How can it when religion & superstition are still so deeply inculcated into the psyche of man? Religion is an evolutionary hanger-on for tens of thousands of years. I don't (nor do most materialists) expect it to change over night. Religion and "belief" are a by-product of the human mind and must have had an evolutionary benefit to last so long when it consumes so much of people's time and energy. Evolution moves slowly. Man has only been around a few microseconds on the evolutionary time scale and the enlightenment is still young. Reason and knoweldge have transformed the world and our way of life as you point out and it seems quite irrational to claim that human life hasn't been improved by reason and it's by-product, technology. Perfected? Never? An evolutionist doesn't expect perfection. Nor a rationalist.

Every human being begins life as an atheist. We're not born with a belief in gods. It's inculcated into us by culture and we're suseptible to it because the mind looks for patterns and meaning and we trust those who raise and shape us to tell us the truth and teach us how to "succeed" in this life. You'll fail every time trying to justify "faith" with logic or reason--faith is counter intuitive and if science and reason can't help humankind what makes you think faith can? It hasn't produced any meaningful outcomes thus far.

Let's see, there are over 100,000 active religions, which one should I choose? Which god should I have faith in since none of them can be seen, heard, or evidenced in any materialistic way? If you are a christian you are atheistic toward every other religion or you'd be committed to a different one. How is it that believers can use their powers of reason to reject every religion but their own? I just reject one more religion than you do.

And, speaking of war and agression, we know for a fact, religion is a major cause of war, violence, aggression, prejudice, hatred, etc. The world we live in today reinforces that. And don't confuse rational materialism with capitalism--which is largely to blame for the uneven distribution of wealth and power in the world.

It wouldn't take me but 20 minutes to come up with a better set of principles for living than the Ten Commandments. If that is the best god can do, as Woody Allen once said, "He's a terrible underachiever". Human nature has come a long way since the biblical days but we're not perfect. There is still greed and lust for power. Don't blame technology for the acts of men. We're animals, pure and simple. With a brain that makes us amazing and incredibly dangerous. We don't know yet whether we're another of evolution's dead ends.

As for me I'd rather be stuck on a deserted island with Carl Sagan or Einstein or Voltaire or Marie Curie any day over Billy Graham or Billy Sunday or even Jesus Christ.

Faith or reason? Let's give reason a chance. Faith has had it's turn and failed miserably.

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Anonymous (not verified) | June 20, 2007 - 7:57pm

Perhansa sez:

"As for me I'd rather be stuck on a deserted island with Carl Sagan or Einstein or Voltaire or Marie Curie any day over Billy Graham or Billy Sunday or even Jesus Christ.

Faith or reason? Let's give reason a chance. Faith has had it's turn and failed miserably."

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There, you see how your belief is "faith based" every bit as much as those who cling to cleverly invented syncretistized fables?" In the end, how we live our lives (translate: "what we do") is our religion and is just as much based on faith as those who openly acknowledge same.

By that standard Atheists are among the most "faith based" believers extant (somewhere between animists and Roman Catholics I would venture based on my own observations). Some reasons I can disagree without being disagreeable (a faith based hope I hold) are

1. All are literally "betting their llves" on those beliefs in which they have faith. Anyone who has made so complete and profound a bet is worthy of respect whether their bet is one I would pursue or not.

2. I believe that "conversion" is not "coercion". No one is truly converted to whatever belief they hold unless they on their own accord yield to such conversion. To believe otherwise is to yield to coercive bullying. Most religions (and my definition includes atheism, rationalism, intellectualism, skepticism, agnosticism, etc.) disgust non-believers due to their adherant's determination to force their "belief" on others not similarly persuaded.

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perhansa (not verified) | June 22, 2007 - 10:33pm

Anon says:
"There, you see how your belief is "faith based" every bit as much as those who cling to cleverly invented syncretistized fables?" In the end, how we live our lives (translate: "what we do") is our religion and is just as much based on faith as those who openly acknowledge same."

No. I don't see. I only see language being made meaningless. Faith and reason are obviously not the same--by anyone's standard. Why do we have two words: "faith" and "reason". Reason is based in science and logic and is contingent. It must be be supported by verifiable evidence and must explain facts or it is changed or discarded. Faith is belief in the unseen and unproven and is NOT supported by verifiable evidence or facts.

"Religion" by definition is NOT simply how one lives but is founded in beliefs, dogmas, creeds, and superstitions. If you are going to make language and words meaningless then you are being a nihilist not spiritual and we cannot ever agree on anything nor even have a meaningful discussion since language is our medium.

I am not "betting my life" on any belief. I simply refuse to believe in something that isn't supported by evidence and logic just because it's in someone's bible. Bible's have no authority for me so they have no authority for me.

The argument that we should respect a person's beliefs because they hold them dearly (or profoundly) doesn't hold up. Should I respect the beliefs of the suicide bombers and Islamic jihadis? They believe profoundly and truly stake their life (and others) on it.

Conversion or coercion? 85 % of people end up in the primary religion of their culture--to me that's inculturation, not coercion or conversion.

Non-believers are atheists (or non-theists). And we don't try to convert others--we don't need to. There's nothing to convert to since there is no religion, rituals, beliefs, scriptures, requirements or dogma. Many of us who are more outspoken or "radical" are tired of religion getting preferential treatment where it doesn't have to provide any evidence or proof of it's "truth" like science does, yet seems to be placed on a pedestal and we have a majority of our nations leaders making policy decisions on our behalf based on irrational fairy tales and campfire stories.

A majority of American's say they wouldn't vote for someone for office who is an atheist. Well, that's what the majority of evidence points to (no god, many theisms, many sects, multitudes of prophets, gurus, saviors, god-men, etc.). How would you like it if I said anyone who says they don't believe in evolution is unfit to be a leader of this country in this day and age? It's the believers who are on the fringe. Not the reasonable and rational. Science and reason have had a fraction of time to gain a foothold in human nature, religion, tens of thousands of years. I don't think the world is better off for religion but I do think it's much better off for science and reason. If I am sick I don't go to the doctor in "faith," I go because I have confidence that the doctor has been trained in the science of medicine and it has been proven to be effective. I go because I am convinced, based on evidence, that disease is comes from germs not punishment or the curse of an angry god.

Reason AND faith. We live by both. The question is which is the better foundation for "truth"? You know what my vote is and I think I now know what yours would be...

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