News & Politics

The End of Reason

Organized religion elevates superstition to an entirely new level, so let's call its institutions by their proper name: superstition-based institutions.
For Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, until 2003 the deputy head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's most powerful office, seeing The DaVinci Code in a Vatican bookstore was the last straw. In early March he lashed out at Catholic bookstores for carrying the book, and directed Catholics not to read it. Why? "There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true."

Fables?

Dan Brown's phenomenal bestseller suggests that Jesus was an immensely popular and prophetic leader who married one of his closest associates and had a family. Archbishop Bertone and the Church maintain that Jesus was at the same time a man, the son of God, and God himself, that a virgin woman gave birth to him and remained a virgin, that a few days after he was killed he came back to life and shortly thereafter was taken up to heaven to spend an eternity directing the destinies of billions of people.

In a rational world the burden of proof as to which is fable would fall on the Church. But there's the rub. For when it comes to organized religion, no burden of proof is required. On the contrary, by definition, religion requires faith and faith renounces evidence. Taking a proposition "on faith" means to consciously and willfully refuse to examine the facts.

There is a word for this type of thinking: Superstition. Many dictionaries define superstition as "belief which is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge." The American Heritage Dictionary defines superstition as "a belief, practice or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature" and "a fearful or abject state resulting from such ignorance or irrationality."

Of course, we all have our superstitions. I may refrain from walking under a ladder, or throw salt over my shoulder after a salt spill to avoid bad things from happening to me. But organized religion elevates superstition to an entirely new level. It demands that we govern our lives with superstition, promises us eternal salvation and bliss if we do, and threatens us with eternal damnation and pain if we do not.

It is long past time we stopped giving a free pass to organizations that refuse to be guided by reason and would force their unreason on the entire society. A first step would be to stop calling these "faith-based institutions" and start calling them by the synonymous and much more instructive term, "superstition-based institutions."

No Other Superstition But This One

Organized superstitions might be more socially supportable if their creed included a provision accepting the organized superstitions of others. Unfortunately, modern religions do not practice tolerance. For example Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore gained widespread fame and even adulation when he refused to obey court orders to remove from the Alabama Courthouse a huge stone tablet on which was inscribed the Ten Commandments. When he was asked how he would react to the suggestion that a monument to the Koran or the Torah also be placed in the Courthouse he brusquely declared he would prohibit such an installation.

A few months later, Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, the new deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence explained why he knew he would win his battle against Muslims in Somalia. "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol."

The creationism vs. evolution debate also illuminates this intolerance. Christians insist that their creation myth represent the creationist side. But there are many creationist myths, many of which predated both Christianity and Judaism. If evidence is not needed, why exclude any superstitions? As Sam Harris notes in The End of Faith, "there is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh and Satan than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning the seas."

The impact of moving towards "superstition-based institutions" would be highly controversial, quite educational, and on the whole exceedingly salutary. Consider the impact on the audience if we switched the interchangeable terms in President George W. Bush's following statement, posted on a federal web site:
I believe in the power of superstition in people's lives. Our government should not fear programs that exist because a church or a synagogue or a mosque has decided to start one. We should not discriminate against programs based upon superstition in America. We should enable them to access federal money, because superstition-based programs can change people's lives, and America will be better off for it.
Fanatics and Zealots Destroying the Liberty of Thought

In her magnificent book, Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby describes the 230-year-old battle in the United States between reason and superstition. She discusses the post-Civil War period in which the battle may have been most evenly matched.

Robert Green Ingersoll, possibly the best known American in the post Civil War era and the nation's foremost orator, traveled around the country arguing about the harm that comes from self-congratulatory, aggressive and assertive organized religions.

He explained why the word God does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. The founding fathers "knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man."

Ingersoll believed that reason, not faith, could and should be the basis for modern morality. "Our civilization is not Christian. It does not come from the skies. It is not a result of 'inspiration,'" he insisted. "It is the child of invention, of discovery, of applied knowledge -- that is to say, of science. When man becomes great and grand enough to admit that all have equal rights; when thought is untrammeled; when worship shall consist in doing useful things; when religion means the discharge of obligations to our fellow-men, then, and not until then, will the world be civilized."

In 1885, Elizabeth Cady Stanton explained how organized and assertive religions around the world have restricted women's rights. "You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman ... I have been traveling over the old world during the last few years and have found new food for thought. What power is it that makes the Hindoo woman burn herself upon a funeral pyre of her husband? Her religion. What holds the Turkish woman in the harem? Her religion. By what power do the Mormons perpetuate their system of polygamy? By their religion. Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, 'Thus saith the Lord', of course he can do it."

Stanton's enduring motto was, "Seek Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth."

During the era when Ingersoll and Stanton spread their own form of the gospel, the Church was making ever-more explicit its own hostility to reason as a guide to human behavior. In 1869, Pope Pius IX convinced the First Vatican Council to proclaim, "let him be anathema ... (w)ho shall say that human sciences ought to be pursued in such a spirit of freedom that one may be allowed to hold as true their assertions, even when opposed to revealed doctrine."

His successor, Pope Leo XIII, in one of his best known encyclicals maintained, it "has even been contended that public authority with its dignity and power of ruling, originates not from God but from the mass of the people, which considering itself unfettered by all divine sanctions, refuses to submit to any laws that it has not passed of its own free will."

Other churches agreed. In 1878, geologist Alexander Winchell was dismissed from the faculty of Vanderbilt University in Nashville for publishing his opinion that human life had existed on earth long before the biblical time frame for the creation of Adam. Most Methodists supported the dismissal, arguing that Vanderbilt was founded by Methodists and dedicated to the goals of the church.

Some 45 years later, the famous Scopes trial opened. Most of us know that William Jennings Bryan was the lawyer for the prosecution of Scopes, a biology teacher who in his classroom violated Tennessee law forbidding the mention of evolution. What we may not know is that William Jennings Bryan was a three-time democratic presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state. After the Wilson administration Bryan devoted himself to campaigning around the nation on behalf of state laws banning the teaching of evolution. For Bryan faith always trumped science. "(I)t is better to trust in the Rock of Ages than to know the ages of rocks; it is better for one to know that he is close to the Heavenly Father than to know how far the stars in the heaven are apart."

That was then. This is now. A few months ago, a dozen science centers, mostly in the South, refused to show Volcanoes, a science film funded in part by the National Science Foundation. The film was turned down because it very briefly raises the possibility that life on Earth may have originated at undersea steam vents.

Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, said that many people said the film was "blasphemous." Lisa Buzzelli, director of the Charleston Imax Theater in South Carolina, told The New York Times, "We have definitely a lot more creation public than evolution public."

Buzzelli's probably right. And that cannot bode well for America's future economic and technological leadership. A 1988 survey by researchers from the University of Texas found that one of four public school biology teachers thought that humans and dinosaurs might have inhabited the earth simultaneously. A recent survey by Gallup found that 35 percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe. Another 48 percent believe it is the "inspired" word of the same. Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of creation; another 40 percent believe God has guided creation over the course of millions of years.

The Politicizing of Religion

I know most people who are reading this are asking, "Would you ban organized religion?" Of course not. Religion is an integral part of human existence. For tens of thousands of years humans have sought to explain the unknowable and have found comfort in believing that the death of a loved one may simply be the transition of that loved one to another, more sublime state.

But today organized religion has declared its intention to use its influence far beyond its congregation. The politicization of religion and the rise of a superstition-driven state may be the most important development in this country in many, many decades.

Tom DeLay, House Majority Leader and arguably the third most powerful person in Washington told an audience just a few weeks ago that the problems in America began when "they stopped churches from getting into politics ... Lyndon Johnson ... passed a law that said you couldn't get in politics or you're going to lose your tax-exempt status ... It forces Christians back into the church. That's what's going on in America ... That's not what Christ asked us to do."

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a leading candidate to become chief justice, has declared in oral hearings "the fact that government derives its authority from God." In January 2002, in a major speech revealingly titled "God's Justice and Ours," delivered to the University of Chicago Divinity School, Scalia favorably cited Paul's announcement, "For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." And Scalia declared that the death penalty is God's will. "The more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral," he observed. "I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal."

One of President Bush's first acts in office was to create an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Today 10 federal agencies have a Center for the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The White House web site gives churches Do's and Don'ts for applying for federal assistance. It has funded 30 organizations to provide training and technical assistance for religious organizations desiring federal grants. And it guarantees that any religious organization in need of help will find a ready and willing person on the other end of the phone.

After failing to persuade Congress to change the law, President Bush, by Executive Order, rewrote the rules to allow federal agencies to directly fund churches and other religious groups. In 2003 such groups received an astonishing $1.17 billion in grants from federal agencies.

"That's not enough," H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives recently told the Associated Press. He notes that another $40 billion in federal money is given out by state governments and "many states do not realize that federal rules now allow them to fund these organizations."

In 2003, an independent study found little activity or interest by states in contracting with religious groups. But federal intervention has persuaded them that future funding depended on their having these groups provide services. By Towey's count, 21 governors have established their own faith-based offices.

The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives maintains, "There is no general federal law that prohibits faith-based organizations that receive federal funds from hiring on a religious basis." It further explains that "for a religious organization to define or carry out its mission, it is important that it be able to take religion into account in hiring staff. Just as a college or university can take the academic credentials of an applicant for a professorship into consideration in order to maintain high standards, or an environmental organization can consider the views of potential employees on conservation, so too should a faith-based organization be able to take into account an applicant's religious belief when making a hiring decision."

One major program funded by the White House is Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries. It runs the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in prisons in Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa and Texas. The Christ-centered program offers prisoners privileges that include access to a big TV, computers, and private bathrooms in return for a hefty dose of Bible study and Christian counseling. As a condition of being hired, the program's employees are required to sign a statement affirming their belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Superstition as a Lethal Force

Organized superstition in this country has begun to drive and guide social policy. The clearest example of this is the recent enactment by several states of laws that allow pharmacists and doctors and hospitals to refuse to treat patients whose behavior conflicts with the their superstitions.

The central problem with organized, assertive religion, of course, is that it endows superstition with a moral and messianic fervor. God-directed superstition can be a lethal force. Indeed, one might argue that this type of force is behind much of the violence around the world. The conflicts in Palestine (Jews v. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians v. Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants v. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims v. Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims v. Timorese Christians) and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims) constitute only a few of the places where religion has been the explicit cause of million of deaths in the last ten years.

Sam Harris discusses "the burden of paradise." Why are there suicide bombers? "Because they actually believe what they say they believe. They believe in the literal truth of the Koran ...Why did 19 well-educated, middle class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed that they would go straight to paradise for doing so."

To Harris, condoning the use of superstition as an important social force enables and encourages extremism. "The concessions we have made to religious faith," he maintains, "to the idea that belief can be sanctified by something other than evidence -- have rendered us unable to name, much less address, one of the most pervasive causes of conflict in our world."

In 1784, Patrick Henry introduced a bill in the Virginia General Assembly that would have assessed taxes on all citizens for the support of "teachers of the Christian religion." The bill's passage seemed certain. But then James Madison issued his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, eventually signed by some 2,000 Virginians.

"What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society?" Madison asked. "In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances they have seen the upholding of the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberty of the people."

The two-year debate over the assessment bill ended in its overwhelming defeat. Instead the Virginia legislature in 1786 passed an Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The preamble to the original bill, written by Thomas Jefferson, declared, "Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their mind; that Almighty God hath created the mind free... ."

The final law contained only the last few words of Jefferson's preamble, "Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free ... ."

After the passage of the legislation, Jefferson wrote Madison to express his pride in Virginia's leadership on this crucial issue. "(I)t is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests and nobles, and it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions."

In early February 2005, the Virginia House of Delegates easily approved (69-27) an amendment to the state's constitution that would allow the practice of religion in public schools and other public buildings. A few weeks later the amendment was killed in a Senate committee (10-5).

It was a lonely victory for reason in this increasingly unreasonable time. The battle between rationality and superstition continues.
David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minn. and director of its New Rules project.
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