Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Faith and Reason

This started out as an exploration of intellectual relativism, and I might yet write that. But it took a left turn in my head. So here's a more troubling observation, for commentary.

I've been reflecting on why the bill I mentioned yesterday has been bothering me so much. I am finding it particularly emblematic of what is shaping up to be the core argument of our time: the debate between Faith and Reason.

This isn't a new argument, of course: the tension between these two principles certainly goes back thousands of years, and you can find particularly severe flareups on a regular basis. But the history of the US has mostly been one of detente between them. The country has always had a strongly faith-based bent on a *personal* level, and that's influenced public life in a variety of ways. But that's tended to be relatively piecemeal -- the actual governance of the country has usually been driven more by reason than faith. Even most of the leaders who have paid lip service to faith haven't usually let it drive their decision-making processes. That seems to have changed, with a genuinely Faith-oriented attitude coming much more to the fore.

Mind, I don't just mean "faith" as "Christianity". LJ is fond of tossing around the word "meme" very casually, devaluing its true meaning -- learnedax has railed about this from time to time. But this is a genuine meme: how should faith and reason relate to each other? I'm seeing a sea-change in that, probably driven by the growth of evangelical Christianity, but not limited to it. A key element of the evangelical message is that Faith trumps all else -- that you should make your decisions based on faith in Christ. I *suspect* that that message is generalizing as it filters through peoples' consciousness, though, into a general meme that "what I believe" matters more than "what I think".

It's a particularly pernicious meme, because it can be very comforting. The underlying message is that it's more important to follow your convictions than to think them through, and that plays into the basic bias of human nature -- we are not such intellectual creatures as we would fancy ourselves. And you can see that meme in more than just religious thinking: the primary basis for the Iraq war was "We *believe* Saddam has WMDs, so he probably does; never mind the inspections". Political viewpoints are at least as subject to faith-based thinking as religious ones -- consider the way that Tax Cuts Are Good has become essentially an article of faith for many people, despite all the evidence that it's extremely dangerous when done outside an overall economic restructuring. (Heck, Reaganism in general is looking a lot like a religion.) All of that seems to play well politically, because the populace are pretty forgiving of irrational viewpoints, so long as they are (or appear to be) sincere.

The argument between Reason and Faith is often disguised, taking the form of Reason vs. Rationalization -- the Intelligent Design debate is a fine example of this. Faith is more resilient than people often give it credit for: when opposed by overwhelming facts, it often falls back only as far as it needs to, encasing itself in rationalizations that claim to be based on Reason, but are mainly attempts to re-justify the Faith. That's the plane that the Florida bill is fighting on, and why it bothers me so much: its underlying conceit is that Reason and Rationalization are of equal value, and should be treated equally. That's troubling, because it's a logic that many people will find seductive -- that the purpose of reason is to justify faith, rather than to seek the most likely explanations. Given that it's pretty easy to rationalize *anything* if you want to do so, that's potentially very destructive to the relatively rational mindset that built the world as we know it today.

It's not clear where all this is going, or how severe it's going to get. I suspect that the argument between Reason and Faith will find a new level eventually, and settle down somewhat; that said, an argument of this scope *could* take decades to reach some sort of equilibrium. Looking back, the current fight has certainly been brewing for many years; it's simply broken out into particularly open warfare in the past few. And I confess, it's hard to be sure how much has actually changed -- certainly rationalization is nothing new in the public sphere. But I'm smelling a change of attitude and approach, particularly on the meta-level -- a newly-public attitude that Faith is *better* than Reason -- and that concerns me a lot...

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