America’s Addiction to Belief

Henceforth, people will be looking at the universe with the eyes of oxen.

   —Katib Chelebi, seventeenth-century geographer

“Barack Obama won’t show us his birth certificate,” insists Steve, a Connecticut resident and small business owner, while shoveling his walk during one of this year’s snowstorms. “He’s a Muslim terrorist. And you know what really bothers me? He is doing exactly what Hitler did.”

Steve, forty-five, 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 hard-working fellow and family man in a post-industrial 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 mindset. It is a deadly challenge to the aim of humanism.

The “belief” mindset is pretty common in the news these days. That much of it seems directed at the current presidential administration is almost irrelevant, though we should linger here just a moment to reflect that 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—Lt. 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.

Ironically enough, 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—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 (a legacy of the post-Karl Rovian era) 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.

“A conservative can wake up in the morning and never have his or her views challenged. And the same is true for liberals,” said none other than MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough in a Newsweek interview last summer. “It’s just stunning to me how difficult it is to have a political conversation with adults. It’s very disturbing to me as someone fired upon by the left and right pretty regularly… Where is the rational middle?”

The overriding irony is that in the United States, the culture of belief is certainly not a partisan issue. When it comes to the above-mentioned rallying points for this particular culture, people are oddly united across political divisions, faiths, and ideologies. So too is blind belief the de facto culture of the blogosphere and mass media.

It is a culture that 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 where 20 percent of the American people believe NASA faked the Apollo moon landings, and where half the population believes the world was made in six days.

When the scholar Katib Chelebi spoke the words that opened this piece, it was in response to a tidal shift in the culture of seventeenth-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 mindset 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; Chelebi 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. Like Chelebi’s era, our real battle is for a 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 delusional.

Consider the subject of gravity. No one doubts it. Jump off your roof and you can clearly demonstrate its reality. Great thinkers have contemplated the nature of this mysterious force, and it was Albert Einstein (elaborating on Newton) who created the geometric model we accept today.

Yet our theory of gravity is not a belief system. Einstein didn’t preach from a mountain or circulate pamphlets to justify his position. More importantly, the world didn’t instantly drop to its knees and chant the merits of curved space. His theory was examined and cross-examined. It was tested and retested, and accumulated such mounds of evidence that it is now accepted.

Are there alternative theories to gravity? Well, we could easily invent one: the force of gravity is in fact a cabal of ghosts pressing down on our heads. Of course, such a statement is a hypothesis, not a theory. It only becomes an accepted theory if we can test it, retest it, and provide evidence and documentation for it. It must stand up to scrutiny. Otherwise it’s simply a fairy tale. To put a finer point on it, it is irrational.

This irrationality is the new American zeitgeist. Even a cursory glance at the political blogosphere and media outlets demonstrates this over and over. One example, taken not only from Steve but from a good deal of pundits and politicians is that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

In June 2009 President Obama visited Cairo and made overtures of communication to the local Muslim population. Predictably, this act relit the battle-cries from political opponents who had spent much time during the presidential election stating that Obama was in fact a secret Muslim.

That essentially is the argument in four words: Obama is a Muslim. The implication we’re left with is that it’s somehow wrong to be Muslim in America because (and here we tap another rampant falsity) America is a Christian nation. It encourages a kind of juvenile math: Muslim leader in charge of Christian country equals bad.

Of course, the United States was founded on a secular Constitution that, saw fit to avoid religious language entirely, and even took pains to include items like Article 6 (declaring that no religious test is required for public officials) and the establishment clause of the very first amendment to it: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. It established a secular government that permits religious liberty, not a religious government mandating religious favoritism or fundamentalism.

As to the claim that Obama is a Muslim, it was General Colin Powell who offered the most eloquent response when he appeared on Meet the Press on October 19, 2008:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

9/11 Truthers and the Creationists of Tomorrow

On the other side of the political fence, the 9/11 Truth Movement is a classic example of blind belief. Basing itself largely on cleverly edited “documentaries,” that are as Machiavellian in design as anything in living memory, this collection of loosely affiliated groups—who suspect that the 9/11 attacks were part of a covert U.S. government operation—ignore hard data in favor of a raw, undocumented belief system.

I was in a café not long ago when a gentleman stated his belief that the World Trade Center towers had been brought down by controlled demolition. When faced with my open skepticism, his reaction was to ask me several questions: How could I believe the official story? How could I support George W. Bush? And did I really think that there wasn’t a connection between the bin Ladens and the Bush family?

The three questions were irrelevant. Worse, they were intellectually dishonest. My acceptance of the “official story” was not predicated on belief but on data. By contrast, my friendly neighborhood conspiracy theorist was spouting the talking points from the film Loose Change, which has been re-edited and re-released three times and discredited each time. The question of whether or not I supported Bush was also not relevant to the discussion at hand, and neither were any ties—demonstrable or not—between the two political families.

Predictably, countering such a believer leads to vehement ad hominem attacks, as well as charges that the skeptic is either part of the conspiracy itself or is not being open-minded. Yet true skepticism is precisely about being open-minded—yet not so open that you become a vacuum. The advocacy here is not to dismiss any claims out of hand; rather, it is to place the burden of proof on the people making the claim. The more emotional their outcry to this condition, the more suspect their claim becomes.

Professional debunker and author James Randi, in his book Flim Flam!, wrote: “It is careless of a man to fail to sufficiently research a subject on which he claims to be an authority… and it is irresponsible and callous for him to continue to misrepresent matters about which he has been informed to the contrary (emphasis mine).” When a claim is invalidated, only a cultish mindset would continue to cling to it. My café correspondent was behaving like a cultist.

The metaphor is apt. In When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter documented the mentality of a doomsday cult in the 1950s. This cult believed that the world would end at midnight on December 21. Midnight arrived and the world remained surprisingly intact. The cultists openly wondered if their watches were wrong. After a few hours of horrified silence, some began to weep. Then a most remarkable thing happened: The cult’s leader announced she was suddenly receiving new telepathic messages from God. The apocalypse, she claimed the message said, had been postponed! Over the following days and months, the doomsday cult jubilantly renewed their crusade to convert more people into their thrall.

This was not an isolated incident. Nor is it relegated only to the 1950s. People have been predicting the end of the world for millennia. Recent years saw national paranoia over Y2K, the 5/5/2000 apocalypse, and now the 2012 scare. No matter how many times the world refuses to end, there is never a shortage of people who believe (and often hope) it will. When 2012 passes and the world is still turning, I suspect this crowd will dig out Isaac Newton’s quote about believing the world will end in 2060.

The reality is that the world we live in is irrelevant to belief. For example, I don’t believe that there are fish in the sea. Rather, I have seen the evidence for fish in the sea and accept that evidence. I have seen documentaries on fish and have visited aquariums, have gone fishing, caught fish, fried fish, and eaten fish. It’s not an issue of belief.

I also don’t believe that humankind landed on the moon. I have seen the evidence for a moon landing and accept that evidence. (I have similarly watched the “evidence” presented by those who think the lunar visit was a hoax dissolve away at the first light of serious scrutiny.) By the same token, I don’t believe in a Hollow Earth, chupacabras, or that the Holocaust was invented by Zionists, because the evidence for all three is less than compelling. It’s not about emotion. It’s not about disliking a claim. It’s about what the proponents can show.

It would be comforting if we could trace this only to the Internet, which by virtue of its anonymity provides 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 twenty-first century, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a liberal plot, the swine flu is God’s punishment against [whomever], to name a few.

In 79 CE Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum under a sea of hot ash. Predictably, many people 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 will live in an age of rational methodology. Our laws are ideally derived from cogent debate (and are why we say “without passion or prejudice” in our legal proceedings), and we use the scientific method when 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 on earth where the subject is even a debate anymore.

Evolution is taught in schools not because there is a global secular conspiracy, but because it’s backed up by factual data. By comparison, modern creationism (dressed up—and down—as intelligent design or as the preservation of academic freedom) lacks any credible documentation or data and fails even the most basic of rational tests. Perhaps most astonishingly, it has yet to articulate what its theory actually is. At day’s end it is a position of faith; in other words, it belongs in Sunday school and not biology classrooms.

Lacking any scientific theory, the current creationist position is that students should be exposed to alternatives to evolution. Of course, there are lots of alternative explanations to evolution. There is the Nordic tale of how all of humanity sprouted from the maggots of a frost giant. There’s the Chinese egg of chaos, out of which the earth hatched. The Greeks gave us their “five races of man” fable, which described how various ages of humanity were carved by the gods from gold, silver, bronze, and iron (of which we belong to this latter category.) The Sumerians believed that the arts and sciences were handed to humankind by a fish-headed god named Oannes.

Many creationists are quick to laugh at these “alternative” explanations, while blissfully ignoring the fact that all of these tales, from Genesis to the Greeks, from Amaterasu to Adam, have the exact same amount of evidence to support them: zero. Only evolution, like gravity, has data going for it—and a lot of data at that.

In a 2006 debate at the Cato Institute between science writer and Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer and intelligent design proponent Jonathan Wells, the latter was asked point-blank what his alternative to the evidence for natural selection was. “I don’t think I’m obligated to propose an alternate theory,” Wells publicly stated. “I don’t pretend to have an alternate theory that explains the history of life.”

At least Wells was honest. No theory, no rationale, no methodology. Just a thin God-of-the-gaps argument rooted in the school of belief.

Another prominent creationist, the Discovery Institute’s Michael Behe, also admitted under cross-examination during the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial that his touted redefinition of science (to allow creationism in schools) would also permit astrology to be considered scientific theory.

Astrology is a belief system. Astronomy, by contrast, is not; it concerns itself with factual data. If I go to my local Barnes and Noble and buy a dozen astronomy books, they’ll all give the same factoids about Mars, for instance. Their information is derived from decades of serious study of the Red Planet, including robotic landers and flybys.

Now for an astrological point of contrast: I recently decided to conduct an experiment which Carl Sagan did thirty years ago. I went to the store and picked up several different horoscopes. If astrology were a rational process, then there should be rough agreement among the many horoscopes regarding what a Scorpio should expect from his or her day. There isn’t. Astrology, like creationism, is irrational.

But what about religion in all this? Isn’t an attack on belief, one could ask, really an attack on organized faith?

Yes and no. There are many rational people who are highly religious; the two positions need not be in strict opposition. Only when religious sensibilities derail rational decision-making does it become the problem we’re outlining here. Believing that long ago God ordered a father to sacrifice his son is one thing. Believing that God is commanding you right now to kill your son warrants a phone call to the police.

The Problem of the Lizard Brain

The human mind is a three-in-one deal. It’s a kind of evolutionary layer cake, with newer developments growing over earlier foundations. The most recent layer is the neocortex, which is responsible for our higher brain functions. The arts and sciences owe to it. It makes rational thought possible.

Beneath it, and a few million years older, is the limbic system. Popularly called the mammalian brain, it promotes warm-blooded socialization and emotions.

Lurking deeper down is the most ancient brain, the lizard brain. The most primitive patterns are found in this prehistoric basement. Survival emotions like fear and anger reside there.

Clearly all three levels are essential to the human experience. Yet they are not all equally rational. A culture of belief stokes the fires of the lowest part, thriving on the exploitation of fear and anger. When Titus Livius said, “We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them,” he was painting an accurate guideline for any civilization.

I’ll single out the issue of same-sex marriage, which recently has seen a flurry of legislation across the United States. The majority of arguments opposing it are not coming from a rational basis, but rather an emotional and fearful one. The common cry that same-sex marriage will be “the end of civilization” is a curious claim to make, and becomes stranger as civilization continues on where it has been legalized. It reminds us of the “Obama is a Muslim” protestation. As arguments such statements are illogical. They cater to the lower floors of human consciousness.

It isn’t that rationality must preclude emotion. A society of cold intellectuals is not what we need; what’s needed is a culture that places emphasis on 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 beast are necessary to get anywhere. It is the guiding hand of a clear-thinking charioteer which 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 (to consult Mark Twain again) a “nation of men was turned into a nation of worms.”

For us today, the situation is far more dire. Belief-stricken populations and their leaders can cause unthinkable devastation to modern society. Technology has tipped the scales, and the antics of a collective adolescence threaten the global sandbox. 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. Chelebi’s disdain is now amplified by giant orders of magnitude. A global power, he reminds us, can become a global “sick man” in the blink of a historical eye.

If we can’t address today’s problems with a clear-thinking and intellectual honesty, how do we face the challenges of tomorrow? True humanism relies on a tango of free inquiry and scientific rationality. Such things are not possible in the face of emotional belief systems—indeed, an entire culture of belief.

And so we return to Steve, unwilling to engage in discussion, unable to entertain facts, and unreachable through a fortress of belief.

Let’s hope that kicking this addiction to unquestioned belief becomes one of the great stories of American progress.