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Lethal bliss: turning our backs on reason
By George A. Ricker

A talk delivered at the Second Annual National Day of Reason Banquet, sponsored by the Space Coast Freethought Association on May 4, 2006.


“Ignorance is bliss.”

We all have heard that statement.

Sometimes it’s meant as a joke.

Others use the words to declare their own willful ignorance.

Some people just don’t want to know. They don’t want to know anything that might upset their own view of the world—no matter how cramped, how stunted, how wrong that view might be.

Most of those who say “ignorance is bliss” have no idea where it comes from.

The words are those of an 18th century English poet, Thomas Gray (1716-1771). They are taken from a poem called “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” Gray attended Eton as a young man and, by all accounts, had been happy there. The poem is a look across the distance of time as well as space, as Gray reflects on the young men who attended the school with him and their innocence of what life had in store for each of them in the years ahead. The last stanza reads:

To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

Though most of us can appreciate the sentiment in Gray’s poem, we also understand that in the real world ignorance, while it may promote a kind of bliss, can be lethal. What you don’t know can hurt you. It can hurt you as an individual, and it can hurt the society in which you live.

Sometimes it can hurt you very badly.

A war on reason

Today the rallying cry of the Religious Right is the claim there is a “War on Christianity” being waged by evil secularists to “drive all mention of God and Christianity from the public arena.”

In case you don’t realize it, some of those “evil” secularists are right here in this room tonight.

Because what the Falwells and the Robertsons and the Dobsons and the Kennedys really mean with their claim is that anyone who does not kowtow to their vision of a religiously controlled America is waging a war on their religion.

Anyone who believes in the necessity for a wall of separation between government and religion is waging war on their religion.

Anyone who thinks all Americans should receive equal treatment from their society and government regardless of their religious opinions and that no government agency has the right to make religious declarations or endorse religious concepts or prefer the religious over the non religious or one religion over another is waging war on their religion.

And make no mistake about it, from their point of view, they are right. Not only is that war being waged. It is a war that must be won. Because if we lose it, we will surely lose the other war that’s going on—the undeclared war that is being waged by the Religious Right on all Americans.

The war on reason.

The skirmishes in that war are reported daily in the press.

One front is an attack on science, as religious fundamentalists attempt to undermine any scientific theory that appears to challenge the teachings of their religions. They do this by stoking the flames of a false controversy in the biological sciences—the notion that something called “Intelligent Design” should supplant Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.

They do this by suggesting that any scientific theory that does not rule “God” in as the ultimate source of everything is deficient and dangerous to the tender minds of their children. They do this by appealing, not to reason, but to the woeful ignorance of the American public of what science really says.

And the war on science is not limited to the classroom.

In spite of a growing body of evidence that it is not the best approach, abstinence-only sex education is being promoted by fundamentalist religious groups and funded by our government.

Stem cell research has been hamstrung in this nation by religious objections.

Our government’s “global gag rule”—withholding funding for organizations that give out information about abortion as part of family planning or birth control services—is not only unscientific but has led directly, according to many health care professionals, to the deaths of women in poor countries around the world.

Meanwhile, the disdain of fundamentalist religions for science has spilled over into most agencies of the federal government. Scientists have complained their research on global warming and other problems has been ignored by the Bush administration. Their ability to report their findings to the taxpayers who fund the research has been hampered by spin-doctors who want to control the message and eliminate anything that might run counter to the ideological and political concerns of the Bush administration.

Faith-based governance has led to the aggravation of long-standing problems, an explosion of debt, a further increase in the economic disparities in our nation and a general loss of civility as political discourse has been reduced to a series of rants and harangues.

Another front in this war is the war on the Constitution as the Religious Right, with the aid of some politicians, attempts to destroy the separation between government and religion that is written into our governmental and legal system and to replace it with the notion that the entire edifice is founded on the tenets of their religion and must therefore accommodate their religion and promote their religion by dressing the state in the trappings and icons of their religion.

Skirmishes on this particular front have been going on since the founding of our constitutional democracy as generation after generation of Christian conservatives have sought to Christianize our government and to make it appear that theirs was, at a minimum, the unofficial national religion.

Had it not been for the efforts of “evil” secularists, combined with many among the religious who saw the danger in entangling government and religions, those efforts might have succeeded long ago.

But if we have been able to resist the major thrust, we have not been able to resist the gradual chipping away at, what Jefferson called, the “wall of separation between church and state.” That wall is in a perilous condition today. Now it must not only be defended but also repaired.

In spite of the godless nature of the Constitution, in spite of a rational edifice of governance that replaced the “Divine right of Kings” with the “consent of the governed” and insisted that there should be no religious tests for public office and no national legislation respecting “an establishment of religion,” in spite of a consensus voiced in the Treaty of Tripoli by many of those who created our constitutional form of government that it was not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion—nor, they might have added on any other: in spite of all of that, the Religious Right today wrongly insists their religion was behind it all.

But the war on reason is not confined to attacks on science or on reasoned-based human governance, it extends to all corners of American life.

Ultimately, the goal of the Religious Right appears to be to see to it that citizens of the United States become less and less educated about science, less and less sophisticated about human sexuality, less and less understanding of our own historical and cultural development and less and less informed about the rest of the world.

An irrational society

In assaulting the rational, religious fundamentalists are exploiting themes and trends that have been present in our culture from the outset. One of the disadvantages of being a frontier society was always the feeling of cultural inadequacy when compared to older, more established societies in Europe. Combine that with the suspicion of too much “book larnin’” that always has been the stock-in-trade of conservative religion and such feelings inevitably lead to resentment and defensiveness.

In 1642 Puritan John Cotton wrote, “The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee.”

In 2004, more than 350 years later, David Baltimore, Nobel laureate and president of the California Institute of Technology, wondered, in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, whether a nation in which more people believe in the devil than accept evolution can maintain its leadership in the sciences.

Two polls conducted by Harris Interactive in 2005 illustrate the point.

According to the first in June 2005:

• 64 percent of adult Americans said they thought human beings were created directly by God and only 22 percent thought human beings evolved from other species.

According to the second in December 2005:

• 82 percent of adult Americans believe in “God”
• 73 percent believe in miracles
• 70 percent believe in the survival of the soul after death, heaven, and that Jesus was either “God” or the son of “God”
• 68 percent believe in angels and the resurrection of Christ
• 61 percent believe in the devil
• 59 percent believe in hell

On the plus side—if you want to call it that—according to the same survey:

• only 40 percent of us believe in Ghosts, 28 percent in witches, 25 percent in astrology, and 21 percent in reincarnation

So in the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st Century, almost three times as many adults believe that Hell is a real place, than believe that human beings evolved from earlier life forms—and this is true even though there is overwhelming scientific evidence for the latter and not a shred of credible evidence of any kind for the former.

In the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st Century, if you walk into virtually any magazine stand or bookstore in the nation, you will find dozens of publications devoted to astrology. You may, if you are lucky, find one or two devoted to astronomy.

In the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st Century, it is accepted as a given that no one who does not claim to believe in a deity can mount a successful campaign for any major political office and most minor ones, let alone get themselves elected.

In the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st Century, it is regarded as a victory by some, when the Vatican announces, as it did last week, that it is considering muting its objections to the use of condoms for the prevention of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Abstinence is still the best policy, the church insists, but it may allow the use of condoms by married couples to prevent the spread of disease. Apparently, it regards that as the “lesser evil.” How thoughtful!

In the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st Century, when the opportunities for communication and increased understanding are greater than they have been at any time in the history of the world, our culture is a sea of misinformation, media hype, hysteria and intellectual pabulum. As sound bites and slogans have come to dominate our public discourse, there is less and less opportunity for thoughtful reflection and less and less interest in anything that does not either titillate us, amuse us or feed our seemingly insatiable appetite for news about the latest celebrity sightings or shenanigans.

In the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st Century, at a time when we desperately need a population that is well educated, technologically sophisticated and knowledgeable about the people and cultures of other nations as well as our own, the average American is either working too hard to have the time and energy to spend on such pursuits or too distracted to care about them.

In the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st Century, when we should be promoting reason and a rational approach to life, our culture is a virtual monument to irrationality.

While the dominant media can, and does, encourage a prolonged national debate over whether Brad and Angelina did Jennifer dirty, or whether Ben and the other Jen are going to get married—actually Ben finally did marry a different Jen, we seem unable to have discussions about serious problems—like stem cell research, gay rights, global warming, the war in Iraq, and a host of others—that do not degenerate into shouting matches, inflaming the fires of controversy but shedding no light whatever on the issues being considered.


We already are paying a price for this.

While we have been diverted by our entertainments and arguments, those who want a religiously controlled America have seriously undermined the wall of separation between government and religion.

While we have been spending ourselves further and further into debt, as individuals and as a nation, our manufacturing base has all but disappeared, our technological edge is evaporating, and the generation that might have been expected to lead us out of this morass is, all too often, being miseducated and misinformed.

What happens when a society values entertainment over education? What happens when the economic virtues of productivity and thrift are replaced with those of consumption and debt?

What happens when a nation and a people prize the irrational over the rational and exalt ignorance over knowledge?

I began this with the last stanza of a poem by Thomas Gray. I’ll end it with the last stanza of one by Carl Sandburg.

In Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, Sandburg writes about a great city, whose inhabitants become so infatuated with the myth of their own exceptionalism, that they cannot see the deterioration that has set in around them.

No human society, be it a city or a nation, will last forever. Those that turn their backs on reason and on the productive pursuits that are the hallmark of a rational society assure their demise will come sooner rather than later.

After describing his city, Sandburg ends the poem with these lines:

And the wind shifts
and the dust on a doorsill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

Our constitutional democracy has survived wars, depressions, natural and man-made disasters of all kinds.

But it cannot survive ignorance.

We need a rebirth of reason in the United States today. We need, not a New American Century, but a new American Renaissance, one that places reason, education and intellectual achievement at the forefront of our society.

Our very existence as a free people depends on it.

If we, as a nation and a people, continue to turn our backs on reason, if we allow the Religious Right to win their war on reason, then the last tocsin will have sounded on this great experiment in liberty, and we will become, like Sandburg’s city, a place where “…even the writing of the rat footprints tells us nothing, nothing at all, about the greatest city, the greatest nation where the strong men listened and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.”

Thank you.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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