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Let us think: thoughts on the National Day of Reason and the reasons behind it

By George A. Ricker

On May 1, my wife and I joined other members of the Space Coast Freethought Association (SCFA) at a local seafood restaurant to observe the National Day of Reason—an unofficial event created as a counterweight to the official National Day of Prayer, which was legislated by the U.S. Congress and is proclaimed by the president on the first Thursday of each year. This was the Fourth Annual National Day of Reason Banquet the SCFA has sponsored. I’ve been the guest speaker at two of them. The article titled “Lethal bliss” is the text of the speech I gave in 2006. You’ll find it on this web site.

Anyone interested in learning more about the history of the National Day of Reason should visit the National Day of Reason web site.

Before I begin discussing the National Day of Reason and why I think it worthwhile to devote a day to thinking about thinking, I want to make a few comments about the National Day of Prayer, which gained official status almost six decades ago and was assigned to the first Thursday in May in 1988. The president is required by law to proclaim the observance. State governors are not, but this year all 50 followed the president’s lead.

Now, I would have no objection whatever if various religious leaders joined together and called their various congregations to join in a nationwide day of prayer and fasting. In this age of electronic communication, it would be child’s play to organize such an event. The only thing it would lack would be the official sanction of the U.S. government. And it is that sanction which makes the National Day of Prayer, as it currently exists, problematic.

Regardless of one’s opinion of the religiosity of the American people, the government of these United States has no business calling its citizens to prayer. It has no business suggesting they ought to pray or encouraging them to pray. It has no business making when or whether its citizens pray its business. Any such action by our government violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Prayer is a religious exercise. Governmental proclamations regarding prayer constitute “an establishment of religion” and are forbidden.

Beyond that, the National Day of Prayer, as it is currently practiced, also has come under fire because it has been, according to some critics, highjacked by the Religious Right and is mainly geared toward Christians. A National Day of Prayer aimed at promoting specific religious opinions is even more odious than one that offers generic prayers to a generic deity.

It is also important to note that I do not object to the National Day of Prayer because it makes me uncomfortable when people pray or because I want to prevent people from praying. Again, my objection is strictly to the official nature of the observance. Keep government out of the picture, and it would not matter to me whether anyone prayed or not. It is a matter of no concern. I only object to the government’s involvement in the practice.

Why a National Day of Reason?

Although the idea for a National Day of Reason developed chiefly as a reaction to the National Day of Prayer, I think there are some good reasons to spend a day thinking about thinking and why it is so important to us. Reason, and I am using the term to encompass all our rational faculties, is what makes us human. Our intellectual capacities have made it possible for us to survive and prosper as a species. They also have made it possible for us to create conditions that threaten our own survival and that of most of the other species with which we share this planet.

The word “reason” may refer to our capacity for thought or to the act of thinking itself. So it may be either product or process or both. Reason is not merely logic, although logical thinking is certainly a part of what we mean when we refer to something as rational. However, logic that is based on premises that are faulty or false may yield results that are decidedly irrational. Rationality also depends on context. An idea that seems perfectly rational in one set of circumstances may prove to be quite the opposite in the context of a larger or different set of circumstances.

It is also important to recognize that most people think they are being rational most of the time. We tend always to place a higher value on our own ability to be rational than on someone else’s. Consequently we are much less likely to see the flaws in our own thinking. The ability to turn the light of reason inward and examine one’s own ideas with a critical eye is rare. People often make up their minds based on faulty or inadequate information and then disregard any evidence or rational argument that runs counter to their opinions.

But for all of that, reason remains the attribute that is most necessary for our survival as a species. Our rational faculties are what allow us to comprehend the universe and to understand our place in it. They are what make us human. Without them we might exist as another species of primate. However, we would not exist as human beings.

Reason’s detractors

There are always those who want to downplay that knowledge. “Reason isn’t everything,” they will say. “No one is rational all the time.” And so on. Reason, in their view at least, is cold and without passion. There are other kinds of knowledge, they claim, that aren’t accessible by reason.

That resistance to reason is usually coupled with an antiscientific outlook. Since the sciences are the most recognized products of the rational mind, rejection of the methods and the theories of science is usually married to a desire to preserve nonscientific outlooks that may meet other needs, whether real or imaginary. The desire to avoid or evade the consequences of a rational approach may be necessary to sustain other attitudes and perceptions. Ironically, even those who attempt to avoid reason often up having to use it to justify their positions.

Now it is certainly true that most of us, if not all of us, are not rational all of the time. We have ideas and notions, prejudices and biases tucked away in the various compartments of our minds, and the compartmentalization makes it possible to hold views that are contradictory and sometimes irrational. Often we go to great lengths to deceive ourselves about the true nature of those attitudes. The various strategies we use to deal with such cognitive dissonance may lead us to reject inconvenient truths in favor of a view that is more comfortable, even though false.

This sort of attitude is especially prevalent among, though not exclusive to, those who see science as a threat to their religious values and beliefs. The efforts to undermine evolutionary theory furnish an example that will be familiar to most. Religions all have anti-intellectual, antirational strain that come out when the rational appears to conflict with the dogma of the religious faith in question. The cultural history of the world is replete with examples. Interestingly, religions seem to have no difficulty accommodating themselves to the findings of science when it seems to be in their interest to do so. Of course, when they do so, they usually attempt to carve out terrain where science may not enter.

American idols

In the United States, there is a strong element of anti-intellectualism. This is not especially surprising, since the U.S. is the most self-consciously religious nation among modern industrial states. A recent poll on Harris Interactive revealed that:

• More Americans believe in hell and the devil (62 percent) than believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (42 percent)—this is true even though there is absolutely no objective evidence for the existence of the former and there is overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of the latter.

• Sizable minorities of Americans believe in such things as ghosts, witches, astrology and reincarnation.

• A slim majority of Americans believe that most of the text of the Old and New Testaments are the “word of God.” More than one-third believe all of the text of both testaments is the “word of God.”

This comes as no great shock to those of us who have watched the deterioration of American culture in the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the twenty-first. As I wrote in Godless in America:

Millions of Americans accept doctrines and ideas that can only be regarded as abject nonsense simply because “you can’t prove it didn’t happen that way.” Yet many of those same Americans insist science must provide “absolute proof” of the validity of such theories as those related to evolution or the “Big Bang” before they will accept them. Walk into any newsstand and you will find dozens of publications devoted to astrology. If you are lucky, you may find one or two on astronomy. The airways and electronic media are filled with psychic and religious hucksters of every stripe, and the more they dominate the mass media, the less room there seems to be for reasoned discourse.

Bad thinking drives out good. As the pace of our society becomes more frenetic, as the mass media becomes more hysterical, as our entertainments pander to our basest emotions, as slogans and sound bites dominate our public discourse, there is less and less room for thought and reflection. As mysticism and supernaturalism gain ground in the minds of individuals and of our society, the rational impulses representing the best in human nature are diminished. Once the apostles of willful ignorance have convinced enough of us that the real world is just too messy, that we are helpless to deal with our own human problems and that there is a quick fix waiting in the ersatz reality they have manufactured for us, those who advocate reason and understanding can easily be shouted down, or worse, by those who will not make the effort to think things through and cannot be bothered anyway.
(Godless in America: conversations with an atheist, page 40)

Toward a renaissance of reason

So I think it is useful to set aside a day to think about thinking. I think the goal of the exercise ought to be to encourage individuals to develop their powers of reason, to apply those powers to the problems that beset us as human beings, be they individual, national or global, and to encourage a respect and appreciation for the products of reason.

We need a new renaissance, and nowhere is that need more evident than here in the United States. For too long have we allowed our public discourse to be dominated by the “know-nothings” and the talking heads. For too long have we turned a deaf ear to the anti-intellectualism and the irrationalism that pervades our culture. We need to restore reason to its rightful place and to defeat the forces of mysticism and irrationalism that threaten to undermine our very humanity.

Our survival as human beings depends upon the understanding that turning our backs on the rational in favor of the irrational can lead only to our own destruction. We may, at times, resist what reason tells us. We may, at times, resent the need to be rational.

But reason is our chief tool of survival. It has made possible our ability to use symbols, to construct great hierarchies of thought and to invent spoken and written languages. Our cognitive abilities have not only given us science, but also art, music, literature and all the other aspects of human culture. Even our myths and religions, irrational though they may seem at times, are born of rational impulses, are part of our effort to understand the universe and our place in it.

Should we celebrate a National Day of Reason? Should we celebrate the attribute most responsible for making us human and allowing us to become the most successful large mammal species on the planet? Celebrate reason? How can we not?

Think about it.

©2008 by George A. Ricker

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