Superstition (A Halloween Message)
Sun, 31 Oct 1999 07:54:20 EST

Pointing to a recent Gallup poll indicating that belief in ghosts and witches is on the rise in America, a friend of mine asked our mailing list (which includes another high school friend who is now a Southern Baptist preacher)
"where are we going wrong?" The following was my reply:

Good question. The increasing level of irrational beliefs among the American public is one of my prime irritants. When I saw Newsweek's uncritical cover story this week about millennial nuttiness, I just about had an aneurysm. I had to immediately read a few passages from Carl Sagan's last book (which I highly recommend) as an antedote.

I had another blood curdling experience yesterday, which points to the reason for this rise in irrationality. We were down in Houston's arts district and had lunch at a deli where the pierced and same-sex paired clientele is at least as entertaining as the art on the walls and the food on the table. At the cash register are piles of free magazines. There was one about gay stuff (naturally), a local Wired-ish computer mag, the stalwart Houston Press, with its usual muckraking leftist cover story . . . and then there was "Indigo Sun". I picked this one up and took it to the table with my tray, since I couldn't immediately identify the micro-cultural niche at which it was targeted.

This magazine turned out to be a local ju-ju rag, a vehicle for advertisements and "articles" written by the more prominent advertisers. In it were items about angels, feng shui, homeopathy, a tribute to the Theosophical Society, an ad for computerized aura analysis, two different astrology columns and more of the like. Nowhere was there any indication that the Indigo Sun's readership might find any inconsistency among this pastiche of different belief systems. Apparently the world and one's life is governed by geomancy AND the stars AND the allignment of one's spine AND the balance of the Aristotelian elements.

Now turn the clock back even 50 years. The appearance of such a magazine in a public place in the United States would be an unheard of thing. Why? Because there were just two competing world-views on offer: Mainstream christianity (in two main flavors, which seem almost indistinguishable in contrast to the gumbo of superstition found in the Indigo Sun) and scientific humanism. Until relatively recently, the contrast between those two world-views was stark and was acknowledged by most of their proponents.

Then came postmodernist self-doubt and the democratization of culture. Drawing bright lines became an act of cultural imperialism. Making clear distinctions was condemned as naivete. Claiming to have found a superior philosophical methodology became elitism. Truth wasn't possible, only
"theory". There was no truth; only "discourse" and "texts". The political
virtue of tolerance became the vector for a plague of uncertainty. Academia, which had heretofore been the redoubt of humanism, instead became a breeding ground for the contagion of postmodernism. A miasma of uncritical syncretism emanated from the academy. In its wake, every form of charlatanism has since issued forth.

Is asserting the intellectual superiority of the scientific method (or the revealed truth of the Bible, for that matter) a form of white male Eurocentric cultural hegemony? If so, then let's struggle against it and open our minds to other ways of knowing. Maybe science and religion AREN'T incompatible. Maybe christianity and feng shui ARE compatible. Maybe zen and general relativity are just saying the same thing. I'm OK. You're OK.

In light of the melt-down of the ideals of the Enlightenment in the postmodernist stew, it's no wonder that critical thinking has gone out of style. Identifying premises and testing them for consistency and against the hard edges of the real world takes real work. A willingness to conclude that an idea is false - especially one that has taken root in one's own mind - takes courage. Condemning an idea that has taken root in someone else's mind as false takes diplomacy and tact, which take effort. It's easier to simply believe it all and to tolerate other peoples' comfortable illusions. When that false tolerance is extolled as an intellectual virtue, one has truly encountered a vicious circle of mental corrosion. The result is that the United States, a country founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment, has become the breeding ground for superstition. I say give me a fundamentalist christian any day: At least we share a notion that some things are true and others are false.

      Greg Burch     <>----<>
      Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
                         "Civilization is protest against nature; 
                  progress requires us to take control of evolution."
                                           Thomas Huxley