In Defense of Unreason

Posted by Daniel Lyons on August 21, 2009

This is my analysis of Republicans, religion and the triumph of unreason by Johann Hari.

First of all, in broad strokes, I agree with the description of the symptoms in the essay. The American right is basically living in another universe. When Bush was in power, the liberal conspiracy theories were plausible: that Bush wanted to invade Iran, for example. The new conspiracy theories are just insane. I am reasonably certain that Obama's first health care reform bill will be a major disaster, but only because they are rushing to get it through and with a bunch of democrats in power it's like to be padded with tons of pork. The fears that are being passed around are completely absurd. Isn't it enough to be afraid of the likeliest case, that we'll just be saddled with more useless government? I hope Obama can do better, but statistically his odds are not great.

However, I think it's silly to blame religion for this problem. With atheism at around 15% of the population, Obama is not in power because of some kind of nationwide repudiation of religion. This is the chief vanity of the left, that it represents a harbinger of the kind of "rationality" espoused by certain intellectuals who happen to be atheists.

It's tempting to put the blame at religion's doorstep because it was supposedly the rallying cry of the right. But the truth about the American right is that it is a massive hodgepodge of vastly different groups with almost nothing in common. And guess what? So is the left. Politicians use propaganda to acquire power, not because they actually believe it. How can you accuse Bush and his cronies of corruption and then simultaneously blame their ideals? Obviously if their ideals meant anything they wouldn't have been corrupt in the first place. Instead we hate them for what they've done and then we hate them more for being hypocrites. This is a game two can (and will) play.

It's also tempting to blame religion because it is a handy target and has few defenders. Especially when couched in gerrymandered terminology like "organized religion." What makes this article's kind of analysis so disgusting to me is the assumption that the essence of religion is faith. In American Christianity, the foundation of the religion is faith, but this is like saying the problem with Congress is that they meet in a building with a floor. The problem with the American right is that they're credulous, but guess what? That's the problem with the American left as well! The common factor I see is the American education system. The 2.2% that are homeschooled would be just as statistically irrelevant to the counter-argument as the atheists above. If what you hate is Christianity, why not just come right out and say it and why?

For every Bible-thumping redneck we love to hate, there's a suburban driving a gas guzzling SUV with a bike rack on top who lives 20 miles from where they work. Evidence from psychological studies that abortions are highly detrimental to the mother's mental health are discarded from the abortion debate because that debate is about "rights," but they then turn around and spin arguments about the environment's health being grounds for restricting rights. Which one is it? You can argue both rationally. It would be better economically to legalize weed and prostitution and regulate them. Which rational argument do you want to make?

This infatuation with rationality is handy in a debate, but what do you do if you have contradictory facts? Upon what do you base a rational debate about ethics? Assertions? Religions supply a foundation for these kinds of debates that cannot otherwise be deduced. There is no fundamental particle that carries good or evil. This means science is of limited use in many of the most important debates. You'd think the author of this essay encourages people to marry on the basis of empirical evidence from observation and calculations! Apparently mechanical hearts can also bleed!

The best part is, this author doesn't have a single statistic to back up his assertions about religion. It's all speculation. Angels dancing on the head of a pin, if you will. But because it is so well argued, it will further reinforce in the mind of the intellectual left that they're fighting a war against religion rather than a war against propaganda and irrationality. In other words, this article is itself leftist propaganda that distracts from the real issues with made-up facts! Isn't that the very thing this article is against? This self-certainty about ones interpretation of reality is groupthink exactly and it is what causes the continual pendulum sway of American politics.

Groupthink is certainly preventing the health care debate from taking shape the right way. I think intentional meddling might be a bigger problem. Responding to redder groupthink with bluer groupthink isn't a solution. Mr. Hari would do better to analyze both sides of the debate with the same kind of cynicism.