On Religion And Rationality
By Fred Mittag
Some really fine people are religious, my maternal grandparents among them. But I think they are wrong to believe their faith is a source of moral guidance, because one easily finds moral behavior throughout other traditions than Christianity. Even ancient pagan literature is rich with moral values and discussions of what constitutes good character.
It seems these good people of various religious faiths are that way for reasons entirely outside their faith, for faith can also be exceedingly dangerous. And it can be powerful. There have been Christians fed to the lions for refusing to renounce their faith. Jews have been thrown into pits of burning logs in Medieval Europe for refusing to convert to Christianity. And, of course, Muslim tradition has produced some bizarre practices, as well.
Surely one of the most extreme examples of how far wrong faith can go was the Spanish Inquisition. I have visited the Museum of Torture in Mexico City several times. It’s unbelievable the instruments of torture they used, too hideous to describe. There are descriptive notes throughout the museum and there is one corner with a small table and a few chairs. A plaque explains that priests sat there and drank tea and conversed, ignoring the screams of agony around them. That’s how strongly they believed they were doing the work of the Lord by ferreting out heretics. Nearby is a beautiful park where people stroll and sit and visit. Young couples use the park for courting. But there was a day when that park was where heretics were burned at the stake, very near the Museum of Torture.
There is ample evidence in history to tell us that faith can go terribly evil just as easily as not. A far more reliable source of moral behavior is the use of critical thinking skills and a reliance on scholarship and principles of humanism. If moral behavior is instilled by Sunday sermons, then the person can be moral only so long as he or she is exposed to the Sunday exhortations and reminders to be good. But if one arrives at moral values through thinking, they are internalized and such a person needs no Sunday reminders to do good. That’s the difference. Religion provides external motivation, while an independently thinking person relies on internal motivation. A religious person represents the church, while a secular humanist represents only himself or herself.
Ideology is the first cousin to religion. Indeed, there’s hardly any difference at all. They are more like identical twins. My own definition, learned from Jim Hightower in an interview with Bill Moyers, is that ideology is faith in spite of the facts, while religion is faith based on no facts at all. But they overlap a lot. For example, religion can also be practiced in the face of contrary facts. The Catholic Church did this for centuries, even after Galileo had set the facts straight. Much religion today is based on faith in spite of the facts of biology and geology.
A major difference between liberal and conservative is that liberals can think, analyze, learn, and seek progressive solutions. Conservative means just what it says, an unwillingness or inability to change, to think, analyze, and find solutions. A major and very important example of this is our economy. People who think and are educated know exactly what to do. The economy needs stimulus, it needs a jobs bill. But the conservatives don’t think and analyze, nor can they think in terms of finding solutions. They want to stay just where they are and do nothing – they say, let the free market take care of the economy. Well, that’s not working. Their ideology gets in the way of any progress, and here we are, with a still stagnant economy. It’s a great shame, when things could be so much better with the right policies.
Free market ideas are quite destructive, by the way, but that’s what conservatives believe in. The 2008 crisis is an example. The Savings and Loan Crisis (S&Ls) of the 80s was a direct result of Ronald Reagan’s deregulation policies (get government off our backs). And “Government is not the solution; government is the problem.” The unregulated Chicago slaughterhouses were the problem. Government regulation was the solution. Unregulated banking is what caused the Great Depression; government regulation was the solution. That regulation came in the form of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1933, in reaction to the Great Depression.
Former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm (Republican, Texas), representing banking interests, cleverly slipped in a repeal of Glass-Steagall. And to his lasting discredit, Bill Clinton signed it. That led directly to the 2008 economic crisis and huge unemployment. Phil Gramm now has a lucrative position with one of the biggest banks in the world as his reward for the repeal of Glass-Steagall—another example of the “revolving door.”
The conservative capacity to believe their ideology in spite of the facts more often than not leads to total misinformation. Their ideological faith overwhelms science and all evidence, as they try to reshape the world to their own vision. This brings me to the notorious Texas State Board of Education. They set standards for Texas school books, and try to control the content so as not to educate children, but to brainwash them in the conservative mold.
Among the controversies is their attempt to include biblical creationism, by presenting evolution as only an alternate theory; and of course, to cast doubt on the geological knowledge of the earth as being several billion years old. They want to plant the real possibility of a young earth of only 6,000 years. You know – more like what the “infallible” Bible says.
And social studies are another area of ideological interest to conservatives. They wanted to downplay progressives, such as Martin Luther King and César Chávez, and promote people like Joe McCarthy and Phyllis Schafly. In November, the Texas State Board of Education (TSBE) will select social studies textbooks. Scholars have reviewed the books now under consideration and have found serious distortions of history and contemporary issues, ranging from religion and democracy to the free enterprise system and affirmative action. Another independent review by university scholars found the same distortions and factual inaccuracies.
The sorry quality of textbooks under consideration by the TSBE goes back four years when the Board was even more conservative than now. They set standards that publishers are hoping to satisfy for the huge Texas market. Now publishers are suffering criticism for the low quality of scholarship and accuracy encased between those book covers.
I’m convinced that blind faith in both religion and ideology is dangerous and can lead to all kinds of bizarre beliefs, even handling live poisonous snakes, from which practitioners occasionally die. It leads to a failure to properly educate children to think, filling them instead with propaganda. Indeed, the Texas State Republican Party is officially opposed to the teaching of critical thinking skills, for fear that thinking people are dangerous to their ideology – as indeed they are.
The best way to lead our lives is to be guided by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion—and to keep religion and ideology out of our government and out of our schools.