Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Big Questions

Barry Goldman is worried that we are becoming "a nation of fruitcakes." Once upon a time, y'see, Americans were reasonable and had a certain inborn respect for whatever authority they happened to find emotionally or intellectually or legally compelling. But nowadays, we're prone to syncretic religion and communication with the dead and Lord only knows what else.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life concludes: "Large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts."
Shocking. It makes me long for the good old days, when Americans entrusted their souls to Madame Blavatsky, or the Mormons, or the Free Market, and the belief in ghosts was as rare as a sober Irishman.

On second thought, maybe the problem isn't simply that Americans believe outlandish things. Maybe it's that they can easily find confirmation of these beliefs on the Internets. It used to be that if you wanted to know the divine meaning of a monstrous birth in the next village, you had to buy a broadsheet from some itinerant peddler. Now, you can simply visit

On third thought, maybe the problem is that "people feel entitled to make choices about things that used to be within the exclusive purview of the priestly class." The recent activities of Anne Hutchinson are a sobering example of this tendency, and a reminder that we who dwell in in these latter days must keep close watch against the spirit of Apostasy.

Then again, perhaps this national crisis really boils down to a lack of consensus. Perhaps the trouble is not so much that we embrace false beliefs, as that we don't embrace them unanimously.
This is genuinely scary. And it's scary in a new way. For the last several thousand years, large groups of human beings enjoyed consensus about the big questions. We may have believed that the universe rested on the back of a giant tortoise and the tortoise rested on the back of an elephant...but at least there was widespread agreement.
To be fair, some people "enjoyed" this consensus a bit less than others. But I suppose it served them right for feeling entitled to make choices about things that used to be within the exclusive purview of the priestly class. As John Winthrop wisely said, "Your conscience you must keep, or it must be kept for you."

Of course, the larger problem is that for the first time in recorded history, "we have no agreement on what constitutes a fact." As William of Ockham recently noted on his blog:
[I]t is absurd to claim that I have scientific knowledge with respect to this or that conclusion by reason of the fact that you know principles which I accept on faith because you tell them to me.
All the same, there's a lot to be said for accepting things on faith, so long as it leads to the sort of widespread agreement we enjoyed before the Internets came along and ruined everything.
We used to be a nation with a broad consensus. If you had a religious question, you asked a religious leader. If you had a scientific question, you asked a scientist.
And if you wanted to know something about history, you asked a historian, instead of cobbling together a bunch of harebrained bullshit in order to flatter your own hopelessly confused prejudices.

Those were great days, indeed. And their like will not be here again.


Tacitus Voltaire said...

and if you wanted to know the meaning of meteors, you consulted a meteorologist

after all, scientific advances have always been due to respect for authority

Rmj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rmj said...

Yes, I remember well when there was a consensus among people as to what to believe.

And everybody agreed with Socrates, and nobody thought Plato was a bit vague, and NO ONE questioned Ezekiel's visions or Jeremiah's jeremiads or ignored the pleas of Hosea or Isaiah, and David attended scrupulously to all the teachings of Nathan, and all the children of Israel hung on Moses every word, and never let the thought of golden calfs cross their minds.

Ignorance really is bliss, isn't it?

Rmj said...

Alright, I fixed one typo in that post, and reposted it.

I'm not fixing the others. You can all just live with 'em.


Phila said...

You can all just live with 'em.

I weep for the vanished Golden Age of blogospheric orthography.

res ipsa loquitur said...

"This is genuinely scary. And it's scary in a new way. For the last several thousand years, large groups of human beings enjoyed consensus about the big questions! Now this Gutenberg fellow has gone and ruined it." --Pope Nicholas V

rootless-e said...

Which is why we must defer to wise latinas.

rootless-e said...

The right longs for the traditions of the royal navy, as explained by Churchill.

orbita watch winder said...

It seems scary for me

Vicki said...

We are a nation of fruitcakes, aren't we?

Jazzbumpa said...

You can only imagine how relieved I was to discover that is not a real web site. You had me eskeered.

Anyway, I did my own dust up of Mr. Goldman's piece of idiocy.

Yours is more erudite, but mine might have more etatiste dirigisme. No guarantees. It]f there is a dispute, we can settle it by vote.