Doc Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ugliness

"…and pretty soon there won’t be no streets
for dummies to jog on and doggies to dog on
religious fanatics can make it be all gone
I mean it won’t blow up and disappear
it’ll just look ugly for a thousand years"

-Frank Zappa

Did you ever wonder what the world would be like today if Western culture had never suffered through the Dark Ages? What if, given the controls to some omnipotent time machine, we could shuttle The Enlightenment back several hundred years, oh let’s say to the ninth or tenth century? And further, that The Enlightenment ideals of discovery and rational thought continued from that time forward? What would our everyday lives be like? On this time scale, we’d have landed on the Moon and created the Internet well before the 14th century (versus the real 14th century which saw widespread wars, plague and misery). I don’t think it would take a great leap of imagination to expect that we’d have cured cancer, produced clean and inexpensive forms of energy, moved everyone out of "third world" status, colonized the inner planets, uncovered more about the Universe than Stephen Hawking’s best wet-dream, created stunning new forms of art, and in general, made the lives of humans much, much better. Heck, we might even have encountered intelligent extraterrestrial life. Sounds pretty cool.

But what happened? Why did we have a Dark Ages in the first place and what kept us there? Why did we have to have an "Enlightenment" to pull us out of this historical dung heap? If there is one defining characteristic of the Dark Ages, it is the oppressive control over governments and people at all levels through a rigid ideology, an ideology that claimed perfect knowledge for itself and that required the persecution of those who might consider the exercise of free inquiry. In those days, the Church was number one and all governments answered to it. Ultimately, the Dark Ages can be thought of as The Golden Age of Western Theocracy. You see, the Dark Ages is the sort of thing that happens when people who place blind faith and adherence to rigid rules above free thinking and rational inquiry get into positions of power. We’re talking about Ugliness on a grand scale.

Now aren’t you a little pissed off that this Dark Ages thing happened? Aren’t you a little pissed off that your friend or relative suffered and died from a disease that, under a better timeline, we’d have found a cure for centuries ago? Aren’t you a little pissed off that so many people on this planet suffer without proper medical attention, food, energy, housing, etc., problems we could have licked by now with more advanced technology and a rational, thoughtful approach? Don’t you just want to hop in that time machine and knock some sense into the church leaders of a millennium ago? Doesn’t it make you just a little crazy that people could be so blind to the reality around them, so antagonistic toward basic logic? Aren’t you glad we don’t live in those times, a time when you could be burned at the stake or stretched on a rack until every joint in your body dislocated for professing that the Earth was a planet which revolved around the Sun?

Funny, but there are those today who would fit right into the 14th century. While they might admit that the Earth is a planet which revolves around the Sun, they might also claim that the Earth is a mere 6000 years old, that a pair of every species of life on the planet managed to be sequestered in a wooden boat a few hundred feet long for months during a global flood which covered even the highest mountains, or that ancient humans threw saddles on dinosaurs and rode them like horses. Why would they think such things? Do they have geological evidence? Radioisotope data? The results of DNA or biology experiments? Cosmological observations? The insights of anthropology or paleontology? Mathematical models? No. They have none of these. They claim they have something better. They have a book.

Yes, a book. And the book tells all. And the book is inerrant. Why? Because the book says it is, that’s why. There’s no need to investigate, or even think for that matter, if you believe you are in possession of The Big Book With All The Answers. It’s all there.

Now, what happens when this person shows up at an institution where free inquiry and rational thought are prized? Well, things like this. Yes, a group of Christian Conservatives are all a-fluster that the University of California is calling them on their bass-ackwards Christian fundamentalist coursework and have decided to sue on a claim of discrimination. All I can say is hooray for the University of California! The last thing I want to see is anti-rationalists get science credit for a course in blind-faithism. This is not a matter of plurality or diversity. "What’s that Johnny? You believe that the early Earth was made out of Roquefort dressing and that Tyrannosaurus Rex invented pantyhose? My, but that’s charmingly diverse of you! Here, take a seat next Sarah. Her parents told her that trees are the work of the devil and that mushrooms are fairy umbrellas! I’m sure you’ll have lots to talk about in Biology 101!"

Is the University of California guilty of "'viewpoint discrimination' and unfair admission standards that violate the free speech and religious rights of evangelical Christians", as charged by the Association of Christian Schools International? Put another way, is it unfair for the University to tell a group that their teachings do not meet the University’s standards? What? Unfair? Are they saying the University doesn't have the right to set standards? This is ludicrous. It makes no difference that the teachings stem from a religious versus secular source. Suppose Johnny went to a school that denied the existence of irrational numbers or the microbial theory of disease based on historical texts. Should Johnny’s "viewpoint" be "discriminated against"? You bet your ass. Does that constitute "unfair admission standards"? It would if his viewpoint was accepted, in which case it would be unfair to those students who learned what the scientific method offered. It is important to note that University of California doesn’t simply throw out an applicant because they attended a Christian fundamentalist school. They accept a number of courses from these schools (at least 43 according to a University representative). What they don’t accept are courses which place blind faith before appropriate scientific rigor. The fundie schools are claiming that this amounts to being told what to teach. No, it doesn’t. It simply tells them that certain courses will not count at that University. "Teach these courses all you want folks, but we’re not going to accept them. Maybe some other fine institution like Bob Jones University will give your kids credit for them."

Free speech is a separate issue here. Does Johnny have the right to claim that the Earth is 6000 years old in the face of evidence across myriad fields of study that show it to be nearly a million times older? Sure he does! He has the right to claim that and a host of other things, and his fellow citizens have the right to show through evidence to the contrary that Johnny is a crackpot. Johnny has the right to say whatever he wants but that doesn’t mean that he should get college admission credit for it just because it’s part of his so-called faith. I like to believe that colleges and universities are still halls of learning where the pursuit of knowledge and truth remains the top priority. While all opinions may be equal in terms of their right to be heard, they are not necessarily equal in terms of objective truth. It amazes me how the Christian fundies will be the first ones to cry that they are being discriminated against, how their ideas are not taken seriously, when they are the ones who, by definition, will not even consider arguments contrary to The Book. They reject the scientific method and free inquiry when it points out the flaws in their own world view, yet they don’t seem to mind so much if it helps them (for example, by pointing out that the creation myths of many other religions are not plausible, or by producing vaccines, cars, the Internet, and lots of other useful things). Fundies like to gripe about others’ “moral relativism” versus their objective truth when it comes to the fundie brand of morality, but they clam up pretty fast when it comes to the objective “truth” of their claims in the natural sciences. In fact, what the fundies are really bitching about is that they're not being given special treatment, a treatment they feel they are entitled to because of their special brand of faith.

Newton said that if he had seen farther than other men, it was because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. I look back at the giants of The Enlightenment and am thankful that their work and sacrifice made my day to day life possible. My worst nightmare is that all of that work would be lost in a modern rendition of the Dark Ages; a retreat into superstition and the stifling of free inquiry and creative thought in order to assuage the demands of an emerging American theocracy. Ugliness redux.

"What’s the ugliest part of your body?
I say it’s your mind"

-Frank Zappa

4 Comments:

At 11:56 AM, Blogger DocBushwell said...

An interesting component to the rigid theocracy which took hold in Europe during the Dark Ages was the witless connection of personal cleanliness to debauchery, i.e., the Roman baths. The thriving ancient civilizations at least had some notion of sanitation even if they did not completely understand germ theory. Once the Roman fondness for bathing fell from favor, and wall-eyed early Euro-religious types decided that washing oneself and not drinking poo-contaminated water were in conflict with God's will, all crap broke loose. The combination of a grim theological grip by the short hairs and a perpetually ill ciitzenry does not for lofty thought make.

The average shlub of the Dark Ages was perpetually half-soused as well as being smacked down by the Chuch. Water could kill you, so you drank beer or wine which were less likely to harbor gut wrenching. and lethal, bacteria. Bert Vallee, a biochem. prof emeritis at Harvard, wrote a good article about this: "Alcohol in the Western World". Scientific America. June, 1998.

As long as we have working toilets, good water, functional antibiotics and such, we rationalists can still take on the Christian Calvary schools of the world and help stave off another Dark Age.

Anyway, nice contribution, Jim, and I must say, the pièce de résistance is the Zappa quote. As always, the late Frank has something relevant to say. "Dumb all over..."

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger Jim said...

"... a little ugly on the side."

Have you ever read Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century"? Parts of it'll scare the crap out of you. Some of the content is mind-bending. I only wish they would put some of it into HS history classes instead of the lack-luster, cartoonish pablum of kings, knights and ladies-in-waiting that is typically spread around. I also have this fun little book entitled "What They Don't Teach You About History". Lots of fun, and some of the more grotesque material is only 100-200 years ago.

 
At 7:48 PM, Blogger DocBushwell said...

I haven't read Barbara Tuchman's book but it is now on my Amazon Wish List!

 
At 11:00 PM, Blogger William said...

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