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The Peter Pan Syndrome

by adam at 12:00 AM on May 12, 2004

I've been snacking on a lot of blog tidbits recently, and I'm struck by a chord that seems to resonate in every quarter of our society: never change, never learn, never apologize. We are unfortunate enough to have a government that never allows the facts to alter what it dogmatically knows to be true. Any admission of a change in position, whether that be in response to changing facts or not, is tantamount to political suicide. If the facts challenge a theory, then the theory can't be wrong - either the facts are innaccurate, or the theory was not correctly put into practice.

We live in a new age of anti-science, where theory and opinion are not only more important than, but unalterable by, facts. I believe that this is not coincidental to the growth of religious fundamentalism, but is inextricably bound up with it.

Science and religion cannot help but be at odds, despite attempts to prove otherwise. Most religions, at their core, make certain claims about the way the world is ordered, and it is inevitable that scientific inquiry would sooner or later butt up against these claims. Science sees a world open to exploration and probing, while religion draws a line and says, "This is how it is." Scientific theories are negotiable by their very nature, while religious doctrine changes only with struggle, if at all. The Bible, as the word of God, cannot be wrong - if a passage is offensive or seems to contradict some other passage, then it is the reader who is mistaken, not the text.

What does this have to do with anything? A functional open society must be, in some form, scientific - a citizen of an open society should be willing to accept that their own opinions might be wrong, and if presented with convincing proof of such must be willing to concede. Without this element, all debate becomes mere posturing, and any sort of civil discourse disappears. Instead of allowing themselves to be challenged by different or new ideas, citizens of a society where the scientific outlook has failed seek to surround themselves with ideas which are agreeable or familiar. Instead of dealing with ideas which they find objectionable and refuting them, they actively seek to push ideas with which they disagree out of the public eye. This is the essence of censorship, and both the left and the right are guilty of it; the reflex is to shout down one's idealogical enemies rather than engage and allow the possibility of compromise with them.

The worst part of all of this is that the active rejection of the scientific outlook prevents those seized by dogma from recognizing the historical precedent for their own actions. Islamic civilization, once the light of the world, became backward only after non-religious learning was rejected and the libraries were closed. Europe escaped from its Dark Ages only when the teachings of the Church were challenged and cast aside. China could not find success until it began to base its policies on facts rather than Marxist theory.

The essence of great discoveries and brilliant public policy is not a theory, but a statement: "I don't know, but I'm going to find out." Religious and social movements can play a role in the flowering of a civilization, but extreme religiousity (and dogmatism in general) has the opposite effect - it kills the discourse, the arts and sciences, which make a civilization truly great. To change one's mind or admit fault is not weakness, but the sign of a functioning intelligence.

comments (6)

They are going to locate Noah's Ark and bring it to the surface piece by piece. Does this prove the Bible is right in its entirety or just that it once rained heavily near the Mediterranean and some guy figured he'd head for higher ground?

by anna at May 12, 2004 7:52 AM

I need to write a book that includes the following line:

Ulysses S. Grant was a general in the Union army, and Adam should be the next mayor of New York City.

If anyone disagrees, I'll say, "DON'T YOU KNOW YOUR HISTORY? Are you saying that Grant WASN'T a general in the Union army?' And then I'll stick my fingers in my ears and sing Yankee Doodle until they stop talking. QED!

by adam at May 12, 2004 9:06 AM

"The great trouble with religion--any religion--is that the religionist, having accepted certain propositions by faith, cannot thereafter judge these propositions by evidence. One may bask at the warm fire of faith or choose to live in the bleak uncertainty of reason--but one cannot have both." Robert A Heinlein, Friday

by flibble at May 12, 2004 6:10 PM

Curious how the quote above could be re-arranged to read "the bleak uncertainty of faith or the warm fire of reason" and it would sound ten times better to me. As a pragmatist, even reason itself is subject to faith, as one can not simultaneously know everything, thus faith becomes the spackle holding the larger model together. The problem with religion is, "where are the bricks?"
The subject of this post is something I think about everyday. Anti-intellectualism in modern American culture boggles my mind. It certainly doesn't help that Bush embodies this very attitude himself. He even brags about it with quotes like, "I see the world in black and white". It's too bad he can't handle the color, and fosters other people to ignore it as well.

by Chris at May 12, 2004 7:16 PM

Good points, Adam. I also think that people like O'Reilly and Limbaugh are successful because they make themselves father figures to their listeners. The listeners mindlessly fall in line behind this person who'll both love them and explain away all their uncertainties at the same time. I get that impression, anyways, whenever I run into a right-wing talk show fan. It's sad.

by jean at May 13, 2004 1:31 AM

Hence the term "Dittoheads." It takes a lot of useless effort to form your own opinions.

by anna at May 13, 2004 7:40 AM

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