Reason for alarm

Reason for alarm

Books about reason in religion, environmentalism, and U.S. culture.
Edd Doerr


Two of Unitarian Universalism’s core values—the affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and the “right of conscience”—have led UUs repeatedly to endorse the separation of church and state and full reproductive choice. The General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association has adopted resolutions affirming church-state separation six times since 1961; GA has spoken out in favor of the right to an abortion nine times. Our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” meanwhile, has been expressed in almost thirty General Assembly resolutions about overpopulation, hunger, resource depletion, protecting the environment, and global warming.

Three new books help us place these Unitarian Universalist commitments in the context of the history of American religion and current discourse on the place of reason in politics and social action.

In Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America, historian Garry Wills details the intertwined histories of “Enlightenment religion” and American evangelicalism. He explores the Puritan evangelicalism of our colonial beginnings, which has ebbed and flowed from 1630 to its upsurge as the religio-political or “theocon” right of the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Charles Colson. “The [first Great] Awakening did play a preparatory role for the Enlightenment—not as a precursor of it but as a provocation. The Enlightenment was spurred by the reaction to the Awakening.”

Wills agrees with historian William Lee Miller that “the chief founders of the nation were all Deists—[Miller] lists Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Paine, though many more leaders of the founding era could be added,” such as Rush, Witherspoon, Freneau, Burr, Morris, and Barlow.

Wills shows how Jefferson and Madison led in developing the principle of church-state separation, our country’s unique contribution to political theory and practice, which is enshrined in the Constitution, the First Amendment, and most state constitutions and was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1879 and in a long series of rulings beginning in 1947. This is a story also well told by UU ministers Forrest Church and Gary Kowalski in recent books So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (Harcourt, 2007) and Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers (BlueBridge, 2008), and Frederick S. Lane in The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court (Beacon, 2008).

Wills devotes a dozen pages to the contributions of Unitarians, Universalists, and Socinians to the development of Enlightenment values, citing Locke, Priestley, Adams, Ware, the nominally Presbyterian Witherspoon, and Jefferson. After the American Revolution, however, “It would soon become commonplace to charge that a Unitarian was no better than a Deist, a Deist no better than a Jacobin, and a Jacobin no better than an atheist.”

The nineteenth century saw the fading of Deism, the rise of Transcendentalism, the second Great Awakening (which foundered on the reef of the Civil War), and the re-emergence of evangelicalism during the Gilded Age, which in turn faltered after the 1925 Scopes trial and the failure of Prohibition. Political evangelicalism was reborn after the Vietnam War, when a culture war broke out over abortion rights, school prayer, feminism, gay rights, pornography, creationism, and control of the Supreme Court and government itself at all levels.

Wills, a practicing Roman Catholic, takes on the leadership of his own church. He praises the reforms of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council but adds that those reforms began to be eroded with Paul VI and his 1968 encyclical condemning contraception, though a strong majority of his own advisers had urged liberalization.

Regarding abortion rights, he writes, “It is not demonstrable that killing fetuses is killing persons.” Highlighting the inconsistencies in his church’s official position, he observes that the Jewish and Christian scriptures and theologians never regarded early fetuses as persons. At the end of the day, abortion rights are a matter of turning to “reason and science, the realism of Enlightened religion.” The “relevant experts . . . are philosophers, neurobiologists, embryologists,” whose views evangelicals “do not want to hear.” Wills agrees with the consensus of scientists that a fetus does not become “a human person” until it has a functioning brain, which “is not present in the fetus until the end of the sixth month at the earliest.”

Wills concludes with a section on “the Karl Rove Era” and the faith-based government of George W. Bush. Rove’s “real skill lay in finding how to use religion as a political tool,” making the executive branch “more openly and avowedly religious than it had ever been.” Ironically, he notes, Rove has “no discernible religious beliefs himself.”

Church-state separation, Wills sums up, is what the Founders intended. And contrary to the theocons’ rants, it “has not led to the suppression of religion by the state. Just the opposite. It meant the freeing of religion. We can see in the past how a breaching of the separation led to setbacks for religion.” The Karl Rove Era, Wills argues, has again discredited religion as a political tool.

Wills also argues that “Enlightened religion” need not be “desiccated and cerebral” while evangelical religion need not be “mindlessly enthusiastic, all heat and no light.” To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran: “Let passion fill your sails, but let reason be your rudder.”

Wills confirms what UUs generally already know. His book’s importance lies in its clear refutation of the “Christian nation” idea that many theological conservatives and would-be theocrats have been pushing for well over a century.

In The Dominant Animal, biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich contend, “One species, Homo sapiens, has become so powerful that it can significantly undermine the ability of Earth’s environment to support much of life—including our own.” Human technology and the population explosion it has made possible endanger the planet, but the authors make the case that only careful use of scientific rationality can help us avoid disaster. They show, perhaps even better than Al Gore’s film/book An Inconvenient Truth, that “the most serious threats now faced by humanity are slow, deleterious changes in the environmental background itself, changes our perceptual systems have evolved to encourage us to ignore. . . . The only way to recognize the change is by interpreting graphs made by scientific instruments that were designed to extend our perceptual systems.”

“Human population growth,” they make clear, “has been so prodigious in recent centuries that it has also become a major driver of environmental deterioration, in the extent of pollution, consumption of nature’s resources, and destruction of habitats needed by other species [which, they later explain, are important for our own survival]. On top of other effects, population size is also the ‘elephant in the living room’ on the issue of global heating, for if the size of the human population were only half what it is today, the chances of avoiding a climate catastrophe would be much better.”

With a population/environment crisis facing us but about which most people are ignorant, we must be grateful to the Ehrlichs for detailing the complex and intertwined issues facing our planet. Among the facts they lay before us: Agricultural lands and groundwater are being used up faster than they can be replenished. “Humanity is running a vast chemical experiment in which all of us are the lab rats [and] the results are still in doubt.” “In terms of environmental damage, meat is much more costly to produce than are staple food crops such as rice, wheat, maize, and potatoes,” while grazing is a major cause of deforestation and farm-based pollution. “The world has lost nearly half of its post-Ice Age forest cover, . . . most of it since 1970.” Human density increases vulnerability to epidemic disease. “In 2002, when the population had passed 6 billion, civilization’s demand on the biosphere had reached more than 120 or 140 percent of [its regenerative] capacity.” And finally, “we may well have already exceeded the long-term carrying-capacity of our planet by as much as 40 percent.”

At the heart of our planetary problem is unchecked human population growth. Appropriately, they cite the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on accepting a Planned Parenthood award in 1966:

There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical, and necessary. Unlike plagues of the Dark Ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.

Curiously, the authors make no mention of the National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200) report approved by President Ford in 1975 but “classified” and suppressed until nearly the eve of the 1994 UN population conference. NSSM 200 spelled out the worldwide consequences of unchecked population growth and recommended universal access to family planning information, education, and wherewithal. Oddly, the authors also do not discuss the role of religious fundamentalisms in holding back overpopulation remedies.

Remedies recommended by the Ehrlichs include checking population growth, ending overconsumption and waste, reducing the influence of money in politics from eco-unfriendly industries, expanding eco-friendly political activity, reducing income inequalities that fuel environmental deterioration, and greatly reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

They conclude: “Will future hunters and gatherers . . . wonder over the origins of skyscrapers, railroads, and freeways, and invent religions to explain them? Or will future intergalactic visitors think it impossible that the depauperate tribal people they encounter are actually descendants of the builders?”

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby is both important and guaranteed to give readers a headache. She writes that “the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functional democracy. . . . America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semi-conscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic.”

She blames dumbed-down mass media, the shrinking of newspapers, the decline of serious book reading, the resurgence of fundamentalist religion (“Willed ignorance” is “one of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism,” as is the “nexus between fundamentalism and lack of education”), and the “scientific illiteracy” of much of the media.

She scores “junk science” and “junk thought,” as in the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling upholding a ban on “partial-birth abortion,” based on a wholly “junk science concept—‘post-abortion syndrome’—invented by anti-choice organizations.”

Jacoby hails the United States’ intentionally secular constitution and church-state separation, noting, ironically, that separation helped pave the way for the spread of fundamentalism while European church-state unions tended to stimulate freethinking and Enlightenment values.

She hits the “culture of distraction” produced by “the proliferating visual images and noises of the video/digital age [that] permeate the minute-by-minute experience of our lives,” a “continuous invasion of individual thought and consciousness.” The “more time people spend before the computer screen or any screen, the less time and desire they have for two human activities critical to a fruitful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation.” And “the more obsessed people are with infotainment, the less likely they are to read anything.”

Jacoby turns to George W. Bush. The “son, grandson, and great-grandson of rich and powerful men, George W. Bush. . . [is a] walking testament to unearned privilege [who] somehow managed to convince voters that he was just an ordinary guy and did not belong to the detested ‘elites.’” The issue “is not whether Bush is as stupid as he sounds but that he . . . is unashamed of—and even seems quite proud of—his own parochialism and intellectual limitations.”

She cites the “one-sidedness of intellectual participation” in his administration, exemplified by his Council on Bioethics. “The real purpose of the bioethics advisory group was not to advise but to provide academic cover for the administration’s religiously and politically motivated politics.”

Jacoby is very much on target, unfortunately, and her thesis would have been even more depressing if she had devoted attention to the tsunami of ultraconservative propaganda and Orwellian hate speech gushing from far too many popular radio and television talk shows.

This new age of American unreason threatens the secular democracy whose development Wills traces so well and makes it more difficult for us “dominant animals” to deal with the threats spelled out by the Ehrlichs. We have our work cut out for us.

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