Friday, March 14, 2008

Those Who Know Better

"...all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers"

Plato, "The Republic," Book X

Plato was not the first well-educated intellectual to believe that he knew better than other men, but perhaps he has been the most influential. In his blueprint for a better world, The Republic (circa 360 BC), one of the social improvements he called for was banishing all poets, because poets do not tell the Truth; they just sell a bunch of lies.

Today, there is another group of well-educated intellectuals calling for banishing -- or, at the very least, the irreparable disgracing -- of another group of individuals on the basis of its departure from the Truth. The former group is made up of militant atheists. The latter group includes anyone who is religious.

The new militant atheists believe that religion is, in the words of one of their most outspoken advocates, Christopher Hitchens,
"violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

Of course, humans have used religion as an excuse to do horrible things to one another. But can we rely on human reason to do any better? Is reason that much more reliable than faith?

Most of the human atrocities of the 2oth century did not occur at the hands of men of faith; they occurred at the hands of men who believed they were acting according to reason and science. Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Mihn, and Pol Pot all at least gave lip service to the idea that they were leading mankind away from a history of ignorance and superstition and towards an enlightened future. They believed they were the vanguards of human progress.

Hitchens gets around this uncomfortable fact by claiming that these guys were in fact religious leaders, not political ones. Granted, many of their political movements eventually acquired a religious fervor, but does not that prove that human nature needs a religion, and when it cannot find one it will create one out of whatever raw material is available?

Make no mistake, the power of human reason is a wonderful thing. But it is not great enough to coordinate the actions of six billion people in almost two hundred countries on seven continents. For that task, reason requires a companion, something more adaptable to individual and local conditions; something that does not depend on formal education as much as it depends on local knowledge passed from one generation to another in ways often unspoken.

We call that companion culture, and it is a kind of reason mined from the rich vein of all the human past. Religion is a very important part of culture. Religious forms, practices, and reputations will vary, but religion's universal presence attests to its value. Only a wise man or a fool would insist that we would all be better off without it.

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