Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The End of Faith and Denial

A few years ago Sam Harris wrote a scathing book about faith titled “The End of Faith”; it touched a nerve in many persons. Those of us who had their doubts that faith was a virtue easily related to the themes contained in this book. At the same time it presented a visceral challenge to persons of faith. After all, exactly why should anyone believe in something for which there is no evidence or poor evidence? In this book, words were not minced, feelings not spared.

The book had its faults, of course. While Sam Harris has amazing powers of observation and can effectively dramatize in writing the points he is making, his conclusions can be hit or miss, and his vision of the future can be unnecessarily inflammatory. Additionally, he could have made even more of the point that irrational faith is not restricted to religious matters; all beliefs held on faith, even those pertaining to secular matters, are not justified and can prove to be dangerous.

Surprisingly there has since been some progress in the battle against faith in this society. Thanks to Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and others, faith, religion, irrationality and unreason are no longer off-limits for criticism in the media. A flame has been lit. The youth in our society have shown some indications that they may prefer to “know” rather than simply to “believe”.

This modest progress is all good but of course, it is not enough. Faith is now occasionally questioned in public and although that is a welcome change, we have many more challenges to becoming a freethinking society.

Even if we were to vanquish the concept of “faith”, there is a related concept that although it does not necessarily lead to beliefs being held without evidence, it does lead to even not asking questions that could have unpleasant or inconvenient answers and it can lead to refusing to acknowledge what one actually believes; it’s called “denial.”

Denial is not just refusing to think about something; it almost certainly leads to not doing anything about things that can become a matter of life and death!

Consider all of the things that the average person may be in denial about; their health, their marriage, their job, their future, the future of their country and all things about all the persons they care about!

What could be more important than having a good handle on one’s life and the lives of those they care about? Yet many, if not most of us, refuse to deal with the most basic issues in life!

How many of us ignore health concerns and do not do what we know we need to do to stay healthy and not become a burden to others. Everyone must plead guilty to either not exercising enough, overeating, smoking drinking in excess or some other obvious form of abusing one’s own health. Yet this is still “small potatoes” for us as a society. In a sense, if we want to abuse ourselves, we should be allowed to do so although in most cases even self-abuse leads to pain for others.

As a nation, however, we have spent too much, borrowed too much and paid too little of it back – for at least the current decade if not for many decades. This harms generations not responsible for our current and past stupidity.

We have neglected our infrastructure, our schools and our energy self-sufficiency. We have no plan for the impending crush of baby boomers on social security or our health care system. We KNOW all this, yet we are in denial at one and the same time!

We absolutely already KNOW it is too expensive for most parents to send their children to private colleges without incurring too much debt on the student or the parents.

We already KNOW that our healthcare system is the most expensive system in the world even though many persons are not covered in any organized manner and that our outcomes are below average in the industrialized West.

We KNOW that we are sending our wealth out of the country, quite often to dictatorships, to pay for fuels that are contributing to a future environmental crisis. We’ve probably even started a war because we have not dealt with the well-known fact that we are not energy self-sufficient!
Denial almost makes faith look good! And denial crosses all boundaries of the secular and religious.

How many more matters of utter importance on a society-wide level can you name that we are and/or have been in denial about?

How about the fact that we cannot eliminate “pork” from the Federal budget as long as politicians are re-elected for delivering the pork?

Aren’t many in denial about our economic system being best left free from government regulation? Aren’t others in similar denial that government planning would solve all the problems?

How obvious is it that all vehicles should be fueled by renewable fuels (if not now, then eventually) and should be hybrids that also plug in? We KNOW that all cars could be designed & built thusly – why aren’t they?

It has become clear to me as time goes by that freethinking is little more than not being in denial. It is asking the tough questions and accepting the tough answers. It is acknowledging the obvious. It is not simply accepting authority or tradition as an answer.

Now we have the legal right to be in denial on any subject we choose as long as it does not lead to a crime against others.

But we no have no moral right to either belief in things for which there is no good evidence nor to ignore the things for which we know and accept that the evidence is overwhelming.

We no longer have a moral right to demand lower taxes, AND a expect a lower deficit; we no longer have the right to ask for universal health care and expect that everyone’s health care will be as extensive as before; we no longer have a right to buy SUV’s and complain about pollution and money being sent to Al Qaeda; we cannot expect to buy too much house, borrow too much money based on income that is not verified and then have other homeowners who are also suffering but more prudent pay more taxes to bail you out when you fall behind.

We, as a nation, have no moral right to attack a nation, kill tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of their citizens based on mistaken or false premises and ever expect them to be your “ally”. Again, I’m sure the reader can supply many more examples.

In other words, we do not have the moral right to ask for what we KNOW is the impossible. War, suffering and poverty are the cost of denial. We need the end of denial.
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