“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
~ Newsweek: “A Cult of Ignorance” by Isaac Asimov, January 21, 1980, p. 19
Isaac Asimov’s thesis still rings true almost thirty-five years to the day it was published in Newsweek. As an Australian, and with the way the world has shrunk to the size of one’s computer device, Asimov’s point is relevant everywhere, not just the United States.
What’s different, particularly in the parts of the world where education and information technology is highly accessible, is that people have a far greater opportunity to climb out of self-imposed ignorance than at any time in the past…and yet many choose not to.
In the so-called ‘developed countries’ of the world, by any definition there are ‘cults of ignorance’ flourishing, supported by political and religious institutions for manipulative, or defensive, objectives. Examples that immediately come to mind are anti-vaccination, creationist, pro-gun, and climate change denier groups.
Let me elaborate.
One doesn’t need to track too far back in history to find all societies highly stratified between those multitudes who were uneducated and subject to authority of some kind or another, and those who had power and potential access to education. Education itself was subject to the knowledge available to societies at the time. Ignorance was rife and understandable—unavoidable, and personal and societal behaviours were often driven by superstition. God, or the gods, were real to these people, as was magic, portents, and religious-sourced rules of living. Some practices were practical, natural to the context where such people lived, while others were the consequence of control mechanisms of leaders and those who represented religion (and often were the one and same groups). Ignorance was the norm, and difficult to escape for most of humankind.
I view certain later periods of history as nexus points where certain individuals and groups had opportunities to step out of the depths of ignorance, or at least take steps toward rationality. Certain scholars of the ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese and Islamic worlds had enormous impacts on the movement of science and intellectualism, and the Renaissance was a major punctuation point in Western Civilization. What grew from these people was the understanding that much of our knowledge of the universe was incorrect, or simplistic, and that our minds needed to be opened to new ideas through discipline. One of the major threads that tie most of these great people together was their contribution to scientific thinking. The basic principle that observation, theorising, and testing is the optimal approach to advancement of understanding, and mathematics resided at its core.
From the industrial age onwards, and the commensurate socio-political movements through large areas of the world for unshackling oligarchical and aristocratic rule, and promoting self-determination, science has blossomed and permeated every facet of the world’s societies, with miniscule exceptions. Technology and engineering, two important fields reliant on science can and has provided immense benefit to human society (for one thing, it has doubled or trebled human life expectancy in many countries), but in the wrong hands it can also be destructive. While science is hardly a representative of perfection, and can also be subject to biases of influential individuals, it should not be viewed as a group of people, or a contiguous entity—science is ultimately a methodology of inquiry into how things work and uses the disciplined methodologies to ensure the best known understanding is gained. The system works. That’s why we sent people to the moon, why we eliminated smallpox, why you can read this article on the Internet, why so many diseases are eliminated or controlled.
This leads back to Asimov’s assertion that there is a cult of ignorance. He is referring to the denial of the basic principles of science. Observe, theorize, and test. Ultimately, prove.
Religion is at odds with science because religious doctrine is still used to the millennia-long practice of explaining everything. Everything was hunky-dory until people started to talk about the Earth orbiting the Sun. When dating techniques proved that the world was older than a handful of millennia. Initially religion used the blasphemy card and (in many cases) murdered or sanctioned those who opposed the doctrine. Over the last few centuries many religious bodies bunkered down and reinforced their doctrines through the pulpits, ‘bible classes’, and evangelism. The great privilege of freedom of speech available to many societies enables the airing of any viewpoint, no matter how harebrained, and with the Internet being flooded with a complex of mix of truth, falsehoods, and conjecture, it is tempting on the part of many individuals to latch onto third-hand material as ‘proof’ that support their belief systems. Asimov was right.
Faith is at the heart of this issue, for want of a better word. An individual believes in something and holds fast to it. At an atomic level, faith can be a positive force—I have faith in my friends, and they have faith in me, and we support each other. It is an unprovable tie but the faith fills the uncertainty.
Faith in God’s existence is a personal experience and in itself is not at issue in this article. Many great scientists had (and have) faith in God’s existence. The problem is the doctrinal explanation of the universe, particularly the physical aspects that get in the way. Many religious people are compelled to believe (have faith) in everything associated with their creed (church, denomination, sect, whatever association they have), or otherwise they are ‘not true believers’, or worse, they are duped by dark and evil forces. To underline this nonsense, one only has to look at the doctrinal history of almost any religion and there will be:
- Periods where schisms occur
- Periods where doctrine changes, sometimes radically
- Historical records that indicates that certain important doctrinal passages post date the founding of the religious group, and often inserted for non-religious purposes
I repeat my earlier statement—this is not this author having a go at people who have religious beliefs; rather, this article is deeply concerned with people who choose to bundle their beliefs in things that cannot be observed with those things that can.
But faith doesn’t have to originate with religion. Faith, as already discussed, can be a trust of another person. It can also be a trust of a view of life or how the universe operates. One can have faith in anything, because, by definition, it is not reliant on observable facts.
It is part of the human condition to make sense of one’s life and the surrounding universe. It is also a part of being human to be attracted to models of existence that are simple, symmetrical, cosy and comfortable. Faith is a great way to facilitate this. People also like to be part of a greater group with a great cause. This also places one in a comfort zone. This is also well supported by Faith. Finally, people would prefer to find justifications for an existing belief system than radically alter it even in the face of facts, and Faith has the right dynamic of working with the unobservable, to support this. Faith can be addictive.
Anti-vaccers and climate change deniers protest against overwhelming evidence in favour of use of vaccines and studies asserting there is climate change. The vast majority of deniers are non-scientists and they believe, because they live in democracies where freedom of speech is a right, that their ignorance is equal to the hard work and knowledge and methodology gained by scientists over the centuries. For some, they bolster their faith in their denial by accepting (or fabricating) conspiracy theories. Worse still, they undermine the scientific method. This is why Asimov refers to people like that as anti-intellectual. Via the dynamic of faith.
Faith is, when applied to group behaviour and concerning matters of the observable, ultimately destructive. It explains things without fact, without testing. People die because of it. People are persecuted because of this. Catastrophic mistakes can occur. Insanity can reign. Nazism, Religious Extremism, Political Extremism are the top end examples, and are currently topical in world news. More diffuse are the unnecessary deaths of infants and others because of anti-vaccine campaigners. One that is close to my heart is the long-term effect of poor education to our young, who will delay the progress of our society, and potentially inherit a degraded world. The thought that young people are deliberately taught to accept the physical explanation of how our universe is hung together through religious doctrine is frightening, especially if any of these people grow up to be leaders of communities. Frightening. The straightest line to peace is through education of our children, and I do not refer to religious education, or any other form of instruction that stems from non-tested/unverified sources.
Faith is ultimately concerned with the unobservable. It is part of being human, and if confined to the delicate folds of our existence where one cannot see, feel, taste or hear, it can be a positive force, or at worst, benign. We humans have progressed in many ways over the hundreds of thousands of years of our existence, and are privileged to have information systems that allow us to tap into the insights and tested observations of thousands, if not millions, of inquiring minds throughout recorded history. We don’t need a faith-based construct to accept dinosaurs roamed this planet for hundreds of millions of years—it’s there in multitudes of data points. We don’t need faith to accept the Earth orbits the Sun. We just have to use our brains.