A recent survey by the non-partisan First Amendment Center may be the most disturbing thing I’ve read in quite some time. It finds that 55% of Americans believe that our Constitution establishes a Christian nation. Further, 75% of people who self identify as evangelicals or Republicans believe the founders created a Christian nation. Minimally, the irony that we are spending blood and treasure to create a secular democracy in Iraq while believing that we ourselves do not live in such a state is a bit much to bear.
Also disturbing is that 44% believe that freedom of religion does not apply to all groups regardless of how extreme their positions are. Granted, there is a lot of interpretation left to the definition of “extreme”. I suppose that many could have interpreted that to mean religions practicing otherwise illegal behavior (e.g. sacrifices), but in a post-9/11 world, you have to wonder how many respondents interpret Islam to be “extreme”.
And finally, half believe that teachers should be allowed to use the bible as a factual text in history class. Not only are a majority of Americans ignorant, but they are adamant about passing that ignorance on to the next generation. How do we progress as a nation, when the majority of the population exhibits intellectual disingenuousness in spades? Let me be clear here. There exist mountains of evidence that the bible is not a factual accounting of history. Aspects are based on real events, but it’s hardly a history book. Excepting a few hardcore evangelicals, even biblical scholars agree with this position. Which is not to say the bible is without value. As a philosophy or theology text, it is without equal. But that does not make it a history or science textbook. So for a person to claim that it should be used as such is to assert that this person is capable of ignoring any information, data, or evidence which does not fit his preconception of reality. This is virtually the definition of ignorance. It certainly is not a position taken by a learned person.
It is bad enough that as a nation we are ignorant. It is quite another that we seem to take pride in that fact. Embracing intellectualism does not mean that religion must be rejected. Religion plays many roles, only one of which is easing fears of the unknown. As the body of human knowledge has increased, religion has yielded that ground. Fears subsided with understanding. Solar eclipses are no longer messages from an angry god. But there are mysteries to which man will likely never know the answer. What happens when I die? Is there a greater purpose to my life? Religion fills a void in many people’s lives by providing comforting answers to these quandaries. And religion plays many other valuable societal roles as well. There is no reason that it needs to be an intellectual anchor to 2000 year old understandings of history and science.
We worry as a nation that we are leaving some of our children scholastically behind. Maybe the place to start is by the adults leading the way out of the dark intellectual abyss in which we find ourselves.