excerpts from the book

The Age of American Unreason

by Susan Jacoby

Vintage Books, 2008, paperback


Thomas Jefferson, 1816

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

Americans are alone in the developed world in their view of evolution by means of natural selection as "controversial" rather than as settled mainstream science. The continuing strength of religious fundamentalism in America (again, unique in the developed world) is generally cited as the sole reason for the bizarre persistence of anti-evolutionism. But that simple answer does not address the larger question of why so many nonfundamentalist Americans are willing to dismiss scientific consensus. The real and more complex explanation may lie not in America's brand of faith but in the public's ignorance about science in general as well as evolution in particular. More than two thirds of Americans, according to surveys conducted for the National Science Foundation over the past two decades, are unable to identify DNA as the key to heredity. Nine out of ten Americans do not understand radiation and what it can do to the body. One in five adults is convinced that the sun revolves around the earth. Such responses point to a stunning failure of American public schooling at the elementary and secondary levels, and it is easy to understand why a public with such a shaky grasp of the most rudimentary scientific facts would be unable or unwilling to comprehend the theory of evolution.

In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts released a survey indicating that fewer than half of adult Americans had read any work of fiction or poetry in the preceding year... Only 57 percent had read a nonfiction book. In this increasingly a-literate America, not only the enjoyment of reading but critical thinking itself is at risk.

In recent years, television has commissioned an unceasing stream of programs designed to appeal to a vast market of viewers who believe in ghosts, angels, and demons. More than half of American adults believe in ghosts, one third believe in astrology, three-quarters believe in angels, and four-fifths believe in miracles.

Misguided objectivity, particularly with regard to religion, ignores the willed ignorance that is one of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism. One of the most powerful taboos in American life concerns speaking ill of anyone else's faith-an injunction rooted in confusion over the difference between freedom of religion and granting religion immunity from the critical scrutiny applied to other social institutions. Both the Constitution and the pragmatic realities of living in a pluralistic society enjoin us to respect our fellow citizens' right to believe whatever they want-as long as their belief, in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." But many Americans have misinterpreted this sensible laissez-faire principle to mean that respect must be accorded the beliefs themselves. This mindless tolerance, which places observable scientific facts, subject to proof, on the same level as unprovable supernatural fantasy, has played a major role in the resurgence of both antiintellectualism and anti-rationalism.

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life public opinion poll results, August 30, 2005

Nearly two thirds of Americans want both creationism, generally understood as the hard-core fundamentalist doctrine based on the story of Genesis, to be taught along with evolution in public schools. Fewer than half of Americans - 48 percent - accept any form of evolution (even guided by God), and just 26 percent accept Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Fully 42 percent say that all living beings, including humans, have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

... 42 percent of Americans with only a partial college education and half of high school graduates adhere to the creationist viewpoint that organic life has remained unchanged throughout the ages. A third of Americans mistakenly believe that there is substantial disagreement about evolution among scientists - a conviction reinforcing and reflecting the rightwing religious mantra that evolution is "just a theory," with no more scientific validity than any other cockamamie idea.

... There are of course many scientific disagreements about the particulars of evolution, but the general theory of evolution by means of natural selection is a settled issue for the mainstream scientific community.

A 1998 survey by researchers from the University of Texas found that one out of four public school biology teachers believes that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously.

Whatever the denomination or religion, fundamentalism has always been defined by its refusal to adapt to any secular knowledge that conflicts with its version of revealed religious truth; that refusal, in science and the humanities, has been the most enduring and powerful strand in American anti-intellectualism.

Deism , a belief in a "watchmaker God" who set the universe in motion but then took no active role in the affairs of humans, was a form of freethought particularly prevalent among the founders.

Thomas Paine

My own mind is my own church.

The more harsh the circumstances of daily life, the more potent are the simple and universal emotional themes of struggle, sin, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption that form the core of evangelical fundamentalist religion. The need for emotional solace does much to explain the appeal of fundamentalism not only to settlers on the frontier but to enslaved blacks in the South. When the storm is raging on the prairie, what comfort can be found in a debate over the nature of the Eucharist or the Holy Trinity? When the master is about to sell your children downriver, why would you want to listen to a preacher who told you that Jesus might be nothing more than a good and prophetic man instead of the all-merciful Savior who will wipe away every tear from your eyes?

In any event, the reasons why fundamentalism triumphed over "rational" religion in the American spiritual bazaar are less important than the fact that fundamentalism did succeed in capturing the hearts of large numbers of Americans during the very period when intellectuals like Emerson were finding even Unitarianism too rigid. If a combination of freethought arid Enlightenment-influenced liberal Protestantism had been able to meet the emotional needs of the turbulent young nation, the course of American intellectual and religious history would have been radically altered.

It is the greatest irony, and a stellar illustration of the law of unintended consequences, that the American experiment in complete religious liberty led large numbers of Americans to embrace antirational, anti-intellectual forms of faith. In Europe, the prevailing unions between church and state made some form of rationalism not another religion-the most common response of those who had lost faith in either their religion or their government. Early nineteenth-century Europeans who opposed church power over the state did not seek solace in revival meetings on the banks of the Tiber, the Arno, and the Seine. Instead, they sought their intellectual underpinnings in a continuation of the secular spirit of the Enlightenment and the struggle for democratization and political reform throughout much of the Continent. In America, the absence of a coercive state-established church meant that American citizens had no need to uproot existing religious institutions in order to change political institutions, and vice versa. Americans dissatisfied with their church simply founded another one and moved on.

mathematician Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicholas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, during the early phase of the French Revolution, put forth a proposal for public schooling - in a report to the French Legislative Assembly in late 1791

To afford all members of the human race the means of providing for their needs, of securing their welfare, of recognising and fulfilling their duties; to assure for everyone opportunities of perfecting their skill and rendering themselves capable of the social duties to which they have a right to be called; to develop to the utmost the talents with which nature has endowed them and, in so doing, to establish among all citizens a true equality and thus make real the political equality realised by law-this should be the primary aim of a national system of education, and from this point of view its establishment is for the public authority an obligation of justice.

In the 1790s, [James] Madison and [Thomas] Jefferson had stood nearly alone in their advocacy of general taxation for schools, then thought to be the responsibility of parents who wanted education for their children and were willing and able to pay for it.

In a 1786 letter from Paris to his friend and tutor George Wythe, Jefferson expressed his conviction that the most important bill under consideration by the Virginia Assembly was his proposal "for the diffusion of knowledge among the people"-and that ignorance was the greatest enemy of the common good. Jefferson's interest in the diffusion of learning at public expense did not of course extend to slaves or women. He did, however, believe in a white male aristocracy of intellect that did not depend on aristocracy of birth. One of the distinctive features of his proposed law, which combined limited democratic and elitist ideals, was its provision that the most promising sons of poor parents be selected to continue their education through college at public expense. As the educational historian Adoiphe Meyer notes, "if Jefferson inclined toward an elite of brains, something which in current America is sometimes suspect, then at least he did not assume, as did nearly all others of his era, that the common people had no business within that cultivated circle." Jefferson's proposed law was never enacted; Virginia planters were uninterested in paying taxes for the education of anyone else's children.

The dilution of a deity [God] in order not to offend any religious denomination led inevitably, if not immediately, to a secular public school curriculum

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of regional and local disparities in the formation of American attitudes toward intellect and learning. The educational backwardness of the South, rooted first in slavery and then in segregation, deserves special mention in view of the current cultural division between so-called red and blue states. Even Virginia, which had led the way in providing a nonsectarian model that eventually did so much to foster the diffusion of learning in northern states, sank into the same intellectual torpor, dictated by a slavery-based class system and indifferent to the education of all but the rich, as the rest of the South. Part of the South's post-Reconstruction mythology maintains that everything wrong with southern education in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can be blamed on the destruction wrought by the Civil War and the vengeful postwar treatment of white southerners by the North. In fact, on the eve of the war, only North Carolina had established a public school system comparable to those in Massachusetts and other New England states-or even the more laggard mid-Atlantic states.

... in a society [the American South] based for so long on the supremacy of a planter aristocracy and belief in the innate inferiority of blacks, there was little reason to provide decent public education for poor whites, much less blacks. Why bother, when just being white - even an illiterate white - made an inhabitant of the South superior to any black. As for blacks, the public school systems of the South rarely provided any education beyond eighth grade until well into the twentieth century. The only thing that might have saved the South from falling further and further behind the rest of the nation in education in the late nineteenth century was massive federal aid which the South would surely have suspected as a plot against its way of life even if the federal government had been willing to break with precedent and provide aid for the schooling of destitute former slaves and white sharecroppers.

... Local control of schools [in the United States] meant not only that children in the poorest areas of the country would have the worst school facilities and teachers with the worst training but also that the content of education in the most backward areas of the country would be determined by backward people. In Europe, the subject matter of science and history lessons taught to children in all publicly supported schools has always been determined by highly educated employees of central education ministries. In America, the image of an educated elite laying down national guidelines for schools was and is a bête noire for those who consider local control of education a right almost as sacred as any of the rights enumerated in the Constitution. For generations, the science and history taught in small towns in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana was vetted by adults who believed in the innate inferiority of blacks and who also subscribed to fundamentalist creeds at odds with the growing body of secular scientific knowledge. The best educated regions of the country became better educated, and the most Intellectually backward regions became more backward.

A half century into the political experiment intended to form a more perfect union, the intellectual life of the new nation was profoundly fragmented n the older urban centers of the Northeast, there were visible signs not only of a diffusion of knowledge but of the unmistakable emergence of an intellectual aristocracy. In the South, what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in an effort to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order.

Abraham Lincoln ... would become the last self-educated American to be elected president, and his self-education was, as he made clear, a matter of necessity rather than choice. Even as Emerson, born in 1803, just six years before Lincoln, was embarking on his career as an essayist and philosopher in a world of books, Lincoln was struggling to master the principles of English grammar while earning his living as a clerk in a general store in New Salem, Illinois, a town of just twenty-five families in 1831. Carrying his own well-worn copy of Shakespeare's plays everywhere, studying a copy of Blackstone's Commentaries borrowed from the one educated man in town, Lincoln prepared himself to become a lawyer even as he became a figure of amusement to his neighbors because of his bookishness. A recurrent theme in Lincoln's accounts of his early life is his struggle to obtain books, usually by borrowing.

[Charles] Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection, was twisted into a social philosophy always described as "scientific"- that enshrined competition and validated the worthiness of whoever and whatever came out on top.

Between 1860 and 1910, in spite of the deaths of more than six hundred thousand men in the Civil War, the American population nearly tripled-from some 31 million to more than 92 million-as a result of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. It is a familiar yet still awe-inspiring demographic statistic, a raw number that would seem to rule out any possibility of successful assimilation or absorption-if we did not know that the task was indeed accomplished. During the 1880s and 1890s, a network of public elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and libraries emerged to meet the challenge of absorbing millions of non-English-speaking immigrants and raising the educational level of the entire American population.

What does it mean to be an American fundamentalist in the first decade of the twenty-first century? The word "fundamentalism" is rarely used in surveys of Americans' religious self-identification, in large measure because the term is considered a pejorative even by many fundamentalists themselves. Pollsters usually ask whether Americans consider themselves "evangelicals," because evangelical is a broader, less loaded term that can encompass both theological liberals and theological conservatives. Former President Jimmy Carter and President George W. Bush are both evangelicals, but Bush's statements indicate that he is a fundamentalist while Carter, who strongly supports the teaching of evolution in schools, falls on the liberal side of the evangelical divide. The main difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals, although they share a faith that rests on an intimate, personal relationship between God and man, is that not all evangelicals regard the Bible as literally true but all fundamentalists do.

Two thirds of Americans believe in heaven but fewer than half believe in hell.

There is unquestionably a powerful correlation between religious fundamentalism and lack of education. Approximately 45 percent of those who have no education beyond high school believe in the literal truth of the Bible, while only 29 percent with some college - and just 19 percent of college graduates - share that old-time faith. Secularism, skepticism, and acceptance of mainstream science all rise with education; two thirds of college graduates, but only about one third of high school graduates, believe that living beings have evolved over time with or without the guiding hand of a creator.

The South remains the most educationally backward region of the nation, and southerners are far more likely than other Americans to profess fundamentalist faith.

Patrick Henry [University] located about fifty miles west of Washington, D.C., was established specifically to train conservative fundamentalists for jobs in government.

Pew Forum 2006 survey, asked, "Which should be the more important influence on the laws of the United States? Should it be the Bible or should it be the will of the American people, even when it conflicts with the Bible?" An astounding 60 percent of white evangelical Christians replied that the Bible, not the will of the people, should shape U.S. law.

The Council on Foreign Relations is just about as high in the establishment as one can go, and Foreign Affairs [magazine] is its bible.

Right-wing American Catholics' defining characteristic is devotion to the dogma of papal infallibility and its attendant prohibitions against abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, and birth control.

Five out of the nine current members of the Supreme Court are Roman Catholics: John Roberts, Joseph Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy.

[Justice Antonin] Scalia's rationale for the death penalty merits close inspection because it comes directly from the Bible and is identical to the arguments used by Protestant fundamentalists against secular government and secular values. In Scalia's view, democracy itself is responsible for opposition to the death penalty, because secular democracy rests on the principle that governmental power comes not from the consent of V the governed but from God. "Few doubted the morality of the death penalty in the age that believed in the divine right of kings," Scalia noted in a speech delivered at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Then he went on to observe that "the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition [of capital punishment] has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe, and has least support in the church-going United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. That death is no big deal for believing Christians strikes me as a dubious proposition; but even if it were true, it would fall within the Jeffersonian category of something that gives no offense to those who are less sanguine about dying. It is, however, a big deal for a justice of the United States Supreme Court to base important legal decisions, affecting Americans of all faiths and no faith, on his religious belief in an afterlife.

Scalia's argument belongs properly to the realm of theology, not to the worlds of jurisprudence, domestic policy, or international affairs.

The number of Americans with no formal ties to any religion more than doubled, from 14.3 million to 29.4 million, between 1990 and 2001. Sixteen percent of Americans describe their outlook on the world and public affairs as wholly or predominantly secular.

Between the fundamentalists and the secularists lies a much larger group of religious centrists or moderates, but it is not entirely clear what it means to be a religious moderate in the United States today. Forty-three percent of Americans take the centrist religious position that the Bible is divinely inspired but not to be taken literally. Add the centrists to the secularists, and 63 percent of Americans believe that the will of the people, not the Bible, should exert the greatest influence on American law and government. On the other hand, when the centrists are added to the fundamentalists, 75 percent of Americans believe in a supernatural supreme being who guides the destiny of individuals and nations-and most of these people also believe that liberal secularists have gone too far in trying to remove religion from public life. The centrist believers approve of religion in general, and of expressions of religion in public life, but they disapprove of extreme positions like Bush's imposition of a religious veto on embryonic stem cell research. Yet this group has generally been no political match for the True Believer mentality of the fundamentalists, and religious moderates have frequently followed the path of least resistance and let the fundamentalists and anti-modernists have their way on public issues.

The tendency of religious centrists to accept compromise solutions, with no regard for consistency, is one explanation for the seeming absurdity of public support, by a two-to-one majority, for the teaching of both creationism and evolution in public schools. Fundamentalists are effective at getting their way because religion forms the absolute, immovable core of their lives. Unlike religious moderates who, like most human beings, want to have things both ways - God and science, belief in eternal life and the medical pursuit of every means to prolong earthly life - fundamentalists have no doubts. A middle-class fundamentalist cannot be swayed, as someone of more fluid religious convictions might be, by the argument that he ought to vote for secular liberal candidates because they are more likely than Republicans to institute tax policies that help families making less than $100,000 a year. For Catholics in the [Antonin] Scalia mold, the prospect that embryonic stem cell research might help cure them of Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's means nothing next to the belief that God, through their church, has said no. Cultural and moral issues tied to religion, such as abortion and gay marriage, trump self-interest.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans, compared with only one in five Europeans, say that religion plays a very important role in their lives.

[In 2000] voters entrusted the nation's highest office to a man whose most distinctive personal trait has always been an absolute lack of intellectual curiosity. The son, grandson, and great-grandson of rich and powerful men, George W. Bush is the living embodiment of the gentleman's C: there cannot be anyone in the country who believes that Bush's brain would have gotten him anywhere near Yale, Harvard Business School, or the ownership of a baseball team-much less the presidency-without his family name and connections. Nevertheless, this walking testament to unearned privilege somehow managed to convince voters that he was just an ordinary guy and did not belong to the detested elites."

How did he do it? I think that he was able to pull it off simply by being himself, as evinced most obviously by his bumbling use of his native language. Unlike Kerry and Al Gore, Bush did not have to work at sounding like a regular guy with a less than elite education; despite summers in Kennebunkport and stints at Ivy League institutions, the words "nuclear" and "government," which presidents must use with considerable frequency, will always roll trippingly off his tongue as "nuculer" and "guv'mint." Bush's presidential demeanor has been characterized by a sneering, aggressive provincialism, which he displays not just at home but abroad, for the edification of foreign leaders. The American public-at least before it turned decisively against the Iraq War-was either charmed by or indifferent to oafish performances that would have mortified middle-class citizens of other developed nations.

One of the most serious failures of vision on the part of both left- and right-wing intellectuals has been a reluctance to acknowledge the political significance of public ignorance.

The general decline in American civic, cultural, and scientific literacy has encouraged political polarization because the field of debate is often left to those who care most intensely - with an out-of-the-mainstream passion - about a specific political and cultural agenda. Every shortcoming of American governance is related in some fashion to the knowledge deficit of the public-if only because there is no widespread indignation at policies shaped by elected officials who suffer from the same intellectual blind spots as their constituents. The Iraq Study Group's report on the multilayered failure of America's war in Iraq, released at the end of 2006, revealed that of more than 1,100 employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, only thirty-two spoke Arabic at all-and just six were fluent in the language. It may be shocking, but it is hardly surprising, that the government would staff an embassy almost entirely with diplomats who literally cannot understand what local people are talking about. We are, after all, citizens of a nation in which five out of six young adults do not consider particularly important to know any foreign language.

As both dumbness and smartness are defined downward - among intellectuals as well as nonintellectuals - it becomes much easier to convince people of the validity of extreme positions. Not only basic knowledge but the ability to think critically are required to understand the factual errors (as distinct from differences of opinion) that generally provide the foundation for policies at the far ends of the political spectrum.

Two thirds of newspaper readers, but only 40 percent of television news watchers, know that the primary mission of the Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution. When people are ignorant of the high court's constitutional mandate, it is much easier to convince them that justices are supposed to reflect public opinion-and that something has gone wrong when a court hands down a decision that contradicts popular wisdom.

Surveys conducted by the National Constitution Center show that while Americans hold the Constitution in high esteem, they know relatively little about the nation's founding document. Asked whether they could recall any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, a majority could name only freedom of speech. More than a third were unable to list any First Amendment rights; 42 percent think that the Constitution explicitly states that "the first language of the United States is English;" and 25 percent believe that Christianity was established by the Constitution as the official government religion. The young are even more ignorant than their parents and grandparents. About half of adults-but just 41 percent of teenagers-can name the three branches of government. Only four in ten adults-but just two in ten teenagers-know that there are one hundred U.S. senators. The vast majority of both adults and teens have no idea of when or by whom the Constitution was written. Among the teenagers, nearly 98 percent cannot name the Chief Justice of the United States."

This is our civic present and, if nothing is done to stem the rising tide of ignorance among the young, our even more disturbing civic future.

historian Arthur Schlesinger

Sometimes, when I am particularly depressed, I ascribe our behavior to stupidity - the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidity of our culture. Thirty years ago we suffered military defeat fighting an unwinnable war against a country about which we knew nothing .... Vietnam was bad enough, but to repeat the same experiment thirty years later in Iraq is a strong argument for a case of national stupidity.

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