The Talking Lion

Saturday, May 28, 2005

A spot on prayer

Anna Quindlen's essay in this weeks Newsweek is spot on:
The intolerant, the monomaniacal, the zealots driven by religious certainty engineered the worst attack on American soil, and the result has been intolerance, monomania and zealotry driven by religious certainty.

I was drawn to the article because she is discussing Columbia University President Lee Bollinger's commencement address this year, and the fact that this is the first college graduating class to live entirely under the shadow of 9/11 (TIME this week featured a cover story on class '9/11 at West Point). Since 9/11 the fascist and theocratic elements in America have come to dominate the Republican Party, and we are now a nation seen by much of the world as a graver threat than our enemies, for the first time in history. To add to the bleakness, since the election it has become abundantly clear to almost everyone that respect for the "faith" and "values" of these people is something that the "secularists" must do in order to continue being Americans, even if their beliefs are dangerously stupid, ignorant, or insane. Everyone is entitled to belief, damn the evidence! This has resulted in civil discourse has become more stifled, where power and volume dominate reason and intellectual responsibility. She writes:
President Bollinger, who has recently navigated a pitched battle about academic freedom and civil classroom discourse on his own campus, described intellectual inquiry thus: "To learn to ask: 'Is that true? Maybe there's something to what she just said. Let me think about it. That's interesting. Maybe I should change my mind. I changed my mind'."

When is the last time you can honestly remember a public dialogue, or even a private conversation, that followed that useful course? To shy away from rigorous intellectual engagement is not new for undergraduates; in 1998 a study done by an anthropologist at Grinnell College reported the most common discussion model among students was stating what they were certain they already believed, not learning what they did not or exploring the views of those with whom they disagreed. Eighty-four percent of the first-year class believed that one of the paramount values of the college was to make sure all its members felt comfortable. "Exploring new ideas, encountering people with different values, learning a new discipline's way of thinking and having someone point out a flaw in one's argument—these can be uncomfortable experiences," Carol Trosset noted in her findings.

The important thing to realize about this is that it isn't what a lot of people are saying, i.e., fundamentalist principles and "faith" need to be respected, where the "secularists" are also seen as fundamentalists at war with the religious. Rather, it is an impassioned plea for empiricism and reasoned argument; the antithesis of faith and absolute certainty. It is a prayer for America to start doubting and questioning, moreso than expressing the (futile) hope that pundits will stop screaming at each other on Faux News.

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