American Unreason

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Reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason made me very uncomfortable. The book chronicles the history of anti-intellectualism in American culture from the Revolutionary period to the present. It’s an excellent book, well-written, carefully researched, intelligent, and witty. Jacoby, a self-avowed secularist and freethinker, is evenhanded in her treatment of what she calls “junk thought” whether it comes from the political right or left. Hardly anyone comes off blameless, regardless of their supposed credentials.

What made me uncomfortable, though, was her criticism of Christian fundamentalists. I found it too well-deserved.

Jacoby defines a Christian fundamentalist as anyone who believes that the Bible is literally true. This makes it easy for her to lump together all the right-wing Christians, since most would in fact agree that they believe the Bible quite literally. She doesn’t care about most of the miracle stories because believing them does not have consequences for public policy except insofar as those who believe them must be anti-rationalist or at least irrational. She focuses most on the first part of Genesis because a literal understanding of it conflicts so obviously with evolution. Jacoby points out that America alone in the developed world has a sizable portion of the population that still rejects the descent of humans from earlier, non-human primates. Why? Biologists, geologists, and geneticists know that the theory of evolution is true. The evidence that all life on earth has a common ancestry is overwhelming. Yet “just 26 percent accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Fully 42 percent say that all living things, including humans, have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” (p. 23).

There can be no doubt that the theory of evolution has problems, especially for Christian conceptions of sin and death, regardless of how metaphorically one takes Genesis. However, scientific credibility is not one of them. Scientists use what they know about evolution to make predictions about where to look for additional fossil evidence. They go to those places, look for fossils, and find them. In the same way, unraveling DNA has confirmed again and again that certain species are closely related, descended from common ancestors. Is it possible that God created the world in six days and filled it with living things as Genesis says? Yes, of course it is, but not in any scientifically meaningful sense. It is possible that God concealed his creative act by adding a backstory, going all the way back to the big bang, to everything he made. If so, then one of the aims of science is to unravel this backstory. I am not saying that this is what I believe; I am merely offering it as a way for biblical literalists to reconcile their faith in Genesis with scientific evolution. Unfortunately, this leaves no place for creationism in science and hence no place for the teaching of creationism in schools.

To her credit, Jacoby exposes the pseudoscience of social Darwinism, which came to prominence in the early twentieth century. It was used in ways never intended by Darwin to promote eugenics and justify exploitative capitalism. To this day, there is still confusion, not only among Christian fundamentalists but also among supporters of evolution, between biological evolution and social Darwinism.

Despite her attempts at fairness, however, Jacoby cannot conceal her contempt for fundamentalist Christians. Biblically attested miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth of Christ, and his resurrection are just so many fables told and believed by naive and intellectually unsophisticated people. She finds the tenacity with which Christians adhere to their faith baffling, though she never says so in so many words.

Despite her careful research, she attributes the origins of the Jesus Movement in the late sixties and early seventies to Campus Crusade for Christ, which she later refers to as the Christian Crusade. She says nothing of Calvary Chapel and appears not to know about the struggles of organized denominations to accommodate the sudden influx of young people who had renounced drugs and alcohol and sexual promiscuity but wanted to keep their rock-and-roll, long hair, and communal living. She also claims that Roe v. Wade occurred in a cultural climate that offered almost no opposition, which, while true, neglects that fact that abortion was presented almost universally as a way to protect young girls and women from the devastating injuries caused by “back alley” abortions. No one foresaw in 1973 that within a decade nearly one in four pregnancies would end in abortion.

Despite these shortcomings, I highly recommend The Age of American Unreason. The chapters on junk thought and the culture of distraction are especially worth reading. Jacoby uncovers the pernicious influence of the ubiquitous audio-video culture. It is not what we expose our children to, though that is certainly bad enough. It is what we fail to expose them to because they are always distracted by what’s on television or on the Internet or playing on their iPod. Previous generations valued quiet. My children think I am odd because I turn off the radio while I’m driving, but I just get tired of always having to listen to something. All my children, thank God, are readers. We have always valued reading in my home, and when they were young, I read to them. We have also deliberately gone without television and video at times just to have time for other pursuits. But there is no denying that we are exceptions. Most families live in a cocoon of entertainment, constantly bombarded by sound and video. Not many people I know read for pleasure. Fewer still spend time in silence listening to their own thoughts. Among Christians there is a tradition at least of prayer, meditation, and Bible-reading, but for many this tradition has been brushed aside. Christians are as likely as anyone else to fill their time with self-medicating entertainment and thoughtless absorption of the prevailing audio-video culture.

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One Response to American Unreason

  1. Dad says:

    I don’t know if I will read the book, but I liked your comments about what you read. I’m glad that I am able to read your blogs and find them very informative. As I begin my 80th year on this journey through life I find that there are many things that I once accepted as fact are no longer true. I accept the fact that Jesus will return, but it may not be in my lifetime. Much to my disappointment.
    Keep reading and offering your opinions, I value your thoughts and opinions.

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