March 24th is a landmark date for Washington, D.C. Thousands will converge on the world’s leading capital city to celebrate the crowning human virtue of reason.
How have we come to the point where reason needs a rally to defend it? To base your life on reason means to base it on evidence and logic. Evidence is the only way we know to discover what’s true about the real world. Logic is how we deduce the consequences that follow from evidence. Who could be against either? Alas, plenty of people, which is why we need the Reason Rally.
Reason, as played out in the grand cooperative enterprise called science, makes me proud of Homo sapiens. Sapiens literally means ‘wise,’ but we have deserved the accolade only since we crawled from the swamp of primitive superstition and supernatural gullibility and embraced reason, logic, science and evidence-based truth.
We now know the age of our universe (13-14 billion years), the age of the Earth (4-5 billion years), what we and all other objects are made of (atoms), where we come from (evolved from other species), why all species are so well adapted to their environments (natural selection of their DNA). We know why we have night and day (Earth spins like a top), why we have winter and summer (Earth is tilted), what is the maximum speed at which anything can travel (two thirds of a billion mph). We know what the sun is (one star among billions in the Milky Way galaxy), we know what the Milky Way is (one galaxy among billions in our universe). We understand what causes smallpox (a virus, which we have eradicated), polio (a virus, which we have nearly eradicated), malaria (a protozoan, still here but we’re working on it), syphilis, tuberculosis, gangrene, cholera (bacteria and we know how to kill them). We have built planes that can cross the Atlantic in hours, rockets that safely land men on the moon and robot vehicles on Mars, and might one day save our planet by diverting a meteor of the kind that - we now understand - killed the dinosaurs. Thanks to evidence-based reason we are blessedly liberated from ancient fears of ghosts and devils, evil spirits and djinns, magic spells and witches’ curses.
Who then would rally against reason? The following statements will sound all too familiar.
1. “I don’t trust educated intellectuals, élitists who know more than I do. I’d prefer to vote for somebody like me, rather than somebody who is actually qualified to be president.”
What other than this mentality accounts for the popularity of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum--politicians who flaunt their ignorance as a vote-winning virtue? You want your airline pilot to be educated in aeronautics and navigation. You want your surgeon to be learned in anatomy. Yet when you vote for a president to lead a great country, you prefer to choose somebody who is ignorant and proud of it, someone you’d enjoy having a drink with, rather than somebody qualified for high office? If you are such a voter, you will not join the Reason Rally.
2. “Rather than have them learn modern science, I’d prefer my children to study a book written in 800 BC by unidentifed authors whose knowledge and qualifications were of their time. If I can’t trust the school to shield them from science, I’ll home-school them instead.”
Such a parent will not enjoy the Reason Rally. In 2008, at a conference of American science educators in Atlanta, Georgia, one teacher reported that students “burst into tears” when told they would be studying evolution. Another teacher described how students repeatedly screamed, “No!” when he began talking about evolution in class. If you are such a student, the Reason Rally is not for you - unless you take the precaution of stopping up your ears lest a word of unwelcome truth might penetrate.
3. “When I am faced with a mystery, with something I don’t understand, I don’t interrogate science for a solution, but jump to the conclusion that it must be supernatural and has no solution.”
This has been the lamentable but understandable first recourse of humanity for most of our history. We have grown out of it only during the past few centuries. Many people have never grown out of it, and if you are one of those the Reason Rally may have no appeal for you.
That is the fourth time in this essay I have said something like: “the Reason Rally is not for you.” But let me end on a more positive note. Even if you are unaccustomed to living by reason, if you are one of those, perhaps, who actively distrust reason, why not give it a try? Cast aside the prejudices of upbringing and habit, and come along anyway. If you come with open ears and open curiosity you will learn something, will probably be entertained and may even change your mind. And that, you will find, is a liberating and refreshing experience.
A hundred years from now, there should be no need for a Reason Rally. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the need is all around us and may become increasingly apparent in this election year. Please come to Washington and stand up for reason, science and truth.
Richard Dawkins is former professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford; author of “The God Delusion” and “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.”
More On Faith:
David Silverman: Why we need a reason rally
Fred Edwords: The great atheist ‘coming out’