Q. The S&P downgraded America’s credit ranking, the country remains engaged in two wars, millions are unemployed and approval ratings for Congress are at historic lows.
It was against this backdrop that Texas Governor Rick Perry held The Response, a prayer event in which he prayed for the economy, among other areas of “darkness” in America.
In a critique of the revival, Frank Bruni wrote in his New York Times column that when it comes to fixing out country’s problems, “faith and prayer just won’t cut it. In fact, they’ll get in the way.”
Is Bruni right?
A. Rick Perry embodies the tragedy and the scandal of the modern United States. A country that has led the world, dominated global economics, politics, even science - but which is turning its back on reason and rushing headlong to embrace a new Dark Ages, in which superstition is not only followed, but hallowed. A country which could be great, but which is rapidly turning itself into an embarrassment, the laughing stock of the developed world.
I do understand the feeling that sometimes things are all just too much: the wish that there could be a greater power who will make all things well if only we can find the right ritual, the right magic words, to trigger its beneficence. Humans have been abasing themselves to such wishful thinking since the days of prehistory, building temples of various shapes, sizes, materials and orientations, worshipping their handmade idols, mumbling incantations, brewing potions and making sacrifices, whether of time or comfort, doves or people, all in the vain and frightened hope that they will thereby pacify an angry god or flatter it into looking kindly upon them. On a purely emotional level it is an understandable response to the reality of a world which can be frightening, unpredictable, even overwhelming. Understandable - but unworthy. Understandable - but undignified. Understandable - but completely, utterly, definitively futile. And as I see it, no person who dares to think of himself as educated or civilized - let alone as worthy to be the potential leader of the developed world - has any business surrendering himself to a fictional fairy godfather.
It is time that we, as a species, grew up. It is time that we, in the civilized world, demanded of our politicians that they face up to their responsibilities in a clear-eyed, clear-minded way, and stop debasing themselves - and us, by association - through their deliberate spurning of the most powerful force at our disposal: the force of human reason and intellect.
The human brain is almost certainly the most highly developed, most sophisticated, most astonishing entity on Earth. For all we know, it could be the most highly developed, most sophisticated, most astonishing entity in the entire universe. That is not to claim that it is perfect: like all other components of life, it is the product of evolution, and its different parts bear witness to our evolutionary history, charting our course from unreasoning, purely instinctive pre-human animals, through to the sophisticated, reasoning, intelligent beings we are capable of being today. The more sophisticated parts of our brain have not replaced the ancient, unreasoning ones: they have merely supplemented them. In practice, this means that the ancient parts of our brains, the unreasoning, emotionally driven parts, are activated first, with our more recent, reasoning, civilized capabilities only kicking in afterwards. These reasoning parts of our brains are what truly distinguish us from the other animals. Yet it is precisely these brain functions that religion would have us subdue and conquer.
This is what Rick Perry is proposing as the solution to America’s problems: that we turn our backs on the very reasoning processes which, in reality, offer our only hope and which are the very source of human dignity; that we reject them, spurn them, cast them aside as though they were shameful and unclean. It is the equivalent of proposing that we put out an inferno by discarding our fire extinguishers; that we save the occupants of a stricken ship by sinking the lifeboats; and that before ejecting from a stalled aircraft, we should first carefully ensure that we cut the cords on our parachutes.
What responsible driver, seeing a multiple pile-up on the road ahead, responds by taking his hands off the steering wheel? Yet this is precisely what Rick Perry would have the United States of America do.
The human brain is perfectly capable of creating seemingly intractable problems. We do not always reason perfectly. We often make flawed decisions. As a result, we all too often find ourselves in situations that can almost overwhelm us with their severity and urgency. But the human brain is the best we have. It is our only tool when it comes to solving the problems that face us. Crises require cool heads, clear thinking, expertise and the deepest possible commitment to rational thinking. To claim that they actually require us to throw ourselves on the mercy of a mythical deity is a cop-out - and a disgracefully irresponsible cop-out at that. Making supplications to a magic friend is not any way for the leader of a modern, civilized, developed nation to proceed.
The people of the United States need to decide what kind of future they want for their nation. Do you want it to continue to be respected and admired? To be a beacon of education and learning, and civilization? Or do you want to surrender your role in history, throw in the intellectual towel, and become a global laughing stock as the first nation to have tasted the fruits of civilization and to have rejected them in favor of comforting but childish myth?
There is no magic friend. There is only us. We are not perfect, we are not all-powerful, we are not infallible; but we are all we have. No amount of wailing to an empty sky (to borrow a friend’s expression) is going to solve a thing. And the very least we have the right to demand of our would-be leaders is that they proceed on the basis of reason and intellect, and that they don’t simply sacrifice our futures to the imagined whims of fictional ghosts and goblins, myths and magic, spells and potions, demons and deities. It is time to grow up, Rick Perry. If you lack rational proposals for the solution of America’s problems, what makes you think you’re fit to be its leader?
Paula Kirby | Aug 11, 2011 5:38 PM