Magical Thinking Nation

6 03 2013
Faith that does not fear truth is a faith that will endure.

Faith that does not fear truth is a faith that will endure.

There seems to be a prevailing mindset among the people of these (dis)United States that if they believe something loudly enough, it will be true. Conversely, if they deny something passionately enough, it becomes not true. There even seems to be something heroic about it in the national imagination; the brave, idealistic soul, staunchly clinging to his convictions in spite of the facts arrayed against him.

Thus certain groups dispense with evolution and substitute Intelligent Design, deny global climate change, insist on the reality of angels, visiting aliens, assorted conspiracies and Bigfoot, and force their prejudices and illusions into the public discourse. Politicians, talk show hosts and entire networks cater to what would otherwise be fringe thinking and base wildly successful careers on it. It creates a dangerous feedback loop, as the deluded find their delusions validated in the media, and believe them all the harder, picking up more converts on the way. Hey, it was on the news. An important person (important because he was on TV or radio) is taking alien abductions seriously. Maybe I should, too.

This is America, a country designed specifically to encourage crank ideas, on the premise that some of those crank ideas might turn out to be valid. But for a crank idea to prove itself and become mainstream, it needs to be tested by reality. Do the facts support it? Can science prove it? Do people who have devoted their lives to understanding how the world works think the idea has merit? Thus we have moved forward in an often lurching, erratic path to find answers that work, that cure diseases and provide the framework for amazing new technologies.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line we decided to skip that validation process and allow the crank ideas to hit the mainstream without being tested by anything other than popular opinion. Thus travesties like Creation “Science” get to be taken seriously when they have absolutely no validity at all outside the misguided imagination.

I do not mean to attack religious belief per se. One is free to gather together into congregations and express whatever spiritual truth feels good and righteous. Just keep it in church and don’t come into the classroom or the halls of government with it. That’s what we mean by separation of Church and State.

Magical thinking may be helpful to people in their personal lives, to get them through the struggle of dealing with a world that is often cruel and unfeeling. There is comfort in the idea of “letting go”, allowing Jesus, or God, or angels or whatever take over and do the driving. But please don’t do that literally on the highway at rush hour. People will get killed.

Perhaps there is something to prayer, psychologically or otherwise, that can heal a person. But if your child is seriously ill, diabetic or badly injured, take them to a hospital. Don’t take them to a church and pray over them. Children whose parents do that die.

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape

And if you are a politician, it may play well to your constituents to adhere fervently to some crackpot notion. But please pay attention to the facts, to reality, when you vote. No matter how much you want to believe that Saddam Hussein is hoarding weapons of mass destruction, no matter how determined you are that the war you want to fight will be a great success and will fulfill all sorts of greater political ambitions, if the experts tell you it just ain’t so, believe them. Because otherwise, people will die. Lots and lots of people.

Human happiness is real and measurable. The efficacy of a particular medical practice can be studied and evaluated. The success of a political policy can be observed, and if it fails, it should be discarded. Believing something to be true does not make it true, and there are reliable means of testing one’s beliefs. The Bible did not tell us how to cure polio, Sharia Law did not give us the computer, and meditation won’t keep ocean levels from rising as the glaciers melt. The Bible, Sharia Law and meditation may all have some use, but Reality trumps everything.





3 responses

6 03 2013

excellent Justine.

6 03 2013

I love this!

11 03 2013

Congratulations – you’ve been nominated for a Liebster award! To find out more go to

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