Last time I checked, Stossel was more agnostic than atheist (a good reporter strives to suspend judgment, I suppose), but he should provide a sympathetic ear to Richard Dawkins, one of his interview subjects (and author of The God Delusion).
I was only recently reminded (by my comrade-in-skepticism Chuck Blake) that I’ve been arguing not only with the faithful but even with full-fledged creationists since high school, when a handful of our fellow honors students at Norwich Free Academy high school somehow fell for the whole no-convincing-fossil-record, carbon-dating-my-ass pre-“intelligent design” version of anti-Darwinian thinking.
Indeed, I think the first political column I ever wrote was a high school piece warning about the influence of the fundamentalists on the religious right — but I was more wary of the moral relativism and apologies for communism on the left and for about the next twenty years took the Reaganite view that these religious issues are sort of secondary things best left to the general culture to sort out, while politics is mainly the realm of tax and regulatory debates. Since the post-Reagan coalition on the right hasn’t substantially deregulated or shrunk the government, though — and more importantly, since religious fundamentalists killed thousands of people downtown a few years ago and would surely love to do so again — my patience with treating faith as a useful or at least tolerable cultural partner is at an end.
(Sadly, I don’t really trust the organized Skeptics movement that much anymore, either, since their premier magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, has opened a DC headquarters and unskeptically jumped in a big way on the global-warming-doom bandwagon, something I need to dispatch a terse letter about the moment I finish writing this blog entry.)
But in any case, the truth does not hinge on political necessity, and if one casts aside all of the social-utility and psychological-utility arguments (which often aren’t all that convincing to begin with) for religion, one is not left with anything I think we’d normally call evidence or a remotely plausible rational argument — just stuff that in one way or another boils down to “but thinking it was true helped me overcome alcoholism/write an opera/avoid a life of crime/convince fellow neocons we had a duty to invade Iraq/etc.,” all of which is swell but not exactly a good basis for claims about the basic structure of the universe. And in any case, perhaps we can avoid alcoholism and so forth even more effectively without filling people’s heads with fairytales, which means we may be retarding long-term cultural development for short-term gains, like parents who tell their kids not to go in the woods because the boogeyman will get them instead of teaching the kids about real predators, wilderness survival, knot-tying, and so forth.
I remember telling a co-worker back when I was working for Stossel, in fact, that I thought the dangerous thing about faith is that since it does not check its conclusions against empirical reality, it may “tell” people to love and tolerate their neighbors today but tomorrow, blown by different cultural winds, tell people to commit mass murder. Oh, that doesn’t happen, my co-worker basically assured me, amused at what she saw as my relentless negativity in this area (as she is to this day). That was before 9/11, of course.
It’s bad enough that billions of people on this planet continue to treat faith with respect as a means of discerning truth despite the obvious fact that it leads some people to believe in Jesus and, with just as much plausibility, leads other people — who seem clearly to be operating on the same level of well-meaning eagerness to believe in what’s right and good — to believe in Vishnu. But to continue praising faith as a reliable guide even while our civilization is under assault by the likes of al Qaeda strikes me as evidence that most people are stubborn and close-minded right up to and beyond the point of self-destruction (and still they wonder how suicide bombers happen).
Given the spats between church and monarchy that shaped centuries of European history and the clashes between religion-fueled political groups and liberal-or-socialist pro-government groups in our own era, I suspect a lot of human history will (eventually) be looked back upon as effectively a stalemate between two false choices: let the imaginary king in the sky control your life or let the all too real authoritarians on Earth control your life. If you say, “Hey, maybe we can do without either,” you’re labeled a radical nutcase. Ah, well, at least there’s the Stossel broadcast tomorrow.
P.S. I beg you not to respond with citations of religious authorities as supposed “reason” to take faith seriously. Believe me, I’ve now heard decades worth of apologetics for religion, and it’s all complete crap, as I think even the truest of true believers know, dimly, on some level. But the most useless form of the stuff is the offering up of banal Bible passages as if they have some persuasive power greater than bad poetry, so, as the “owner” of this site, I’m telling you not to trespass with nonsense like “But, Todd, you have forgotten Zebadoodah 3:24:05, which clearly teaches us that ‘He who maketh not his resting place beneath the Lord’s bower finds himself lost like unto a man who thought there was a river nearby but now is parched and cranky, while he who taketh comfort in said bower is flowed o’er full ten fathom deep with river water, but in a good way that doth de-parchify his soul, making all who know him glad and strong, for God has this way of revealing things unto those who stop asking certain obvious questions and play along like the sorts of upbeat people who end up onstage, no doubt enjoying themselves more than thee, at one of those onstage-hypnosis acts, like unto the ones seen by Ezekiel when he was in Galilee.” I can delete comments, you know.
UPDATE 5/14/07: The Stossel segment can be seen here.