I don’t know what most folks think about Al Gore. I’ve always liked him without knowing too many specifics about him; environmentally concerned, a long-serving senator who helped pass the legislation that brought about widespread access to the Internet. (No, he did not try to claim he invented the Internet from scratch. I really get tired of that nonsense.) But I think he might have written one of the most timely books this year.
Sometimes I think of him as America’s Professor, in that he’s focused his efforts on teaching the country about the issues he feels strongly about ever since he lost his bid to actually lead the country. His latest book, The Assault on Reason, has got to be one of the most reasonable and intelligent books I’ve read this year. And whatever you may think of his voice or his preoccupation with wonky things, his thoughts on the compatibility of reason and faith are really important right now.
Yep, the compatibility of reason and faith. That’s a lovely phrase. I don’t think that religion is irrational or that intelligence is secular. What I get upset about are people who insist on a choice between the two. And unfortunately, there are plenty of those. Al Gore ain’t one of them.
What I like about his book is that he believes the real villian is neither religion nor reason, because both are necessary. He describes how the Enlightenment, which transformed a feudal and violent world into a literate and more rational world (if not necessarily less violent!), led to a belief that people could govern themselves rationally instead of allowing kings who were supposedly divine to lead with whatever brutality they desired. But he also acknowledges that reason wasn’t the only answer.
The Age of Reason also had a dark side, of couse. Claims to reason have justified appalling atrocities, including the so-called scientific racism that justified Nazi anti-Semitism and so much else. Moreover, the abstract nature of reason made some of its most zealous practitioners dangerously numb to human realities rooted in emotional attachments and shared feelings of responsibility for community, family, and nature. [emphasis mine]
Gore says that it’s fear, not reason or faith, that upsets the balance between spiritual and secular considerations. And he’s got a point. I can’t think of a better example than the Taliban.
As many people know, this theocracy emerged in the chaos of Afghanistan, after years of a proxy war between colonialist Russians and American-funded mujahideen had destroyed any semblance of government, order or law in that country. After so much death and destruction and terror, these men – many of whom grew up in refugee camps along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan – thought that the solution was Islam. Initially, they brought order to the country, at least to some extent. But in the extremity of the terror around them, they made Islam into a terrible thing too, using violence and occasionally murder to impose the purest Islam they knew onto everyone in the country. Their fear of anything that might corrupt the purity of their Islam led them to conduct public executions and even to assault other religions. Remember how they blew up those 6th-century statues of Buddha in the Bamyan valley of Afghanistan?
If Gore is right, and I suspect he is, the answer to the conflict between religious values and science is not for one of them to win. It’s for everybody to just settle down and think instead of being so afraid. The terrorists are not just about to blow us all up and we’re not all just about to slide downward into the pits of hell, nor do we need to invade any more countries or let anybody open our mail to keep us safe from, well, anything.