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dimming: Reason and
secularism under attack
by Francis Wheen
(Special to the Los Angeles Times, May 2004; slightly
In 1922, just after his second term as president, Woodrow
Wilson was asked for his thoughts on Darwinian theory.
"Of course, like every other man of
intelligence and education, I do believe in organic evolution," he
replied. "It surprises me that at this late date such questions should
Now imagine Wilson's downright astonishment
had he been informed that in 2004, more than eight decades later, the
state schools superintendent in Georgia would propose excising the word
"evolution" from the biology curriculum.
There are few backers these days for the
argument that we have reached "the end of history." However, a glance
at some of the dominant ideas of the last couple of decades raises an
even more startling possibility that history, far from halting, has
gone into reverse gear....
Over the last 25 years or so, after two
centuries of gradual ascendancy, Enlightenment values of reason,
secularism and scientific empiricism have come under fierce assault
from a grotesquely incongruous coalition of radical deconstructionists
and medieval flat-earthers, New Age mystics and Old Testament
The space vacated by notions of history and
progress has been colonized by cults, quackery, gurus, irrational
panics, moral confusion and an epidemic of gibberish. A Gallup poll in
1993, for example, found that only 11 percent of Americans accepted the
standard scientific account of evolution, whereas 47 percent maintained
that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one
time within the last 10,000 years or so." Another poll revealed that 49
percent of Americans believed in demonic possession, 36 percent in
telepathy and 25 percent in astrology. It is as if the Enlightenment
There have been astonishing scientific
advances in the last quarter-century, exemplified by the creation of
the Internet and the mapping of the human genome. In spite of this—or
more likely because of it—millions
of Westerners now seek consolation
from mumbo-jumbo merchants and snake-oil vendors.
Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who
styles himself a modernizer and recites the mantra "education,
education, education," has praised creationist teachers at a
state-funded school in the north of England who seek to establish the
Book of Genesis as the main biology textbook. Blair and his wife
underwent a "rebirthing experience" while holidaying on the Mexican
Riviera three years ago. "The Blairs were offered watermelon and
papaya, then told to smear what they did not eat over each other's
bodies along with mud from the Mayan jungle outside," the London Times
reported. "Before leaving, the Blairs were told to scream out loud to
signify the pain of rebirth."
Rational argument is increasingly obscured by
a swirling fog of emotionalism and superstition—and, as Blair has
proved, even the highest and mightiest are not immune. Remember Nancy
Reagan's astrologer? Or President Clinton's brainstorming weekend with
Hollywood mystic Marianne Williamson, self-styled "sacred psychologist"
Jean Houston and management gurus Anthony Robbins and Stephen R. Covey?
The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.
Some are manifestly sinister, others perhaps merely comical—harmless
pastimes, as Nancy Reagan said of her reliance on horoscopes.
Cumulatively, however, the proliferation of obscurant bunkum is a
menace to the Enlightenment legacy bequeathed to America by Thomas
Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Where is H. L. Mencken when we need
Wheen is the author of "Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities,
Irrational Power-Brokers, Media Morons and the Erosion of Common Sense"
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