I have a friend who likes to engage me on our points of departure. He’s a self-admitted conservative, I am not. He’s a sincere Christian, I’m an atheist. Looking around at the current culture, you would think that should make any conversation we might have problematic at best, impossible at worst.
Yet we carry on the occasional hour, two-hour, sometimes three hour conversation and never once descend into anger or dismissive rhetoric. And yes, we talk about religion regularly. We talk about politics. We talk about meaningful living. It’s the kind of exchange of ideas from different perspectives that seems both rare and uniquely pleasurable. Would that we taught kids growing up how to appreciate this kind of conversation as, at the very least, an æsthetic pleasure.
Consequently, when he questions me on priorities, I tend to listen.
A couple weeks ago, after the monthly jam session (he runs a church basement coffeehouse to which I’ve been going and participating for more than a few years now) we hung around and started talking about current subjects. My opening statement concerned the new movie Noah and the absurd fact that the studio has decided to put a disclaimer on it to appease religious reactionaries who are bothered by “historical inaccuracies.” I expected a laugh over the ridiculousness of this—these are not people who have much patience for that kind of shallow literalism—but instead what followed was a discussion of my obsessive attention to people like Ken Ham and the anti-evolution crowd and biblical literalists in general.
“Why do you pay any attention to them?”
Well, I replied, somewhat glibly, stupidity is fascinating.
Patiently, though, my friend worked at that. Really? Aren’t there better things to focus your attention on than the obdurate intractability of intellectual ostriches? Don’t you have, like, books to write?
At the end of the conversation (which is not to say that it’s over) I had to concede that I spent far too much time and mental energy worrying over the misreadings, misinterpretations, manglings, and malignancies of what is a minority example of entrenched ignorance. Like watching a neighbor gradually destroy his property (and being unable to do much about it), or watching a slow-motion train wreck, or even repeatedly viewing and complaining about a very expensive yet utterly brainless film, it is both attractive and repellant to observe this particular bit of cultural shadow-play.
The answer to the question has occupied me now since. Why do I give them so much of myself?
The glib answer is that they draw attention to themselves in such a way as to seem important and relevant. Paying attention to them feels, on a shallow level, like being engaged. Noticing them, knowing what they’ve been saying and seeing what they’re doing, seems like being a responsible agent in my own culture. Every time they manage to censor discussions in schools about evolution or try to force prayer into the classroom or some other culture-war battleground is pushed into the news, being aware of it just seems the thing to do.
A somewhat less glib answer is that the very real political power such groups seem to enjoy worries me. I don’t want to live in a country designed by biblical literalists. And determining how they’re wrong and why is basic to any kind of pushback.
And of course, since this conversation took place, we have the incident of the FOX television affiliate in Oklahoma blocking fifteen seconds of the new Cosmos program, the 15 seconds dealing with evolution, and my blood boils. I react. I become insensed. And I immediately go to write a new blog post about how stupid this is and how malevolent this kind of nonsense is and how—
Which is, actually, a waste of my time. Really, there are better-qualified people doing exactly that. You can find links to some of them on the sidebar over to the right. You want to read a better-informed and more current tirade against this kind of thing, go to Freethought Pharyngula—P. Z. Myer is an evolutionary biologist and apparently has more time, energy, and inclination than I do to keep abreast of all this nonsense—or check the science blogs to which I maintain links.
I don’t have to do this.
And yet…and yet…I keep doing it. Even here, in addressing a different kind of question, I’m thrashing about and striking back. Willful ignorance, asserted as if it is a positive attribute, with an insistence that it is Right and Truth and we should all bow to its inevitable godlines MAKES—ME—CRAZY.
Because, at base, I loathe my own ignorance. I loathe that part of me that desperately wants to be right, whether I am or not. Because I am aware of my ignorance and strive to correct it and because I see that as an important fight it disturbs me—more, it frightens me—when others not only don’t see the worth in that fight but are dedicated to preventing the triumph of knowledge.
So, I suppose the simple answer to my friend’s question is—fear. Those people scare me. They are the ideological descendents of Inquisitors, witchfinders, book-burners, imperialists of dogma, stone-throwers, and censors. Because I read Lest Darkness Fall and Fahrenheit 451 and my imagination is such that I can see what a victory for them would mean for people like me.
And because I honestly lack any kind of faith in those who are my intellectual and cultural kindred that we will win this fight.
But that still doesn’t fully address the challenge he laid at me feet. Why do I pay so much attention to all this when I could better serve my own purpose and the purpose of the civilization I support in so many other ways?
Because, when combined with all of the above, this has become a rut. It is easy. And it feeds my sense of relevance. But really it’s a paltry diet. There are richer meals to be had, that would be more beneficial, to me and to others. So it is an itch which has become easy and habitual for me to scratch. And in certain company, it’s a sign that I am part of a certain group of like-minded.
It’s a poor excuse. I could be doing better things with my time and frankly getting more out of my intellectual life. Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to change their minds, and those who nod along with me when I dive into one of my tirades don’t need me to tell them about this.
I think it is worth paying attention to when tax money goes to something like Ken Ham’s Creation Museum. That’s an abuse of public trust and a violation of the law, frankly, and should be made public and stopped.
But I don’t need to go on about Ken Ham’s idiocy.
The spot that itches has grown raw and inflamed from repeated scratching and no salve is in sight. I need to leave it alone. I have a book on mathematics to hand, another about the history of science fiction, and still another about World War I. Yes, I have a couple of books dealing with the assault of reason, which is not only from a religious reactionary quarter—reason is under assault from many quarters—but I’m a fiction writer. My job is to tell stories about the world and because I write science fiction I can do a little prognosticating. I have to stop pissing away time on pointless subjects.
Besides, I really do think they’ll fade. When I sit myself down and really examine it, the world view we define as that of Reason will maintain and eventually the nattering naysayers will diminish. It’s just difficult to see that day to day and believe it when there are people worrying over the “historical” inaccuracies in a Hollywood film about a mythical event.
So I wish to thank my friend for opening a door and pointing out that I’ve been perhaps wandering the wrong hallway for a time.
This is why we must cultivate relationships with people we disagree with.