Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A rational view of irrationality

I headed into my neighborhood watering hole yesterday after a hard day working in the woods, on a mission to get some food, and got talking with the bartender, who is a young woman recently graduated from college. I guess I'm more avuncular than I realized, because she started confiding in me, and of course with bartenders it's supposed to be the other way around. Anyway, she majored in international relations, and now she somewhat regrets it, because she knows too much about what's going on in the world and it's depressing. She'd rather be a happy idiot. I told her that happiness isn't everything.

Anyway, however depressed I may already have been about the state of our species, it didn't lift my spirits to open the paper this morning and read that American creationists are carrying their cause to Europe, with some success. AP reporter Gregory Katz quotes a British cabdriver who has joined the movement: "Evolution is a lie, and it's being taught in schools as fact, and it's leading our kids in the wrong direction. But now people like Ken Ham are tearing evolution to pieces." Ham, of course, is the founder of Answers in Genesis. His British lieutenant, Monty White, says "People are looking for spirituality. I think they are fed up with not finding true happiness."

This of course begs the question: why is True Happiness to be found in creationism? It certainly doesn't work for me, but I think I have some understanding of what this is all about. The universe we have discovered in the past 150 years or so is, obviously, radically different from the stories people had been telling each other since they first learned how to speak. Those stories were made up, and that's a huge advantage over the truth. The made up stories that made people feel good were the ones that got repeated and believed in.

Isn't it nice to think that a being of awesome power and grandeur not only created us, but that we are his main concern and preoccupation? Even if he's only good to us some of the time, that means we're important, and those of us who don't feel very important here in the real world can take comfort in knowing that they are, after all, extremely important to the almighty and by believing the right stories and saying the right mumbo jumbo, they can play an equal part in the central story of creation with the mightiest potentates, and be elevated to the same state of eternal glory as any of the grandest princes.

The truth about the universe just isn't very satisfying to the individual ego. It doesn't seem to mean anything, this bursting of infinite heat and density out of nothingness, expansion and cooling and condensation over billions of years, until some chemical reactions in a layer of slime on a dust mote in the infinite cold and dark make us wake up and feel joy and pain, unnoticed and alone. How comforting to be an ignorant idiot, like Ham and White wish for us all to be.

But my young friend behind the bar can't put her own genie of knowledge back in the bottle, and I don't think she really wants to. She hasn't decided what she wants to do next, which is why she's tending bar -- maybe be a schoolteacher, maybe the foreign service -- and there's no particular hurry. But whatever she chooses, her life is going to be deeper and richer and more interesting lived in the hard light of truth. The narcotic of ignorance may be awfully tempting, but the bliss of morpheus is far less rewarding than the battle to know the truth. It will never be over, but it's the meaning of life.

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