The Problem of Tolerating Purposeful Ignorance

Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation.  Stupidity is not a sin; the victim can't help being stupid.  But stupidity is the only universal capital crime; the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.
― Robert A. Heinlein

When I started thinking about the piece I wanted to write, I noted that there were some marked similarities between stupidity as described by Mr. Heinlein above and ignorance.  In the 21st century, ignorance apparently cannot be cured using money, remedial education or political edict, either, but I think for a different reason.  In the case of religion, there are multiple cases one may find of what I would call purposeful or intentional ignorance.  These are instances where something is known to be wrong, in this case some facet of their belief system, but rather than correct themselves and abandon that facet, those who practice intentional ignorance cling to that facet, insisting that they are right and everyone else is wrong, that somehow their belief system transcends ordinary knowledge and therefore has more value than those answers provided to us by rational means.

As atheists, we have watched such ignorance promulgate freely in society, frequently to our amazement and frustration.  Bible thumpers insist that their holy book holds the key to eternal life.   Homeopaths hawk their modern-day version of snake oil.  Anti-vaccine true believers would accuse Salk and Sabin and those who followed them of promoting poisons for our children and ourselves rather than immunity to disease.  As for politicians … perhaps the less said about at least some of them, the better.  In each case, someone with a loud voice and a product to sell pushes their pet project on a public who is too often disinterested in critical thinking or examination or verification of said product’s performance, mostly because they don’t want to be bothered, but just want an ANSWER to their problem or relief from their suffering.  Worst of all, because at least some of these fields are rendered special status, either de facto or de jure or because they fall outside of the regulatory operations of our government, we allow them to persist.

And therein lies the problem: the permissiveness associated with Purposeful Public Ignorance.  Ignorance as it is may be difficult or impossible to extinguish as a general phenomenon, but why should it continue to be tolerated in the public domain, particularly when it is demonstrably HARMFUL?  That tolerance takes multiple forms, such as freedom of religion without commensurate accepted responsibility or indiscriminate multiculturalism which fails to acknowledge the corrosive aspects of a culture or caveat emptor in the marketplace.  The harm comes in the restriction or reversal of progress, the results of teaching and promoting falsehoods to children and adults alike, the pain and struggle entailed when people recognize the lies told to them and the energy expended in their attempts to undo that brainwashing.  Time and effort and energy are lost so that ignorance and its products can have its time in the sun.

I submit that we as a species can no longer afford the luxury of such ignorance or the tolerance of its presence, at least not in public.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
― Isaac Asimov

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Comment by Loren Miller on June 24, 2012 at 10:42pm

There is also the strange belief in American culture, from it's inception, that all ideas deserve respect and consideration, that no one individual (or idea) is "better" or more "worthy" of consideration in the marketplace than any other.

Ohhhhh, man, does that one set me off, to wit:

I've searched my conscience, and I can't for the life of me find any justification for this, and I simply cannot accept that there are on every story two equal and logical sides to an argument.
-- Edward R. Murrow

There are instances where the lines are blurred and where argument and debate and discussion regarding two sides of an issue are warranted. There are also issues where right is right and wrong is wrong and anyone who argues it looks like the guy who believes he saw Elvis at the 7-11 last night around 1 AM.

It is past time that we learned to call a spade a spade, to recognize the difference between wishful thinking and fact, and to have the balls to point that out unabashedly any time someone attempts to skate on faith or feeling or wishful thinking.

And most of all ... Not. Back. Down ... EVER.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 24, 2012 at 3:59pm

Unfortunately believers do experience such revelations -- but these serve only to drag them deeper into religion's fantasy-world.  Sudden epiphanies about Jesus becoming your personal savior (whatever the hell that means), feeling God, or being born again.  No wonder the new convert is enthusiastic -- he/she has achieved final victory over reason and doubt.

Comment by Loren Miller on June 24, 2012 at 6:08am

The problem is that the believers are CONVINCED that they have absolute knowledge, and their conviction is there for all to see - frightening!  Meanwhile, skeptics and scientists revel in the three words: "I don't know," though usually with the afterthought - "YET!"

I wonder how many theists have ever experienced true discovery, a revelation of something they did not know before, an "a-ha" experience, perhaps.  Can you have such an experience when, from your point of view, you know all that is necessary?

Knowing it all ... how SAD that would be!

Comment by redhands on June 23, 2012 at 10:30pm

its interesting.

you don't have absolute knowledge therefore you can never have absolute conviction

indeed, 'ignorance' is harmful but only in circumstances limited to ignorance being harmful.

there was, undoubtedly a time when it was a necessity. much like that organ in each of us that was made to digest cellulose.once essential now it is a debilitating thing, prone to disease.

although it may be true, that cutting it away is the best course of action

the action requires a certain care so as not to pierce the colon or any other organ beside it.

these ignorant people are closer to you than you think.

you must be careful of your own ignorance more than that of others

it has a way of creeping up on you

Comment by Loren Miller on June 22, 2012 at 8:03pm

Took me a while to process that, but that sort of occurred to me.  My greater problem was figuring out how to SPELL "bourgeoisie!"

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 22, 2012 at 6:30pm

I believe that was Mencken's term of derision for the bourgeoisie.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 22, 2012 at 12:17pm

Ah, yes, the "booboisie."

Comment by John Aultman on June 21, 2012 at 8:31pm

It's 2012 and “Forty-six percent of Americans still believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years. The prevalence of this creationist view of the origin of humans is essentially unchanged from 30 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question. About a third of Americans believe that humans evolved, but with God’s guidance; 15% say humans evolved, but that God had no part in the process.”

Maybe Heinlein is right....  


Comment by Loren Miller on June 21, 2012 at 7:56pm

Darrow would wonder what it was that he had fought so hard for, though granted, his case was ultimately won on a technicality.  Mencken wouldn't be much surprised, though I have no doubt he would come up with some particularly acidic remarks regarding that benighted place and the fatuous people who attend it.

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 21, 2012 at 7:37pm

Spencer Tracy delivers it magnificently.  What would Mencken or Darrow think of the Museum of Creationism ($27 million)?  And how much have we progressed? This country's religiosity will be its undoing.  Religious people are just crazy enouigh to  make the end-times a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When will a major public figure come out against religion?  Don't hold your breath. 



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