Saturday, December 12, 2009

The war on ignorance

Winston Churchill frequently asserted that if Hitler prevailed, the world would descend into a new dark age. Growing up in the aftermath of WWII, it seemed clear that--at least if we avoided nuclear war--civilization would advance. Seeing the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's and '70's, the War on Poverty--not a success, but a step forward--the first astronauts, landings on the moon, victories over polio and childhood leukemia and the advent of the computer age, I never lost that belief.

Surely I did not believe, until well into middle age, that a central struggle of my life would be a war against ignorance. That, however, is what we face now and for the foreseeable future.

For what, after all, are al Qaeda, the Taliban and other fundamentalist Islamic sects that want to drag Muslims back to an age that would have seemed retrograde to the Moors of medieval Spain? And let us not pretend that the West is any less besieged by ignorance. Those who would treat evolution and creationism as equals, who dispute overwhelming evidence of humanity's contribution to climate change, who deny the Holocaust--they, too, are apostles of ignorance. Such people are perfectly entitled to their beliefs, so long as they do not try to force them on others. But saying that does not change their stance as those who exalt some given truth over evidence, who deny that humans can, through thought and effort, learn great truths, and who in so doing reject one of the great qualities of our species.

Like all wars that may justifiably be called just, this struggle has been forced on us. The consequences of defeat are terrible to contemplate.

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