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fear

I finished up The God Delusion this morning on the drive in to work, and moved on to Al Gore's Assault on Reason.

Of course, it should be noted (if it wasn't already obvious) that Gore's complaint is NOT about religion. Rather, his concern is reason in the public square, political reason. I am through one CD and most of the second, and he is currently discussing fear. He spent a considerable time talking about the biological mechanisms of fear, and their psychological consequences. He has "deconstructed" the Enlightenment supremacy of reason and claimed that while a marvelous goal, it is both impractical and cold. And he argues, not unsurprisingly given his own predeliction toward Christianity, to claim that reason and faith can work together.

I am not at this moment interested in dwelling too much on the fact that I think he's equivocating with his use of "faith". I will also not begin a debate here about the old saw that really reasonable people are cold. (Ironically, as you will see if a minute, I think that is a fear-based statement.)

However, having laid out this disclaimer, I do agree that for the average person, expectations of reason were probably inflated during the Enlightenment Era. Not that I don't think every person is capable of it on some abstract level, but reason takes work, and not all of us place the ability to reason as being important enough to trouble with. I do not believe that will ever really go away. That is different, though, than accepting that the disrespect of rationality that we see today is inevitable. Respecting the opinions of true experts works almost as well for the average person. Rejecting the ability of experts to really know anything clearly circumvents that potential resource.

I did take a great deal away from the discussion on fear. And it struck me as particularly interesting. Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion rarely mentions fear except in passing, and listening to Gore's discussion I was particularly interested to note that Dawkins comes across as marvelously fear free. Just as Carl Sagan once was, even in the face of grave concerns, never really afraid. Does the absence of fear come from one's ability to reason, or is one's predeliction for fear concomittant with an inability to reason? Setting aside the notion of religion for the moment, what an incredibly interesting conversation that would be!

Of course, once the public square conversation was over, it would only be reasonable to bring up the subject of religion. Are people who are more afraid, also more religious? And while I venture to guess that there is a correlation, is inate fearfulness the cause of religion? And if so, how does one counter that fear either in children, or in the adults. I suspect here that Gore would argue that some fears, like the fear of death are justified, and thus even if his faith in god is motivated by fear, it is a reasonable one... but I'm sure that Dawkins would argue that while it may "seem" reasonable, that does not make it so, or in point of fact, true.

I have tried to argue to those near me that I find to be particularly susceptible to fear that they must really work hard to remind themselves that they do not have to be afraid. To honestly consider the true likelihood of things. To consider the number of people who are being hurt on any particular course of action. Or that they are working in a field where they are seeking out the underbelly of society and that the perception they have of the world is skewed.

The two people I've tried particularly hard to work on have been one of my cousins who is a police officer, and my mother. My couin especially was deeply bothered by his first murder investigation, and deeply disturbed by a child sex-abuse case he worked on. We have argued about censorship of the Internet, for instance, on sex-related vocabulary. His goal is laudible of protecting children from Internet sex abuse, but his idea of a solution is to limit the access of otherwise law-abiding people merely looking for information on breast cancer, or sexual orientation counseling, or the like. Child sex abuse is horrible, but news coverage (and certainly the police perception is even more acute) that this is happening frequently, and every child is in danger, and that "inconveniencing" others to prevent such abuse is a justified price to pay. However, they fail to take into consideration that gay teenager isolated in a small town searching the Internet for evidence that he is normal, with the possible consequence that without such information, he may choose to kill himself in his despair.

Given Gore's description of the psychology resulting from the action of mirror neurons (a by-product of our ability to learn useful things from others; I'm sure Dawkins would approve), one wonders if providing on-going psychological counseling to law enforcement officers (among other professions, like prosecutors) would not be good public policy. As a way of reminding them that the real world is not nearly so fearful as the one they see on a daily basis. I suspect that such a move would seriously cut down on the calls to "law & order" politics and revenge-based penal systems.

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