The Religion of the State

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I have long been interested in the hidden assumptions that underlie our thinking — mine as well as others. As a confirmed agnostic, I have no defense to make for the theory of u201Cintelligent design.u201D To the contrary, when advocates of that proposition contend that life is too complex for its origins to be explained by theories of evolution, my interest in the study of u201Cchaosu201D reminds me that it is the very complex nature of life that makes intelligent planning and control as unworkable in matters biological as it is in the realm of state economic planning and control. I share Terry Pratchett’s view that u201Cchaos always defeats order because it is better organized.u201D

Nonetheless, the basis of the Pennsylvania federal district court’s recent opinion that requiring teachers in government schools to offer u201Cintelligent designu201D as an alternative to Darwin’s theory was a violation of the First Amendment, carries a hidden premise that I have not heard discussed. A news report informs us that the judge condemned the required reference to u201Cintelligent designu201D in part because it is contrary to science. If this report is correct — I have not read his opinion — the decision rests on an article of faith — by definition a matter of religious belief — that the scientific process provides the ultimate standard by which all u201Ctruthu201D is to be defined and measured.

While I am a strong supporter of scientific inquiry, I recognize that, as with any belief system, it has its limitations: one cannot use the so-called u201Cscientific methodu201D to validate the scientific method. Gregory Bateson observed the need for every belief system to be subject to the standards of a metasystem for confirmation, a never-ending process requiring each metasystem of thought to be validated by yet another metasystem. The explanation u201Cit’s turtles all the way downu201D helps to put the limited nature of our thinking in perspective.

One must also factor in the late scientific historian Paul Feyerabend’s thesis that the sciences have not been driven by a single u201Cscientific method.u201D Scientific understanding has employed not only the more familiar empirical, replicative procedures; but also chance, guesswork, accidents, dreaming, visualization, even fraud, to advance our knowledge of the world. The notion that there is an objectively u201Ccorrectu201D route to truth becomes, itself, a religious proposition.

Furthermore, if the scientific process ends up being capable of validating only that which is verifiable by announced scientific methods, what is to be said of those values that are beyond quantifiable and empirical assessment? What are the costs of Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, or American and British torture camps? It is this awareness that sets the Austrian school apart from other schools of economic inquiry (i.e., those that presume that the unquantifiable cannot — and ought not — be incorporated into economic analyses). This was the central point of my Rothbard Lecture given at the Mises Institute in early 2003, titled u201CA Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Human Spirit: The Luddites Revisited.u201D

To smuggle a set of a priori assumptions into a discussion and then imagine that one is challenging religious faith, is an exercise in self-delusion. There is an element of arbitrariness underlying every belief system, if for no other reason than the fact that our beliefs arise wholly within our minds; that they are about the world rather than of it. To condemn the theory of u201Cintelligent designu201D because it contravenes scientific understanding is no less an act of religious faith than attacking Charles Darwin’s work because it is contrary to the Book of Genesis.

Each of us, I believe, has a need for spiritual experiences; for a sense of transcendence; a need to connect up with the universe — including other people — in a profound way. We pursue this need in a variety of ways reflective of the inherent diversity of life. Some of us seek this spiritual sense in religious and philosophic speculation; others in scientific pursuits; still others in music, art, dance, poetry, architecture, engineering, business, gardening, or the raising of children. Those who pursue wealth, power, fame, or status, are driven by a need to transcend themselves by becoming u201Cbigger than life.u201D Even politics attracts people who believe, however mistakenly, that they can experience a connection with others through careers in government, conduct that puts themselves in conflict with — and coercively violates the wills of — their fellow humans.

Institutions — particularly the state — have no interest in spiritual or emotional matters. Their pursuits are purely materialistic and mechanistic. The inner lives of individuals — such as the desire for liberty — are of no consequence to them, other than as entropic wastes to be avoided or disposed of in the most efficient manner. To such entities, a materialistic science applied to u201Chuman resourcesu201D through technology and social engineering is all that matters. The nonmaterial becomes immaterial in such a world, and those who insist upon a metasystem of values — whether grounded in religion, philosophy, or other normative pursuits — are simply looked upon as being counterproductive to the u201Cbrave new worldu201D of corporate-statism. Spiritual inquiries provide too much of a distraction from politically-centered purposes to be abided by the state.

We live in a world in which the mass killing of people is dismissed as u201Ccollateral damageu201D; the constant and ever-more-intrusive control and surveillance of men and women is treated as a form of u201Cinventory controlu201D; the spontaneity and curiosity of children is defined as a social disease to be drugged; and the inviolate nature of human beings is routinely disregarded by robotic functionaries of the state whose own spiritual death allows them to torture, maim, and kill others upon command. All of this is defended by morally deranged political leaders on the twisted grounds of u201Cnecessityu201D and, far worse, the preservation of u201Cfreedom.u201D

As I stated earlier, I do not believe in the notion of u201Cintelligent design.u201D But my dispute is not over the comparative merits of this doctrine versus evolution. There is a far deeper issue going to the separation of religion and state that is rarely mentioned: the secular religious faith that government should be involved in education; in indoctrinating the minds of people to accept a politically-centered society. State education is no less grounded in religious faith than are churches; replacing a crucifix or Star-of-David atop a building with a flag does not change the fundamental nature of what is taking place.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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