Americans are such silly chaps, eh?

Got to my Saturday copy of the Vancouver Sun too late, I’m afraid, to be able to provide a working link to Peter McKnight’s column for nonsubscribers. (If you feel like signing up, here’s the front page; knock yourself out.) The title of the op-ed, in what appears to be 36-point font, is “The problem with faith in politics.” Directly above the column is an illustration: a silhouette of George W. Bush speaking from a podium, punctuating his points with a large wooden cross that he holds in his left hand. The piece has not one but two epigraphs: quotes from Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes on the importance of an open mind.


Ugh, I thought going in, how utterly and hopelessly Canadian: caricature us yanks as a bunch of Bible thumpers and then flaunt the superior Maple Leafed virtue of tolerance.

There’s some of that in the piece, to be sure, but the columnist has a few interesting things to say. McKnight starts with the charges of flip-flopping that Bush has tossed at Senator John Kerry (admit it: the joke about how Kerry could spend 90 minutes debating himself was pretty funny) and ultimately declines to issue a verdict because “this whole controversy reveals a much more important phenomenon.” To wit, “[C]hanging your mind has become, at least for politicians, the new cardinal sin,” and not just in the U.S.:

Here in kinder, gentler, but no less dogmatic Canada, changing your mind is also a mortal sin. Five years ago, the House of Commons adopted a motion that defined “marriage” as the union of a man and a woman. Then last year, the Canadian Alliance brought forward a similar motion to shame any Liberal MPs who might have been tempted to flip-flop on the matter.

And it turned out that a number of MPs “had the temerity to change their minds.” McKnight complains that the center right Canadian Alliance (since dissolved and joined with the squish Progressive Conservative Party to form the Canadian Conservative Party) tried to embarrass the Liberals for changing their grey matter. He argues the belief in standing by one’s announced convictions, “even when confronted by new facts or novel arguments,” demonstrates a deeply unscientific cast of mind.

McKnight sets up a contrast between Stephen Hawking, who ultimately rejected his own theory of black holes, and religious believers who “believe that eternal, absolute truths have been revealed to them through the scriptures or the saints.” Because of the source of their revelation, McKnight says, to believers “changing their minds is more than just irrational — it can get them into big trouble not only in the here-and-now but also in the hereafter.” It follows that “by refusing to change their minds on political matters, politicians are suggesting that politics itself is a form of faith, that it involves absolute truths we must accept on trust rather than on a rational appraisal of the evidence.”

The Sun scribe admits that a certain amount of “faith” is “fundamentally important to a robust economy, since the economy is literally built on trust.” He allows that written constitutions tend to take on the status of holy writ and that “certain political artifacts [flags, wartime mementoes, and the like] have always had a religious flavor.”

But in the war cheerleading of the recent Republican convention and in the Canadian political back-and-forth over gay marriage, McKnight finds the “religious fervor” of some modern pols to be “much more troubling” than what has come before. He even argues that by accusing flip-floppers of bad faith, these politicians “are drawing us into a new Dark Age.”

My thoughts:

On gay marriage in Canada, the “new facts or novel arguments” consist of an expansive court ruling and a few polls indicating that some Canadians (though not a majority) are no longer as hostile to gay marriage as they once were. This is less an example of elected representatives changing their minds and more of them feeling free to vote as they please. That people would bring this up is a sign that a new Dark Age is coming?

More broadly, the assumption behind McKnight’s argument is that if you don’t agree with him, you’re siding with primitive religion over the advances of science. I’m as much a fan of what science has done for us as the car-driving, medicine-using, cell phone-totting next guy but there are some things that science isn’t up to. Confronted with commands like “Thou shalt not steal,” the scientist can accept or reject it on a human level, but how does he go about testing it?

Your thoughts?

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  • Kathleen

    It would seem to me that if you believe that science alone is the basis of all ‘truth’ then with regards to gay marriage, for example, you would have to take the issue off of the table because there is no clear evidence one way or another whether or not the inclination is hard wired or not, so you wouldn’t be able to make a ‘truth-telling’ argument one way or another for a politician to consider when casting a vote.

    I haven’t subscribed or read the entire article, so I don’t know if it addresses it, but how about the hard science we do have that life begins at conception as there is a genetically unique human being at that time?

    Most that argue this use the scientific principle when it suits the argument of firmly held beliefs already decided upon. At least, that has been my experience. When confronted with your more complicatd question there is no coherent scientific argument to make about that. Suddenly phrases like, “Well everyone knows thats bad/wrong” come into the argument, which refutes the scientific proof argument altogether, in my mind anyway.

  • tmatt

    Is “Yours thoughts” a Canadian thing?

    Anyone who knows we knows that I am going to note how this post squares with the basic theory of James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia.

    Hunter is that sociologist who wrote “Culture Wars,” an influential book a decade or so ago that claimed to have found the dividing line in America’s moral and religious battles over sex and salvation and lots of other things.

    Instead of old-fashioned divisions between various denominations, Hunter claimed to have found one fault line running vertically through American pews — between the “orthodox” and “progressive.” The orthodox believe it’s possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience and doctrines that evolve over time to fit the times.

    Doesn’t that fit this behavior up north?

  • Jeremy Lott

    >Is “Yours thoughts” a Canadian thing?

    Actually, it was a typo.

    I’d say that, in Hunter’s division, the “progressive” mode of thought is well represented north of the 49th.

  • Jeff the Baptist

    The funny thing is that this has nothing to do with religious faith. It has everything to do with moral and ethical integrity. What the conservatives are saying is “Are you the same today as you were yesterday (or four years ago)?” So the question is were you wrong then, wrong now, are you going to stay the course? Either way its a win-win for the conservatives.

  • Wooderson

    “Either way its a win-win for the conservatives.”

    Really? In Canada, is anything a win for conservatives? The intellectual dishonesty about religion in the public square, repeated ad nauseum by insufferably superior scaremongers, has become a staple of Canadian public life.

    Can anyone point to a truly conservative national politician in this country? No. Didn’t think so. And McKnight’s article is one of the reasons why: those committed to religious faith must convince the public that they’re not dragging their wife around by the hair or assaulting pink-shirted men on street-corners with 40-pound bibles. They start three steps back.

    My strategy, when confronted with ridiculous claims of benign secularity, is to ask what hiding issues of faith would have done to Martin Luther King Jr’s public career. Should he have been excluded from public debate – or severely hampered, anyway – by both the source and strength of his convictions? Does anybody want to suggest that MLK Jr’s public life was not motivated by what the man believed?

    Or Wilberforce? Gandhi? The Dalai Lama?

  • Todd Granger

    McKnight needs to read a few critical realist philosophers and writers. He has no understanding whatever of how science and religion (more specifically, Christianity) understand their sources of knowledge and go about testing their “paradigms”.

  • Joe Perez

    Hi Jeremy. I’m confused by your statement that “On gay marriage in Canada, the ‘new facts or novel arguments’ consist of an expansive court ruling and a few polls indicating that some Canadians (though not a majority) are no longer as hostile to gay marriage as they once were.” Could you elaborate on which polls you are referring to that clam that Canadians are hostile to gay marriage?

    Polls I’ve seen such as those described here show that in 2001 Canadians approved of gay marriage by 44 to 37 percent, with a margin of error of 2.2%.

    Also the poll by Canadian Press / Leger Marketing also conducted in 2001 showed 75.6% of Canadians believe heterosexuals and homosexuals should have equal rights, and 65.4% believed in expanding marriage to include same-sex couples.

    Where do you come from saying that Canadians are hostile to gay marriage, though less so than before?

  • Jeremy Lott

    I hate polling questions but I brought it up. I consulted a prominent Canadian columnist, who has done more statistical spadework on this than most. His response is that it all depends on how the polling questions are asked. Canadians are all for tolerance and equality for gays, but a majority see gay marriage as a bridge too far, unless saying so makes them sound, you know, intolerant

    The poll posted at is the Environics poll, which may be an outlier as these things go. Polling paid for by the National Post, Maclean’s, and a few other outlets over these past few years, has yielded very different results.

  • Joe Perez

    Thanks for the clarification. I googled for the two polls you mentioned by name, National Post and Maclean’s. In the National Post survey, 31 percent of respondents supported same sex marriage rights, 37 percent backed civil unions, and 30 percent opposed all gay unions. The Maclean’s poll showed 40 percent for and 44 percent against. The Environics poll is closer to results of other polls including Angus Reid. I don’t think the evidence supports the notion that most Canadians are hostile to gay marriage (rather, I’d say the evidence shows they are divided on the topic). However, by picking a few polls over all others, I see how you could come to that opinion.