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.”
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?