Today’s guest post comes from Dr. Frank Burton, Executive Director of The Circle of Reason, who I had the opportunity to meet on my recent visit to Minnesota. It is a reproduction of his address, given at The Rally to Restore Sanity Minnesota, at the State Capitol Rotunda on October 30, 2010:
The Circle of Reason is religious and atheist; liberal and conservative; men and women; straight and gay; black and white; rich and poor; First and Third World; but we have sought and found our own kind – the reasoning kind. To Jon Stewart and the Rally to Restore Sanity we say: Welcome to the club!
You know that if Doonesbury parodies something, it’s serious: the fate of our endangered sub-species, “Rational Man.” On the cartoon character Mark Slackmeyer’s talk radio show, a guest expert on “alternative reality” fringe groups notes there’s only one counter to Birthers claiming Obama’s a Muslim, and Truthists claiming Cheney plotted 9-11. The counter is “Reasonists” — who, the expert says, “believe in an evidence-based world, something called Rationalism; but are a tiny group, not so influential.”
The background noise to Gary Trudeau’s comic ‘toon is the echo of “You Lie!” in the Well of Congress, “Nazi!” in the Town Hall, and “I hope Obama dies and goes to Hell!” in Church. Pundits laud our laying down our primitive clubs, yet wield truthiness like a light saber — to the point that the sanest take on the news of the day comes from two Comedy Central shows.
Yeats wrote about the demise of human civility and reason:
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Have solutions to the dilemma of Rational Man’s looming extinction been as forthcoming as warnings?
Thomas Jefferson suggested, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Today, we feel free to use reason, but don’t we surely feel as free to use unreason?
Former Republican Congressman Jim Leach said, “Little is more important…than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify – or cloud – thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts.”
Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked us for a “balance” between “free” and “responsible” speech. But when, and why, was irresponsible speech given admission to the parlor rooms of polite, civil society?
Humanity’s ethical DNA was first diluted by the Sophists, two and a half thousand years ago. Today we teach, in philosophy and rhetoric, “argumentum ad hominem,” the gambit of insulting the person, not arguing the facts. More importantly, we do not teach that to undercut others’ discernment of the real and true by evoking their emotionality is not just “sophistry,” but is immoral.
Tom Erlich, referencing Yeats, said: “In the world of relentless attack, there is no respect for the other…The only answer is to destroy, even if the destruction of one means the destruction of many, and the obliteration of sanity and hope. It is time for the center to…hold, to say to all extremists that our future as a nation and democratic society lies in finding common ground, not in relentless attacks.”
Star Trek movie director J.J. Abrams said to those who dream of this bright future, “People need to be reminded that working together — disregarding social, religious, political, racial boundaries — is the only way we’re going to survive.”
To paraphrase his beloved, pointy-eared Star Trek character, “An inexorable evolution toward a philosophy of reason has already begun. The People are struggling, to a new enlightenment. And it may take decades or even centuries for them to reach it. But they will reach it. And we must help.”
How can we help? There is a new paradigm for improving our world as well as our individual lives. It is communal commitment to reason in worldly affairs, regardless of one’s present beliefs or creeds. By assembling across the gulf of human differences, we evince our communal belief in the power of logical and reasoning thought to help humankind attain its next major step toward moral and philosophical maturity.
As an international organization for pluralistic rationalism, The Circle of Reason sponsors or endorses such local reasoning gatherings and dialogues between those with disparate beliefs and backgrounds — like this Rally!
Although we remain affiliated with our various like-minded groups, we also join each other to bring our different perspectives to this common ground of rational discourse, to make the world we’ve all inherited a saner place. We say, in the immortal words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and ‘they’ are us!”
We Minnesotans rally here today as deliberative, reasoning conservatives, liberals and moderates (not “fascists,” “socialists,” and “quislings“), seeking to raise a shining Twin City on a hill, gleaming in cool, crystal clarity.
We Minnesotans rally here today to send this message to our fellow citizens: that a lie or half-truth can never be a moral beacon — because it blinds us to reality; that the unquestioned can never be a moral backbone — because it buckles under the weight of truth; and that an insult can never be a moral barb — because it bares others’ emotions.
So today we say to our political gamesmen, “Your lies and half-truths are immoral.”
Today we say to our extremists, “Your unquestioned allegiances are self-defeating.”
And today we say to our fellow citizens, “Ad hominem is bad hominem!”
To the parade of human irrationality, we say, in proud Minnesotan: “Uff da!” To its hotheads, we say: “Hotdish?” To its bloodthirsty, we say, not, “Fired up! Ready to go!” but “Thawed out? Cuppa Joe?” And to its mean-spirited, we smile and say, “Be nice — Minnesoota Nice!”
Here at the Rally to Restore Sanity Minnesota, we say to the insanity of our times, “Are we sane? You betcha!”
Frank H. Burton, Ph.D., a molecular biologist, medtech & biotech CEO, and University of Minnesota professor, also serves as Founder and Executive Director of The Circle of Reason, an international community for pluralistic rationalism. Since its founding on January 1, 2000, the theists, atheists and others in the Circle have sponsored and encouraged those with disparate beliefs and backgrounds to engage in local “transbelief” reasoning dialogue and fellowship across the gulf of human difference. The Circle’s tenets for practicing pluralistic rationalism, and excerpts from Dr. Burton’s forthcoming book, “The Parables of Reason,” can be read at www.circleofreason.org.