Tempered Reason: How the Oil Disaster Will Teach Us Humility

David Brog | Author, | Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tempered Reason: How the Oil Disaster Will Teach Us Humility

July 15, 2010

The ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is an unmitigated disaster for the environment, the economy, and the multi-thousands who depend on the Gulf for their livelihoods.  Like all tragedies of this magnitude, the only benefits to flow from it are lessons learned the hard way.  Above all, this episode should shatter the myth of our own omnipotence.  This blatant failure of science to control the physical world should at long last disabuse us of the notion that science can unlock truths beyond the physical.  This technological collapse should enable us to finally acknowledge the far greater tragedies which our blind faith in human reason - in the form of both science and philosophy - has wrought.  

How times have changed.  When I was young, it appeared that reason was clearing a path to paradise.  We were landing men on the moon.  The Concorde was crossing the Atlantic in record time.  And we were eradicating the worst diseases through the miracle of modern medicine.  As we unlocked the secrets of the universe, ancient stories of desert prophets could not have seemed less relevant.  When John Lennon infamously remarked that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus," he wasn't bragging -- he was simply noting an unfortunate reality. 

These shiny new toys blinded us to the true lessons of the twentieth century.  As we entered a new millennium, we should have looked back with horror.  More than any other period in modern history, the twentieth century was a laboratory in which new theories about humanity and progress were tested with calamitous results.  The Nazis sought to usher in a utopia by applying modern theories of social Darwinism and eugenics.  The Communists tried to build a workers' paradise by implementing new ideas about economics and history.  The Enlightenment concept of race and the Romantic idea of nationalism were repeatedly combined into poisonous new cocktails that punctuated the century with genocides.  

Yet we marched into the twenty-first century largely ignorant of the key lessons of the twentieth.  The tragedy of September 11th led many "new atheists" to wrongly conclude that religion was now the greatest threat to the Western world.  Yet the fact that fanatics could do such evil in the name of their militant interpretation of Islam was hardly an indictment of Islam as a whole, let alone the Judeo-Christian tradition.  At a juncture that demanded introspection, many preferred the far easier task of identifying a new scapegoat.

Now that the smoke has cleared and the oil is spreading, we should finally recognize not only our great powers, but also our significant limitations.  The fact is that we humans have not evolved a higher morality along with our opposable thumbs.  We are not born "good."  As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has recognized, "If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature."

As an outspoken atheist, Dawkins seeks such goodness in philosophy.  Yet, as we've already seen, the track record of philosophy in producing virtue should give us pause.  Our modern philosophers often unwittingly corroborate the extensive historical evidence.  Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, for example, has stressed that, "It may be worth remembering that our present absolute protection of the lives of infants is a distinctively Christian attitude rather than a universal ethical value."  Singer encourages us to reject this Christian attitude and begin killing certain newborn infants.  In so doing, he reminds us of both the revolutionary nature and ongoing relevance of our Judeo-Christian values.

Indeed, throughout the modern era, the Judeo-Christian tradition has been the West's most consistent and powerful source of compassion and respect for our fellow humans.  It was religious Christians who led the fight to stop the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the American Indian in both South and North America.  It was religious Christians who led the battles to abolish slavery in both Britain and America.  Religious Christians and Jews have led the struggles for civil and human rights in our own time.

The foremost evangelical politician in American history, William Jennings Bryan, noted almost a century ago that "If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene."  When human reason seemed to be conquering the world, it was difficult to appreciate the wisdom of these words.  But we've since lived through a century of atrocities unleashed by the rejection of this very moral code.  We've stopped sending men to the moon.  The Concorde flies no more.  We're suddenly plagued by diseases we cannot cure.  And the oil flowing into the gulf is merely the clearest manifestation of the manifold ways in which we're poisoning our planet.

Perhaps young people being raised today will be less enthralled by the power of their own reason.  Perhaps they will see more clearly the true lessons of the twentieth century.  And perhaps they will recognize the need to temper reason with respect for the source of our goodness - the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Such belated humility would be a source of hope in a difficult time. 

David Brog author of the new book In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity is the executive director of Christians United for Israel. Before CUFI, Brog worked in the United States Senate for seven years, rising to be chief of staff to Senator Arlen Specter and staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has also served as an executive at America Online and practiced corporate law in Tel Aviv, Israel and Philadelphia, PA. Brog lives in Washington, DC and San Antonio, TX.