There's simply no question, as Kurt Anderson asserts in this cover story in the current issue of The Atlantic, that Americans increasingly have become willing consumers of conspiracy theories, fake news and magical thinking.
What Anderson calls the "fantasy industrial complex" has seduced many Americans. Examples he cites: "A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it's a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ."
There's more. Much more. But that's a representative sampling of the spilth too many Americans accept as reality.
Anderson's piece is an adaptation of his book to be published shortly: Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire -- A 500-Year History. And it's well worth a read. But it has issues related to religion that I want to point to today.
The primary issue is that Anderson sometimes seems to lump all people of faith, but especially Christians, into one, as if everyone was a fundamentalist. And sometimes he's not careful about his assertions.
For instance, he notes that two-thirds of Americans "believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God." First, there are two tales of creation in Genesis, not one. Second, it is possible to believe that those creation tales are the "word of God" (with different understandings of what that might mean) without believing they tell a literal and historical story. In other words, the stories there can reveal something important about who God is even though the stories themselves are rooted in metaphor, myth and allegory.
Now, it's true that sometimes Anderson calls the biblical literalists members of "extreme Christianities," implying there might be other kinds. But it's easy to lose track of non-literalist approaches to Christianity when he gives the literalists so much attention. As he notes, "Extreme religious and quasi-religious beliefs and practices, Christian and New Age and otherwise, didn't subside (in the 1970s), but grew and thrived -- and came to seem unexceptional.
Anderson's account describes the rise of the Rush Limbaughs and similar radio and TV gas bags full of misinformation, taking special note of the end of the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" on public airwaves. And he describes the early use of the internet to spread the sort of factual quackery we're experiencing today.
"In 1994," he writes, "the first modern spam message was sent, visible to everyone on Usenet: GLOBAL ALERT FOR ALL: JESUS IS COMING SOON."
I suppose none of what Anderson writes about religion should be surprising. The vast majority of Christians get little publicity. Media coverage of religion tends to focus on extremes and tends to quote the wackiest representatives of faith traditions, not the most rational.
But be assured that there are reasonable religious people in the world who, along with Anderson, bemoan the fact that we seem to have slipped as a culture into a world of magic thinking and crazy conspiracy theories. Healthy religion should condemn all of that while offering ways to find reliable information.
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WHAT COLONIALISM COST INDIA, PAKISTAN
Today marks 70 years since India achieved independence from Great Britain and since the country was partitioned into predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan. The Associated Press has done this helpful look back at some of the traumatic personal experiences of that time. And Raj Bhala, who teaches law at the University of Kansas, has written this Bloomberg piece focusing more on what partition has meant in terms of economics. It's pretty clear in hindsight that Indians and Pakistanis have paid an outrageously high price in the aftermath of colonialism.