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Reasons to believe

While reading a biography of H.L. Mencken, I ran across Mencken's analysis of how 'facts' became so important to civilization. He points out that after Darwin's The Origin of Species was published, facts began to outpace tradition as a test of truth. 

I believe we've now come to another turning point in civilization where facts have to compete with another test of truth. More and more people want to maintain coherent views based on their values. If a fact is inconsistent with their values, they deny it. More importantly, they ignore it. 

It remains to be seen if this approach to life is sustainable. It certainly seems to be doing pretty well right now. 

H.L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw: His Plays: Introduction, 1905

...before Darwin gave the world “The Origin of Species,” the fight against orthodoxy, custom, and authority was necessarily a losing one. On the side of the defense were ignorance, antiquity, piety, organization and respectability—twelve-inch, wire-wound, rapid-fire guns, all of them. In the hands of the scattered, half-hearted, unorganized, attacking parties there were but two weapons—the blowpipe of impious doubt and the bludgeon of sacrilege. Neither, unsupported, was very effective. Voltaire, who tried both, scared the defenders a bit, and for a while there was a great pother and scurrying about, but when the smoke cleared away, the walls were just as strong as before and the drawbridge was still up. One had to believe or be damned. There was no compromise and no middle ground.

And so, when Darwin bobbed up, armed with a new-fangled dynamite gun, that hurled shells charged with a new shrapnel—facts—the defenders laughed at the novel weapon and looked forward to slaying its bearer…. And then of a sudden there was a deafening roar and a blinding flash—and down went the walls. Ramparts of authority that had resisted doubts fell like hedge-rows before facts, and there began an intellectual reign of terror that swept like a whirlwind through Europe, America, Asia, Africa and Oceania. For six thousand years it had been necessary, in defending a doctrine, to show only that it was respectable or sacred. Since 1859, it has been needful to prove its truth.”

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