This past Sunday’s violence at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin that took seven lives and shattered the peace of an entire community was a crime of ignorance. While authorities seem not yet to have discerned the gunman’s motive, many have wondered if he mistook the Sikhs for Muslims – a religion which, tragically, has become synonymous with terrorism in the minds of far too many Americans. But even if he was not confused about who the Sikhs were (their tradition emerged from Hinduism, not Islam), it is clear that he was connected to the white supremacy movement whose adherents perpetuate the ignorance that white (and usually Protestant) people are somehow inherently superior to everyone else. Whatever the man’s motives, he seems to have given himself over to an ignorant ideology and worldview. And on Sunday, in Wisconsin, ignorance won the moment, and people lost their lives.
This past weekend saw another triumph of ignorance, this time in Joplin, Missouri, where a mosque (which had been the target of an unknown arsonist earlier in July who started a fire that damaged the building) was burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. It is expected that the investigation will reveal that the destruction was indeed the result of a deliberately set fire. There has been a lot of controversy about the building of mosques in America recently, as various groups (including some religious leaders and politicians) have sought to somehow prevent their construction in some places. Attempts to prevent the building of mosques, like attempts to destroy those already constructed, are a function of ignorance. Ever since 9/11, Americans have had a tendency to equate Islam with terrorism, despite the fact that those within Islam who believe terrorism is a legitimate tool are a very small minority of Muslims, the vast majority of whom believe that terrorism is wrong and contrary to their religion. But this important detail goes unnoticed by far too many whose cultivated ignorance of Islam and other religions different from their own (like Sikhism) leads them to speak and act in ways that are hurtful, destructive, and even deadly.
The cultivation of ignorance has become something of a cottage industry in this country. It was reported this week that Louisiana’s new school voucher program, designed to allow parents access to public funds to send their children to private schools, will permit parents to send their children to “Christian schools” among other private options. These “Christian” institutions, it was reported, are teaching some rather odd things: that dinosaurs and humans occupied the earth at the same time; that most slave owners in the pre-Civil War era treated their slaves well; that the Ku Klux Klan had a positive and reforming effect on American society; that algebra and other abstract math is unnecessary and somehow contrary to the law of God; and that biblical “science” regarding the age of the universe and other matters is to be embraced over “secular” science. Louisiana’s voucher program effectively comes to the aid of a significant movement among the religious right that encourages parents to avoid public schools and to choose an alternative “Christian school” that will make sure their children stay Christian – apparently by shielding them from a great deal of modern learning. The movement is basically one that intentionally cultivates ignorance of the world as it is in favor of a worldview shaped by a literal reading of the Bible. Of course, it should be noted that the vouchers can also be used at religious schools whose curriculums are more rigorous and not hostile to modern science. Though, it might also be noted that several Louisiana lawmakers objected to the fact that the vouchers can also be used at Islamic schools.
Increasingly, Americans live in a world tinged with ignorance. Politicians from both sides of the aisle regularly make statements (usually about one another) that are simply untrue, and yet are disseminated widely. The media, it seems, considers it their responsibility to broadcast to the world the most outrageous statements made by anybody, regardless of their veracity. And at least some among us think that we should not teach people to look at such statements critically: the Texas Republican Party adopted as part of their platform an element which puts them on record as being opposed to the teaching of higher order thinking skills. Officials from the party later said this was a mistake, but then also said it could not be corrected until the next time the platform was considered – apparently in a couple of years or so.
We all pay a high price when ignorance triumphs. What is to become of a country in which a significant number of its citizens are educated in a way that ignores modern science? What is to become of a country in which a significant number of its citizens are taught that they must interpret the Bible literally, and that this literal reading trumps every other source of knowledge? What is to become of us when we allow others who are culturally, socially, or religiously different to be vilified by unchallenged stereotypes rooted in ignorance?
I don’t think the answers to any of these questions will be good.