Monday, January 19, 2009

Checking Your Sources

A disturbing trend has been plaguing my attention lately. It began near the top of the year when atheistic activists began decrying the phrase "So help me God" in the presidential oath. However, given more thought, evidence of this trend can be found most places within modern life. The trend is simply, if there is no (consistently) documented proof, then the statement (or tradition, custom, etc) is invalid.

As a general rule, people today like having information. For most, a small article is enough, for others, many lengthy texts. For myself, I've found from experience that scanning articles is fine, but if something seems wrong or if there are holes in the arguments, then more research is in order, especially if I want to discuss the issue. The internet being the wonderful tool that it is, the source can often be found and most lingering questions put to rest. But what if the source is unavailable? What happens when the event happened a long time ago and the author is not available for comment? What does one do when the written record is interpreted differently by many scholars?

In times before our information age, people went to tradition. Religious traditions in particular are very rich, as they tend to last. Even those who disagree with a faith-based mindset have to agree that religions are steeped in tradition and enjoy longevity as a result. However, traditions related to national history are also very difficult to disturb. Why? Simply, because to tell people that their traditions need revising is to tell them that people they revere are mistaken or liars.

Until recently, this would be a horrible accusation to level against someone, especially against parents or other figures of authority. Lies have always carried with them a strong social stigma and rightly so. Someone who has a history of falsehoods obviously cannot be trusted and as such it is very difficult for them to operate in society.

However, this attitude has begun changing. After many political leaders and other public figures have been caught in one scandal or another, perjury seems almost cliche. The public has become jaded about our leaders, almost expecting them to lie. As a result, other long-held beliefs based in tradition are being opened to attack. If I can't believe what my political leaders are telling me today, why should I believe my historical leaders, or religious leaders?

Which brings us back to verification. If something is documented, then at least we have some "proof" that we have not been lied to through the centuries. Best to check that several sources exist, just to make sure that one wasn't a mistake. We modern people often rely on scraps of information to "prove" large theories, or discount important points that, at the time, would have been considered as common or base knowledge, not something that needed to be spelled out for posterity. Somehow, a written record, something that can be seen and touched, makes the past and its traditions real. Without that evidence, those traditions are completely invalid, unless someone can take them on faith.

Interestingly enough, the only area where physical, historical evidence is not accepted as evidence that the tradition is valid is in the area of faith. People on both sides of a religious debate can attain a great deal of information that proves or disproves their points, but those who counter them are seldom moved. The birth of most religions is so far removed in history that there are only a rare few individuals who can even comprehend such a large span of time. The traditions of those religions got to the present somehow; the believers will say from a particular source, the non-believers from a misconception that got out of hand.

In the end, people either believe or do not believe in traditions, religions, or whatever else, for their own reasons. Maybe the opposition conflicts with their worldview. Perhaps the person is a natural skeptic, or naturally trusting. For those who must have everything empirically or scientifically proven to them, faith is a mystery, mere arguments for validity need not apply. For those of faith, proofs are nice, but are not required.

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