In a perfect world, people everywhere would recognize the limits of their knowledge while taking heart in their ability to learn, and would therefore be fascinated and challenged by the unknown, rather than shrinking from it. Life, death, and consciousness, after all, are inherently mysterious; understanding the fact of existence itself would entail a grasp of things like eternity and cause-less effects. And given that your dog has as much chance of understanding quadratic equations, it's fair to say that for as long as humans walk the earth, mystery will be their constant companion.
But in our less-than perfect world, there are millions who can't live with the idea that some questions are essentially unanswerable. So rather than focusing constructively on the pressing questions of the day---which, in principle at least, can be resolved---they salve themselves with such maladaptive beliefs that there's a good chance humans won't be walking the earth much longer.
Consider the recent news that the biosphere---ravaged by warming, overpopulation, and ecological destruction---appears to be on the verge of throwing in the towel ("Approaching a state shift in Earth's biosphere," Nature, June 7, 2012). The living part of this rock we call Earth, it seems, can swiftly and irreversibly become hostile to our particular form of life if thrown out of balance---a balance that appears to be approaching a tipping point. This is good news for misanthropes, and bad news for everyone else---especially for our kids and their own children. We know what needs to be done, of course: curb population growth, and transition from the oil-fired growth paradigm of capitalism to some form of eco-friendly, steady-state economics---and fast. But in all likelihood, humanity won't do anything more transcendent than mold on cheese (which just keeps doing what it's doing till the cheese is gone).
One obvious reason for this is that staving off environmental collapse would require concerted action among the world's governments---including that of an immensely powerful rogue nation inhabited by zealous multitudes who persist in believing there's a Supreme Being commanding them to "fill the earth and subdue it," who believe that global warming is a left wing hoax (and that even if it isn't, they'll be saved in the end if they toe the theological line), and who are easily manipulated by a handful of sociopaths bent on having it all (i.e., theirs and everyone else's). All in all, it's a tall order.
According to Gallup, 30% of Americans believe the Bible is factual---a collection of old news stories, essentially. That's 100-million 21st century Americans who believe there was a carpenter who actually walked on water, and a shepherd who literally parted the Red Sea with a wave of his staff---and that all of humanity's problems had begun long before, when a talking snake persuaded the first woman to feed her husband from the tree of knowledge (and we know how these folks feel about knowledge). For fundamentalists, believing is fundamental---it's their default M.O. Consequently, they not only believe in Jesus and talking snakes, they believe in Ronald Reagan, and in The Market, and in the unalloyed goodness of the U.S. of A. (to paint with a broad brush). They enjoy critical thinking about as much as some of us enjoy going to the gym---so they can't tolerate any loose ends in their world view. It's one of the things you can't fail to notice about true believers: they always have all the answers---and they can quote scripture to prove it.
And if their number is sobering, their passion is unsettling. As history amply demonstrates, true believers will literally kill for their beliefs. At various times and places, they have tortured each other to death, burnt each other at the stake, and waged ungodly holy wars---all in the name of a deity that can only be found in the pages of a medieval text. So it's hardly surprising that our current crop of god-warriors turns out in force on Election Day to vote against its own best interests---and everyone else's---at the behest of Bible-thumping shills for the banksters and oil pigs.
But the problem isn't even religion per se, it's the perpetual brain-freeze of belief itself. For those of us who lived through the Cuban missile crisis, it's impossible to forget that it was the belief in capitalism, on the one hand, and in communism, on the other, that brought humanity to the brink of extinction a half-century ago. It's ironic: a disagreement over how to organize society nearly ended all society for ever. (Not surprisingly, the authoritarian strain so common to true believers is the same one that defines the warrior class.)
Yet for all its destructive power, it's easy to forget that belief---of either the religious or secular variety---is nothing more than what substitutes for facts when the facts are unavailable, unclear, debatable, or too painful to bear. When the facts are evident and non-threatening, they require no devotion to appreciate: snowflakes, autumn leaves, and bird droppings all invariable fall to the ground, yet no one believes in gravity---it's just a fact of life. Most people do have their beliefs, of course, but they tend to be provisional in nature---subject as they are to revision as new facts emerge and fresh conclusions are drawn. But for the hardcore believer, who often has a hardwired need for cognitive closure, the self-contained nature of a medieval world view---or of classical economic theory---is just the ticket, and not subject to much revision; for these folks, belief is fact.
But in the real world of the 21st century, the facts are these: as scientists raise the alarm over the drasticallay truncated timeframe we have in which to bring the runaway train of industrial-strength capitalism to a screeching halt, the clowns in DC are huffing and puffing about bullshit calamities like the "fiscal cliff" in the apparent belief that if Goldman Sachs is too big to fail, certainly the biosphere is too---so why sweat it? We could be on the threshold of a poisonous new age of methane-breathing extremophiles---no more bunny rabbits, panda bears, or people---yet fundamentalists who believe hurricanes are caused by angry homophobic gods are voting on issues affecting global warming.
Back when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was all this talk about "The End of History"---Francis Fukuyama's much-cited essay---which posited that the Cold War's end was nothing less than the climax of human history, and we could all look forward to living happily ever after in a global capitalist village. In the hard sciences, of course---where discipline trumps ideology---it was understood that humanity was already outstripping its resource base, and could not long sustain a voracious system like capitalism. So despite the mainstream delusion, it seemed clear even then that capitalism was going down too---it'd just take a bit longer, and do a lot more damage in the process. What was less clear at the time was that it'll probably take the entire biosphere with it---at least the one we're built for---and that really will be the end of history.
But if Homo sapiens does go over the biospheric cliff (taking untold millions of species with it), it'll be because too many were to blinded by their beliefs---in Jesus, in Ayn Rand, in markets, growth, capitalism, globalism, American exceptionalism, and Greed---to even see what was coming at them.