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Entries for April 2007

April 30, 2007

The new atheism-3: What the new atheists are saying

(See part 1 and part 2.)

The peaceful coexistence model that has long been used to maintain peace between elite science and elite religion was reinforced by the National Academy of Sciences when the science-religion issue became heated during the heyday of the intelligent design creationism movement. In a 1998 statement titled Teaching about Evolution and Science, the NAS said: "At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. . .Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral."

The new atheists make the claim that we should not uncritically accept the NAS statement's implication that god could exist in an undetectable supernatural world about which science can say nothing. For god to have any meaning at all, a universe in which god exists has to be observably different from one in which he or she or it does not exist. Thus Richard Dawkins, for instance, argues that if god exists, then that is an empirically testable proposition. He argues that it is the obligation of believers in a god to provide evidence, in the form of testable propositions, for this difference, and have those predictions confirmed by experiment or observation. Otherwise, god is merely a name and an idea conjured up out of nothing and that can do nothing. As it stands, no such evidence of the kind he seeks has ever been provided.

Dawkins also argues that the god that most people envisage has to be a complex being, since it is capable of doing complex things. If so, he argues, how could god have existed in that form at the beginning of time, since everything else in the universe (both matter and life) started from very simple forms and evolved into complexity slowly? How could god come into being as a complex entity right from the start?

It is clear that these kinds of arguments have struck a nerve. They have not only caused a split between elite religion and elite science, they have also caused a split within elite science, between those (like the late Stephen Jay Gould) who want to continue to maintain the political alliance between the two groups, and other scientists who say that a political alliance is too high a price to pay for not speaking out against what they truly believe, that belief in a god not only has no evidentiary basis, it does not even make coherent sense as a philosophical construct. Again, it is Dawkins who states this position most forcefully, stating that the 'two worlds' model is a "cowardly cop out. I think it's an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It's good politics. But it's intellectually disreputable." (quoted by Larson and Witham, Nature, vol. 386, April 3, 1997, p. 435-436)

What is happening now is that atheist scientists are no longer silent or discreet about their atheism. More and more secular scientists are not shying away from the explicit implications of how the science in their fields is steadily eroding the remaining niches in which belief in god has taken refuge. Physicists like Victor Stenger in his God: The Failed Hypothesis takes on religion from the physics perspective, while cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works examines how and why natural selection might have worked to create an advantage for modules to exist in the brain that have a propensity to believe in god and the afterlife, thus making people think it is natural. Neuroscientist Marc Hauser in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong does the same thing for morality, seeking to understand how natural selection may have worked to select for the moral values that we see in people. And Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained takes on the task of seeing how consciousness can arise without any need for any supernatural explanation.

All these works are somewhat speculative since the kinds of investigations being done are quite new. I am not claiming that these major problems have been solved or that these particular authors have even got it right. In fact, although I am broadly familiar with the thrusts of the books mentioned in the previous paragraph, I have not read them all as yet but will report on them in more detail when I do read them, which should be fairly soon. (A good general review of what these books and others in the same vein say can be found in the essay The DNA of Religious Faith by David P. Barash in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 2007.)

The suggestion that there is nothing metaphysical and non-material about the mind and morality and consciousness has been advanced in the past. The significant new feature is that while in the past questions of mind and morality and consciousness were largely the province of philosophers and theologians and social scientists, it is now scientists, armed with the latest research tools, who are taking direct aim at these areas of knowledge that were once set aside as part of the 'spiritual world' and thus outside the real of scientific investigation.

What has made this shift possible is that scientific knowledge and technology have advanced to the point that we have the ability to construct and test theories and collect actual data that can shed light on these questions. As a parallel, ideas of evolution and common descent existed even before Darwin and Wallace but it was their collection of huge amounts of data in support of those ideas that put the theory of natural selection on a solid empirical footing. The same kind of progression is now happening for the areas of mind, morality, religion and consciousness. And when scientists start to make concerted efforts to solve problems, advances in knowledge tend to occur. If history is any guide, the net result is usually a retreat for religious explanations.

These new atheist scientist authors are in the vanguard of presenting to the general public new scientific research into these areas of knowledge and religious people need to brace themselves for fresh challenges to their beliefs. The theoretical paradigms that emerge from this research will change and improve with time but like previous advances in science that have undermined the credibility of miracles and similar obvious interventions by god in the physical world, it seems inevitable that these new areas of research will proceed in the direction of making religious explanations unnecessary.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Ricky Gervais tackles the book of Genesis

April 27, 2007

The new atheism-2: Breaking down the wall

In the post-Galileo world, elite religion and elite science have tended to get along pretty well. Opposing the heliocentric model of the solar system has been roundly criticized as a stupid thing for the Catholic church to do and, since then elite science and elite religion have seemed to find a modus vivendi that enables them to avoid conflicts.

A large number of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, have managed to believe in a deity while at the same time being more-or-less active members of churches, temples, and mosques. They have managed to do this by viewing the creation narratives in their respective religious texts as figurative and metaphorical, and not as records of actual historical events. Such people also tend to believe that the world is split up into two realms, a belief which is captured in a statement issued in 1981 by the council of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences which says "[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief."

Most of the people who subscribe to this kind of statement see no conflict between scientific and religious belief structures because each one deals with one of two distinct worlds that do not overlap. So scientists are supposed to deal with the physical world while religion deals with the spiritual world. Such people tend to view the periodic legal and political skirmishes between the creationist and scientific camps as the work of overzealous extremists, both religious and atheist, who are attempting to mix together things that should properly stay separate. They feel that their own point of view is very reasonable and find it hard to understand why everyone does not accept it.

Stephen Jay Gould, who was himself not religious, was a key advocate of this model of peaceful coexistence between the two worlds (or as he called them 'magisteria') of science and religion, going to the extent of even writing a book Rocks of Ages advocating it. He gave this model a somewhat pretentious name of Non-Overlapping MAgisteria or NOMA.

What this model successfully did was to allow elite religion and elite science to work together against those Christianists who sought to base public policy on religious beliefs. Thus in the periodic skirmishes over teaching intelligent design, prayer in schools, and other church-state separation issues, scientists and elite religionists tended to be on the same side, jointly opposing the attempts of people who sought to replace secular society with one based on a fundamentalist Christian foundation.

But this model peaceful coexistence model has some fatal flaws (that I have discussed before) and can only be sustaine by people strictly compartmentalizing their beliefs to avoid having to come to grips with the problems. Others are aware of the lack of viability of this model but have sought to downplay the problems in order to preserve the political alliance between the elite science and religion camps. But this is where things are changing.

The initial challenges to this peaceful co-existence model came from intelligent design creationism theorists like Berkeley emeritus law professor Phillip Johnson, who sought to drive a wedge between elite science and elite religion by arguing that one could not simultaneously be a methodological naturalist and a believer in god, since the former excluded the latter. His aim was to force elite religionists to make a choice: are you with god or with atheistic science?

In doing so, he was conflating the two different concepts of methodological and philosophical naturalism to serve his rhetorical purposes. As I have written before, one is not forced to be a philosophical naturalist (which essentially means atheist) in order to be a scientist, but there is little doubt that elite scientists are overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic.

But more recently, the attack on the peaceful coexistence model has come from a visible and vocal group of atheists who have also argued that this 'two worlds' model that allows elite religion to coexist with elite science is essentially a sham, and that intellectual honesty demands that this be pointed out. This new rise in vocal atheism can be seen everywhere in a flurry of books and films and blogs. There has been a rise in organizations seeking to bring the views of atheists to the public's attention and a new lobbying group has been created called the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) that includes atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists, and seeks to increase the visibility of non-theistic viewpoints in the United States.

As intelligent design creationism seems to be a spent force these days, receiving one setback after another since the Dover verdict, and reduced to a traveling road show that exhorts the true believers, this new attitude by atheists challenging the two-worlds model comes too late to help the cause of Johnson and his allies to advance the teaching of intelligent design creationism in schools by creating a split between elite science and elite religion. But this new outspokenness amongst atheists has caused some ripples in the fabric of elite opinion, and is sometimes referred to as the 'new atheism'.

Some key voices in this new attitude are Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith), Daniel Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained and Breaking the Spell), Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis) and Brian Flemming (creator of the film The God Who Wasn't There).

The soothing view of advocates of peaceful coexistence that religion is a neutral ideology that some followers take in an evil direction while others take in a good one is being challenged. The new tack taken by the new atheists is that even though individual religious people are often very good, that is largely irrelevant. The problem with religion is that, at the very least, believing in a god requires one to suspend rational and critical thinking, and that is never a good thing. As Voltaire said: "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."

Thus they have taken on the task of highlighting the fact that belief in a god has no credible objective evidence to support it and thus should not be believed by any person who supports reason and science. As Dawkins, one of the most forceful and vociferous among them, says: "I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented."

It is this new front between elite science and elite religion in the science-religion wars that has caused some turbulence.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Cricket World Cup final

The final of the World Cup is being played between Australia and Sri Lanka on Saturday, April 28, 2007. The game starts at 9:30 am (US Eastern time) and will probably last around six hours, barring a complete rout by one side.

I have been told that people can see a live telecast of it in DeGrace 312 (Biology building). If you want to see what cricket is like as played by two good teams, you should drop by. There is a charge which I think is $10.00 but am not sure since I just heard about it.

In the semi-finals, Sri Lanka beat New Zealand and Australia beat South Africa. South Africa came into the tournament as the favorites but gave several lack-luster performances and barely made it into the final four. Australia has been the dominant team, crushing their opponents, and are undefeated, so they are now the heavy favorites for the title. Sri Lanka has been playing well too, but they will have to be absolutely at the top of their game to defeat the powerful Aussies.

It should be a good game.

April 26, 2007

The new atheism-1: The times they are a-changing

The year 2006 may have seen the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between religious people and atheists. As I emphasized in my 2000 book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (from which I am excerpting certain passages here), the relationship between science and religion is very complex because the words 'science' and 'religion' are both umbrella terms that encompass a wide range of ideas and attitudes.

The changing relationships become easier to understand if we follow theologian Langston Gilkey and divide up each group into two: elite religion and popular religion, and elite science and popular 'science'.

Elite religion is that which is believed by theologians and the more sophisticated members of mainstream religions. This group seeks to accommodate the knowledge created by science. It sees science and religion as describing two complementary areas of knowledge and tends to take scientific advances in its stride. Such people are comfortable with demythologizing the Bible and other religious texts and reinterpreting its knowledge in terms of recent developments in science. This group tends to have little difficulty seeing almost all the Biblical stories such as those of Noah and Moses (and especially the miraculous events) as metaphors and not historical. They believe in a god who can and does act in the world but how that happens is left unspecified and it is also left vague as to whether such interventions violate established scientific laws. Their religious beliefs are elastic enough that such people can absorb almost any scientific advance. That still leaves some problematic miracles at the heart of each religion (the resurrection of Jesus being one for Christians) that they are reluctant to demythologize, but in such cases refuge is taken by saying that science cannot disprove that it happened and so it could be true.

Popular religion, on the other hand, takes almost all its authority from religious texts and insists that all scientific knowledge must be interpreted to be consistent with these texts, since the latter are supposedly infallible. Fundamentalist religions of all stripes fall into this category. In the case of Christians, this group is likely to insist on the historicity of Noah, Moses, Jesus and all the other stories for which there is little or no corroborating historical evidence. For popular religionists, it is essential that the Bible and Koran and other religious texts be treated as scientifically and historically unimpeachable.

Elite science is that produced by the scientific establishment in universities and other research centers and published in scientific journals. Such science follows a strict methodological naturalistic philosophy, which argues that when investigating any phenomenon, we postulate as explanations only natural causes based on physical laws that lead to reproducible results. Elite science does not allow for the intervention of agents that can act arbitrarily in violation of natural laws as the explanation for any phenomenon.

Popular 'science' does not limit itself to methodological naturalism but allows for the action of supernatural forces. Such people find no difficulty believing in superstitions, horoscopes, astrology, telekinesis, witchcraft, and so on, and have no trouble believing that there could be some substance to the claims of astrologers, parapsychologists, fortune tellers, spoon benders, mind readers, faith healers, and the like. The idea of widespread existence of supernatural forces of all sorts does not strike such people as implausible. (The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said, "Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.")

I hate to assign the label 'science' to what are such blatantly unscientific beliefs but feel obliged to follow Gilkey's terminology completely, and it does provide a kind of symmetry in terminology. But I will try to remember to put it in ironic quotes to remind us that all these beliefs are not really science in any sense of the word that a scientists would accept.

So what is the status of the relationship between the four groups?

Popular 'science' and popular religion have never had any real problems with each other methodologically. After all, they both are willing to accept the intervention of supernatural agents in everyday lives, in violation of the laws of science. For example, creationists mix their popular religion about god specially creating species with ideas about a 6,000 year-old Earth, which they try and justify using popular 'science', which essentially means rejecting much of accepted science and creating ad hoc theories and fitting evidence to reinforce beliefs that are based on religious texts. What differences there are between popular 'science' and popular religion lie along moral dimensions. Fundamentalist Christians might dislike and oppose witchcraft, but that is because they think the latter is 'evil', the product of a 'bad' supernatural agent, not because they think that the idea of witchcraft itself is preposterous.

Elite religion has had an uneasy relationship with popular 'science'. Elite religion is embarrassed by the notion that god, which for them is a sophisticated concept, would be compatible with other supernatural agents that go running around interfering with the laws of science on a daily basis. But they cannot come down too hard on popular 'science' because the only way to consistently do so would be to unequivocally rule out the action of all supernatural agents, which would put themselves too out of business. Once you have accepted the existence of at least one supernatural agent, you have pretty much lost any credibility to oppose any others. So this prevents elite religion from expressing a full-throated denunciation of popular science.

Elite and popular religions tend to get along better. Most large religious denominations encompass both kinds of believers and try not to antagonize any segment. So, for example, even though clergy are likely to know that very little of what is contained in the Bible and other religious texts is historically true (See here and the links therein), they are likely to not emphasize that fact to their congregations. While most people start out as children as popular religionists, if they begin to develop doubts about the historicity of the great flood and the like and ask questions, their priests and parents are likely to concede privately that it is acceptable to not believe in the literal truth of the events portrayed in the religious texts, because they are metaphors of a higher and deeper truth. Thus people who begin to question are slowly edged along the road to elite religion.

Elite science has been in conflict with popular 'science' and popular religion for some time now and this situation is likely to continue since the principle of methodological naturalism is a non-negotiable divide. One either accepts it or rejects it as a working hypothesis. Elite science rejects astrology and the like as frauds perpetrated on the gullible. The methodological naturalism that is characteristic of elite science does not allow the intervention of supernatural agents. Thus believers in popular science and popular religion are hostile to elite science because the latter does not allow for supernatural agents as explanations for anything.

All these relationships have been fairly stable for the last few centuries. It is the final remaining relationship, between elite science and elite religion, that is currently undergoing some serious upheaval and sparked the intense science-religion debates that we are currently experiencing, and will form the subject of future postings.

POST SCRIPT: New secular student group at Case

A group of students have taken the initiative to create a Case chapter of the Campus Freethought Alliance. The organizer is a student named Batool who can be reached at bxa21(at)case.edu if you would like more information about the group. I have been asked to serve as the group's advisor and have accepted.

The CFA's mission can be found on its website.

The Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) is an international not-for-profit umbrella organization uniting freethinking, skeptic, secularist, nontheist, and humanist students and student organizations. Its purposes are:

-To encourage freedom from superstition, irrationalism, and dogma.
-To further the acceptance and application of science, reason, and critical thinking in all areas of human endeavor.
-To challenge misrepresentations of non-religious convictions and lifestyles.
-To create a campus community for freethinkers and skeptics.
-To cultivate in ourselves — and others — a sense of responsibility to, and compassion for, humanity.
-To counter all forms of religious political extremism.
-To defend religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
-To defend individual freedoms and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of race, sex, gender, class, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.
-To unite freethinkers, skeptics, and humanists and consolidate campus resources to these ends.

April 25, 2007

When good people do bad things

Amongst Catholics, it had long been thought that "children who die without being baptized are with original sin and thus excluded from heaven, but the church has no formal doctrine on the matter. Theologians have long taught, however, that such children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness, a state commonly called limbo, but without being in communion with God."

However, it seems that concerns have been raised about this because of the growing number of children who now die without being baptized. (I am not exactly sure why this is seen as a bigger problem now than before. Is there a finite amount of space and thus overcrowding in limbo?) Anyway a recent news report says that the Catholic Church has appointed a high powered International Theological Commission to study this problem (really) and now thinks that there is "reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven."

All Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin. This asserts that all people are sinful by their very nature because they are born that way and thus must seek forgiveness to achieve salvation. I had rejected the idea of original sin at a very early age, even when I was still religious in other ways. The idea that newborn babies are sinners struck me as just too preposterous to be taken seriously. Furthermore, since I had never accepted the Genesis story as being literally true, the 'fall from grace' which is supposed to be the source of original sin and is depicted in the famous story of Eve tempting Adam with fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, could not have occurred anyway, making the whole idea very dubious.

For me discussions about the nature of limbo (or even its existence) and the importance of baptism of infants for salvation are utterly pointless, similar to questions concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But such questions have serious consequences in the lives of real people. Richard Dawkins describes the tragic story of Edgardo Mortara in his book The God Delusion (p 311-315), which he takes from another book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer.

Edgardo was a boy born to Jewish parents in Bologna, Italy who, as an infant, had a fourteen year old Catholic nanny. When the baby got very sick one day, the nanny panicked and thought that he was going to die. Not wanting him to end up in limbo, she discovered that anyone (not just priests) could baptize anyone else by sprinkling water and muttering the appropriate words, and she did so to Edgardo in order to save his soul. Edgardo recovered, however, and many years later, the news that he had been baptized came to the attention of church authorities and since a baptized child was legally considered to be a Christian, it was considered intolerable for Edgardo to be brought up in a Jewish home. So in 1868 the papal police, acting legally under the orders of the Inquisition, seized the six-year old boy and brought him up in a special home used for the conversion of Jews and Muslims.

His distraught parents naturally tried everything they could to get their child back but it was to no avail. In fact, the church was bewildered that anyone would even make a fuss about this. After all, the child was now a Christian by virtue of having been baptized and the church thought that being brought up in Christian environment was best for the child. A Catholic newspaper in the US even defended the Pope's action as taken on behalf of the principle of religious liberty, "the liberty of a child of being a Christian and not forced compulsorily to be a Jew. . . The Holy Father's protection of the child, in the face of all the ferocious fanaticism of infidelity and bigotry, is the grandest moral spectacle which the world has seen for ages."

Although Edgardo's story was highly publicized, it was by no means unusual at that time and this is what makes the whole thing so bizarre. It was apparently routine for well-to-do Jews to hire Catholic nannies, and this kind of surreptitious baptism and taking away of children from Jewish parents had happened before.

This immediately raises the obvious question of why Jews, although aware of this potential problem, would take the risk of hiring Catholic nannies instead of Jewish ones. The reason, it turns out, is that since observant Jews are prohibited by their religion from doing a vast number of routine tasks on the Sabbath, having Catholic servants enabled them to get things done without offending their own god. So the risk of losing a child was seemingly outweighed by their sense of obligation to follow their own god's rules.

But even after the abduction of their child and when all their efforts to get him back through other means had failed, Edgardo's parents still had one sure-fire remedy, and that was to agree for themselves to be baptized. Even if they did not believe in the Christian god, if they had agreed to have water sprinkled on themselves and the ritual words spoken, they would get their child back since they would now be considered Christian by the church. But they refused to do this, out of loyalty to their own Jewish god. As Dawkins says: "To some of us, the parents' refusal indicates wanton stubbornness. To others, their principled stand elevates them into the long list of martyrs for all religions down the ages."

Dawkins uses this story to make a telling point. Every person and institution in this sorry episode was a 'good' person, in the traditional sense that they were acting according to the highest ideals of their religion. The nanny was trying to save the child from limbo. The church honestly seemed to believe that it was in the best interests of a Christian child to be brought up by and amongst other Christians. Edgardo's parents were trying to observe their religion by hiring a Catholic nanny (despite the known risks) so that they could faithfully observe the Sabbath. And in not agreeing to go through even an insincere baptism, they were acting to avoid incurring the wrath of their own Jewish god because he is well known to be a jealous god who gets really angry at any form of allegiance to other gods, even the Christian god. Presumably the parents sincerely felt that their god would not understand and forgive a baptismal charade, even though their motives for agreeing to a phony baptism would have been unimpeachable.

These were all 'good' people, not setting out deliberately to do evil. They were all acting very devoutly according to their own religious lights. But the net result of their actions was evil – a family torn apart and a child deprived of the love and companionship of his parents.

This sad story illustrates better than any other the truth of Steven Weinberg's statement: "Without [religion], you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins and Bill O'Reilly

You can see the clip of the exchange here. O'Reilly basically said that because he believes in the Christian god, what he believes must be true. He also said that the tides going in and out, the sun rising and setting, all could not happen without god. In short, he trots out all the simple and fallacious arguments that should be familiar to readers of this blog.

April 24, 2007

Political tone-deafness

You would think that experienced career politicians would have some sense of how to avoid saying things that gratuitously insult people. And then you read things like this:

Former Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson told Jewish activists Monday that making money is "part of the Jewish tradition," and something that he applauded. 

Speaking to an audience at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington D.C., Thompson said that, "I'm in the private sector and for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that." 

Thompson later apologized for the comments that had caused a stir in the audience, saying that he had meant it as a compliment, and had only wanted to highlight the "accomplishments" of the Jewish religion.

Much attention has been focused on Thompson's casual invocation of the stereotype of Jews as being focused on money and being surprised that his audience did not receive it as a compliment.

But there is another offensive idea in this passage that I hear repeatedly and which has not been remarked upon, and that is his assumption that people who occupy high government office don't make any money worth speaking of, and only begin to do so when they leave government service and enter the private sector. Surely most people would find this offensive? After all, this person was the governor of a big state and also the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. In both those jobs he would have been paid a salary and obtained perks that almost everyone else in this country can only dream of. But for Thompson and others like him, that is nothing. And what is worse, they act like they have sacrificed on our behalf when they take on these high paying jobs.

Yes, it is true that they probably make much more money when they move to the private sector and exploit the contacts they developed while working in government. But what they get paid as high government officials is still not peanuts and it is a slap in the face to those who earn much less to act as if it were nothing.

Very, very few people will make as much money as Tommy Thompson in either of the two jobs whose salary he disdains. Surely he cannot be oblivious that he earns more than the vast majority of Americans, and when compared to the rest of the world, where poverty is rampant, must rank in the very top tier of income earners. So how is it that a career politician like Thompson can be oblivious to the effect of his words?

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives and potential presidential candidate Newt Gingrich provides another example of obliviousness. He recently caused a fuss when he seemed to imply that Spanish was the language of the ghetto. He then tried to make amends by saying (in Spanish) that what he was really trying to say was that you really needed to learn English if you want to succeed in America.

Really? He thinks that this is news to people? Gingrich painfully spelling this out indicates that he thinks that Hispanics are too stupid to have figured this out by themselves. Of course everyone in America knows that knowledge of English is necessary to advance in almost any aspect of life. The real issue is why this knowledge and awareness does not always get translated into concrete action.

I similarly cringe when politicians preach to children that success in school will lead to better lives. Do they think that these students don't realize this? Have they never talked to these children? Have they never read any of the research on what students' views on education are? Children know that high levels of education usually results in a better standard of living. They just don't act on this knowledge. Again, the real question is why their awareness does not manifest itself in appropriate actions.

And then there is John Edwards. Here he is, from a very poor family background, running for president on a platform that is about the two Americas, the rich and the poor, and the need to be sensitive to the needs of those less fortunate. And then he goes and gets a $400 haircut, for which he has been roundly criticized.

How is it that experienced politicians do not realize how such words and actions might rub people the wrong way? Perhaps it is because they have no real conception about how most people live. Thompson's world, the people he hangs out with, is probably that of corporate CEOs and other wealthy people and that is the kind of money that he thinks he too deserves to earn. Gingrich's world is that of successful English speakers who cannot conceive of why other people might not aspire to be like them. John Edwards probably moves among people for whom such expensive haircuts are standard. Laura Bush apparently spends $700 to get her hair done, so I am guessing that these people don't go to Best Cuts.

None of these things necessarily reflect on how well they might perform in office and should not be overanalyzed. But they do indicate a curious obliviousness to how they might be perceived.

If they really moved around with the people they claim to represent, they might not speak or act so objectionably.

POST SCRIPT: Must-see TV for media watchers

Bill Moyers has a special that examines the media's complicity in selling the Iraq war under false pretenses. It airs on PBS stations on Wednesday, April 25 at 9:00 pm (check your local listings).

Editor & Publisher says of the program:

The most powerful indictment of the news media for falling down in its duties in the run-up to the war in Iraq will appear next Wednesday, a 90-minute PBS broadcast called "Buying the War," which marks the return of "Bill Moyers Journal." E&P was sent a preview DVD and a draft transcript for the program this week. While much of the evidence of the media's role as cheerleaders for the war presented here is not new, it is skillfully assembled, with many fresh quotes from interviews (with the likes of Tim Russert and Walter Pincus) along with numerous embarrassing examples of past statements by journalists and pundits that proved grossly misleading or wrong. Several prominent media figures, prodded by Moyers, admit the media failed miserably, though few take personal responsibility.
. . .
Phil Donahue recalls that he was told he could not feature war dissenters alone on his MSNBC talk show and always had to have "two conservatives for every liberal." Moyers resurrects a leaked NBC memo about Donahue's firing that claimed he "presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
. . .
At the close, Moyers mentions some of the chief proponents of the war who refused to speak to him for this program, including Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol, Roger Ailes, Charles Krauthammer, Judith Miller, and William Safire.
. . .
The program closes on a sad note, with Moyers pointing out that "so many of the advocates and apologists for the war are still flourishing in the media." He then runs a pre-war clip of President Bush declaring, "We cannot wait for the final proof: the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." Then he explains: "The man who came up with it was Michael Gerson, President Bush's top speechwriter.

"He has left the White House and has been hired by the Washington Post as a columnist."

You can see Bill Moyers being interviewed by Bill Maher and a preview of the program here.

April 23, 2007

The serious business of comics

I don't know what it says about me but the section of the paper I read most carefully is the funny pages. While I can zip through the rest of the paper quickly, gleaning the gist of articles by quickly scanning and skipping, I slow down and read carefully every word in the comics, even the ones I don't find funny.

I have always taken newspaper comic strips seriously. The papers in Sri Lanka when I was growing up did not have the multipage spreads that US papers have but they had enough comics to whet my appetite for the genre and I became an addict, faithfully reading them every day to this day. In those days there was a greater proportion of 'serious' strips, daily serialized versions of comic book stories. I recall The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Tarzan, which I enjoyed at that time, in addition to the gag strips (Mr. Abernathy, Bringing Up Father) which were not that funny. Peanuts was the exception, being consistently high quality, with Hi and Lois being fairly good.

Although I have severely criticized the way newspapers in the US cover news, there is no question that they generally provide you with a good selection of mainstream comics. Whenever I travel to another city, I always buy the local papers to see what comics they run, and while I am away the Plain Dealer copies at home are collected and kept for me so that on my return I can read the comics in sequence and get back up to date.

I know I am not alone in my devotion to comics. It is generally conceded that newspaper readers are most passionate about their comics and woe to the editor who drops a favored strip. I have heard editors say that the only time to make any changes to the comics page is just before you leave town to take another job, so that you can avoid the wrath of fans protesting the loss of their favorite strip.

This intense loyalty has the unfortunate tendency to make the comics pages static, with strips continuing long after their creators have run out of ideas, or even died, with their work being carried on by successors. In a shakeup a few years ago, the Plain Dealer dropped Spiderman and Judge Parker but there was such an outcry that they had to bring them back. Since they had no room anymore on the comics pages because of the replacements, they had to insert them into the classified ads section. As a result I don't read them anymore since Spiderman was an awful strip, with plots dragging on interminably. Judge Parker was better but not enough to make me rummage through the classified section to find it.

It is only when a cartoonist retires or dies that new trips tend to be introduced and this has happened recently with the retirement of Fox Trot creator Bill Amend. The paper said they would run four different strips for a month each and then get readers to vote for which of the four should be the permanent replacement strip. But for some reason, after three months, while the auditions for the Fox Trot replacement was still going on, they suddenly dropped Pre-Teena (which was not bad) and inserted one of the new candidate strips Pearls Before Swine (which is also not bad) in its place.

The death last week of Johnny Hart, creator of the painfully unfunny B.C. and Wizard of Id may provide opportunities for two new strips, once the backlog of his strips is completed.

In general I hate strips that feature children or animals acting 'cute'. It seems like their creators, rather than aiming for laughs, want their readers to say "Awwww, how sweet!" Family Circus, Marmaduke and Jump Start are the worst examples of this tendency. I also hate strips like Ziggy that are often simply sappy and repetitious, seemingly written as greeting cards.

Garfield, Get Fuzzy, Peanuts, and The Boondocks (the last via the internet) are examples of strips that have animals and children but where they have personalities and are interesting, even edgy. Peanuts is now running some of the early strips drawn in the 1950s and 60s and it amazing how laugh-out-loud funny they are, compared to Charles Shulz's later works when they became more focused on being heartwarming rather than funny. Linus especially is a hoot and my favorite character, along with everyone's favorite Snoopy.

Amongst the other current comics, the ones I like are Dilbert, Non Sequitur, Speed Bump, Bizarro, Real Life Adventures, Zits, and Doonesbury. Blondie, despite its age, still has the ability to occasionally be quite funny, as does The Born Loser.

The thing that has changed since my youth is the emergence of the semi-comic narrative strip, which has continuing story lines that do not always aim for a laugh. For Better or Worse and Funky Winkerbean are better examples of this genre, while Crankshaft is tiresome. Although Tom Batiuk is the creator of both Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft, the former benefits from having a larger ensemble of varied and interesting characters and story lines, while the latter's running gags of mothers chasing the bus (sorry for the pun) and Keesterman's mailbox being destroyed have long since ceased to be funny.

Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, and Sally Forth are also strips that I would not miss if they disappeared, being funny only on very rare occasions. Mary Worth is a soap-opera strip that also tends to drag the plot lines out and should be retired.

So what about the four candidates that are supposed to be auditioning to replace Fox Trot? One was Dog Eat Doug, which features a dog and a baby both acting cute, and hence was really awful. Another was Pearls Before Swine which seems to have already usurped the Pre-Teena slot. Another is called Diesel Sweeties about a robot and his human girl friend, which looks like it was drawn using an Etch-a-Sketch. This strip is quite weird and I just don't get some of the jokes or even the point. The fourth candidate was the first to run and I have forgotten it already.

The comic strip that I miss most is, of course, Calvin and Hobbes. What a brilliant strip that was. But I have to admire creator Bill Watterson for recognizing that after ten years, it was time to stop. It is always better to leave people wanting more than have them wish you would go away.

POST SCRIPT: This should be fun

Richard Dawkins will be interviewed by Bill O'Reilly on Monday, April 23, at 8.00pm Eastern time on FOX. The program will be rebroadcast at 11.00pm. (You may want to check your local listings for times.)

O'Reilly's shtick is to try and bully and badger those with whom he disagrees. But Dawkins is more than his match intellectually and does not suffer fools gladly.

I have seen many Dawkins interviews in which he is engaged by British TV interviewers who have been sharp in their questions but cordial and civil in their manner. I am not sure if Dawkins has ever been interviewed by someone as overbearing, self-absorbed, and obnoxious as O'Reilly, so this encounter will be like the proverbial unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

Unfortunately I do not have cable and am teaching a class until 9:00pm anyway. I hope the video appears on the internet soon after.

April 20, 2007

Reacting to other people's tragedies

Perhaps one of the hardest things to deal with is how to respond when tragedy strikes other people.

When tragedy strikes you personally, then any response by you is fine and no one else has the right to tell you how you should feel and what is appropriate behavior. I find it strange when others sit in judgment and look on disapprovingly if someone does things that they themselves would not do in a similar situation. For example, Elizabeth Edwards' decision to continue with her life just as it was before her cancer struck again was her right to make and should not have been second-guessed by anyone. She said that the only alternative was preparing for death and she rejected that option.

It is a little harder to know how best to respond when the tragedy bereaves not you but someone you know personally or, in the case of the Virginia Tech shootings or the death of a much-loved and much admired figure like Martin Luther King, affects such a large enough number of people that we feel a collective sense of loss. But however close I am to the people who actually lost a loved one, I try to remember that what I feel empathetically can never be anywhere close to what they actually feel.

For example, on NPR earlier this week, they quoted a resident of Blacksburg who was attending the memorial service for the dead people at Virginia Tech out of a sense of solidarity. That was admirable but in trying to convey the depth of his sympathy, he said that he felt like one of his own children had been killed. I am sure he meant well, but I personally avoid that kind of sentiment. As I have said earlier, the reason people grieve so deeply over the loss of a loved one is because of the sense of yearning for the missing person, the loss of the relationship and companionship that they once enjoyed. If you never had that companionship to begin with, then the feelings you experience are unlikely to have the deep poignancy that the truly bereaved feel. We can try and imagine what it would be like to have that experience, but I doubt that it comes even close to matching the intensity of the real thing.

I see a lot of this generalized adoption of other people's grief these days. It strikes me as a little bit of verbal overkill. We seem to think that people will be comforted if we say that we are feeling the same emotions as they. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, some people around the world said "We are all Americans now." When major tragedies strike people in other countries, similar sentiments are expressed. I am not sure if this kind of thing really helps the people who are bereaved or instead strikes them as cheap and shallow sentiment. Perhaps the best thing to do in such situations is to express your sympathy for their loss, and simply support them as they work their way through it and not prescribe what they should or should not do. We have to realize that our words can never really capture the emotions that they feel.

It is odd how some people react to the Virginia Tech shootings. Dinesh D'Souza, who had already made a fool of himself on the Colbert Report for suggesting in his new book that the 9/11 attacks were partly due to actions of FDR (!) and the liberals in America (see the postscript to this post) emerges from wherever he obtains his hallucinations to make the strange argument that the response to the recent shooting reveals the deficiencies of atheism! He asserts that 'atheists were nowhere to be found' and advances the argument that because noted atheist Richard Dawkins (who has no connection to the university) was not invited to speak at the Virginia Tech convocation, this shows that atheism is of no use at these times and that therefore god is necessary.

If his appearance on Colbert left any doubt that D'Souza was a silly person not to be taken seriously, this latest evidence sealed the case. It takes an extraordinary level of obtuseness to suggest that events surrounding the cold-blooded slaughter of 32 innocent people are an argument against atheism and in favor of a providential god. Any junior varsity debater could demolish his arguments and the inimitable TBogg shows the way with a cartoon as a bonus. As the Carpetbagger Report says: "Honestly, one might think D'Souza was trying to sound like an idiot."

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings provides the definitive response, especially about D'Souza's statement that: "What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil."

Hilzoy points out "What's especially silly about this sentence is that the problem of evil is a problem specifically for Christians. It is, basically, the problem of how a good and loving God could have created a world with evil in it. Atheists do not have this problem at all. So I guess they don't "deal with it", in the sense in which they don't have to "deal with" the problem of how Christ's body and blood are truly present in the Eucharist."

D'Souza seems to be under the weird impression that to be an atheist is to not have emotions like love, sadness, grief, joy, etc., that to be an atheist is to be a machine. He points to poet Nikki Giovanni's speech at the convocation as "as heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning" and suggests that atheists have nothing similarly uplifting to offer at times like this.

But what is odd about this assertion is that Giovanni is reported to be a secular person (though I have not been able to confirm this). Here is the text of her speech in full:

We are Virginia Tech. We are sad today and we will be sad for quite awhile. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech. We are strong enough to know when to cry and sad enough to know we must laugh again. We are Virginia Tech. We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did not deserve it but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, but neither do the invisible children walking the night to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory; neither does the Appalachian infant in the killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy. We are Virginia Tech. The Hokier Nation embraces our own with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think, not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail, we will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.

I don't see any religious symbolism at all. What I do see in her words is a stirring affirmation of life and solidarity, linking the recent sorrow with that of suffering people and animals everywhere, and calling us to draw upon our reservoirs of strength and courage to be unbowed by the madness of the events and fight back to sanity through the tears.

It is an uplifting message for everyone, flying high above the petty divisions of private beliefs and the mud in which people like D'Souza wallow.

POST SCRIPT: Another new episode of Mr. Deity

Mr. Deity is the hilarious set of short films that feature God (Mr. Deity), his occasional girl friend Lucy (Lucifer), his assistant Larry (who seems to have a Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship with Mr. Deity), and Jesus.

In Episode #10, Mr. Deity tries to figure out why hell is so overcrowded.

The full set of clips can be seen here.

April 19, 2007

The Virginia Tech tragedy

What was your reaction when you first heard the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech? When someone in my office told me around noon on Monday that about twenty people had been shot dead on that campus, my first reaction was that this was probably another case of someone snapping under the pressure of something or other and setting off on a killing spree.

One thing that did not occur to me, despite the fear-mongering that has gone on under the guise of the so-called 'war on terror', was the possibility that this was a terrorist attack. After all, these kinds of killings happen periodically in America, though admittedly this was on a larger scale than usual. Although I checked the internet for news, I have long realized that you should never take seriously the initial news reports that emerge from such chaotic and fast-moving situations.

The first news that emerges almost always depend on reports, often second or third hand, originating from people having a slight connection with the incident, perhaps because of being nearby. But eyewitness reports given by most people in situations like this are notoriously unreliable. People often confuse what they actually observed with what they inferred, they re-order events, they confuse identities. Most of this is because they are not dispassionate observers, clinically taking notes. Instead they are trying to make sense of the events as they rapidly occur so that they can take action, often defensive action.

So I have found that it is usually after a few days, when the dust has settled and people have managed to get enough information from diverse sources, that reliable news about even the most basic aspects (how many people died, how many were injured, when and where the events occurred) can be gleaned. So I reserve judgment until that time.

Oddly enough, as even more time goes by, the story gets distorted again. This is because after awhile, an 'official' narrative starts to get constructed. People like to have a nice story line that fits a pattern and this official narrative begins to be constructed that tries to explain everything neatly. This is rarely an act of deliberate dishonesty. It can arise naturally, often out of good motives. The authorities want to get back a sense of normalcy, so they have a vested interested in acting as if everything is over and known. People want to get back to their lives and they can do that if they think there is nothing more to be learned. All these things conspire to pressure everyone to suppress discrepant data and discordant explanations and to produce an 'official' history of the events that then becomes 'fact'.

So my view is that it is in a small window of time after the events, not immediately during or after, and not too long afterwards, that we get the most accurate picture of what really happened, with all its seeming contradictions and loose ends. This is why historians go back to the contemporary records of events they are investigating, to primary sources, and are often surprised that the actual history of some event is often much more complicated than the official version that was subsequently passed on.

So not jumping to conclusions and waiting for a few days to draw conclusions has always seemed to me to be a wise move. But clearly not everyone agrees with that approach. Some people, on first hearing the Virginia Tech news, immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a terrorist attack by Muslims and then tried to fit all the details that emerged into that pre-determined narrative structure.

One of these people was someone called Debbie Schlussel, a Third-Tier Pundit. Her immediate suspicion was that the killer was a Muslim and that this was a terrorist attack. Her suspicions were fuelled by initial reports that the killer was Asian. She immediately looked around for likely Asian Muslims, although no data was available to support her speculations. She wrote: "The Virginia Tech campus has a very large Muslim community, many of which are from Pakistan" and added "Pakis are considered "Asian." " (She seems not to realize that while 'Pakistanis' is an acceptable description of people of that nation, and 'Paks' is also sometimes used, especially to describe their sports teams, the word 'Paki' is considered a racial slur, especially in England. When someone pointed this out in the comments she reacted angrily and defensively)

She went on obsessing about the possibility that the shooter was a Muslim: "So who is the shooter? What is the shooter's nationality? What is the shooter's religion? Waiting to find out. And wondering why the police and media are referring to the shooter as "Asian" and not by specific nationality.. . Why am I speculating that the "Asian" gunman is a Pakistani Muslim? Because law enforcement and the media strangely won't tell us more specifically who the gunman is. Why?"

She seems to have this bizarre idea that there is a vast conspiracy by the authorities to hide the killer's Muslim identity under the broad umbrella label of Asian, and she tries to enlist other Asians to her cause by appealing to a bogus sense of grievance: "If I were Asian, I'd be legitimately upset with this broad generalization of the mass murderer's identity." I am not sure why any Asian should be upset at this. If someone saw me on the street, they would not know if I was Indian or Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi or Pakistani. If you don’t know for sure, 'Asian' seems a much better description, though still having the potential to be wrong.

Perhaps suspecting that at this point she may be have gone too far, Schlussel tries to hedge her bets. "Even if it does not turn out that the shooter is Muslim, this is a demonstration to Muslim jihadists all over that it is extremely easy to shoot and kill multiple American college students." Really? She thinks that people don't know that college campuses in the US are open places where people wander around freely?

But then news emerged that the shooter was "Chinese," thus destroying her Muslim theory, so she jumps to another conclusion, to tackle another pet project which is exploiting xenophobic anti-immigrant feelings. "The shooter has now been identified as a Chinese national here on a student visa. Lovely. Yet another reason to stop letting in so many foreign students." Of course, that also turned out to be wrong. The student was from South Korea and had been here from the time he was eight, and did not need or have a student visa because he was a permanent resident.

So then what to do? One of her commenters tries to salvage her Muslim phobia by suggesting that the shooter might be a Chinese Muslim, helpfully providing a Wikipedia link to show the existence of such people. (When I read the angry tone and language of the comments on her blog and her responses to them, and compare them with the kinds of thoughtful and sophisticated discussions that go on here, it is like night and day.) Schlussel still tries to find a Muslim connection by referring to some other incident that happened elsewhere last year and adds darkly: "And remember: Just because this attacker was not Muslim, doesn't mean there aren't plenty of potential and hopeful ones among the thousands Muslim nations are sending here to "study" under Saudi King Abdullah's scholarships."

But meanwhile she is also hints that such a mass killing had to have greater planning and done by more than a lone lunatic, and also pushes other pet projects such as this atrocity proving the need to allow everyone to carry guns, and decrying the wimpiness of current American students who should have rushed and overpowered the gunman instead of hiding or running.

Then she struck pay dirt. A report came in that the student had the words "Ismail Ax" written on his arm! Ismail! A Muslim name! The smoking gun at last! This news has set off another furious round of feverish speculation in the blog world that the killer might secretly have been a Muslim. I find it curious that all these people seem to want a terrorist attack by Muslims to occur in the US. Why is this?

Was the shooter a Muslim? Who knows? That information will eventually come out. And if so, what of it? Maybe he was just a fan of Moby Dick. Maybe "Ismail Ax" was some literary creation of his highly disturbed psyche. We know he was an English major who had strange creative impulses.

I am spending so much space on a fairly obscure person's rantings because it provides a useful case study to indicate what can happen when you jump to conclusions right at the beginning of fast moving events and then try fit everything to meet that conclusion.

We all have some kind of immediate reaction to any event but the sensible thing, it seems to me, is to realize that our initial guess could be way off and wait until we have at least some reliable data before shooting off at the mouth. Otherwise you end up looking like an idiot. As Sherlock Holmes said in A Scandal in Bohemia: "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

Keith Olbermann takes to task the people who said the most idiotic and insensitive things about the Virginia Tech tragedy. Schlussel merely gets the bronze medal, which gives you an indication of how bad the others must be.

POST SCRIPT: New episode of Mr. Deity

Mr. Deity is the hilarious set of short films that feature God (Mr. Deity), his occasional girl friend Lucy (Lucifer), his assistant Larry (who seems to have a Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship with Mr. Deity), and Jesus.

Episode #9 is now available, where Mr. Deity is annoyed with having his name publicized as creator of the Bible.

The full set of clips can be seen here.

April 18, 2007

False symmetry

In recent posts, I have been pointing out that while it is impossible to disprove god's existence, that did not mean that it was rational to believe in god. The reason for those posts was to address a false symmetry that is sometimes posed between atheism and religious belief. That symmetry takes roughly the following form:

1. It cannot be proved that god does not exist
2. Therefore not believing in god's existence is as much an act of faith as believing in it.

Some extend this line of reasoning even further, to argue that therefore atheism is also a religion and that thus keeping prayer and religious education out of schools is equivalent to promoting one particular 'religion' (atheism), and thus violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

This is a false symmetry. While atheists would accept the first statement, they would reject the second. The crucial difference is the role that evidence plays in shaping beliefs.

I said that because of the impossibility of proving a negative, the current state of absence of evidence for god and the afterlife was all the proof we were ever going to get. If people think that a more convincing proof is required for disbelief in god, then I am curious to learn what form it would take. So far, nothing has been offered, as far as I know.

Atheists take the following position:

1. We believe in those things that have sufficient and convincing evidentiary support.
2. We disbelieve those things for which there is insufficient evidentiary support.
3. The more evidence there is in favor of a belief, the more we are likely to believe and vice versa.

The crucial difference can be seen in response to my question as to what evidence it would take to make them disbelieve in god and the afterlife. The commenters in this blog (who are all people who have obviously given this question considerable thought) agreed that there was no conceivable evidence that would make them give up their beliefs. And yet, they do not believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, which have no evidentiary support either. So religious belief is decoupled from evidence. In fact, belief in god in the absence of evidence is taken as a virtue, a sign of the depth of one's faith.

On the other hand, atheists take a position that is consistent with a scientific outlook. They believe in those things for which there is persuasive, objective, corroborative, and cumulative evidence, even if it cannot be proved beyond any doubt. They can also always conceive of some evidence that would persuade them to give up their most cherished theories. For example, if human fossils that are two billion years old were ever found, that would seriously undermine the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Similarly, atheists can conceive of all manner of things that would require them to accept the existence of god. As another example, suppose god were to suddenly appear on all TV stations, announcing his/her existence, the way that V appeared in the excellent film V for Vendetta. Of course, that by itself would not be convincing since people nowadays are skeptical of the power of technology. Some people are convinced that the Moon landings and the 9/11 attacks were hoaxes.

So to be really convincing, god would have to announce in that broadcast that he/she would stop the Earth's rotation for 24 hours, starting at some specified time. Such an act would violate the laws of conservation of energy and angular momentum, which are foundations of physics. If that happened, I don't see how anyone could doubt god's existence.

Of course, god would have to take some precautions. Simply stopping the Earth's rotation would, according to the laws of physics, at the very least unleash huge tsunamis and earthquakes that would wreak destruction on a massive scale. But since an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god can keep track of and do everything at once, I am sure that these negative consequences of stopping the Earth can be avoided. And this is not asking for too much evidence since the Bible says that god has done this in the past (Joshua 10:12-13). To be accurate, the Bible says that god stopped the Sun, not the Earth's rotation, but we can grant some license for pre-Copernican thinking.

I am not saying that this is the only proof of god's existence that would be acceptable to atheists. One can suggest a vast number of similar evidences. But it does suggest the nature of the evidence that would be required to be convincing.

So that is where things stand. Atheists, like scientists, can always articulate what evidence (or lack of it) makes them believe some things and disbelieve others. They can also specify what kind of evidence would make them call into question what they currently believe and convert them to belief about things they are currently skeptical of.

But religious believers have no choice but to say that there are some beliefs that they will never give up on, whatever the evidence. It is important to realize that there is nothing inherently wrong with taking this position. Kathy in her comments to previous posts quite rightly points out that faith is irrational and that logic and evidence have nothing to do with it. I agree with her.

What I am saying is that the atheist's lack of belief in god and the afterlife are, like a scientist's, based on logic and the absence of evidence while religious beliefs have to part company with evidence at some point. And this is where the symmetry breaks down.

POST SCRIPT: The secret doubts of believers

In a previous post, I suggested that it was strange that religious believers in their daily lives did not act in ways that were consistent with an all-knowing, all-powerful god and suggested that perhaps people were more atheistic than they were willing to let on. Of course, there is hardly any new idea under the sun. It turns out that long ago philosopher David Hume suspected the same thing, as he wrote in his The Natural History of Religion chapter XII (1757):

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men's conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

April 17, 2007

This is supposed to be funny?

When I was in my early teens, I was the proverbial 'good' boy. I was religious, didn't swear, didn't smoke or drink surreptitiously, and drugs were simply out of the question. But I had a neighbor of the same age who was much more worldly than I. And this youth used to tell coarse jokes. These jokes dealt with sex and bodily parts and bodily functions. They poked fun at gays and women and were outrageously sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic, although I did not know these words at that time.

As I recall, the jokes were mostly labored puns, and depended on a character having a highly improbable and contrived name that was essential for the working of the joke. So when the character was introduced by name in the set up, you pretty much could guess what the punch line was going to be. After all these years I can still recall one joke, not by remembering it entire, but because I can remember the name of the main character and thus can reconstruct the joke from that name.

Clever, these jokes were not. Even at that young age, I could see that they were labored and crude. But still I enjoyed hearing them and laughed along with the teller, feeding his ego that he was a witty raconteur, a veritable Lenny Bruce, so that he would tell more. I think that the appeal of these jokes for me was that they were a guilty pleasure, a way for me, the 'good' boy, to have an outlet for speaking about socially repressed topics like sex and yet preserve my self-image. After all, I wasn't saying any of these things, I was just a bystander.

But then I grew up. As an adult, I had the freedom to speak openly about these topics and didn’t need to giggle furtively at crude humor and language as a means of expression. I think that perhaps my experience was not uncommon. At the awkward adolescent age that young men go through, when they are trying to figure out their gender and ethnic identities in societies that are uncomfortable with openly discussing them, this kind of humor may for some be a necessary phase for trying out speculative ideas.

As an adult, if one is fortunate enough, one becomes more aware of the diversity of the world and the shared human values. One also encounters and makes friends with people of different ethnicities and religions and genders and sexual orientations and begins to realize that humor that is based on gratuitously insulting those groups is simply not funny.

Sometimes the lessons are learned painfully. I remember attending a World Student Christian Movement international conference as the Sri Lankan delegate in the early 1970s. The American delegation consisted mostly of women who were feminists and I remember making 'jokes' (of the 'there, there, little girl' type) that were condescending and patronizing to women and feminism, The women were, naturally enough, infuriated and did not hesitate to tell me why they thought I was an idiot. Although I brushed off their criticisms at the time, I think their comments worked on me slowly and I realized later that I had acted like a jerk. (I still cringe at the memory and in the highly unlikely event that decades later any of them are reading this blog, I apologize.).

This is not to say that humor based on gender or sex or sexual identity and ethnicity need to be avoided. We have to take pleasure in our differences and our diversity, and a rich vein of humor can be mined by playing off stereotypes. Dave Barry shows how it can be done well in his brilliantly funny essay on The Difference Between Men and Women. But there is a world of difference between clever and mean, between witty and crude. Depending upon insulting words and denigrating stereotypes means that you have no creativity and are simply desperate to get a laugh, any laugh..

This is what seems to be at the heart of the Don Imus episode. Although I have never watched or listened to his show (except for the occasional YouTube clips when it dealt with some political topic) what caused the furor seemed to me to be like the situation when I was young, laughing along with my neighbor's lame attempts at humor. All the celebrity guests, the so-called 'respectable' people, the movers and shakers in the political and media world, who repeatedly appeared on his show and indulged his alleged racist and sexist and homophobic humor seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to enjoy this forbidden pleasure, while still clinging to their respectability because they themselves did not say any of those things. They, like me, adopted the 'innocent bystander' defense. And this acceptance of his actions by them in turn enabled Imus to feel that what he was doing was just fine, even perhaps admirable.

The whole thing reminds me (as so many things do) of a Monty Python sketch. This one starts with Terry Jones as a little naughty schoolboy thinking that it is very funny to say the word 'bottom' while his 'good' friends giggle, and ends with the famous 'nudge, nudge' sketch where Eric Idle is satirizing grown men who never really became mature. They want to talk about sex but can only do so in innuendo.

What surprises me is one 'defense' that is being offered on Imus's behalf, that he was an equal-opportunity offender, insulting almost every possible minority group. When did that become a good thing?

I am not much in touch anymore with talk radio and talk TV (or even popular culture in general for that matter) and so have no idea if Imus was better or worse than others in those media or whether his summary firing was justified by those standards. I suspect that he was fired for business reasons and the defection of advertisers, the real arbiter of media content, and not due to a sudden increase in refinement in the sensibilities of his audience or of the corporate bigwigs who own the stations his show ran on.

But what I feel is that while the type of humor Imus got into trouble for is not funny, and the behavior as practiced by him and his associates and guests is perhaps understandable in callow youths as a temporary phase on the road to maturity, it looks sad and pathetic when practiced by old men.

POST SCRIPT: Parody of Parodies

While searching for the above video, I ran across this very funny clip that pokes fun at the church of Monty Python, of which I am a devout member, as I am sure that readers of this blog have figured out.

April 16, 2007

Proofs of god's existence

I have been doing many posts recently as to why belief in god and the afterlife is irrational. It seems only fair that I now provide arguments for the other side but it seems that someone has already done all the work for me. I came across this website that gives over five hundred of proofs of god's existence, many of which will be familiar to anyone who has discussed these things with believers.

Here are some proofs:

2. COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT, a.k.a. FIRST CAUSE ARGUMENT (I)


(1) If I say something must have a cause, it has a cause.
(2) I say the universe must have a cause.
(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

8. ARGUMENT FROM MIRACLES (I)

(1) My aunt had cancer.
(2) The doctors gave her all these horrible treatments.
(3) My aunt prayed to God and now she doesn't have cancer.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

12. ARGUMENT FROM FEAR

(1) If there is no God then we're all going to not exist after we die.
(2) I'm afraid of that.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

19. ARGUMENT FROM NUMBERS

(1) Millions and millions of people believe in God.
(2) They can't all be wrong, can they?
(3) Therefore, God exists.

36. ARGUMENT FROM INCOMPLETE DEVASTATION

(1) A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew.
(2) But one child survived with only third-degree burns.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

38. ARGUMENT FROM SHEER WILL


(1) I DO believe in God! I DO believe in God! I do I do I do I DO believe in God!
(2) Therefore, God exists.

51. ARGUMENT FROM INFINITE REGRESS, a.k.a. FIRST CAUSE ARGUMENT (II)


(1) Ask Atheists what caused the Big Bang.
(2) Regardless of their answer, ask how they know this.
(3) Continue process until the Atheist admits he doesn't know the answer to one of your questions.
(4) You win!
(5) Therefore, God exists.

59. ARGUMENT FROM CREATIVE INTERPRETATION

(1) God is:

(a) The feeling you have when you look at a newborn baby.
(b) The love of a mother for her child.
(c) That little still voice in your heart.
(d) Humankind's potential to overcome their difficulties.
(e) How I feel when I look at a sunset.
(f) The taste of ice cream on a hot day.

(2) Therefore, God exists.

79. ARGUMENT FROM PERSONAL SANITY

(1) I've had religious experiences that can't be explained unless I'm insane or God exists.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

93. ARGUMENT FROM MYSTERIOUS USE OF PREPOSITIONS

(1) It is impossible to disprove God with your puny human intellect unless you are above God.
(2) Are you higher than God?
(3) I’ll take that puzzled look on your face as a no.
(4) Therefore, God (being the highest thing ever) exists.

98. ARGUMENT FROM DESIGN (II), a.k.a. GOD OF THE GAPS, a.k.a. ARGUMENT FROM PERSONAL INCREDULITY (II), a.k.a. DESIGN/TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT (IV)


(1) Isn't X amazing!
(2) I don't understand how X could be, without something else (that I don't really understand either) making or doing X.
(3) This something else must be God because I can't come up with a better explanation.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

101. ARGUMENT FROM AGNOSTICISM

(1) I don't know and you don't know either.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

199. ARGUMENT FROM QUANTUM PHYSICS

(1) Quantum physics uses an uncertainty principle.
(2) There is room for God.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

And finally, my favorite:

109. ARGUMENT FROM LACK OF DISPROOF


(1) You can't prove God doesn't exist!
(2) Therefore, God exists.

But there are hundreds more proofs on the website, which naturally leads to this one:

552. ARGUMENT FROM MULTIPLICITY (IV) (recursive internet edition)

(1) There exists a web page (http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/GodProof.htm)

(2) That page has hundreds of purported proofs of the existence of God.
(3) They can't all be wrong.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

The list inspired me to propose another proof, in the same spirit:

ARGUMENT FROM TERMINOLOGY

(1) There are hundreds of proofs of god's existence
(2) When you call something a 'proof', that means you have shown the result to be true
(3) Therefore, God exists

Mark Thomas, the creator of the above website, has written an excellent article titled Why Atheism that deals exhaustively with many of the topics that have been discussed in this blog. His home page as president of the Atheists of Silicon Valley is also full of interesting links.

Here is a very clever video clip that Mark alerted me to that is an almost perfect allegory of how religion operates. (One of the great things about the internet is that it has provided a platform for amateur film makers to write and produce little film clips that are of remarkably high quality.)

POST SCRIPT: Panel on religion and sexuality

The Spectrum group at Case is holding a panel discussion on religion and sexuality. It will be at 7:00 pm in Guilford lounge on Tuesday, April 17, 2007. The panel will address the questions:

What does sex/sexuality/gender mean to you and how is it defined in your religion?
What role does sex/sexuality/gender play in your religion or what roles are associated with sex/sexuality/gender?
Do the values and roles set by your religious identity conflict with your sexual/gender identity or your expectations of sexual/gender identity?
What role should religion play in affecting how policy is made in regards to issues of sex/sexuality/gender?

The panel itself consists of:

Joe White (moderator): Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department
Rev. Loey Powell: Co-Team Leader of Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ
Jacob Nash: Transactivist and Worship Leader
Mano Singham: Director of UCITE, an atheist perspective
Deepak Sarma: Assistant Professor of the Religion Department, specialty in Hinduism
Ramez Islambouli: Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages & Literature, a Muslim perspective (will be arriving a little late because he's teaching a class right before)
William Deal: Inamori Professor of Ethics in the Religion Department, specialty in Buddhism

April 13, 2007

Questions for believers in a god and the afterlife

In recent posts, I have spent considerable time discussing why I thought that belief in an afterlife and god was irrational. In the course of those posts, I described what kind of evidence I would need to convince me that I was wrong in each case. Now let me pose the counter-questions to religious believers: What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that (a) there is no afterlife and (b) there is no god?

To recap, for the afterlife, I said that a convincing evidence for the existence of the afterlife would have to consist of something incontrovertible, that simply could not be denied. Another way of saying it would be that an event must occur where an explanation that denies the existence of an afterlife is far more implausible and harder to believe than an explanation that accepts it.

Similarly, to convince me that god exists, convincing evidence for the existence of god would have to be something along the lines of the convincing evidence concerning the afterlife: god would have to appear in public to a random group of people, provide tangible proof of existence, and re-appear at a designated time and place that would allow for skeptics to be present.

I have since discovered that mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was also an atheist, was asked the same question by Look magazine in 1953 and said something similar, that he might be convinced there was a God "if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next 24 hours."

What I am suggesting is that convincing evidence of god or an afterlife would require something along the lines that philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) argued for concerning miracles:

It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation....

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (my emphasis)

My point has been that proving a negative is impossible. I cannot prove that magical invisible unicorns do not live in my office but the fact that there is no evidence at all for their existence is sufficient for me to conclude that they don't exist. The absence of such evidence for the existence of god or the afterlife is the only kind of evidence that we can have for their non-existence. So in other words, we have all the proof that we are ever going to have that god and the afterlife do not exist. This assertion of mine has been challenged by readers who are religious.

The basic argument I am making is, I hope, clear. To be convinced of the existence of god and/or an afterlife, events should occur for which explanations without god or the afterlife are far more implausible than explanations that call for them.

Clearly there are things that all of us do not believe. Presumably the adult readers of this blog definitely do not believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, with the same level of certainty with which I do not believe in the existence of god. They may have believed in them as children, just as they believed in god, but outgrew it in adolescence. Presumably, they do not also believe in those gods that are not in their own religious tradition.

I don't believe in any of these things for the same reasons that I do not believe in god or the afterlife – because of the lack of any positive evidence for their reality. But why do religious believers definitely not believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and the gods of other religions while still believing in their own god? What is the essential difference that enables people to believe one and not the other? What evidence convinced them of one and not the others?

And back to the questions addressed to religious believers: What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that (a) there is no afterlife and (b) there is no god?

I am really curious about this because it seems like this is a central issue. I have posed these questions before in the comments discussions but never got a clear and direct answer. If you can post your responses in the comments, that would really advance the discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Tech support in the middle ages

(Thanks to Progressive Review)

April 12, 2007

Religious beliefs as a house of cards

I have argued before that to sustain a belief in god requires one to construct an elaborate system of auxiliary beliefs to explain away the fact that no convincing evidence has ever been provided for god's existence, even though there is no discernible reason why god is prevented from doing so. The very qualities that most religious people ascribe to god (omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence) are the ones that give the most trouble in explaining why the evidence is not revealed.

Since the sustaining of religious beliefs require such an elaborate construction of auxiliary beliefs, it is not hard to see that religious believers have essentially constructed an alternate reality that is divorced from the usual rules of logic and evidence that govern the rest of our lives. But alternative realities are tricky things. They are like a house of cards, with each card representing some unsubstantiated belief that must be held in order to support other beliefs. As long as no one seriously questions any single element of this structure, it may be possible for the creaky structure to remain intact. But take away any element and that whole edifice of belief collapses.

Something like that happens, I think, to every religious believer who becomes an atheist. At some point that person dares to take away a single card to see what would happen and the whole structure comes crashing down. For each person, the first card that is removed may be different but the end result is the same for all – unbelief. This is what happened to me when I started asking questions about where in the universe god existed and whether god was a material or non-material object. If god was a material substance, how come we could not detect him/her? And if he/she was non-material, how could a non-material substance interact with the material world?

These questions arose naturally out of my study of physics because questions about the nature of any entity and how its properties can be measured are standard ones in that field. To maintain the standard belief that god was a non-material entity that was able to avoid detection while interacting with the world required the construction of an elaborate set of auxiliary beliefs, each of which required yet other beliefs to sustain it. Giving up on any one of those beliefs resulted in the whole structure collapsing. Now I cannot imagine how I could have thought that that shaky house of cards was a solid structure.

Religious beliefs can only be sustained if there is a common understanding shared by believers that prevents such awkward questions from being asked or where glib and facile answers are treated as if they are deep arguments. When most people believe in something, and belief in that thing is important to them and fills some deep need, they unwittingly conspire to keep discordant facts from disturbing their faith. So maintaining those beliefs depends on having a community of believers who will sustain each other in their beliefs and this is where the common worship and ritual play an important role. Constructing elaborate and exclusionary rules and rituals involving food, dress, and behavior, necessarily results in non-group members avoiding contact, thus less likely to bring with them 'heretical' thoughts.

This explains why most religious groups seek to either increase their numbers by proselytizing and gaining new converts or at least maintain their numbers by indoctrinating their children at an early age. It also explains why the act of 'blind faith', normally not seen as a good thing, is so highly praised in religion, since it discourages questioning of core beliefs by implying that such behavior represents a reprehensible lack of faith. Seen in this way, it becomes understandable why atheists are portrayed in such a negative light, since that encourages religious people to avoid contact with them and they are thus less exposed to dangerous challenges of core beliefs.

In effect, religion is like a giant Ponzi scheme that requires new believers in order to perpetuate itself. Since there is no convincing evidence for the existence of god, people who hold religious beliefs and yet want to think of themselves as rational are forced to construct such an elaborate alternate reality, a house of cards.

By creating unwritten rules whereby questions of religion are discussed only in closed communities of shared beliefs, or if discussed publicly, 'respect for religion' and fear of causing offence are used to exclude questioning of core ideas, the shaky foundations of religious beliefs are prevented from being exposed. What is currently happening is that outspoken atheists like Richard Hawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger are encouraging more and more people to tug at the cards by looking more closely at what religious beliefs actually imply.

POST SCRIPT: Open Forum on Iraq

Topic: Bringing the War Home to Case: An open dialogue on the conflict in Iraq led by individuals with a personal connection

When: Friday, April 13, 12:30 pm-1:45 pm
Where: KSL Oval (Rain site Thwing Atrium)

Pizza and refreshments will be served.

Dan Moulthrop (WCPN Radio) will be the moderator of the panel.

Panelists: Paul Schroeder (Founder of Families of the Fallen for Change), Ramez Islambouli (Advisor to the Muslim Student Association), Joe Mueller (Member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq), Erin Monroe (English grad student and spouse of a US soldier), Keith Schnell (Graduating senior and Army ROTC)

Co-sponsored by the Share the Vision Committee, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence, the Hallinan Project, Case Democrats, and Global Medical Initiatives (GMI).

April 11, 2007

Religious by day, atheists by night?

Here's a puzzle. Most people in this country are religious. The god they believe in is an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful god. If that is the case, why is it that people still do wrong things, things that they believe god will disapprove of? We know that even very religious people still lie and steal and cheat and do all manner of things that their religion tells them is wrong. But if they are sure that god knows all the things they do and is capable of punishing them, why do they still do it?

An obvious response is that human beings are not perfect, they are prone to temptation and that they are going to stray from the path of good behavior. A religious person might couch this in terms of human beings being weak and sinful and that they need to depend on god's forgiveness to save them form their sinful natures. (An atheist would have to depend on his or her conscience and moral sense to help overcome the temptation to harm others for their own gain.)

That's fair enough, but it seems to me that that only explains behavior in which people do something wrong on impulse or on the spur of the moment or by mistake because they did not have time to think things through or figure out what was the right or wrong thing to do. This can arise in tricky ethical situations where one has to make a decision on the spot and one can momentarily forget that god is watching your every move.

But that does not explain why religious people deliberately do things over a long period even when they know that what they are doing is wrong. Disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard, who railed against gays while having a relationship with a male prostitute, is only one highly publicized example of many cases of both clergy and laity indulging regularly and in a systematic manner in a whole host of activities that they strongly assert to be unquestioningly wrong, not just in sexual matters. If they really thought that god was watching their every move and knew their every motive and that their immortal souls were being imperiled, surely they would desist?

This leads me to wonder as to whether people really believe that god is all the he/she is cracked up to be. Perhaps what we have are closet atheists who pay lip service to the existence of a god but really don't believe it, or at least have serious doubts. Thus they are gambling that they can get away with things they believe are wrong because they think there is a good chance that god does not exist.

It is true that people can be aware of being observed and yet forget that they are under surveillance and act as if they are unobserved. For example, most stores now have cameras that record everything that goes on but we usually ignore them. But our nonchalant behavior usually extends only to those actions that are not serious transgressions. So we might clown around, pick our noses, yawn without covering our mouths, scratch ourselves, and do similar things and not care that we were being watched and recorded. But a serious criminal acting with premeditation would be aware of the cameras and take steps to avoid being detected or identified while stealing. The greater the levels of security, the more likely people would avoid doing something wrong in that store.

Similarly, if you knew that your boss in your workplace had a surveillance system that was monitoring your every move and that people were watching you, surely that would affect your behavior and you would not do what you felt your boss did not want you to?

But we need not limit ourselves to petty criminality. The examples can be multiplied in the worlds of politics, big business, and in interpersonal relations. People consciously do wrong things (cheat on their taxes, defraud their companies, tell lies about others, etc.) all the time, gambling that they can escape the adverse consequences because the earthly authorities are not likely to find out because they do not have the resources to find out everything.

There is no reason to think that such people are any less religious than the average person. Since surely god is the most perfect security system of all, how is it that these people can so easily ignore the fact that the god they believe in knows exactly what they are up to and considers it wrong? Could it be that, deep down, people do not really believe in this kind of god at all, but are simply spouting the pieties that they have been brought up to say from the time they were children?

Are we really a world of closet atheists, too nervous to say out loud what they really believe? That would explain this cavalier attitude to god's watchfulness but I suspect that religious people would not accept it.

I would be curious to hear alternative explanations for this.

POST SCRIPT: Photo touch ups

I recently saw a magazine cover photo of actress Sally Field. She is 60 years old but in that photo she looked a lot younger and I was impressed at how well she had taken care of herself. But was that photo touched up to 'improve' her looks? I don't know but it is clear that the technology is there that gifted people can use to improve your image immensely.

Take for example, this photo. By moving the cursor over and off the image you can compare the images before and after the photo was touched up.

In another image, the bare shoulders from the image of a different woman was grafted onto the image of a woman who was wearing a dress. It is so well done as to be seamless and unnoticeable.

You can see more examples here. Just click on any thumbnail to get the full image.

These touch ups are done by the company Nasonart.com which is run by the editor of MachinesLikeUs, who is also a professional graphic designer, which explains why his website is so attractive!

In some ways, this is disturbing. Can you believe any image anymore? No wonder some women in this country suffer so much, trying to reach the unattainable standards of beauty they see in magazines. Granted, these women are attractive to begin with (he would have a tough time improving a photo of me!) but the retouching takes them to a level of flawlessness that is unattainable in real life.

But it seems that most young people now assume that the people they see in magazines have had their photos touched up, which is reassuring. I think high school yearbooks now do this kind of thing routinely, making people aware of the fact that things are not always what they seem.

April 10, 2007

Why it is so hard to give up belief in the afterlife

It is interesting how one's views can be changed by a comment. Such was the case with Cindy's comment on my post regarding the absence of proof of an afterlife. Cindy said:

I tend to think that lack of belief in the afterlife is more fundamental to atheism than lack of belief in a God. I think I would have become an atheist a lot sooner if it weren't for my emotional aversion to non-existence (which has really gone away after a years of thinking about it). Also, while a lot of people think it's fun to talk about arguments for an against the existence of gods regardless of their beliefs, I've seen reasonable people reduced to tears with just a few good points raised about the lack of an afterlife. It seems like theism of any kind is based on two strong emotional ideas: 1) I'll never really lose anything or anyone 2) The world is inevitably fair. And if they can't have 2, they'll still cling to 1.

I think Cindy is really on to something. Clearly people want to believe in the existence of a god and the after life, despite the lack of evidence for either. Although the two beliefs are linked, I used to think that wanting to believe in god was the primary impulse and that belief in an afterlife was something that came along with a belief in god, a fringe benefit if you like.

But Cindy's suggestion is that the reverse is true, that what people really want to believe in is the afterlife, and that belief in god is merely a mechanism that enables that belief.

That makes a lot of sense. After all, god is an abstraction. Hardly anyone, except Pat Robertson, would claim that they have any kind of real relationship with god. Imagine meeting god. You really would not have much to say and it could be quite awkward, like encountering a stranger at a party. After a little small talk ("Hi, god, nice place you got here. So, . . . read any good books recently?"), you start wishing you could get away to the buffet table.

But that is not the case with people whom we like who have died. It would be like meeting a close friend after many years. We can't wait to find out what they have been up to and getting them up to speed on out own lives. We can imagine ourselves talking to them for hours and days.

All of us have had people and pets whom we have loved and who have died. We have fond memories of them and the desire to continue that relationship is very strong. A recent study reported by Elizabeth Cooney in the Boston Globe of February 21, 2007 says that:

Contrary to traditional notions of grief after the death of a loved one, a new study finds that yearning is felt more powerfully than depression. . . . "Yearning is reacting to the loss of someone or something, and once that is gone, you miss it, you pine for it, you hunger for it, you crave it. That was the primary emotional experience after bereavement, rather than depression," Holly G. Prigerson, one of the authors, said in an interview. . . . "People never get over a loss, they just get used to it," Prigerson said. "Even years after someone dies, they get pangs of grief, they need to think about the person, and they miss them with heartache," she said.

What people find most difficult to deal with in the death of a close loved one is missing the companionship that person provided. It is natural to want to believe in something, such as the afterlife, that promises that that link may someday be renewed.

In my own case, now that I think about it following Cindy's comment, giving up believing in god was not that hard. But my father died nearly thirty years ago, before my own children were born. My greatest regret is that he would not see them growing up because I know how much he would have enjoyed knowing them and playing with them and how much they in turn would have enjoyed his company. The idea of meeting him again was much more appealing to me than the thought of seeing god. Believing that he was somewhere 'up there' looking down on my children was comforting. Even as I write these words, memories of him and the sadness associated with missing him comes flooding back. Giving up that belief was much harder than giving up belief in a god about whom I really knew nothing and with whom I had had no prior relationship or shared memories.

So it makes sense that belief in an afterlife is more important to people than belief in god and that maybe people desperately want to believe in god because it enables them to believe in an afterlife.

POST SCRIPT: Beautiful sand art

While the people who make sand art are obviously very skilled and patient people, what really amazes me is their willingness to spend so much time and effort something that gets destroyed soon after. You can see more exquisite sand art.

sandArt13.jpg

April 09, 2007

Cricket World Cup excitement

The vast numbers of cricket fans out there in my blog's readerland are no doubt anxiously wondering what is going on in the World Cup of cricket currently taking place in the West Indies. As I wrote earlier, the end of the first stage of group matches saw the shocking defeat of the strong Pakistani team by the lowly Irish, and the surprising elimination of the Indian team by the Bangladeshis. The murder of the Pakistani coach Bob Woolmer following his team's defeat still remains unsolved, with no arrests.

The tournament is currently about halfway through the second stage, called the Super Eights, where the eight teams that qualified for the second round (Australia, South Africa, England, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Bangladesh, and the West Indies) all play each other at least once (unless they had played each other in the first round group matches). At the end of this stage, the top four teams go to the third and final round, which is in sudden death format.

There has been plenty of excitement in the second round. Sri Lanka was involved in two exciting finishes, losing one match to South Africa and winning the other against England.

To understand how exciting the two Sri Lanka games were, you need to understand the rules of the one-day form of cricket. Although the basic rules of the game remain the same as in the five-day international tests, the one-day format has certain rules to ensure both a faster-paced game and that a decision is reached.

The basic differences when compared with the five day game is that (1) each side of eleven players gets only one inning of batting, unlike two in the five-day game, (2) Each side gets to face a maximum of 300 'balls' (what pitches are called in cricket), consisting of 50 'overs' of six balls each, and (3) no bowler (pitcher) can bowl more than 10 overs, which implies that at least five bowlers must be used in a full inning. The last two restrictions do not exist in the five day game.

Each batting side tries to score as many runs as possible in its fifty overs, and the inning is over when either the fifty overs are completed or 10 'wickets' (outs) have occurred. The side scoring the most runs wins. A score of over 300 runs is almost always a winning score, while over 250 is respectable, 200-250 puts quite a burden on your bowling side to restrict the scoring of the opponents, and less than 200 means you are very likely to lose.

The biggest upset was on Saturday when the Bangladesh team (ranked seventh of the eight teams, just ahead of Ireland) easily defeated the top-ranked South Africans, showing that their previous defeat of India was no flash in the pan. Bangladesh scored 251 runs for eight wickets in its 50 overs, while South Africa was only able to score 184 runs before being all out in 48.5 overs.

This was undoubtedly a massive boost for cricket in Bangladesh and the streets of Dhaka immediately erupted in spontaneous parties even though the final result came in at 3:00 am in the morning local time. The South Africans are being criticized as perhaps being too cocky.

But the two most exciting games have involved Sri Lanka. In the game with favorites South Africa, Sri Lanka batted first and managed to score only 209 runs in 49.5 overs before having their tenth and last out, leaving an easy target for South Africa. The latter team seemed to be cruising to victory, reaching 206 for the loss of only five wickets while still having about 30 balls left with which to score the remaining four runs for victory. It seemed all over.

Then Lasith Malinga, a Sri Lankan fast bowler with an unorthodox delivery, did something unprecedented in international cricket, getting four outs in four consecutive balls, leaving the South Africans reeling at 207 for nine, suddenly facing the most dramatic 'defeat from the jaws of victory' ever. But after a period of incredible tension with no runs scored and no outs but with several close shaves, their last batsmen finally managed to score the winning runs with just 10 balls remaining. Although this would have been the most incredible win for Sri Lanka if they had managed to capture that last wicket, it was generally conceded that South Africa had played better overall and deserved to win.

The other dramatic game came when Sri Lanka played England. Sri Lanka again batted first and scored 235 in exactly 50 overs, with their tenth and last out occurring on the very last ball of their inning. When England batted, they seemed to be in trouble when they had scored only 133 runs while losing six wickets but a magnificent late rally by two batsmen saw them reaching 233 for seven wickets, needing only three runs to win, but with just one ball left of the fifty over allocation. In the attempt to score those winning runs off the last ball, the batsman was out, leaving Sri Lanka the victors of this thrilling game by just two runs.

According to the standings at this moment, Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and South Africa seem likely to make it into the final four. But England, West Indies, Bangladesh, and Ireland are not as yet mathematically eliminated, although it would take a tremendous series of upsets for Bangladesh and Ireland to qualify for the final round.

POST SCRIPT: Traffic rules? We don't need no stinkin' traffic rules!

Here is a scene from a busy intersection in China where they seem to manage without stop lights, stop signs, or traffic circles.

For those unfamiliar with the allusion that gave rise to the title of this post script, here is a clip from the classic film Treasure of the Sierra Madre starring Humphrey Bogart.

April 06, 2007

How I almost changed the face of TV

Recently I received a letter from a company called Television Preview. In big block caps, it said the following:

DEAR TELEVIEWER:

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO PARTICIPATE IN A SURVEY WHOSE FINDINGS WILL DIRECTLY INFLUENCE WHAT YOU SEE ON TELEVISION IN THE FUTURE.

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO EVALUATE NOT-YET RELEASED TELEVISION MATERIAL THAT IS BEING CONSIDERED FOR NATIONWIDE BROADCAST.

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO HELP REPRESENT TELEVISION VIEWING PREFERENCES OF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

The letter went on to say that they were not trying to sell anything (which addressed my first fear, that this was a ruse in which I would be stuck in a room and asked to buy a timeshare in some resort condo) but that the enclosed printed tickets to a private screening at a local hotel would be to view pilot episodes of TV shows to help determine which ones should be given a full run. The audience would watch them and then rate the shows.

This is not the first time my family have been asked to help set the nation's TV viewing agenda but the previous two occasions were from the well-known Nielsen ratings company that asks people to keep diaries at home to be used to calculate ratings for shows already on TV. The first time was when my children were very young and so the diary entries were mainly for PBS children's shows such as Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers', Reading Rainbow, and Square One. The second time was very recently and now that our children are away, the diary was pretty much blank.

This new offer I received, though, was going to decide what was going to be put on in the future, an awesome power and responsibility As the letter said, I was going to help determine what the ENTIRE COUNTRY would watch.

Of course, I was flattered to have been chosen. At last, word had got around that I was a man of taste and polish, who should be listened to when it came to the arts. Even though I rarely watch TV, I like to think of myself (who doesn't?) as a discerning viewer, and the chance to have a positive effect on TV programming was tempting.

Even though I could not see any obvious catch, doing this still involved a few hours of my time and I am always skeptical of offers that come unsolicited, especially from outfits that I had never heard of before. So I decided to Google the text of the letter and the name of the company to see what I could find. And sure enough it was a scam, aimed at people like me who are gullible enough to fall for appeals to our vanity.

The point of the whole exercise turns out to be not that TV executives are anxious to hear my considered opinions on the supposed pilots (some of which were of shows that had already appeared on TV over 10 years ago) but to get my views on the advertisements for the products that were shown during the commercial breaks in the shows. In other words, the audience was really a focus group to get responses to the products and the advertisements in an atmosphere that simulates real TV viewing at home.

Zach Dubinsky describes in detail what happens at such screenings. He says the bait and switch is done so well ("To better simulate a "natural environment," the host tells us how the kindly folks at Television Preview have inserted commercials into the screenings -- but only to make everyone feel more at home") that none of the half dozen people he interviewed after the program caught on to the fact that they had been lured to test the ads and products, not the shows. This report describes who and what is behind the project. This is another amusing report from someone who attended a screening.

So there you are. If you get such a letter in the mail, you now know what to expect if you go. Unless you want to experience the surreal as some did, throw the invitation in the trash, along with the pre-approved credit card offers.

POST SCRIPT: Radio show podcast

The podcast of the radio interview/call in show on atheism that I did on Wednesday is available for listening via audiostream or you can have a downloadable podcast. (Click on the iTunes icon in the The Sound of Ideas.) The program is about 50 minutes long.

April 05, 2007

How to read scholarly works

Most of us in our lives will be required to read a lot of stuff and it will take a lot of time. To become more efficient at it, it helps to realize that there are many types of readings, and that you need to adopt different reading strategies for the different kinds of documents you will encounter. The purpose of the readings will also vary. Sometimes you will read for the gist, sometimes for the argument, and sometimes for certain details. Your reading strategy has to be adjusted accordingly.

For example, you don’t read a science textbook the same way you read a novel. (This may seem obvious but I am always surprised by the number of people who try to read such textbooks from beginning to end, just as they would a novel.) You don't read journal articles in the natural sciences the same way that you read articles in the history and philosophy of science.

In the case of science journal articles, expert readers tend to focus closely on the abstract, introduction, and conclusions, and much less on the background theory, methods, and even the data. Much of the theory and methods is boilerplate that can be skipped or skimmed over in the first pass.

When reading scholarly works in the history and philosophy of science (such as we encounter in my seminar course on the evolution of scientific ideas), the literature tends to take a particular form and it helps to read it with this form in mind. The form is as follows:

1. The author identifies the MAIN problem(s), explains why it of interest, and why it is important to find a solution.
2. The previous solutions to the problem are discussed and reasons are given (in the form of evidence and arguments) why those solutions are unsatisfactory.
3. The author proposes a new solution to the problem and gives reasons (in the form of evidence and arguments) why the new solution should be accepted.
4. In making the author’s case, other auxiliary problems will usually also be identified and addressed in the course of making the larger case.

So when reading these kinds of works, it is good to try and understand them using the above framework. While the underlying structure of the argument will be similar, different authors will present it in different sequences and styles, so these papers usually require several readings before the answers to the above four questions become clear. It takes a while for us to become comfortable reading papers this way, and practice helps.

This brings me to the notions of how you respond to the things you read. In academic discussions, we place a high priority on first understanding what the author is trying to say, to try and see the world through the author’s eyes. This requires us to be in an accepting mode of mind. This does not mean that we have to agree with everything the author says. But you have to also be able to switch into a skeptical mode at times in order to critique the author, and expert readers keep switching between accepting and skeptical modes repeatedly and know when they are doing so.

If you disagree with the author’s point of view, you need to state how your conclusions differ from the author’s, and why. This can be done negatively (by pointing out flaws in the author’s reasoning, or challenging the validity of the evidence presented) and positively (by presenting a different line of reasoning and contrary evidence, and arguing as to why your approach is superior.) In other words, you yourself have to go through the above four steps for your argument to be taken seriously in academic circles.

Notice that you usually have to conform to the canons of evidence and argument that are accepted in that particular field. For example, in physics and other sciences, evidence usually means experimental data or observations, but in the history and philosophy of science, evidence does not necessarily mean data or experimental results or surveys, though these are not excluded. Scholars in the latter field (such as Karl Popper, Thomasa Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, etc.) use the historical record, the ideas and writings of other authors, and appeals to everyday experience as evidence in structuring their arguments.

It is important to bear in mind that just saying that you do not agree with the author’s point of view does not carry much weight in academic discussions. However outrageous the author’s conclusions might seem to you, and however strongly you might disagree with them, you cannot assume that that is enough to discredit the argument. You still need to criticize it using the conventions of academic debate.

Criticizing the author’s style (by saying that the author is making his or her case badly or even offensively) is fine as far as helping you develop your own distinctive writing style, but is not sufficient as an argument against the author's ideas. You still have to address the substantive content of the writing.

Trying to understand the author’s motivation can also help in understanding the structure of the argument, but just because the motivation is not agreeable does not automatically make the author’s arguments invalid. For example, in the literature on the philosophy of science, it seems clear that Karl Popper wants to define science in such a way that it excludes the central ideas of Marx or Freud or Adler. Popper seems to want to protect the prestige of science and, for some reason, dislikes these particular three fields of study and objects to their supporters claiming scientific status for them. Those who would like any or all three subjects included as part of science might disapprove of Popper's motivation, but that does not make Popper wrong. To challenge him on the substance, you will need to show why his definition of science does not work, propose another definition that meets your purposes, and provide evidence and arguments to persuade the reader to prefer your definition over Popper’s. Again, you have to go through steps 1-4 above.

In short, to become better readers, we need to understand the modes of scholarly discourse in each discipline, the purpose of the reading, and use that knowledge to adjust our reading (and writing) strategies and styles accordingly.

Good reading and writing skills are two sides of the same coin and Heidi Cool has an excellent post on what makes for good writing, with lots of useful resource links.

POST SCRIPT: Rep. Ron Paul

Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) is running for the Republican presidential nomination. He is an old-style Libertarian-Republican (as opposed to the Authoritarian-Republicans that currently dominate the party) who has opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. Although I don't agree with some of the things he says, he is definitely a much more thoughtful person than the other Republican candidates, and his views should get a much wider hearing than what they are currently receiving.

Here he is interviewed by Bill Maher.

.

April 04, 2007

Iran and the captured British sailors

One cannot view the reaction of the British and US governments and media to the capture of 15 British naval personnel by Iran without feeling even more cynical about the double standards that are now taken for granted.

It is being simply assumed here that the British government's claim that their people were not in Iranian waters is true, without any further discussion. Bush, itching for a reason to bomb Iran, has even called them 'hostages.' He says this with a straight face even as the fate of five Iranian officials captured by the US January 11, 2007 remain unknown:

Even though high-level Iraqi officials have publicly called for their release, for all practical purposes, the Iranians have disappeared into the U.S.-sanctioned "coalition detention" system that has been criticized as arbitrary and even illegal by many experts on international law.
. . .
One diplomat was released, but the other five men remain in U.S. custody and have not been formally charged with a crime.

"They have disappeared. I don't know if they've gone into the enemy combatant system," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served in the White House under former President Jimmy Carter. "Nobody on the outside knows."

Patrick Cockburn, writing in the British newspaper The Independent on April 3, 2007 reports that the capture of the British naval personnel may have been an angry Iranian retaliation for a botched attempt by the US to capture the Iranian equivalents of the heads of the CIA and MI6, who were visiting northern Iraq at that time the US took into custody the six much lower level officials. The idea of this being a retaliation seems a bit far-fetched to me, given the time lag between the two events, but I had been unaware of the more important story about a possible US attempt to capture two high-ranking visiting Iranian dignitaries on what appears to be a visit sanctioned by the Iraqi government, since the two of them had just had a meeting with the Iraqi president.

There are also doubts about the British government's claims about their sailors not having gone into Iranian waters, such as those voiced by a former British Ambassador Craig Murray, who also once headed the British Foreign Office's maritime section and is thus very familiar with the ways that maritime boundaries are determined. Murray gives a detailed explanation of the problems with identifying maritime boundaries and how they are arrived at. He concludes:

But what about the map the Ministry of Defence produced on Tuesday, with territorial boundaries set out by a clear red line, and the co-ordinates of the incident marked in relation to it?

I have news for you. Those boundaries are fake. They were drawn up by the MoD. They are not agreed or recognised by any international authority.

To put it at its most charitable, they are a potential boundary. It is accepted practice, where no boundary exists, to work by a rule-of-thumb idea of where a boundary, based on a median line between the two coasts, might be.

But to elevate that to a hard and fast boundary, and then base a major international incident on being a few hundred yards one side or the other, is out of order.

There are a few exceptions to the coverage of the British naval captives as suffering unspeakable horrors, especially in some of the British press. Ronan Bennett writes in the Guardian:

Faye Turney's letters bear the marks of coercion, while parading the prisoners in front of TV cameras was demeaning. But the outrage expressed by ministers and leader writers is curious given the recent record of the "coalition of the willing" on the way it deals with prisoners.

Turney may have been "forced to wear the hijab", as the Daily Mail noted with fury, but so far as we know she has not been forced into an orange jumpsuit. Her comrades have not been shackled, blindfolded, forced into excruciating physical contortions for long periods, or denied liquids and food. As far as we know they have not had the Bible spat on, torn up or urinated on in front of their faces. They have not had electrodes attached to their genitals or been set on by attack dogs.

They have not been hung from a forklift truck and photographed for the amusement of their captors. They have not been pictured naked and smeared in their own excrement. They have not been bundled into a CIA-chartered plane and secretly "rendered" to a basement prison in a country where torturers are experienced and free to do their worst.

As far as we know, Turney and her comrades are not being "worked hard", the euphemism coined by one senior British army officer for the abuse of prisoners at Camp Bread Basket. And as far as we know all 15 are alive and well, which is more than can be said for Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist who, in 2003, was unfortunate enough to have been taken into custody by British troops in Basra. There has of course been a court martial and it exonerated the soldiers of Mousa's murder. So we can only assume that his death - by beating - was self-inflicted; yet another instance of "asymmetrical warfare", the description given by US authorities to the deaths of the Guantánamo detainees who hanged themselves last year.
. . .
With disregard for the rights of prisoners now entrenched at the very top of government, it comes as no surprise that abuses committed by rank and file soldiers go virtually unremarked. No one in politics or the media dares censure the military, surely today the only institution still immune from any sort of criticism, even when soldiers are brutal and murderous towards captives.

Monty Python's Terry Jones writes with biting sarcasm:

I share the outrage expressed in the British press over the treatment of our naval personnel accused by Iran of illegally entering their waters. It is a disgrace. We would never dream of treating captives like this - allowing them to smoke cigarettes, for example, even though it has been proven that smoking kills. And as for compelling poor servicewoman Faye Turney to wear a black headscarf, and then allowing the picture to be posted around the world - have the Iranians no concept of civilised behaviour? For God's sake, what's wrong with putting a bag over her head? That's what we do with the Muslims we capture: we put bags over their heads, so it's hard to breathe.
. . .
It is also unacceptable that these British captives should be made to talk on television and say things that they may regret later. If the Iranians put duct tape over their mouths, like we do to our captives, they wouldn't be able to talk at all. Of course they'd probably find it even harder to breathe - especially with a bag over their head - but at least they wouldn't be humiliated.

And what's all this about allowing the captives to write letters home saying they are all right? It's time the Iranians fell into line with the rest of the civilised world: they should allow their captives the privacy of solitary confinement. That's one of the many privileges the US grants to its captives in Guantánamo Bay.

The true mark of a civilised country is that it doesn't rush into charging people whom it has arbitrarily arrested in places it's just invaded. The inmates of Guantánamo, for example, have been enjoying all the privacy they want for almost five years, and the first inmate has only just been charged. What a contrast to the disgraceful Iranian rush to parade their captives before the cameras!

What's more, it is clear that the Iranians are not giving their British prisoners any decent physical exercise. The US military make sure that their Iraqi captives enjoy PT. This takes the form of exciting "stress positions", which the captives are expected to hold for hours on end so as to improve their stomach and calf muscles. A common exercise is where they are made to stand on the balls of their feet and then squat so that their thighs are parallel to the ground. This creates intense pain and, finally, muscle failure. It's all good healthy fun and has the bonus that the captives will confess to anything to get out of it.
. . .
What is so appalling is the underhand way in which the Iranians have got her "unhappy and stressed". She shows no signs of electrocution or burn marks and there are no signs of beating on her face. This is unacceptable. If captives are to be put under duress, such as by forcing them into compromising sexual positions, or having electric shocks to their genitals, they should be photographed, as they were in Abu Ghraib.

All prisoners, whoever they are and by whomever they are held, have the right to be treated humanely and with dignity, brought to trial speedily, and receive a fair and open trial. This applies to the naval personnel captured by Iran and people being held by the US and Britain in the 'war on terror.' Bennett and Jones are simply stating the obvious: By the way that they themselves have treated prisoners, Cheney/Bush and Blair have forfeited the right to sanctimoniously preach to others about how prisoners be treated.

POST SCRIPT: I'll be talking about atheism on WCPN 90.3

Today (Wednesday, August 4, 2007) from 9:00-10:00 am I'll be on WCPN 90.3's Sound of Ideas to talk about atheism. A fellow guest on the show will be Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, who is also speaking today at the City Club.

You can also listen online (though the Safari browser does not work for this) and there will be a podcast.

April 03, 2007

The case of the 'Australian Taliban'

After calling David Hicks one of the worst of the worst of terrorists and keeping him in solitary confinement for over five years, in a lightning turn of events, he was suddenly sentenced to just nine months imprisonment, to be served in Australia. This was the first case under the so-called 'military commissions' system which has been strongly criticized for their rules of operation which violate the kinds of basic judicial protections designed to provide fair hearings.

According to Josh White writing in the Washington Post on April 1, 2007:

In what became a highly politicized situation involving the Australian government, [Susan J. Crawford, the top military commission official] allowed Hicks a short sentence in exchange for a year-long gag order, a guarantee that he will not allege illegal treatment at the hands of his U.S. captors, and a waiver of any right to appeal or sue.

Though Australian officials have said they were not directly involved in plea negotiations, [Hick's lawyer Micahel "Dan"] Mori declined to answer questions about what, if any, influence they had. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, up for reelection this year, has been under public pressure to bring Hicks home. He turned to Vice President Cheney to implore that the case be resolved. Crawford was the Defense Department's inspector general from 1989 to 1991, when Cheney was defense secretary.

"What an amazing coincidence that, with an election in Australia by the end of the year, he gets nine months and he is gagged for 12 months from talking about it," said Australian lawyer Lex Lasry, who was in Cuba to monitor the case over the past week.

Notice that the deal was not even made by the defense and prosecuting attorneys along with the presiding judge, as would be customary in a normal trial. Instead it was made by the defense lawyer directly with the civilian political official overseeing the military commissions, showing that all these 'trials' are really political theater. Conveniently enough, this person [Susan Crawford] has a long relationship with Dick Cheney, so the suspicion is strong that the Hicks plea agreement was a deal put through by Cheney's agent to give political cover to his Australian supporter.

Josh White and Carol Williams writing in the Sydney Morning Herald of April 2, 2007 point out that this trial and sentencing has little credibility.

Robert Richter, QC, one of Australia's most experienced criminal lawyers and a Hicks supporter, said the trial was a sham that had wholly discredited the Pentagon's war-crimes process.

"The charade that took place at Guantanamo Bay would have done Stalin's show trials proud," Mr Richter said in a commentary for The Sunday Age.

"First there was indefinite detention without charge. Then there was the torture, however the Bush lawyers, including his attorney-general, might choose to describe it. Then there was the extorted confession of guilt."

Even former Bush and Iraq war supporter Andrew Sullivan is disgusted by what these proceedings reveal:

So Cheney goes to Australia and meets with John Howard who tells him that the Hicks case is killing him in Australia, and he may lose the next election because of it. Hicks's case is then railroaded to the front of the Gitmo kangaro [sic] court line, and put through a "legal" process almost ludicrously inept, with two of Hicks' three lawyers thrown out on one day, then an abrupt plea-bargain, with a transparently insincere confession. Hicks is then given a mere nine months in jail in Australia, before being set free.
. . .
If you think this was in any way a legitimate court process, you're smoking something even George Michael would pay a lot of money for. It was a political deal, revealing the circus that the alleged Gitmo court system really is. For good measure, Hicks has a gag-order imposed so that he will not be able to speak of his alleged torture and abuse until after Howard faces re-election. Yes, we live in a banana republic. It certainly isn't a country ruled by law. It is ruled by one man and his accomplice.

As Josh Marshall sums up:

What we have here is a plea bargain in which the government leverages its vast control over the life, liberty, and body of the defendant to obtain for itself a release from potential liability for its own conduct and a one-year protection from bad PR. Truth, justice, and the Gitmo way.

And Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights that is coordinating the representation of detainees in many suits challenging Guantánamo detention adds his own take on the convenient silencing of Hicks: "It is a modern cutting out of his tongue."

I am currently reading The US Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, a professor of constitutional law at Yale University, where he gives the background to how that document came about and the debates about specific articles and clauses. It is interesting to see, despite all their faults when it came to the rights of slaves and women, what pains the drafters of that document took to try and ensure that ordinary people would not be tyrannized by the government. He says that the framers were clear that Congress would be the first among equals of the three branches of government. But the present Bush/Cheney administration has systematically concentrated power in the executive branch and gutted the intent of that document in ways that even the most ardent Federalist of that time would have found horrifying.

The blogger Tbogg has said that Bush is not only the worst US president of all those who have already held that office, he is clearly aiming to be the worst even when allowing for future presidents. I think that's right.

POST SCRIPT 1: I'll be talking about atheism on WCPN 90.3

Tomorrow (Wednesday, August 4, 2007) from 9:00-10:00 am I'll be on WCPN 90.3's Sound of Ideas to talk about atheism. A fellow guest on the show will be Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, who is also speaking Wednesday at the City Club.

You can also listen online (though the Safari browser does not work for this) and there will be a podcast..

POST SCRIPT 2: Kucinich on Iraq occupation and Iran clouds

US congressman and Case alumnus Dennis Kucinich will be speaking "Iraq and Iran: The Way Forward", followed by Professor Pete Moore of the Political Science department. Professor and chair of History Jonathan Sadowsky will moderate as well as give some introductory remarks.

The talks are promised to be brief leaving a lot of time (50 minutes) for questions and discussion.

When: Tuesday, April 3 at 4:00pm
Where: Strosacker Auditorium

The event is sponsored by Case for Peace, and co-sponsored by the Center for Policy Studies of the Department of Political Science.

The event is free and open to the public.

April 02, 2007

Driving notes

Why is that some drivers don't understand simple road courtesy that should be instinctively obvious to anyone? Here are some examples of what I mean.

1. I think it was Gregory Szorc who raised this driving peeve some time ago but I want to bring it up again. I drive to work along residential streets that allow for just one lane of traffic each way. But cars are allowed to park on one side of the street so sometimes you will find that a parked car is blocking your lane. If another car is approaching on the other side, it should be obvious to anyone that that car has the right of way and that you should remain behind the parked car and only pull out and go around the parked car once the road is clear. And yet I repeatedly find that cars swerve around the parked car and expect the oncoming traffic to stop and wait for them until they get back into their own lane. It seems as if the blocked lane car drivers have a sense of grievance that because they were blocked, others should move out of the way to accommodate them. A curious reaction.

2. Another peeve occurs when approaching Case along North Park at the point where it merges with MLK drive. At that point, North Park narrows from two lanes of traffic to just one with no indication as to which lane should yield. So it should be obvious that drivers in the two lanes should alternate while merging zipper-style. But very often, there is a driver who is determined to get ahead of the rightful car and so comes right up to the bumper of the car in front so that two cars from the same lane enter the narrow strip. On occasion I have seen even a third car try to creep in ahead of the rightful car.

What puzzles me is that there is so little to be gained by this act of petty road rudeness. The only time you have saved is the time taken to travel one car length, which is less than one second. So why do drivers do this?

3. Then there is the person who is scared to wear out their turn signals. On occasion I will see a car ahead of me in the adjacent lane wiggling back and forth sideways erratically. I usually assume that it is someone on a cell phone but they sometimes suddenly cut into my lane and I realize that what they were really trying to do was get into my lane and the wiggles were merely aborted attempts. All this angst on their part could have been avoided if they simply signaled their intent. Like many drivers, if I see someone indicating that they want to move into my lane in traffic, I drop back and flash my high beams to let them know they can. So why do people not even bother to signal their intentions and let other people make room for them?

4. When visibility is poor due to heavy rain or snow, it sometimes is of no help to you to put on your lights because it does not increase your own range of vision. But you should put them on anyway because it helps other people to see you. Why is this so hard to understand for some drivers, who insist on surprising other people by their sudden appearance out of the gloom?

5. The bank I use has two drive-up ATMs next to each other. Because they are close to each other, you cannot cut sharply enough to get close to the second one if there is a car at the first one. If both machines are being unused, you would think that the first car to arrive would move up to the farther machine so that the car behind would be able to drive up to the first one. And yet, time and again, I have seen the first car stop at the first machine, thus causing the second car to have to wait for them to finish their transaction, even though there is a vacant machine. I have to think that such people are simply oblivious to the world around them.

6. This is not a peeve but an observation. Traffic circles are a rarity in the US, reserved for major intersections. But I found that in Australia and New Zealand traffic circles are very common, replacing four-way stop signs even in residential areas. They work very well because a circle causes traffic to slow down without having to stop, the right of way is clear, and it makes for smooth driving. They use circles even for T-junctions.

I have even seen them used where there is no intersection at all, where they seem to serve as a speed control device in residential areas. A long uninterrupted road might tempt people to speed, even in a residential area. Having to slow down to go around the circle serves to moderate speeds without the jarring effect of speed bumps, the option most frequently used here. This is an idea worth adopting from those countries.

7. There is one thing that those countries could learn from the US and that is the use of the center yellow line to separate lanes of traffic going in opposite directions. They use a complicated system of solid, long-dashed, and short-dashed lines, all white, and on multiple lane roads it was sometimes not clear to me where the line separating opposing lines of traffic was. Given that I was having to be extra cautious because I was driving on the "wrong" side of the road, this was quite a concern. A yellow center line removes all the ambiguity.

POST SCRIPT: Interviews with Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins

Terry Gross of Fresh Air had two in-depth interviews last week on the science religion issue. The first interview was with Richard Dawkins and the second was with Francis Collins.

Both people are eminent scientists who took quite different paths when it comes to religion. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who was mildly religious as a child but became an atheist in his teens when he discovered Darwin's ideas. Francis Collins was head of the Human Genome Project and was not religious as a child but became an evangelical Christian in his twenties.

Dawkins' views are quite well-known. Collins is a 'two-worlds' advocate (science deals with the material world, religion deals with the spiritual world) who thinks that god works though the laws of science like evolution.

Terry Gross does a good job of letting the two guests expand on their views. The interviews are each about 40 minutes in length. There are also supposed to be a downloadable podcasts but I could not find them.