Entries for September 2007

September 28, 2007

The hidden god hypothesis

Believers in god are usually willing to acknowledge that they have no convincing empirical evidence for the existence of god. But at the same time, the claim is made that god could reveal himself/herself any time he/she chose. So why is god's presence hidden?

People who believe in god invariably explain this with one version or the other of a 'mysterious ways clause' (MWC), which argues that god has good reasons for keeping his presence hidden from us and that our mind are too puny to understand the reasons or that he has deemed that we are not yet ready to receive these truths. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card to wriggle out of a tight situation. The very fact that you have to invoke such an escape clause should be a strong indication that there is no rational reason to believe in god.

One argument that is often brought forward is that the personal experiences that people have had of god's presence is evidence of god's presence, and that just because this kind of evidence does not meet the standards demanded by science does not mean it is not valid. Such people argue that they have had some personal experience of god in their lives and this is evidence enough for god's existence.

There is a problem with this argument in that it seems to lead to a logical contradiction. Either god wants us to show us that he exists or does not. If god wants to be reveal himself, then why does he tease us with these tantalizing glimpses? Why not simply come out with definitive proof? I have already stated what kind of proof would be really convincing to anyone. God could take over all the TV stations worldwide and announce that next Tuesday, starting at noon, the Earth would stop spinning for 24 hours, so that we would have a 48-hour day. If that happened, I don't see how anyone could dispute god's existence. The Bible says that it has been done before (the stopping the Earth's rotation part, not the TV broadcast of course). In fact, most religions proudly claim that god has shown herself directly to the world in the past. For Christians and Jews, for example, all the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, and the whole story of Jesus's resurrection, are supposed to be revelations of god, so clearly god was not always interested in hiding his existence. Why would a god who long ago seemed perfectly willing to reveal himself time and time again suddenly become coy now?

Some believers try to produce empirical evidence for god. One sees occasional excitement around experiments to test the existence of god by seeing if (say) prayer is effective. For example, in 2001 there was the much publicized Columbia University Medical Center study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Reproductive Medicine that, based on a sample of 219 women in Korea, claimed to show that infertile women who were prayed for became pregnant at twice the rate of those not prayed for. The statistical significance was p=0.0013 (meaning that such a result was likely to occur by chance in less that 13 occasions out of 10,000, which is better than the usual standard of p<0.05 which is considered acceptable for sociological and medical studies, but is much worse than the standard for physics experiments which is p<0.0001.) This result was trumpeted as 'proof' of the efficacy of prayer and thus implied that is was also a proof of god.

But it soon became clear that there were serious problems with the protocols of the study, and subsequently the lead author of the paper Rogerio Lobo, who was head of the Columbia University department of obstetrics and gynecology, said that he had not been even aware of the study until six months after it had been completed and withdrew his name from the paper. It turned out that a second author of the study Daniel Wirth is a lawyer who had elsewhere claimed evidence for faith healing. He was later imprisoned for fraud in an unrelated matter. The third author Kwang Cha is also a businessman who owns fertility clinics in Los Angeles and Seoul. He left Columbia University and refuses to talk about the study. He was later also accused of plagiarism in another paper by the editor of that journal. (See God: The Failed Hypothesis, Victor J. Stenger, 2007, p. 96 for more details.)

Given the strong desire of religious people to find evidence for god, one sees these kinds of prayer studies repeated all the time, and on occasion even produce positive results. A study reported in the British Medical Journal in 2001 said that praying for patients reduced their length of stay in hospital (p=0.01) and duration of infections (p=0.04). But another study by Duke University, a three-year, double-blind one published in 2005, found no significant effect of prayer in improving patient recovery. Yet another study, published in 2006, of people scheduled to undergo coronary bypass surgery also found no beneficial effect for intercessory prayer. In fact, the group of patients who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse. (See Stenger, p. 99-102 for more details.)

The media are quick to seize on initial reports of the possible scientific evidence for god, but not as enthusiastic when more careful analysis reveals that there was nothing there after all.

But my puzzlement with these kinds of exercises is more basic. Why would god choose to signal his presence on the very edges of statistical significance? Even someone sympathetic to the idea of god would have to concede that god seems like a shy suitor trying to give out subtle signals of interest without being obvious about it. What's the point? Why not hide completely or appear openly and unambiguously?

Again, religious believers can appeal to the MWC, that god has a reason that is unknown to us to play peek-a-boo. But at some point use of the MWC becomes overkill. Using it to explain the existence of something big like suffering, to say that suffering is a great mystery, lends a certain grandeur to that particular admission of ignorance. Invoking the MWC to explain little things like the borderline statistical significance of experimental results makes it seem trivial.

POST SCRIPT: Meanwhile, in the other war. . .

Lara Logan reports on waste in Afghanistan.

September 27, 2007

Does god and religion satisfy other human needs?

In the previous post I listed four possible reasons why religion should not be undermined:

  1. God does exist and there is empirical support in the form of evidence.
  2. God does not exist but believing in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and that getting rid of those beliefs would lead to people feeling emotionally bereft of support.
  3. Religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown.
  4. Religion is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

Of the four, only the first argument really justifies preserving religion but it does not hold up. There is no convincing evidence at all that god exists and the only rational thing to do is to give up the belief.

All the other arguments are purely utilitarian, essentially claiming that even if religion is based on a false belief, it still has social value that makes it worth preserving. I hear this argument surprisingly often, so it is worth examining.

As for the second argument, if there is no god, then maintaining a belief in it for emotional psychological reasons makes as much sense as not eventually telling children the truth about the falsity of Santa Claus and fairies because we don't wish to harm them psychologically. Getting rid of childlike illusions is part of the growth to maturity and it is not clear why religious people need the crutch of god for emotional stability even into adulthood. Surely they would be psychologically stronger for facing up to the world as it is than in believing in something fake? An adult who grows up still believing in Santa Claus is much more vulnerable emotionally, and doomed to perpetual disappointment, than someone who grows up realizing that there is no mysterious gift-giver who is periodically going to give them what they want. As George Bernard Shaw: "The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than a drunken man is happier than a sober one."

The third argument, that religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown, has been countered so often and so effectively by others that I will not address it again. I described some of the arguments against this position earlier.

The fourth and final reason for upholding religion is that it is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

This is the most crass and is completely indefensible and will be rejected by well-meaning religious believers. But I think that it is the real reason why religion has survived so long in the face of overwhelming evidence for its falsity. State patronage has served religion well. Rulers realized long ago that you cannot rule forever using just force and fear alone. People have to accept that a few are meant to rule and that the majority has to accept being ruled by the minority. People have to accept that their ethnic group/tribe/nation is special and that it is morally right to subjugate and exploit other groups/tribes/nations. The god idea serves this purpose exceedingly well. If people can be convinced that everything is according to god's plan, that it was meant to be that their rulers were destined to rule, then half the battle is won. Those at the suffering end of this arrangement are pacified by being told that they have the consolation of rewards in heaven. In fact, the greater their suffering in this world, the greater the supposed reward, which is a very useful idea for exploiting people even more.

I have written about the useful role that belief in god has played in maintaining systems of oppression here and the cynical way that some non believers support such beliefs to achieve their political ends here.

It really comes down to this fact: If the kind of god most people believe in does not exist, then there is no reason to believe in such a god. It really is as simple as that.

POST SCRIPT: Boneheads on TV

Have you noticed the people in the background on live TV who try to get noticed by doing weird things? Apparently the name for them is "boneheads". The Australian TV show The Chasers (which has become one of my favorites) challenges Chas to see how many bonehead appearances he can make during an awards show.

September 26, 2007

Should religion be undermined?

Religion is such a ubiquitous phenomenon, so pervasive in all aspects of people's lives, that imagining life without it is very difficult. It is like asking an American teenager to imagine life without their cell phone. Not only are people extremely resistant to giving up the idea of god, they also resist giving up qualities they ascribe to god even if those qualities cause severe logical difficulties.

But if we think that belief in god violates reason, should religion be actively undermined? This question, raised by Corbin Covault in his guest post, is not simple to answer. Even if there is no evidence for god, does religion still play a useful role or have some value that makes it a worthwhile belief to support or at least not seek to actively undermine? Or is there something to be gained from actively working to discredit the idea of god, as has been the aim of current best-selling books written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens? Or should atheists treat religion with benign indifference, the way we treat children's beliefs in fairies, as harmless illusions, not worth wasting time over, except in those instances where it actively does harm?

I can think of four arguments for the continuance of god and religion:

  1. God does exist and there is empirical support in the form of evidence.
  2. God does not exist but believing in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and that getting rid of those beliefs would lead to people feeling emotionally bereft of support.
  3. Religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown.
  4. Religion is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

Let me start out by saying that I think only the first reason is sufficient cause for keeping religion. If there is no empirical evidence for god, then we should unequivocally say so and work towards the elimination of such beliefs, just as we dismiss the claims of astrology and belief in ghosts and other similar phenomena. As soon as you start saying that some evidence-free beliefs need to be sheltered from criticism, you lay yourself wide open to special pleading by every charlatan, such as crystal-ball gazers, card readers, faith healers, spoon benders and others who take advantage of the shelter provided by the privileges accorded to religion to ply their trade. They too can say they provide services to meet the emotional and psychological needs of people, such as getting people in contact with their dead loved ones. If you are a person who believes in god, then I am not sure on what basis you can criticize these other groups since the kinds of evidence they invoke is of the same kind that religious people use.

Of course, people should be free to believe anything they want. But I am saying that believers should not feel that they occupy some privileged place in the space of public discourse where only genteel and mild criticisms can be made. I am not suggesting, of course, that such beliefs and the people who hold them should be subject to verbal abuse. What I am saying is that the only standard that applies to them is the same that we apply to any other beliefs, and religious beliefs, especially mainstream one, should not be granted immunity from very close scrutiny and sharply-worded criticisms. So if it is acceptable in public discourse to dismiss the beliefs of flat-Earthers as ridiculous, then it should be acceptable to do so for beliefs in god as well. If it is legitimate to campaign to discourage people from believing in astrology and astrologers, it is just as legitimate to discourage them from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and the like.

A curious thing, given the supposedly small numbers of atheists in this country, is the huge popularity of the recently released books that advocate atheism,. I suspect that many more people than we realize have serious doubts about god and religion but have been cowed into not saying anything against religion and god precisely because of this sense that to speak against religion is rude. The arrival of these books and the publicly declared atheism of many people must come as a relief.

What about the tone of the criticisms? It is argued that harsh criticisms are not effective in persuading people to change their minds, that one can 'catch more flies with honey than with vinegar'. It is often pointed out, for example, that Martin Luther King was effective in winning over many people because he did not speak in strong terms. Actually he did express strong views but his language was very measured and his example is often used to argue that tempered language is more effective than harsh.

As I have said before, this depends on whether one is discussing in the private sphere or the public sphere. In the private sphere (in the classroom or in social settings), I tend to not argue in strong terms and in fact do not actively raise the issues at all. During the dinner party discussion I wrote about earlier, I took a soft line, seeking only to explain why I was perfectly satisfied being an atheist. I did not subject my dinner companions' religious beliefs to a cross-examination.

But in the public sphere, one can make the case that opening up beliefs that have no evidence to harsh criticisms can be a very effective way of getting rid of them. For example, we know that most people's belief in Santa Claus does not survive past early childhood. Many are gently weaned away from it by their parents. But for those children determined to hold on to it, it would be an interesting study to see what effect the ridicule of their childhood peers has in getting them to abandon their belief in it.

There is another argument to be made in favor of having at least some people speak out harshly against religion. Take the case again of Martin Luther King, who is often invoked as someone who was successful because he was not abrasive. It must be remembered that King was not speaking and acting in a vacuum. At the same time Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and other radical elements were making very strong attacks in very harsh language on the institutions of racism, and strongly criticizing the non-violent methods of King. King's moderate tone may have been effective with the white community precisely because they could contrast it with what King's rivals for influence in the black community were saying. Since he was seen as less threatening, they could thus warm to it.

In public sphere debates on contentious issues, the labels 'extremist' and moderate' are not absolutes but relative. When the range of opinions expressed is broadened, those who were once thought to be on the fringe now become mainstream. So subjecting belief in god and religion to critical scrutiny by some opinionated anti-theists (the 'extremists') may actually be very effective in widening the range of discussions. Such people are providing an opportunity for those (the 'moderates') who prefer to speak in more tempered terms to emerge from their silence and have a dialogue with religious believers. In the absence of the strong anti-theists, it is these so-called moderates who would have been the ones portrayed as 'extremists', and thus been cowed.

So Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are actually playing a positive role. By getting rid of a lot of the sacred cows prevalent in discussing science-religion issues, they are opening up the field for a whole lot of people to speak more openly about their own disbelief in god.

Next: What about that belief in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and thus has value?

POST SCRIPT: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

Professor John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Professor Stephen Walt (Harvard University) caused quite a stir with their article The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They now have a book out with the same name.

They will be speaking at 7:00pm TODAY (Wednesday, September 26, 2007) in the Ford Auditorium in the Allen Building on the CWRU campus, at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert. The event is free and open to the public. The event is sponsored by Case's Hallinan Center for Peace and Justice.

Although I have not read their book yet, I did read their article in the London Review of Books, and the more detailed working paper on which it was based.

I also wrote a four-part series on their paper and the aftermath. You can find the last part here, which has links to the earlier parts.

You can listen to a Fresh Air interview with Walt here.

September 25, 2007

Pinning down the properties of god

One of the difficult points on which discussions between atheists and religious believers flounder is that while there is a fair degree of uniformity amongst atheists as to what they do and don't believe, there is a huge diversity among religious believers about what they believe. This can be disconcerting because in the middle of a discussion, a religious person will often say, "Oh, but I don't believe in that stuff. My idea of god is quite different." Understandings of god tend to be so fluid that it enables believers to slide from one to another whenever one particular formulation comes under close scrutiny and is shown to be untenable. People tend not to want to be pinned down on what they actually mean by god. This is more so in the case of more sophisticated believers. Fundamentalists are more concrete in their beliefs.

When I was debating the intelligent design movement in Kansas, I would find that the views ranged from believing in the literal truth of the Bible in every detail to people who regarded the Bible as metaphors but still believed in a personal god who could intervene in the actions of the world. If one goes outside the world of intelligent design advocates, one finds an even broader spectrum, people who are what I call 'almost atheist believers,' who call themselves 'spiritual' and whose idea of god is so vague that no empirical statement can be made about it at all. For some, god is somehow synonymous with nature, for others it is the creator of the big bang and nothing else, and so on. They are the people whom Daniel Dennett describes as people who believe in belief, who need to feel that there is something transcendent in their lives and will construct it to meet their needs.

So in order to have a useful dialogue, it may clarify things and avoid misunderstandings if each person knew where the other stood. It is useful, for example, to see if someone accepts the idea that god has the qualities of being omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnibenevolent (all good).

We know that belief in this god immediately runs into the problem of theodicy, the problem of defending god's goodness and omnipotence when bad things occur, such as the death of an infant or widespread tragedy in the recent tsunami. Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, the ultimate contradiction that believers in such a god face:

Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

This obvious logical contradiction has resulted in some theologians arguing against assigning all three qualities to god. But which one(s) should be jettisoned? Most people who are not theologians are reluctant to abandon any because it would seem to devalue their concept of god as someone to whom all positive superlatives should apply. Anything less than absolute perfection is seen as unworthy. Such people then have to resort to the 'mysterious ways clause' (MWC) which argues that that while god does have all those three qualities (and more), the reason that things appear to be contradictions to us is because our minds cannot understand god's plans or that he has not confided his plans to us in a manner that we can understand.

But the odd thing is that although believers, by invoking the MWC, have effectively argued that logic and reason and evidence (things they routinely value and use in other areas of their lives) cannot be used to argue against the existence of god, they still try to use evidence and reason to argue in favor of god, and resort to the MWC only when that attempt fails and they end up in a dead end from which there is no escape.

In an attempt to clarify what people mean by god, Victor J. Stenger in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007, p. 12) defines what he sees as the properties of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god as gleaned from their religious texts and official doctrine.

[The Judeo-Christian-Islamic] God is not the god of deism who created the world and then left it alone, or the god of pantheism, who is equated with all existence. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is a nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant in each event that takes place in very cubic nanometer of the universe, from the interactions of quarks inside atomic nuclei to the evolution of stars in the most distant galaxies. What is more, God listens to every thought and participates in each action of his very special creation, a minute bit of organized matter called humanity that moves around on the surface of a tiny pebble in a vast universe.

Stenger spells out the basic elements that go into this model of god (p. 41):

  1. God is the creator and preserver of the universe.
  2. God is the architect of the structure of the universe and the author of the laws of nature.
  3. God steps in whenever he wishes to change the course of events, which may include violating his own laws as, for example, in response to human entreaties.
  4. God is the creator and preserver of life and humanity, where human beings are special in relation to other forms.
  5. God has endowed humans with immaterial, eternal souls that exist independent of their bodies and carry the essence of a person's character and selfhood.
  6. God is the source of morality and other human values such as freedom, justice, and democracy.
  7. God has revealed truths in scriptures and by communicating directly to select individuals throughout history.
  8. God does not deliberately hide from any human being who is open to finding evidence for his presence.

This seems like an accurate list to me, corresponding to my own understanding of what mainstream believers say. Stenger deliberately does not include the problematic trinity of omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient qualities (especially the ability to know the future) since those lead to immediate and severe logical contradictions in explaining away things like the tsunami, and makes religion too easy a target to attack. He also does not consider the views of scriptural literalists, the so-called fundamentalist Christians and Jews and Muslims, who take their creation stories and history and images of god straight from their holy books and argue (say) for a 6,000 year old Earth. Such people have abandoned science entirely and there is little one can say to them.

Stenger's book is a detailed analysis of the more sophisticated arguments put forward for a god and he argues that none of them stand up to scrutiny. He looks at all the things that we can infer from the properties of the above god and examines the commonly stated arguments and evidence in favor, some of which have been discussed here too: the appearance of design in nature and the universe; the sense that we have a mind and soul apart from the body; claims of immortality and the afterlife; the idea that the origin of the universe needs an initiator; the 'fine-tuning' or anthropic principle argument; the answering of prayers; and the morals and values argument. He finds that none of the evidence produced in favor of these stands up in the face of close scrutiny. The conclusion is simple: In the absence of evidence in support of it, the god hypothesis is rejected. As Stenger says (p. 71): "Earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God."

Stenger is careful to point out that this does not rule out all gods. The MWC enables you to define god any way you like and assign it any properties you wish and be immune from contradiction. But atheists see this exercise as a waste of time.

The problem that arises in discussions with believers is that defenders of god tend to shift around among these qualities so that when (say) feature #2 is shown to cause problems with logic and evidence, they shift to #3, and then when that is shown to be also fraught with problems, they move on to #6. And, when all else fails, there is always the fallback option of invoking the MWC (which is the same as abandoning #8) and serves as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

Perhaps the discussions with religious people would be would be more fruitful if right at the beginning they listed which of the above properties of god they agree with. That would make for a far more focused discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting short debate

Listen to this short debate between a biologist Lewis Wolpert and a Christian theologian William Craig Lane. It raises many of the issues discussed in this post. Listening to the arguments made by this sophisticated theologian you realize how weak the arguments for god are.

September 24, 2007

The end of mysteries and the rise of atheism

The linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky once divided up the questions that linguists study into two categories, mysteries and problems. That division has since been seized on and expanded well beyond the field of linguistics and used as a tool to classify all problems of scientific research. For example, Steven Pinker writes in How the Mind Works (1997, p. ix):

When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.

Where religion and god have found their strength in the past was in their ability to "explain" the many mysteries that confronted people in the early days before modern science. Of course, such explanations are not really explanations at all in the conventional sense of the world. What we usually expect of an explanation is something either in simpler terms or as an intelligible cause of the phenomenon. To say "god did it" doesn't really advance the discussion in any way.

The progress of science has seen the steady transformation of mysteries into problems. The great mysteries of the physical universe were made into problems with the advent of Newtonian mechanics. For the first time, the behavior of the solar system became comprehensible in terms of natural laws and we had tools to investigate its behavior and make predictions. There were still huge unsolved problems, but that is what they were: problems, not mysteries. Of course, the big questions of the properties of the large scale universe had to await the advances in 20th century physics and big bang cosmology, but Newtonian physics provided such a satisfactory materialistic basis for explaining so many things, that it was hard not to feel that the nature of the universe was no longer a mystery.

This does not mean that all the major questions have been solved. Scientific research is always springing surprises on us. For example, right now dark energy and dark matter are thought to have a pervasive and widespread presence in the universe but have eluded detection for some time. But while they are mysterious, these phenomena are not mysteries but problems, since scientists have fairly well-defined research programs to study them.

After Newton, the next major mystery to fall by the wayside was the mystery of the complexity and diversity of life. The origins of the seemingly exquisitely designed features of nature had to have been totally baffling to people living before the 18th century and one can understand why they might have thought that god was the only explanation. But the arrival of evolutionary ideas with specific mechanisms for how they might work, starting with people like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), started the chipping away of that particular mystery. Although his theory that animals could pass on acquired traits to their progeny is no longer accepted and his name is nowadays sometimes mentioned disparagingly, his work published in 1801 was groundbreaking in that it suggested that the diversity of life was due to natural laws and not necessarily due to some miraculous intervention by god.

Lamarck laid the groundwork for taking these questions out of the realm of mysteries and into the world of problems, work that reached its culmination with the brilliant work of Charles Darwin. Darwin himself in 1861 acknowledged the debt to his predecessor: "This justly celebrated naturalist. . .first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition."

Richard Dawkins argues in The Blind Watchmaker (p. 6) that it was Darwin's successful theory of natural selection that broke down a great mystery that had prevented the easy acceptance of atheism:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

So are there any mysteries at all left? I can think of only three possible candidates: the first appearance of life on Earth, consciousness, and the origin of the universe.

The first appearance of life is, I would argue, no longer a mystery although it remains a hard problem. We already have some idea of what the initial conditions of the Earth were and what kinds of properties the earliest replicators need to have in order to evolve and grow in complexity. Experimentalists and theorists are actively working on the problem using many plausible scenarios.

We have not advanced as much with consciousness, but I would argue that the tremendous work that has been done in the area of brain research, artificial intelligence, and artificial life has also shifted this former mystery into the realm of problems. (I will write about these things in the future but the website MachinesLikeUs is a tremendously valuable resource for getting updates on the state of those fields.)

Only the origin of the universe can still be considered as a mystery. Part of the problem is that it is hard to envisage what is "before" the beginning of the universe and what is "simpler" than it, two elements that are needed to construct a satisfactory explanation. The conditions of the very early universe are so very different from the present that it is hard to get a handle on how to handle them. Explaining the origins of the universe may mean going back "before the beginning", if that even makes any sense, and it is not clear how to do that. So for the present, believers in god have a good mystery candidate, the last refuge where perhaps god can act without being subject to scrutiny from those pesky scientists. In fact, in almost any discussion of religion and god, when plausible scientific explanations are given for other things, believers almost invariably resort to the claim that the origin of the universe had to be an act of god.

There are those who will resist the drive to convert mysteries into problems, not for religious reasons but because it threatens to destroy the sense of wonder. There is a romantic streak in many of us that yearns for mysteries, that enjoys the sense of awe that accompanies the feeling that there are things beyond our ken. We are drawn with a curious fascination to stories of the supernatural, of spirits, of "ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night."

While the disappearance of mysteries undoubtedly makes atheism easier to accept, would it be a bad thing not to have mysteries anymore? Would we be losing a sense of awe and wonder? It don't think so. The difference is that while most people have a sense of awe in the presence of unexplained phenomena, atheists have a sense of awe at the power of the mind that can comprehend the phenomena.

Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow says: "I believe that an orderly universe, one indifferent to human preoccupations, in which everything has an explanation even if we still have a long way to go before we find it, is a more beautiful, more wonderful place than a universe tricked out with capricious ad hoc magic."

I agree with him. Consider the fact that we humans, tiny specks each living for a brief time in an infinitesimally small part of the universe, have been able, by painstakingly building upon the work of our ancestors, to uncover so many deep mysteries of the cosmos, of who we are, what we are made of, and how we got here.

If that is not awe inspiring, I don't know what is.

POST SCRIPT: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

Professor John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Professor Stephen Walt (Harvard University) caused quite a stir with their article The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They now have a book out with the same name.

They will be speaking at 7:00pm on Wednesday, September 26, 2007 in the Ford Auditorium in the Allen Building on the CWRU campus, at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert. The event is free and open to the public.

They will also be speaking at noon that same day at the City Club of Cleveland.

Although I have not read their book yet, I did read their article in the London Review of Books, and the more detailed working paper on which it was based.

I also wrote a four-part series on their paper and the aftermath. You can find the last part here, which has links to the earlier parts.

You can listen to a Fresh Air interview with Walt here.

September 21, 2007

How to disrupt dinner parties

Last weekend I went to a dinner party where there were people from Sri Lanka whom I had not met before. When Sri Lankans meet for the first time, there is a fairly standard ritual that occurs. People try to find connections between you and them, starting with others who share your name (e.g., "Are you related to the Singham who used to work at X/who married Y/who lives in Z?") and then on to questions about where in Sri Lanka your family is from and what K-12 school you went to. The last question is important because Sri Lankans are quite attached to their schools and many cities with a large expatriate populations even form associations based on these old school ties and hold dances, sporting events, and other elaborate get-togethers.

During a casual conversation at the dinner with three of my fellow guests (all sisters), they asked me the usual questions and then one of them went off-script and asked me which church I went to. I replied that I did not attend any church since I was an atheist.

The sharp intake of breath and astonished looks in response alerted me that this had gone over big. It was as if I had walked into a vegan conference eating a hamburger. It turned out that not only were the three of them Christians, but they were of the extremely religious "born again" variety. The stunned look on their faces at my revelation got even worse when they realized that I had once been a Christian. They simply could not understand how anyone who had once been a Christian could not believe any more, and for the next hour they proceeded to try and convince me that I had made a grave mistake. Of course, their arguments consisted entirely of quotations from the Bible, all of which I have heard many times before. It simply did not seem to register with them that there was no point in using the Bible as evidence to someone who did not believe that it was god's revealed word.

Another interesting point was that they felt that my atheism had to be because I had not "accepted Jesus as my personal lord and savior", which is the standard by which evangelical Christians judge whether you are a "true" Christian or not. In fact, they kept insisting that I had never been a "true" Christian because of my failure to pledge such allegiance. In my religious days in high school and college, I had attended many religious services where the preacher, at the end of a stirring sermon asserting that we were all sinners and in the grip of Satan, would ask people to come up front and pledge their lives to Christ so that they could be cleansed of their sin. I never obeyed this "altar call", although many of the people I knew had done so in the past and they often asked me to join them. During one of those services, I was startled when the friend who had invited me suddenly clutched my sleeve and with tears in his eyes told me that Jesus was calling me and implored me to obey the call, helpfully adding that someone else who had rejected the call just a few weeks earlier had subsequently been run over by a bus right after the service. It was an awkward moment but I said no. I always rejected such altar calls, since I felt even then that a god who depended on a formulaic repetition of a slogan as a sign of faithfulness (and apparently was willing to kill someone who would not comply) was hardly worth following.

After some time, my companions at the dinner asked if we could pray together so that Jesus could enter my soul. Although I am an obliging sort and the discussion had been friendly, I had to draw the line and say no. It seemed like another altar call and, to my mind, highly presumptuous. While they were free to pray for whomever and whatever they wanted to on their own time (and they said they would pray for me later anyway), I wanted no part of it. It struck me then that if I told them about my dream from last week they would probably have thought that that really was a sign from god trying to save me from my path to doom.

I think that what puzzled my dinner companions the most was the fact that I was perfectly happy being an atheist and was not looking for anything more in the spiritual realm. They kept repeatedly asking me whether I felt a "yearning for something more", whether I was "missing something in my life" and whether I had a "gap in my soul". (My responses? No. No. No. To the last one I added that I did not have a soul and that did nothing to improve my image in their eyes.) They seemed to assume that since belief in the Christian god was such an essential part of their lives, that it must be the same for other people. They simply could not conceive that it was possible for someone to have a fulfilling life without god. And not just any old god, but their own particular Christian Jesus-god package.

One would have to say that my dinner companions exhibited all the signs of religious fanaticism. Not that they would in any way do harm to others such as fly planes into buildings. On the contrary, I am quite certain that they are very good people who would not dream of harming anyone. But they are religious fanatics in that they are absolutely sure that their particular version of religion is the right one, their own religious text is infallible, they have a personal relationship with god, that followers of all other religions are wrong, that those who do not believe what they do are lost souls who will suffer eternal damnation, and that it is their duty to try and convert others to their belief.

But while these particular people may be harmless, it is a very thin line that separates "good" fanatics from the bad. The problem is that if you accept that that kind of unquestioning faith and allegiance as a good thing, it becomes hard to condemn the actions of those who, again on the basis of that kind of faith and following what they believe are the dictates of their god, commit the most atrocious crimes. Voltaire's remark keeps coming to my mind: "As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities."

It was an interesting evening.

POST SCRIPT: Religious con games

It is amazing how preachers who claim to have some direct link to god are able to so easily con people into giving them huge sums of money to build their private empires and support their lavish lifestyles.

The Australian TV comedy show The Chasers takes a look at TV evangelists.

September 20, 2007

Civil liberties and cell phones

I go to a fair number of public talks and on occasion have even been one of the speakers. Invariably at question time there will be people in the audience (usually the first in line to the microphone) who are familiar figures who always speak at such events. They either have a particular agenda that they wish to push and will somehow connect it to the topic at hand, or they have a particular political slant and they will aggressively criticize the speaker on that basis. Sometimes they will ramble, making a small speech, and have to be prompted to actually pose a question. At other times, especially if the featured speaker is a high profile political figure, they may try to hog the microphone and transform the question time into a private debate. Some of these people feel strongly that they have something to say and have no platform to say it, and use these public functions to get it off their chest.

Sometimes these people are simply pranksters, practicing a kind of performance art or trying to prick the balloons of self-important politicians and celebrities.

Some members of the audience get annoyed at the time taken up by these people and try to shout them down. I tend to be more tolerant, treating these episodes as amusing interludes. It seems to me that the price we pay for freedom of speech is that we have to tolerate the occasional jokester or egotistical or obnoxious or even mentally disturbed person taking up time at public meetings. Their behavior is not really appropriate but usually harmless and at worst a waste of time. So I am willing to let it go, both as an audience member and as a speaker.

But as a society we seem to be becoming increasingly intolerant of these kinds of behavior. I am sure many have seen the disturbing video of the 21-year old University of Florida student Andrew Meyer who was Tasered at a meeting at which John Kerry was speaking on September 17, 2007.

To me the student speaker seemed like the many people who attend such events, someone who has many things to say and tries to quickly say them in the guise of a question. He spoke rapidly for about a minute and a half, which is quite long for question time, but not abnormally so. The security people first started trying to shut him down after just thirty seconds. Although the student seemed impassioned and excitable, his behavior came nowhere close to warranting the heavy-handed treatment that he received from the security services. There is no indication that he was dangerous or threatening to anyone.

A previous shocking episode of a student being Tasered in the UCLA library was also captured on cell phones last year and broadcast on YouTube.

What is going on here? Have we become so intolerant of any kind of lack of order that we are willing to so readily condone the use of force to suppress speech? Are we really a people who are so cowed by authority figures that we accept the forcible restraint of any person who even argues with officialdom? One can understand security forces responding with some urgency to prevent harm when there is a clear and present danger. But there seemed to be no indication of that kind in either of these two cases. These were not fast-moving situations that threatened to get out of hand. In both cases, the authorities greatly outnumbered the person being subdued. They both seem to be situations where things could have been settled through patient discussion.

Paul Craig Roberts comments that the fact that the police were confident enough to Taser a student questioner in the midst of a crowd and the presence of a US Senator who did not vigorously protest the action is a sign of how far we have gone down the road of authoritarianism.

Usually when police violate constitutional rights and commit acts of police brutality they do it when they believe no one is watching, not in front of a large audience. Clearly, the police have become more audacious in their abuse of rights and citizens. What explains the new fearlessness of police to violate rights and brutalize citizens without cause?

The answer is that police, most of whom have authoritarian personalities, have seen that constitutional rights are no longer protected. President Bush does not protect our constitutional rights. Neither does Vice President Cheney, nor the Attorney General, nor the US Congress. Just as Kerry allowed Meyer's rights to be tasered out of him, Congress has enabled Bush to strip people, including American citizens, of constitutional protection and incarcerate them without presenting evidence.

These are not rare instances. If you go to YouTube you can see a whole lot of situations where people are getting Tasered in situations that did not seem to require such strong measures.

I do not own a cell phone but am glad about the ubiquitous presence of such devices, even though they can be abused. Combined with the ability to easily upload to YouTube, they may be an important tool in preserving civil liberties. Because of them, we are no longer dependent on only official sources or the media for information, which is often sanitized by both to paint the authorities in the most favorable light. We now can see the raw footage of events and judge for ourselves.

It has already been realized by politicians that because of cell phones they are always being recorded and they cannot deny things that they said or did as they could have in the past. George Allen's 2006 bid to be re-elected as Virginia's US senator was doomed partly by the infamous 'macaca' incident captured on a cell phone.

But I don't think that it has yet dawned on security services that the presence of cells phones means that they no longer control the narrative and cannot blandly assert that they were responding to a threat when they use what seems to be unnecessary force on unarmed people or non-threatening people.

But all the cell phones in the world will not help if people are not outraged when they reveal abuses.

POST SCRIPT: Bush gaffes in Australia

President Bush in Australia made a series of gaffes.

Anyone who speaks in public constantly, no matter how sharp-witted, will make mistakes and slips of the tongue. So why do we focus so much on Bush's slips? As someone said, with Bush it is the seeming inevitability of it that is the attraction. It is like watching accomplished comedians performing a routine with a careful setup that telegraphs the punch line. You know what is coming and that expectation forms part of the humor, building up to the moment, so that when it inevitably occurs, part of our laughter is due to the release of the tension.

Bush has established for himself a reputation as someone who is completely out of his depth and when he seems to confirm that expectation, the humor is greater than if the same thing had been said and done by (say) Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon.

September 19, 2007

Mother Theresa's mixed legacy

Mother Theresa's legacy was not an unmixed one. On the one hand, she did important work that others were not doing, and took in the sick and dying from the streets of Calcutta and provided them with beds to spend their last days with at least some minimal care and cleanliness. On the other, she exhibited a serious tone-deafness when it came to hobnobbing with rich and powerful people, who, by giving her cause money, tried to immunize themselves from criticisms for their own barbaric cruelty to the people of their country.

Michael Hand in his review of Christopher Hitchens' book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso, 1995) gives some examples.

[Mother Theresa] said of Michele Duvalier, wife of Haiti's despised and ruthless dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, that she is "someone who feels, who knows, who wishes to demonstrate her love not only with words but also with concrete and tangible actions." At the time, Haiti had the lowest per capita annual income in the western hemisphere. (I think this remains the case.) Living conditions for most Haitians were intolerable. Stories abounded that US cosmetics companies purchased blood from poor Haitians to make shampoo with "human protein" ingredients. Eventually the Duvaliers were forced out of Haiti -- they absconded with large amounts of government money, to settle on the French Riviera. Still, Mother Teresa said of Michele that she had "never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with her. It was a beautiful lesson to me."

During the trial of Charles Keating, eventually resulting in a ten-year sentence for fraud in the S&L debacle, Mother Teresa wrote to the trial judge. She appealed for leniency in Keating's case, for he had donated a large sum to her projects. That the money was not his to donate didn't occur to her, and she has not responded to a request that she return the illegitimate gift.

She quickly made the scene at the famous Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal. Even before the cause was known -- it turned out to be corporate negligence, unsurprisingly -- Mother Teresa was advising all victims to "Forgive. Forgive." This advice presupposes that poverty and misery are the destiny of the poor and miserable, so that their response should be an act of mercy toward the murderers of their families and friends. This conception of the poor is Mother Teresa's stock-in-trade: "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot...I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people [italics added]."

The last point highlights another disturbing feature of Mother Theresa's ministry, her strange belief that suffering was in itself a good and ennobling thing. It was almost a cult of suffering, the belief that suffering brought you closer to god. As someone once said of her, she was not a friend of the poor so much as a friend of poverty. There were, however, two issues over which she showed no ambiguity whatsoever: her opposition to abortions and the use of contraceptive aids. In her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize speech she even made the extraordinary statement that "I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion."

The magicians Penn and Teller have produced a blistering expose of what they say is the dark side of the Mother Theresa legend.

Part 1:

Part 2:

The judgments of Penn and Teller and Hitchens seem a little harsh to me. The sight of Mother Theresa hobnobbing like a politician with the wealthy and providing them with political cover in return for getting big contributions to expand her religious activities makes her a tempting target to label as a hypocrite. But there is little evidence that her concern for the poor and the destitute her mission took in was anything but genuine. The more likely reason for her tarnishing her legacy by cavorting with disreputable but wealthy people is that she fell prey to the all-too-easy trap of rationalization that the ends justifies the means, convincing herself that the work she was doing with the poor was truly worthwhile and the money she got from the Duvaliers, Keatings, and the like was at least being used for a good cause that compensated for their tainted origins.

Her official public image clearly has great propaganda value for Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, which has put her on the fast track to sainthood. Despite her recently revealed explicit doubts about the existence of god, my guess is that they will canonize her anyway. The Mother Theresa brand name is too valuable to let slide.

POST SCRIPT: Religious hi-jinks

Samantha Bee on This Week in God.

September 18, 2007

Mother Theresa and signs from god

In the previous post, I wrote about Mother Theresa's unfulfilled yearning to get a sign from god that he existed and that her faith was justified. What is most surprising to me is that she did not receive such a sign.

Most people who desperately want to believe in god, like Mother Theresa clearly did, are quick to seize on random events and coincidences that we all experience in our lives and interpret them as signs from god. If you really need a sign from god, it is not hard to manufacture one to your satisfaction. Surely there must have been many such instances in her life that would have served her purposes, such as receiving a generous donation for her mission at a time when they desperately needed money or having one of her charges unexpectedly recover from near death?

For example, just last week I myself had a powerful experience of god's presence. I had been discussing with two friends the lack of evidence for god and had come home with them. My friends went into the living room while I went to the kitchen to get some refreshments. While there, I suddenly felt two powerful hands gripping my shoulders and forcing my head through some sort of invisible screen. I found myself on the other side immersed in something like water except that I could see patterns like galaxies and stars swirling all around in a blue watery haze. I could breathe quite easily but could not hear my friends in the next room and could not call out to them. It was manifestly clear to me that I was under the influence of the Holy Spirit who was revealing his presence to me and showing me his power. When the Holy Spirit released me after a brief time and I could move freely and speak and hear again, my first reaction was amazement at receiving such a direct signal from god, followed by wondering how I would explain to my friends in the next room what had happened and whether they would believe me. I also realized that I would have to abandon my atheism and revise my entire personal and scientific worldview, and write about these changes on my blog.

And then I woke up.

I tend to have quite vivid and detailed dreams, especially if I have been eating chocolate (Freud would have loved having me as a patient) and can often trace their content to things that I had been thinking about that day or the previous one. The Mother Theresa story had been on my mind and I had been wondering whether I should blog about it so the fact that I had such a dream was no real surprise to me once I woke up. But while the dream was going on, the events seemed very, very real, so much so that it took me a little while even after I woke up to realize that it really was just a dream and that there was still no god.

If I had been a religious person going through a period of doubt, I might well have interpreted this dream as a sign, that the powerful hands holding me were those of the Holy Spirit (hands being a common image invoked in Christian circles for this mysterious entity), and the whole experience was done by god to reassure me that my faith was true. I suspect that when religious people talk about having had a personal experience of god, it is due to something like this. Strong emotional feelings released by dreams or a spectacular view of nature or some major event in their lives such as the birth of a child or a recovery from an illness or the feeling of euphoria that religious people sometimes experience during religious observances, when the singing of a favorite hymn, coupled with the sun shining through stained glass windows and a sense of personal peace, can all be misinterpreted as a spiritual other-worldly experience.

When I was young, I used to sometimes spend school vacations at my aunt's home in rural northern Sri Lanka. On Sunday mornings we would wake up well before dawn and go to the nearby ashram (a kind of religious retreat) where there was an open-air rustic church. The service would begin while it was still dark with us all sitting on the ground. The a capella singing of hymns, the chanting of prayers, the blowing of gentle breezes, the chirping of birds and other sounds of life awakening in rural areas as the sun slowly rose up over the palm trees, often combined to give a real sense of peace, easy enough to interpret as something spiritual.

Given Mother Theresa's clear anguish over the lack of a sign from god, she must have experienced dreams or experiences similar to what I have described. Her inability to interpret such things as evidence of god's existence suggests that she had greater skepticism and a much higher empirical standard for evidence of god than most religious people. It actually reflects creditably on her, suggesting that she was not that credulous, and required something more convincing than a run-of-the-mill 'spiritual' experience.

Daniel Dennett writes that this kind of agonized disbelief among the formally religious is not uncommon.

Mother Teresa’s agonies of doubt are surely not all that unusual. What is unusual is that she put them in writing and now they are being revealed to the world, in spite of her explicit wish that they be destroyed. I get mail all the time from religious leaders who admit to me in private that they do not believe in God but think that the best way to continue their lives is to swallow hard and get on with their ministries, concentrating on bringing more good than evil into the lives of their parishioners and those for whom their churches provide care. I would never divulge their names without their consent, but I do wonder: How many millions of priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, nuns and monks around the world are living lives of similar duplicity? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the outing of Mother Teresa inspired a few thousand of them to come out of the closet and acknowledge their atheism! Then it might start being obvious not only that faith in God is not a requirement for morality, but that the loss of faith in God often goads people into living more strenuously helpful lives, as seems to be the case with Mother Teresa.

Mother Theresa is not the first high profile religious figure to try and suppress her deep doubts by loudly and publicly proclaiming her faith and certainly will not be the last. She is but one example of the kinds of people described by the philosopher David Hume who said that "[t]hey make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry."

Dennett's claim that there are many more like her is supported by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion (p. 324), where he describes the story of Dan Barker's "gradual conversion from devout fundamentalist minister and zealous traveling preacher to the strong and confident atheist he is today", recounted in Barker's book Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.

Significantly, Barker continued to go through the motions of preaching Christianity for a while after he had become an atheist, because it was the only career he knew and he felt locked into a web of social obligations. He now knows many other American clergymen who are in the same position as he was but have confided only in him, having read his book. They dare not admit their atheism even to their own families, so terrible is the anticipated reaction. Barker's own story had a happier conclusion. To begin with, his parents were deeply and agonizingly shocked. But they listened to his quiet reasoning, and eventually became atheists themselves.

It will be interesting to see what fallout, if any, occurs from the revelation of Mother Theresa's doubts. Religious apologists have quickly moved into damage control mode. As is usually the case with religion, whatever happens is taken as a justification for belief. If Mother Theresa's letters had revealed an unwavering confidence in god, that would have been taken as a sign of her deep faith. Now that they reveal the opposite, that is also taken as a sign of her faith.

Ideally, though, it should make people more comfortable about expressing their own fears and doubts about their faith publicly, rather than feeling the need to suppress them or to seek confirmation in 'evidence' that is nothing more than coincidence or tricks of the brain.

POST SCRIPT: Rewarding failure

Keith Olberman shows how no one in the Bush administration pays any price for lying or incompetence, as long as they are loyal Bushies. Instead, they get rewarded or promoted

September 17, 2007

Mother Theresa's dilemma

There have been a flurry of news items and commentary about the publication of a book of Mother Theresa's letters, which reveal that she struggled for most of her life with the fear that there was no god. Excerpts from the letters (as quoted in the press) show that during almost her entire ministry, she struggled with deep doubt, saying things like: "Where is my faith?. . .Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. . . . If there be God — please forgive me. . . Such deep longing for God. . . . Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal. . . What do I labor for? . . . If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true."

The letters reveal a woman who yearned for some sign that her belief in god was justified, for some sense that there was a godly presence, and that she failed to receive such reassurance, although she publicly maintained a face of unwavering devotion.

Religious apologists have been quick to try and shield her from suggestions that she was a hypocrite acting in bad faith, hiding her disbelief in god behind a façade of piety. They point out (correctly) that most religious people have doubts from time to time and struggle to maintain their beliefs. It is perhaps only the psychotic who are absolutely certain that god exists and think that god speaks to them in clear and unambiguous ways. So while her doubts seem to have been deeper and longer lasting than most religious people would admit to, they are by no means unique.

It is not hard to see why Mother Theresa's belief in god was being constantly challenged. Most ordinary religious people are fortunate in that they do not often have to deal with tragedy and sadness in their own lives, excepting for maybe one or two major events, thus making it easier to maintain belief in a benevolent deity. But she was dealing on a daily basis with the sickness and death of huge numbers of men and women, young and old, who had not done anything that merited the deep misfortunes that befell them. Under those circumstances it would have been inhuman for her not to question the benevolence of god. It was perfectly natural for her to seek some sign from god that all the suffering she saw had some purpose and meaning, and to despair when she did not receive such an assurance.

In some ways, Mother Theresa may have been a victim of her own success, trapping her into a belief structure that she could not reject without also undermining the work she was trying to do. Most of us who can switch from believers to atheists and the only disruption this may cause is within our small circle of family and friends. But she was an enormously successful figure for the image of the Catholic Church, generating immense amounts of goodwill and money because of her work with the desperately poor people of Calcutta. She would have known that to make her doubts public, let alone come out as an atheist, would have resulted in a huge blow to the faith of others. Such an admission would have been to turn her back on the basis on which she had started her entire life's work. While she could have continued her work as a doubter, that would have risked losing the official backing of the Catholic Church and its publicity apparatus, which was undoubtedly helpful in efforts to raise money.

In the normal course of events, when we fail to find evidence for something, it is considered to be a reasonable thing to not believe in that thing. This is why we do not believe in the existence of unicorns or fairies and do not hesitate to publicly say so. To do otherwise would be considered hypocrisy. But in the case of Mother Theresa, the split between her public unwavering piety and her private doubts is being portrayed, oddly, as something virtuous. I find it hard to see how it can be virtuous to publicly profess devout belief while harboring serious doubts. That simply imposes feelings of guilt on those who also do not have certainty, making them feel that their own faith must be somehow inadequate or inferior to hers. Surely it would have been better for her and others if she had said publicly that she had her doubts, just like everyone else, but that she hoped that her belief and hope in god would be vindicated in the afterlife.

As Daniel Dennett points out, this hiding of doubt behind the mask of certainty cannot be a good thing:

[T]here is good reason to believe that the varieties of self-admonition and self-blinding that people have to indulge in to gird their creedal loins may actually cost them something substantial in the moral agency department: a debilitating willingness to profess solemnly in the utter absence of conviction, a well-entrenched habit of deflecting their attention from evidence that is crying out for consideration, and plenty of experience biting their tongues and saying nothing when others around them make assumptions that they know in their hearts to be false.

It is hard not to sympathize with Mother Theresa's lifelong struggle to find some reason to believe. It must have caused her considerable anguish to fear that she may have been living a lie. I believe that such struggles are far more common than we realize and are due entirely to expecting people to believe in things for which there is no evidence and making them feel guilty when they cannot do so with easy assurance. This is the kind of thing that happens when we elevate 'faith', i.e., belief in the absence of evidence, to a virtue.

POST SCRIPT Constitution Day Forum

Case's Third Annual Constitution Day forum will be on the topic Religion and the Constitution and held today (Monday September 17, 2007), 4:30 p.m. ― 6:00 p.m. in Ford Auditorium, Allen Medical Library.

The panel looks good and it should be interesting.

September 14, 2007

The problem with religion-4: Corrupting the minds of children

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

I started this series with Matt Ridley's quote: "The Asian tsunami was not an act of god but 9/11 was" and will end with it, because it says something very profound.

Religious apologists for Islam are quick to claim that the 9/11 perpetrators were not following their "true" religion, that god would not have condoned this act. But what is the basis for this claim of exemption? After all, the perpetrators themselves seemed to think that they were indeed the ones that were following the true religion. In his periodic video surfacings, bin Laden appears quite confident that he is serving god well, as is Bush when he speaks of his motivations.

What makes people do things that kill huge numbers of people in the name of god and religion?

The seeds of such behavior are often planted early, when children are young. Religious teaching is probably the earliest kind of formal teaching that children get, both from their parents and from their places of worship. They are taught that their faith and their god are the "true" ones, and that people of other faiths are wrong and their god is a false god. As a result, from a very young age, children learn in-group/out-group thinking framed in terms of religion. This lays the groundwork for more in-group/out-group thinking later in terms of ethnicity and nation.

I have written before of one example of where this kind of thinking can lead, in the tragic case of Edgardo Mortara. But in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins provides a much more disturbing example of the effects of religious instruction on children.

(For further reading on the case described by Dawkins, see the sources cited by him: the paper Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group Morality by John Hartung; the paper The Influence of Ethnic and Religious Prejudice on Moral Judgment by G. R. Tamarin, (New Outlook, 9:1:49-58); and the book The Israeli Dilemma: Essays on a Warfare State, G. R. Tamarin, 1973. Rotterdam: Rotterdam University Press.)

In this extended quote I have taken from the book (starting on p. 255), Dawkins summarizes the results of what he calls "[A] horrifying study by the Israeli psychologist George Tamarin":

Tamarin presented to more than a thousand Israeli school children, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

Joshua said to the people, 'Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.'. . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword. . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: 'Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?' They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 percent gave total approval and 26 percent total disapproval, with rather fewer (8 percent) in the middle with partial approval. Here are three typical answers from the total approval (A) group:

In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.

In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.

Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.

The justification for the genocidal massacre by Joshua is religious in every case. Even those in category C, who gave total disapproval, did so, in some cases, for backhanded religious reasons. One girl, for example, disapproved of Joshua's conquering Jericho because, in order to do so, he had to enter it:

I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.

Two others who totally disapproved did so because Joshua destroyed everything, including animals and property, instead of keeping some as spoil for Israelites:

I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.

I think Joshua did not act well, as he could have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.

Once again the sage Maimonides, often cited for his scholarly wisdom, is in no doubt where he stands on this issue: 'It is a positive commandment to destroy the seven nations, as it is said: Thou shalt utterly destroy them. If one does not put to death any of them that falls into one's power, one transgresses a negative commandment, as it is said: Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.'

Unlike Maimonides, the children in Tamarin's experiment were young enough to be innocent. Presumably the savage views they expressed were those of their parents or the cultural group in which they were brought up. It is, I suppose, not unlikely that Palestinian children, brought up in the same war-torn country, would offer equivalent opinions in the opposite direction. These considerations fill me with despair. They seem to show the immense power of religion, and especially the religious upbringing of children, to divide people and foster historic enmities and hereditary vendettas. I cannot help remarking that two out Tamarin's three quotations from group A mentioned the evils of assimilation, while the third one stressed the importance of killing people in order to stamp out their religion.

Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua's own name replaced by 'General Lin' and 'Israel' replaced by 'a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago'. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved of General Lin's behavior, and 75 percent disapproved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgments that most modern humans would share. Joshua's action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.

I share Dawkins deep sense of despair at what we do to children in the name of religion. I recently saw the documentary Jesus Camp in which evangelical Pentecostals run a camp where young children are trained to become 'soldiers for Christ'. Elementary-school age children are being taught to view those who do not share their narrow sectarian beliefs as some kind of enemy, by adults who are fully convinced that their own religion is right and that they are fighting for Jesus in a war with everyone else, including the 'false' Christians. They see themselves as being a counterweight to Muslim children being taught to be militant.

Once you concede the validity of religion, what argument can you use to say that these people are wrong? After all, they are basing the beliefs and actions on the same religious texts that apologists use. Osama bin Laden's Koran is the same as everyone else's. The Bible used by the children in Jesus Camp is the same as that used by Martin Luther King.

Anthropologist John Hartung, Associate Editor of the Journal of Neurosurgtcal Anesthesiology explains in the abstract of his paper why the commonly expressed justifications of religious morality, that they do contain expressions of benevolence and love towards all, do not stand up to scrutiny.

The world's major religions espouse a moral code which includes injunctions against murder, theft and lying. Or so conventional 19th- and 20th-century Western wisdom would have it. Evidence put forth here argues that this convention is a conceit which does not apply to the West's own religious foundations. In particular, rules against murder, theft, and lying codified by the Ten Commandments were intended to apply only within a cooperating group for the purpose of enabling that group to compete successfully against other groups. In addition, this in-group morality has functioned, both historically and by express intent, to create adverse circumstances between groups by actively promoting murder, theft, and lying as tools of competition. Contemporary efforts to present Judeo-Christian in-group morality as universal morality defy the plain meaning of the texts upon which Judaism and Christianity are based. Accordingly, this effort is ultimately hopeless. (my italics)

This is why the efforts by religious apologists to defend the virtue of religion as ultimately a source for good do not stand up to scrutiny. The sad truth is that people seem to find it much easier to use religion to do evil than to do good. As Blaise Pacal says in his Pensees (1670): "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Baxter!

Baxter is two years old today.



September 13, 2007

The problem with religion-3: All prayer, all the time

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the comment that triggered this series of posts, the rise of liberation theology in South America was used to argue as a case where religion played a positive role. But let us see the liberation theology movement in its full context.

For the better part of the twentieth century, many of the countries of Central and South America were run by murderous despots, while Catholicism was the dominant religion in those countries. Around 1960, 'liberation theology' came into being, led by some intellectuals and clergy, arguing for a radical interpretation of the Gospels, focusing on those elements of the Bible that seemed to call for an end to oppression. But while there was this grass root effort to change the relationship of religion to state power, what was the church doing in those days, apart from a few brave priests and nuns? How many Catholic eminences took stands similar to even the limited calls for justice that Archbishop Romero took, or even came out in support of him while he was alive? Why did the Vatican and the Catholic Church not call for massive protests and agitation to overthrow the government of El Salvador when Romero was gunned down, in his own cathedral no less, by government death squads? If liberation theology was considered a good Christian thing, why was it not officially adopted by the Vatican?

In fact, those religious people who fought for the oppressed have usually had to fight not only against the governments of their time but also against their own established religious institutions. We have to remember that the priests advocating liberation theology were very much a minority and going against the grain of the official church and their activities were at best tolerated by the Church as long as they did not make too much waves. They were by no means favored by the Vatican, as can be seen by the fact that liberation theology was never adopted as part of the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. In fact, Pope John Paul II harshly criticized it, and sought to redefine liberation as meaning mainly "liberation from sin and the evil one", thus conveniently shifting attention away from people's material needs and back to praying for their souls. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the current Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in 1984: "An analysis of the phenomenon of liberation theology reveals that it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church."

Now, much later, those same priests and the movement they tried to create and which was suppressed by the Church are invoked by religious apologists in defense of religious virtue, to try and distance Christianity from the oppression that took place in South America with the collusion, or at least the tacit acceptance, of the church, to try and say "See, Christians were on the right side!"

There have always been courageous religious mavericks but the reason they are admired is precisely because they were mavericks, fighting against the stream. Religious institutions have cynically used them as a cover, to hide their basic alliance with power. How could it possibly be that the Church can be considered on the side of the poor when one sees the magnificent palaces and cathedrals and churches built by them in Europe, and the luxurious lifestyles lived by the bishops and other hierarchy, at the very time of rampant poverty, hunger, disease, exploitation, child labor and slavery? It was not the church that led the fight against feudalism and peasant servitude. They were the beneficiaries of that system and, as the so-called First Estate in France, were politically very influential and part of the ruling class. As historian Peter McPhee writes in The French Revolution 1789-1799 (Oxford University Press 2002, p. 13): "It was the rural population above all which underwrote the costs of the three pillars of authority and privilege in eighteenth century France: the Church, nobility, and monarchy. Together, the two privileged orders and the monarchy exacted on average one-quarter to one-third of peasant produce, through taxes, seigneurial dues, and the tithe." The Church joined up with the nobility and monarchy to live well at the expense of the poor.

One has only to read any history of France prior to the revolution of 1789 to see how religion was used to keep the poor in their place of servitude. The cry of "liberte, egalite, fraternite" did not originate in, or ring out from, pulpits and cathedrals. Again, religious apologists might try to salvage some redemption from the fact that some poor rural clergy did support peasant rights and sided with them in the meeting of the Estates-General convened in the spring of 1789, but the religious institutions as a whole were not on the side of justice for the poor.

The usual response of religious apologists to this critique is to argue that these kinds of oppressions were done by people who were not "really" Christians, but those who paid only lip-service to Christianity, that real Christians would be on the side of the oppressed. But where is the evidence in support of this argument? How do we judge who are the "true" Christians and what is "true" Christianity? If the official policies of religious institutions when they are in positions of power and influence do not represent the "true" religion, then what does?

Perhaps we can turn to the sources of religious beliefs, the religious texts themselves. Can we use them to discern "true" religion? But they are filled with things that can be used to support the most appalling things like slavery, rape, murder, and child abuse. It is incredibly easy to use the Bible to portray the Jewish-Christian god as a cruel, vindictive, genocidal, egotistical, jealous, tyrannical despot. No one who wants to defend religion as a source for good should invoke religious texts.

So where does the idea come from that religion has not been a primarily negative force in history? What is usually done is a post facto cherry-picking of people and events, labeling those actions that are good as representing "true" religion and those that are not good as "false" religion.

The reality is that it is the basic philosophy and modes of practice of religion that supports the exploitation of people by discounting the value of this life (the only life that we are sure we have) and shifting their focus from justice in the here and now to dubious rewards after they die. It also encourages feelings of helplessness by asking people to put "one's faith in god". This is exactly what Martin Luther King pointed out. Religion tells people to "wait", that praying and worshipping and "having faith" will result in their problems somehow being solved magically by some sort of deus ex machina and, even if it does not happen while they are still alive in this world, they will receive justice and rewards in the next, a kind of consolation prize for being such good sports and not complaining about their suffering.

This philosophy is extraordinarily useful as a tool for keeping people oppressed, and governments have long recognized and exploited this. If I were a despotic and exploitative ruler, I would assuredly encourage and support religious groups that urged their people to pray for thing. Because then people, rather than taking charge of the their own lives and organizing to better their lot, are putting their hopes in a "higher power", waiting for god will intervene and change the hearts of the rulers and make them better. Nothing would suit a cynical ruler better than to have his subjects use their energies praying for change and believing that god will reward them for their faith and patience.

But it does not benefit only the rulers. It should be obvious that such a doctrine is also convenient to those who already have a good life now and live comfortable lives at the expense of the poor. Religion has been a wonderful ally to those seeking to maintain the status quo.

It is not an accident that religious missionaries were among the first groups of people to follow colonial conquerors and received the full patronage and protection of the colonial rulers. The famous African quote "When the missionaries came to our country they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us pray’ and we closed our eyes to pray. At the end of the prayer, they had the land and we had the Bible" captures accurately how religion serves the interests of power.

Next: How religion corrupts the minds of children

POST SCRIPT: Will the US bomb Iran?

This is the question that has caused considerable consternation worldwide. Alexander Cockburn lays out the best analysis that I have seen for and against the likelihood of Bush taking such a step.

September 12, 2007

The problem with religion-2: Religion in racism and colonialism

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the US, after the systematic elimination of the Native Americans, one can consider Christianity to be the de-facto "official" religion, since most people would consider themselves to be good Christians and the political leadership repeatedly invokes religious piety and symbolism.

If, as is sometimes argued, the presence of Christians in the abolitionist movement is a sign that Christianity is benevolent, then why did Christians condone and benefit from slavery for so long before that? We now assume it is an unspeakable abomination to treat human beings as objects that can be bought and sold. Why was this not obvious to the religious leaders of that time, if religion is basically against oppression? Why could not the theologians and clergy and laity in those times realize what seems obvious to anyone now? Surely it is because they considered Christianity to be compatible with slavery.

If you are going to applaud the role of religious people in (say) combating slavery, then you have to allow that many more religious people were among those who created, condoned, and profited from the slave trade for a long time. Where was the Christian church when slavery was flourishing for over centuries in Europe and North America? Where was the Christian church in America when the Native Americans were being systematically slaughtered? Where was the Christian church of Belgium when Christian Emperor Leopold was unleashing unbelievably barbaric terror on the people of the Congo? The dominant group in all these situations were people who would have considered themselves good Christians. Why were these things allowed to occur?

If the involvement of clergy in the civil rights movement was a good Christian thing to do, why was this not recognized a century earlier and during Jim Crow, since Christianity was still the dominant religion? Why did it have to take a few people like Martin Luther King to get some people to realize this? And even then, we are fooling ourselves if we think that once their eyes were opened to the fact that discrimination against black people was bad thing, that Christian institutions immediately hitched themselves to the cause. Those clergy and laity that did so were a small minority. One has only to read King's famous 1963 letter from Birmingham jail to his fellow clergy to feel his keen sense of disappointment that more of them were not supporting him in what seemed to him to be an obviously righteous and moral cause. We agree with King now. Why did not most Christians agree with him then?

In fact, King in his letter (although religious himself) nails with deadly accuracy the reason why religion has been a negative force, and that is because although individuals might have noble intentions and want to do good, religious institutions drag them in the opposite direction. So when individuals and small groups of religious people try to work for social justice, they are usually fighting their own religious institutions as well. He said (boldface emphasis is mine):

Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
. . .
I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.
. . .
I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. . .But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church.
. . .
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, on Biblical [sic] distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
. . .
Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers.

As King points out, what institutionalized religion tells people is: "Wait", which really means: "Never". And when it is not telling them that directly, it is telling them indirectly, by saying: "Pray." And what has basically lain behind that call to pray is the promise that if you wait, you will be rewarded in heaven. So the role of religion is not to mobilize people to fight oppression but to ask them to not act but to hope for god to intervene.

Just as much as the true measure of a politician is not what they promise when they are campaigning but what policies they put their energies into when they are in office and in a position to actually achieve something, the way to judge a religion it is not by what a few on the fringes try to do but what religious people and institutions do when they are in a position to influence things.

George Bush thinks that starting wars and killing people on large scale are the actions of a good Christian. The people who flew planes into the twin towers thought they were good Muslims. The Jews who call for the forcible removal of all Palestinians from the occupied territories and claiming their land for god think they are being good Jews. The Brahmins who refuse to even touch the people of the scheduled castes think they are being good Hindus. Assuming that we think their actions were bad, on what basis can we say that any of them are mistaken in their beliefs?

Next: All prayer, all the time

POST SCRIPT: Those cheeky Aussies

The Australian comedy show The Chasers does some really funny stuff. (I earlier showed a clip of them in an item about The Secret.) Their latest prank is to have someone dressed up as Osama bin Laden manage to get within 10 meters of George Bush's hotel in Sydney when he was there for the recent APEC meeting.

In another prank, they go photographing high security sites dressed in different ways.

(Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)

September 11, 2007

The problem with religion-1: Religious individuals and institutions

The author Matt Ridley made an interesting observation: "The Asian tsunami was not an act of god but 9/11 was."

I think that quote makes a good starting point for the next series of four posts that deal with the problem of religion. The posts are in response to a discussion that originated in a previous post and although I did not specifically intend to have them start today (I am one of those who thinks that there is far too much emphasis on commemorations and memorials to tragedies), there is no question that the perpetrators of the atrocity committed on September 11, 2001 are emblematic of the problem with religion, and the dangerous mix that occurs when people of devout faith believe in life after death and are sure they know what god wants them to do and will reward them if they do it.

In particular, what I am responding to is the following comment that, by pointing to instances where religion also inspires some people to do good, argues against my critique of religion as a negative influence in society:

Would you discount the influence of religious institutions on, for example, the pre-civil-war abolitionist movement, the US civil rights movement of the 60's and the liberation theology movement in Latin America? And would you discount the activities of religious charity organizations in responding to natural disasters such as the tsunami and the Katrina? Would you also discount the activities of local religious organizations who regularly contribute food and material support to the poor and homeless in the Cleveland area? And what about those religious organizations that are currently calling for social justice in places like Darfur and elsewhere around the world?

I am certainly not arguing against your notion that religious has been -- and will continue to be -- used as a weapon by those who would unjustly wield political and economic power over others. But it seems to me fairly easy to come up with examples in history where religious organizations have operated to support the poor, to ease suffering, and to call for liberation of the oppressed.

This is a familiar argument that basically states that since there are some people who do good things in the name of religion, that means that religion as a whole cannot be bad. I agree with the author that it is easy to come up with examples of religious people and groups who try to do good things but is anyone, even the most ardent anti-religionist, really arguing that all people who profess religion are evil or incapable of doing good? There have always been people fighting for social justice and some have found support for their mission in religion and others have found support in secular sources. But that is not the point.

What is actually argued are two things: that religion has never been a necessary condition for goodness and morality, so that that particular claim to its value is spurious; and that the doctrines and practices of the institutionalized religion has largely been a negative influence in society through the ages.

In fact, the very examples quoted above illustrate the point I am making because they illustrate the actions of people acting outside of, or marginal to, institutionalized religion. If giving "food and material support to the poor and homeless in the Cleveland area" is a good Christian thing to do, why is this left to small under-funded groups, religious and non-religious alike? Why is this not done as part of official policy in this so-called Christian country? We know that some Churches are quite wealthy. The Vatican, for instance, has immense assets. Why do they not use those assets to give more to the poor?

One has to distinguish between the actions of religious individuals and small groups (acting as independent agents following their consciences) and religion's historical role as serving the interests of the ruling classes. What I am rejecting is the argument of religious apologists that the good actions of a few religious people can immunize religious institutions against the charge that can be laid safely at their doorstep of centuries of widespread collusion with oppressors.

The basic question is where, historically, has religion as an institution stood in relation to oppression? What has been the role of the religious institutions that represent the majority of the population in those countries whose leaders also share their religious beliefs? (Small religious sects like the Amish or the Shakers are typically not part of the ruling class and often consider themselves to be among the out-group. Hence their role in the struggle against oppression may well be different from those religious institutions that represent "official" religions of nations. In fact, as I will discuss in a forthcoming series on the evolutionary basis of altruism, small groups tend to be much more cooperative and supportive of one another than large groups.)

In what follows, I am going to use examples from Christianity but not because it is particularly better or worse than other religions. One can find the negative influences in all the religions wherever they form the majority and are part of the state apparatus, even unofficially. Consider the disgraceful treatment of women and apostates in Muslim countries, the appalling treatment of Palestinians in the Jewish state of Israel, and the inhumane treatment of the so-called "untouchable" caste that was condoned by higher caste Hindus for centuries in the majority Hindu country of India.

Why have we seen consistent patterns of oppression by religious groups of other people? It is worthwhile quoting Sam Harris from his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 80):

Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments. One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings. Consequently, faith inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it. Islamic terrorism is recent example of this sort of behavior. Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation.

Religious apologists tend to disavow the evil actions done in the name of religion by saying that those people have misunderstood the "true" will of god and misinterpreted the religious texts from which that will has been discerned. Such apologists tend to think that it is only they who have discerned the "true" meaning of religion and god's will.

Harris responds to that argument too (p. 11):

You probably think the Inquisition was a perversion of the "true" spirit of Christianity. Perhaps it was. The problem is that the teachings of the Bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for nearly five centuries. It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the church, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed outright (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches. You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently – though isn't it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith have failed?

It is always possible to retrospectively look back on history and cherry pick, treating as truly religious just those actions that by our own current standards are "good" things and rejecting those that are "bad". What needs to be looked at is what religious people have done when their religion has been the dominant group in a society. Have they used the state power that was so accessible to them to create peace and justice in their societies? Just to pose the question is to know the answer.

Next: Religion's role in racism and colonialism

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher on Bush, Larry Craig, and religion

Here are more of Maher's New Rules.

September 10, 2007

Going against the norm

The media circus that has surrounded US Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) with his guilty plea for lewd conduct in a Minneapolis airport men's room, followed by his attempt to withdraw it, and his resignation from the Senate followed by his attempt to withdraw that too, has obscured some of the underlying issues surrounding what is admittedly an unfortunate event. The main one is how things that should be treated similarly are treated wildly differently depending on whether or not they conform to prevailing behavioral norms.

The police report on the events leading up to the arrest of Craig reveals a world in which gay liaisons are established by means of subtle codes and signals. The signals that Craig supposedly sent out to the undercover officer were of such a nature that those who are not gay or not privy to these cues would probably be oblivious to what was going on around them or baffled by what seemed to be merely eccentric or annoying behavior.

Most of us are not aware of the many secret worlds that are going on all around us. What might seem to us to be a normal city scene with people going about their lawful business may reveal, to someone in the know, scenes of drug activity, prostitution, theft, and other covert activities, all being accomplished by the subtle codes and signals exchanged by people who have established this secret language.

Assuming the police report is true, what seems to have occurred in the Craig case is that he was sending out a subtle invitation to someone he hoped was also gay. But he was either particularly obtuse in not recognizing that his advances were not being reciprocated or the undercover officer gave out conflicting signals of his own.

But it is not clear that what happened raised this event to the level where the police should have been called in. After all, similar sorts of encounters are commonplace in heterosexual situations. I am sure that women routinely experience subtle (and not so subtle) sexual overtures and invitations from men bars and other public places, and the men doing so can be confident that the women at the receiving end are not undercover officers, and even if they are, that they will not be arrested.

Although women may find such overtures offensive, most are unlikely to call in the police unless it reaches the level of serious harassment, because it is unlikely that their complaints will be taken seriously. Men even tend to feel that women should be flattered by being thus approached by them, that it is a tribute of sorts to their attractiveness. But when heterosexual men are similarly propositioned by gay men, they seem to take offense and call for the gendarmes to intervene. It seems like women are supposed to accept or even welcome such advances by men, and respond according to the unwritten 'rules of the game' by accepting or rejecting the overtures without calling the authorities, while men feel that it is intolerable to be similarly approached by other men, and have a right to be protected from them.

This kind of double standard happens when society sets norms of behavior that are not based on general principles but instead on what a dominant group finds acceptable. The seemingly harsh response to Craig's actions can be seen as being due to us currently living in a world of standards largely established by male heterosexuals.

It is similar to religion in public life. Speaking publicly about one's faith in god, asking people to pray at public events, wearing religious symbols, providing tax exemptions to religious groups and activities, invoking god as an explanation for random events, are all seen as acceptable, even meritorious. Books about how religion and god have positively influenced people's lives are routinely published and have good sales. But when atheists start speaking publicly about their disbelief in god and write books to that effect, people question why they are so 'militant' and 'forcing' their views on others.

For example, almost every hotel room in America has a Bible in it. What do you think the response would be if atheists wrote up a small booklet laying out the case for the non-existence of god, and asked hotels for permission to put one in each room?

It seems as if atheists are supposed to accept without complaint the religious messages that they are constantly bombarded by in public life but religious people feel that they have a right to be shielded from atheistic ideas.

These kinds of double standards are pervasive and so taken for granted that we often do not recognize their existence. This is why I always find it useful in such situations, before forming a judgment, to switch the identities and characteristics of the protagonists and ask how I would react then. This strategy helps to unearth ones own biases and prejudices and helps to get at the underlying principles that should be used in determining the appropriate response.

POST SCRIPT: Double standards

While we are on the subject of the Craig affair, here's a Tom Tomorrow cartoon that highlights the hypocritical morality that suffuses public life.

September 07, 2007

The Powell and Petraeus shows

There has been a huge media build up over the so-called Petraeus report, the progress report by the US commander in Iraq David Petraeus, on how the 'surge' strategy in Iraq is going. The report is due to be presented on Monday, September 10, 2007.

This has to be seen as another example of how media is managed by this administration. The Los Angeles Times reports that "Despite Bush's repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government."

Is anyone really expecting a report written by the White House to criticize its own policy of the surge? My guess is that it will actually serve its political ends, although it will be presented as an objective view from the ground in Iraq and say something along the following lines: "The situation in Iraq is tough but we are seeing definite signs of progress. To leave now would be to destroy all that has been achieved and risk a full-scale civil war. We need to wait at least another six months to see the full benefits of the surge."

This practice of repeatedly shifting the goal posts by six months (the infamous Friedman unit) has become so routine that it is hard to believe that people don't recognize the pattern. People old enough to remember the Vietnam war will recall the famous "light at the end of the tunnel" that the administration of Lyndon Johnson and then commander William Westmoreland promised, with the light and the tunnel's end steadily receding.

Paul Krugman's recent New York Times op-ed points out the similarities in the modes of operation of both Colin Powell and Petraeus and the way the adoring media portray them. But both of them are personally ambitious and politically and media savvy people who use their military credentials to give an illusion of objectivity to their views. Both show an adeptness at ingratiating themselves with those in a position to advance their careers by acquiescing in and advocating the policies desired by their bosses, while using their media sources to distance themselves from the disastrous consequences of those policies.

As Krugman reminds us, Powell's most infamous moment was of course his speech to the UN which caused the media to swoon and overlook the glaring holes in his evidence. Powell has been backtracking on that speech ever since, trying to ingratiate himself with the public by portraying himself as a skeptic even then who was simply being a 'good soldier' for the administration by carrying its water. (Those who see Powell's UN speech as the sole blot on an otherwise exemplary life have not really been following his career. For a much more accurate history of Powell than you will find in the adoring media, see here.)

In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressing the United Nations Security Council, claimed to have proof that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He did not, in fact, present any actual evidence, just pictures of buildings with big arrows pointing at them saying things like “Chemical Munitions Bunker.” But many people in the political and media establishments swooned: they admired Mr. Powell, and because he said it, they believed it.

Mr. Powell’s masters got the war they wanted, and it soon became apparent that none of his assertions had been true.

Until recently I assumed that the failure to find W.M.D., followed by years of false claims of progress in Iraq, would make a repeat of the snow job that sold the war impossible. But I was wrong. The administration, this time relying on Gen. David Petraeus to play the Colin Powell role, has had remarkable success creating the perception that the “surge” is succeeding, even though there’s not a shred of verifiable evidence to suggest that it is.
. . .
Above all, we should remember that the whole point of the surge was to create space for political progress in Iraq. And neither that leaked G.A.O. report nor the recent National Intelligence Estimate found any political progress worth mentioning. There has been no hint of sectarian reconciliation, and the Iraqi government, according to yet another leaked U.S. government report, is completely riddled with corruption.

But, say the usual suspects, General Petraeus is a fine, upstanding officer who wouldn’t participate in a campaign of deception - apparently forgetting that they said the same thing about Mr. Powell.

First of all, General Petraeus is now identified with the surge; if it fails, he fails. He has every incentive to find a way to keep it going, in the hope that somehow he can pull off something he can call success.

And General Petraeus’s history also suggests that he is much more of a political, and indeed partisan, animal than his press would have you believe. In particular, six weeks before the 2004 presidential election, General Petraeus published an op-ed article in The Washington Post in which he claimed - wrongly, of course - that there had been “tangible progress” in Iraq, and that “momentum has gathered in recent months.”

Is it normal for serving military officers to publish articles just before an election that clearly help an incumbent’s campaign? I don’t think so.

Petraeus seems to be following in the Powell mode, knowing that for a nation desperate to have people in public life that they think are honorable, acting as if he is a competent, impartial, military, 'just-the-facts' person almost guarantees public relations success, despite it becoming increasingly clear that he is very much a political actor, advancing his career by working both the political and media tracks.

September 06, 2007

The history of western atheism-5: The religious climate in Darwin's time

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was aware of all the religious debates swirling around him as a young man, although they did not seem to divert him from his passionate pursuit of collecting beetles. In the early to mid-1800's, England was in a reaction against the radicalism and turmoil following the French revolution of 1789 which had dethroned the religious hierarchy there. The Tories (which later became the Conservative Party) were strong supporters of the authority of the King and the Anglican Church and traditional Biblical teachings of the special creation. They were ascendant over the Whigs (which later became the Liberal Party), who wanted "extended suffrage, open competition, religious emancipation (allowing Dissenters, Jews, and Catholics to hold office) and the abolition of slavery." (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 24).

In such a Tory-dominated climate, evolution-related ideas such as that the mind and consciousness were not separate entities and that the body was purely a creation of the brain were strongly frowned upon because they raised disturbing questions such as "[I]f life was not a supernatural gift, if the mind was not some incorporeal entity, what became of the soul? With no soul, no after-life, no punishment or reward, where was the deterrent against immorality? What would stop the downtrodden masses from rising up to redress their grievances?" (Desmond and Moore, p. 38, my italics). We thus see that advocacy or religion and the suppression of atheism has always been a key element in the strategy of those who want to preserve power in the hands of the elite few.

What is interesting is that during this time there was widespread "antitheism," the active opposition to theism. The working classes perceived the established Anglican Church in England, which (like the Roman Catholic Church in France) lived in luxury, as an oppressor and were calling for its abolition.

Science entered into this discussion because the idea that species were immutable had been used to support the hereditary power of the elites. The idea that god had specially created species once for all time was used to imply that social classes were also fixed and ordained by god, and that to challenge them was to challenge god's plan.

The rising popularity of the idea of the transmutation of species proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1774-1829), and the spread of other radical ideas from European mainland, were undermining this idea and fuelling atheistic ideas, along with generating calls for a radical restructuring of society in England and the dethroning of the Anglican Church from its privileged position.

At that time blasphemy was a crime because Christianity was part of the law of the land. The Anglican Church was wealthy because they could impose taxes in the form of tithes on the population, just like the Catholic Church did in France. While the Whigs were for reform and greater democracy, they too were wary of letting the masses get too much power, preferring to have reform-minded elites run things. They feared that loosening the faith of illiterate workers would lessen their ability "to bear up against the pressure of misery and misfortune." (Desmond and Moore, p. 70)

The theologian William Paley (whose famous book Natural Theology (1802) has the famous watchmaker analogy so beloved of intelligent design creationists and reincarnated by them as Mount Rushmore) was very frank about the social function served by religion in keeping the masses from complaining about injustice. He said that "Christian revelation. . . established the existence of 'a future state of reward and retribution.' And retribution in the next life is eminently useful for regulating human conduct in this one. Without the threat of eternal torture, men 'want a motive' to do their duty, and 'their rules want authority.' Promise them future rewards, on the other hand, and a perennial problem is solved: the unequal and 'promiscuous distribution' of power and wealth. The swilling masses will put up with their hardships and degrading 'stations' once they accept that any injustice will be rectified hereafter." (Desmond and Moore, p. 78)

Thus religion served the purpose it still serves today, to help preserve injustice by making the victims accepting of the status quo because they are fearful of divine retribution if they do otherwise. It persuades people to accept injustice and their current exploitation by promising them non-existent rewards that will supposedly receive in the non-existent life after death.

It was in this religious and political climate that Darwin proposed his dangerous idea. He was someone who sought respectability and avoided controversy. It was not in his nature to be a rebel and risk vilification by the Church and the bourgeoisie society in which he was so comfortably ensconced. He knew that his model of how species evolved would cause a stir and he risked being accused of blasphemy.

But at the same time, he was scientifically ambitious and knew that what he was proposing was a grand new idea that would increase his already considerable standing among the scientific peers who understood it and were not blinded by religious dogma. So he developed his theory in secret, sharing his ideas with just a few trusted colleagues, collecting vast amounts of evidence so that when he was finally prodded to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859 by the sudden appearance of Alfred Wallace's similar theory, his work was on a solid empirical foundation that withstood critics' attacks.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

POST SCRIPT: Supply Side Jesus

An alternative Biblical story.

September 05, 2007

The history of western atheism-4: Atheism spreads to the masses

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In his BBC4 TV documentary A Rough History of Atheism, Jonathan Miller points out that by the end of the 18th century, while skepticism of god and religion was gaining ground among the intellectuals and the elites, and was probably secretly quite widespread, the spread of atheism to the working classes was opposed (even by these enlightened people) because the elites feared that it would destroy the basis of their power. It was fine to discuss atheistic ideas around their dinner tables as long as the servants were not present. As James Mills said to his son, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, "There is no god but it's a family secret."

Religion has also consistently been used as a tool of oppression, from the colonization by Europe of Asia and Africa and South America, to its use during slavery. It was consistently used to divert the energies of the enslaved people away from organizing to fight for their rights and freedom and directed to accepting their lot as god's will and hoping for rewards in heaven. The idea that being rich and powerful is a sign of god's favor is a valuable tool to maintain that status quo.

A belief in the divine right of kings and nobility has always served as a powerful means of social control and a deterrent to democratic ideals, and this had been recognized for a long time. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) said, "A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of an evil treatment from a ruler they consider god fearing and pious. On the other hand they less easily move against him believing that he has the gods on his side." As Voltaire said, "As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites." Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledged the value of religion as a means of social control when he said "Religion is excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet", echoing Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) who said: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."

The cynical view that advocates that religion should be fostered by political leaders even if they do not themselves believe in it, is an attitude still maintained by some Straussian neoconservatives today.

As long as atheism stayed within the rarefied world of the elites and intellectuals, it did not pose a danger to social order. It is only when atheist views threaten to spread to the general public that it is viewed with concern. What we see currently in America may be a replaying of this historical pattern. The recent success of books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and the resulting public discussions of atheism that they have provoked have caused a similar disquiet.

For example, "common" people like Tom Paine were considered dangerous when they advocated atheist views, especially since his pamphleteering was reaching ordinary people. Actually, Paine is more properly be described as a deist but his stinging arguments that both Christianity and the Bible were false and many Christian doctrines immoral were enough for him to be labeled an atheist.

France in the 18th century was a fertile breeding ground for atheistic ideas because of the corrupt relationship of the Catholic Church with the French nobility. They both lived luxurious and extravagant lifestyles based on forced taxes exacted on peasants and workers. This led to a great deal of resentment and cynicism against religion and the ruling classes, factors involved in the events leading up to the revolution of 1789.

Atheism became more widespread when it started to permeate popular literature because novels reach a much wider and more middle and low-brow audience than philosophical treatises.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was clearly influenced by Baron D'Holbach and in his most famous book Madame Bovary had one of his characters, the pharmacist Homais, say the following: "I can't believe in an old boy of a God who takes walks in his garden with a cane in his hand, who puts his friends in the belly of whales, dies uttering a cry, and rises again at the end of three days; things absurd in themselves, and completely opposed, moreover, to all physical laws, which proves to us, by the way, that priests have always wallowed in ignorance, in which they would be glad to engulf the people with them." Later on, Homais debates the local priest and urges him to read Voltaire and D'Holbach. It should be not surprising that Flaubert was criticized for his writings, on the grounds of immorality and impiety.

Another French writer Emile Zola (1840-1902) is quoted as saying: "Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest."

These ideas spread across the channel to England and influenced the climate in which Charles Darwin worked, as I will discuss in the next posting.

September 04, 2007

Reflections on the Harry Potter books (no spoilers)

I read the last book in the Harry Potter series Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows about a week after it was released. It was necessary that I read it soon because I am surrounded by people who are die-hard Potter fans and they could not talk freely about it in my presence until I had done so.

This was a nice quality about true Harry Potter aficionados They tend to be very scrupulous about not wanting to spoil other people's fun, and carefully avoid saying anything that might give the ending away. So even though I surf the web and read a lot of websites, I found it easy to avoid accidentally tripping into a site that had spoilers. Of course, very shortly people who have not read the book or do not care for the series or even actually hate it will learn what happened and will not hesitate to reveal the ending, thinking it silly to treat it with such care. Such people do not really understand the wonder that is in books.

The whole Harry Potter phenomenon has been curious. Children in general have loved the books, but the adult reaction has spread across the board. Many loved the books as much as children did. There were, of course, those religious people who objected to the books on the grounds that it promoted witchcraft. There were also those who did not themselves read them but thought that having children read long books was a good thing. Meanwhile some book snobs sneered that the Potter books were just childish escapism and that children would be better off reading Wuthering Heights or other elevated forms of literature.

Although I am not one who went to the extent of dressing up as a wizard and attending parties, I found all that hype to be harmless fun and cannot understand those who frowned on it as overblown. What can be so bad about people getting highly involved with books and having fun with them? I also found it hard to sympathize with those adults who measured the value of the series based on whether it encouraged reading in general. Some praised the books because they felt it provided a doorway for children to enter the world of literature. Others said that it had a negative effect and pointed to some evidence that said that Potter fans were not moving on to read other books because they did not have the same appeal.

I find this debate to be silly. Why must the value of books be measured by whether they serve any important function? Why can't we just enjoy them just for their own sake? Clearly many, many people obtained a great deal of enjoyment from the books and that should be enough. Maybe the books encouraged them to tackle Beowulf next or maybe they went back to playing video games. Why should that influence our judgment of the books?

As for the books themselves, some people complained about the occasional uneven pacing where there seemed to be long stretches of time when little or nothing happened. This was especially true in the very last book. This was probably due to the books being firmly in the genre of British boarding school literature. In that genre, the stories follow two complementary schedules. One format is situated in the school or its environs and invariably starts with the beginning of the school year and the children arriving at the school from all over the country, the adventure beginning soon after, and ending just in time near the end of the school year when all the children disperse for the summer holidays.

The other schedule arises because the action is situated in a town and begins with children arriving home from boarding schools for the summer holidays, having an adventure whose end coincides with the end of summer and everyone then dispersing to their various schools for the new year.

J. K. Rowling follows the first schedule and this formula enforces a fairly rigid timetable on the adventure as she has to make sure that the plot is stretched out over nine months or so, and this requires a certain amount of treading water where the characters just fill in the time.

In the early books the reader does not notice this because there is a lot of character development, details about boarding school life, studying for tests, quidditch matches, and side plots that can be woven into the story, providing some humor as well. But in later books, as the emphasis shifted to the more serious and direct confrontation between the Voldemort and Potter sides, filling in the time gaps became more difficult although Rowling's skill as a writer managed to hide it well most of the time.

The first time the stretching out showed for me was in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in which the central action involved the Triwizard tournament. This involved teams from three different schools, two of whom sent a large contingent to Hogwarts for it. The tournament involved just three events that individually lasted at most a few hours each, and realistically the whole thing could have been completed over a weekend (or at most a few days) like most interschool tournaments, But in the book there were long intervals between the events that lasted months. Although accommodating a huge number of visitors at Hogwarts for so long a time would have been unrealistic, no satisfactory explanation was given as to why this was necessary.

These are minor quibbles but may help to explain why in Deathly Hallows, the middle section had our hero and his friends wandering around in the woods with no clearly discernible purpose. Although compressing the time would have tightened the pacing, that would have resulted in the adventure ending before Christmas, something that Rowling presumably felt she had to avoid.

All in all, this was a very good series of books. Rowling handled emotions well, dealing with tragedy and death without being maudlin, with love without being sappy, and drawing moral lessons without being preachy.

September 03, 2007

Shafars and Brights

(Today being the Labor Day holiday, I am reposting an item from July 21, 2005, edited and updated.)

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for "shafars" (an acronym he has coined that stands as an umbrella term for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have started a similar effort, which has caught on more than Smith's, to have people identify themselves as "brights". Who or what is a "bright"? The bright website says that "a bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview; a bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements; and the ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview." Clearly shafars and brights are almost synonymous.

Smith playfully refers to the "faith" of shafarism and says that "Shafars are 850 million people around the globe and at least 20 million at home who are ignored, insulted, or commonly considered less worthy than those who adhere to faiths based on mythology and folklore rather than on logic, empiricism, verifiable history, and science." He goes on:

As far as the government and the media are concerned, the world's fourth largest belief system doesn't exist. In number of adherents it's behind Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but ahead of Hinduism. Globally it's 85% the size of Catholicism and in America just a little smaller than Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans put together. Perhaps most astoundingly, given today's politics, in the U.S. it is roughly the size of the Southern Baptist congregation.

Its leaders, however, are not invited to open Senate sessions. Our politicians do not quote them and our news shows do not interview them. And while it is a sin, if not a crime, to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, disparaging this faith is not only permitted, it is publicly encouraged.

He argues that the overtly religious are given prominence in the media out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Further, omnipresent evocations of American religiosity ignore some basic facts. Such as the Harris poll that shows about half of Americans go to church only a few times a year or never. In other words, they are at best what is known in some Latin American countries as navi-pascuas, attending only at Christmas and Easter. And among these, one reasonably suspects, are numerous closet shafars, silenced by the overwhelming suppression of skepticism and disbelief. In fact, the same poll found that 21% of Catholics and 52% of Jews either don't believe in God or are not certain that God exists.

Such facts are blatantly ignored by a media which happily assigns absurdly contradictory roles to God in stories such as the recent shootings in Atlanta. In that case one was led to believe that religious faith saved the hostage, even though the abductor professed belief in the same almighty, as presumably did at least some of those killed by the perpetrator. But who needs journalistic objectivity when such cliches are so handy?

Smith makes the important point that there is nothing intrinsically virtuous about being a shafar. "None of which is to say that mythology and folklore are necessarily evil or that the non-religious necessarily earn morality by their skepticism. I'd take a progressive cardinal over Vladimir Putin any day. The thoughtfully religious, expressing their faith through works of decency and kindness, are far more useful, interesting and enjoyable than lazy, narcissistic rationalists."

But the key point is that there is no reason to give the leaders of traditional faiths any more respect than anyone else when they make pronouncements on public policy. As long as they stick to their pastoral and spiritual roles, they can enjoy the benefits of being treated deferentially by their congregants. But if they want to step into the political arena they should expect to receive the same amount of slapping around that any politician or (for that matter) you or I can expect. This is something that seems to be lost on our media who treat the statements of people like Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc. with an exaggerated deference, even when they say things that are outrageous.

For example, in a program on the Christian Broadcast Network just after the events of September 11, 2001, Falwell and Robertson suggested that the events were God's punishment on America for the sins of its usual suspects, especially the gays, abortion rights supporters, and the shafars. Falwell said:

"The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen."

Robertson said, "I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system."

Falwell and Robertson can think what they want and say what they want on their own media outlets. The question is why the rest of the media take people who have such bizarre views seriously and invite them over and over again to give the "religious" perspective on political matters, and treat them with excessive deference.

As Smith says:

If the Pope wants to tell Africans not to use condoms, then he has left religion and deserves no more respect than George Bush or Bill Clinton. If Jews encourage Israel to suppress the Palestinians then they can't label as anti-Semitic those who note the parallels to South Africa. And if the Anglican church wants to perpetuate a second class status for gays, then we should give the Archbishop of Canterbury no more honor than Tom DeLay.

In other words, if you want to pray and believe, fine. But to put a folkloric account of our beginnings on the same plain as massive scientific research is not a sign of faith but of ignorance or delusion. And if you want to play politics you've got to fight by its rules and not hide under a sacred shield.

Smith also makes an important point about the different standards that are applied to different groups.

After all, is it worse to be anti-Catholic than anti-African? Is it worse to be anti-Semitic than to be anti-Arab? Is it worse to be anti-Anglican than anti-gay? Our culture encourages a hierarchy of antipathies which instead of eliminating prejudices merely divides them into the acceptable and the rejected. Part of the organization of some 'organized' religion has been to make itself sacred while the devil takes the rest of the world.

Smith's essay is thought provoking. You should take a look at the whole thing.