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Entries for December 2007

December 31, 2007

Praying for other people's souls

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

After I published an op-ed on intelligent design in the Plain Dealer following the Dover case, I was woken up at 5:30am the next day by someone who had clearly disliked my article. The point of his call was to tell me to read some book (presumably in favor of intelligent design) and he proceeded to spell out the name and the author. I interrupted to ask him if he knew what time it was and he replied "I can only pray for your soul."

When people say they are praying for someone else's soul, what they really mean depends on the context. When friends and members of my family say it, they really do mean it and are worried that my atheism is going to bring me to a bad end. I am touched by their concern and appreciate the thought.

But when someone who is obviously annoyed with you or disagrees with you says it, then you know it is insincere. When such people say it, what I think they are really saying is "I can't wait for judgment day when I can see you rot in hell and gloat over you." But because such people feel the need to preserve a publicly pious face, they sanctimoniously say "I will pray for your soul" instead.

Another thing that puzzles me is when you tell people that you are an atheist and they try to convince you that you are wrong using the Bible as evidence. What's the point? The Bible can only be used to debate points between people who accept its central premise that it is the word of god. Using it to argue with an unbeliever makes as much sense as appealing to the Book of Mormon.

So here's my advice to such religious people who do such things, in the unlikely event that they are reading this blog.

If someone says that they do not believe in god, quoting Biblical passages is not going to get you anywhere. Worse, that person will think that your belief has led you to lose your grip on the nature of rational argument. Competing philosophies cannot be resolved by using the tenets of one of the competitors, but must always appeal to common, mutually agreed upon principles.

Similarly, if someone annoys you because of their disbelief in your particular version of god, do not expect to get any appreciation when you say that you are praying for their soul. If that person is an atheist, he or she will probably laugh at you (internally if they are polite people) for saying this, because atheists don't think they have an immortal soul, remember? And if that person is religious but belongs to another sect, he or she may be offended at the implication that you are tighter with god than they are and have some sort of say in what happens to their soul. Nobody likes a "holier than thou" attitude. Just ask the Pharisees, if you can find one in your neighborhood. Or better still, ask Pat Robertson.

POST SCRIPT: John Edwards

Steven Zunes, a progressive rofessor of political science whose does careful analyses, looks the policies of John Edwards. He finds him to be progressive on domestic issues but with troubling positions on foreign affairs. He concludes:

[A] John Edwards administration would be a real improvement over the administration of George W. Bush in the foreign policy realm, but it would clearly not be as progressive as many of his supporters would hope for.

Since first entering politics less than a decade ago, Edwards has greatly deepened his understanding of important policy issues and has moved to the left on his domestic agenda. His learning curve on foreign policy matters has thus far not been as impressive, but could potentially improve as well if, and only if, Democrats at the grass roots demand it.

Zunes' conclusions resonate with mine. His full article is well worth reading.

POST SCRIPT: Is John Edwards progressive?

Stephen Zunes, a progressive professor of political science whose does thoughtful analyses of many issues, looks the policies of John Edwards. He finds him to be progressive on domestic issues but with troubling positions on foreign affairs. He concludes:

[A] John Edwards administration would be a real improvement over the administration of George W. Bush in the foreign policy realm, but it would clearly not be as progressive as many of his supporters would hope for.

Since first entering politics less than a decade ago, Edwards has greatly deepened his understanding of important policy issues and has moved to the left on his domestic agenda. His learning curve on foreign policy matters has thus far not been as impressive, but could potentially improve as well if, and only if, Democrats at the grass roots demand it.

Zunes' conclusions resonate with mine. His full article is well worth reading.

December 28, 2007

Should atheists "come out"? -2

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Some time ago, I posed the question on whether atheists should "come out." I was reminded of this recently when I was involved in a discussion some time ago on the topic of whether atheists should 'come out of the closet.' The implication of the question was that stating openly that was one was an atheist could have negative repercussions on one's work and family and social life, the way that being openly gay could. Of course, no one was suggesting that atheists experience anything close to the repression and harassment that gays experience. But it was clear that many people in the group kept their atheistic beliefs private for fear of negative consequences.

I was surprised by this because I have not personally felt any negative consequences. But this may be that the university setting in which I work is generally more accepting of heterodox views than the community at large.

But the interesting point that arose was that many of the people who hid their atheist beliefs said that it would be much more socially acceptable in America to say they were Hindus or Jews or Buddhists than to say that they were atheists. Despite the current anti-Islam sentiment in the US, even saying one was a Muslim was seen as being less discomfiting to the listener than being an atheist.

Why is this? Why would atheism arouse stronger negative feelings than belonging to a completely different religion? And it is not just in the US that this happens. I recall during the first Gulf war in 1991, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was captured by some Islamic group but was subsequently released unharmed. He said that during his captivity his captors asked him whether he was a Jew and he acknowledged it. Simon said he felt that the fact that he was religious, a 'man of the Book,' made it safer for him than if he had said he was an atheist.

In the comments to the discussion on atheists coming out, someone made a very enlightening remark. He said that he recalled seeing the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the militant atheist who was responsible for the case that resulted in school-sponsored prayer being outlawed from public schools, on TV talk shows. He said she would love to get the audience all worked up and hissing at her with her provocative statements. Then she would tell them "You hate me because I am the embodiment of all your doubts."

That makes sense. All religions depend on faith, the willful act of belief in something that cannot be discerned. Faith implies belief in the absence of, and counter to, evidence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the 'right' faith and the other person's is the 'wrong' one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of that faith.

The greater challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, that brings them face to face with their own doubts and that can be much more disconcerting.

POST SCRIPT: Follow up by Austin Cline

Austin Cline picked up on the above original post that appeared on January 18, 2006 and added an interesting coda at his website About atheism. He said:

This is very similar to something George Smith wrote:

In Christianity doubt stands opposed not to certainty per se, but to faith. To have faith, in a religious context, is to have absolute confidence in God and to trust his revelations unconditionally. Thus, for the Christian to be uncertain of a divine revelation is bad enough, but to doubt that revelation is incomparably worse, because the latter implies a readiness to criticize that the former does not. ... In short, for the Christian to doubt the truth of a purported revelation is potentially to challenge the authority of the infallible God in whom she believes. It is therefore religious doubt, not atheistic disbelief, that constitutes the greatest threat to orthodox beliefs, because doubt threatens to undermine a belief system from within.

I wonder if this is also one reason why so many Christians insist that atheism is a faith? If, as Singham writes, faith is less threatening than doubt, then “atheism as a faith” can be dismissed more readily than “atheism as a challenge, a question, and a doubt.” I don’t think it likely that many, if any, Christians actually think about the issue in these terms, but this doesn’t mean that the connection isn’t being made unconsciously.

December 27, 2007

Should atheists "come out"?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In a previous posting, I suggested that people tend to have a negative view of atheism. In his blog essay Sam Harris provides support for this view, saying that "More than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God."

Possible reasons for this dislike were discussed earlier but here I want to focus on what, if anything, should be done about it.

One option is to just ignore it. After all, why should atheists care what other people think of them? But this ignores the fact that if atheists allow themselves to be defined by others in negative terms and do nothing about it, they allow the negative portrayals of them to dominate public consciousness.

Another option is for atheists to learn from the steady way that gay people have won increasing acceptance. This has partly come about because gays are "coming out" more to their families and friends and co-workers. They are becoming more visible in everyday life and are being seen as ordinary people. Famous actors are revealing themselves as gay without it being career suicide and gay characters are appearing in films and plays and on television, without their gayness being necessary to the storyline. The fact that they are gay is just incidental.

Richard Dawkins suggests that atheists should also "come out", so that others can see that we are in fact numerous and everywhere and that life goes on nonetheless. Of course, no one would dream of suggesting that atheists encounter discrimination and vilification on the scale that gay people still face. I suspect that most atheists don't "come out" because they don't give much thought to religious matters and when they do, view religion as a private matter and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Atheists may think that "coming out" in any self-conscious way is a silly thing to do and so "coming out" in the way Dawkins suggests will be awkward.

But perhaps if the opportunity arises where one can make it known in a natural way, then one should do so. I, for example, have realized that I was an atheist for about twenty years but felt no compunction to make it publicly known. It is only with this blog that I have really publicly stated it, and that was because it seemed relevant to some of the postings. I used to feel religion is not something that one should make a big deal out of, one way or the other, although nowadays I feel that atheists should be more vocal in their opposition to the increasing encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

"Coming out" might also be a source of encouragement to those who are toying with the idea that they are atheists but hesitate to say so publicly because they feel that being an atheist is somehow reprehensible and will result in them being isolated.

What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more public statements questioning the fundamentals of religion, so what Dawkins is advocating may be already happening organically. For example, take this article by Justin Cartwright in the British newspaper Guardian (which I got via onegoodmove). I am quoting it at length because it articulates the atheistic point well but you should read the full article for yourself.

Near the end of his life, [philosopher and historian] Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: "As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken."

It's time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim "scholars", people who believe that the Qur'an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point.
. . .
It follows that I believe we have to acknowledge happily that ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely that we should as a nation distance ourselves from religious explanations.
. . .
What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society.

And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has "some cosmic, all-embracing libretto", the better.

The next frontier will be popular culture. Since I do not watch much television, I am not sure to what extent programs that have religious themes have atheist characters. The only one I know of is House. But if we do reach the stage where atheists are portrayed as just regular people whose lack of religious belief is incidental to who they are, then we would have reached a significant milestone.

POST SCRIPT: Review of Expelled

In my series on evolution and law From Scopes to Dover, I mentioned the documentary titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that implies that scientists are conspiring to deny intelligent design ideas a fair hearing.

Dan Whipple of Colorado Confidential attended a preview of the film and has written a review.

December 26, 2007

Should scientists try to accommodate religion?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Within the scientific community, there are two groups, those who are religious and who hold to the minimal scientific requirement of methodological naturalism, and those who go beyond that and are also philosophical naturalists, and thus atheists/agnostics or more generally "shafars". (For definitions of the two kinds of naturalism, see here).

As I have said earlier, as far as the scientific community goes, no one really cares whether their colleagues are religious or not when it comes to evaluating their science. But clearly this question matters when science spills into the political-religious arena, as is the case with the teaching of so-called intelligent design creationism (IDC).

Some well-known religious scientists are biologists Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, and Francisco Ayala. Since they are also opponents of IDC, they are frequently brought forward to counter IDC arguments since they embody counterevidence to IDC advocate charges that supporters of evolution are necessarily atheists.

Scientists who are also philosophical naturalists have generally not been prominent in the IDC debate, or have had their atheistic/agnostic views downplayed. This may be because of the political-religious climate in the US that has led to a strategy of not alienating those religious people who also oppose IDC. As Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, says: "Because it is taboo to criticize a person's religious beliefs, political debate over questions of public policy (stem-cell research, the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia, obscenity and free speech, gay marriage, etc.) generally gets framed in terms appropriate to a theocracy."

Harris argues that this is not a good strategy. "While understandable, I believe that such scruples are now misplaced. The Trojan Horse has passed the innermost gates of the city, and scary religious imbeciles are now spilling out." As I said in the previous post, a general awareness that this is what is happening is sinking in. He goes on:

The issue is not, as ID advocates allege, whether science can "rule out" the existence of the biblical God. There are an infinite number of ludicrous ideas that science could not "rule out," but which no sensible person would entertain. The issue is whether there is any good reason to believe the sorts of things that religious dogmatists believe - that God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings; that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception (and, therefore, that blastocysts are the moral equivalents of persons); etc. There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone."

Harris' views have received enthusiastic support from Richard Dawkins, a prominent neo-Darwinian and atheist who has long criticized what he sees as the attempts by the late Stephen Jay Gould and others to accommodate religious sensibilities and downplay the irrationality of religious beliefs for fear of causing offense and creating an anti-science backlash. He thinks that tiptoeing around religious beliefs simply strengthens the hand of those who wish to undermine science.

As I said earlier, in pursuing scientific questions scientists do not care about the religious views of scientists. But when confronting the challenge of IDC and its young Earth adherents, should scientists who are philosophical naturalists stay out of the picture and leave it to only the religious methodological naturalists to combat IDC ideas, since the IDC people love to portray all scientists as atheists? Or should philosophical naturalists not feel hesitant to also challenge IDC, but from an atheistic position, and thus risk confusing the political struggle?

My personal view is that atheists should be fully involved and not keep quiet because of short term political needs.

POST SCRIPT: Another villager against Huckabee

Another Republican Villager (a former aide to Bush who calls himself a political conservative and evangelical Christian) suddenly discovers, in the light of Huckabee's ascendancy, the virtues of the separation of church and state. He goes to comical lengths to explain why Bush's playing of the Jesus card is good while Huckabee's more forthright religiosity is bad.

Whiskey Fire shares my amusement at these contortions.

December 25, 2007

Reason's Greetings!

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have mossed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

I hope all this blog's readers have a pleasant and safe holiday season. For today's holiday, here are three of my favorite seasonally appropriate Rowan Atkinson video clips.

On Jesus' miracles:

On The General Synod's Life of Christ:

On hell:


December 24, 2007

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited if necessary. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.

Meanwhile, I would like to wish all this blog's readers Reason's Greetings (with thanks to Norm for that coinage). Thank you for reading.)

As it is for most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.

But atheists have no organization to support and keep alive with membership dues. We have no special book or building or tradition to uphold and maintain. You will never find atheists going from door to door spreading the lack of the Word.

This raises an interesting question. Should atheists be concerned about religious symbolism in the public sphere such as placing nativity scenes on government property at Christmas or placing tablets of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, both of which have been the subjects of heated legal struggles involving interpretations of the First Amendment to the constitution? If those symbols mean nothing to us, why should we care where they appear?

In a purely intellectual sense, the answer is that atheists (and other secularists) should not care. Since for the atheist the nativity scene has as little meaning as any other barnyard scene, and the Ten Commandments have as much moral force as any of Dave Letterman's top ten lists, why should these things bother us? Perhaps we should just let these things go and avoid all the nasty legal fights.

Some people have advocated just this approach. Rather than fighting for 100% separation of church and state, they suggest that we should compromise on some matters. That way we can avoid the divisiveness of legal battles and also prevent the portrayal of atheists as mean-spirited people who are trying to obstruct other people from showing their devotion to their religion. If we had (say) 90% separation of church and state, wouldn't that be worth it in order to stop the acrimony? Bloggers Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum present arguments in favor of this view, and it does have a certain appeal, especially for people who prefer to avoid confrontations and have a live-and-let-live philosophy.

But this approach rests on a critical assumption that has not been tested and is very likely to be false. This assumption is that the religious community that is pushing for the inclusion of religious symbolism in the public sphere has a limited set of goals (like the few items given above) and that they will stop pushing once they have achieved them. This may also be the assumption of those members of non-Christian religions in the US who wish to have cordial relations with Christians and thus end up siding with them on the religious symbolism question.

But there is good reason to believe that the people who are pushing most hard for the inclusion of religious symbolism actually want a lot more than a few tokens of Christian presence in the public sphere. They actually want a country that is run on "Christian" principles (for the reason for the quote marks, see here.) For them, securing a breach in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment for seemingly harmless symbolism is just the overture to eventually have their version of religion completely integrated with public and civic life. This is similar to the "Wedge strategy" using so-called intelligent design creationism (IDC). IDC advocates see its inclusion in the science curriculum as the first stage in replacing evolution altogether and bringing god back into the schools.

Digby, the author of the blog Hullabaloo, argues that although she also does not really care about the ten commandments and so on, she thinks that the compromise strategy is a bad idea. She gives excellent counter-arguments to those of Yglesias and Drum and also provides some good links on this topic. Check out both sides. Although temperamentally I am sympathetic to Yglesias's and Drum's aversion to these kinds of conflicts, I think Digby clearly wins the debate.

The idea of peaceful coexistence on the religious symbolism issue, much as it appeals to people who don't enjoy the acrimony that comes with conflicts over principle, may be simply unworkable in practice.

POST SCRIPT: Huckabee and the Villagers

Although "Huckabee and the Villagers" sounds like the name of a music group, the title actually reflects the fact that the thesis of my last two posts on why the Villagers dislike people like Mike Huckabee has now received support from Huckabee himself, who says:

There is a level of elitism that has existed, the chattering class if you will who lives in that corridor between Washington and Wall Street and they sort of live in their protected world, and frankly for a number of years many of them thought of people like me - whether it was because we were evangelicals or because maybe we were out from the middle of America. They were polite to us. They were more than happy for us to come to the rallies and stand in lines for hours to cheer on the candidates, appreciated us putting up the yard signs, going out and putting out the cards on peoples doors and making phone calls to the phone banks and - really appreciated all of our votes. But when they got elected, behind closed doors, they would laugh at us and speak with scorn and derision that we were, as one article I think once said "the easily led." So there's been almost this sort of, it's okay if you guys get a seat on the bus, but don't ever think about telling us where the bus is going to go.
. . .
But you know what's happening, my campaign is now, a person has bubbled up - not from the chattering class. I've never been their favorite. I wasn't their pick. I wasn't the one they early on said "Well he has the money, and he has the name and the ancestry." What we have in this country is this growing sense of tension where there are people would just as soon, guys like me, just continue to support candidates and make sure they get elected. But we don't really want to have to hear from guys like me after elections - and now that we're actually, potentially going to be the nominee - it's making some folks uncomfortable 'cause they don't know what we're going to do.

(Thanks to Kevin Drum.)

Is this the start of open warfare between the Villagers and the people who have been pandered and condescended to by them all these years?

December 21, 2007

Meet the Villagers-2: The current elections

In the current race for the presidency, it has become clear that among the candidates who might be suitable, the Villagers are supporting Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democratic side and Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain on the Republican side. All of them have made the proper obeisance to the Village gods.

The Villagers do not like any real suspense in elections (uncertainty is always bad for business) so the sooner the race settles down to two people out of that list of suitable candidates, the better they will like it. Then they can sit back and enjoy the show that is put on for the rest of us, in which the Villager-approved Democratic nominee takes on the Villager-approved Republican nominee, with the media treating it as a major conflict between very different ideologies, when all it actually boils down to are differences on issues (abortion, gay rights, the Ten Commandments, immigration, and the like) that the Villagers want people to talk about but not really do anything. All the hype is just meant to get us non-Villagers excited and think that we are really involved in making a momentous decision. Again, a parallel can be found with what magicians like Penn and Teller do. In many tricks, by the time the audience member makes what seems like a free choice of a card or whatever, the trick is already over and the outcome determined and the audience member does not realize that he or she has been conned.

The Villagers like the outcome determined so well in advance that even candidates who might be acceptable to them are marginalized early. This is what likely happened to people like Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson (for the Democrats) and Fred Thompson (for the Republicans). The Villagers also tend to not want people who might be suitable on the issues they really care about but seem to be too passionately and genuinely devoted to causes that are not on the pro-business or pro-war agenda. Such candidates, in their zeal, may inadvertently do things that upset the core agenda of the Villagers. This may be why they have also marginalized Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, whose harsh xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric must also grate on the cosmopolitans who make up the Village, who like having abundant and cheap labor because it drives down wages in general and increases profits for businesses. It also doesn't hurt to have cheap labor to take care of their lawns and mansions. (Tom Tancredo has apparently decided to drop out of the race, surprising many people who had not known he was even in the race. Oh, Tom, we hardly knew ye!)

Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, and Ron Paul are definitely disliked by the Villagers, which is why they are sometimes not even invited to appear in the media-sponsored debates, since the big media outlets have their antennae tuned to pick up the Villagers' cues. Kucinich has a long history of going against the interests of big business and his call for a single-payer health care system that would eliminate the huge health insurance industry and reduce the vast profits of the drug industry is more than enough to disqualify him. The Villagers absolutely detest Ron Paul for his paleo-conservative/libertarian stances opposing the war and torture and a host of other Village-approved policies, and because of his constant references to the importance of liberties enshrined in that dangerously subversive document, the US Constitution. Another big problem with Paul is that he actually takes seriously the idea of making government smaller. The Villagers attitude is to just talk about making government smaller as a rhetorical ploy but actually use it to serve their particular needs even if that means making it bigger. They would like to see Paul ignored and disappear but this is proving to be difficult to achieve because he keeps getting loud applause at the Republican debates and good internet coverage, and is thus able to raise remarkable sums of money. But Kucinich and Paul have not caused any panic (yet) because their poll numbers are low. If their numbers start to rise precipitously (which is more likely to happen with Paul than Kucinich), watch for the knives to come out.

Currently it is Mike Huckabee that is freaking out the Villagers for reasons I discussed in an earlier post. His beliefs are not acceptable to the urbane sophisticates. He seems to actually believe in some of the crazy things that the Bible teaches, and is not just paying lip-service to them, which is the Villager-approved approach. David Corn over at Mother Jones lists all the bizarre and hateful things that Huckabee has said in the recent past. His sudden leap into the lead in polls is causing consternation amongst the Villagers and we see almost a panic mode in the attempts to bring him down.

Huckabee and his supporters don't seem to realize that the Villagers weren't really serious about putting god back into schools or hating gays or keeping women in the kitchen or completely banning abortions or expelling all immigrants. You were supposed to play "dog-whistle politics": to hint with a straight face at such things using code-words so that those who really care about such things would pick up the cues on their carefully tuned dog-whistle frequency. These issues were just supposed to be bones thrown to the yokels to keep them loyal and happy and vote for your side. But Huckabee seems to actually believe them. Even worse, his positions on some economic issues (based on vague notions of Christian charity) go against Village interests.

James Walcott brutally captured the contempt with which Villagers like op-ed writer Charles Krauthammer hold the actual voters who they depend upon. I too discussed a similar example that showed how the Village media manipulates election coverage to get the finalists they want by deciding what things are worth reporting on and, more importantly, to repeatedly dwell on. As Jonathan Schwarz says: "If you're not part of their little charmed circle, believe me, all your worst suspicions about them are true. They do think you're stupid. They do lie to you. They do hate and fear you. Most importantly, they think you can't be trusted with the things they know—because if you did know them, you'd go nuts and break America."

On the Democratic side, the potentially disturbing candidate for the Villagers is John Edwards, for different reasons than for Huckabee. On the surface, he might seem to be suitable to become a Villager. He is an urban sophisticate, rich and well-educated, a former US Senator and even a vice-presidential candidate. But while his background may have been acceptable initially (and his policies are not really all that radical) his recent strong rhetorical attacks on the business (and especially health care) lobby and his constant reference to the injustice of having 'two Americas' divided into rich and poor, are too frightening for the Villagers, who may worry that he is not be as reliably acquiescent as a Clinton or an Obama. They probably fear that he might be another Gary Hart, a smart man with a populist bent and a streak of independence, without the mistress weakness that can be used against him. He might or might not be dangerous to Village interests but the Villagers never take risks and they will try and make sure he does not win. Clinton and Obama are the 'safe' choices, as far the Villagers are concerned.

This is how politics in the US currently works. It is not a pretty sight. It has very little to do with democracy of the kind we might romanticize about and is idealized in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. What we really have is an oligarchy wrapped up in the trappings of democracy.

Thomas Jefferson once said:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.

It is not hard to guess into which category the Villagers fall.

The two parties identified by Jefferson are the ones that we should focus on, not Democrats-Republicans or liberal-conservative or left-right. The real political battles we should be fighting are those devoted to wresting power away from the first party and giving it to the second.

Otherwise we will have in perpetuity the current state of American democracy: Government of the Villagers, by the Villagers, and for the Villagers.

POST SCRIPT: Meet the Christianisty candidate

If the Villagers manage to successfully torpedo the Huckabee insurgency, religious voters can always turn to an even more god-loving candidate in '08: Jackie Broyles.

December 20, 2007

Meet the Villagers-1: How the American political system really works

It is hard to understand American politics without having a clear idea about the nature of how power is controlled and the important decisions made.

The first step to understanding is to not take seriously divisions along the lines of Democrat-Republican or liberal-conservative or left-right. While such terms may be useful in limited contexts, they are mostly used to distract people from seeing the real action, similar to the way that magicians Penn and Teller distract you without you even realizing it so that you do not see how the trick is really done. A good example of issues that are meant to distract was the infamous Terri Schiavo affair. (This is why I always say that it is not the things that politicians strongly disagree about to which we should pay close attention but the things that they agree on.)

The next step in understanding American politics is to realize that it is essentially a one-party political system consisting of the Big Business and War Party that is split up into two factions that differ on some social issues that do not really affect the profits of big companies or the wealth of the elites. These two factions are fluid, depending on the issue, and are the ones that are usually identified with the conventional dividing labels listed above.

But it is another division that is most important. This consists of those who belong to a group of insiders who really run the country and decide who they will allow to run for the highest offices. At its core, this group consists of the heads of major corporations and their boards and other wealthy elites. This group roughly corresponds to what President Eisenhower spoke about when he warned people about the dangers posed by the power of what he labeled the 'military-industrial complex'. The decline of the industrial manufacturing base in the US and the rise in importance of new centers of wealth means that this group is now more appropriately labeled the 'military-finance-health' complex.

This core group's agenda is transmitted and implemented by a secondary group which consist of key political leaders, some media figures (publishers and editors at the major newspapers and national TV outlets), the bigger think tanks, and opinion makers such as well-known political op-ed writers and newscasters (Tim Russert, Jim Lehrer, Cokie Roberts, George Will, David Broder, Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen, etc.). This fairly extensive network of connected people socialize amongst themselves and thus informally arrive at a rough consensus of who they feel are "worthy" of being elected to high office.

It is hard to give a collective name for this group but one that has been floated recently is the "Villagers". (I think the name was invented by Atrios who has a flair for this kind of thing, having already coined the term the 'Friedman Unit'.) Although this group consists of wealthy elites, not the types one normally associates with actual village people, this is an apt name nonetheless because it captures accurately the key mentality of this group: they are tightly knit, clannish, want to keep all resources to themselves, view everyone outside their charmed circle as inferior, and are determined to keep the status quo intact. You can get a good idea of who belongs in the Village by those who are asked to comment on important issues so that they can frame the debate, and the people who appear on the political talk shows and get invited to contribute op-eds.

It is important to note that the Villagers are not a secret conspiracy or cabal. Such groupings are easily exposed. The secret of the Villagers' success is that they act openly. They are a loose network of individuals and groups, all connected by their shared interests and business, political, journalistic, financial, and social dealings that result in them moving in the same circles and thus able to pick up the subtle cues that help them decide who should be in and who should be out. If you look at the network of marriages and other personal relationships alone, you will immediately see how such consensus views could seemingly arise "spontaneously." For example, key Democratic political strategist James Carville and key Republican strategist Mary Matalin are married, as are Alan Greenspan and journalist Andrea Mitchell. Those are just the tip of the iceberg. You and I might wonder how they can keep their political differences out of their personal relationships but that is because we are naïve. They have no real differences. They all serve the same Village interests.

To be considered a "serious" candidate for things like the presidency or any other major elected office, you must get the approval of the Villagers and the way you do that is by giving them the cues that tell them that you know and will abide by the rules that they set. Otherwise you will be marginalized and ridiculed and driven out of the race. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer obtained their present influential positions because they are, or were willing to become, Villagers, which is why it is futile to expect more from them other than some symbolic act from time to time to give the illusion that they are independent agents listening to the will of those who voted them in. The higher people rise in the ranks of elected office, the more likely they are to be Villagers.

Grass-roots political activists sometimes ask in frustration why Reid or Pelosi (both Democrats) don't show more backbone and challenge President Bush on key issues such as the Iraq war or torture or the FISA bill or the budget or other things, even though Bush's ratings are at rock bottom levels, he has no political capital, and is easily headed towards being the worst US president in history. They accuse them of being weak-willed or stupid or outmaneuvered by a clever foe. But such views show that these activists have fallen into the trap of giving these party labels more significance than they deserve. They have not grasped the essential reality that Pelosi and Reid don't challenge Bush on most issues because they don't really disagree with him, even though they might pretend to. They are all serving the Village agenda. They will only do the right thing under severe pressure from the grass roots.

When it comes to elections, the Villagers will only give their stamp of approval to someone who they can definitely rely on to play by the rules that they have created. This means that any serious populist challenge to the interests of big business or the war machine faces huge obstacles to success. The weeding out process to get rid of unsuitable people takes place fairly early in the election process. People who are subordinate to the Villagers, like local newspapers and politicians around the country, take their cues from the Villagers and drum the message of who is worthy of consideration repeatedly into us so that we non-Villagers end up feeling that a vote for an unapproved candidate, even if it is someone we strongly support, is a wasted vote. By the time ordinary citizens like us actually go to the polls to vote in a primary or general election, we have been beaten down to think that we are faced with effectively just one or two "reasonable" candidates. The rest have been deemed "unelectable" or "fringe" by the Village.

The only time in recent history where a probable non-Villager approved candidate went on to win the presidential nomination of a major party was Democrat George McGovern in 1972. But that was because of special circumstances. That election immediately followed the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago where riots erupted and violent clashes occurred between the party bosses and those (especially those opposed to the Vietnam war) who wanted a radical break with the existing insider-controlled system. This resulted in major reforms in the nomination process with the introduction of the primary system to give voters a bigger say in selecting their party candidates. In 1972 the open primary system was too new for the Villagers to figure out how to control it to achieve the results they wanted. Fortunately for the Villagers, McGovern lost the presidential election.

The Villagers quickly learned their lesson and took control of the primary process soon after, to ensure that no one not approved by them even has a chance. They did this by making it necessary for candidates to raise huge sums of money to have a realistic chance of success. The way this is done is by avoiding at all costs mandating that candidates be given free airtime on TV, the way that some other democracies do, even though the TV stations are given access to our public airwaves free of charge on the condition that they serve the public interest. And since getting media exposure is the way to raise money, having the media marginalize a candidate early-on was the surest way to get rid of insurgent campaigns by creating a vicious cycle where negative or no initial media coverage meant low fund-raising which meant less ability to buy coverage. By making candidates have to pay exorbitant amounts for TV advertising, the Village media ensure that only those with strong Villager support have a chance because they can get positive free media coverage to kick start their campaigns.

After the McGovern scare, the next serious challenge to the Villagers' control was Gary Hart in 1988, who also happened to be McGovern's campaign manager in 1972. The Villagers quickly decided that Hart was too risky a bet for them, too unreliable because he had a sharp intelligence coupled with a populist bent and a streak of independence, all of which are signs of someone who might wander off the Village reservation. The media hounds were quickly set on him to make sure that he was drummed out of the race. It is true that Hart did have a sexual skeleton in his closet that was the ostensible cause of his destruction, but if you are a Villager-approved candidate, those things can be overcome, as we saw with Bill Clinton in 1992 (with Gennifer Flowers) and Rudy Giuliani this year (with too many scandals to count). Bill Clinton received the Villager seal of approval via the well-connected Washington socialite, the late Pamela Harriman, who 'interviewed' him early in the process and signaled to her fellow Villagers that Clinton understood how the Village game was to be played. Once in office, Clinton behaved exactly as the Village expected from him, pursuing all the policies that were important to them.

Next: The Village and the current election

POST SCRIPT: Burning the flag in the White House

Penn and Teller appear on The West Wing and show what the Bill of Rights means.

December 19, 2007

The Republican hysteria over Huckabee

As the interminable political primary season drags on, I have to say that the Republican race has proved to be far more interesting than the Democratic one. We have the drama of Mitt Romney trying to fend off unease over the issue of his Mormon religion and worrying about how his switching of positions to pander to the Christianists in the party will play out, serial philanderer Rudy Giuliani having to deal with one sex and money and corruption scandal after another, Ron Paul irritating the rest of them and the media with his constitution-based attacks on war mongering producing a remarkable response for someone considered a nobody, the once great hope Fred Thompson sleepwalking through the primaries, media darling John McCain looking more and more like a has-been, and those lovable scamps Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter (can anyone tell them apart?) falling over themselves in seeing who can hate immigrants the most. As if that was not enough fun, for the last debate they brought in surprise contestant Alan Keyes (yes, Alan Keyes!), an egomaniac of such giant proportions compared to whom even the insufferable Giuliani comes across as modest and self-effacing.

But the latest development is the sudden vaulting into the top tier-ranks of Mike Huckabee. In many ways, he was always a natural to lead the pack because he had, on the surface, few of the negatives associated with the others and all the positives. He was a southerner, a former governor, a Baptist preacher, and has long held the kinds of views that the religious right wants its leaders to have on issues like abortion and gays. He may not have been as hard line as they might have wished on issues like not raising taxes or hating immigrants, or as enthusiastic about supporting the Bush wars and torture that the crazies in his party would like. But these drawbacks were merely matters of degree and one would have thought that given the strong negatives of the other choices that Republican primary voters had, he would have been the one they liked most. So the surprise for me is not his rise in the polls but why it took so long.

But what is really interesting is the reaction to his rise from the power brokers of the Republican Party. They have responded with alarm and brought out the long knives, trying to cut Huckabee down. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum piles on, essentially calling him a moron and even obliquely suggesting Huckabee of being a kindred spirit of Scientologists.

So why all this angst about this southern Bible thumper, who seems to be very similar in background and views to George W. Bush, the president the Washington insiders love, even if he will go down as the worst president in US history and whose current approval ratings are in the sewer?

Kevin Drum at the blog has the best explanation that I have seen so far for this Huckabee hate fest among leading conservatives:

There are a variety of ostensible reasons for this: lack of foreign policy bona fides, too compassionate for their taste, too willing to consider spending money, etc. But I think the real reason is simpler: as with blogosphere conservatives, mainstream conservatives are mostly urban sophisticates with a libertarian bent, not rural evangelicals with a social conservative bent. They're happy to talk up NASCAR and pickup trucks in public, but in real life they mostly couldn't care less about either. Ditto for opposing abortion and the odd bit of gay bashing via proxy. But when it comes to Ten Commandments monuments and end times eschatology, they shiver inside just like any mainstream liberal. The only difference is that usually they keep their shivering to themselves because they want to keep everyone in the big tent happy.

But then along comes Huckabee, and guess what? He's the real deal. Not a guy like George Bush or Ronald Reagan, who talks a soothing game to the snake handlers but then turns around and spends his actual political capital on tax cuts, foreign wars, and deregulating big corporations. Huckabee, it turns out, isn't just giving lip service to evangelicals, he actually believes all that stuff. Among other things, he believes in creationism (really believes), once proposed that AIDS patients should be quarantined, appears to share the traditional evangelical view that Mormonism is a cult, and says (in public!) that homosexuality is sinful. And that's without seeing the text of any of his old sermons, which he (probably wisely) refuses to let the press lay eyes on.

John Cole, a conservative who has watched with dismay the Republican Party pandering to the religious extremists, also lists some of the nasty things that are being said about Huckabee and enjoys a moment of schadenfreude:

I simply can not tell you how much I am enjoying this. The GOP has been pandering to these stupid bastards for years, and every time I pointed it out I was called “anti-Christian” or something or other. Those of us who saw what the party was becoming were told to shut up, that it was good politics.

Enjoy your new GOP, folks. And here is something else to think about - are the evangelicals going to support Romney or Giuliani if you do manage to trash Huckabee enough to secure the nomination for them? Will the eye for an eye crowd learn to forgive and forget? Have fun!

Next: Meet the Villagers: The real political divide in America

POST SCRIPT: Torture

One of the most depressing phenomena of recent times is how so many people who should know better are willing to defend the use of torture, using legalistic quibbling to justify barbaric practices that would have been unhesitatingly condemned if the identities of the torturers and the tortured were switched.

Tom Tomorrow as usual says it most concisely.

December 18, 2007

Collateral damage from the war to defend Christmas

The absurdity of 'defending Christmas' in the US of all places reached a new low when the US House of Representatives actually passed a bill on December 11, 2007 "Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith". (Thanks to Ross for alerting me to this.)

The text of the bill starts by listing all the reasons why Christianity is so wonderful ("contributed greatly to the development of western civilization", yadda, yadda, yadda) and then goes on:

Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives--

(1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;

(2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;

(3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;

(4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;

(5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and

(6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world."

The vote on the bill was 372 in favor, 9 against, 10 voting 'present', and 40 not voting.

Christians around the world can sleep better tonight knowing that the US Congress is working feverishly to respect them as deeply as it is humanly possible.

I do not for a minute think that Bill O'Reilly or the other hypervintilators fear that there is a genuine war on Christmas. It would not surprise me in the least if they themselves were not very religious at all but simply going through the motions. I think the whole issue of claiming that Christianity is under siege is cynically drummed up by urban sophisticates like them because they think that riling up the yahoos and hicks on some emotional hot button issue will keep them in the public eye and makes for good ratings, which is the only thing they really care about.

(Actually Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the sponsor of the above bill, might really believe all this stuff. He is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, if you catch my drift.)

But the tragedy is that the people who get riled up don't realize that this is just a game for O'Reilly and his fellow travelers who laugh all the way to the bank even as they exploit this petty issue. They think that this is real. Witness what happened on a New York subway on December 7.

On Friday, Four Jewish subway riders who wished other people Happy Hanukkah were pelted with anti-Semitic remarks before being beaten, New York police and prosecutors said.
. . .
The four were on a train in Manhattan on Friday night, during the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, when they were approached by a group of 10 people who offered holiday greetings. The victims responded, Happy Hanukkah and were assaulted by the larger group, police said Tuesday.

Another report gives more details of what happened:

The altercation erupted when Adler and his friends said "Happy Chanukah" to a group yelling "Merry Christmas" on the Brooklyn-bound train.

Adler told the New York Post that one of his attackers rolled up his sleeve to display a tattoo of Jesus Christ.

"Happy Chanukah. That's when the Jews killed Jesus," the attacker told Adler.

The assaulting group consisted of ten people aged 19 and 20, with a long career fighting for Christ ahead of them. The only redeeming feature of this story is that a Muslim student on the train sprang to the aid of the Jewish students, although he ended up being beaten too.

Yes, fighting to save Christmas is great fun (and profitable) for those who exploit it as long as people realize that it is not to be taken seriously. But of course, O'Reilly, Gibson, and their ilk cannot be blamed for those morons who don't realize that it is all a big joke can they?

POST SCRIPT: Impeaching Cheney

Congressman Robert Wexler and two other members of the House Judiciary Committee are calling for impeachment hearings on Vice President Cheney. They received over 80,000 signatures on their petition in just four days and are looking for more.

To read about it, go here and to sign the petition go here.

It is this kind of action that is necessary these days to signal support for politicians who are willing to go beyond platitudes so please take the time to check this out and sign if possible.

December 17, 2007

Get your war on Christmas here!

My, how time flies. What with one thing and another, I realized that it is already past mid-December and my fellow atheists and I have forgotten all about starting our annual war on Christmas. I really do apologize. I have had a lot of things on my mind lately but I'll get on it right away.

You know what war I mean. All of us for many years have been plotting secretly in our underground cells with just one goal in mind: to destroy Christianity by undermining the very foundation of that religion: the Christmas holiday. The way we do that is by sending greeting cards or wishing people well with religiously neutral phrases like "Happy Holidays" or "Compliments of the Season" or simply wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill to all, without invoking Jesus or Biblical verses. By using such language our goal was to try and create a time of year when the whole world might be united around the secular ideas of peace and goodwill, anchored by a celebration that originated in a pagan celebration of the winter solstice.

We also try to destroy Christianity by encouraging people to not take part in the traditional orgy of spending vast amounts of money and resources on 'gifts' that have ceased to become gifts in the sense of genuine and spontaneous gestures of affection or response to needs, and have now become the obligatory filling of almost extortion-like expectations which often leads to disappointment and anger and resentment because the gift wasn't good enough or not what was expected or because someone else was given something better.

Another part of the atheist plan to destroy Christmas was to discourage people from gluttonous eating and drinking and to simply spend time socializing with friends and family.

The plan was going along well until it was discovered a few years ago. Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson of Fox News, clever people that they are, saw through our plan. They realized that once people start thinking beyond their own religious tribe and in terms of our common humanity, that was the first dangerous step on the slippery road that led inevitably to humanism, agnosticism, and atheism.

Being manly warriors for god, never braver than when they are facing down imaginary enemies, they started a counter-offensive, wreaking vengeance on those stores and shop clerks who do not use the short list of approved language such as "Merry Christmas" and do not festoon every display and image with the nativity scene and Biblical phrases, such shibboleths being necessary parts of proving that they share warrior Bill's fervor for the Christian god and Jesus.

But is it me or have others also noted that O'Reilly and others seem to have run out of steam on this issue? This year I do not hear the same level of hysteria on their part as in previous years. Are they tired from their strenuous efforts of previous years and handed the baton on to others? Have they declared victory and moved on to other issues that promise better ratings?

Whatever the reason, it looks like the enemies of atheism are weak right now. So this is the time for all of us atheists to increase our efforts in the war on Christmas. Make sure you attend the secret cell meetings to plan our next offensive. You know the time and place. The secret password this week: When the guard at the door says "O'Reilly is a nitwit", you respond "And so also is Gibson."

Be there or be square!

POST SCRIPT: And they thought Harry Potter was bad

As if the religious nuts did not have enough to worry about with all the magic and sorcery in the Harry Potter books, now along comes the film The Golden Compass based on the first book of a fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman, an avowed atheist who views C. S. Lewis' Narnia series as religious bilge.

Thanks to the flap created by the usual religious hyperventilators, I have now heard of a book, film, and author I had not heard of before but is now definitely on my list of films to see.

December 14, 2007

The Israel lobby-3: The tide turns against the lobby?

In the first post in this series, I looked at the main arguments made by John J. Mearsheimer and Steven M. Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy. In the second post, I described how they defined the lobby and how it works. In this last post, I look at how their book has stimulated a closer examination of the work of the lobby and the policies it advocates.

The authors point out that despite the strenuous efforts of the lobby, the US public still generally wants a more even-handed approach to the Middle East but that this wish is ignored by the administration and Congress because of the ability of the lobby to influence actual policymakers. (p. 227)

The authors point out that the lobby does not even represent majority Jewish opinion in the US. Although the lobby played a key role in this country's decision to invade Iraq, surveys show that American Jews are opposed to that plan in even greater numbers than the general population. In 2005, 77% of American Jews were opposed to the Iraq war, compared with 52% of the American public. American Jews play prominent roles in the antiwar movement and in the opposition to the drive to attack Iran, another policy strongly favored by the lobby. In fact, many American Jews have been among those critical of the unconditional support that the US government provides Israel, which they feel has resulted in the Israeli government pursuing policies that are harmful to Israel and unjust towards Palestinians. The authors argue that members of the lobby are influential with the US policy establishment but are out-of-step with the average population of American Jews. (p. 243)

The reason that the lobby seems to be perceived as representing majority Jewish opinion in the US is that alternative Jewish groups that oppose the lobby's politics have had to fight the Israel lobby to make their voices heard. The lobby has been quite successful at silencing dissent within the Jewish community and shutting down even any discussion of the lobby's influence. Thus alternative groups face stiff opposition when they try to organize, often being accused of being anti-Israel, and the lobby strongly canvasses people within the Jewish community to reject those groups and not join them. American Jews who are critical of Israeli government policies are made to feel that they need to keep their criticisms 'inside the family,' that to voice them publicly is to be disloyal to Israel. This has resulted in the Israel lobby being able to give the misleading impression that they speak for most, if not all, American Jews.

For example, the authors point out how Kenneth Roth of the group Human Rights Watch was attacked when his group produced a report critical of Israel's use of cluster bombs in Lebanon. Roth was accused of making a 'blood libel', participating in the 'de-legitimization of Judaism' and employing 'a classic anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews.' This was despite the fact that not only is Roth Jewish but his father was a refugee from Nazi Germany (p. 329).

As Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks says "[W]hat's most troubling about the vitriol directed at Roth and his organization isn't that it's savage, unfounded and fantastical. What's most troubling is that it's typical. Typical, that is, of what anyone rash enough to criticize Israel can expect to encounter. In the United States today, it just isn't possible to have a civil debate about Israel, because any serious criticism of its policies is instantly countered with charges of anti-Semitism." (p. 329)

Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the reason for this swift and almost hysterical response to criticisms of the policies advocated by the lobby is because those policies cannot really withstand open scrutiny. The only way those policies can be implemented is if there is no debate at all either of the policies themselves or of the lobby that is agitating for them. This silencing strategy takes the form of alleging that those who raise such issues are either anti-Semitic or resurrecting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or perpetuating the 'blood libel'. The point of making such allegations is not because they are credible but to shift the debate from the merits of the policies to the motives of the critics of the policy.

But such sweeping broad-brush characterizations of legitimate critics may now be backfiring. This tactic of trying to silence criticism with such rhetorical sledgehammers may have been taken too far. As Mearsheimer and Walt say:

Condemning neo-Nazis or Holocaust deniers is a worthy enterprise, but smearing respected individuals such as Jimmy Carter, Richard Cohen, Tony Kushner, or Tony Judt, or attacking progressive groups like the Union of Concerned Zionists, is something very different and disturbing. The more the lobby's hard-liners attack any and all critics, the more they reveal themselves to be out of step with the broad American commitment to free speech and open discussion. And once virtually any criticism of Israel becomes equated with anti-Semitism, the charge itself threatens to become meaningless. (p. 353)

Times are changing and the role of the lobby has become increasingly scrutinized and alternative voices are springing up. More and more American Jews are getting frustrated at the way the lobby acts as though it speaks for all of them and are looking for ways to voice alternative views. The discussion over the Mearsheimer and Walt book has definitely opened the doors to such a discussion.

For example, Philip Weiss, Tony Karon, Daniel Levy, and M. J. Rosenberg have all called for more open discussions about the role of both the lobby and Israel's policies. Murray Polner in an article titled We Aren’t One: American Jewish Voices for Peace lists a number of writers and groups that are becoming increasingly vocal in their distancing from the activities of the lobby.

It is in Israel that more cogent criticisms of the lobby can be found because the tactics used by the lobby to inhibit debate in the US simply will not work there. Uri Avnery gives a favorable review of the Mearsheimer and Walt book. Akiva Eldar, the chief political columnist and senior analyst for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and co-author of a new book critical of Israeli settlement policy called Lords of the Land: The Settlers and the State of Israel says that the lobby is even out of step with the reality on the ground and says that 70 out of 120 Knesset members want a two-state solution behind the 1967 boundaries but the Israel lobby in the US has strongly opposed this plan, favoring instead settlement policies that are becoming a huge stumbling block to any long-term solution.

Mearsheimer and Walt said that one of their main goals in writing their articles and book was to open up the broader debate on the role of the Israel lobby as a means to creating a more open debate on what US foreign policy should be in the volatile Middle East region.

It seems like they have succeeded.

POST SCRIPT: Mearsheimer on Colbert

One measure of whether a person or an idea has entered the broader culture is when it shows up on The Daily Show and/or The Colbert Report. John Mearsheimer appeared on the latter. It is a typically funny Colbert interview but also pretty good at hitting some of the main points raised in the book.

December 13, 2007

The Israel lobby-2: Who makes up the Israel lobby and how does it work?

In the previous post, I described the main thesis of University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy.

So who or what constitutes the 'Israel lobby'? Well aware that criticism of the Israel lobby will immediately result in the lobby trying to label them as being anti-Semitic, Mearsheimer and Walt go to some lengths to deflect that charge. They point out that it is wrong to identify the Israel lobby as a Jewish lobby. Not only are non-Jews key players in the lobby, the Israel lobby very often pursues policies that are not even supported by a majority of American Jews. They provide statistics and surveys that suggest that substantial majorities of American Jews disagree with many of the policies advocated by the lobby

The authors also take pains to point out that the lobby is not some secretive cabal exercising some sinister power. It functions openly within the framework of American politics, just like the National Rifle Association (NRA), the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the farm lobby, the health industry lobby, or the military lobby.

Similar groups exist to influence US policy towards other nations. In principle, the Israel lobby's work is no different from (say) the Cuban-American lobby. In fact, American politics teems with such lobbying groups, all seeking to sway the administration or Congress to implement policies favorable to them.

The key difference is that the Israel lobby is far more successful in its efforts than these other lobbies that seek to influence US foreign policy, and attempts to highlight its activities and the negative consequences for the US of the policies it promotes are met with such strong and swift criticism that public discussion of its role is muted.

So who comprises the lobby? The authors first say what the lobby is not.

The lobby is not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, and the individuals and groups who make up this broad coalition sometimes disagree on specific policy issues. Not is it some cabal or conspiracy. On the contrary, the organization and individuals who make up the lobby operate out in the open and in the same way that other interest groups do.
. . .
[T]he lobby is not a centralized, hierarchical organization with a defined membership. . .It has a core consisting of organizations whose declared purpose is to encourage the U.S. government and the American public to provide material aid to Israel and to support its government's policies. (p. 112-113)

The authors point out that people who are simply pro-Israel in the sense of those who "support its right to exist, admire its many achievements, want its citizens to enjoy secure and prosperous lives, and believe that the United States should come to Israel's aid if its survival is in danger" are also not part of the Israel lobby simply by virtue of this fact. They say that most Americans, including themselves, fall into that category.

To be considered a member of the Israel lobby requires more than that kind of vague general support. It means that "one has to actively work to move American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. For an organization, this pursuit must be an important part of its mission and consume a substantial percentage of its resources and agenda. For an individual, this means devoting some portion of one's professional or personal life (or in some cases, substantial amounts of money) to influencing U.S. Middle East policy." (p. 114). They argue that "it is the specific political agenda that defines the lobby, not the religious or ethnic identity of those pushing it." (p. 115) The authors point out that while "The bulk of the lobby is comprised of Jewish Americans who are deeply committed to making sure that U.S. foreign policy advances what they believe to be Israel's interests. . .Yet the Israel lobby is not synonymous with America Jewry." (p. 115). They point out that some groups who are very vocal on Israel's behalf, such as the Christian Zionists or Christians United for Israel, are not Jewish.

The authors name those whom they see as clearly part of the lobby. They point to key players in groups such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Christians United for Israel (CUFI), Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Middle East Forum (MEF), and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Some well-known people in those groups are Dennis Ross of WINEP, John Hagee of CUFI, and Martin Indyck of the Brookings Institution.

The authors argue that strong support for the policies advocated by the Israel lobby also come from the group known as the neoconservatives, who have become a very influential part of the lobby because they occupy key posts in the government and the media. Some of these policy makers are named in the book: Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, William Bennett, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey, and David Wurmser.

The authors also name influential people and opinion shapers who are members of the lobby: journalists (the late Robert Bartley, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Bret Stephens, and Norman Podhoretz), academics (Fouad Ajami, Eliot Cohen, Aaron Friedberg, Bernard Lewis, Ruth Wedgwood), and think tank pundits (Max Boot, David Frum, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Robert Kagan, Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, Daniel Pipes, Danielle Pletka, Michael Rubin, Meyrav Wurmser.).

Media critic Eric Alterman wrote in 2002 that the debate among Middle East pundits is "dominated by people who cannot imagine criticizing Israel." He identified fifty-six "columnists and commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification" while only five pundits consistently take a pro-Arab position. (p. 170)

As a result of this largely one-sided view of Middle East politics, the general public in the US has little or no idea of the appalling conditions under which Palestinians in the occupied territories live, and have no sense of the deep injustice felt by them that they have been displaced from their homes and are made to pay dearly for the injustices perpetrated on Jews by European nations. The current construction of the wall that weaves through the occupied territories cruelly splitting Palestinian communities is a shocking thing that would be strongly condemned if it were widely known but largely passes unnoticed in the US. There is little recognition in the US that Israel's treatment of Palestinians "is contrary to widely accepted human rights norms and international law, as well as the principle of national self-determination." (p. 191) "Because most Americans are only dimly aware of the crimes committed against the Palestinians, they see their continued resistance as an irrational desire for vengeance, or as evidence of unwarranted hatred of Jews akin to the anti-Semitism that was endemic in old Europe." (p. 351)

Perhaps the most successful element of the lobby has been its ability to influence members of Congress, by channeling funds and organizing letter-writing campaigns in favor of those who are supportive of the lobby's agenda and against those who oppose them.

The journalist Michael Massing reports that a congressional staffer sympathetic to Israel told him, "We can count on well over half the House – 250 to 300 members – to do reflexively whatever AIPAC wants." Similarly, Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC official who has been indicted for allegedly passing classified government documents to Israel, illustrated AIPAC's power for the New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg by putting a napkin in front of him and saying, "In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin." (p. 10)

This ability of the lobby explains its success in getting congressional policies that favor Israel passed with overwhelming majorities, even when those policies are opposed by the White House. The authors argue that the lobby played a key role in the ill-fated decision to invade Iraq, although they were not the only factor. The book's authors are actually quite sympathetic to George W. Bush, portraying him and Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell as trying occasionally to steer a more balanced course with regard to the Middle East and Palestinian issues but being consistently outmaneuvered by the Israel lobby, whose efforts were often channeled through Dick Cheney's office or the Congressional leadership. Bush, Rice, and Powell come across as having at least some sense that the policies urged by the lobby were harmful to America's own national interest, but unable to change course.

But while the lobby has urged US policymakers to go to war with the enemies of Israel such as Iraq and now are urging war against their other enemies Iran and Syria, they are also wary of public perceptions that such wars are being waged on Israel's behalf because if the wars against Iran and Syria turn out as badly as the Iraq invasion did, then there is a serious risk of a backlash against Israel. (p. 295)

The influence of the lobby was also seen in the passive response by the US government to the tremendous damage wreaked on Lebanon by Israel in 2006, which targeted civilian infrastructure. Not only did the US oppose worldwide calls for an immediate ceasefire, it gave tacit support to the invasion. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made the extraordinary statement that the appalling destruction of Lebanon signaled the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." The US did not protest when the Israelis inexcusably dropped a million cluster bomblets in the last three days leading up to the ceasefire, knowing that the ceasefire was imminent. Such cluster bombs often fail to explode immediately and then remain as deadly traps for people long after hostilities have ended, which is why their use has been condemned. (p. 322)

AIPAC was also responsible for the abandonment of a bill requiring Bush to get Congressional approval before attacking Iran and it has thwarted attempts at dialogue with that country (p. 301)

The authors argue that Israel, as a democracy, should be held to the same standards that any other democracy is held, but in fact is not. The recent decision by the Israeli government to curtail electricity to the entire population of Gaza is an appalling act of collective punishment but has received little notice in the US and no condemnation by the US government. In fact, the conditions of the people in Gaza as a result of Israeli government policies are nothing short of a scandal.

Next: Criticism of the lobby increases

POST SCRIPT: Israeli attack on Iran?

The recent release of the US National Intelligence Estimate report that Iran had stopped any nuclear weapons related activities back in 2003 is seen by some as making it harder for the Bush administration to justify an attack on that country. The London Guardian newspaper reports that elements in the Israel government are now suggesting a Israel initiate the attack, with American approval.

December 12, 2007

The Israel lobby-1: The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy

Most political observers have by now heard of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy by University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt. It is an expanded and updated version of their much-discussed March 23, 2006 article in the London Review of Books, and the working paper on which that article was based. The two authors gave talks at Case on September 26, 2007 as part of their book tour. The earlier articles and the current book have sparked considerable controversy and in this and the next two posts, I will try to present the main arguments made by the authors.

The main thesis of the book is quite straightforward and can be summarized as follows:

The US gives Israel a level of unconditional military, economic, and diplomatic support that far exceeds what it gives to any other country, both in absolute and per capita terms. This level of support cannot be justified on strategic or moral grounds and in fact has resulted in actual harm being done to the long-term interests of the US and even Israel. The existence of the current policies can only be explained as due to the successful lobbying efforts of a powerful group that they call the 'Israel lobby'. A frank discussion would quickly reveal the negative consequences of these policies but this has not occurred because the lobby not only has the ability to influence the speech and actions of the administrative and legislative bodies, it also tries to stifle in the media any examination of its role in influencing policy by accusing critics of the policy and the lobby of being anti-Semitic, and lumping them with Holocaust deniers and purveyors of various conspiracy theories.

One thing that struck me from reading the book and article and listening to their talk is that the two authors, far from being some kind of radicals expressing extreme views, belong to the so-called 'realist' school of American foreign policy. They are not idealists. They start from the premise that the US should take whatever steps it needs to take to protect its own interests and that it is US interests that should drive US foreign policy. For example, they feel that the US has a right to ensure that supplies of Middle East oil are available to the West and should do what it takes to ensure it. The authors do argue for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East but not because such a presence is wrong in any moral sense. Instead they say that American strategic interests are better served by maintaining what they call an 'over the horizon' capability, with a rapid deployment force able to strike quickly when needed to protect US interests. The permanent physical presence of US forces in that region merely breeds resentment without achieving any worthwhile strategic goals.

Their main thesis is that the group they identify as the Israel lobby has steered US foreign policy away from that serving its own purely national interest, and towards identifying the interests of the US as identical with the interests of Israel (more accurately, with a particular segment of the Israeli political spectrum), and that what is good for one is good for the other. In particular, they say that the lobby urges the US to treat as enemies those whom Israel sees as its enemies (e.g., Iraq, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, the PLO). The authors argue that this has resulted in policies (the invasion of Iraq, belligerence and bellicose rhetoric aimed at Iran and Syria, opposition to Palestinian rights, attacks on Lebanon) that have resulted in the US's strategic interests being compromised and made the US a target of terrorism.

[These policies were] due largely to the political power of the Israel lobby, a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence American foreign policy in ways that will benefit Israel. In addition to encouraging the United States to back Israel more or less unconditionally, groups and individuals in the lobby played key roles in shaping American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, and the ongoing confrontations with Syria and Iran. We suggested that these policies were not in the U. S. national interest and were in fact harmful to Israel's long-term interests as well. (p. viii)

They do not charge that the members of the Israel lobby are seeking to benefit Israel at the expense of the US. They say that the members of the Israel lobby probably genuinely feel that both countries are served well by such a close identification of interests. But the authors strongly disagree with this. They argue that such a close identification has resulted in policies that are actually harming both the US and Israel. Strong, unconditional support for Israel has resulted in the most extreme members of the Israeli government being emboldened to pursue policies in the occupied territories that are rapidly precluding the possibility of any meaningful chance for long-term peace. While US interests may often coincide with the interests of allies like Israel, it should never subordinate itself to those other interests.

The authors argue that while there are some obvious common interests between the two countries, the US should treat Israel the same way that it treats any other ally, say Great Britain or Canada or Mexico. "When Israel acts in ways that the United States deems desirable, it should have American backing. When it does not, Israel should expect to face U.S. opposition, just as other states do." (p. 341)

As they point out in their book, Israel receives a level of unconditional economic, military, and diplomatic support that is far in excess of that received by any other country and that this extraordinary level of support cannot be justified on either strategic or moral grounds. Israel is one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. Its per capita income is 29th in the world, nearly double that of Hungary and Czech Republic, and far higher than Portugal, South Korea or Taiwan (p. 30). The US provides more aid with fewer strings attached to Israel than to any other country, which works out to about $500 per person. The second largest recipient of US aid (Egypt) gets $20 per person. Even extremely poor countries with whom the US has long historical ties, like Haiti, get just $27 per person. (p. 25)

The US also provides Israel with a great deal of military support, providing them with access to top-level hardware and technology. Israel is now a major military power with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs but is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) or the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions (p. 36). The authors argue that even without its nuclear capability, Israel maintains an overwhelming military superiority to all its neighbors and thus does not face an existential threat.

Israel is often portrayed as weak and besieged, a Jewish David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath. This image has been carefully nurtured by Israeli leaders and sympathetic writers, but the opposite is closer to the truth. Israel has always been militarily stronger than its Arab adversaries. (p. 81)
. . .
Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to those of its neighbors, and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons. (p. 83)
. . .
Indeed, current conditions in the Middle East pose a serious dilemma for the more hard-line elements in the lobby. Instead of defending a weak state surrounded by enemies, created in the aftermath of a great historical tragedy, they are now forced to defend a powerful, modern, and prosperous state that is using its superior force to confiscate land from the Palestinians and to deny them full political rights, while dealing harshly with troubled neighbors such as Lebanon." (p. 353)

They argue that even the moral case that Israel is somehow 'better' than other states cannot be sustained, and that in fact its treatment of Palestinians and Lebanon are appalling. But despite this, the US provides almost unconditional diplomatic cover for such actions, enabling Israel to pursue policies that would merit swift condemnation if done by other countries. While Israel may have had some strategic value during the Cold War, it has ceased to be a strategic asset and is now a liability in that unconditional support for Israeli policies in the Middle East with respect to the Palestinians and Lebanon has fueled anti-Americanism worldwide and terrorism aimed at the US. (p. 65)

Next: Who makes up the lobby?

POST SCRIPT: Hey, what about the Wiccans?

Before I leave the Mitt Romney beat, my attention was drawn to the part of his speech on faith where he panders to every significant religious voting bloc, saying:

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.

The Weekly Standard has obtained the preliminary draft of this section.

December 11, 2007

Are all religious leaders con men?

In his comment to my earlier posting on Romney and Mormonism, Jared says "[Mormon founder Joseph] Smith wasn't just a con man (which is basically how he started). He came to really believe the things he made up, and was probably insane."

This is an interesting point worth exploring. The founders of religions tend to make extraordinary claims such as god talking directly to them, having the power to work miracles, and so on. If we dismiss this as impossible, the remaining options are: Did they genuinely believe the things they said (i.e., they were delusional at best and psychotic at worst)? Or were they outright charlatans, cynically using tricks and smooth talk and their personal charisma to fool the suckers?

Christopher Hitchens in one of the best passages his book God is Not Great (2007, p. 165) discusses this point:

Professor Daniel Dennett and his supporters have attracted a great deal of criticism for their "natural science" explanation of religion. Never mind the supernatural, argues Dennett, we may discard that while accepting that there have always been those for whom "belief in belief" is a good thing in itself. Phenomena can be explained in biological terms. In primitive times, is it not possible that those who believed in the shaman's cure had a better morale as a result, and thus a slight but significantly higher chance of actually being cured? "Miracles" and similar nonsense to one side, not even modern medicine rejects this thought. And it seems possible, moving to the psychological arena, that people can be better off believing in something than in nothing, however untrue that something may be.

Some of this will always be disputed among anthropologists and other scientists, but what interests me and always has is this: Do the preachers and prophets also believe, or do they too just "believe in belief"? Do they ever think to themselves, this is too easy? And do they then rationalize the trick by saying that either (a) if these wretches weren't listening to me they'd be in even worse shape; or (b) that if it doesn't do them any good then it still can't be doing them much harm? Sir James Frazer, in his famous study of religion and magic The Golden Bough, suggests that the novice witch doctor is better off if he does not share the illusions of the ignorant congregation. For one thing, if he does take the magic literally he is much more likely to make a career-ending mistake. Better by far to be a cynic, and to rehearse the conjury, and to tell himself that everybody is better off in the end. [Mormon founder Joseph] Smith obviously seems like a mere cynic, in that he was never happier than when using his "revelation" to claim supreme authority, or to justify the idea that the flock should make over their property to him, or to sleep with every available woman. There are gurus and cult leaders of that kind born every day. Smith must certainly have thought it was too easy to get innocent wretches like Martin Harris to believe everything he told them, especially when they were thirsty for just a glimpse of that mouthwatering golden trove. But was there a moment when he also believed that he did have a destiny, and was ready to die to prove it? In other words, was he a huckster all the time, or was there a pulse inside him somewhere? The study of religion suggests to me that, while it cannot possibly get along without great fraud and also minor fraud, this remains a fascinating and somewhat open question.

Hitchens also makes the point that at the time of Smith, there "were dozens of part-educated, unscrupulous, ambitious, fanatical men like Smith in the Palmyra, New York, area at that epoch, but only one of them achieved "takeoff"", partly because "Smith had great natural charm and fluency: what Max Weber called the "charismatic" part of leadership."

I suspect that Smith's story is fairly typical of that type of person and applies to the story of Jesus, Muhammad, and the Old Testament Jewish prophets. All of them also lived in times that were more credulous of the claims of people possessing magical powers. Remember that the arts of magic and mind-reading have been around for a long time, available to con men to use to impress people eager to believe in the existence of mystical unseen powers that could be harnessed by a chosen few. The founders of the older religions are likely cut from the same cloth as Joseph Smith except that those stories have had a much longer time to get cleaned up by their followers once they realized that the rewards promised to them (like the second coming of Jesus) were not going to occur in their own lifetimes but in some indefinite future. They had to dig in for the long haul and get their followers used to the fact that supernatural events were no longer to be expected as everyday occurrences.

There is the possibility though that at some point these "prophets" may have begun to wonder to themselves, "Can it really be this easy to fool all these people? Surely they must realize that I am a fraud?" From there, their thoughts could easily shift to "Maybe these people were meant to be fooled. Maybe god does exist and is shutting their eyes to the fact that I am using trickery in order to use me to achieve some larger purpose." Thus, after deluding others, they become (at least partially) self-delusional, believing their own nonsense, thus making themselves even more effective as "prophets" while retaining enough of a sense of reality to avoid making a "career-ending mistake." Like good magicians, they would restrict their displays of "supernatural" power and "revelations" to carefully controlled situations where they could set things up in advance, sometimes with the aid of accomplices, so that the gullible would be impressed, all the while persuading themselves that they were doing it all for the greater good or for god, not just for themselves.

That is the most charitable gloss that I can put on the founders of religions. The only alternative is that they were totally cynical frauds.

POST SCRIPT: Bart Simpson, prophet

"The little stupid differences [between religions] are nothing next to the big stupid similarities."

December 10, 2007

More on Romney and Mormonism

In his speech, Mitt Romney said that faith absolutely does belong in the public sphere saying, inexplicably, that "freedom requires religion", a statement that makes no sense whatsoever, but was just blatant pandering to religious sentiment.

Given his remarks, a close examination of his own faith is now fair game. People should ask him if any and every faith (including, but not limited to, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny) belongs and if not, what exactly he believes in and why his faith should be on his 'approved' list and the others not. It will not, however, strike most religious people that such questions should be asked because those kinds of questions presuppose a sense of rational inquiry about the nature of faith. Religious people tend not to think is those terms because doing so is dangerous to faith itself. As the TV character House said, "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people." I suspect that such questions won't be asked by mainstream reporters either because they will open up uncomfortable questions about the rationality of the nature of the beliefs of Christians, Jews, and Muslims too.

Last Friday's posting on Mitt Romney and Mormonism opened up a very interesting discussion in the comments, along with some useful links to more information.

Mike Pirnat provided a link to a funny South Park clip on Mormonism.

It follows pretty much what I described before except in one detail. Christopher Hitchens wrote that during the translation sessions, the scribe Harris was prevented from seeing Smith and his book and magic stones by a blanket strung across the kitchen. The cartoon gives a different version (which I have also heard) that the book and stones were hidden inside a hat and Smith buried his head in the hat in order to see the translations. Which version is true? I don't know. Maybe both, that he put his head into a hat and also stayed behind a blanket. Who knows, this divergence may form the basis for another doctrinal schism in the Mormon Church. I am not saying that Mormons are more prone to hair-splitting doctrinaire conflicts than other religions. That basis for a split would make as much sense as the doctrinal causes of the schisms that plague all the denominations, sects, and factions within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

I heard that even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not immune from such divisive tendencies, with a sect called the Reformed Church of Alfredo splitting from the main body, and that further tensions exist caused by whether Parmesan or Romano should be the holy cheese used by the Pastafarians. And I won’t even get into the Marinaran heresy. I must say that I am disappointed. I had hoped that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was better than the other churches. Why can't they all get along?

Jared provided a link to a PBS Frontline special on the Mormons. (The documentary is four hours long and split into 26 digestible chapters of about 10 minutes each. It is generally very sympathetic to the Mormons. For some reason, chapter one had only audio on my browser.) Jared adds that "It's much more accurate than the cartoon you posted, which emphasizes elements in [M]ormon mythology that are more than obscure and don't really work into the main stream theology as held by most members."

But isn't that how religion has worked? They usually start out with an enormous number of extraordinary claims mainly because the followers expect some big end-times event to be imminent. Both Jesus's and Joseph Smith's disciples expected the second coming in their own lifetimes. And then as time goes by and nothing happens and scientific advances and rational thought make their beliefs increasingly untenable, religious apologists slowly erase the more embarrassing elements from their history and reconstruct a narrative that is more acceptable to modern times. In the case of the Mormons, some revisions come in the form of "revelations" from god received by the church elders at convenient times. The origins of Christianity and Judaism and Islam were very likely filled with even more bizarre beliefs than the ones they currently have.

Jared adds, "Unfortunately for Romney, he is a very good [M]ormon. This means he is very authoritarian and probably homophobic. And sexist."

This raises an important point. If faith is so important to Romney and he firmly believes that faith belongs in the public sphere, what exactly is Romney's status in the Mormon Church and what does that status require him to believe?

Jesus' General is a hysterically funny satirical website but on occasion the good General writes serious posts (the products, he says, of his 'inner Frenchman'). It turns out that the General was once a Mormon in good standing whose family were very high up in the hierarchy and so he knows a lot of things that the general public is not aware of which enables him to describe the kinds of beliefs that Romney is likely to have.

In addition to his public statements proclaiming his religiosity, Mitt holds a temple recommend. They are only issued to the faithful. As a high priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood, he holds the highest level of priesthood a Mormon may hold. He's also served as a bishop and a stake president (leadership positions serving areas roughly equivalent to parishes and diocese). He is unquestionably a faithful Mormon.

Mitt is a member of a very dogmatic sect. Dissent is not allowed. The late N. Eldon Tanner, a councilor to the prophet, once preached "When the Prophet speaks, the debate is over."
. . .
As a High Priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood, Romney believes he receives revelations from God. He believes God directs him to do the things he does, and he never makes an important decision without asking God for guidance and receiving a revelation first.
. . .
The lesson Mormons, including Mitt, take from [the story of god asking Nephi to cold-bloodedly murder and behead Laban, a powerful official, in order to get his "Brass Plates"] is that the greater good may require the violation of important laws, in this case, theft and murder. It's a lesson that is stressed in Sunday classes for adults and children as well as the weekday seminary classes Mormon teens are required to attend. It's an important scripture and doctrine.

This is why it is critical to discuss a candidate's religious beliefs. It gives us the best insight we can get into how someone like Mitt would govern. He's the type of leader who would believe that his actions are condoned by God and are not subject to Earthly laws like the Constitution.

Sound familiar?

So there we are. Mitt Romney should be asked a lot of questions about his faith, as should anyone who does not believe in the separation of church and state and says that faith belongs in the public sphere and that his or her faith is important to him or her.

POST SCRIPT: Mormons and Pascal's wager

For those not familiar with it, Pascal's wager is the desperate Hail Mary attempt by religious people to persuade skeptics that they should believe in god as a kind of insurance policy. It goes like this: If you believe in god and it turns out that there is no god, then you are no worse off than having been as an atheist. But if you do not believe in god, and there is a god, then you are doomed to everlasting hell. So isn't it better to play safe and believe?

This argument is so ridiculous that I am sure the readers of this blog don't need me to spell out all the reasons why. But here is a South Park clip that illustrates just one counterargument..

December 07, 2007

Mitt Romney and Mormonism

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney yesterday gave what was billed as a major speech on faith. While it seemed to be an attempt to allay unease about his Mormon religion in the face of the surging Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, the strategy he adopted was to not go into specifics about what Mormonism is. Romney's message was basically: Don't worry about what "my religion" actually says (he used the word "Mormon" only once); just accept that I have faith just like you and let's unite against those who feel that faith should not play a role in the public sphere.

He "decries the diminishment of religion in the public square" and says "in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life."

He then trots out the old ridiculous religious standby, that secularism is also a religion, saying, "It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism. They are wrong." People like Romney are so unnerved by the fact that secular people are quite happy with not having to believe in religious superstitions and myths, that they try desperately to say that we are somehow religious too. Irrationality loves company, it seems.

Romney's speech was quite different from John F. Kennedy's speech in 1960 when he had to address concerns about his Catholicism. Kennedy was quite emphatic that religion should be a strictly private matter:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference. . . I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office."

As I warned earlier, Romney is pursuing a risky strategy. By saying that faith must play an important role in the public sphere, he is opening himself up to questions about what exactly he means by faith, what faiths he feels belong in the public sphere, and whether his own faith meets that standard.

It would have been better to follow Kennedy's example and to flatly assert right at the beginning that it was only a person's public policy principles and positions that mattered, and their personal beliefs should not be a basis for elected office, as the US constitution explicitly says.

But of course he could not say such a thing because, apart from his need to pander to the religious right that forms a core constituency of his party, we live in a crazy time when it is seen as politically damaging if a candidate should say that he or she is a person of rationality and reason and science (all esteemed Enlightenment values) while saying that you have an unwavering belief in mystical unseen entities and powers, which should label you as a holdover from the Dark Ages, is seen as a positive quality in a leader.

But since Romney has said that faith is important not only to him but should play an important part in public life, let's take a look at his faith.

I have not read much about Mormonism but Christopher Hitchens in his book God is Not Great (2007, p. 161-168) paints a rather unflattering portrait of its founder Joseph Smith as a charismatic con man. Hitchens bases his information on the book No Man Knows My History (1945) by Fawn Brodie.

Smith was born in 1805 and at the age of 21 was convicted of being "a disorderly person and an imposter" after admitting in his trial to defrauding citizens and claiming to possess dark or necromantic powers. But he reappears four years later saying that he had been visited three times by an angle named Moroni who told him where to find the "Book of Mormon" (written on gold plates) which contained the story of creation and said, among other things, that the people of North America were founded by an Israelite named Nephi, son of Lephi, who had come there after fleeing Jerusalem in 600 BC. Moroni also told Smith of the existence of two magic stones that would enable him to translate the golden book.

Smith never showed his book or magic stones to anybody. He said (conveniently) that for anyone else but him to see them would mean instant death. But like Muhammad (whom he modeled himself after) Smith was illiterate and so had to have scribes to write down his translations of the golden book into the vernacular. Smith initially got his wealthy neighbor and disciple Martin Harris to do this task. Harris sat on one side of a blanket dividing the kitchen while Smith sat on the other speaking the translated words. Harris was warned that if he tried to take a peek at the prophet or the golden book, he would be struck dead. In other words, the Mormon god is the standard-issue "compassionate and loving" god who has no scruples about killing people for transgressing arbitrary rules.

Hitchens recounts an amusing story in which Harris's wife got fed up with her husband's involvement with what she thought was a racket and stole the first 116 'translated' pages and challenged Smith to reproduce them using again the book and stones. Of course he couldn't. After a few weeks of unease, he came up with a story that the Lord had told him that translating the same book again was not to be done and had provided him with new, smaller plates created by Nephi which told a similar story.

Hitchens says that Smith, like Muhammad, would regularly claim to have 'divine revelations' at short notice that conveniently enough seemed to meet whatever immediate need he had at that moment, especially when he wanted to take another girl as a new wife. Smith died a violent death in 1844 at the hands of a mob and is now seen by his followers as a martyr.

I came across this fascinating animation (thanks to onegoodmove) that gives the history of the origins of the Mormon religion and their mythology. The cartoon seems like it is part of a documentary of some sort but I have not had time to track down the source. The header says that the cartoon was banned by the Mormon church. I have no idea if this is true or why or if the details that it presents are accurate, but the basic features are consistent with what I have read about Mormonism. (If anyone knows more about the cartoon's origins or its accuracy, please let me know.)

There is nothing in Mormon doctrine or its creation stories that is any more bizarre than what people in other god-based religions believe. The story of Mormon origins seems so weird because it is unfamiliar. Just as Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus who are indoctrinated into their faith as children grow up thinking, despite all the evidence, that their religious myths make sense, so I am sure do Mormons. Since Mormonism originated just two hundred years ago, however, we know more about the actual events and people involved, since there exist contemporary newspaper records that enable us to contrast the differences between what the faithful believe and the actual events. Scientology, which was founded in 1953, presents a similar case.

The facts associated with the origins of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their founders are likely to be very similar to that of Mormonism and Scientology, but fortunately for those older religions, are buried deep in the sands of time, allowing the myths to seem more reasonable than they deserve to be. If anyone today came along with stories about seeing burning bushes that remain intact or having been born of a virgin or having angels dropping in for regular chats, we would consider them to be either con men or psychotic.

One positive consequence of having a Mormon candidate for president would be if it opens up a serious discussion of why some religious people think that the Mormon origin myths are bizarre and not true, while perfectly confident that their own myths are not only rational but also true. This requires some fairly tricky and self-serving intellectual contortions, like the ones Jacob Weisberg attempted. For the same reason, I think it would be a great idea to have a Scientology candidate in the race too.

Has anyone suggested to Tom Cruise that he should run for president?

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher discusses Mormonism, religion, and politics

December 06, 2007

Reflections on writing the posts on evolution and the law

When I started out to write the series of posts on evolution and the law, I originally intended it to be about ten posts in all, divided roughly equally between the Scopes trial, the Dover trial, and the period of legal evolution in between them. As those readers who have stayed with the series are painfully aware, the subject matter carried me away and the final result is much longer.

Part of the reason is that I always intend my blog posts to have some useful and reliable information and not just be speculative rants (though those can be fun), which meant that I needed to research the subject. Fortunately, I love the subject of constitutional law because it as a spin-off of my interest in how one creates a just society. If one traces people's constitutional protections to their source, they tend to be rooted in questions about power and control, the nature of liberty, about who gets to make decisions that govern all of us, and what constraints we impose on them.

As I started to research the subject more deeply, I became fascinated at the interplay of political, social, and religious factors surrounding the question of the role of public schools in a democratic society is and how we decide what should be taught in them. I could see that the legal history involved in the teaching of evolution in public schools was more complicated and fascinating than I had originally conceived.

I had two choices. I could close off some avenues of discussion and stick only to the main points. That would be like driving to some destination while sticking just to the highway in order for maximum speed. Or I could take some detours off the beaten track, to get a better flavor of the country I was passing through. I felt that the former option, while making for quicker reading, would result in posts that were a little too glib and not have enough supporting evidence for some of my assertions.

So I chose the latter option, feeling confident that those who read this blog tend to be those who are looking for at least some substantiation of arguments even if they disagree with my views.

The way these posts grew made me reflect on my philosophy of teaching as well. In my seminar courses, students have to write research papers on some topic. Usually a course requires two five-page papers and a final ten-page paper. Students have been through this drill of writing papers many times in many courses and they usually find that they do not have enough to say and struggle to fill what they see as a quota. They use some time-tested techniques: wide margins, large fonts and spacing, and when those things have reached their limit, unnecessary verbiage. Superfluous words and phrases are inserted, ideas are repeated, pointless examples and non sequitur arguments are brought in, and so forth.

The reason for this is that in most cases students are writing about things that they do not really care about and are just going through the motions to meet someone else's needs, not their own. The result is painful for both the student (who has to construct all this padding without it being too obvious that that is what it is) and for the instructor (who has to cut through all the clutter to find out what the author is really trying to say). It is largely a waste of time for both, and often unpleasant to boot.

To help overcome this problem, I give my students as much freedom as possible to choose a research topic within the constraints of the overall course subject matter. I tell students that the most important thing they will do in the course is choose a topic that they care passionately about and want to learn more about. Once they do that, and start investigating and researching such a subject, it is almost inevitable that they will get drawn in deeper and deeper, like I was with evolution and the law.

Once they are on that road, the problem is not how to fill the required number of pages but how to cut it down so that you don't exceed the page limits by too much. This has the added bonus of teaching students how to edit to tighten their prose, to use more judicious language, and to only keep those things that are essential to making their case.

The passion for the subject and the desire to know more about it is what makes genuine researchers carry out difficult and sometimes tedious tasks, because they really care about learning more.

The way this series of posts has grown is an example of this phenomenon at work. Because it is a blog without length restrictions, I have been able to indulge myself a bit. But if I had to restrict the length because of publication needs, then I would go back and do some serious pruning.

POST SCRIPT: The bullet trick

Penn and Teller do another of their famous tricks.

December 05, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-30: Looking at the big picture

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

In this final post in this series (Yes, there really is an end!), I want to look at the big picture, to see both how the struggle to oppose the teaching of evolution evolved as a result of legal decisions centered around the establishment clause, and why religious believers have pursued with such vigor this dead-end policy to discredit evolution.

Religious people have always been uncomfortable with the theory of evolution. The extent of this discomfort varies. At one end of this religious spectrum we have those Biblical literalists who want to believe that every single extant species was created specially by god. For these people, the theory of evolution is anathema. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are those who willing to accept an interconnected and evolving tree of life, provided that humans are not part of the tree and were somehow miraculously created separately. Such people allow the theory in some areas but arbitrarily exclude it from any part of the origins of humans. At the other end of the religious spectrum are those who accept that humans are also part of the evolutionary tree and have common ancestors with other species but want to reserve some special property for humans (the 'soul' for want of a better word) that was created by god using some mysterious means beyond our ken. Such people want to believe that each human being has something special, unique, mystical whose creation and existence cannot be accounted for by the mechanisms of natural selection.

All these people have the fear that lurking in the shadows of Darwinian theory is the fact if you carry the theory of evolution to its natural conclusion, there is absolutely no way of avoiding the conclusion that humans, like every other species of living thing, are entirely the product of the Darwinian mutation and natural selection algorithmic process, and thus we are entirely material objects produced by materialistic mechanisms. God is ruled right out of the picture. William Jennings Bryan correctly saw this way back in 1922 when he wrote "If a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible.. . Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism." (my italics)

So while the form and tactics of the fight against the teaching of evolution has undoubtedly changed from the time of William Jennings Bryan, the one constant feature has been the feeling that the theory of evolution is somehow dangerous to religion and has to be either overthrown or arbitrarily limited in its scope or its teaching balanced with ideas favorable to a god-centered view of life and creation. But all efforts so far to control 'Darwin's dangerous idea' (as Daniel Dennett puts it) have run up against the challenge of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US constitution and its associated idea of the separation of church and state.

To briefly recapitulate this legal history, as Darwinian ideas gained acceptance at the turn of the twentieth century, it became increasingly taught in schools. Meanwhile, the rise of the ideas of the separation of church and state had resulted, by the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, in much of the teaching of religion and the Bible being eliminated from public schools. Evolution had become seen by then as anti-religious and the first attempts at counteracting its influence took the form of state legislatures passing laws banning its teaching, with the 1925 Butler Act in Tennessee being the first. It was only in 1968, in the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, that such attempts were ruled unconstitutional.

The attempts at mitigating the effects of the teaching of evolution then shifted from outright bans on teaching evolution to trying to achieve 'balanced treatment' (whatever that meant) for both evolution and the Genesis theory of creation. But the Tennessee law requiring this was ruled in 1974 to be unconstitutional by the US Court of Appeals in the case of Daniel v. Waters.

The next evolution in the strategy was to call for 'balanced treatment' for the teaching of evolution and something called 'creation science', the latter being essentially the young-Earth Genesis story, but carefully shorn of any mention of god or the Bible or any religious terminology. Such laws were passed in 1981 in both Arkansas and Louisiana. The Arkansas law was ruled unconstitutional in 1982 in the US District Court in McLean v. Arkansas, and the Louisiana law was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1987 in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard.

This setback gave rise to the theory of 'intelligent design creationism' (IDC), which was carefully crafted to address all the objections raised by these previous legal precedents. Its essential structure was to allege that certain systems in nature (the bacterial flagellum, the blood clotting mechanism, and the human immune system being the only ones that IDC advocates could come up with) were so 'irreducibly complex' that evolutionary theory had not only failed so far to provide an adequate explanation for how they could have come into being by the gradual mechanism of natural selection, but that the theory would never be able to explain them. This unsubstantiated assumption allowed IDC advocates to make the inference that these systems were deliberately designed and that hence there must be some 'designer' at work. The identity of the designer was deliberately kept unspecified and, like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, never named openly by IDC advocates, but there was never any doubt that they were referring to their god.

But this latest hope for undermining the teaching of evolution in public schools was dashed by the verdict in 2005 in Kitzmiller v. Dover, where the US District Court ruled that intelligent design was a religious belief and not science, that the reasons for introducing it into the curriculum was to advance a religious agenda, and hence such a policy was unconstitutional.

So the religious forces, having lost the scientific case against evolution (basically because they never had a scientific case to start with, just a religious belief adorned with scientific language), now have pretty much lost the legal case as well. And that is where things stand.

It is interesting that the current legal state of play supports what Clarence Darrow had argued in 1926 in the appeal of the Scopes verdict, when he said that anti-evolution efforts are not designed to foster neutrality in education but that opposition to the theory of evolution essentially sprang from a religious foundation that was hostile to science, and thus any attempt to suppress its teaching was an attempt to advance religious views at the expense of science, and that this went counter to the purposes of public schools.

It is not clear what other avenues are available to try and resurrect intelligent design creationism as a viable legal strategy. The attempts seem to have now shifted to an exclusively public relations effort by the Discovery Institute, the well-funded organization that has been behind the entire IDC strategy all along. Their attempt to push back against the disaster at Dover is taking many forms.

One facet of this effort is to try and discredit the Dover verdict, arguing that it was due to 'judicial activism' and over-reaching by a biased judge with ambitions to greatness. In 2006 they published a book called Traipsing Into Evolution attacking the judge's verdict and reasoning. (For a detailed critique of this book, see here.)

The charge that Judge Jones who presided in the Dover trial is some kind of anti-religious partisan is hard to sustain since the judge is a Republican and a long-time member of a Lutheran church who was nominated for his post by then-US Senator Rick Santorum (who himself is a strong supported of IDC), was appointed to the bench by President Bush who has argued that 'both sides' of the evolution issue (whatever that means) should be taught, and whose assignment to the case was praised by Tom Ridge (former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and the head of the Department of Homeland Security) who said "I can't imagine a better judge presiding over such an emotionally charged issue."

The judge himself seemed to anticipate that this kind of attack might occur and preemptively responded to this in his opinion saying:

Those who disagree with this ruling will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. (p. 138)

On another front, in 2007, Michael Behe published yet another book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism, which tries to resurrect the corpse of IDC by adding a new claim, which turns out to be one that was already tried in the 19th century and failed.

There is also a film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that is due to be released on Darwin's birthday in 2008 that argues that 'big science' is deliberately suppressing evidence of intelligent design and persecuting scientists who think there is something in it. It has already been accused of unethical practices in the making of it.

What is conspicuously missing in all these efforts is any actual old-fashioned science. You know, experiments done, data collected, hypotheses formulated, causal mechanisms suggested that can be used to make concrete predictions that can be investigated. This is the kind of detailed, careful, painstaking work that constitutes the bedrock of science. Grand, sweeping, and speculative ideas can be fun for a while but if not supported by that solid foundation, they sink and disappear leaving very little trace.

It seems like now that the pro-IDC people have lost in both the courts and the scientific arena, they are reduced to acting as if they are victims and making pleas for public sympathy, to try and convince people that the scientific and legal establishments have somehow conspired to use their muscle to suppress alternatives to the theory of evolution.

What religious people have not grasped (or perhaps do not want to grasp), is that while scientific theories can overthrow religious beliefs and have done so numerous times in history, the reverse simply does not happen.

Religious beliefs cannot overthrow a scientific theory. What overthrows a scientific theory is a better scientific theory.

In the final analysis, it is as simple as that.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart

A stand-up routine from about ten years ago that is still relevant and funny.

December 04, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-29: What next for evolution and religion in schools?

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

As a result of the long string of judicial rulings and Supreme Court precedents that have been outlined in this series that seem to have eliminated almost all their options, what can religious people do now about the teaching of evolution?

In 2007, IDC advocate Michael Behe published yet another book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism (which I have written about earlier) that tries to add a wrinkle to IDC ideas by arguing that the mutations that drive natural selection are not random but are somehow guided by their peripatetic and secretive designer to achieve a desired organism.

This is a pathetically feeble attempt that will not get anywhere legally. All the reasons given in the Dover verdict for why IDC is a religion and not science apply with equal force to this idea too. Furthermore, it is not even an original idea, having been proposed in the late 19th century by eminent scientists, also for manifestly religious reasons, a fact that is not going to help the case legally.

But the opponents of evolution are determined and there are rumblings that Texas may try to get creationism and/or intelligent design creationism and/or criticisms of evolution into their state curriculum. The state's state science curriculum director has been forced to resign her position and some suspect that this was a prelude to making such changes.

So what options does Texas or any other state body have left?

As I see it, there seem to be only three options left for those trying to undermine the teaching of evolution or otherwise get religion back into the public schools. One is to not single out just evolution for 'critical analysis' but include one or two other theories as well, and use them as a cover for the real goal of discrediting evolution. But given the legislative history of opposition to teaching evolution in schools, it is likely that the courts will see through this ruse to circumvent the establishment clause.

Another option is to ask that all scientific theories be subjected to critical analysis. This might pass constitutional muster but would not serve the purpose that religious people seek. It is, after all, what good science teaching has always professed to do and is routinely called for in present day science standards. Religious people seem to have no problem with, for example, the theory of gravity or Newton's laws of motion or the heliocentric model of the solar system or the laws of photosynthesis and presumably don't want their children's time wasted on discussing evidence against those theories or speculate on why those theories too are wrong and the associated processes driven by an intelligent designer. As I have shown earlier, what what really bugs them is evolution.

The third option is to seek what IDC advocate Phillip Johnson seemed to be hinting at, and that is to arouse public opinion against evolution theory, in order to foment some type of popular revolution. We see that in the creation of the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed to be released on Darwin's birthday in February 2008. (See Bad Idea Blog for a seven-minute promo for the latter film and a critique of it.) The aim seems to be to portray themselves as victims, oppressed by the scientific and legal establishment. They seem to be advancing the truly bizarre argument that scientists are secretly aware of terrible weaknesses in evolutionary theory and are afraid that the revolutionarily new arguments of the courageous IDC advocates will result in the structure of science crumbling. The only way scientists can prevent this, in their view, is by colluding to cover up the facts, suppressing all dissent, and expelling pro-IDC people from the academy.

In reality of course, scientists are comfortable with the merits of the theory of evolution even though they know it has not answered every question as yet, and reject IDC because it is an old idea that has no content that is of any value or use to scientists.

But even if this policy of painting themselves as poor, pitiful, oppressed victims is successful and arouses some public sympathy, I cannot see any way for this IDC strategy to achieve its ultimate goal of overthrowing the teaching of evolution in schools, since all their previous attempts to do so have run aground on the rocks of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution.

The only way that they can succeed, as I see it, is by calling for an overthrow of the establishment clause and undermining the whole idea of separation of church and state. But this is a huge barrier to overcome. The Bill of Rights and the other protections of the constitution have become seen as providing the bedrock protections of American society. As time when on, its protections have been expanded but never formally restricted, although administrations have from time to time curtailed those freedoms by fiat, as we see now with habeas corpus violations and gross violations of due process using the USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act. But despite such setbacks for basic liberties and justice, it seems unlikely that an attempt to formally rescind those constitutional freedoms will succeed.

But constitutional issues aside, the important question has always been about who determines what should and should not be taught in public schools.

"Who does have "the right," [Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter] asked, to decide what gets taught as science in the public schools? Creationist parents and teachers, based on their relatively subjective religious beliefs, or professional scientists and educators, based on their relatively objective scientific theories?" (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 260)

This is an interesting question to explore. If a school district decides that it should teach something absurd or even flat out wrong, like the moon is made of cheese, is it allowed to do so? Can a parent complain and have the courts overturn such a policy even though there is no obvious constitutional violation involved? As we saw in the 1982 creation science case McLean v. Arkansas, the judge ruled that creation science should not be taught because it was not science but a religion. Some supporters of the decision criticized the reasoning, saying that the reason creation science should not be taught was not because it had failed to meet unjustifiable demarcation criteria but because it was bad science and simply wrong. But is teaching even manifestly absurd ideas a sufficient reason for the courts to intervene?

In 1926, in oral arguments during the appeal of the Scopes verdict to the Tennessee Supreme Court, defense counsel Arthur Garfield Hays raised the interesting possibility that the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prevented the state from enforcing unreasonable laws and "Tennessee's "absurd" antievolution statute violated this standard as much as a law against teaching Copernican astronomy would." (Larson, p. 215). But as far as I know this issue has not been adjudicated.

Although this is an interesting hypothetical exercise, in reality, we may never be able to disentangle the ridiculous from the religious. The only time that people feel strongly about teaching things for which there is no evidence is when they are driven by religious convictions, such as that the Earth is 6,000 years old or that god intervened in the laws of nature to create humans.

Those who argue against teaching creationism and its derivatives in public schools tend to be split into two camps.

One the one hand there are those who think that mainstream religious beliefs are credible and valuable, but think that it is good to keep church and state separate. They argue that religious beliefs do not belong in public schools on constitutional establishment clause grounds.

On the other hand are those who are more sympathetic to Clarence Darrow's approach in the Scopes trial. He seemed to have a different goal. He set out to argue that religious beliefs were just nonsense and that no sensible person should believe them, let alone want to teach them to their children. After all, no one is asking schools to teach children that the Earth is flat, that the Sun orbits the Earth, or that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. No legal protections have been necessary (at least not yet) to prevent teachers from teaching that thunder and lightning are symbols of god's anger with the world or that objects fall to the ground because the Earth is at the center of the universe. When Darrow said in his interrogation of Bryan that "You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion," he was trying to make a different point, that if you can show that a belief is silly, then no one would even want to teach that belief. And he felt that fundamentalist religious beliefs were patently ridiculous, requiring people to swallow, without any evidence, the most preposterous of ideas.

As Larson says:

Darrow. . .used his defense of Scopes to challenge fundamentalist beliefs. To the extent that lawyers defending the evolutionist position in later lawsuits appeal narrowly to constitutional interpretation, fundamentalist beliefs remain unchallenged. (p. 261)

Darrow's basic approach has been extended by modern day scientists and atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger to argue that even so-called 'moderate' religious beliefs are absurd and that it is futile to pretend that the beliefs of mainstream religions have any credibility.

POST SCRIPT: Philosophy panel on progress

The Philosophy Club at Case is having a panel discussion on the topic of progress and I will speak about the nature of progress in science. The program is at 7:30 pm in Guilford Lounge on Wednesday, December 5th, 2007. It is free and open to the public.

December 03, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-28: Aftershocks of Dover

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

Judge Jones' ruling in the Dover intelligent design creationism (IDC) case, delivered on December 20, 2005, swiftly reverberated across the nation, the sweep of it knocking down one pro-IDC policy after another like a row of dominos.

On January 17, 2006, a new elective philosophy course in a school in El Tejon, CA that included intelligent design ideas was abruptly cancelled for fears that it would be ruled unconstitutional. The Discovery Institute, battered by Dover, pressured the school district to take this action, concerned, like in Dover, that this was another misguided policy by a local school board that would hurt IDC even more.

In February 2006, Ohio's State Board of Education reversed its previous policy and ruled 11-4 to throw out the IDC-inspired science standards benchmarks that had called for 'critical analysis' of evolution, the majority saying that the Dover verdict meant that such a policy, if challenged, would also be ruled unconstitutional. State school board elections later that year resulted in the most vocal IDC supporter resoundingly losing her seat on the board as well, getting less than 30% of the vote.

What happened in Kansas is also telling. During 2005, riding the crest of a pro-IDC wave, the Kansas State Board of Education, in the teeth of opposition from scientists locally and nationwide, decided to adopt science standards that were laced with pro-IDC language, such as deliberately undermining the credibility of the theory of evolution and going so far to broaden the definition of science to allow for non-material causes for phenomena, so that IDC ideas could be included as science. (I was involved in a minor way in that controversy.) These new standards were passed on November 8, 2005, after the Dover trial had ended but before the verdict was handed down.

But in primary elections held in August 2006 following the verdict, the pro-IDC faction on that state's school board lost their majority and in the November 2006 election, those who favored science over IDC obtained a narrow 6-4 majority. As a result, on February 13, 2007, the new State Board of Education reversed itself and replaced the old standards with new ones that eliminated the earlier IDC-inspired criticisms of evolutionary theory and required methodological naturalism to be the underlying basis of scientific investigations, thus eliminating non-material causes as explanations for physical phenomena. (Kansas has see-sawed on this issue based on school board election results since 1999 so the story there may not be ended. The standards are not required to be revised again until 2014.)

The El Tejon case mentioned above, although it never went to court, is a good example of the problem that advocates of religion in schools face. After all, in El Tejon they claimed they were merely seeking to teach IDC ideas as part of a purely elective philosophy course, not as science. What harm could there be? The initiators of the course felt that this should be allowable. But the course description immediately raised some problems that should have put on the alert anyone familiar with the legislative history of the establishment clause. The description said:

Philosophy of Intelligent Design: This class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid. This class will discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution. Topics that will be covered are the age of the earth, a world wide flood, dinosaurs, pre-human fossils, dating methods, DNA, radioisotopes, and geological evidence. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions. The class will include lecture discussions, guest speakers, and videos. The class grade will be based on a position paper in which students will support or refute the theory of evolution.

The problem with this course is that, as Judge Jones pointed out in Kitzmiller v. Dover, all applicable Supreme Court precedents imply that "[T]he Establishment Clause forbids not just the explicit teaching of religion, but any governmental action that endorses or has the primary purpose or effect of advancing religion." (p. 46)

Judge Jones said in his ruling (p. 137), "Our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school classroom." But that leaves open the question of whether ID can be taught at all in public schools, as long as it is not contrasted with evolution. Though I am not a lawyer, as I read the law and the precedents there would be no problem under these guidelines about a philosophy course that examined, in a neutral way, the religious beliefs of people. There would be no problem in discussing in a history or social studies or philosophy course the role that Christianity played in the American political process or the role that Islam played in the development of the Middle East or the role of women under various religious belief systems or the way that religious beliefs have influenced philosophical thought. In fact, it would be hard to keep religion out and still teach those topics in a meaningful way.

A problem only arises if you use a course to promote religion in general or a specific religious point of view. Now we see can more clearly why the El Tejon course was problematic. It is not how a course is labeled (whether science or philosophy or history or whatever) that is at issue; it is the purpose of the course and whether it is would seem, to an informed, reasonable observer who is familiar with the history and context of the issue at hand, to endorse a particular religious viewpoint. The El Tejon course was clearly advocating young Earth creationism. And the people at the Discovery Institute (rightly, I think) saw that this would be easily ruled unconstitutional. Since the course, like Dover, again explicitly dragged in IDC ideas, another negative ruling in this case would be interpreted as meaning that IDC ideas should not be allowed even in philosophy classes, which would be a huge public relations setback for them. In addition, they would likely have also been disturbed by the El Tejon school board implying that intelligent design belonged in a philosophy course, since their entire strategy has been to try and argue that it was science.

Where does this leave the question of teaching evolution in schools? The Dover verdict seems to have closed the last small window that remained for inserting IDC ideas into the science curriculum. This setback has led to a feeling of discouragement in the IDC camp. Leading 'Wedge' strategist and founder of the IDC movement Phillip Johnson seemed like he was throwing in the towel in an interview in interview he gave in the Spring 2006 issue of the Berkeley Science Review. In the interview, he essentially conceded that the IDC people had failed to deliver the goods when it came to providing the kinds of evidence and arguments that are necessary to even be considered as science let along succeed in science. It is precisely that combination of evidence and persuasive arguments that has made Darwinian evolutionary theory such a powerhouse in science, comparable in its impact to Newton's and Einstein's theories.

Johnson said:

I considered [Dover] a loser from the start. . . Where you have a board writing a statement and telling the teachers to repeat it to the class, I thought that was a very bad idea.
. . .
I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it’s doable, but that’s for them to prove. . .No product is ready for competition in the educational world.
. . .
I think the fat lady has sung for any efforts to change the approach in the public schools. . .the courts are just not going to allow it. They never have. The efforts to change things in the public schools generate more powerful opposition than accomplish anything. . .I don't think that means the end of the issue at all.
. . .
In some respects, I'm almost relieved, and glad. I think the issue is properly settled. It's clear to me now that the public schools are not going to change their line in my lifetime. (my italics)

So are there any options left for religious people who oppose the teaching of evolution and also want to bring back religion into the public school curriculum?

I'll examine some possibilities in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: The shadow trick

Teller (of Penn and Teller) does his famous shadow trick. Truly amazing to see.