Entries for September 2009

September 30, 2009

Old style conservatives going into the wilderness

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield for $34.95, from Amazon for $25.16, from Barnes and Noble for $26.21 ($23.58 for members), and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

As the previous two posts have discussed, the nutters seem to be taking over the Republican Party. The old style conservatives, taken aback by the enthusiasm with which the party rank-and-file unhesitatingly clasped true nutter Sarah Palin to their collective bosom in 2008, are now feeling even more marginalized, alarming them so much that they see no future for themselves in the party.

David Frum, a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, does not like what he sees and writes:

We conservatives are submitting our movement to some of the most unscrupulous people in American life. This submission disgraces conservatism, discredits Republicans, and damages the country. It’s beyond time for conservatives who know better to join us at NewMajority in emancipating ourselves from leadership by the most stupid, the most cynical, and the most truthless.

Bruce Bartlett, a leading conservative economist, writes:

In my opinion, conservative activists, who seem to believe that the louder they shout the more correct their beliefs must be, are less angry about Obama’s policies than they are about having lost the White House in 2008. They are primarily Republican Party hacks trying to overturn the election results, not representatives of a true grassroots revolt against liberal policies.

For another conservative columnist Rod Dreher, the last straw was the absurd flake-out by people in his party over Obama speaking to schoolchildren. He writes:

It would be a pleasant surprise if conservatives who took the president of the United States addressing youths as an opportunity to stumble toward the fainting couch realized that they had made fools of themselves. Fat chance. Obama Derangement Syndrome is pandemic on the right -- and it's leaving conservatives like me politically homeless.

Dreher took to task Mike Huckabee who on his radio program treated a notorious nutter, actor Jon Voight, like he was sage, even though he was spouting bizarre anti-Obama drivel. Dreher writes:

To his great discredit, Huckabee, a pastor, let this crazy talk pass unchallenged.

Perhaps conservative elites like Huckabee really believe this kind of vicious invective, which right-wing radio talkers routinely disgorge as well. Or maybe they're flat-out cynical. That is, they know that Obama is no more a socialist radical than George W. Bush was a fascist authoritarian, but they're happy to ride the wave of populist spite because it suits their short-term interests.

Which means what, exactly? That winning is the only thing, and to hell with the good of the country, civil society and the possibility of intelligent debate about serious matters? Watching the school-speech insanity blow up on the right, a friend who has been deeply involved for decades at the top of Republican politics, e-mailed to say that she was done. The conservative movement is hurtling off a cliff -- and she was bailing out.

Take me with you, said I.

Dreher correctly identified Fox News and right wing talk radio as the drivers of this movement. He discovers to his surprise that the charges that have long been made against Fox News, that it is a vehicle for right-wing paranoia and fear-mongering, may be actually true.

I've always taken complaints about the Fox News Channel as evidence of liberal whining and intolerance. But I don't watch TV news. And then I tuned in to Glenn Beck's popular Fox show the other night and saw him tutor his audience on the president's conspiratorial plan to institute "oligarhy" (sic) in America. And I thought: How does a paranoid like this get on national TV?

But he should not be surprised. In the world of TV, high ratings and the money it brings in take precedence over ideology or party interests. It takes much smaller numbers to be a cable news leader than it does to win elections. While you need about 50 million voters to win presidential elections, if you get just 500,000 viewers in the 25-54 age demographic (just 1% of those voters) you will easily be a cable news leader. So cable news shows can aim their message at the fringiest of fringe groups and still come out as big winners in TV land while simultaneously driving the Republican Party into the ditch.

David Brooks is another conservative who does not like what he sees:

The one danger -- the main danger of all this, the Glenn [Beck] and the Rush [Limbaugh] and all that -- they're not going to take over the country. But they are taking over the Republican Party.

And so if the Republican Party is sane, they will say no to these people. But every single elected leader in the Republican Party is afraid to take on Rush and Glenn Beck.

MSNBC talk sow host Joe Scarborough (a conservative who used to be a Republican congressman) also warns about the dangers of letting people like Glenn Beck rant crazily. Steve Benen lists other conservatives who are similarly alarmed.

Frum, Bartlett, Dreher, Brooks, and Scarborough are right to be concerned. The capture of the Republican Party by the nutters is not only bad for that party, consigning them to the electoral wilderness for years to come, it is also bad for the Democratic Party and democracy in general. Only highly partisan Democrats who think that winning is the only thing that matters can be happy watching the Republican Party walk into the wild.

A thriving democracy needs two vibrant parties that can articulate different visions of where they want the country go, and also to keep each other honest by exposing their lies. We have seen the rot that has set in because the US has already effectively become a one-party state when it comes to the interests of big business and war. If the Republican Party moves completely into the asylum, as it seems to be doing, the situation will get even worse. The Democratic Party can then serve unchallenged the interests of the wealthy even more easily than it does now, no longer feeling obliged to pay even lip-service to progressive causes. It can start new wars and continue old ones, continue to torture people, imprison them indefinitely without trial, and enhance wiretapping and other encroachments on civil liberties, all of which is what the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled congress is currently doing.


I came across this clever commercial online. I assume that it is running on TV as well.

September 29, 2009

Republican presidential hopefuls and the nutters

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield for $34.95, from Amazon for $31.65, from Barnes and Noble for $26.21 ($23.58 for members), and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Telling indicators of the strength of the nutter movement (consisting of birthers, deathers, and tenthers) within the party has been the fortunes of the prospective Republican candidates for the presidency. Sarah Palin is, of course, a true nutter and has always been much beloved by this group so her presence does not tell us anything new. But a good sign of the increasing nutter influence is that Palin's fellow nutter, congresswoman Michelle Bachman (R-Minn), seems to be hoping that god will speak to her and tell her to run for the presidency, and former senator Rick Santorum is also toying with the idea although he was drubbed in his last campaign for re-election as US senator from Pennsylvania. Any party with a reasonable grip on reality would be embarrassed to have these people as prominent members, let alone have them as potential standard bearers.

What is even more significant has been the shifting of the rhetoric by people like Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty in efforts to woo the nutters. These two are conservative ideologically but up until recently they had seemed to be reality-based people. (See my earlier posts about Huckabee's and Pawlenty's politics.). In fact, Pawlenty is currently the governor of Minnesota, a state that usually elects moderate politicians, though Bachmann is putting a strain on that reputation. But he is not running for re-election, allowing him to pander shamelessly to the nutters, which he has decided to do by appealing to the tenthers and the deathers. The fact that both are moving towards nutterdom means that they think that this is where the future of the party lies.

In this they are emulating the 2008 strategy of Mitt Romney who seemed to be a moderate while governor of Massachusetts but moved quite a bit to the right when running for the Republican nomination in 2008.

Romney has not yet gone full-bore nutter but is also a good weathervane indicator of the strength of the nutter movement. As far as can be determined, Romney has no deep principles that he believes in, except that he thinks he should be president, so he can shift directions without much angst. Logic would suggest that he run as a sensible conservative and appeal to the adults in the party, and let the nutters split their votes among the panderers such Palin, Bachmann, Santorum, Huckabee, Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich. But if Romney also starts competing strongly for the nutter vote, then it is clear that the nutters have taken over the Republican Party.

The nutters and their allies gathered together at the Values Voter Summit held in Washington, DC, earlier this month. Nearly all the potential presidential candidates were featured speakers at the summit, although Sarah Palin* was once again a no-show, the asterisk (signifying 'unconfirmed') that accompanies her name in the publicity for these events seeming to be a permanent fixture as organizers become increasingly aware of her penchant for backing out of engagements at the last minute, claiming that she never agreed to attend in the first place.

In a straw poll on presidential preferences conducted at the meeting, the results were as follows: Huckabee received 29%, Romney, Pawlenty, Palin and congressman Mike Pence (R-Indiana) each got about 12%. Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, Ron Paul, and Santorum had single-digit shares of the vote. Romney won the last poll in 2007. You can draw your own conclusions as to what, if anything, this means.

The titles and descriptions of their breakout sessions reveal nuttiness in all its glory. I would have particularly liked to attend the one titled SPEECHLESS - SILENCING THE CHRISTIANS, where they promised to reveal how Christians are a persecuted group in the US. Here's the description of the session:

Americans are at a greater risk of losing their basic freedoms today than ever before in the history of this nation. Political correctness and the voice of the liberal minority are undermining the morals and values of main-stream America. Christians are being silenced all across America: in the political debate, the public square, the schools, the workplace, and even in the sanctuary of their own churches. Through video, renowned author and commentator, Janet Parshall, takes you on a journey across the country to meet citizens who have been arrested for speaking out at a public rally, students who are being forced to attend classes that require them to recite verses from the Koran and to stage their own Jihad and activists pushing social tolerance to such an extreme that the Bible itself is being labeled "hate speech."

Who knew? There is probably a Islamocommunofascistic jihadi re-education camp in your own neighborhood!

Next: So where does this leave the old-style conservatives?

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on the Values Voter Summit

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September 28, 2009

Update on the future of the Republican Party

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield for $34.95, from Amazon for $31.65, from Barnes and Noble for $26.21 ($23.58 for members), and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

When I last wrote on this topic in July, I compared the various factions within the Republican Party to see which segment was likely to take leadership. The four major groupings I identified were the old style conservatives, the rank-and-file social values base, the Christianists, and the neo-conservatives.

At that time I said that while there was no clear winner yet, the first group seemed to be on the outs in the party, the second group seemed to be becoming more vocal, while the third and fourth groups seemed to be lying low for the present, trying to gauge which way the wind was going to blow. I said that a good indicator of the relative strengths of the groups would be the prominence given to them by Fox News.

Since then the picture has sharpened somewhat, and the outlook for the party is not good.

What seems to be happening is that a highly vocal subset of the rank-and-file base, those whom I have called the nutters, seems to be becoming the public face of the party. This group has a visceral opposition to Obama, making wild assertions of him as a fascist and/or socialist and/or communist, has absurd 'birther' and 'deather' obsessions, and irrational opposition to any health care reform.

As if that wasn't enough, to the birthers and deathers, you can also add the 'tenthers', people who think that the 10th amendment to the US Constitution, which states that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people", can be used as a vehicle to block legislation they don't like.

Ian Millhiser writes that tenther sentiment is not new.

Such retreat to fringe constitutional theories is one of the right's favorite tactics during times of historic upheaval. The right-wing South justified both secession and the Civil War on the theory that the Constitution is nothing more than a pact between sovereigns that each state is free to leave at will. In the immediate wake of Brown v. Board of Education, 19 senators and 77 representatives endorsed a "Southern Manifesto," proclaiming -- in words echoed by modern-day tenthers -- that Brown "encroach[es] on the rights reserved to the States" because the "Constitution does not mention education." President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent much of his first term combating a tenther majority on the Supreme Court, which routinely struck down substantial portions of the New Deal.

In their latest incarnation, tenthers argue that "Barack Obama's health-care reform is forbidden, as is Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security." They don't stop there. They add that "The federal minimum wage is a crime against state sovereignty; the federal ban on workplace discrimination and whites-only lunch counters is an unlawful encroachment on local businesses."

This kind of lunacy aimed at turning back the clock on landmark social progress has been actively promoted by the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio and TV talk shows and this hysterical rhetoric has been given huge amounts of publicity, encouraging these groups to think that they represent some kind of mass popular movement when in reality they are on the fringes of the body politic. As a result, this group seems to be influencing the Republican Party well out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Some of the Christianists like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, seem to be moving towards the nutter group, and the resulting coalition threatens to take over the party.

The Republican Party leadership seems to be caught in a bind. Although the nominal leaders in congress are not themselves rabid nutters, it is clear that they are fearful of them and will not say anything that is even mildly critical of the crazy rhetoric they spout. They cannot bring themselves to repudiate this vocal and passionate group and its advocates in the media, but realize at the same to time that to endorse these ideas is to declare themselves to be also nuts.

They have created a monster and don't know what else to do but cling on to its tail.

Next: What we can learn from the potential candidates for the Republican nomination in 2012.

POST SCRIPT: Mary Travers

The folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary combined wonderful harmony with a lifetime of consistent support for social justice and progressive causes. Mary Travers died recently of leukemia at the age of 72. Here is the group singing one of their big hits If I had a hammer.

In I dig rock and roll music, they poked some good-natured fun at that genre and some of its practitioners.

September 25, 2009

The Adventures of Banana Man and Crocoduck

(My new book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield for $34.95, from Amazon for $31.65, from Barnes and Noble for $26.21 ($23.58 for members), and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Those two mighty warriors for Jesus, evangelist Ray Comfort and his trusty sidekick the aging Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron, have come up with a new scheme for fighting the evil theory of evolution which they, along with many religious people, think is threatening to bring about the end of civilization as we know it. Two days before the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species on November 21, they plan to distribute 50,000 free copies of the book at 50 prominent universities. The catch? They have added a 50-page introduction where Comfort will point out all the flaws in the theory. They can do this because the copyright has expired on Darwin's book.

Here is Cameron's and Comfort's plug for the plan:

Hoo-boy, I can't wait.

In the following video, a young woman (from Romania?) makes fun of the whole idea. She seems to have a solid grasp of the science, religion, law, and politics in the US, and also exposes the outright distortions that Cameron makes. (Language advisory)

Does this effort by Comfort and Cameron require a response? Various ideas have been put forward. Some are suggesting that we pick up the free copies, tear out the introduction, and then give the books away. I must say that I don't like this idea. I am not in favor of mutilating any books for any reason. Such an action would also merely give more publicity to this venture and open us up to charges that we are trying to censor alternative views.

My suggestion is to let Comfort and Cameron go through with this plan unobstructed because I think it will boomerang on its creators. Origins is, after all, a classic work of science, very readable for the non-scientist, that should belong in every home and be read by everyone. It is a remarkable book and anyone who reads it cannot fail to be impressed by Darwin's careful and painstaking marshalling of evidence and argument, both for and against his theory, and the way he draws his conclusions. It reveals the workings of the mind of a true scholar, doggedly pursuing evidence towards the truth, wherever it might lead.

Unfortunately, most religious people in the US will not even touch this great book or even want to be seen reading it because it has been so absurdly demonized, and Darwin portrayed as an anti-god zealot. But we know that religious people are strongly attracted to things that are forbidden or labeled as sinful. So some religious people who pick up this religiously approved copy because of this campaign may be tempted to actually read at least part of Origins and perhaps realize that they have been hoodwinked, that the book is not an anti-god rant by the anti-Christ.

In addition, an argument between Darwin on one side and Comfort and Cameron on the other is frankly a no-contest. Comfort has already become a YouTube legend, a worldwide laughingstock for his argument that the banana is "the atheist's nightmare" because it proves the existence of god. I never tire of watching his video about it.

In fact, I think that Comfort should give away a banana with each book, to sweeten the offer. No need to thank me for this suggestion, Ray.

But Cameron is no slouch either when it comes to stupid arguments. Who can forget his "proof" that the theory of evolution must be false because we do not see transitional forms. It is true that transitional forms are an important part of the theory of evolution, because species evolve in time, changing under the pressure of natural selection. But the idea that no transitional fossils have been unearthed is laughable. Almost all fossils of extinct species are either transitional forms or the end of their line, and we have many of them. Tiktaalik is a superb and dramatic recent example.

But Cameron seems to have this bizarre notion that a transitional form consists of a crude hybrid of two currently existing species. Cameron gives as an example that, since we currently have ducks and crocodiles, Darwin's theory predicts the existence of an organism that should have the body of a duck and the head of a crocodile. Since we do not see such an animal, which he cleverly calls a 'crocoduck', that means that evolution is false and god exists. No really, that's his argument.

Perhaps many of you are thinking at this point that I must be exaggerating. Surely, nobody could be that ignorant and stupid? Well, let's go to the video:

Cameron is really proud of this argument, having also trotted it out in a debate with atheists from the Rational Response Squad, as can be seen in the next video. Cameron's crocoduck argument starts at 3:45, and he then adds 'bull frog' and 'sheep dog' as similar ridiculous hybrids. He must really think this is a clever argument to put so much effort into creating those drawings.

I have been recently praising the online comic strip Jesus and Mo. If I had any cartooning talent at all (which I don't) and also a better developed sense of humor, I would start a comic strip similar to that called The Adventures of Banana Man and Crocoduck, based on the antics of Comfort and Cameron.

One can think of several directions in which to take it. My preference would be to have them be like Batman and Robin, where Comfort and Cameron have ordinary everyday identities. But whenever they encounter evil in the form of atheist science (which is everywhere), they change into their secret identities as Banana Man and Crocoduck (complete with appropriate costumes), and venture out to fight it in the name of religion, making fools of themselves in the process.

Comfort's introduction of their edition of Origins should provide more than enough material to work with.

POST SCRIPT: Religious people can't handle the truth about Darwin and evolution

It seems as if a critically acclaimed feature film called Creation dealing with the life of Charles Darwin (played by Paul Bettany) cannot find a distributor in the US, because they think the subject is too controversial!

Creation was developed by BBC Films and the UK Film Council, and stars Bettany's real-life wife Jennifer Connelly as Darwin's deeply religious wife, Emma. It is based on the book, Annie's Box, by Darwin's great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, and portrays the naturalist as a family man tormented by the death in 1851 of Annie, his favourite child. She is played in the film by 10-year-old newcomer Martha West, the daughter of The Wire star Dominic West.

Early reviews have raved about the film. The Hollywood Reporter said: "It would be a great shame if those with religious convictions spurned the film out of hand as they will find it even-handed and wise."

Maybe a film called The Adventures of Banana Man and Crocoduck could be made instead. I am open to offers from Hollywood. Have their people call my people and we'll do lunch.

September 24, 2009

God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom

My new book is now available! I received my copy in the mail yesterday.

My publishers say that the book can be obtained through the usual outlets. You can order it from the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and also through your local bookstores.

I have a request to make of readers of this blog. If you have the time, I would really appreciate it if you could write reviews of the book on sites like Amazon and elsewhere, and make the book known to people and groups whom you think might be interested in it or might like me to come and give talks on it.

The book deals with the thorny question of the role of religion and the Bible in US schools. While school prayer has been one important facet of these attempts and has perhaps received the most publicity, the teaching of evolution has also been, at least in the US, the focus of many court cases involving various subtle shades of meaning and interpretation of the U.S. constitution, testing in particular the limits of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution, which states simply that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

My book interweaves this general history of religion in schools with the specific history of the opposition to the teaching of evolution in US classrooms, starting with the Scopes trial in 1925 and ending with the intelligent design Dover trial in 2005, focusing on how the nature of this opposition has itself evolved as a result of repeated setbacks in the courts.

The book's dust jacket gives a good synopsis of the book.

In God vs. Darwin, Mano Singham dissects the legal battle between evolution and creationism in the classroom beginning with the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 and ending with an intelligent design trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005. A publicity stunt, the Scopes Monkey trial had less to do with legal precedence than with generating tourism dollars for a rural Tennessee town. But the trial did successfully spark a debate that has lasted more than 80 years and simply will not be quelled despite a succession of seemingly definitive court decisions. In the greatest demonstration of survival, opposition to the teaching of evolution has itself evolved. Attempts to completely eliminate the teaching of evolution from public schools have given way to the recognition that evolution is here to stay, that explicitly religious ideas will never be allowed in public schools, and that the best that can be hoped for is to chip away at the credibility of the theory of evolution.

Dr. Singham deftly answers complex questions: Why is there such intense antagonism to the teaching of evolution in the United States? What have the courts said about the various attempts to oppose it? Sprinkled with interesting tidbits about Charles Darwin and the major players of the evolution vs. creationism debate, readers will find that God vs. Darwin is charming in its embrace of the strong passions aroused from the topic of teaching evolution in schools.

Jim Paces, executive director of curriculum of the Shaker Heights City Schools in Ohio and one of the early reviewers of the book, said the following:

[This] captivating new book draws on his knowledge of both history and science to provide an expert analysis of the ongoing opposition to the teaching of evolution in America's public schools. He offers a clearly written, concise explanation of the evolution-religion controversy which has continued to play out in local school districts across the country. This is an absolute "must read" for school officials and community members alike . . . indeed for anyone interested in a fascinating illustration of who decides what should be taught in our nation's schools.

Barbara Forrest, professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, said:

In recounting the history of creationism through major legal cases, Professor Singham correctly exposes the fear that drives creationists to keep searching for ways to undermine the teaching of evolution despite consistent defeats in the federal courts. He shows convincingly that, while religious objections to evolution persist, such objections are ultimately powerless to stop the advancement of science. This book expands the growing list of excellent books available for anyone who wants to understand the phenomenon of American creationism.

Charles Russo, Professor of Education and Law at the University of Dayton, wrote in the Foreword that the book:

presents a highly readable and comprehensive analysis of this fascinating area. With the perspective of a physicist rather than a lawyer, educator, or social scientist, Mano Singham applies his dispassionate scientific eye in such a way that he presents fresh insights into the ongoing controversy over who should control the content of curricula, scientific or otherwise, in public schools.

At its heart, God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom offers a valuable learning experience for all of those interested in education, religion, science, and the law.

In a way, the readers of this blog shared in this book's creation because its nucleus consisted of a series of posts that I wrote a few years ago.

I hope that those of you who read it find it as least as enjoyable as I did writing it. And, again, please write a review if you can.

September 23, 2009

Using placebos as part of treatments

Nowadays, the testing of new drugs often involves comparisons not only with placebos but also with older established drugs in three-way double-blind tests. What is emerging from these trials is that the placebo effect seems to be getting stronger, which means that new drugs in clinical trials are having a harder time showing that they are better than the placebo. Another consequence of stronger placebo responses is that some well-known drugs used is the trials as the older standard (and that had beaten the placebo in earlier tests) seem not to be able to do so now.

As Steve Silberman in Wired Magazine says:

Some products that have been on the market for decades, like Prozac, are faltering in more recent follow-up tests. In many cases, these are the compounds that, in the late '90s, made Big Pharma more profitable than Big Oil. But if these same drugs were vetted now, the FDA might not approve some of them. Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 1980s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time.

It's not that the old meds are getting weaker, drug developers say. It's as if the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger.

But why would the sugar pill placebos be having a stronger effect now? One possibility is that we are getting better at doing double-blind tests, thus eliminating spurious effects that escaped detection earlier. For example it is found that certain assumptions used in drug testing (that geography does not matter) are now found to be not valid. Not only does the placebo response of the patient vary from place to place, so do the ratings by trial observers, leading to the unfortunate possibility that drug companies may 'placebo-shop', choosing for their clinical tests those areas where the placebo response is low in order to have their drugs seem more effective.

But the more interesting thing that Silberman points out is that the rising strength of the placebo response may be telling us something valuable about the power of the brain to influence our biochemical processes. The placebo effect may be more of a physiological response than a psychological one, and something that can be harnessed in favor of better treatments. Many of these effects are related to pain-reducing compounds called opiods that are produced by the brain. Placebos can act like catalysts, triggering the release of these opiods.

Researcher Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin finds that:

Placebo-activated opioids, for example, not only relieve pain; they also modulate heart rate and respiration. The neurotransmitter dopamine, when released by placebo treatment, helps improve motor function in Parkinson's patients. Mechanisms like these can elevate mood, sharpen cognitive ability, alleviate digestive disorders, relieve insomnia, and limit the secretion of stress-related hormones like insulin and cortisol.

What seems to be going on is that our expectations of what the future will be like seem to play a significant role in how our brain influences our body. If we feel that a good result will ensue from a treatment, the brain releases chemicals that assist in creating that result. What placebos seem to be doing is manipulating those expectations.

It also works in reverse. There are things called 'nocebos' that work opposite to placebos, suppressing the beneficial brain functioning. "Cancer patients undergoing rounds of chemotherapy often suffer from debilitating nocebo effects—such as anticipatory nausea—conditioned by their past experiences with the drugs."

This has led to a revision in attitudes towards placebos, shifting them from a problem to be overcome to viewing them as an additional form of treatment that should be better harnessed. Of course, there are limits to what placebos and the brain can do. As Silberman says, a placebo "can ease the discomfort of chemotherapy, but it won't stop the growth of tumors."

The success of modern medicine in treating many ailments may have strengthened the placebo effect by instilling greater confidence in patients that their treatment will work, triggering the release of opiods and dopamine. Furthermore, drug companies also advertise heavily these days, promoting the benefits of their products to relieve all manner of ailments and associating taking it with good things in life, such as beautiful sunsets, playing with children, enjoying the outdoors, sex, sports, etc. So placebos may be getting stronger because people believe that the drugs will give them a better future.

As a result, the very success of drugs in the past may be working against the drug companies now by increasing the expectations of drugs and thus creating a stronger placebo response. Furthermore,

Existing tests also may not be appropriate for diagnosing disorders like social anxiety and premenstrual dysphoria—the very types of chronic, fuzzily defined conditions that the drug industry started targeting in the '90s, when the placebo problem began escalating. The neurological foundation of these illnesses is still being debated, making it even harder for drug companies to come up with effective treatments.

What all of these disorders have in common, however, is that they engage the higher cortical centers that generate beliefs and expectations, interpret social cues, and anticipate rewards. So do chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, Parkinson's, and many other ailments that respond robustly to placebo treatment. To avoid investing in failure, researchers say, pharmaceutical companies will need to adopt new ways of vetting drugs that route around the brain's own centralized network for healing.

It seems like there need to be developments in two areas. One is to find better ways to test for the true effectiveness of drugs that go even beyond the current double-blind testing. What may be necessary is to incorporate 'open/hidden' tests where the test subjects don't know when they being given any treatment at all, whether it be placebo or drug. This will remove the placebo effect of expectations, giving a better measure for the effectiveness of the drugs.

The second development is to learn how to better use the brain-based nature of the placebo response as part of therapy. A judicious combination of truly effective drugs and the placebo response may be an important part of the future of medicine.

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Tom Tomorrow's comic strip imagines how the health insurance industry would have operated in medieval times if it behaved the way it does now.

September 22, 2009

The placebo effect

In the previous post, I described the practice of homeopathy and explained why it should no longer be taken seriously. Now that we know that its originator Samuel Hahnemann was basically treating his patients with water, what made him think his treatment was effective? There is no evidence that he was a fraud or charlatan, foisting on his patients something he knew was bogus in order to take their money. He was probably genuine in his belief in the efficacy of his treatment.

It is likely that he was misled by the placebo effect, where patients recover from an illness due to any number of factors that have nothing to do with treatment provided by the doctor. People who want to believe seize on these random events and see patterns that don't exist. For example, since colds get better after a few days, it is possible to get gullible people to believe that practically anything is a cure for cold since if you take it soon after the onset of symptoms, presto, the cold disappears in a couple of days.

Steve Silberman in Wired Magazine describes how the placebo effect was discovered.

The roots of the placebo problem can be traced to a lie told by an Army nurse during World War II as Allied forces stormed the beaches of southern Italy. The nurse was assisting an anesthetist named Henry Beecher, who was tending to US troops under heavy German bombardment. When the morphine supply ran low, the nurse assured a wounded soldier that he was getting a shot of potent painkiller, though her syringe contained only salt water. Amazingly, the bogus injection relieved the soldier's agony and prevented the onset of shock.

Returning to his post at Harvard after the war, Beecher became one of the nation's leading medical reformers. Inspired by the nurse's healing act of deception, he launched a crusade to promote a method of testing new medicines to find out whether they were truly effective.

In a 1955 paper titled "The Powerful Placebo," published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Beecher described how the placebo effect had undermined the results of more than a dozen trials by causing improvement that was mistakenly attributed to the drugs being tested. He demonstrated that trial volunteers who got real medication were also subject to placebo effects; the act of taking a pill was itself somehow therapeutic, boosting the curative power of the medicine. Only by subtracting the improvement in a placebo control group could the actual value of the drug be calculated.

The placebo explains why so many medical procedures that are now viewed with horror were standard treatments in the past. Bloodletting, bleeding with leeches, attaching maggots, dousing with cold water, were among the treatments once recommended. Charles Darwin suffered from all manner of undiagnosed ailments that included frequent vomiting and he subjected himself to various uncomfortable water treatments in the belief that they helped him. His beloved daughter Annie died of an unknown illness after receiving similar water treatments.

In my own building on the third floor is a small museum of medical history that contains all manner of gruesome-looking medical devices that no one thinks of using today but once were believed to be effective, even state-of-the-art. As long as the physician and patient had confidence in the treatment, it must have seemed to work.

Because of the repeated discrediting of medical treatments that were once considered effective, it has been suggested that the history of medicine is actually the history of the placebo effect, with new placebos replacing the old, leading to the uncomfortable suggestion that our current treatments, however sophisticated they may seem, are merely the latest placebos.

But there is reason to think that we now have a much better idea of what really works and what is a placebo because Beecher's work led to the invention of the practice of double-blind experimental testing, where neither the patient nor the researcher collecting the data and doing the analyses knows who is receiving the experimental treatment and who is receiving the placebo.

By 1962, the government had started requiring drug companies to perform clinical tests with placebos in order to get approval and this has led to the elimination of outright quackery in medicine. Without such precautions, people can, even with the best of intentions, subtly distort the results to get the result they want or expect.

As a result of the widespread adoption of double-blind testing, there is good reason to think that our current practices are significantly better than those of the past, and that we are no longer so easily fooled by placebos.

Next: Using placebos as part of treatment.

POST SCRIPT: How double blind tests work

Double-blind tests are useful not only in medicine. Richard Dawkins shows what happens when it is used to test the claims of people who think they can detect the presence of water by dowsing.

It is interesting that when the tests show the dowsers that the "powers" they thought they had is non-existent, they make up stuff to enable them to continue believing. Does that remind you of anything?

September 21, 2009

Homeopathy and religion

Homeopathic treatment is based on the belief that if something making you ill, then a highly diluted solution of that same thing will act as a cure. It was introduced in 1796 by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann who claimed it illustrated the workings of the 'principle of similars' or 'like cures like'. This counterintuitive notion may have sounded plausible in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and even now may sound plausible to those who know that vaccines consist of building antibodies to a disease by introducing into the body small quantities of the same or related organisms,

The levels of dilution used were quantified by Hahnemann by something called the "C scale" which meant diluting by a factor of 100. So 1C dilution meant diluting by 100, 2C meant diluting by 100x100=104=10,000, 3C meant diluting by 100x100x100=106=1,000,000, and so on. The substances are diluted in a stepwise fashion and shaken vigorously between each dilution.

A key feature of homeopathic belief is the "principle of dilutions" or the "law of minimum dose" which states that "the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness." So a 7C solution is supposedly more effective (i.e., "stronger") than a 6C solution, even though it is 100 times more dilute.

The development of the atomic theory of matter in the 19th century pretty much destroyed the scientific credibility of homeopathy. According to modern science, one mole of any substance contains 6.022x1023 molecules or atoms of that substance. This number is called Avogadro's number. So for example, the element sodium has an atomic weight of 23, which means that 23 grams of sodium contains 6.022x1023 atoms. So if you took one mole of sodium (=23 gram) and diluted it to 12C (i.e., by a factor of 1024), you would have just about a single atom of sodium in it. If you go to even higher dilutions then the chance of having even a single atom of the original substance becomes vanishingly small. Since Hahnemann advocated dilutions of 30C, what he was giving his patients was water. Of course, the idea of the atomic theory of matter and Avogadro's number was only coming to the fore in the early 19th century so Hahnemann could not know this.

But homeopathic treatments and practitioners are still around. How can people still believe in homeopathy now since we know that there is no active ingredient remaining and people are merely taking in water? This is where the parallel to religion comes into play. Both began in times when science was more primitive and the explanations offered by homeopathy/religion seemed plausible, or at least no worse than the competing explanations. But as science advanced and showed that the original explanations were untenable and better ones existed, people became split. Some accepted science and rejected homeopathy/religion. Others wanted to continue believing and so made up ad hoc theories to enable them to continue belief.

What homeopathy devotees did was find new reasons for believing, arguing that the shaking that occurred during the process of dilution (which they refer to as "potentization") transmits "some form of information or energy from the original substance to the final diluted remedy. Most homeopathic remedies are so dilute that no molecules of the healing substance remain; however, in homeopathy, it is believed that the substance has left its imprint or "essence," which stimulates the body to heal itself (this theory is called the "memory of water")." But there is no evidence that water, a very much studied and well-understood substance, can carry with it any such memory.

Similarly, as science increasingly exposes the inadequacy of religious explanations for phenomena, religions invented theology with its own convoluted reasoning, trying to find ways to retain belief in god. It has ended up being forced to postulate a Slacker God.

Modern theological language is similar to that of modern homeopathy, making stuff up as they go along, introducing vocabulary and modes of operation that are so vague, elusive, and tenuous that they defy any systematic investigation, all in order to continue believing in something that has ceased to have any credibility.


The term 'woo' or 'woo-woo' refers to "ideas considered irrational or based on extremely flimsy evidence or that appeal to mysterious occult forces or powers."

That Mitchell and Webb Look pokes fun at homeopathy and other forms of woo.

September 18, 2009

The lack of foresight in the Bible

Religious people like to dwell on the virtues of their holy books. They also like to claim that those books were either directly dictated by god or at least divinely inspired. But what is remarkable is that there is not a single thing in any of those books that shows any insight that could not have been held by an ordinary person living two thousand years ago or so with the knowledge that was at hand at that time. The lack of any hint of divine foresight in the Bible is striking.

For one thing, modern science has revealed that the universe is, by any measure, absolutely huge. Even the craziest of the religious crazies do not claim that the Earth is the center of a small universe and that the sky we see is just a bowl with holes in it. But as Carl Sagan pointed out, "[T]his vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religions."

As Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York-Lehman College, says in reviewing Sagan's book The Variety of Scientific Experience, which was based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures:

Sagan imagines how God could have dictated his books to the ancient prophets in a way that would have certainly made an impact on us moderns. He could have said (I'm quoting Sagan directly here): "Don't forget, Mars is a rusty place with volcanoes. ... You'll understand this later. Trust me. ... How about, 'Thou shalt not travel faster than light?' ... Or 'There are no privileged frames of reference.' Or how about some equations? Maxwell's laws in Egyptian hieroglyphics or ancient Chinese characters or ancient Hebrew." Now that would be impressive, and even Dawkins would have to scratch his head at it. But no, instead we find trivial stories about local tribes, a seemingly endless series of "begats," and a description of the world as small, young, and rather flat.

Sagan's challenge is virtually ignored by theologians the world over. And for good reason: it is impossible to answer coherently while retaining the core of most religious traditions. The various gods people worship are simply far too small for the universe we actually inhabit, which is no surprise once we accept the rather obvious truth that it is us who made the gods in our image, not the other way around.

Images from the Hubble telescope reveal a universe of stunning beauty. But there are no hints in the religious books that the lights in the night sky are anything more than uninteresting dots. How hard would it have been for god to tell one of his prophets, say Elijah, to preach something along the lines of "Listen up, people! When you learn how to put two pieces of curved glass together to make distant objects seem larger, you are going to see things in the sky that will knock your socks off. Trust me on this."

More recently, Sam Harris has made a point similar to Sagan's :

But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy could be if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage like, "In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the Internet." The Bible contains nothing remotely like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. (emphasis added)

Why doesn't the Bible say anything about electricity, about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? Millions of people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, many of them children. When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will surely be reducible to a few pages of text. Why aren't these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? The Bible is a very big book. There was room for God to instruct us on how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals. Please appreciate how this looks to one who stands outside the Christian faith. It is genuinely amazing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.

It would not have taken much for god to indicate that he was behind books like the Bible or the Koran. The lack of such hints is surely a telling sign that these books are nothing more than the writings of people who lived in those times and were creating a narrative that would serve their immediate purposes.

More thoughtful religious people are sensitive to this obvious defect of their holy books. What they do is try to retroactively claim credit for predictions by (as this Jesus and Mo comic amusingly points out) tortuously reinterpreting the language of their books whenever a new scientific discovery comes along. The atheist barmaid has the best question to ask when someone makes this kind of absurd claim.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on the Bible

September 17, 2009

The big tent of the atheists

Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently fall prey to the temptation to classify things in groups. I would have been in my element as a 19th century biologist implementing the Linnaean classification scheme of all living things. Recently I have been thinking that the term 'atheist' is associated with too narrow a meaning. In fact, I think that there are six different types of atheist.

The most common type of atheist is the explicit atheist. These are the people who say openly that they do not believe that god exists, and this is the group to whom the label is commonly believed to apply.

Then we have the covert atheists. These are people who no longer believe that god exists but do not feel that they can openly say so. The climate for atheists can be quite hostile in some parts of the world, enough to be socially ostracized or even lose one's job, requiring such people to keep mum about their lack of belief. Others may keep quiet because they belong to religious families and may not want to upset loved ones by speaking about their lack of belief. I suspect that the ranks of elected officials in the US or those seeking such office have a large number of covert atheists.

Other covert atheists work for religious institutions as priests or rabbis or ministers or imams. I have argued before that there is likely to be a high level of covert atheism among religious intellectuals, with the faculty of religion departments in colleges and theological seminaries, upper levels of the clergy, and the Pope being particularly good candidates.

But others may keep quiet about their atheism simply because they like belonging to churches, perhaps for the camaraderie (in many small towns the church and school are the main venues for social gatherings), perhaps because they like to sing in the choir, or because religious institutions provide avenues for social activism. Such people are willing to not speak of their atheism in return for enjoying these benefits.

Then there are the functional atheists. These are people who, while they may or may not say anything about their belief or disbelief in god, or even bother much with this question, live their lives as if god does not exist.

Then there are the agnostic atheists. These are people (like Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan) who reject the label of atheist and choose to call themselves agnostics because they have bought into the mistaken belief that atheists are certain that there is no god. Since they don't think one can know such a thing for certain, they call themselves agnostics. As I have argued before, such people are mistaken about what being an atheist implies and they could just as easily call themselves atheists without changing their views in any way.

The fifth category consists of the people I have been writing about recently, such as Karen Armstrong, H. E. Baber, and Robert Wright. They are the people who say they do believe in a god but when they go on to describe their object of belief, it turns out that they do not believe in anything that any traditional believer could relate to, since their god does absolutely nothing but seems to be simply an idea or an object of contemplation. I have called these people worshippers in the Church of the Slacker God but a snappier label for them might be the seemingly oxymoronic religious atheists.

Interestingly, R. Albert Mohler, who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also sees people like Armstrong as atheists, whatever they call themselves, and seems to agree with me that that her kind of defense of god essentially concedes the debate to atheists. He calls Armstrong's argument 'superficial' and 'theologically reckless' and 'elegant nonsense', writing that "the exchange in The Wall Street Journal [between Armstrong and Richard Dawkins] turns out to be a meeting of two atheist minds. The difference, of course, is that one knows he is an atheist when the other presumably claims she is not. Dawkins knows a fellow atheist when he sees one. Careful readers of The Wall Street Journal will come to the same conclusion."

The final category is the spiritual atheist. As the powerful arguments of the atheists sink in and people realize that they cannot be refuted, you can expect to hear many more statements of the "I am not religious but I am spiritual" kind, which usually signals that the speaker is on the way to atheism (or at least has given up on god) but is as yet unwilling to acknowledge this to herself or to others. Because the word spiritual has such an elastic meaning it provides a way out of the impasse for those who shy away from embracing the label of atheism but don't want to be lumped with religious believers either. As usual, Jesus and Mo have a funny take on this.

The people known as 'accommodationists', who claim that the scientific and religious worldviews are either compatible or feel that the incompatibility should not be highlighted, can be found in all these groups. That label describes less of a personal belief and more of a preference for a political strategy.

So we see that atheists are 'big tent' people, welcoming all those who seek to escape from the intellectual straitjacket that religions put on people.

POST SCRIPT: Nutters day out

Max Blumenthal mingles with the crowd at last weekend's demonstration in Washington DC which seemed to bring out the nutters. Some of these people are major-league weird.

And talking of nutters, you may be wondering what Orly Taitz, the person who was leading the 'birther' movement, has been up to. Her most recent case (one of many she has filed that challenged Obama's right to deploy someone to Iraq because he had not proved his citizenship) was thrown out yesterday by a judge who, in a ruling remarkable for its mixture of ridicule and sarcasm, warned her that if she wastes the court's time again with such nonsense, she would face sanctions

Taitz's response to this stinging rebuke? She thinks the judge should be tried for treason! With Orly, the fun never ends.

A motion to have her disbarred for misconduct reveals depths of idiocy that even I had not imagined. This document is a list of just allegations that have not been proven but if even a small fraction are true they reveal a level of wackiness on Taitz's part that borders on delusional.

September 16, 2009

Atheism has won the debate

I think it should be clear to any thinking person that atheism has won. Not in terms of numbers, of course. People who call themselves religious still heavily outnumber those who say they are atheists, though the gap is closing. In a future post I will argue that the gap is closer than the raw numbers indicate but this post is about how atheists have clearly won the debate over whether it makes sense to believe that god exists.

The evidence for this is that religious intellectuals have pretty much given up on a god that has even a remote resemblance to what the word usually conjures up, and have instead created a faux god that merely provides them with a metaphor of transcendence to cling on to.

One can see this in the problem faced by religious intellectuals like H. E. Baber and Robert Wright. They are forced to agree with the atheist position that a god who intervenes in any way in the working of the universe is incompatible with a scientific worldview, since they realize that abandoning methodological naturalism puts them in bed with the religious crazies. But for whatever reason they are reluctant to call themselves atheists, so they are forced to invent the Slacker God to whom they can pledge allegiance and thus retain their religious credentials.

More evidence of the intellectual rout of religion can be seen in the September 11, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal, where the paper asked Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to contribute a pair of articles on the topic Man vs. God. Each person apparently knew the other was writing but did not see their essay.

Armstrong is a former Catholic nun and a religious apologist who has written a huge number of books on comparative religion. Dawkins, of course, needs no introduction.

One should really read Armstrong's entire essay to fully appreciate the smokescreen of language that tries to hide modern theology's retreat in the face of science. I will quote just a small piece of it that captures the unenviable position that people like her and Baber and Wright find themselves in as a result of their need to simultaneously cling on to scientific respectability while not abandoning religion entirely.

The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.

All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth ("Existence is suffering"), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God.

So there we are. As far as Armstrong I concerned, the god that most people can recognize has disappeared, to be replaced by a Zen-like aesthetic, an art form that provides an experience similar to the appreciation of poetry or music or painting. She goes so far as to equate god with nirvana, the Buddhists' belief in a state of nonbeing that one supposedly enters if one manages to break free of the birth-death-rebirth cycle.

Dawkins, of course, has heard all this mush before and ruthlessly demolishes it. Being 'rude' and 'uncivil' as he is, he does not try to pretend that the position of Armstrong and others like her makes any sense but instead clinically dissects her argument to reveal that at its core is – nothing.

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."

Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.

This is why I say that atheists have won. The sophisticated religious apologists have essentially conceded the argument and retreated to a small corner of the religious world that is cut off from that of the vast majority of religious believers. They are atheists in all but name.

POST SCRIPT: What happens when theology gets too sophisticated for its own good

Jesus and Mo weigh in on Karen Armstrong's view of god.

September 15, 2009

Being a new atheist means not saying you're sorry

The main complaint against new atheists made by accommodationists is not with what they say but with how they say it, their supposedly hostile 'tone'. They are accused of being rude, uncivil, arrogant, extreme, militant, shrill, strident, etc. but it is important to note that they are rarely accused of being wrong. This is undoubtedly because evidence and logic is on the side of those who claim that there is no god and that to believe in one is incompatible with a scientific worldview. Believers in god have to go through all manner of tortuous apologetics to argue in favor of even a Slacker God, let alone the super-powered miracle worker believed in by most religious people.

It is undoubtedly true that in the public sphere some atheists (including me) have made fun of some of the more preposterous claims of religion. In fact, in some situations laughing is the most appropriate response, as recognized by Thomas Jefferson when he said, "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them." For example, what can you do about the 'nutters' other than laugh at them? The excellent comic strip Jesus and Mo makes much the same point.

But pointing out the ridiculous implications of an opponent's argument is part of the polemical nature of public debate on any issue. It is no different than religious people confidently asserting that there is a god and that we atheists are going to hell or at least are 'not saved', whatever that means. As an atheist my feelings are not at all hurt and neither am I offended by such assertions. Why should I be since I don't believe in god or hell? From my point of view, such claims are merely laughable. Similarly, religious friends and relatives sometimes send me jokes that make fun of atheism and atheists. If the jokes are funny, I am amused. If not, it is just a few moments of time wasted. But there is nothing to be offended about.

New atheists are urged by fellow atheists like Massimo Pigliucci to be 'measured and humble' (in the manner of Carl Sagan) and not use the 'angry and inflated rhetoric' of Richard Dawkins. A new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate by Terry Eagleton supposedly attacks the new atheists. In a review of it, James Wood (a self-described atheist) suggests that "What is needed is neither the overweening rationalism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief."

I think the terms 'humble' and 'disappointed belief' used by Pigliucci and Wood are important clues to what complaints about 'tone' are all about. The problem is that new atheists treat the statements "religion and science are compatible" and "if we get rid of their fundamentalist elements, religion is worth preserving" as merely propositions that can be examined dispassionately and analytically, using evidence and arguments for and against, similar to other propositions like "increasing the minimum wage will reduce poverty" or "increased carbon dioxide levels will increase the risk of global warming."

The new atheists conclude that both propositions about religion are untenable. Hence they say that religion and science are incompatible and that so-called 'good' religion encourages irrationality and also serves as a cover and enabler of bad religion and thus that we would be better off without religion altogether. They report their conclusions in the same matter-of-fact way that they would their conclusions about the minimum wage or global warming or any other proposition.

Wood, however, sees this as displaying "overweening rationalism" instead of "disappointed belief". It seems as if in order to be a 'good' atheist one has to feel bad about not believing in god. We are expected to go to extraordinary lengths to soothe the feelings of believers, by prefacing any statement about atheism by sighing regretfully and saying things along the lines of "I hate to say this but I don't believe in god. But this is a personal belief that I have reluctantly accepted and I can understand why others might choose to believe in god. In fact, I envy the emotional satisfaction that religious beliefs provide. I hope you are not offended by my saying I am an atheist and if you are I sincerely apologize."

The absurdity of this expectation can be seen by looking at comparable situations that do not involve religion. Einstein, for example, was not accused of "overweening rationalism" and being arrogant when he introduced his theory of relativity that overturned centuries of belief in the validity of Newtonian physics. It would have been absurd to expect Einstein to have prefaced his papers with statements like, "I know that almost all people sincerely believe in Newtonian physics and may be really upset when I say that it is not valid. This makes me sad. However, the theory of relativity is just my personal belief and I think it is compatible with Newtonian physics and so people can choose to believe in both theories."

Instead, Einstein simply laid out his arguments and evidence as strongly as possible in order to convince people that he was right, which is exactly as it should be. Whether it would be accepted or not by the community at large depended on whether it was supported by the evidence or not. The level of emotional attachment that people had for Newtonian physics undoubtedly influenced how readily they adopted the new physics but Einstein was under no obligation whatsoever to soften his arguments to accommodate those emotions.

New atheists treat propositions about religion in the same dispassionate way. They are no more displaying 'overweening rationalism' and lack of humility than Einstein was. Why should the emotional attachment of religious people to the idea of god be accorded any more solicitousness that those of Newtonians to their theory?

What really seems to irk some people is that new atheists are not at all apologetic or regretful about their atheism. New atheists are cheerful about the nonexistence of god and do not hesitate to say so because they would like others to experience the same exhilarating sense of intellectual liberation.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on Jonah and the whale

God explains all the careful preparatory work that had to be done to pull off that stunt, and the unfortunate aftermath that the Bible neglected to report.

September 14, 2009

Hail the Goddess Shirley!

During the Labor Day weekend, I spent a good portion of it going through all the comics on the Jesus and Mo website. For those not familiar with this strip, the premise is that Jesus and Mohammed are roommates somewhere in the United Kingdom who spend a lot of time at the neighborhood pub being challenged about religion by an atheist barmaid. Moses is a mutual friend of Jesus and Mo who does not live with them but drops by for periodic visits.

The comic strip is a remarkable blend of philosophy, theology, and humor that appears twice weekly and if you start from the very first strip in November 2005 and go through to the present, you get a good introduction to many of the issues concerning religion and atheism that this blog has been addressing, except that the strip says things more concisely and is funnier. It is well worth your while to read all the strips.

It is also very insightful. This strip from 2008 made me suddenly realize that we new atheist scientists have been going about things all wrong in our attempts to show that being an atheist makes the most sense intellectually.

The trouble with scientists is that when we are asked a question to which we don't know the answer yet, we say we don't know the answer yet. This is our usual reply when religious people ask, "What existed before the Big Bang? What caused the universe to come into being? How can matter arise out of nothing? How did the laws of science come into being? How was the first life form created?"

Religious people seize on these frank admissions of ignorance as if they are a fatal weakness of science or of atheism and their theologians triumphantly claim that religion does provide answers to all these questions and is thus superior to science, since this shows that religion has 'ways of knowing' that are superior to science.

But what are their answers really? When you come right down to it, what religions do to get 'answers' is simply make stuff up. They have no evidence or proof for their answers or even decent arguments that are not circular and self-serving. But once you invent an imaginary entity to which you can assign any powers you like, you can give facile answers to any question.

Here are some examples:

Q: Who created the universe and matter and the laws of science? A: God.
Q: How did he do all that? A: He is omnipotent so he can do anything.
Q: Why does he allow evil and suffering? A: Because he loves us.
Q: How does that make any sense? A: He has a cunning plan.
Q: What is the plan? A: It is a secret.
Q: Why? A: We are not ready to understand it.
Q: When will it be revealed? A: When we are ready to understand it.
Q: Why don't we see any evidence of god? A: He carefully hides the evidence from us.
Q: Why? A: Because he has a cunning plan.
Q: What is the plan? A: It is a secret.

And so on, ad infinitum. You could easily write a computer program to provide these kinds of answers.

Scientists should take a cue from the theologians so that whenever we are confronted with the kinds of questions that religious people love to ask, like "What is the meaning of life?" or "What is the purpose of beauty?" instead of answering honestly, we should simply make stuff up too.

This was the genius of Bobby Henderson. Rather than debating the existence of god, he simply made up a new deity called the Flying Spaghetti Monster and challenged traditional religions to explain why theirs is more credible than his. This, of course, they cannot do. So the Flying Spaghetti Monster now proudly stands as an equal in the pantheon with Amun, Zeus, Odin, Krishna, Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Zoroaster, and others. To get a sense of how many gods there have been in the history of the universe, the website Machines Like Us has compiled an alphabetized list, though the FSM is inexplicably not included.

So taking my cue from Jesus and Mo (and Bobby), here are some sample answers that I will give in the future to some popular questions:

Q: What existed before the Big Bang? A: Shirley MacLaine, in the very first of all her previous lives.
Q: What caused the universe to come into being? A: Shirley sneezed, and this was the Big Bang.
Q: Where did all the matter come from? A: Shirley baked it in her oven.
Q: Who created the laws of nature? A: Shirley again. That amazing woman can do anything!
Q: By what mechanism did the first life form come into being? A: Shirley gave birth to it.
Q: What is the meaning of life? A: To propagate Shirley's genes.
Q: What is the purpose of beauty? A: To give pleasure to Shirley. She likes pretty things.

Actually these answers are even better than the ones provided by standard theology because they involve no secret cunning plans. Shirley tells her followers everything.

Truly Shirley is the greatest of all gods.

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Baxter!

The wonder dog is four years old today.


September 11, 2009

My colonoscopy saga-4: Some final thoughts

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

What is interesting about my experience is that even physicians whom I know personally and to whom I have told this story are surprised that whether I am charged for a colonoscopy depends on whether any polyps are found.

I also spoke about my experience at a health care panel a couple of years ago. Another panelist, a professor at another university, said that he thought that it was perfectly reasonable for us to treat health care like any other commodity and that consumers should shop around for the best deal. I responded that this was absurd. Health care is not a commodity to be compared like buying detergent. People often confront the health system in situations where they are deeply troubled or their plight is urgent or where they have few choices.

There is absolutely no justification for profit making entities like health insurance companies to be part of the system. No one has ever been able to tell me what value they add to the system. In fact they are parasites, a drain, and a hindrance to the smooth working of health care delivery. Health care services should be as universal and as profit and bureaucracy-free as your police or fire or library services.

Imagine applying the same health care logic to those other things. Suppose you had the same system for police protection. There would be separate police stations and you would have to pick a plan every year that specified your police station and the police officers who would serve you, and the services would be charged depending on what your policy said and your needs. So having a policy that would have police officers only come to investigate minor burglaries would cost less than to have them come to investigate an assault or a missing person. Such a system would be considered insane.

It used to be the case that fire protection actually was private and you would have to buy insurance in order to get firemen to come to your house to put out a fire. The system changed to a universal, single-payer public system because the unchecked fires of people who did not have insurance would spread to the houses of those who had, and people realized that fire-fighting was best dealt with as a communal responsibility. There are some things that the community should be collectively responsible for, and police, fire, and health should be among them.

The current health system in the US is run primarily for the benefit of the insurance and drug companies and also for the benefit of specialist doctors. All those groups make a lot of money within the current system at the expense of people who are sick. The US is the only country in the developed world that does not have either a socialized system like England or a single-payer system like France or Canada, both of which could be easily adopted in the US, by expanding and improving Medicare.

Even many developing countries like Sri Lanka have government-run single-payer systems as a foundation, with private health insurance supplements for those who want extras, such as private rooms in hospitals.

Some years ago, my mother in Sri Lanka was diagnosed with colon cancer. When her doctors found this out, they recommended surgery and her surgeon said that the best place for it would be in the government hospital. So she went into hospital, had the operation, and followed up with chemotherapy and radiation, all of which extended her life for some years. All the costs of her surgery and hospitalization (including intensive care) and post-operative out-patient care were free. All decisions about what treatment she should receive were made exclusively by her and her physicians, with no insurance or hospital bureaucrats involved. No conversations were required with anyone other than the doctors and nurses who treated her. No paperwork, no claim forms, no deductibles, none of maddening bureaucracy that people in the US are routinely subjected to by their private, profit-seeking health insurance companies, however sick they are.

The added value to her quality of life and to her family from not having to deal with all these hassles: immeasurable.

If Sri Lanka can do this, with a per capita health expenditure of $163 vs. $6,096 in the US, i.e. one-fortieth, why not the US?

The answer: The US can easily do it. The US spending per capita on health care is about twice that of other countries like France and Canada which have far better health care delivery systems based on the single payer model. If the money it currently spends on health care were used to fund a single-payer system, the US could easily have the best health care system in the world. Instead it has one of the worst in the developed world, entirely due to the fact that the parasitic profit-seeking entities that dominate the system, and the politicians they buy and control, seek to benefit at the expense of the sick.

It is as simple as that.

POST SCRIPT: Incredible bike riding

(Thanks to Norm.)

September 10, 2009

My colonoscopy saga-3: More discussions on the word 'routine'

(See part 1 and part 2.)

By now I am fed up with all this back and forth and decide that I will schedule the colonoscopy anyway and deal with being charged afterwards. I call the doctor's billing office again to get the final ok and learn something new. They say that the colonoscopy is considered 'routine' and thus free not only if there were no prior indications of cancer but also only if the doctor finds absolutely nothing. If the doctor finds even a single benign polyp (which is not uncommon), then it ceases to be routine (and free) and I have to pay the full amount, which is about $1,500. The insurance company had not told me this piece of interesting news nor is it spelled out in their policy. So whether I pay nothing or whether I pay about $1,500 depends not on the procedure itself but on what they find during the procedure! In other words, I have no idea going in what it is going to cost me coming out.

How crazy is this? I call the insurance company and argue that this is manifestly absurd but even after talking to the supervisor, I am told that this is what the policy is, and that's that. However, the supervisor said that if it will put my mind at rest, she can give me an upper limit to what they will charge me, whatever the outcome. Again, like the 2-3 days rule, this seems to be one that she was making up on the spot, and I was dubious as to whether it would be honored later. It looked like the kind of answer given to pesky people just to make them go away.

I am finally fed up with the whole business, all the phone calls to the doctor's office, the doctor's billing office, and the insurance company. And I still haven't spoken to an actual health care professional. This is of course the insurance company strategy all along, to wear people down so that they either go away or are willing to pay whatever is asked just to get the damn thing over and done with. Since I can afford to pay the full cost if need be, I go ahead and make the preparations and get the test.

Fortunately for me, not a single polyp is found so the colonoscopy does end up being free. But not entirely. Initially I am charged for the preliminary doctor's office visit after all. So it is back to making repeated calls to the doctor's billing office and the insurance company. I eventually find out that if the doctor bills me for the office visit under a difference code number from the one they originally used, the doctor's visit is also paid for as part of the colonoscopy. So the doctor resubmits the bill with the new number and that ends that, and my particular story had a happy ending, despite all the time wasting frustrations.

But let's take a moment to savor the absurdity of my experience. First of all, we had about six people (in the doctor's office, the doctor's billing office, several insurance company people, and their supervisors) involved in arcane discussions about rules for several weeks all before I even saw an actual health professional like a nurse or doctor. All the people I was dealing with were friendly and cordial and all the conversations were amicable, but we were all trapped in a maze of rules that made us go around with little progress, like hamsters on a wheel.

Furthermore, I am very fortunate. I have the time and knowledge and patience and access to the internet and phone to call people during the day, check the websites, and to do all preliminary work that I had to do to get all the information. But even with all that knowledge and after all my work, in the end, I still had to go in for my colonoscopy with no assurance of what it would ultimately cost me.

It so happens that I could afford to pay if necessary. But what if someone had taken the policy's assurance of 'free' colonoscopies at face value, and the doctor had found a polyp or the insurance company had dug up one of the infamous 'pre-existing conditions', and then the patient had been unexpectedly hit with a large bill that he or she could not afford. This could be a serious problem for many people who live from paycheck to paycheck and do not have the savings to deal with sudden large expenses. It is this kind of thing that starts people on the slide to ruinous debt.

Or what if someone does figure all this out like I did but for whom $1,500 is unaffordable. Or what if they had some symptom that might prevent the 'routine' classification? There will be a strong temptation to skip the procedure, take the chance that they do not have cancerous polyps, and thus not detect the cancer until it is too late.

POST SCRIPT: Real reform or the final act of the Kabuki play?

Obama gave a strong speech last night where he said a lot of good things about what his health care plan would deliver, even though it falls short of what I would like to see. He vowed to end some of the worst abuses of the health insurance industry, such as the practice of rescissions, denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions, and putting caps on the costs of treatment, but he clearly wants to keep the fatally flawed current system in place.

He promised to vigorously fight those who oppose reform and to call out those who are blatantly lying about the proposed plans, which pretty much includes all the Republicans and many Democrats in Congress plus assorted wingnuts like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.

The eternal optimist in me hopes that he really means it and that he will not return to negotiating away even these limited improvements in order to please the business interests and its lackeys, which has been his practice so far.

The cynic in me fears that this might have been the penultimate act of the Kabuki play I described earlier and that Matt Taibbi fleshed out more fully in an excellent article, where Obama gives a pretty speech to satisfy his supporters but then acts against their interests.

What is needed now is to pay close attention to the details of the legislation that finally emerges. Real policy is not made on the floor of Congress or in public speeches but in the back rooms behind closed doors where the lobbyists exert their influence in secret.

September 09, 2009

My colonoscopy saga-2: When 'routine' does not mean what you think it means

In my first post in this four-part series, I pointed out that the choice of doctors and hospitals is very limited in the US. But as I continue to look further into my 'free' colonoscopy I discover more pitfalls.

I know that insurance companies try to find ways to avoid paying so I analyze my policy carefully and call the insurance company and ask what the word 'routine' means, since only those kinds of colonoscopies are free. I am told that the colonoscopy is considered routine if it is done as part of a regular check-up and not because of any symptoms that might suggest that I may actually have colon cancer.

This strikes me as bizarre, that the procedure is free only if there are no indications at all that I have any problem. The slightest hint of a symptom and bang, I am on the hook for well over a thousand dollars, the cost of the procedure.

This is of course consistent with the profit-seeking model of the private health insurance industry in the US, which seeks to only insure healthy people so as not to pay for treatment. Think for a moment of the consequences of such a policy. It means that people who suspect that they may have colon cancer but cannot afford to pay for the exam may not seek early diagnosis and treatment (and early treatment is key to a successful cure for colon cancer) but instead gamble that there is nothing there. It also means that if the insurance company can find anything at all in my past history that could be considered an indicator of colon cancer, they can deny payment. In fact they have huge staffs whose sole task is to try and find such 'pre-existing conditions'.

But in my case, I had no symptoms so I called my primary care physician to get a referral to a gastro-intestinal specialist who does colonoscopies. He gave me a few names of people he thought were on my plan and thus should be covered. Of course, I have learned never to trust this kind of hearsay information because my primary care physician has to deal with dozens of insurance company plans and the bureaucratic maze that is the insurance industry, so I go to the insurance company website to check for myself.

The website is a nightmare to navigate. You have to select from a bewildering menu of insurance policies and within them, subclasses of policies. As Uwe Reinhart, a professor of political economy at Princeton University, said, insurance companies offer a range of policies under various names and in the employer-based health insurance system that exists in the US, each company negotiates its own benefits package. So you have to find the specific plan offered by the specific policy you signed up for from those offered by your specific company. But I am determined and plow on, having to call the insurance company a couple of times to clarify that I was on the right track.

And success! One of the recommended doctors is on the approved list. I also found that the office he works in is on the approved list of facilities. So I call the doctor's office and speak to a receptionist there to make an appointment. Of course the first thing she asked from me was my insurance information because nothing gets done in the US unless you can prove you can pay, not on how sick you are, which is another bizarre aspect of US health care that people have become persuaded is 'normal'. Once my ability to pay was settled, she said that before they could schedule the actual colonoscopy, I first needed an office visit to meet with the doctor for him to evaluate me.

This seemed perfectly reasonable, but it set off an alarm bell in my wary head. Was the office visit also covered by my insurance? I called the insurance company again just to be sure everything was ok. They said that the office visit was not covered. I argued with them that if the doctor required an office visit as part of the colonoscopy procedure, then it should be considered part of the cost of the colonoscopy and should be covered. After some back and forth, the person I spoke to put me on to her supervisor who, after some more back and forth, finally said that if the colonoscopy was done within 2-3 days of the office visit, it would be considered part of the colonoscopy. Otherwise it would count as a regular office visit and I would be charged in full for it.

This seemed absurd to me. She seemed to be making this rule up (the vagueness of the '2-3 days' seemed suspicious). So I called the doctor's office again. They had never heard of this 2-3 day rule. They transferred me to their billing office. The billing office manager was also baffled by this rule and she called the insurance company to find out what was going on. Of course, the billing office manager got a different insurance company person from the one I spoke to, and the new person said that she has never heard of this 2-3 day rule either and that the office visit is fully covered as part of the colonoscopy, irrespective of how many days separate the two.

The doctor's billing office calls me back with this information. I am still a bit suspicious and call the doctor's office to see if the office visit can be scheduled within 2-3 days of the colonoscopy, just in case. The answer is no. Why? Because the office visits takes place in one facility on one set of days and the actual colonoscopies are done in another facility on another set of days. But the fact that I have just learned that the colonoscopy is done at a different location from my doctor's office sets off another alarm bell. Is that also an approved facility in my highly restricted list of choices? Once before I had experience of having some tests done at a non-approved facility that was used by my (approved) doctor and having to pay the full cost, so I am a little suspicious. I go back to the nightmare of the insurance company website and after much searching and another call to the insurance company, I find that it is, which is a relief.

So, am I all set for my 'free' colonoscopy? Don't be silly. You think the insurance companies give up that easily?

Next: More problems with the word 'routine'.

POST SCRIPT: The US has the best health care system in the world?

Opponents of health care reform like to boast that the US has the best system in the world. What such statements tell me is that these people have no idea what people in other countries have.

In yesterday's Fresh Air, Terry Gross had a poignant interview with two young women who were diagnosed with cancer while still in their twenties. Like many young people, they were either uninsured or underinsured.

One of them was originally from the Czech Republic and she found it cheaper and less of a hassle to regularly fly back to that country for the free and bureaucracy-less treatment she received from the socialized health system in that country than deal with the system here. Think about that for a minute. The doctor who had initially diagnosed her and whom she trusted had since been removed from her plan which meant that she had to pay a huge amount just to see the doctor of her choice, which also makes a mockery of the claims that patients have choices in the current system.

The other woman was fortunate enough to marry a man who had health insurance coverage under his employer-based group plan that did not deny people with pre-existing conditions. So she is now covered though she still has to deal with the hassles that are routine here.

Both of them spoke about the nightmare of having to deal with the hassles and bills and the bureaucracy of the US health insurance system while they were still reeling from being told that they had cancer.

And these are the lucky ones who had at least some options. They are surviving. But for every young woman like this, there are many who have no options other than to go bankrupt or die young or, as is more likely, first go bankrupt and then die young.

As they say, only in America.

September 08, 2009

My colonoscopy saga-1: So where is this freedom of choice I hear so much about?

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

In anticipation of Obama's speech on health care this week and as a coda to my long series on health care, in a four-part series I am going to write about a recent experience I had with the bureaucracy of the health care system in the US, not for any serious illness, but to get a 'routine' colonoscopy.

I recount my story in detail not because it is tragic (it isn't) but to show how even seemingly simple things are made enormously complicated because of the private profit-seeking system that we have. The absurdity of it is that what I went through is so common in the US that people think that it is the only way to do things, unaware that in other developed countries, people do not have to go through this nonsense.

But rest assured. Unlike Katie Couric, I am not going to show images of my colon or other details. The saga is entirely about my dealings with the bureaucracy that one has to go through with private health insurance companies. Almost anyone who has had any experience with the health industry in the US has been given the run-around, with mind-numbing paperwork and endless struggles with the health insurance bureaucracy. Why people are not outraged amazes me. Perhaps it is because that most people have no idea that this is not normal, that when people in other countries need health care, they simply go to a doctor, get treated, and are done with it.

A colonoscopy is used to detect and remove 'polyps', which are small growths on the colon that can become cancerous. All colon cancers begin as polyps though not all polyps become cancerous, so early detection and removal is advisable. It is recommended that people over the age of 50 get a colonoscopy exam every ten years to detect and remove such polyps. I had dilly-dallied over this for many years but my mother's diagnosis of colon cancer finally pushed me to actually get one. I then came face-to-face with the Kafkaesque absurdity of the US system that Uwe Reinhardt, a professor of political economy at Princeton University describes:

Well, I once did a dumb thing: I asked an insurance executive "What do you pay in New Jersey for a colonoscopy?"

And he just laughed at me and said, "What a silly question. There is no price for a colonoscopy. We have a different price for every hospital. And for the same hospital, we might have six prices depending on the insurance product, is it an HMO, etc."

So I said, "This is mad. How many could there be?"

He says, "There could be 30, 40 for us, but then with Aetna, they could have another 30, and everyone has a different contract, so a hospital might receive 60, 80,100 different prices for a colonoscopy, depending on which insurance company and what contract it is. So when you say 'What are the private market prices?' there is no price."

That was exactly my experience. The system was so complex and confusing that even for a routine colonoscopy, even the insurance people did not know what the rules and costs were. Is it any wonder that doctors' offices have entire teams of people simply to do the accounting and try and figure out who should pay how much for what? And that even then they have to often guess? And that patients and doctor's offices have to fight with insurance companies?

First of all, let me say that I am one of the supposedly 'lucky' ones in the US when it comes to health insurance. Both my wife and I are employed and have allegedly 'good' health insurance offered through our respective employers. We chose to be covered by one of my wife's company plans, which seemed the best suited for our needs. At the end of every year we have to go through the dreary exercise of comparing all the plans offered (since the benefits and prices and lists of approved doctors and hospitals of each can and do change each year) to make our choice for the following year.

So when I decided to have a colonoscopy, I checked the plan we had that year to see if it was covered. It was and said it was free. Terrific news! Of course, aware as I am of the tricks of the private, profit-seeking health insurance industry to try and squeeze extra profits by exploiting loopholes, I know that nothing is ever that simple and so started looking into all the fine print that is buried in the policies. My policy says that a routine colonoscopy is free but only if it is done by doctors who are on my plan at only the authorized facilities on the plan.

Americans will not be surprised at this because this is what they have grown up with but it alone immediately puts the lie to those who claim that the current US system gives you more choices in doctors and hospitals than single payer systems in other countries. In reality, the choices you have here are severely restricted to the ones given to you by the insurance company, whereas in single payer countries there is no such restriction. If I were in France or Canada, I could go to almost any doctor who was willing to take me on as a patient.

Next: When routine does not mean what you think it means.

POST SCRIPT: Matt Taibbi on health care

Some time ago, I referred to a Matt Taibbi article in Rolling Stone on the horrendous state of health care in the US and Obama and the Democrats' sordid role in preserving the system. The article was not available online then but it is now and reader Heidi has kindly sent me the link.

It begins:

Let's start with the obvious: America has not only the worst but the dumbest health care system in the developed world. It's become a black leprosy eating away at the American experiment — a bureaucracy so insipid and mean and illogical that even our darkest criminal minds wouldn't be equal to dreaming it up on purpose.

The system doesn't work for anyone. It cheats patients and leaves them to die, denies insurance to 47 million Americans, forces hospitals to spend billions haggling over claims, and systematically bleeds and harasses doctors with the specter of catastrophic litigation.

The cost of all of this to society, in illness and death and lost productivity and a soaring federal deficit and plain old anxiety and anger, is incalculable — and that's the good news. The bad news is our failed health care system won't get fixed, because it exists entirely within the confines of yet another failed system: the political entity known as the United States of America.

Just as we have a medical system that is not really designed to care for the sick, we have a government that is not equipped to fix actual crises. What our government is good at is something else entirely: effecting the appearance of action, while leaving the actual reform behind in a diabolical labyrinth of ingenious legislative maneuvers.

He also looks at the role-playing by the Democrats to hide the fact that they too are in the pockets of the health industry sharks.

In many ways, the lily-livered method that Obama chose to push health care into being is a crystal-clear example of how the Democratic Party likes to act — showering a real problem with a blizzard of ineffectual decisions and verbose nonsense, then stepping aside at the last minute to reveal the true plan that all along was being forged off-camera in the furnace of moneyed interests and insider inertia.

It is a terrific article. You should read the whole thing to see how the government really works and who it really works for. But be warned: it is not pretty.

September 07, 2009

It's smiting time!

(Since it's the Labor Day holiday, I am reposting something from July 16, 2008, updated and edited.)

The last time we encountered Christian evangelist Ray Comfort he was, along with his trusty sidekick the Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron, arguing that the exquisite design of the banana was absolute proof of the existence of god. The banana, Comfort pointed out, was "the atheist's nightmare." Why? See for yourself.

You said it, Ray! Your careful and deeply scientific analysis convinced me. Take that, evolutionists! Now whenever I eat a banana, I cannot help but think that god loved me so much that he went to all that trouble to make my eating of it as easy and as pleasurable as possible. Jesus and Mo also have something to say about Comfort's banana.

But Comfort is not content to simply demolish evolution with such brilliant arguments. He also runs a Q/A on his website providing deep insights into other metaphysical questions, the kinds that have baffled philosophers and theologians for centuries.

He recently responded to a theodicy question posed by a reader identifying herself as Weemaryanne.

There've been several hundred gay marriages enacted in California in the past few days. Maybe a couple of thousand by now, I haven't checked the numbers. And in the non-gay-marrying Midwest, they're fighting floods, while in California it's fair and dry. How is The Golden State managing to escape the wrath of your imaginary friend, I wonder?

This is a fair question, something that I too had been wondering about. While the obvious sinfulness of the people of New Orleans was clearly why god unleashed Hurricane Katrina at them (plus god simply hates jazz), why was god mad at the people of Iowa who, by all outward signs anyway, seem like people whose worst vice is growing obscene amounts of corn?

By snarkily referring to god as 'your imaginary friend' Weemaryanne (which I suspect is not her real name) revealed herself to be a godless hussy. This infidel clearly thought that she had caught Comfort in an embarrassing contradiction. She did not realize that his ministry is not called The Way of the Master for nothing. The Master shot back at her with that incisive logical reasoning that has put atheists on the run everywhere.

Maryanne. At present there are 840 wild-fires that are burning at once in California, destroying many homes. The fires were started by lightning strikes. Guess who’s in charge of the electrical department? These are from thunder storms that have no rain. Guess who gives the rain? You said "while in California it's fair and dry." We are having the worst drought in our recorded history. Last year 1,155 homes were destroyed. You live in an imaginary world. I suggest you get out more.

Ha, ha! That's telling her, Ray! Of course god hates gay-marriage-loving California, as well he should, and is busily smiting people there at this very moment. Weemaryanne has probably crawled back to her terrorist-loving, Islamofascist, feminazi witches coven after that elegantly delivered smackdown by The Master.

But while that explained that the sinful Californians were very much in god's crosshairs, Comfort unfortunately did not address the issue of why Iowans were being smitten (smote?) at all. That was, however, explained by another Christian by the name of Jason Werner, another god-loving man who apparently resides in my very own city of Cleveland. He investigated what was going on in that seemingly bucolic state and was shocked by the incontrovertible evidence of Iowa's appalling sinfulness. (Note: The link no longer works. A Google search revealed that someone called Jason Werner ran in the Congressional primary of Ohio's district 10 that includes Cleveland, but lost. I don't know if it is the same person.)

I learned that Cedar Rapids was an absolute city of corruption. There are about 124,000 residents in the actual city. And in Iowa, gambling is legal, whereby there are 17 casinos. Embryonic stem-cell research is funded. Liberal governors have run the state into the ground for the past 20 years including a former conservative Republican many years ago. Human cloning is legal. Referendums by the citizens are often shot down. Spending for education is the most consistent increase of any issue. The University of Iowa is among the ten best colleges to party in the country. The University of Iowa is very homosexual-oriented. Grinnell is extremely homosexual-oriented. I found five blood alleys in Cedar Rapids. Homosexual organizations are very popular in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. Prostitution and adult entertainment is actually worse than Cleveland, which has a population of nearly 400,000. There were nearly 100 bars in a radius of one mile although the nearby college is dry.

Wow! I had no idea that Cedar Rapids was such a cesspool! I actually drove around the beautiful Grinnell campus on my cross-country trip a few years ago, blissfully unaware that at any moment I might be attacked by gangs of crazed homosexuals and forced to marry one of them at gunpoint. That was a lucky escape.

But I am getting a little nervous. While god is omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent, he does not seem to be omniprecise. His punishments for sinfulness, like hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, wildfires, etc., seem a little indiscriminate, killing the innocent along with the guilty. He seems to get a little carried away when he gets angry and in a smitin' mood and lets fly in all directions, like the Incredible Hulk or the people one reads about in the papers who snap under pressure and let loose with automatic weapons in crowded places. I am worried that I might become collateral damage when god gets round to dealing with all the sinners on my street.

What sinning is going on down my street, you ask? Thanks to having my eyes opened by good Christians such as Comfort and Werner, I have realized that I am surrounded by depravity. First, a gay couple moved into my street about a dozen years ago. Presumably because we did not keep the neighborhood pure by driving them away with pitchforks, our street may have been perceived as gay-friendly and about two years ago a lesbian couple also moved in a few doors away.

They all pretend to be like normal people, cutting grass, weeding flowerbeds, sometimes sitting on their front step in warm weather, and waving and smiling to neighbors. But they don't fool me. As the kind of sinners that god hates the most, even worse than murderers and child molesters and corporate executives who embezzle people of their life savings, they are putting the rest of us at risk just by living close to us. The gay couple are even brazen enough to fly a rainbow flag on their house, practically taunting god to deliver a thunderbolt!

I just hope that they haven't taken the ultimate evil step of getting married in one of those depraved states that allow it because if they did that, we know that all the godly heterosexual marriages on our street are going to be undermined and fall apart.

And who knows what acts of depravity are going on in the homes of even my supposedly heterosexual neighbors? Oh sure, they put on a normal face by walking their dogs, playing catch with their kids on the lawn, organizing block parties, and the like. But one can only imagine the depraved orgies that are being held inside their homes once the curtains are drawn in the evening.

I am thinking that in order to be safe from the inevitable coming wrath of god, I may need to buy about 500 acres in some remote area of Montana or someplace and live right in the middle of the property, far away from any potential sinning neighbors. I figure that that should provide enough of a distance cushion so that whatever blunt instrument god chooses to use next for smiting sinners, like an earthquake or an asteroid collision with the Earth, I will be able to escape the side effects.

For some reason, god's sinner-smiting technology is less than state-of-the-art. What god really needs to do is develop some precision-guided smiting weapons with built-in lasers, GPS trackers, and stuff. That would be cool. Then I could stay in my present home, sit on the front step, and watch the homes of my sinning neighbors be neatly and precisely destroyed.

Tim the Enchanter shows what such a carefully targeted smiting might look like.

Maybe god should use more Holy Hand Grenades as they are proven effective.

God could make this smiting of sinners into an annual event, replacing Fourth of July fireworks.

September 04, 2009

Why Carl Sagan is considered a 'good' atheist

There is no doubt that the new atheists have ruffled the feathers of both religious believers and the accommodationists. But since the new atheists are on solid ground in their rejection of god, with science and logic undeniably supporting their position, the opposition to them often takes the form of chiding them for being supposedly belligerent in expressing their views. They sometimes get asked, in effect, why can't you be more like that nice Mr. Carl Sagan and speak more softly about your skepticism and not offend believers?

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was an astronomer at Cornell University, a prolific author, host of TV shows, and a well-known popularizer of science who in his day was easily the most publicly recognizable face of science. He had an easy and engaging manner and the ability to explain science in laymen's terms.

While he was clearly not a religious person, his views on religion and the way he expressed them are frequently brought up in discussions on the best way to deal with religious people. He is frequently held up as the model for a 'good' disbeliever, someone who can speak of his non-belief without antagonizing religious believers, in contrast to the supposedly unruly and uncivil 'new atheists'.

Consider what Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York and also an atheist, said recently when reviewing Sagan's book The Variety of Scientific Experience, which was based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures:

At the same time, it is so refreshing to read the words of a positive atheist, which do not in the least resemble the angry and inflated rhetoric of a Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. On the contrary, Sagan’s tone is always measured and humble, and yet he delivers (metaphorically) mortal blow after mortal blow to the religious in his audience.

Carl Sagan made the same strong arguments against god and religion the new atheists do, something that Pigliucci also concedes. And yet, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and other new atheists are invariably described as bad atheists, while Sagan is classified as a good atheist. What is the difference? What is it exactly that makes him 'measured and humble'?

Picking up on my earlier post about the good atheist/bad atheist split, there seem to be emerging some criteria as to what makes an atheist a 'good' atheist.

Pigliucci suggests that a 'measured and humble' tone is one quality. But what makes an atheist 'measured and humble'? Is it a willingness to concede that science and religion are compatible? This means a good atheist is one who is also an accommodationist. A bad atheist is one who isn't willing to make this concession. But as one who cheerfully wears the mantle of a bad atheist, I don't see why we should concede this point, since we think that at the heart of religious beliefs lies a deeply anti-scientific core. We don't disagree with accommodationism in order to be unpleasant. We do so because we think accommodationism is wrong.

Another way to be classified as a 'good atheist' is to declare yourself to be an agnostic, the way that Charles Darwin did. Sagan has similarly said, "My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn't believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I'm agnostic." Sagan seems to have bought into the notion that atheists are certain that there is no god, saying in an interview, "An atheist has to know more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God."

But as I have written before, that attitude reveals a deep misunderstanding of what constitutes atheism. What is true is that an atheist realizes that one cannot be logically certain there is no god. But at the same time he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They see no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason.

As far as I can tell, Sagan (and Darwin before him) was as functionally certain that no god exists as I or any other atheist, whatever he might have chosen to call himself. But religious people are more comfortable with people who call themselves agnostics because it is assumed that agnostics think that belief in god is plausible, thus making them accommodationists too. Thus a claim of agnosticism does not pose a direct challenge to their religious beliefs.

Is that all that distinguishes a 'good' atheist from a bad one? I think that there is a deeper reason that I will explore in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Another mystery clarified

Mr. Deity explains why Jesus rode a donkey for his big entrance into Jerusalem.

September 03, 2009

The Church of the Slacker God

In the previous two posts that dealt with what accommodationists believe (here and here), I examined Robert Wright's attempt to resurrect a theology that will likely only appeal to that minuscule group of intellectuals who want to preserve their scientific credibility (which belief in an interventionist deity absolutely destroys) while at the same time satisfy their inexplicable need to think that there is some powerful supernatural entity out there, even if that entity does absolutely nothing. Biologist Jerry Coyne, in response to a similar attempt at accommodationism by philosopher H. E. Baber, has accurately dubbed this entity a 'slacker God', akin to someone who has immense talent and abilities and resources, yet chooses to live the life of a bum.

So we should really think of 'accommodationists' as 'worshippers in The Church of the Slacker God.'

But this raises the question of why intellectuals like Wright and Baber so desperately want to belong to such a church, which frankly does not seem to offer much to its parishioners. After all, it rules out answers to prayers, miracles, heaven, and all the other goodies that entice believers to join the more mainstream churches, even though those goodies never actually materialize. How much mileage can you get out of the mere contemplation of 'ultimate beauty, power, and glory', as Baber suggests. Is it likely that Catholics would have shelled out the billions of dollars that enables the Pope to live in luxury if the Catholic Church had merely promised in return little more than a Zen-like experience?

Why do religious intellectuals like Baber and Wright feel the need to find reasons to believe in the existence of such a slacker god? Cynics have suggested that the lucrative Templeton prize that is given to those who try to reconcile science and religion is a powerful incentive to gloss over the unbridgeable chasm that separates the two worldsviews. At least that is what Jesus and Mo think.

But obviously only a very, very few are in the running for such a prize. While the total membership in the Church of the Slacker God cannot be that large (after all, how many religious people would find such a noninterventionist god appealing?) it is not vanishingly small either. But since the members are usually high-level intellectuals with access to a mass media sympathetic to their point of view, they can command a high public profile out of proportion to their numbers.

But the Church of the Slacker God, like all churches, has to deal with heretics. In this case the heretics are those who think that their god is not quite the slacker that people like Wright and Baber envisage. Some heretics like biologist Kenneth Miller, author of the book Finding Darwin's God, try to find ways for the Slacker God to intervene in the world without being detected. The favorite vehicle for this is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Such heretics share the strange belief that god needs and wants to act in the world and yet does not want to be detected doing so, and thus has to go to extraordinary lengths to hide his actions by creating laws that enable him to surreptitiously intervene.

Why does god go to all that trouble, you ask? Pose that question to believers and you will receive the favorite cop-out answer given whenever believers are posed the question of why their god behaves in such weird ways: God acts this way for reasons that our puny human minds cannot comprehend at least at this stage in time and so the reasons must remain mysterious until he thinks we are ready to receive this knowledge. There is no real answer that can be given to this except to point out that they seem to have extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the reasons for god's behavior even while they claim that god wants us to remain ignorant.

But there are even greater heretics like mathematician John Lennox, physicist John Polkinghorne, biologist Francis Collins, and author C. S. Lewis, all of whom start out by claiming fidelity to the doctrines of The Church of the Slacker God, but then abruptly switch and say they believe, among other things, that god resurrected Jesus from the dead, thus destroying his slacker cred.

What is interesting is that all the Western followers of the Slacker God seem to get their beliefs about god ultimately from the Bible, a book that unquestionably was written by people a long time ago who had their own agenda and were not at all followers of the Slacker God. What these intellectuals have done, following theologian Rudolf Bultmann, is de-mythologize the Bible, steadily stripping away every magical element that makes their god a god. But once that process is complete, instead of conceding that there is nothing left, they give the remaining emptiness the name of god and claim existence for it, a classic reification error.

William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted John Scopes in the famous 'Monkey Trial' of 1925, was much more tough-minded than modern day accommodationists. He knew where this process of demythologizing would end and he was having none of it.

If a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible…If he is consistent, he will go through the Old Testament step by step and cut out all the miracles and all the supernatural. He will then take up the New Testament and cut out all the supernatural - the virgin birth of Christ, His miracles and His resurrection, leaving the Bible a story book without binding authority upon the conscience of man. (God and Evolution, New York Times, February 26, 1922, p. 84, emphasis added)

His conclusion? "Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism."

It is fashionable now to reject Bryan as a fundamentalist anti-science zealot, even a stupid buffoon. But Bryan was smart enough to realize that once one accepted the theory of evolution, one ought to follow its implications through to their logical end. Since he did not like the atheistic conclusion he arrived at, his solution was to reject the premise, which was the theory of evolution itself.

By contrast, the members of The Church of the Slacker God, and even its heretics, say they embrace the theory of evolution by natural selection and all that that follows from it, but shrink from accepting the ultimate conclusion they arrive at that god is superfluous and thus can be rejected with no loss. Seeing no other way out of this impasse, they tack on an ad hoc ending, simply asserting that they believe in god anyway. They lack the logical consistency of Bryan.

But why bother to do all this? Why is it that even the Slacker God is so appealing to people like Wright and Baber? Perhaps they think that even though this entity has never done anything apart from creating the universe and its laws right at the beginning, it has the potential to do something, and they find that thought somehow comforting.


POST SCRIPT: Who are you calling a slacker?

In this Mr. Deity clip that I have shown earlier, God and Jesus explain to their assistant Larry the real reason they stopped intervening in the world.

September 02, 2009

The irrational core of accommodationism

In the previous post, I said that Robert Wright's attempt at a compromise between accommodationists and new atheists is likely to be rejected by most religious believers because it requires them to abandon almost everything they hold dear about the idea of god, such as that he has magical powers.

Meanwhile what are atheists supposed to do as part of his grand bargain? His early hint that we should accept some notions of "higher purpose" pretty much gives the game away. According to the gospel of Wright later in his article, we are supposed to "acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection's intrinsic creative power — something they've been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god."

Wright's compromise is going to be a nonstarter with new atheists also. Although he has phrased it as if it were a tiny concession, what he wants atheists to do is give up atheism and accept god's existence. Even though he has just said that god is not necessary to understand how the world works, he want us to concede that god exists just because it is logically possible to reconcile some rarefied, noninterventionist form of god with science. This is what all accommodationists invariably end up saying. And as usual with accommodationists, he resorts to calling 'militant' and 'strident' those of us who don't see the point in accepting the existence of some thing merely because it is allowed logically. (Steven Pinker, by contrast, is described by Wright as a 'contented' atheist' because he says some things about the origins of the moral sense that might be construed as supporting Wright's views.)

Wright makes the same logical error, made by so many apologists for god, of not distinguishing how to judge the validity of existence claims from those of universal claims, a flaw I have pointed out before. An existence claim (which is what Wright is making about god) requires positive evidence in its favor in order to be taken seriously, not merely protection from logical disqualification.

Another attempt at accommodationism is that of H. E. Baber, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and author of an article in the London Guardian newspaper. As usual with religious intellectuals, she begins by distancing herself from the wacky religious fundamentalists who believe in a god who is a peripatetic busybody who interferes everywhere all the time.

[L]ike most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in "guiding" evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live. (emphasis added)

Sound's good to me. I agree with her 100% so far. So why does she call herself a Christian and not an atheist? As she herself says, "Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives "meaning," or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values." Biologist Jerry Coyne, author of the book Why Evolution is True, gives the right answer to her question of "What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, hidden God who makes no difference to the way the world works and no God at all?" by saying that, if you had any brains, you'd answer "none." (His post has a terrific title that says it all: What good is a slacker God?)

But Baber, like all religious intellectuals, shrinks from the obvious conclusion that her reasoning powers have led her to, and tries to find reasons as to why she should still believe in any god at all, let alone the Christian god, in the process inevitably sinking slowly into the logical quicksand that engulfs theology whenever it has deal with modern science. Here's how she starts her descent into the logical morass.

Theists, like myself, claim that there is a conscious being, who is omnipotent and omniscient, who is not a part of the natural world and not to be identified with the cosmos in toto, but is incorporeal and transcendent.

Really? A conscious being who is not corporeal? A god who is both omnipotent and omniscient and yet does nothing at all? Coyne's description of this as a 'slacker God' is becoming more and more apt. Mathematician John Allen Paulos has pointed out that believing that god is both omnipotent and omniscient leads to an immediate contradiction:

Being omniscient, God knows everything that will happen: He can predict the future trajectory of every snowflake, the sprouting of every blade of grass, and the deeds of every human being, as well as all of His own actions. But being omnipotent, He can act in any way and do anything He wants, including behaving in ways different from those He'd predicted, making his expectations uncertain and fallible. He thus can't be both omnipotent and omniscient. (Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up, 2008, p. 41.)

But that's not all. Baber then digs herself in deeper. In explaining why she is still a believer, she shifts from a god who is a 'conscious being' (and you can't get more real than that) to a god who is nothing more than an idea, a kind of Platonic ideal, in people's minds.

God is an object of contemplation… I suppose what I believe is that God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure. Religion is an escape from the world–not because the world is bad but because it isn’t good enough. Pleasures are fleeting and no matter how intense any aesthetic experience is, it could always be more intense. The vision of God is the asymptote they approach.

That’s what’s in it for me.

So in the same essay she says she believes in a god who is both (a) a conscious being who is omnipotent and omniscient and yet does nothing at all, and (b) an asymptotic idea to be contemplated by humans for his beauty, glory, and power, kind of like Donald Trump but with better hair.

Only a religious intellectual could say such things with a straight face and only because they have become so accustomed to the fact that as long as they say something that advocates the existence of god or puts god in a positive light, no one will point out that it either makes no sense or has no content. As Carl Sagan said in Broca's Brain:

[R]eligions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration was needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.

That about sums it up.

(Next: The church of the accommodationists)

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Dara O'Brien on the prevalence of irrational ideas

September 01, 2009

The accommodationists try again

Robert Wright is a science writer and one of those accommodationists who is disturbed by the new atheists, people who say that science and religion are incompatible. He, like many accommodationists before him, wants to build a bridge between science and religion.

He has written a book The Evolution of God in which he argues that our image of god has evolved depending on the needs of society at any given time. For example, when times seemed to require that a tribe ruthlessly destroy its perceived enemies, the god that emerged was the jealous, vengeful, murderous, genocidal god so favored by Pat Robertson, John Hagee, the late Jerry Falwell, and the assorted end-timers. When times required peaceful co-existence, god became the love-thy-neighbor type now propagated by mainstream religions. Hence religious texts like the Bible that are accumulations of texts written over various times contain all these contradictory views of god.

All that is fine and dandy and uncontroversial. Once you accept that god is a human creation, it makes sense that the nature of that creation will sway with the prevailing political and social currents.

But Wright, like all accommodationists, shrinks from going all the way with this idea of god as purely a human invention. He wants to retain an independent existence for some kind of god but also wants to retain his scientific credibility. So he adopts the usual accommodationist strategy of blaming 'extremists' on both sides for creating a split between science and religion: On the one hand are the religious fundamentalists who insert god into those areas that are supposedly the proper domain of science, and on the other are the new atheists who say that the idea of god is totally superfluous and can be dispensed with.

As he says in a New York Times op-ed published on August 22, 2009:

There are atheists who go beyond declaring personal disbelief in God and insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview. And there are religious believers who insist that evolution can’t fully account for the creation of human beings.

Oh, these silly extremists, always causing trouble by being so stubborn. But not to worry! Wright has the solution, which he announces with great fanfare: "I bring good news!" The problem, as he sees it, is that both sides make the common mistake of underestimating natural selection’s creative power. All it requires to reach a consensus solution is for the extremists on both sides to each make some teensy-weensy concessions. What are they?

Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of "higher purpose" are compatible with scientific materialism.

Let's see how Wright unpacks these two prescriptions for peaceful coexistence, starting with what he requires of religious believers:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever.

If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic. (emphasis added)

So as part of this grand bargain, he wants religious believers to give up the idea that god intervenes periodically in nature to create organisms or moral sensibilities or anything else, and instead accept that natural selection can do all that heavy lifting all by itself, and was designed to do so right from the beginning.

In other words, Wright is postulating a teleological (i.e. goal directed) view of evolution. He seems to be saying that this far-sighted god inserted into the natural selection algorithm itself everything that was necessary to eventually and inevitably produce some sort of sentient beings at least approximating humans that would have something like our moral sensibilities that gave us the ability to perceive what we now do about the existence of god. This is why the world seems to work perfectly well as if there is no god but god still exists.

This idea is not new. The lack of directionality and intentionality of natural selection was troubling back in Darwin's time and led to the theory of orthogenesis, which suggested that evolution followed a path determined by forces originating within the organisms themselves. (Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 1983). But that view has long been rejected by almost all biologists as being incompatible with what we know about how evolution works, which is by natural selection acting on random mutations as a result of selection pressures. One does not need to postulate a hidden greater purpose or a hidden mechanism to produce the results that evolution did, so Wright's requirement that god had to insert that mechanism is superfluous.

What Wright is postulating is something between strict deism (where god created the universe and its laws without any idea of what would happen subsequently, letting the chips fall where they may), and intelligent design creationism (where god has to directly intervene and nudge things along at critical intervals to get the results he wants). In other words, Wright creates 'intelligent design lite' that (to him, at least) tastes great and is less filling.

I suspect that most religious people will find that Wright's compromise, as far as they are concerned, tastes lousy and not at all satisfying because he requires religious believers to abandon almost everything they hold dear about the idea of god. As biologist Jerry Coyne says in the course of a detailed critique of Wright's article:

[T]his scenario doesn't offer much solace to believers. Where is God, Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed in this process? What about heaven, or an afterlife? Are prayers answered? If there's nothing "mystical or immaterial going on, what becomes of the billions of believers whose faith rests firmly on those "mystical phenomena"? As many Christians have recognized (C.S. Lewis among them), if Jesus wasn't actually the son of God, the whole structure of Christianity collapses.

But I'll leave those problems to the religious people to deal with. In the next post, I'll look at what he wants from us new atheists. (Sneak preview: Wright is wrong there too.)

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on why ignorance is bliss

God tries to persuade Lucy (Lucifer) that it is good that people take solace in believing in magic, and why knowledge is bad and curiosity about how things work is to be discouraged. Note at the beginning that Lucy is reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.