Entries for October 2009

October 30, 2009

Melvin, Jesus, and Harvey

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Some readers may have noticed that I write god with a lowercase initial letter instead of the more conventional way as 'God'. Once in a while commenters take me to task for this, saying that it should be capitalized because it is a proper noun and wonder if I write it my way in order to gratuitously poke believers in the eye.

It is a deliberate policy of mine to do this but not in order to have a dig at believers, though I am surprised they care about this, especially since it does not seem to bother god at all (at least he has not told me anything so far). I do it because I am trying to change the conventional practice. I look on the word 'god' either as an explanatory concept or theory (like evolution) or a generic name, like cat or giraffe, and not as the name of a specific being. I am hoping that my approach will catch on and the practice spread. Of course, I know that I am fighting an uphill battle on this one. The publishers who put out my work have their style manuals that currently require them to capitalize the word. But I am hoping this will change with time.

After all, it used to be the case that third person pronouns for god also were capitalized as He and Him and His, but only the very religious do that anymore. At an earlier time all nouns (not just proper nouns) were capitalized. You can see for yourself that Isaac Newton's classic book Opticks (1704) followed that old practice. But that is no longer done in English and I see no reason why my approach should also not become standard. For the moment, I have to be content to advance the cause by using this style on my blog.

The problem is that there are many gods around, so just saying god does not specify which one you are talking about. At least the Hindus do us the courtesy of giving each of their various manifestations of god a name like Krishna, Vishnu and so on. So do the Greeks with Zeus and Thor and the rest of the gang, and the Egyptians with Ra and Horus and Isis and the rest. The Old Testament god of the Jews has the name Jehovah/Yahweh. The name Allah is simply the translation of the words 'the god' in Arabic and was the name of one of the desert jinns worshiped by the people of the region and chosen by Mohammed to be the one and only god (Huston Smith, The World's Religions, p. 225). At least in the western world it has come to be seen as the name of the Muslim god, so there is no ambiguity as to who we mean when we refer to Allah.

But Christians have not given their god a name. You would think that at some point during the past two thousand years someone would have noticed this deficiency and said, "Hey! How come only our god does not have a name?" and they would have rectified the situation. But that has not happened.

It is also not clear how many gods Christians have. For example, Christians have an ambivalent attitude to their relationship to the Old Testament god Jehovah. They often refer to 'the god of the Old Testament' in contrast to 'the god of the New Testament'. So are they the same god or different gods? The problem is further confounded because Christians have more than one manifestation of the NT god and it is not clear to whom they are referring when they simply say god. This is the famous paradox of the trinity, the three-way split of the father god, the son god, and the spirit god. So which one of the four gods is being referred to when Christians use the term god?

The official Christian line is that the OT god is the same god as the other three gods (father, son, spirit) but in practice the connection is highly tenuous and often easily abandoned by them. If you speak with a Christian, he will initially that say he believes in the entire Bible and in one god but if you then ask him how he can justify the appalling crimes committed by the god in the OT (the genocide of Noah's flood, the torturing, the commands to his followers to deliberately massacre people, the commands to stone people to death for all manner of transgressions), he will quickly disavow Jehovah and say that the god they worship is the god of love of the New Testament. So does that mean that the NT god is different from Jehovah? Or did Jehovah also have a come-to-Jesus moment and change his nature from a ruthless and bloodthirsty tyrant to a nice guy?

All kinds of ambiguities arise when Christians simply use the generic word god without specifying which one they are referring to. But I have a solution, and that is to give each of the Christian gods a name. The OT god remains Jehovah. For the father god I suggest the name Melvin because it is a good name, worthy of an omnipotent and omniscient deity. The son god is of course Jesus. For the spirit god, I suggest the name Harvey.

Some may object that the spirit god already has a name, the Holy Spirit. But that's not much of a name, is it? It is more a description. It would be like calling someone Tall Guy with Grey Hair or Blonde Woman with Glasses. It doesn't seem polite somehow. I think the name Harvey is better.

Christians can then reframe their deep theological questions by asking whether Jehovah is the same as Melvin and/or Jesus and/or Harvey, and how the last three could be the same entity even when they are each separately present simultaneously. (See, for example, Luke 3:21-22.) They are unlikely to arrive at an answer because the nature of the question is the same as the proverbial number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, but at least the question under discussion would be clear.

I hope the naming system I suggest sticks. That would also solve the issue of when god should be capitalized.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and the trinity

Even Melvin and Jesus have trouble figuring out how the two of them relate to each other in the trinity. And that is even without Harvey to complicate the picture. Harvey is quite a mysterious figure, never seen or heard, whose actions cannot be easily traced back to him. He's like a secret agent.

As Voltaire said, "The son of God is the same as the son of man; the son of man is the same as the son of God. God, the father, is the same as Christ, the son; Christ, the son, is the same as God, the father. This language may appear confused to unbelievers, but Christians will readily understand it."

October 29, 2009

Have you blasphemed today?

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

This year's International Blasphemy Day was on September 30. As the (no longer active) website created to propagate this said:

International Blasphemy Day is not just a day. It is a movement to dismantle the wall which exists between religion and criticism.

The objective of International Blasphemy Day is to open up all religious beliefs to the same level of free inquiry, discussion and criticism to which all other areas of academic interest are subjected.

International Blasphemy Day is a movement, not just a day, to remind the world that religion should never again be beyond open and honest discussion or reproach.

As usual with anniversaries and other commemorations, I forgot all about it until it was too late. But today's post can be considered my belated contribution to that celebration.

The idea of free speech is something that everyone approves of, or at least gives lip service to. But when they hear speech that criticizes something that they personally cherish, then some people become willing to chip away at that right. That is a big mistake. The best way to combat speech that you disapprove of is not to abridge that right but to use more speech.

No rights are strictly absolute. All rights, however noble in concept, have inherent limitations as soon as one is part of any social community, because one person's right should not be allowed to encroach on the rights of others, and free speech is no exception. As far as I can tell, the only restriction that the US Supreme Court has placed on free speech is when it creates a clear and present danger to other people's safety, that threatens their rights to life and liberty. The classic example is the one that denies one the right to falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

But there are always people who want to try and restrict free speech even in cases where there is no danger of immediate harm to others. For example, governments love to invoke 'national security' as an exception to free speech because that allows them to prevent the reporting of all their lies and mistakes and crimes.

Other attempts at restricting of free speech come in the form of seductive concerns about civility, arguing that speech should be restricted even if it merely offends people, simply because it expresses ideas that some or even most people find abhorrent. Hate speech legislation that restricts the rights of people to say despicable things against those they dislike is one such example. People who indulge in anti-gay, anti-women, and anti-minority rhetoric may be saying things that we despise and find positively hateful but that is not, by itself, sufficient to suppress their right to do so.

It becomes trickier when speech is used to actively incite violence against the people. People should not have the right to create an imminent danger to others, but defining 'imminent danger' and drawing the line between that and hateful, but legitimate, speech is not easy.

But of all the attempts at restricting free speech, are there any more obviously fatuous than the attempts to stifle criticisms of religion by creating laws against blasphemy? After all, blasphemy is aimed against god, the allegedly supreme being, the master of the universe, king of kings, lord of lords, the almighty who knows everything and can do anything. If his feelings are so sensitive, why on earth would he need our puny laws to protect them? He can just smite us with his preferred smiting weapons like floods and earthquakes and hurricanes.

The United States can be justly proud of the fact that unique among countries (I think) its constitution guarantees the right of free speech to everyone. And yet, in an appalling move, the Obama administration is supporting a UN movement backed by conservative Muslim countries to pass an international blasphemy law. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley writes about the growth and use of such laws around the world:

Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.

While attracting surprisingly little attention, the Obama administration supported the effort of largely Muslim nations in the U.N. Human Rights Council to recognize exceptions to free speech for any "negative racial and religious stereotyping."

In the resolution, the administration aligned itself with Egypt, which has long been criticized for prosecuting artists, activists and journalists for insulting Islam.

The public and private curtailment on religious criticism threatens religious and secular speakers alike. However, the fear is that, when speech becomes sacrilegious, only the religious will have true free speech.

Muslims in particular seem to think that their religion and their prophet should be protected from anything that they consider insulting, and they often threaten or even carry out violent attacks against those who are alleged to have offended their religion. But Muslims have no more right to be protected from statements they dislike than any other group. They can revere their prophet and their god as much as they want but it is absurd for them to expect the rest of us to do so or to not make fun of them for their irrational beliefs. Their running amok in 2006 when the Danish newspapers published cartoons of Mohammed is an example of what happens when people become too accustomed to thinking that their particular sacred cows should also be sacred to everyone. (I wrote about the cartoon controversy and the hypocrisy on all sides of that issue here and here.)

The true intent of blasphemy laws is to pander to the dominant religious bloc in a country and to preserve the protected status of at least some religious beliefs because people know deep down that religious beliefs have no rational basis and that if they are exposed to sustained criticism, the whole structure will fall apart.

POST SCRIPT: CNN and Christopher Hitchens on the UN move

You have to sit through Lou Dobbs' anti-UN rant, his nativism, and xenophobia though. This report was back in February, before the Obama administration's support for the move was announced in October.

October 28, 2009

What Francis Collins believes

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Some time ago, I had a detailed critique of Francis Collins's book The Language of God. Collins is a distinguished biologist who has done very good scientific work and successfully headed the massive Human Genome Project. However his book revealed the power of religion to turn its followers' brains into mush when they discuss god and religion. It was an appalling exercise in logical fallacies and question-begging, using the common bait-and-switch argument style of arguing that since we have not yet explained how the world began, that meant that believing in the whole Jesus-god story was rational.

There was some controversy recently when Collins was nominated by president Obama to head the National Institutes of Health, the premier research agency that funds and guides medical research. The concern was whether Collins's evangelical religious beliefs would influence his decisions over what science to pursue, and thus whether his nomination should be opposed.

I didn't think he should be opposed. What a person believes is largely his or her own affair, as long as they do not use their official position to covertly advance a religious agenda. There is no evidence that Collins has done so in the past and we should assume that he will continue to maintain that distinction in the future, unless he starts giving us reason to think otherwise.

But having said that, it is interesting to revisit the question of what Collins believes in the light of his new position. Sam Harris listed a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on science and belief that Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:

Slide 1: "Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time."

Slide 2: "God's plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings."

Slide 3: "After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced 'house' (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul."

Slide 4: "We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement."

Slide 5: "If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It's all an illusion. We've been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?"

What is interesting is how little there is to separate this set of beliefs from those of people like the Banana Man and Crocoduck, who are considered nutty religious fundamentalists, although Collins would be quick to disavow any similarities. Apart from the age of the universe and the inference that the human body was created by the process of evolution, everything that Collins believes could be the statement of beliefs of any Christian religious fundamentalist. And all of them are simply assertions, without a single shred of credible evidence to back up any of them.

This is why I have argued that the distinctions that are drawn by religious apologists between 'good' and 'bad' religion, between 'moderate' and 'fundamental' beliefs, are an illusion. Once you allow evidence-free, logic-free statements in any single area to come in through the door, rationality disappears through the window. As Bart Simpson said in trying to stop an argument between the followers of two religious sects, "The little stupid differences [between religions] are nothing next to the big stupid similarities."

The final slide is particularly curious. He seems to be arguing that it would be uncomfortable to think that our sense of morality is an adaptation of evolution. Why? He does not seem to realize that we can have a sense of good and evil without god that can arise out of evolution. In fact that is a huge area of research. So yes, as a 'strong atheist', I have no trouble at all living with the worldview that the sense of morality that we possess is a product of evolution.

The real problem with Collins's statement is that he does not seem to realize that a true scientist would not shy away from a conclusion just because he or she does not like it or because it violates a religious belief. In fact, we are obliged to accept even a highly unpalatable conclusion if that is what the evidence points to. Physicists have struggled with this for years when it comes to quantum mechanics and objective reality. You have to face up to facts. That is the only way to deal with reality effectively, not by indulging in wishful thinking about what you would like things to be and acting on those illusions.

Also, why should we consider ourselves to have been 'hoodwinked' by this discovery? That is like saying that pre-Copernican people who had believed in a geocentric universe had also been hoodwinked. When science uncovers new truths, it is not because nature somehow tricked us into our prior beliefs. They were held because of lack of evidence or ignorance.

It is amazing that a distinguished scientist like Collins can have views that differ so little from any other primitive belief in a Magic Man.

POST SCRIPT: Huxley vs. Orwell

A comparison of the differences between Aldous Huxley's vision of the future in Brave New World and George Orwell's in 1984. Who do you think turned out to be more prophetic?

(via Progressive Review)

October 27, 2009

The worldwide distribution of species

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Some of the most powerful evidence for evolution comes from the geographic distribution of species, because we find the widest range and the strangest species in Australia, Madagascar, the Galapagos, and other isolated landmasses, some of them quite small islands.

Small but isolated regions turn out to be good breeding grounds for producing new species. When some members of a species get isolated from other members and their gene pools cease to mingle, then they start to diverge from each other. This is why one sees new species proliferating on islands or other forms of isolated areas due to separations caused by mountains or lakes or deserts. The appearance of the new species in these isolated areas is explained by requiring specimens of the ancestral species somehow making it to the remote location and reproducing there. The pattern that emerges is of the new species being different from, but sharing common features with, the parent species from which they originated.

Young Earth creationists do not deal with all this evidence from biogeography (the pattern of species distributed across the globe) because it is tough to explain for them. With the Noah's ark story, you would expect most species to be found close to the Middle East and fewer the further you went away. After all, it is quite a hike for a small flightless bird like the kiwi to get from Mount Ararat all the way to New Zealand. One could postulate that it hitched a ride in a kangaroo's pouch as far as Australia, and then got a bird to carry it over the ocean to its final destination but I suspect that even hard-core creationists (except perhaps for the delightfully loopy folks at Conservapedia) would find that hard to swallow.

If the young Earth people were willing to consider the continental sprint idea to have occurred after Noah's flood ended, they might have been able to 'explain' the kiwi in New Zealand and other exotic island species by saying that, after emerging from the Ark, they grouped together on different parts of the land before these parts split from the rest and sprinted away. But apparently this after-the-flood continental sprint model would undermine their belief that everything is due to one great catastrophe, and furthermore violates some other verse in the Bible which, of course, rules it out. This is the kind of absurdity that results when you demand that modern science conform to the words in a 2,500-year old text.

They know they also have to deal with all the evidence for biological evolution. In order to limit what they have to explain away, they claim that they accept evolution by natural selection, provided all changes stay within species boundaries. They know that the past existence of dinosaurs are irrefutable and have grabbed the imagination of children and adults but are not mentioned in the Bible, which is pretty odd. After all, you would think that these gigantic creatures would merit a mention. Instead the Bible talks of dragons, which is understandable since they were part of the folklore and mythology of that time. So they suggest that that the dragons were meant to refer to dinosaurs since the word dinosaur had not been coined yet.

They tend to studiously ignore the fact that 99% of the species that ever existed are now extinct because that is hard to explain away in any model of divine creation because it seems so pointless and wasteful. The idea of so many species coming into being and then going extinct is hard to explain away in any model that postulates that everything was part of a grand plan by a super-intelligent and powerful god.

You have to give the people in AiG credit for the sheer brazenness with which they make some claims. They seem to think that if they confidently assert something, people won't notice that it makes no sense. My favorite is this passage (my emphasis):

[S]cience is only possible because the Bible is true. Only God’s Word provides us with a logical foundation that is necessary for science or any acquisition of knowledge.

The Bible provides the basis for morality, laws of logic, and the uniformity of nature. These are necessary for the observations of science to be repeatable and trustworthy, and yet the evolutionary worldview cannot account for any of these. Evolutionists are forced to assume the Bible is true in order to do science, and then many of them attempt to claim the Bible is false. This is irrational. Dr. Jason Lisle’s new book, The Ultimate Proof of Creation, explains this in much greater detail.

Many great scientists were Bible-believing Christians, such as Newton, Kepler, Boyle, and Faraday. Why would we put down Genesis for a second when many of the greatest scientists in history would not? Why would we ignore the eyewitness account of God who knows everything and has always been there?

These four were all undoubtedly great scientists but there was no reason at that time for them to think that the universe was a far older and bigger place than they thought. Notice that the most recent scientist on that list is Michael Faraday who died way back in 1867 just when ideas about a very old Earth and the theory of evolution were gaining steam. The next most recent was Isaac Newton who died in 1727. There have been many, many great scientists since then. Couldn't they find a single one of them who believes in the Genesis story? The omission is telling.

You gotta love the AiG people. True believers all. And completely disconnected from reality.

POST SCRIPT: What Christians really believe

People might wonder why I am wasting so much time countering the beliefs of young Earth creationists. Aren't their beliefs self-evidently ridiculous? Well, not if you are a Christian. In discussing religion with sophisticated people such as the accommodationists, it is easy to forget that most Christians believe things that are even more bizarre that a 6,000 year old Earth, if you can imagine that.

Sam Harris has released the results of a poll to probe what Christians actually believe and finds, among other things, that over 90% agree or strongly agree that angels exist and that the biblical story of creation is basically true.

All the results are fascinating in a weird kind of way, providing evidence that to be religious is to sap one's ability to think rationally in any area that religion touches

(Thanks to Pharyngula)

October 26, 2009

Catastrophism and uniformitarianism

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post, I examined some of the ways in which young Earth creationists try to deal with the scientific evidence arrayed against them. In this post, I will look at how they deal with geology, which poses the biggest challenge to their belief that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

For example, they know that they have to deal with vast amounts of scientific data that puts the age of the Earth and the universe in the billions of years. For example, the rings of trees, the slow rates of sedimentation and erosion, the layering of soils, radiometric techniques that depend on the many different half-lives of radioactive elements, the rate of mutations in DNA, rate of continental drift, the switching of the magnetic fields at the undersea geologic faults due to continental drift, and fossils are all used to build a network of clocks that can date even very old events. All these clocks are constructed by calibrating them using known events and other clocks, once again showing the interconnectedness of science.

It is with the age of the Earth that the young Earth creationists face their biggest challenge because apart from the true believers, nowadays everyone else takes an old Earth for granted. Even the media, always solicitous of the sensitivities of their religious viewers when it comes to evolution, do not bother putting on a phony balancing act by suggesting that some people disagree with the scientific consensus of an Earth that is billions of years old.

But the creationists try to provide their followers with at least some reason to defy science. When it comes to challenging the ages of things as established by science, what the creationists do is seek out anomalies here and there in the radiometric results (and these can always be found because there are often confounding factors that prevent clean analysis in some cases) and then argue that all the dates for things and events cannot be trusted. They are using the same bogus argumentation as 'Where is the missing link?', where they pick on something they think is a weakness (whether it is or not) and then argue for throwing out the entire theory. So be prepared when talking to a creationist for them to quote some obscure result where, for example, radiometric dating suggests that something whose age is known was found to be wildly off.

As for geologic evidence, in the early days people could see that things like the creation of mountains and valleys and gorges and cliffs required some explaining, unless one assumed that they always existed. The popular scientific view of that time was that they were due to a series of large scale catastrophic events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the like, that caused massive changes to occur rapidly. This model had the generic title of 'catastrophism'. People like paleontologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) who advocated this model were not necessarily religious and the age they arrived at for the Earth was in the millions of years, which was quite an achievement, given how inconceivable such large time scales must have been to them, and that religious beliefs of that time pinned the value in the thousands of years.

In the early nineteenth century, during the time just prior to Darwin going on his famous voyage of discovery, catastrophism went into decline and the idea of 'uniformitarianism' took hold, which held that most of the major geological features could be explained by the slow and steady accumulation of very small changes. Of course this meant that the Earth must be much older than previously thought and new estimates by people like Charles Lyell ranged in the hundreds of millions of years. This advance had a major impact on evolutionary thinking in general and Darwin's in particular. It helped him develop his idea that, just as major geological changes came about by incremental growth, small changes in organisms could, over a long time, also lead to major changes such as the creation of new species. And the much older Earth meant that there was enough time for those changes to have occurred. So again we see the interconnectedness of science, advances in geology leading to advances in biology, and the two needing to fit together.

To counteract this, what the young Earth creationists try to do is resurrect an extreme form of catastrophism, in which there was just one major event, Noah's flood, that was responsible for pretty much everything that we see in the Earth's features.

The creationists have been forced to concede some points. For example, they have been forced to accept that there was originally just one big land mass and that plate tectonics caused the break up and drifting apart of what we now call continents. (This raises the interesting question of why the Bible makes no mention of such a major event.) In order to make continental drift consistent with a 6,000 year old Earth, they have to argue that the speed of the moving continents reached orders of tens of miles per day or feet per second (i.e., at the rate of a brisk human walker), rather than the accepted range of 2-10 cm/year. Of course, this 'continental sprint' theory conveniently happened a long time ago, during Noah's flood, and the continents then slowed down to their present slow rate, which is why we (conveniently) cannot detect these high speeds now.

They also need to assert that the reversals of the Earth's magnetic field had to occur rapidly as well, flipping multiple times within the forty days. Though they are coy about how frequently it switched, a back-of-the-envelope calculation gives about once every hour! Of course sprinting continentals and magnetic fields run amok require that they try to construct a wholly different model of the Earth's core to try and deal with all these problems, resulting in them further losing contact with mainstream science (and reality).

For the acceptance of these alternative realities by their followers, they have to depend on two things: Their ability to create faux-scientific theories that look and sound impressive enough to fool the naïve, and the 'no one was around to see it then so how can we know for sure which theory is true' fallacious argument to cast doubt on accepted scientific theories.

Next: The worldwide distribution of species

POST SCRIPT: Cherry picking health care comparisons

The health industry and its supporters know that if comparisons are made on the basis of aggregated data, the US compares terribly with other countries in the developed world. So what they do is try and divert the discussion by picking on one or two items in which the US looks relatively good and fixate on it. It is like the tactics used by creationists in opposing evolution, with their "Where are the missing links?" red herrings.

When a health industry shill tries this tactic on Al Franken at a Senate hearing, he knows exactly how to respond.

October 23, 2009

The earnest efforts of Answers in Genesis

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post, I spoke about how the strength of science lies in the fact that it is an interconnected web of theories. Thus one cannot simply remove one single theory that one dislikes and replace it in an ad hoc manner with a new theory. This is where the intelligent design people stumbled badly in their strategy. They tried to take what they thought was a minimalist approach to introducing their theory, in the hope that it would make it more acceptable to scientists. They said that they accepted all of science, including an old Earth, the big bang, and evolution by natural selection for producing almost everything. They said that all they wanted was an exemption from the laws of nature for a handful of cases of allegedly 'irreducible complexity' that required an intelligent designer, which everyone knows is a euphemism for god.

But they misunderstood that is not the number of cases that is important but their significance and implication. Even if they wanted to have just one case of irreducible complexity accepted, the fact that they were introducing the radically different idea of a supernatural force into the methodological naturalism framework of science sent shock waves through the entire network, since this was a change that had enormous universal implications. Hence all areas of science, not just evolutionary biology, reacted to reject the change. It is like what happens when a single virus is introduced into one part of a body. The whole body recognizes the problem and creates antibodies to repel and eject the intruder and restore the smooth working of the system. Intelligent design was perceived by the body of science as being just such a virus.

Some of the most extreme young-Earth creationists, those who take the Bible absolutely literally and as an accurate record of history and science, recognize that they need take a more global approach and that they cannot reject just evolution but must make their creationist theory fit with at least some other areas of science as well.

The website Answers in Genesis is one such attempt. Their website is a real hoot with all kinds of earnest theories constructed to explain exactly how it can be that the Bible can be literally true. I haven't yet seen their creation museum but what I have read so far, with images of children riding dinosaurs, makes it seem equally wacky. But unlike the intelligent design people who wanted to introduce god into science on the cheap, you have to give these Biblical literalists credit for making this effort, although they still get a resounding F for their science.

Their website lists the things that they really care about and will defend to the hilt: a young Earth that is about 6,000 years old; the Genesis story of creation with Adam and Eve as historical figures (for some reason they seem to prefer the version of the story told in chapter 2 and ignore the different version told in chapter 1); and a global Noah's flood. In order to try and reconcile all the contradictions with modern science that inevitably arise, they go to elaborate (and even comical) extremes to make the case that all modern scientific knowledge is consistent with those three axioms.

This means that they have to respond to at least some of the scientific techniques that are used for dating things and events and which have established the age of the Earth as 4.6 billion years old. They also have to try and discredit the theory of evolution, at least as far as species change goes. And they have to explain how all the geological changes that have undoubtedly occurred in the Earth could have taken place within such a short time.

They know that they cannot possibly counteract all the evidence and arguments of science so they carefully pick their battles so that they directly address only those scientific findings that contradict those three basic beliefs. The strategy they adopt is to try and discredit any scientific theory or technique that leads to any conclusion that contradicts their Bible-based beliefs, and they talk only about those things that they think they have counter-arguments for.

The catch is that the Bible is a fixed document but science keeps moving forward discovering new things. As a result creationists have to keep backpedalling as scientific theories become more and more robust and their techniques get better. Each new fossil find, for examples, shed new light and understanding for science but for them simply creates a new problem that has to be explained away.

They also cannot deny those areas of science like quantum mechanics and the principles of radioactivity that can be directly experimented with. So they resort to denying the power of inferential reasoning, essentially arguing that we cannot know for sure what happened millions of years ago because no one was there to see it.

Next: How the creationists challenge science to maintain their beliefs.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore on why newspapers are dying

October 22, 2009

The interconnectedness of science

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Even the most die-hard religious person will concede that scientific knowledge is extremely powerful. In thinking about evolution alone and the arguments presented for evolution by natural selection in Richard Dawkins's new book The Greatest Show on Earth, questions that might occur to the reader are: Why is science so powerful? What is it about its structure that has made it so successful?

This is a question that people have been grappling with for a long time and the answer is surprisingly hard to come by. The facile answer that science works so well because it produces truth is not easy to justify because great scientific theories in the past that were thought to be true have fallen by the wayside and there is little reason to think that we are better judges of the truth of theories than our predecessors were.

As long ago as 1906, Pierre Duhem in his book The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory laid out the difficulties that a scientist face in determining if a particular theory is true, by drawing an analogy between how a watchmaker and a doctor go about diagnosing the source of a malfunction in their respective areas of expertise:

People generally think that each one of the hypotheses employed in physics can be taken in isolation, checked by experiment, and then, when many varied tests have established its validity, given a definitive place in the system of physics. In reality, this is not the case. Physics is not a machine which lets itself be taken apart; we cannot try each piece in isolation and, in order to adjust it, wait until its solidity has been carefully checked. Physical science is a system that must be taken as a whole; it is an organism in which one part cannot be made to function except when the parts that are most remote from it are called into play, some more so than others, but all to some degree. If something goes wrong, if some discomfort is felt in the functioning of the organism, the physicist will have to ferret out through its effect on the entire system which organ needs to be remedied or modified without the possibility of isolating this organ and examining it apart. The watchmaker to whom you give a watch that has stopped separates all the wheelworks and examines them one by one until he finds the part that is defective or broken. The doctor to whom a patient appears cannot dissect him in order to establish his diagnosis; he has to guess the seat and cause of the ailment solely by inspecting disorders affecting the whole body. Now, the physicist concerned with remedying a limping theory resembles the doctor and not the watchmaker.

All of science is an interconnected web if theories. It is not like a set of independent modules where you can pluck one out and replace it with another. It is more like the way that the box springs in a mattress are all linked together. This is why it is so hard to replace one theory with another. All the other theories to which it is linked work to prevent the change.

This is why people who think that they can replace just evolution with some creationist idea du jour stumble badly. The theory of evolution gets its strength from that fact that it meshes well (though not perfectly because while science progresses it is never perfect) with the other theories of biology and chemistry and physics and geology and astronomy, as Dawkins so tellingly demonstrates. Creationist ideas go against all these other theories to various degrees. So when you reject the theory of evolution, you are pretty much rejecting all of science. Trying to replace evolution with the theory of intelligent design in a few cases is like (to switch analogies for the moment) trying to replace just one of the fuel injectors in a modern car with a carburetor from an older car. It just will not work.

An obvious objection to the above description is that it implies that all theories are locked in place forever, which is obviously false since we know that scientific revolutions have occurred in the past in single areas of science. How could that have happened? If you examine closely the history of how scientific revolutions occur, you see that they are preceded by extended periods of crises, when theories come under increased critical scrutiny and suspicion because of perceived weaknesses. Those correspond to the weakening, and even the slow removal, of the links connecting the theory under question to the rest of science. The other theories slowly adapt to the fact that one of their theories is suspect. This enables the suspect theory to be decoupled from the rest and replaced by the new theory.

Initially the new theory will work somewhat imperfectly because it will have few connections to the rest of the scientific theory web. But if it is a good theory that performs its own functions well and has at least some good working connections to other theories, the other areas of science will adapt to the new theory and new links will be forged, so that the end result will once again be a strong interconnected web of theories, but a different one from what existed earlier.

What religious people do not realize is that the theory of evolution is nowhere close to being in crisis and is firmly embedded in the fabric of science. In attempting to discredit it, they are taking on all of science. This is why they have failed so far and will continue to fail.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert gets ready for the end times

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

October 21, 2009

Book review-2: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post about Dawkins's book, I talked about almost all the kinds of evidence that Dawkins presents for evolution, except for the fossils.

But what about fossils? He talks about that evidence too but repeatedly points out that the case for evolution would be iron-clad even if there were no fossils at all. The fact that fossil evidence exists, and keeps accumulating thick and fast in recent years, is simply a bonus. Remember that when Charles Darwin developed his theory, there was hardly any fossil evidence to speak of, except for those that had been sufficient to persuade the geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) to conclude that the Earth was at least hundreds of millions of years old, much older than the 6,000 years or so that was currently believed, even though he himself at that stage believed in special creation and thought that species remained unchanged.

So why do creationists keep focusing on the fossil record and keep saying things like "Where are the transitional fossils?" or more crudely "What about the missing links?" Some of them (yes, I am looking at you, Crocoduck) are either woefully ignorant of what the phrase 'transitional fossil' means or are taking advantage of the ignorance of their audience. Others who are a little more sophisticated do this because they know that the conditions for successful fossilization rarely occur, and since we are talking of a fossil record over hundreds of millions of years, there are bound to be periods for which we have no fossils along any branch of the evolutionary tree. But we keep finding new fossils and the intervals over which there are no fossils keep getting smaller.

Some evolution deniers exploit a feature of the Linnaean classification system of biology that divides living things into discrete categories and requires one to place a newly discovered fossil into a specific category. But evolution is a smoothly transitioning system and it is inevitable that some decisions as to where to place an item are going to be arbitrary. As Dawkins says, it is like the definition of an adult. The law might classify you as an adult on your eighteenth birthday but were you significantly different the day before? As one moves from (say) fifteen to twenty one, one makes the transition to adulthood but one cannot pinpoint exactly when it occurs. There are some people younger than eighteen who are very mature and there are people over that age who are quite immature. But the system requires us to fix who is an adult and who is not and put each person into one or other category. So people who really are in a transitional stage will be classified as either adult or non-adult, and the system of classification by itself eliminates any identification of transitional stages.

The classification system of biology similarly eliminates the labeling of transitional forms. One sign that a fossil is an intermediate between two species is when paleontologists strongly argue about the category in which it should be placed. But once that argument ends, and the fossil placed in one or other category, it does not mean it is no longer transitional. It simply means that it has been pigeonholed for convenience.

Dawkins points out that further evidence for evolution comes from the relatedness of the body patterns of living things that indicate that we had common ancestors. The closer the details of the plans, the more recent the common ancestor.

Furthermore, the way that our bodies are presently constructed reveals our evolutionary history. There are so many aspects of our bodies that are inefficient or wasteful and cannot be made sense of in terms of good design. But they can be understood when we look at the body plans of our primitive ancestors and see how the inefficient aspects of current species were the result of slow adaptations to changes in other parts of our bodies.

He provides a good analogy to illustrate the difference between how a god-like designer and natural selection work. An aircraft engineer (representing a god-like designer) can ignore much of what came before and design a jet engine from scratch using the principles of aerodynamics, and optimize its workings using current technology. But what if the designer were constrained (like natural selection is) to start with a propeller engine and had to make changes using only what was readily available at hand and each change had to be tiny and also provide at least a slight improvement in performance? He would still end up with a better aircraft engine but it would a patchwork mess, nowhere close to the sleek modern jet. Our body plans reveal the patchwork model of natural selection and not the planning of a god-like designer.

Will Dawkins persuade more people to realize that evolution by natural selection is the way to go and that the god hypothesis is unnecessary? Yes, but it will not be easy and not many will change their views directly. As Hugh Laurie says in one episode of House: "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people." That might be an overly pessimistic view of the power of reason but I think it is largely true. But the secondary effect of the book, enabling many more people to make the arguments that only a few specialists like Dawkins makes, is what is important.

This is why we need to speak out for science and against religion and show that religious beliefs are in opposition to rational thought. We need to allow people's inner rationality, which we all possess and use in almost all aspects of our lives, to break free of the smothering effects of religion. Once people realize the need to apply rational thought to even their religious beliefs, then there is hope.

POST SCRIPT: Media coverage of atheism

NPR has a report on the new atheists and the accommodationists.

October 20, 2009

Book review-1: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I just finished the latest book by Richard Dawkins where he makes the case for evolution. One might think that this is what almost all his other evolution books have been about too but as he says in the introduction, in his previous books he was tacitly assuming that people accepted the basic idea of evolution. He was just explaining in more detail how it worked.

His goal in the current book is to persuade the reader that evolution is an undeniable fact by marshalling all the evidence and logic that has persuaded almost all scientists that it is true. Will he persuade those who disbelieve in evolution? That is unlikely to occur directly because the real disbelievers in evolution are too locked in their religious worldview to even read a book by a noted atheist. Even the few religious apologists and theologians who will read the book in order to try and counter its arguments are unlikely to change their views because their denial of evolution and the theory of natural selection has no rational basis. As Jonathan Swift said, "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place."

But Swift may have been too gloomy in his assessment. If what he said were strictly true, then there would be hardly any atheists at all since almost all of us were likely raised in religious households and simply accepted religious beliefs the way we accepted Santa Claus and other fairy tales told to us by the adults in our lives. And yet unbelievers are a rapidly growing group. But in Swift's time (1667-1745), the arguments against god and religion were not nearly as strong as they are now and there were not nearly as many open atheists actively promoting disbelief, due to various blasphemy laws that protected religion from the arguments of apostates. We are truly living in a much more hopeful time.

The religious readers who may be persuaded by Dawkins's book are those who already realize that creationism is a weak explanation of life and are looking for something better. Others who may be persuaded are those religious people who have had some kind of epiphany that has made them realize that the god hypothesis is implausible and are now looking for a satisfactory worldview that can replace their former belief structure.

But the people for whom TGSOE will prove to be most valuable are readers like me, who are not specialists in evolutionary biology but have heard and read enough to realize that it is a powerful theory and that intelligent design and other forms of creationism are laughably inadequate as competing explanations of the diversity of species. What this book does is provide us with a one-stop shop, where the evidence is presented in a clear and concise way, that we can use to persuade those whom we know and who are open to persuasion.

In his book, Dawkins convincingly makes the case for two things: that evolution has occurred and that natural selection is (largely) how it occurred.

He points out how we know so much about evolution from artificial selection, from the experiences of breeders to produce new species and from the way that species like dogs and cabbages have evolved before our very eyes. Even the banana, which in its current form is seen by some as the 'atheists nightmare' because it seems to be so perfectly suited to human eating, was initially a highly unappealing and unpalatable food, coming into its present form only as a result of careful breeding.

He then talks about how in the wild, symbiotic relationships that occur between insects and plants or between predator and prey or as a result of competition for sexual favors or the sudden isolation of a species all can drive evolution quite dramatically, sometimes visible in our lifetimes, although most of the time it is very slow. These natural processes play the role that breeders play in artificial selection.

He points out that although evolution in the wild is usually glacially slow, we have many independent ways of judging time over geological scales, using sedimentation rates in geology, radiometry, the magnetic field switches that are recorded in the shifting continental plates, the rate of DNA mutations, and so on.

Furthermore, the way species are distributed across the globe is powerful evidence for evolution and against special creation. Why are the marsupials concentrated in Australia? Why is it that we find different species in different parts of the world? How come Madagascar and the Galapagos have so many species found nowhere else? This particular feature that Darwin noted in his around the world trip on the Beagle was what initially caused Darwin to question special creation by god and to realize that something else must be going on.

It is interesting that in Darwin's time the idea of continents moving was not even considered. And yet as that theory became accepted and the idea that initially there was a single land mass called Gondwanaland that became broke into bits and separated added to the explanatory power of evolution because it explained how species spread all over the globe.

And then there is the very recent and powerful DNA evidence, which really seals the case that we are all descended from a common ancestor, the original self-replicating molecule, probably a primitive form of RNA, that became DNA and slowly evolved as a result of errors during the replicating process, leading to the diverse species we see.

What is most impressive is that all these diverse pieces of evidence and argument tend to converge in their results. It is this convergence that provides the power of the argument for evolution.

Next: What about fossils?

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on superstition and spirituality

It is amazing how people take seriously stuff that they have just made up.

October 19, 2009

Film review: Capitalism: A Love Story

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I finally managed to get to see Michael Moore's new film Capitalism: A Love Story after travel and other duties prevented me from seeing it as soon as it came out. I am sorry that I waited so long. It is a film that must be seen.

Unlike most feature films where once you have seen the trailer you pretty much know what the entire film is about, the trailers and what you read in articles and in mainstream media commentary about Moore's film capture only a tiny slice of it. The film is much richer.

There are Moore's trademark funny stunts (trying to make citizen's arrests of Wall Street executives and roping off their headquarters as crimes scenes) and these tend to be shown in highlights but the strength of the film (for me, at least) was in his always dead-on portrayals of ordinary people struggling to live their ordinary lives, only vaguely aware of the powerful forces that treat them like chattels, squeezing as much work as they can out of them for as little as they can pay, and then discarding them when they are of no value anymore, literally throwing them out of their homes and their jobs and onto the streets. The invisible hand of the market that Adam Smith wrote about has become a claw wrapped around the neck of most people, squeezing the breath out of them.

Moore shows that this is not because of the actions of evil people but is the inevitable result of capitalism. Capitalism has an internal logic and dynamic that, in its early and healthy stages, produces competition and the manufacture of useful goods, resulting in growth and prosperity for large numbers of people. But in its later decadent stages, when wealth has become concentrated in a few hands, it results in a few people making money (and lots of it) not by producing any useful goods and services but by manipulating their money to make more money, which is what 'derivatives' and 'credit default swaps' are all about. It is all about taking bets (literally) using other people's hard earned money stored in pension funds and the like. Wall Street is a casino.

As we know (and I have discussed exhaustively in my series, The brave new world of finance), this process of decay is now in the end stages in the US where the financial interests have essentially taken over the government. Moore's film masterfully shows how Goldman Sachs now pretty much runs government economic policy and that they have both parties almost completely under their thumb.

I learned a new word from the film: plutonomy. It is a word coined in a secret internal Citigroup document in 2005 to describe a country that is defined by massive income and wealth inequality and it is only what the wealthy do that matters to the economy. The memo says that this is what the US has become, in which the top 1% of people have more wealth that the bottom 95%. In such an economy, the needs of the bottom 95% can be ignored because they do not influence anything. This is why we now see the stock markets rebounding and the news media cheering as if things are great, although unemployment is growing, people are increasingly in debt, and foreclosures keep coming thick and fast. Moore says that ordinary people are treated like the peasants in the final stages of the Roman empire, kept amused by spectacles of no value to distract us from the decay that is all around us. And yes, as I learned from the film, we are thought of, literally, as peasants by the plutocracy.

Only a few people in congress, notably Ohio congresspersons Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich are willing to speak openly about what is essentially a coup d'etat by the wealthy that has taken control of the country, rushed through the near trillion-dollar bailouts of Wall Street in secret deals behind closed doors, and then railroaded Congress to approve it.

What the wealthy fear most is true democracy, because the vote of a poor person counts as much (in theory, at least) as that of a rich person. That is why the election system has to be stacked in other ways to ensure that money plays the dominant role, so that no one who genuinely represents the interests of the poor will get into any major office. Barack Obama is as much in the grip of these powerful people as was George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan before him. The USA is a one-party plutocracy.

What the plutocrats fear is a mass revolt as people realize that the rules and the laws are stacked against them, and decide to take unilateral action. The high points in the Moore film are when workers in a factory who have all been abruptly fired and ordered to leave the premises immediately decide to illegally sit-in in defiance of the police. And when a small community challenges an eviction notice for one of their neighbors and forces open the padlocked door to let the family back in and forces the sheriff to back off. And when a sheriff in another county refuses to enforce eviction notices because he sees them as unjust.

These small victories are won by people saying, in effect, to hell with the laws and the rules, all of which are designed to favor the interests of the rich. We know what is right and what is wrong and we are going to fight for it. But as one young woman factory worker plaintively said, why must we have to fight so hard to get what people should be entitled to as the normal course of things?

Moore points out that a lot of poor and middle class people misguidedly sympathize with the rich and against those just like them because they have been deluded into thinking that they too can one day be rich, although the odds against that happening are huge. Such is the power of propaganda.

Moore also shows some workplaces that are run by the workers themselves and the kind of positive spirit that prevails there, where people look out for each other and put in their best work because they know they are benefitting the lives of themselves and their co-workers and their communities, not some distant shareholder whose only concern is profit margins and distant executives whose only concerns are to get a huge salary and stock options and bonuses.

I loved the film. While it was funny (because Moore deals with serious issues, people often overlook the fact that he has a deft touch with comedy) and heartwarming, it also made me angry at what is being done to defenseless people. I hope you see it and that it makes you angry too.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore interview

Moore is interviewed on ABC.

October 16, 2009

On quoting scientists-5: Religious scientists' beliefs about god

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

When scientists who are also religious believers are quoted as to why they believe in god, their reasons almost always fall into one of two classes. (I am excluding those who believe in the literal truth of their religious texts and, in my opinion, have effectively rejected science altogether.)

One is the ever-popular Argument from Personal Incredulity. This goes as follows:

1. There is no positive evidence for god.
2. But X (insert your preferred natural phenomenon here) is amazing.
3. I don't understand how X could have come about by natural processes.
4. Hence god must have done it.
5. Hence god exists.

The other is a self-serving circular argument that is driven by emotional needs:

1. There is no positive evidence for god.
2. But I want/need to believe in god.
3. Hence god must be acting in ways that preclude leaving any evidence.
4. Hence the absence of credible evidence for god is evidence for my belief that god chooses to act in ways that do not leave any evidence.
5. Hence god exists.

New atheists suggest that the following reasoning is simpler and makes more sense:

1. There is no positive evidence for god.
2. Hence there is no reason to believe in god.

It is in essence the advice that Bertrand Russell gave in his book Skeptical Essays, vol. I (1928):

I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it is true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion become common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it.

I must say that I find that I find the willingness of those few scientists to express belief in anything more than a Slacker God somewhat surprising because it so fundamentally contradicts the basic assumptions under which science operates. The population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), who did so much to advance the theory of evolution by natural selection by placing it on a firm mathematical footing, explained that he was an atheist simply as a result of his desire for consistency:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

But this kind of desire to have a unified and consistent worldview is surprisingly rare. What religious scientists do is tacitly compartmentalize their thinking into two worlds: their scientific world where god does not act, and their religious world where god lives and acts. The word 'tacitly' is important. As long as you do not specify how this two-world system actually operates, you can ignore the huge contradictions that exist.

What I would like to ask the scientists who believe in god is the following question: Are you an atheist when you do scientific experiments, not allowing the hypothesis of god's action entering at all? If so, why do you have one set of beliefs when doing science and another set for all the other areas of your life?

The only way to make sense of this double standard is to assume that god thinks as follows:

If I feel like it, I may once in a while cure a sick person, while most of the time letting them die, sometimes cruel and horrible deaths. Once in a while I may avert a hurricane or tsunami from a populated area though most of the time I will let it destroy thousands of homes and people. I may save a few people in a plane crash just for the hell of it while killing off the rest. I may allow one baby to live and be rescued days after an earthquake that killed of its entire family and town, because I know my followers get a kick out of things like that and will rejoice in the 'miracle'. I will let an insane killer mow down many people in a crowded building just so that those whom he misses think that I picked them out to save. I will allow child rapist-murderers to get away with these and other horrendous crimes. I will create diseases that kill millions of people.

But I will never, ever, interfere with a scientist's experiments and mess up their search for scientific laws.

Because that would be wrong.

A physicist colleague of mine, a well-regarded scientist, is also an observant Jew. I once asked him how he reconciled his scientific work, which excludes supernatural intervention and explanations, with his belief in the Bible with all its stories of god messing around with the laws of the universe. He suggested that he thought that god used to do miracles and then decided around 2,000 years ago to not do any more.

"Why?" I asked.
"He must be having his reasons" he replied.

By invoking that ad hoc strategem, he was able to believe in the truth of the Bible and also avoid having to deal with the god hypothesis in his research. I think all religious scientists in the end adopt similar self-serving views. They just compartmentalize things differently and idiosyncratically depending on their personal beliefs and needs and preferences.

This is why I think Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins was exactly right when he said: "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge."

POST SCRIPT: Interview

I was interviewed recently about an article that I had published called Death to the Syllabus! where I argued that our classrooms and syllabi had become too authoritarian and controlling, and that we needed to try and create a more collegial atmosphere in out classes if we were to achieve true learning. You can find the 25-minute podcast of the interview here.

October 15, 2009

On quoting scientists-4: God as metaphor

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

If one looks at the quotes of scientists used by religious believers, one sees that they fall into a familiar pattern. One is to take the metaphorical use of the word god by some scientists and imply that these imply belief in a real god. One of the most common examples is the popularity amongst religious people of a statement in Stephen Hawking's best-selling book A Brief History of Time that is often quoted this way: "[I]f we discover a complete theory…then we should know the mind of God". It has been seized upon by religious people to imply that Hawking believes in god, and is a prime example of this practice of 'quote mining'.

But Hawking, like Albert Einstein, is using god as a metaphor for complete knowledge, as can be seen in the full passage from which the quote is taken:

If we discover a complete theory, it should be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God. (my emphasis)

In a BBC interview, he was asked to further clarify his statement that we might one day know the mind of god and his answer clearly indicates that his idea of god is nothing like the god that religious people believe in.

It seems that the universe is governed by a set of scientific laws. One might say that these laws were the work of god but it would be an impersonal god who did not intervene in the universe apart from setting the laws. What I meant when I said we would know the mind of god was that if we discovered the complete set of laws and understood why the universe existed we would be in the position of god… One could define god as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as god. They mean a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible. (my emphasis)

Einstein was someone else who loved to use god as a metaphor in the same way as Hawking, and people have similarly seized on those quotes as evidence for at least a Slacker God. But Einstein viewed belief in god as a "childish superstition". In a letter written just a year before his death, he said:

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this… For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.

Some scientists throw in god into their statements because it is a sure-fire way of drawing media interest. Physicists in particular seem to be prone to gratuitously using god as a metaphor. Leon Lederman gave his 1994 book the title The God Particle, which was his idea of a cute name for the Higgs boson, a particle that is predicted to play a crucial role in the standard model of particle physics but has not been detected as yet. Then there was this statement last week by two physicists speculating about why the Higgs boson (which is what the newly constructed massive Large Hadron Collider is designed to create) has been so hard to detect.

"It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck," Dr. Nielsen said in an e-mail message. In an unpublished essay, Dr. Nielson said of the theory, "Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God." It is their guess, he went on, "that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them."

One can be sure that some religious people will seize on this statement as evidence for those scientists' belief in god.

But what Hawking or Einstein or Darwin or Dawkins or whomever believes about god is ultimately irrelevant. Unlike some religious people who unquestioningly accept what the Pope or other religious people or the authors of their religious texts say, atheists reject belief in god because there is no evidence for it and not because of any authority. That's it. Nothing more. If Richard Dawkins were to suddenly announce that he had had a vision of god and become a Christian, that would no doubt cause considerable surprise, shock even, but would not change anything about the existential status of god unless Dawkins could provide evidence that what he had experienced was not just a delusion or a psychotic episode but really was credible evidence of god's existence.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on Democratic opponents of the public option

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

October 14, 2009

On quoting scientists-3: What about statements about god?

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I have said in the previous two posts that we should take scientists seriously when they talk about science (even outside their immediate fields of study) because they have their reputation for credibility at stake and they value that more than almost anything else professionally.

But what about when scientists go even farther afield and infer from that what they know about science to what they believe about god? Then the strength of their case rests only on the quality of the argument they make and the nature of the inferential reasoning they use. It does not rest on their scientific expertise except as far as the truth claims of the science on which they base their arguments is concerned. This affects the way we should use and evaluate the use of quotes.

The only purpose of using quotes in these cases is because the author has said something very succinctly or pithily and one wants to use their words in order to give them proper credit for expressing an idea. The quote by itself is never evidence either for or against the existence of god and the supernatural, but it is evidence as to the beliefs of the person who made the quote about the phenomenon. So a quote about what Darwin believed and said about god would not be evidence for or against god. But when it comes to the issue of Darwin's views on the existence of god, what he actually said would be relevant and well worth quoting.

Religious people tend to misunderstand this. They sometimes comb through the writings of famous dead scientists to find quotes that seem to suggest a belief in god, and use them as if it strengthens the case for god. This is a waste of time because it doesn't. For example, Charles Darwin died not believing in god. While there is no doubt whatsoever that his theory of evolution has made god increasingly redundant and strengthened the case for atheism, his disbelief by itself is not evidence against the existence of god.

Darwin's disbelief bothers some religious people and they think that if they could show that he was a believer in god, that discovery would undermine atheism. Such people sometimes even repeat the thoroughly debunked story of him having had a deathbed conversion to Christianity or make a big deal about the fact that Darwin explicitly rejected the label of atheist and embraced the term agnostic. They are misguided in their efforts. Neither of those things are relevant to the point that the theory of evolution seriously undermines belief in the existence of god.

Even if Darwin actually had made a deathbed conversion to Christianity, it would not prove anything about god either way. All it would have shed light on was about Darwin's state of mind as he lay dying. After all, his co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection Alfred Russell Wallace later in life seemed to embrace some forms of mysticism. Even the great scientist Isaac Newton believed in god in some form. But all that such stories tell us is what those people believed about those phenomena. By themselves they are not evidence for or against god or the supernatural.

One can sometimes use the consensus views of scientists about religion as evidence for some propositions about religion. As an example, suppose we take the new atheists' statement that science and religion are incompatible. The basis of this claim is that advances in science have made the god hypothesis increasingly redundant, that there is simply no need to believe in the existence of such an entity, and to invoke it is to turn one's back on methodological naturalism which is a foundational principle of modern science.

One consequence of this argument is that science as advanced even more, we would expect that the number of disbelieving scientists, especially those who are leaders in their fields and thus more intimately familiar with the frontiers of scientific research, should increase with time. As Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins said: "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge."

As a result we might expect some circumstantial evidence in support of the claim that increasing depth of knowledge about science leads to greater disbelief. And there is. In medieval times or earlier there is no evidence that many scientists were disbelievers, unless they were keeping it secret. This is possible since death was a common punishment for heretics. But we have no way of really knowing the situation back then.

But with the enlightenment things began to change for the better. As Edward Larson and Larry Witham reported in a study published in Nature in 1998, at least in the 20th century there has been a steep drop from nearly 28% to 7% in the number of leading scientists who believe in a 'personal god', while the number of disbelievers and doubters rose from nearly 74% to 93%. If the numbers had gone the other way, that as science learned more and more about how the world worked that the number of religious scientists increased, then that would cast some doubt on the claim of the new atheists, although such data, depending as it does on people's beliefs, can never be conclusive about the truth or falsity of any proposition.

Next: God as metaphor

POST SCRIPT: No, let's not leave it there

Jon Stewart on the vapidity of the cable news shows.

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October 13, 2009

On quoting scientists-2: When is a quote evidence, and for what?

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I myself use direct quotes quite often and attribute them to the source whenever I can. Why?

One reason is simply style. Using quotes make for livelier reading. Inserting quotes set off differently from the rest of the text breaks up the visual monotony of the page, the way that dialogue does in fiction, and introducing the different rhythm of a new writer keeps the reader on her toes.

Another reason is to acknowledge the source of an idea that I am using. In writing a scholarly paper, one is obliged to track down the original source of an idea, not merely the person who brought it to your attention, but in blog writing it is acceptable to quote secondary sources.

Another reason is to introduce readers to other writers whom they may not have heard of before.

A fourth reason is that there are a lot of good writers out there who often express what I want to say much better than I can, so I use their words. I prefer to give direct quotes whenever possible rather than paraphrase because that leaves less room for unintentionally distorting their views. I cite the source whenever I can so that readers can check for themselves the full context of the quote if they think I am misinterpreting the words.

Why is that famous people are quoted more often than unknown people? It may often seem as if the authors of the quotes are being used as authority figures merely because of their fame, and the quotes themselves are evidence for some point of view, as if the beliefs of famous people have more weight. This is not necessarily so. It is more likely that people who are prolific and/or well-known and/or good writers get quoted more often because they have written more and are read more than obscure or poor writers.

Does the fame of the author give them more credibility? Yes sometimes, but only so far as what they say reflects their detailed knowledge of their subject. For example, when I make assertions about fields about which I have no direct knowledge, I like to quote the words of scholars or people whom I have confidence have actually studied the issue and have a reputation for presenting their subject with appropriate scholarly caution. This naturally skews the quotes in favor of well-known scholars since then I do not have to go through the dreary exercise of first establishing the quoted person's credentials in the field. Quotes by Richard Dawkins on evolution and Albert Einstein on physics have to be taken very seriously. Dawkins on physics and Einstein on evolution, not so much. Sarah Palin on evolution or physics, not at all.

Why do we take the words of scientists and other academic scholars seriously when they are talking about their own fields? Because academia works by peer review. The peers of scientists who are in a position to independently check their work would strongly challenge them if they were saying wrong things about the science, and in the absence of such critiques one can assume that they are expressing the consensus views of their field, even if there are some scientists who disagree with them.

The fact that there are some scientists outside the consensus does not weaken the consensus claims unless the theory really is experiencing a crisis, and it is usually fairly obvious when that is the case. As an example, in physics there are still some scientists who dispute the theory of relativity or the big bang, but those theories remain the consensus views of the community. There is no crisis there. When the consensus view among physicists is that the structure of the entire physical universe has the potential to be explained and understood using mathematical laws without any supernatural intervention, one has to take this view seriously, unless one can provide evidence against those consensus views. Assertions by religious people and theologians of the existence of supernatural forces simply do not carry anywhere near the same weight.

So when Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins or any working biologist describes biological phenomena and the science behind it, their words definitely have greater credibility than those of non-biologists. The consensus view amongst biologists is that all the biological complexity that we see around us could easily have come about mainly by natural selection without any hidden mechanisms or supernatural intervention. As physicist Sean Carroll says:

Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural "designer" is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It's not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas.

It is because of this consensus amongst biologists that we take the idea of evolution seriously, and discount supernatural explanations.

But we take academic scholars somewhat seriously even when they venture a little further afield, outside their narrow fields of expertise. The reason for this is that the most important thing to a working scholar is his or her credibility in the eyes of other scientists, and the more well known they are, the more effort they put into protecting that. This makes most scientists cautious about saying things about any subject that will earn them the scorn of their peers.

So serious scientists who need to express an opinion in a field outside their own specialty will usually check with scientists in that field to make sure they are getting the science right. I am currently reading Richard Dawkins's latest book The Greatest Show on Earth where he marshalls all the evidence in favor of evolution. In the process he talks about radiometric dating and continental drift, which lie in the fields of physics and geology and are outside his range of direct expertise. But it was clear to me that he had consulted knowledgeable people in those fields before he had used those arguments as evidence because it would be embarrassing for a scientist to err about any area of science.

Next: What about when scientists talk about god?

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart of the Democrats messing up health care reform

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October 12, 2009

On quoting scientists-1: The numbers game

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I recently received an email the subject line of which said, "Some leading and Nobel prize winner scientists view [sic] on God." The contents of the email consisted solely of 25 brief quotes, all in support of the existence of god, with no further explanation.

I am not sure what the point of this kind of exercise is since the email author did not explain. Is it to show that there are scientists who are also religious? If so, there is no need to make the case because no atheist denies that fact, so producing such lists serves no purpose than identifying some of the religious scientists by name.

In fact, one should be able to find even more than 25. The National Academy of Science is widely recognized as constituting only the leading scientists. It currently has about 2100 members. In response to a survey, 7% of NAS members said they believe in a personal god defined by the statement "a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man ... to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer." This is a far more active deity than the Slacker God of some accommodationists, so the email writer should have been able to dig up about 150 members of the NAS who have nice things to say about god.

If the point of the exercise is to impress atheists with the number of scientists who are religious, then this is the wrong way to go, since there are far more skeptics than believers in the NAS. About 72% are outright nonbelievers and another 21% are doubtful or agnostic. So if it comes down to a numbers game, believers lose by a landslide.

This reminds me of the time when the Discovery Institute, the organization that was behind intelligent design, issued a list of 103 people with doctorates in any field who had signed on to the following statement: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." They even placed an ad touting the list as an argument against the theory of evolution.

In response, the National Center for Science Education started Project Steve, consisting of a list of scientists who were willing to sign on to the following statement:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to "intelligent design," to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools.

The gimmick was that the signatories were limited to scientists who had names that were variations on some form of Stephen, such as Steve, Stephanie, Stefan, and so on. They got 367 scientists (including Stephen Hawking) to sign which, since the name Steve only represents 1% of the population, can be extrapolated to suggest that 36,700 scientists support the statement.

The whole point of Project Steve was to make fun of the idea that numbers of scientists behind a proposition alone is an argument for anything and if someone should think so, it is going to be a definite loser for religious beliefs.

But the email made me think about the uses of quotes by scientists in general. I myself use direct quotes quite often and attribute them to the source whenever I can. Why do I use them? What purposes do they serve?

Next: When do quotes serve as evidence for anything?

POST SCRIPT: Tuesdays with Moron?

Bill Maher speculates on the other ghostwriters who were considered for Sarah Palin's book and the titles they suggested.

October 09, 2009

The Banana Man chronicles-5: Fear and loathing in Jesus Land

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

As readers may have noticed I have been quite harsh, more so than is my custom, with Ray Comfort and his evangelistic efforts, derisively referring to him as Banana Man and ridiculing his pathetic attempts at combating the theory of evolution. Why? Because I think that the kind of message that he preaches (which is very similar to the ones I used to hear as a young man in evangelical churches and in organizations like Youth for Christ and Campus Crusade for Christ) is positively evil.

Note that I am not saying that Comfort himself is evil. For all I know, he may be a perfectly charming man, kind to animals and children. But his message to people is evil though he, like all such evangelists, prattles endlessly about how they are spreading the 'good news' of Jesus to people.

What I find despicable is that Banana Man and other evangelists try desperately to make their listeners miserable by creating in them a sense of self-loathing ("The Law of God shows us that the best of us is nothing but a wicked criminal", on page 47 of his introduction to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species) and an inordinate fear of death, so that he can then bribe them to accept Jesus in order to assuage the terror that he himself has helped create. He provides direct support for Sigmund Freud's suspicion that fear of death is the basis of religion.

Look at the things Banana Man and almost all evangelists of his stripe say to frighten people about death.

We will be without excuse when we stand before God because he gave us our conscience to know right from wrong…On Judgment Day, when God judges you, will you be found innocent or guilty of breaking this Law? Think before you answer. Will you go to heaven or hell? (p. 43)

All of humanity stands on the edge of eternity. We are all going to die. We will all have to pass through the door of death. It could happen to us in twenty years, or in six months ... or today. For most of humanity, death is a huge and terrifying plummet into the unknown. (p. 41)

They are flat out wrong. What happens after we die is not unknown and should not be terrifying. Death and what happens after death is really quite simple and easy to understand. If you accept evolution, then you should know that all living things are related to each other. We are all part of one tree of life. We can be as certain about what happens after our own death as we can be about anything, because our death is no different from that of a banana or bee or a fish dying, and we know what happens in those cases.

Overwhelming evidence points to the fact that when we or any other living thing dies, all that happens is that our biological functions cease and we become just an inanimate mass of atoms. That's it. There is no credible, objective evidence whatsoever that death is anything else but that. Life after death, heaven and hell, are all just figments of the imagination. Just as when a bird dies, we don't think that a bird god judges whether it goes to a bird heaven or a bird hell, so it is for us. There is absolutely no reason that our particular branch of the evolutionary tree should have a different fate after death than any other branch.

There is nothing hugely mysterious or terrifying about death. The only emotion that makes sense as one gets older and approaches one's own death is regret. Regret at not having left the planet in better shape, fought more vigorously for justice, helped others more, learned more things, read more books, seen more films, done more things, seen more places, enjoyed more the company of one's family and friends, and so on. Regret at not being able to continue enjoying life is the only reasonable reaction to the thought of one's impending death. But balancing that should be the deep sense of satisfaction that one has experienced the joy of life.

But people like Comfort, instead of allowing people to come to terms with death and relinquishing life peacefully when the time comes, instead try to terrify them for their own selfish purposes. People like him prey on the gullible and weak-minded, those who are not able to see that they are being manipulated. They exploit the reasonable fear people have that the process of dying might be painful, perhaps due to a protracted illness, to imply that people should fear death itself. The 'comfort' these evangelists offer believers is that if they believe in Jesus they can avoid hell. ("So you no longer need to be tormented by the fear of death", p. 49.)

I would be less harsh on them if the 'salvation' they offer from fear of death was a one time thing. But the solution that these evangelists offer is not like a vaccine that inoculates for life, that enables people to overcome their fear of death, get on with their lives anew, and live the rest of their lives joyously. Such an outcome would not serve the evangelists' purpose. They want you to repeatedly seek salvation over and over again and, more importantly, keep sending money to them.

So what they offer instead is a short-term satisfaction that disappears after a day or two. The 'comfort' they offer is more like a shot of heroin given to a drug addict, that makes you feel good for the moment, but then the effects wear off, you suffer withdrawal pains, feel miserable, and need to go back for another fix. They seek to create not emotionally healthy people but emotionally stunted drug addicts for Jesus.

I have been to evangelical meetings and know the routine. (The documentary Marjoe gives a revealing look behind the scenes at how they operate.) Week after week the gullible, under relentless condemnation of their sinfulness by the preacher, weepily confess once again what loathsome people they are, how they have strayed and sinned once again, how undeserving they are of god's love, and then once again 'give their lives to Jesus' in order to get their Jesus fix. And they will return the next week to say the same thing.

The message that Comfort and his ilk preach is one that increases misery and self-loathing. It is death-obsessed and life denying.

In reality, life is a precious gift that we must enjoy while we can for as long as we can, and we should seek to have as many others enjoy it as well by seeking justice, being nice to people, and enabling them to enjoy life more too. Then when the time comes for us to die, we should do so gracefully and in peace, grateful for the fact that we have lived.

The atheist Robert Ingersoll said it best: "My creed is that: Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so."

How joyful and life affirming that creed is! In a few short words, it tells us how to live in a way that makes life better for everyone.

POST SCRIPT: The failures of logic and evidence in support of god

An excellent expose of the fallacious arguments put forward by religious believers. Well worth watching.

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

October 08, 2009

The Banana Man chronicles-4: The insurmountable problem of theodicy

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post I wrote about how Banana Man wants to make sure that you realize that you are a loathsome being because of your repeated sinning. On page 43 of his introduction to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Banana Man relentlessly pursues his theme that because god is just you cannot escape from god's wrath. "To say that there will be no consequences for breaking God’s Law is to say that God is unjust, that he is evil." It is clearly important to him that god be a macho god, a Rambo among gods, who invariably doles out righteous justice, and is nothing like the wimpy loving and merciful god propagated by those wussy liberal Christians.

To try to prove that point, Banana Man then tells us a tragic and true story:

On February 24, 2005, a nine-year-old girl was reported missing from her home in Homosassa, Florida. Three weeks later, police discovered that she had been kidnapped, brutally raped, and then buried alive. Little Jessica Lunsford was found tied up, in a kneeling position, clutching a stuffed toy.

So how does this incredibly sad story prove his point? Here's what he says immediately following:

How do you feel toward the man who murdered that helpless little girl in such an unspeakably cruel way? Are you angered? I hope so. I hope you are outraged. If you were completely indifferent to her fate, it would reveal something horrible about your character.

Do you think that God is indifferent to such acts of evil? You can bet your precious soul he is not. He is outraged by them.

The fury of Almighty God against evil is evidence of his goodness. If He wasn’t angered, He wouldn’t be good. We cannot separate God’s goodness from His anger. Again, if God is good by nature, He must be unspeakably angry at wickedness.

So what does his mighty, righteous, and just god do in his fury to avenge this monstrous crime? Apart from being outraged, nothing at all as far as we can see, because Banana Man abruptly drops this topic and moves on to discuss other things. Even by the low standards of Banana Man, this 'argument' seems like a complete non sequitur. As far as I can figure, the point of this story is that Banana Man is saying his BFF god must be outraged because otherwise he wouldn't be good. If he is good, he cannot be evil. But if god is not just, he would be evil. Since he is not evil, he must be just.

I think it is always interesting how religious people like Banana Man are always so sure that they know how god feels about things and what he will do to us after we die, while at the same time claiming total ignorance of why it is that we see absolutely no evidence at all while we are alive that god does anything at all.

But gratuitously introducing the sad story of Jessica actually works against him. If god is always just, then surely that must mean that in his eyes the little girl died a horrible death because she deserved it? If justice is that important to god, and she did not deserve to die, then god should have prevented her death. What's the use in god being outraged by injustice if he doesn't do anything about it? It would be like someone shouting at the TV when he sees something he dislikes. But unlike humans, Banana Man's god supposedly has the power to change the programming. In fact, he writes the script for all the shows. So he is in a unique position to prevent the outrage in the first place rather than raging about it impotently afterwards. Why did he write a script in which Jessica died if he was going to be outraged by her death?

Banana Man does not even try to address this question because it is the age-old and insurmountable problem of theodicy, of why god allows evil if he is omnipotent and omniscient. The best that religious people can come up with is that god has some mysterious plan that we are not privy to now but will (conveniently) learn later, after we die or when the Rapture comes. In other words, we have the predictable reappearance of the 'mysterious ways clause' that religious believers have to keep invoking whenever they are trapped in a corner from which there is no escape.

The reason that Banana Man does not proffer even this pathetic excuse but simply ignores the issue is that if the death of Jessica was part of this grand and secret plan, then god should not be outraged, which undermines his argument for god being always just and unmerciful. In addition, up until that point he had given the impression that he is like Jeeves to Bertie Wooster's god: He knows his master's likes and dislikes, his moods, and his policies, maybe even his favorite brand of breakfast cereal. Creating that impression of intimacy is what he thinks gives him authority to make sweeping pronouncements about what god thinks of us and wants from us. To suddenly use ignorance of god as a defense would weaken his entire argument.

Next: Fear and loathing in the service of Jesus.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on why he doesn't do anything to prevent suffering

A great description of all the problems of theodicy and the banal excuses people proffer for god when tragedies strike.

October 07, 2009

The Banana Man Chronicles-3: You loathsome sinners

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

As we saw in the previous post, Banana Man goes to great lengths to make the case that everyone has broken all (or almost all) the ten commandments and thus we are all loathsome sinners and surely going to hell. The idea is to make people very, very scared.

In his attempt to scare the daylights out of people, Banana Man is not only fighting unbelieving evolutionists, he also has to combat the pernicious influence of liberal Christians who are undermining his spreading of fear by claiming that god is loving and merciful and won't really send people to hell for eternity because that would be cruel.

Banana Man has little patience for a god who is such a wuss. One can see why. It is essential for the strategy of evangelists like him that people be terrified of going to hell. So Banana Man moves to close that loophole of a softie god. Since god seems to be Banana Man's BFF, only he is allowed to make pronouncements on what god is really like. As he confidently says on p. 45, "[T]he God we are speaking about is nothing like the commonly accepted image. He is not a benevolent Father-figure, who is happily smiling upon sinful humanity."

He then pulls off a neat trick. He says that assigning false properties to god is the same as worshipping an idol, and thus those liberal Christians who preach the existence of a loving and merciful god are also violating the second commandment in addition to all their other sins, and thus getting into even deeper doo-doo. He says (p. 42) "That [loving and merciful] god does not exist; he’s a figment of the imagination. To create a god in your mind (your own image of God) is something the Bible calls “idolatry.” Idolaters will not enter heaven." So take that, liberal Christians! You are doomed too.

And just in case you think that you might still escape because some of your sins were really trivial or even only thoughts in your mind, or that god is too busy with more important things (you know, like wars genocide, disease) to know or care about your own petty sins, Banana Man quickly disillusions you:

Nothing is hidden from His pure and holy eyes. He is outraged by torture, terrorism, abortion, theft, lying, adultery, fornication, pedophilia, homosexuality, and blasphemy. He also sees our thought-life, and He will judge us for the hidden sins of the heart: for lust, hatred, rebellion, greed, unclean imaginations, ingratitude, selfishness, jealousy, pride, envy, deceit, etc. (p. 44)

That pretty much covers everything. I was curious how he arrived at terrorism on that list since that is a modern political concept. Also since god actually encouraged the devil to torture Job, I would have thought that he approved of torture. I don't recall anything in the Bible against pedophilia either. In fact, god urges his chosen people to capture young virgins as desirable partners for sex, and these women are even deemed by god to be suitable spoils of war, with no mention about a lower limit for age. So rape seems to be ok with god too. But maybe Banana Man has found a Biblical passage somewhere that alludes to this or is extending from the fact that he believes that all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sinful. Also, I noticed that he excludes incest in his list of prohibitions. Maybe that is because the Bible is full of god's people indulging in this practice (I'm looking at you, Lot) and not being punished by god.

But the main point is that he wants you to realize that you are a loathsome despicable being and are going to be punished severely for all your innumerable and repeated sins. "To say that there will be no consequences for breaking God’s Law is to say that God is unjust, that he is evil." (p. 43)

Things look pretty bleak for everyone at this point. What to do? He then goes on describe what other religions offer to solve this predicament and says that they do not provide escape from the awful penalties that await all of us.

Hinduism is a loser because all it offers is reincarnation, with one's status in the next life determined by what one does in this one. Since Banana Man has gone to great lengths to show that you are a despicable human being who has repeatedly broken almost all the commandments, this means that your next life is going to be pretty bad. In fact, following his logic that we are unavoidably sinners, you are condemned to a steady downward spiral of future lives, perhaps ending up at the bottom as Glenn Beck. So reincarnation is not worth embracing Hinduism for.

Buddhism is a loser because it does not have a god and so there is no one to offer you salvation from your sins. Banana Man can't see the point of a religion without god, let alone get his mind around that idea. Besides, though he does not seem to know this or at least think it worth mentioning, Buddhism is like Hinduism in having reincarnation too.

Islam is a loser because although it does provide for salvation, it says that salvation can be achieved by doing religious works. That does not sound so bad but Banana Man contemptuously dismisses it, saying that god will see through this as a mere bribe and it won't work so you won't be saved from eternity in hell. Remember that Banana Man is god's BFF and knows exactly what he likes and dislikes.

As I pointed out yesterday, Judaism's failings are ignored these days by evangelicals for political reasons.

This finally gets him to making the case for Christianity. Ready? Here's the pitch: None of us can avoid sin (Ok, you've already belabored that point.). The punishment for sin involves eternal suffering in hell. (Ok, you've rubbed that in too.) There is only one way to avoid this harsh punishment. Only Christianity offers hope because Jesus died for our sins and took them upon himself on the cross and thus we have salvation from hell. Hence only the Christian god is worth betting on.

Really, that is his entire argument. Not only his, but is the foundation of Christianity. Like all Christians, he does not seem to realize that this makes absolutely no sense.

Note that that the framework of his argument starts with the assumption that his own religion is correct, and he then judges all other religions according to that framework. Naturally they compare badly. He cannot see that people in other religions are also going through the same self-serving exercise, which is why they each think that their own religion is the best. None of them seem to understand (or want to acknowledge) that to meaningfully compare different groups of things, one needs criteria that transcend the particulars of each and are arrived at independently of any one of them.

Next: The problem of theodicy raises its ugly head again.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on The Colbert Report in 2006

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October 06, 2009

The Banana Man Chronicles-2: What's really on Banana Man's mind

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the first post in this series, I wrote about Banana Man's arguments against evolution which, together with a short biography of Darwin, constitutes about 40 pages of his introduction to Origins. But even Banana Man must know that there was nothing new there. It was clear to me that this was just an excuse to gain attention and on the final pages 39-50, he gets down to the real issue that concerns him, which is to get you to come to Jesus.

Banana Man has a bigger challenge than the sophisticated religious intellectuals who are content to argue for the existence of merely a Slacker God. Such people like Karen Armstrong, Robert Wright, and H. E. Baber only wish to believe in the existence of something, anything at all, however small or inconsequential, that is outside the reach of scientific investigation. They then give that the name 'god' and move on. The existence of their god leads to no practical consequences whatsoever and the world would be indistinguishable whether their god existed or not, but this does not seem to bother them. For this reason I call such people 'religious atheists'.

Banana Man, however, believes in the literal truth of the Bible, in Jesus' virgin birth and resurrection, in other words the whole Christian ball of wax. So he has a bigger task than the religious atheists. He not only has to argue for the existence of a supergod who intervenes in the universe all the time, he has to argue for existence of one and only one very specific god, the Jesus-god that he happens to believe in.

In order to achieve this you would think that, at the very least, he would try to show that the god of Christianity is the true god and all the other gods are false. But religious people cannot really argue for the falsity of other people's gods because those same arguments can be used against their own god. So instead of true and false, Banana Man argues that Christianity offers goodies and rewards that the others don't, which makes it preferable to believe in. It is like a store that competes against other stores in sales for the identical item by offering sale prices or throwing in a free toaster, and then suggesting that the resulting higher sales means that they are selling the genuine article while their competitors are selling counterfeit. The argument makes no sense.

So using a long and complicated metaphor involving what would be most useful if one were forced to jump out of a plane (seemingly inspired by seeing the Disney film Up), he tries to justify why it is better to be a Christian than to be a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.

Interestingly, he does not include Judaism in his list of loser religions. If you think about it, in his eyes Judaism should be an even bigger loser than Islam. At least Islam recognizes Jesus as a great prophet and is even willing to concede that god gave him a virgin birth and the power to do miracles, although not conceding that he is god incarnate. As far as Jews ago, Jesus was just an ordinary Jew of his time, if he existed at all.

But Christians in the US have come a long way since the days when they despised Jews as Christ-killers. While antipathy towards Jews may exist among individual Christians, a political alliance has been cemented between right wing Christians and right wing Jews. It is now Christianist policy to talk of the 'Judeo-Christian' heritage of the US and of 'Judeo-Christian' values and be nice to Jews and not say any bad things about them (at least publicly) even though they believe that when the Rapture comes, Jews who haven't seen the light and come to Jesus are going to slaughtered by god, just like all the other unbelievers.

So how does Banana Man try to persuade the reader that Jesus is the only god they should believe in? Those familiar with Banana Man's schtick know what to expect. He basically does the same thing that he and Crocoduck do when they are out evangelizing in the streets, which is that they accost random people and go through all the ten commandments, one by one, asking people which ones they've broken.

Just to be sure that you realize you have broken a lot and get a perfect or almost perfect score of 10, he takes liberties with the wording of the commandments. He says that any use of the word god other than in prayer constitutes taking god's name in vain and is thus a violation of the third commandment. He expands the word 'murder' to include hate, justifying the modification by using some quote from Jesus. So if you've ever hated anyone, then you've broken the sixth commandment against committing murder. Again roping in Jesus, he expands the meaning of the word 'adultery' to include sex before marriage and even simple lust, just to make sure you have broken the seventh commandment.

Basically, the idea is to present you with a list of rules that he says that god insists that you follow but which are impossible to obey. The point of all this effort is so that he can then pass judgment on you and say that because you have violated all or almost all of the commandments, you are a disgusting sinner and thus doomed to spending eternity in hell.

So what's the point? In the next post, we'll see why he goes to all this trouble.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert interviews Richard Dawkins

Look closely and you will see that Dawkins is wearing a crocoduck tie.

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By the way, I found a nice image of the crocoduck.

October 05, 2009

The Banana Man Chronicles-1: The abbreviated version

(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 Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

A week or so ago, I wrote about Banana Man and Crocoduck's excellent new adventure where, on November 19, they are going to give away 50,000 copies of Charles Darwin's classic book On the Origin of Species on various college campuses (not sure if ours is one of the lucky ones) but with the added bonus of a 50 page introduction by Banana Man.

The Banana Man claims that in those 50 pages he will, using his demonstrated powerful reasoning powers and rhetorical skills that I described in that previous post, demolish the theory of evolution by natural selection that has, for the last century, been the foundation of biology. And who is better able to provide an introduction to one of the greatest works of science than someone whose understanding of evolutionary theory is so deep that he thinks the banana could not have evolved to be so perfectly suited to being eaten by humans and thus had to be directly made by god?

For those who cannot wait until November 19 to see what delights are in store in Banana Man's introduction, you can see read it here. Oddly, the link to the introduction no longer works, although it was live for more than a week. I don't know if it is a temporary server glitch or it has been pulled from the site for some reason. I had downloaded the introduction earlier and still have it but you will have to take my word for it about what it contains until the book appears or the link is restored.

For those others who cannot spare the time to read all fifty pages, I have decided to take one for the team and devote some time to prepare a CliffsNotes version of Banana Man's thesis (with my own commentary added of course) and these will form the topic of posts for this week. The reason I am devoting so much time to this is partly in response to commenter Derek's point some time ago that I should not devote all my attention on refuting only the sophisticated religious apologists who don't believe in anything remotely resembling what the average believer thinks, but also examine the views of more traditional believers. The Banana Man is as unlike the sophisticated apologists as one can get. Derek had in mind people like Albert Mohler and Cornelius Van Til who are somewhere in between those two extremes but one has to start somewhere so I will start at the bottom with Banana Man and work myself up from there. Furthermore, a case can be made that the kinds of views expressed by Banana Man have a greater following than those of the others.

Anyway, here is what Banana Man says in his introduction:

Pages 1-4: Short biography of Darwin. Banana Man ends this section with "At the age of seventy-three, Charles Darwin went to meet his Maker at Down house on April 19, 1882, with his wife, Emma, by his side."

When I first read this, I thought that Banana Man was saying that god lived at Down house and that was where Charles went after he died and that Emma went along with him, and thus must have died at the same time as Charles. Of course, this is not true but is the kind of misunderstanding that can arise when you use soothing religious euphemisms like 'went to meet his Maker' instead of the straightforward 'died'.

Since Darwin was an unrepentant agnostic right to the end, we have to assume that the Maker scolded him and sent the naughty boy to his room without dessert.

Pages 4-8: Timeline of Darwin's life.

It is after this that the 'attack' on the theory of evolution begins in earnest. Given the level of Banana Man's understanding of the theory, his attack on Darwin is like (to use the late Molly Ivins' memorable phrase) being gummed by a newt.

Pages 9-15: Shorter version:

"Wow! Isn't DNA amazing? It contains such a lot of information! It couldn't have occurred by chance. Hence god exists."

In other words, we get an argument from personal incredulity, based on the willful misrepresentation that evolution by natural selection occurs by pure chance.

Pages 15-22: Shorter version:

"There are no transitional forms. Hence evolution is wrong. Hence god exists."

Sadly, Banana Man disses his faithful sidekick Kirk Cameron by not including the latter's ingenious crocoduck argument. Why the omission? Does he also think Cameron's argument is ludicrous? Et tu, Brute?

Pages 22- 28: Shorter version:

"I don't understand how the blood circulatory system or the eye came about. Hence god exists."

In other words, another argument from personal incredulity. Oddly enough, Banana Man does not include as another example the very banana that he had earlier described as providing irrefutable proof of god's existence because it was so perfectly suited for human eating and impossible to conceive of as having evolved. Given that he will be forever after permanently associated with that fruit, the omission is inexplicable.

Page 29: Shorter version:

"Some vestigial organs may have some purpose. Hence god exists."

Pages 30-36: Shorter version:

"Darwin was a racist and misogynist. Hitler was evil and an evolutionist. Hence Darwin was evil like Hitler. Hence the theory of evolution is bad. Hence god exists."

Pages 36-39: Shorter version:

"Darwin and Albert Einstein and some other well-known figures in scientific history were not atheists. Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick cannot prove that god does not exist. Hence god exists."

This was pretty much it as far as arguing against the theory of evolution went. Frankly, I was disappointed. Given all the money and resources that Banana Man was pouring into this venture, I had expected better arguments or at least a mention of those golden oldies, the banana and the crocoduck.

As one can see, these are the same old arguments against evolution that have been thoroughly refuted over and over again. Biologist Jerry Coyne makes a clinical dissection of these arguments against evolution here.

I think that Herbert Spencer's response in 1891 is still the best: "Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all."

Next: The last ten pages where Banana Man gets to the point of the exercise.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity explains how baptism by water came about


October 02, 2009

Racism and nepotism

(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.)

The desperate attempt by the nutters to claim that the Obama administration is not legitimate is truly weird given that he well and truly trounced his rival John McCain in the last election. The nutters seem to find it hard to accept that a black man (despite being smart, educated, well-spoken, poised, self-confident, and with an attractive family) has become the leader and visible face of the nation. Is this irrational and vitriolic response to Obama the fruit of racism, as this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow suggests? Racism is a loaded term that is normally reserved for active and conscious antipathy towards people of another race. What we may be seeing here may be more complicated than that.

There seems to be the sense among nutters that the presidency and other high positions in society are niches that are properly the domain of white people, the 'real Americans'. This reaction seems to be fueled by the sense that any black or Hispanic person who achieves a prominent position (apart from the sports and the entertainment worlds) must have got there using some kind of unfair advantage. So Barack Obama, being black and coming from an underprivileged background, must have cheated somehow to get where he is.

As former president Jimmy Carter says:

I live in the south, and I've seen the south come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that shared the south's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans.

And that racism inclination still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the south but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply.

One also gets the sense that some people expect that Obama should show gratitude that he has been 'allowed' to become president and so should adopt the obsequious posture of the 'house Negro', as described by Malcolm X.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) said that Obama should show 'humility' when he spoke recently to the joint session of Congress about health care. In other words, he shouldn't be 'uppity'. The unctuous Sen. Lindsey Graham said after Obama's speech, "I was incredibly disappointed in the tone of his speech. At times, I found his tone to be overly combative and believe he behaved in a manner beneath the dignity of the office."

It did not bother Chambliss and Graham when George W. Bush, who epitomized arrogance, showed utter contempt for Congress and for anyone who disagreed with him. Bush's rudeness and condescension towards others was legendary. But since he was to the manner born, it was ok.

The nepotism that comes with the sense of privileged entitlement is also at play. When incompetent white people in the ruling classes use their family and social connections to perpetuate their privileges and reach positions of prominence, it does not even merit any mention, because the political and media world is filled with such people and they all think that is just fine.

William Kristol is the poster child of someone who rose to prominence and influence because of family connections and despite his manifest incompetence. His father, the late Irving Kristol, was the founder of the neoconservative movement and very influential politically. University of Colorado professor of law Paul Campos relays this telling anecdote about a conversation that Irving Kristol had with Columbia University political science professor Ira Katznelson.

The talk turned to William Kristol, then Dan Quayle's chief of staff, and how he got his start in politics. Irving recalled how he talked to his friend Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, who secured William a place there as both an undergrad and graduate student; how he talked to Pat Moynihan, then Nixon's domestic policy adviser, and got William an internship at the White House; how he talked to friends at the RNC [Republican National Committee] and secured a job for William after he got his Harvard Ph.D.; and how he arranged with still more friends for William to teach at Penn and the Kennedy School of Government.

With that, Prof. Katznelson recalled, he then asked Irving what he thought of affirmative action. 'I oppose it,' Irving replied. 'It subverts meritocracy.'

Campos writes that "my blogging colleague Robert Farley pointed out that "in the modern configuration of the conservative media machine, [William] Kristol occupies an unparalleled central position of power . . . Right-wing journalism and punditry is absurdly nepotistic; everything depends on relationships."

As another example, recently George Bush's daughter Jenna was hired as a reporter by NBC, at a time when many real journalists are losing their jobs. Last year Glenn Greenwald listed the hereditary political aristocracy that now exists in the US and, in a more recent post laced with biting sarcasm, commemorated the Jenna Bush announcement by naming some of the people in the media who have benefited from this kind of rampant nepotism, and noted the flagrant double standards at play.

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it's really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from. There's a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

[A]ll of the above-listed people are examples of America's Great Meritocracy, having achieved what they have solely on the basis of their talent, skill and hard work -- The American Way. By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor -- who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bronx housing projects; whose father had a third-grade education, did not speak English and died when she was 9; whose mother worked as a telephone operator and a nurse; and who then became valedictorian of her high school, summa cum laude at Princeton, a graduate of Yale Law School, and ultimately a Supreme Court Justice -- is someone who had a whole litany of unfair advantages handed to her and is the poster child for un-American, merit-less advancement.

I just want to make sure that's clear.

That's how the word 'meritocracy' is currently interpreted in the US.

POST SCRIPT: Blackwashing

In his inimitable backhanded way, Stephen Colbert brutally exposes the attitudes behind some of the animosity towards Obama.

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October 01, 2009

Why are nutters taking over 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 $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.)

The previous three posts have pointed out that the Republican Party is becoming more and more identified with the nutters, which consists of a coalition of birthers, deathers, tenthers, and Christianists. You can now add to that list the 'foppers' (standing for 'frightened old people') who seem to have bought into the notion that health care reform is part of some kind of secret agenda specifically aimed at harming the elderly. The comic strip Doonesbury has a nice series of six cartoons (beginning on September 21) on the foppers.

These groups are driving out from the Republican Party the old style conservatives who, whatever their politics, are reality-based and cannot believe that their party is being taken over by people who seem to be almost unhinged.

How did this come about?

When one observes these nutters in action at raucous town hall meetings, teabagger events, and the recent rally in Washington, it becomes clear that this phenomenon seems to be the product of a sense of inchoate and impotent rage, prodded from behind the scenes by those who want to oppose any Obama initiative. The nutters are really angry and, like wounded bulls, whirl around blindly seeking any target to gore. I think the rage is fuelled by the growing realization that they have lost the battle on many of the issues they hold dear.

One of those issues is homosexuality. I think it should be clear to anyone that the anti-gay movement is in its last throes. Equal rights for homosexuals is, I predict, at most a decade away. The corpse of the anti-gay forces may twitch occasionally and win an occasional battle here and there, but that is it. Discrimination against gays on a personal level will continue for some time because of religious bigotry but institutional barriers to equality will disappear. I think what happened in Iowa is telling. Gays were allowed to marry and the sky did not fall. Life went on as before.

Just yesterday the city of Cleveland (located in the state of Ohio which has a reputation for being socially conservative) proudly announced that they had won the rights to host the international Gay Games in 2014, beating out Boston and Washington, DC. The mayor Frank Jackson said that the city "is prepared to roll out the welcome mat to the LGBT athletes, their families and spectators from around the world. Fans of the Gay Games will find that Cleveland is a great place to celebrate sports and culture and that we have tremendous assets and amenities for them to enjoy."

More and more young people, even the children of homophobes, simply don't see why homosexuality is a problem or why gay people should not be left alone to marry or adopt children or simply be allowed to live their lives like any other person. People are realizing that gays are just like other people. Once your attempts to demonize an out-group fails, your war against them also fails because people won't want to join your crusade.

The other issue that is driving the nutters batty is abortion. The power of the anti-abortion forces reached its peak between 2000 and 2006 when all the forces were aligned in their favor. George W. Bush was president, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court was definitely conservative. And yet, abortion was not outlawed and only small additional restrictions were placed on it. This caused some frustration in the rank-and-file base of the Republican Party, which felt that their leadership had not pushed hard enough for their agenda. They realize that their time has passed and there are unlikely to be any advances by the anti-abortion movement in the near future.

But the final straw was the 2008 elections when they lost the White House and got trounced in both houses of Congress. If there is one thing that is clear it is that Obama drubbed McCain in the election, fair and square. So why is there this grasping at straws by the nutters that his presidency is not legitimate?

From the peak of power in 2006 to being completely out in 2008 is a steep drop. It is this sudden descent into political impotence that I think is driving this group of people in the Republican Party into the arms of those who warm that dark forces are at work, destroying the country from within. They cannot believe that they have lost so much power and influence so soon, and they suspect sinister elements at work behind the scenes. Hence the charges aimed at challenging Obama's legitimacy as president and the strange calls that they want to "take back our country". The phrasing 'our country' is telling, implying that he is some kind of usurper.

Is racism at work here? Former president Jimmy Carter seems to think so.

In the next post, I will examine that charge.

POST SCRIPT: Leave Aetna and Cigna alone!

Will Ferrell and a host of other actors speak out for the real victims of health care reform: the beleaguered insurance company executives.

Protect Insurance Companies PSA from Will Ferrell