Entries for January 2010

January 29, 2010

The end of politics-7: Obama the faux liberal and his apologists

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For the previous posts in this series, see here.

John R. MacArthur says that it is becoming increasingly obvious that Obama is a faux liberal. But his deluded fans still seem to think that he has some deep progressive plan that is hidden from the rest of us, and twist themselves into logical pretzels to make the case. MacArthur says that Obama's speeches at West Point and at Oslo (the latter accepting the Nobel Peace Prize while making the case for war) reveal "two breathtaking exercises in political cynicism that killed any hope of authentic liberal reform." Glenn Greenwald describes the 'classic Obama strategy': "pretty words, rhetorical appeals to lofty ideals, self-congratulatory preening, accompanied by many of the same policies that were long and vehemently condemned by him and most of his supporters."

It always surprises me that otherwise perceptive progressive commentators repeatedly express amazement at how (as they see it) the Democrats get repeatedly outmaneuvered by the Republicans. They keep saying things like "Why don't the Democrats say X?" or "Why don't the Democrats do Y?" if they want to win political and legislative battles, and ascribe their not doing so to them being "inept, cowardly and bungling." These commentators are often right in their prescriptions of what Democrats should say and do but wrong in assuming that the Democrats are somehow dense in not seeing the obvious. The Democrats do not say X and do Y because they do not want to 'win' anything that goes against the interests of the oligarchy, however much their public utterances say otherwise.

These observers who express frustration at the seeming political ineptness of Obama and his team do not seem to realize how unlikely it is that a candidate and his advisors who had a finely tuned political ear and ran a truly brilliant election campaign, both tactically and strategically, that resulted in an improbable but resounding victory, could transform themselves overnight into a bungling and politically tone-deaf crew once they got into office.

The only way to understand what happened is to view Obama and the Democrats as hack politicians whose prime impulse is to follow the one-party agenda and who will respond only to pressure and/or money. We see the result of such pressure in some small ways. There was considerable outrage when the sleazy and dishonest anti-gay pastor Rick Warren was chosen by Obama to give the invocation at the inauguration. (Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that there should be no prayer or swearing on the Bible at government functions.) Perhaps as a result of the fuss over Warren, Obama did his usual backtracking pandering, choosing the gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to give the prayer at the opening event of the inaugural week festivities, at the Lincoln Memorial. Although a relatively small example, it shows that what is necessary is to ramp up the pressure on Obama and the Democratic leadership and not believe them when they say that they have our best interests at heart.

So what should we do? Definitely not be deluded into thinking that Obama is on the side of ordinary people and has some cunning plan to restore the rule of law and cease inflicting war on the rest of the world. We should not have any illusions about any politician and not be beguiled by smooth words dripping with high principle. I'd like to end this series of posts with the words of Roger D. Hodge who wrote in The Mendacity of Hope (Harper's Magazine, February 2010, p. 7):

Admirers of the president now embrace actions they once denounced as criminal, or rationalize and evade such questions, or attempt to explain away what cannot be excused. That Obama is in most respects better than George W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin, or Joseph Stalin is beyond dispute and completely beside the point.

Let us grant that Barack Obama is as intelligent as his admirers insist. What evidence do we possess that he is also a moral virtuoso? What evidence do we possess that he is a good, wise, or even a decent man? Yes, he can be eloquent, yet eloquence is no guarantee of wisdom or of virtue. Yes, he has a nice family, but that evinces a private morality. Public morality requires public action, and all available public evidence points to a man with the character of a common politician, whose singular ambition in life was to attain power; nothing in Barack Obama's political career suggests that he would ever willingly commit to a course of action that would cost him an election. His preposterously two-faced approach to Afghanistan, wherein he simultaneously escalates the war while promising to begin "the transition to Afghan responsibility" just a year later, is a perfect illustration of his compulsion to split the difference on any given political question. (One could also point to the health-care boondoggle, or to his utter capitulation to Wall Street in economic matters.) He dilly-dallies, draws out both friends and opponents, dangles promises in front of everyone, gives a dramatic speech, and then pulls back to gauge the reaction. Since the policy itself is incoherent—and, as usual with Obama, salted with stipulations and provisos—he can always trim and readjust as necessary. Deadlines and definitions of "combat forces" are infinitely malleable. Since Obama is an intelligent man, surely he understands the meaning of the word mendacity.

Having embraced and professionalized the powers of force and fraud previously associated with the likes of John Yoo and Dick Cheney, Obama has embarked on a course of war that will certainly invite further abuses of power. His political survival now depends on martial success in a land that has defeated some of history's most brutal strategies of conquest. Obama has set a trap for himself, but because he is such a clever politician, the spring is just as likely to fall on us instead. Such insidious governance demands serious, sustained opposition, not respectful disagreement or fanciful historical apologies or mournful lamentations about the tragedy of his presidency. Principles can be sacrificed to hopes as well as to fears. (My emphasis)


POST SCRIPT: And now, the Ben Bernanke Show!

The media were breathless speculating this week that the confirmation of Ben Bernanke for a new term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve was in doubt because of anger at the way public funds were liberally doled out by him to the Wall Street banks, especially to Goldman Sachs, which we know really runs the government.

Anyone who thought that his job was in doubt still does not understand the way the game is played. What happens is that policies that favor the big banks and the rich are rammed through with little or no debate. Then, as popular anger slowly rises as awareness of the swindle sinks in, our elected representatives start grandstanding, as if they too were suckered like the rest of us and not aware of the giveaway. So we see the ritual scolding of the bank CEOs, Bernanke, and current and former Treasury secretaries Timothy Geithner and Henry Paulson. All these words are cheap, of course. The public treasury has already been looted.

These ineffectual congressional scoldings are part of the show that is put on to try and appease us while the looting goes on.

January 28, 2010

The end of politics-6: Obama on social issues

For the previous posts in this series, see here.

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The stylized and ritualized politics of the one party state that I have been describing has gone on for a long time but the façade is once again slipping, as it does periodically in times of real hardship. The rank and file of both parties is becoming more restive as they realize that elections come and go but their interests keep getting ignored.

On the Republican side, the rise of 'tea-bagger' activism as symbolized by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh is one symptom. This is a truly crazy, religious, nativist, and paranoid movement that is obsessed that Obama represents some dangerous socialist/fascist/Muslim threat. Apart from the lack of any semblance of reason, the fact that they cannot see that Obama is firmly wedded to the capitalist framework and is a faithful servant of Wall Street shows how ignorant these people are of the realities of politics. But their rise is a symbol of popular frustration with the current state of politics.

The problem the Republican party leaders face is how to keep these crazies within the party fold while not letting them take over the actual leadership because that would be a disaster for the party. What the business and financial oligarchy that actually runs this country want are dependable, steady, reasonable-sounding, puppet leaders who can mask pro-war/pro-business/anti-people polices with silken words. Someone just like Obama, in fact. The oligarchy does not like populist bomb-throwers of any kind, right or left, because such people are unreliable and unpredictable and cannot be depended upon to faithfully follow Wall Street's agenda down the line.

Of course, this collusion by the two parties' leaderships to favor the war and business interests of the country can only succeed if this reality is hidden and for that they need an important ally. The mainstream media has to perpetuate the myth that we have two ideological parties that fiercely oppose each other and the rise of the tea-baggers gives them an excuse to perpetuate that myth even though the things that the tea-baggers care about do not even come close to addressing the pro-war/pro-business consensus on which the two parties operate. But their vocal presence perpetuates the illusion that we have two parties that are diametrically opposed on policies, when in reality the policies on which they differ are almost entirely social ones.

This is not to say that the social issues are not important. They can affect individuals and selected groups significantly. Obama has done some positive things, such as reversing the restrictions on overseas aid that allows for family planning and abortion. His Justice Department has stopped prosecuting those who use marijuana for medical purposes as long as they conform to state laws, thus reversing a harshly punitive Bush policy. And he has lifted the restrictions on federal funding on embryonic stem cell research. While these are not trivial steps, and have significant impact on some groups, it should be obvious that these are things that do not touch the privileges of the oligarchy.

One can also expect Obama to take a more positive attitude towards gays, though even here he seems to be moving much more cautiously there than the situation warrants. His decision to reverse the Bush policy of not backing a United Nations declaration to decriminalize homosexuality is to be welcomed, but he seems to be hesitant to repeal either the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy in the military or the infamous Defense of Marriage Act (signed into law by Bill Clinton), and he also has not come out in support the rights of gays to marry.

Obama's caution on the gay issue is a bit strange because I really think that the gay community has won its battle to achieve justice. Not that they have actually achieved equality (far from it) but we are now on an irreversible course in which it is only a matter of time (I give it ten years) until gays have the same rights as heterosexuals. Gays have become mainstreamed into our popular culture and civilization as we know it has not collapsed. The recent decision by the Iowa Supreme Court that overruled that state's ban on same-sex marriages is just the latest sign of this progress. So you would think that even the ultra-cautious Obama might want to get a little ahead of the obvious curve at least on this issue and gain some points, but yet he is hesitant.

As I have said repeatedly, Democrats and Republicans differ mainly on a few social policies, and it is the strong emotional reactions that those policies generate that hides the fact that on the core issues of war and business, the Democrats and Obama walk pretty much in lockstep with the Republicans in serving the pro-war, pro-business interests.

The reason I titled this series as 'the end of politics' is that public politics has come down to merely wanting to tick the other side off on some hot button issues. Right-wingers want to stop whatever the left wants and progressives support a lousy health care bill because they want to tick the Republican base off. Meanwhile, the real business of siphoning off the country's wealth to private interests goes on smoothly in the back rooms, adversely affecting all of us who are not part of the oligarchy, wherever we might lie on the left-right political spectrum.

This is no way for a mature country to be governed.

POST SCRIPT: Elizabeth Warren for President

The chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to investigate the U.S. banking bailout is one of the few high level government figures who tells it like it is.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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In April of 2009, I posted clips of a two-part interview with Elizabeth Warren that is worth viewing again.

Part 1:

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Part 2:

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January 27, 2010

The end of politics-5: How Obama sold out on health care reform

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For the previous posts in this series, see here.

Senator Joe Lieberman became the public face of implacable opposition to any meaningful reform and has been the target of much venom. All of it is deserved, because nobody epitomizes sanctimonious, publicity-seeking, self-serving greed like Lieberman, though Obama is coming dangerously close to reaching even the high bar of unctuous hypocrisy that Lieberman has set. But I have strong suspicions that Lieberman was actually advancing Obama's interests and had Obama's support. Obama actually told his negotiators to comply with Lieberman's demands and not threaten him with removing his coveted committee chairmanships. We should not forget that Obama sought out Lieberman as a mentor when he entered the Senate and supported his re-election bid for the senate against the more progressive Connecticut Democratic Party candidate Ned Lamont.

Glenn Greenwald shares my view on how Obama sold out his supporters on health care reform.

[C]ontrary to Obama's occasional public statements in support of a public option, the White House clearly intended from the start that the final health care reform bill would contain no such provision and was actively and privately participating in efforts to shape a final bill without it. From the start, assuaging the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries was a central preoccupation of the White House -- hence the deal negotiated in strict secrecy with Pharma to ban bulk price negotiations and drug reimportation, a blatant violation of both Obama's campaign positions on those issues and his promise to conduct all negotiations out in the open (on C-SPAN). Indeed, Democrats led the way yesterday in killing drug re-importation, which they endlessly claimed to support back when they couldn't pass it. The administration wants not only to prevent industry money from funding an anti-health-care-reform campaign, but also wants to ensure that the Democratic Party -- rather than the GOP -- will continue to be the prime recipient of industry largesse.

The evidence was overwhelming from the start that the White House was not only indifferent, but opposed, to the provisions most important to progressives. The administration is getting the bill which they, more or less, wanted from the start -- the one that is a huge boon to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry.

Paul Craig Roberts highlights one key feature of the health care "reform" package that is part of the 'huge boon' that Greenwald speaks about:

The fate of the health care bill demonstrates the power of private lobbies. What was to be health care for Americans was instantly transformed into 30 million new patients for the private health insurance industry. The “solution” to tens of millions of Americans being unable to afford health care is a law that requires them to purchase a private health care policy or be annually fined. As most of these uninsured Americans cannot afford to purchase a private policy, the plan is for the federal government to use taxpayers’ money to subsidize their purchase of a policy from private companies.

In other words, tax money is being diverted to the pockets of private businesses. This is par for the course in “capitalist” America.

As Digby says about this:

[M]andating that all people pay money to a private interest isn't even conservative, free market or otherwise. It's some kind of weird corporatism that's very hard to square with the common good philosophy that Democrats supposedly espouse.

Nobody's "getting covered" here. After all, people are already "free" to buy private insurance and one must assume they have reasons for not doing it already. Whether those reasons are good or bad won't make a difference when they are suddenly forced to write big checks to Aetna or Blue Cross that they previously had decided they couldn't or didn't want to write. Indeed, it actually looks like the worst caricature of liberals: taking people's money against their will, saying it's for their own good.

Meanwhile, Obama and the Democratic party leadership launch full-scale attacks on their progressive supporters for asking for more while saying nothing against those who purportedly oppose their reform plans, like Joe Lieberman.

So as a result of all these shenanigans, we finally have the policy that the health industry should really like: a mandate for people to have insurance with no public option to compete with. Thus they get more captive customers subsidized by the government. This does not mean that there is nothing worthwhile in the health reform bill. It does offer some marginal improvements. It is just that it could have been so much better if Obama and the Democrats were not such obvious hypocrites.

So why is the health insurance industry now trying to kill even this highly watered-down reform that gives them so much? Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum argue that it is because they see some problems for them down the road even with highly limited reforms of the current bill and have started to feel confident that they can completely kill the reform effort altogether and return to the comfortable status quo. This may be a mistake on their part, a case of hubris. Even though the Democrats desperately want to please the health industry, not passing any health reform at all, their signature issue, would be too much for their supporters to take. So they will pass something, however bad it is, and call it a success.

People who think that Democrats are being thwarted by the filibuster threats of the Republicans are missing the point. The Democrats actually welcome the filibuster to cover their duplicity. I believe that in the mid-term elections to be held this year, the Democrats would like nothing better than to lose some Senate and House seats. The ideal situation for the Democratic Party leadership is not to win big but to win slim majorities in both houses so that they can gain the real prize sought after by both parties, the coveted committee chairmanships. This is where the real power lies, where the legislative agenda is set and where they can control the language of legislation and write the implementation rules. The committee chairs are in the best position to do the bidding of business interests and thus gain campaign contributions and other favors.

Having slim majorities has the benefit of allowing the Democrats to constantly whine that the mean Republicans are preventing them from carrying out policies that favor ordinary people. If they win big majorities they have no excuse for not carrying out the policies they promised. As exemplified in the case of the drug reimportation issue. Democrats love to be in the position of saying they are 'fighting' for the issues dear to their supporters as long as there is no danger of winning the fight, if such a win would threaten the interests of their real paymasters.

Matt Taibbi is one of the few journalists who sees the charade for what it is. As he said on Bill Moyers's show:

And I think, you know, a lot of what the Democrats are doing, they don't make sense if you look at it from an objective point of view, but if you look at it as a business strategy- if you look at the Democratic Party as a business, and their job is basically to raise campaign funds and to stay in power, what they do makes a lot of sense. They have a consistent strategy which involves negotiating a fine line between sentiment on the left and the interests of the industries that they're out there to protect. And they've always, kind of, taken that fork in the road and gone right down the middle of the line. And they're doing that with this health care bill and that's- it's consistent.

That's about right.

POST SCRIPT: Book signing and talk

I will be giving a talk and having a book signing on God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom at the Joseph-Beth book store in Legacy Village in Beachwood, Ohio at 7:00 pm today (Wednesday, January 27, 2010).

I would enjoy meeting any readers of this blog who can make it.

January 26, 2010

An unnatural blog

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Today marks the fifth anniversary of this blog, so I thought I would pre-empt my series on the end of politics where I excoriate Obama and the Democrats and indulge in some self-indulgent musing about the whole blogging exercise and my contribution to it.

After some initial hesitant steps when I was not sure what I would do with this new medium, I soon settled into a routine of one op-ed length essay of about 1,000 words on a single topic each weekday. Apart from repeating some postings when I am on travel or for holidays, I have not taken a break. As a result, I have now written about 1250 essays and well over a million words. But I realize that this type of blogging is not natural for the form.

The big advantage of a blog is that it can be a way of providing immediate and informed commentary on news, whereas newspapers and magazines have lag times that can be quite considerable.

The second advantage is that a blog post can be of any length. Magazine and newspaper and journal article are of the 'long form' type and there are often constraints of length that one must conform to, about 800 words for op-eds, or 1,500 or 5,000 or 10,000 word lengths for magazines and journals. But a blog can be any length at all, from just a few words to thousands. So you can say exactly what you want to say, no more, no less, as the need arises, which can be enormously liberating and prevent needless verbiage.

What I have done is seemingly take the negative aspects of the long form essay (fixed word length and more analytical pieces) and used it as a basis for my blog. I am not entirely alone in this. Glenn Greenwald's excellent blog (which should be a must read for anyone) also has usually one long (often very long) analytical piece each day, but his deals with breaking news on the legal and political fronts. I often learn about breaking news from his blog. I cannot do the kind of quick analysis that Greenwald can (he is a constitutional lawyer and has a lot of expertise at his fingertips) except on rare occasions, so I rarely publish things in such a timely way.

So why I am blogging in this unnatural way? Partly out of necessity. It takes me a while to digest information and make sense of it. I jot down ideas that I think are interesting and may have some insight into, and sometimes think about them for weeks or even months before I write them up. Also I have other work to do so that I cannot spend a lot of time keeping up with breaking news or cruising the web picking up interesting tidbits to comment on.

I know that every one is busy so it has been my goal to not waste the reader's time. I arrived at the approximately 1,000-word length because it can be read in a few minutes. Since what I write about usually deals with old news, to add value, the blog post should contain things that are at least useful or new or interesting. One way of adding value is to provide at least some original analysis. As someone for whom teaching is in the blood, I also try to explain science or other difficult topics in ways that I hope will be clear and helpful to those who do not have the time to invest in learning these things on their own. The combination of trying to explain something in depth while restricting myself to the daily word limit has resulted in the many multi-part series of posts.

I also try to write the post as well as I can, given the limited time that I can devote to it, because I know how annoying it is to read something that has typos, factual errors, poor grammar, and generally looks sloppily done. I feel that such writing is an insult to the reader. So each post is rewritten and edited several times before it is posted, which is another reason that I rarely comment quickly on breaking news stories. I also try to be as accurate as I can about the information presented and give the sources so readers can follow up for themselves. All that takes time.

The benefits of blogging for me personally have been tremendous. In researching the information for the posts and in trying to explain things to others, I have learned a lot myself. I think I have also become a much more proficient writer as a result of the practice I have gained. The blog posts have often formed the first drafts of articles that I have subsequently published in more formal venues. Even my recent book God vs. Darwin began as a series of blog posts.

In the process, I have learned a lot from the readers and made many new contacts and renewed others thanks to people finding the blog.

At each anniversary I wonder how long I can keep up the pace. My main worry is that I will run out of things to say and start repeating myself. So far, I think I have avoided that danger. It has been fine and fun so I plan to keep going.

So thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting and sending me information. Here's to another year!

POST SCRIPT: Book signing and talk

I will be giving a talk and having a book signing on God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom at the Joseph-Beth book store in Legacy Village in Beachwood, Ohio at 7:00 pm tomorrow (Wednesday, January 27, 2010).

I would enjoy meeting any readers of this blog who can make it.

January 25, 2010

The end of politics-4: Obama and health care reform

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For the previous posts in this series, see here.

Many of Obama's liberal supporters are deeply disappointed. After one year in office, they have almost nothing to show for all their efforts to give their party big majorities in both houses of congress. What they have instead received is a non-stop nauseating spectacle of whining and handwringing by the Democrats about how hard it is to overcome the filibuster threats of the Republican senators and how they must compromise away everything as a result, even though they have a huge 256-178 majority in the House (with one vacancy) and a 59-41 majority in the Senate.

It is interesting that George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan had nowhere near the majorities that the Democrats and Obama have and yet they managed to get almost everything they wanted on both domestic and foreign policies. That alone should expose the one party nature of politics. Bush and Reagan were open about the fact that they wanted wars of aggression and policies that favored the rich, and they easily got them with Democratic support.

While Obama supporters may feel let down, they should have seen this coming. The political strategy of Democrats is designed around how to carry out the same pro-war/pro-business/pro-rich policies of the Republicans while acting like they have the interests of ordinary people in mind. The Democrats say they want different policies but always find reasons to not be able to carry out their promises. They always need an excuse as to why they cannot deliver on their campaign promises and the filibuster has merely been the latest one. The Democrats actually hate having large majorities because then their excuses become seen as increasingly threadbare.

The one signature effort, health care reform, is a textbook example of how the Democrats operate. The party, even more so than the Republicans, is completely beholden to the health insurance and the medical industry lobbies and so was never interested in any meaningful reform that would threaten those interests that give them so much money. So while single payer and other forms of universal public health care (such as Medicare for all) or a public option were very popular ideas in getting votes during the election season, once they were elected they had to find ways to make sure that those were never legislated into law, all the while seeming to be thwarted in their efforts to achieve them. And Obama was a ringleader in that effort to gut any meaningful efforts at reform.

If the Democrats were serious about health care reform, they would have done what one does in any negotiation, which is start out with your maximum demands and then negotiate down. This is what one does when purchasing a car or house or anything else, if you are serious about getting a good deal. But from the beginning, the Democrats negotiated as if they were the weaker party, the losers in the election, trying to salvage what they could.

It was clear from the beginning that the Democratic strategy to make sure no meaningful reform was achieved was planned around the Senate. First Obama declared that the single-payer option was not even to be discussed. Then he said that what he wanted most of all was a 'bipartisan' bill. That gave him the excuse to jettison any attempts at a true reform since that would lose potential Republican support. This call for bipartisanship for its own sake was what convinced me that the fix was in and that Obama had completely sold out. After all, surely the goal should be a good bill that can gain the popular support of the people because then the elected representatives feel pressure to support it. When you say that bipartisanship is your main goal, you are signaling to the other party in the Kabuki play (the Republicans) that you want them to be as oppositional as possible so that you can be seen as reluctantly caving in. And both sides dutifully played their roles. It was truly sickening to see the way that any meaningful reform was compromised away in order to supposedly get even one Republican vote.

Obama then essentially gave the final say on health reform to the Senate Finance Committee to come up with the draft Senate version of the bill. Why, of all the committees that have jurisdiction on this issue, did he choose this one? Shouldn't the Health and Human Services Committee be the natural body that leads on this issue? Yes, if one was thinking logically or wanted meaningful reform. But that was never the goal.

The Finance committee has certain advantages if your plan is to sell out your supporters and satisfy your real constituents, the health industry. For starters, its Democratic chairman Max Baucus is completely in the pockets of the health industry. So he could be depended upon to not even allow the single-payer option to be discussed in the public hearings and to oppose any attempt to introduce any form of public option. To stack the deck against the public interest even more, Baucus bypassed the entire committee (which had a Democratic majority and some members who had more progressive outlooks) and instead created a six-member group of three members of each party, knowing that the Republicans would veto any reasonable plan that harmed the health industry in any way. Thus the fix was in from the very beginning.

Of course, there had to be more Kabuki theater in order to fool the Democratic base that the party really was interested in meaningful reform. So along the way a public option was proposed and then withdrawn because it could not get any Republican support. Then the option to buy into Medicare for those between the ages of 55 to 64 was proposed and then withdrawn for the same reason. The reason for these maneuvers was to give the public some hope that some true reform was on the horizon so as to keep them involved and supportive, while all the while intending to take these prizes away at the end. It was Lucy with the football, and the public, like Charlie Brown, kept getting suckered over and over again.

Next in this series: More on the health care sell-out

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on how the media will flip out over the New York terror trials

Are people really this stupidly scared about having trials of alleged terrorists in the US?

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January 22, 2010

The end of politics-3: Obama and civil liberties

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Obama and his attorney General Anthony Holder are pursuing policies on civil liberties that, if you can imagine it, are even more extreme than those of Bush-Cheney. While stopping the practice of waterboarding, they seem willing, even eager, to continue to torture people psychologically in other ways and to use torture-induced information to keep people detained indefinitely. They are even appealing a Bush-appointed judge's ruling that the US Supreme Court rulings on the rights of prisoners in Guantanamo apply to the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as well. As Noam Chomsky writes, "Obama's Justice Department maintains that the U. S. government must be authorized to kidnap people anywhere in the world and send them to secret prison systems without charges or rights." (Z Magazine, January 2010, p. 28). For this we voted for him?

Obama's record on civil liberties and torture and due process has been simply appalling. There is no other word for it. He is setting up an elaborate system of show trials for those captured in the so-called 'war on terror', essentially consisting of kangaroo courts guaranteed to produce guilty verdicts using evidence obtained under torture, even if those confessions are false and the people are innocent. If that should fail, he promises to not release even those who are found not guilty if he merely thinks they should continue to be detained. He also asserts his right to detain people indefinitely without trial. This despite the fact that estimates of the number of innocent people being held at Guantanamo run as high as 80%.

Obama has gone to extreme lengths to cover up the acts of torture done by the US, even continuing Bush's threats to the British government with retaliation if they publicly reveal the horrendous things that were done to their citizen Binyam Mohammed, who was tortured by the CIA at various sites before being finally released with no charges.

And now we have ghastly revelations of the deaths of prisoners that were originally publicly reported as 'suicides' but now look increasingly like deaths at the hands of their interrogators. The Obama administration has refused to fully investigate what appears to be an appalling crime. As Andrew Sullivan says, "In Iran, when prisoners are turned into corpses after interrogation, even the Khamenei junta feels it necessary to respond. In America, not so much."

Then there is the case of the Afghan tribal leader Haji Sahib Rohullah Wakil who was picked up on a 'tip' and held for six years in Guantanamo without being given a chance to defend himself before finally being released, again without charges. As Glenn Greenwald says, these people who are now free are among the people we were once told were the 'worst of the worst', alleged monsters whose supposed depravity had been used to justify the suspension of basic civil liberties and freedoms, the ideals on which this country is supposedly built.

Greenwald, after summarizing the abominable practices embraced by Obama-Holder, says: "So, to recap: we have indefinite detention, military commissions, Blackwater assassination squads, escalation in Afghanistan, extreme secrecy to shield executive lawbreaking from judicial review, renditions, and denials of habeas corpus. These are not policies Obama has failed yet to uproot; they are policies he has explicitly advocated and affirmatively embraced as his own."

As can be seen with his policy on closing Guantanamo, Obama has mastered the art of acting like he is acting on the basis of noble principles while pursuing anti-democratic policies that violate the very ideals he claims to uphold. What was deeply wrong about Guantanamo was not its location offshore but the fact that it was holding and torturing people indefinitely without recourse to habeas corpus or any form of due process. Obama seems to think that by transferring the prisoners to a facility on the mainland but still keeping, and even increasing, those inhumane polices, he has fulfilled his campaign promise. As Greenwald says, "In many ways, this move is classic Obama: pretty words, rhetorical appeals to lofty ideals, self-congratulatory preening, accompanied by many of the same policies that were long and vehemently condemned by him and most of his supporters."

Obama, like Bush before him, reveals unplumbed depths of hypocrisy when it comes to pandering to the public the idea that America still lives by its stated ideals. I find it increasingly annoying when Obama and Hillary Clinton sanctimoniously lecture other countries about the need for transparency and to respect human rights and the rule of law, while they themselves blatantly disregard them. As Jonathan Turley writes

President Barack Obama and his Administration set a new level of hypocrisy this weekend with calls on the Chinese government and military to end censorship and be more open with the public while barring disclosure of embarrassing photos of detainee abuse.

Obama appears much more fervent in his commitment to civil liberties and open government when it is someone else’s government. Recently, his Administration took an extraordinary step of demanding an investigation of a visiting defense official on allegations of torture — in Sri Lanka

What we now have in the US are violations of the basic principles of justice and civil liberties and due process that even the most banana of republics would be embarrassed to espouse.

It used to be the case that I would detest hearing or watching George W. Bush speak. The disjunct between his smug and lofty words about democracy and freedom and the reality of his crass polices was simply too much to take. During the campaign I enjoyed hearing Obama's speeches because he seemed to be making thoughtful statements about important issues and appealing to the best in people. But now I cannot bear to listen to him either. I find galling the unctuous hypocrisy of his words. If anything, the gap between his words and his deeds is even greater than that of Bush, because he promises more and delivers less.

Fans of Obama are likely to be angered by my words. But, as the invaluable Glenn Greenwald writes, many of them suffer from the same weakness of blinkered adulation that afflicts those who uncritically supported Bush and Cheney and now support Sarah Palin. They simply cannot bear the thought that their idol has feet of clay and see all criticisms of their hero as giving comfort to perceived enemies.

This is why I write that we seem to have reached the end of politics. Instead of supporting what is good and opposing what is bad whomever and wherever it comes from, what we now seem to have are competing fan clubs, focused on personality and style and labels. Greenwald and Matt Taibbi are two of the few mainstream commentators who unsparingly apply to Obama the same yardstick to measure performance they applied to Bush-Cheney and for that they have received a fair amount of abuse from the left. But the fans of Obama, by trying to shield him from criticisms, are only enabling him to pursue policies that are antithetical to the ones for which they voted him in.

POST SCRIPT: And yet more hypocrisy…

In the video clip below, Hillary Clinton shows that she is no slouch when it comes to hypocrisy when she condemns "certain countries that I think are kind of beyond the pale of the rule of law, hold people and subject them to long prison terms that are absolutely unfair and unwarranted." She is talking about North Korea and the fact that she could make such statement with a straight face is remarkable.

Fareed Zakaria, the interviewer, nods his agreement and dutifully avoids pointing out that she could just as easily be describing the US.

It is significant that the allegedly 'liberal' website Huffington Post from where I got the clip chose it not because it wanted to highlight this hypocrisy (it ignored it) but because Clinton laughed at the mention of John Bolton's name. Ha! Ha! That's funny!

Of course, all this is consistent with the rules of mainstream media discourse that starts from the assumption that human rights violations are what other countries practice. You never, ever, point out that the US might be doing equal or even worse things. They seem to think that hypocrisy is not hypocrisy if no one points it out.

January 21, 2010

The end of politics-2: Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Obama and the Democrats came to power on a crest of public anger with opposition to the policies of Bush-Cheney, who had initiated two unjustified and expensive wars and had given huge tax breaks to the rich and business interests, thereby threatening to bankrupt the country. And what have Obama and the Democrats done? Continued almost every policy unchanged, and even expanded the war both in Afghanistan into Pakistan. Although Obama did promise to do the latter, the fact that he did so just shows that war is a favored policy of both parties.

In the light of Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, it is worthwhile to watch Bill Moyers' gripping show on how President Lyndon Johnson got sucked deeper into Vietnam in 1964 and 1965. Thanks to the secret recordings of the phone calls between Johnson and his advisors and political and military leaders, we have a revealing glimpse at how, even though a weary Johnson realizes the situation on the ground is hopeless, political calculations force him into escalating the war with the disastrous results that ensued. There is always the danger of seeing the ghost of Vietnam in all conflicts, but it is also foolish to not learn from what happened there.

After grandiosely promising to withdraw troops from Iraq, Obama is dragging his feet. I have long felt that there was a bipartisan agreement to keep US troops in Iraq indefinitely and that Obama was part of that deal. The building of permanent massive military bases in that country (whose construction has gone under the media radar) was for me sufficient evidence that there was never any intention of a total withdrawal. What Obama will do is grandstand when a few troops are brought home while keeping quiet about the fact that many will remain and even increasing the number of mercenaries in that country. The long term goal of the US has been to have a strategic military outpost in that oil-rich region in order to ensure that oil supplies to the US are not threatened and for that they needed a subservient client state. Iraq has become that state.

Paul Craig Roberts points out that Obama is also continuing the policy of subservience to the military-industrial behemoth, bellicosity towards Iran, and groveling before the Israel lobby, ignoring or condoning Israel's expansionist settlement policy in the occupied territories and its appalling treatment of Palestinians. That last policy alone is sufficient to guarantee that attacks by Islamic terrorists will continue into the indefinite future.

In an interview on Fresh Air journalist Jeremy Scahill tells host Terry Gross how Obama is continuing the practice of using unaccountable mercenaries like Blackwater in his wars, just the way that Bush-Cheney did.

In Afghanistan, it's more pronounced, though, Terry, because you have about 68,000 U.S. troops operating alongside a whopping 104,000 contractors. And with the recently announced surge in troops, that number's expect to grow at a one-to-one ratio with U.S. troops. So it's quite stunning, the number of contractors that are currently deployed on the U.S. government payroll.

There are about 600 corporations that service the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these range from KBR, which specializes in logistics, to Blackwater, DynCorp and Triple Canopy, which are essentially paramilitary forces that are working for either the Department of Defense, the Department of State or the CIA.

I mean, this is a stunning rarity in the military history of the United States, where you actually have a theater of war, Afghanistan, where the U.S. military is actually the second-largest force operating in the country.

The disillusionment with Obama is becoming widespread because his abandonment of the goals outlined in his campaign rhetoric and his embrace of Bush-Cheney doctrines has been so blatant. As Roger D. Hodge writes in The Mendacity of Hope (Harper's Magazine, February 2010, p. 7):

Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantánamo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass. As president, with few exceptions, Obama either has embraced the unconstitutional war powers claimed by his predecessor or has left the door open for their quiet adoption at some later date. Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has declared that the kidnapping and rendition of foreigners will continue, and the Bush Administration's expansive doctrine of state secrets continues to be used in court against those wrongfully detained and tortured by our security forces and allies. Obama has adopted military commissions, once an unpardonable offense against our best traditions, to prosecute terrorism cases in which legitimate convictions cannot be obtained; when even such mock trials provide too much justice, he will make do with indefinite detention. If, by some slim chance, a defendant were to be found not guilty, we have been assured that the president's "post-acquittal" detention powers would then come into play.

The principle of habeas corpus, sacred to candidate Obama as "the essence of who we are," no longer seems so essential, and reports continue to surface of secret prisons hidden from due process and the Red Cross. Waterboarding has been banned, but other "soft" forms of torture, such as sleep deprivation and force-feeding, continue—as do the practices, which once seemed so terribly important to opponents of the Bush regime, of presidential signing statements and warrantless surveillance. In at least one respect, the Obama Justice Department has produced an innovation: a claim of "sovereign immunity" in response to a lawsuit seeking damages for illegal spying. Not even the minions of George W. Bush, with their fanciful notions of the unitary executive, made use of this constitutionally suspect doctrine, derived from the ancient common-law assumption that "the King can do no wrong," to defend their clear violations of the federal surveillance statute.

As the attorney Glenn Greenwald has argued, in his writings for Salon and elsewhere, the rule of law has not been restored but perverted; what had been outlawed but committed, the law now simply permits. Obama's lawyers, benefiting from Bush-era litigation, can claim conformity with law, but the disgraceful policies continue largely unchanged. Better, smarter legal arguments obtain for policies that should give any decent man nightmares. Our torturers and war criminals and illegal spies and usurpers remain at liberty, unpunished.

Obama has done what once seemed impossible, and that is make George W. Bush, easily one of the worst presidents in US history, actually seem moderate.

POST SCRIPT: Larry Wilmore on Obama's first year

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January 20, 2010

The end of politics-1: Obama and the one-party state

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Is Barack Obama going to be a one-term president?

Given that this is the anniversary of only his first year in office, it might seem premature to pose this question, except as a hook on which to examine the state of politics in the country. That is indeed my intent in this short series of posts leading up to his State of the Union speech next week but before I do so, let me give my answer to the question anyway. At the rate he is going, Obama deserves to be just a one-term president. But what is likely to get him re-elected is that the Republican party seems to be in the process of being taken over by a coalition of wackos (religious nuts, birthers, deathers, conspiracists, tea-baggers, gun nuts, xenophobes, and outright racists) that is likely to repel most mainstream Americans, however much they may dislike Obama's performance in office. The current Republican party, once led by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, is now the party of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh, pandering to the lowest emotions of greed and fear and selfishness of a rabid core of supporters. They are leading the party into a political wilderness from which it will take a long time to return.

But the unlikelihood of this group gaining power is no reason for complacency amongst those of us who seek a more just society because the very lack of a reasonable and credible opposition only enables the Democratic leadership to sell out its supporters even more, the way that Obama and the current leadership are doing, because they know that voters have nowhere else to go. The fact that McCain-Palin in 2008 and a likely similarly bizarre Republican ticket in 2012 are truly ghastly alternatives does not mean that we should give Obama a pass and pretend that he is acting in our best interests. "I'm not as crazy as my opponents" is not an inspiring platform.

Obama rode to victory on the crest of public anger at the rampant crony capitalism that was the hallmark of the Bush-Cheney years and resulted in the looting of the public treasury to facilitate massive giveaways to the wealthy. Instead of channeling this anger to pursue a reform agenda, Obama and the Democratic leadership have instead eagerly served the needs of the same group. These people are not called the ruling class for nothing. Presidents and congresses may come and they may go, but this class rules forever.

Matt Taibbi is one of the few journalists able to see Obama's obvious selling out to Wall Street in the wake of his election:

What's taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history. Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.

People like Pat [a teabagger that Taibbi met at a protest] aren't aware of it, but they're the best friends Obama has. They hate him, sure, but they don't hate him for any reasons that make sense. When it comes down to it, most of them hate the president for all the usual reasons they hate "liberals" — because he uses big words, doesn't believe in hell and doesn't flip out at the sight of gay people holding hands. Additionally, of course, he's black, and wasn't born in America, and is married to a woman who secretly hates our country.

These are the kinds of voters whom Obama's gang of Wall Street advisers is counting on: idiots.

I think Taibbi has nailed it. Why do I think that Obama should be a one-term president? Long time readers of this blog will know that I had few illusions about Obama, either on domestic or foreign policy. I have repeatedly said that the US is a one-party state with two factions that can be labeled Democrats and Republican. This one party is united in its pro-war and pro-business policies, and its two factions differ only on some social issues (abortion, gay rights). And even there the differences are getting less. The Democrats have been giving only lukewarm support to the needs of their pro-choice and gay rights supporters.

The history of the US bears out this fundamental unity of aims of the two parties. Wars have been initiated and supported by both parties. When it comes to doing favors for the financial and business interests that give their parties so much money, the two parties fall over themselves to see who can be more obliging. Obama periodically makes speeches excoriating Wall Street bankers and threatening them with the prospect of even more speeches if they don't behave, while at the same time doing nothing concrete to rein in their recklessness or greed. Of course, the bankers know that this is all a show to placate the masses. So they obligingly act chastened while smirking over the fact that they effectively control the President and the government's economic policies.

If any doubts remained that the US is indeed a one party state, the election in 2008 of Barack Obama as president and of solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and the subsequent policies pursued by them should, as I will argue in subsequent posts, put those doubts to rest.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart nails what's annoying about Palin

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January 19, 2010

Film review: Rashomon and The Outrage

Rashomon is the classic 1950 film by the then unknown but later highly acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, that first brought him to the attention of the western film world. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award (Oscar) for the most outstanding foreign language film released in 1951.

The story is set in 11th century Japan and is about the death of an aristocratic man and the rape of his wife by a notorious bandit in a secluded grove in a remote area of Japan. The events are told in a series of flashbacks, by a bewildered woodcutter and a priest to a cynical thief they meet while huddled for shelter in an abandoned and dilapidated building during a fierce rainstorm.

Their stories recount the testimonies given to a court or tribunal by four people: the bandit who raped the woman, the woman, the dead man (speaking through a medium), and the woodcutter himself, who was also the one who found the dead body. These testimonies are spoken directly to the camera, placing the viewers in the position of the unseen and unheard judges.

But the testimonies don't quite match, leaving the viewer at the end uncertain about exactly what happened and, more importantly, about the motives of each person. Kurosawa himself talked about the film this way:

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave—even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego.

The trailer for the film captures the atmosphere well.

The Outrage is a 1964 remake of the Kurosawa film, except that it is shifted to the US west in a time just after the Civil War. It has an all-star cast of Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Lawrence Harvey, Edward G. Robinson, and a young William Shatner (before he took over the helm of the Starship Enterprise)

The director Martin Ritt had worked with Newman before in such films as Hud, The Long, Hot Summer, Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man, and (later) Hombre.

Given the proven quality of the director and the cast, why did the remake end up (in my opinion) to be so bad? It was not because Ritt had broken a cardinal rule of remakes, which is that you should never remake a good film because you can only end up looking worse. That rule does not apply when it comes to remaking foreign films where few people in the west are unlikely to have seen the original. After all, Kurosawa's 1954 film The Seven Samurai was also remade by director John Sturges as that excellent 1960 western The Magnificent Seven. Similarly Kurosawa's (1961) Yojimbo was also successfully remade as the 1964 western A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone, that catapulted starring Clint Eastwood into stardom.

So what went wrong here? There were many problems with the Rashomon remake, starting with the casting.

Paul Newman was simply over the top as a brutal and coarse Mexican bandit. Grimy, with a drooping mustache, speaking in bad guy clichés with a broad accent that reminded me of Chico Marx, it was a performance that reinforced all the stereotypes one might have about Mexican baddies. At least the film was in black and white so we were spared the further incongruity of Newman's famous ice-blue eyes. Newman is one of my favorite actors and I desperately wanted him to succeed but I just could not take him seriously. By contrast, in Rashomon, another fine actor Toshiro Mifune played the bandit as almost animal-like in his wildness, and while his performance too occasionally risked crossing over into parody, he was able to pull back in time.

Lawrence Harvey as the murdered aristocratic man, has a cold and wooden acting style that worked well for him in The Manchurian Candidate and also helps him somewhat here, but he never quite grips you with his performance.

To my mind, the raped woman is the center of the story. In the original, she is an enigma and one is never quite sure what she actually did and what her motives are and with whom her loyalties lie and that is the central ambiguity. In the remake, Claire Bloom is given many more words to say and a bigger role but while this makes her character and her relationship with her husband more transparent, it also makes her less sympathetic and less compelling, a case of more is less.

The basis for Rashomon was a short story In a Grove by acclaimed writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). In the story, even the question of who actually committed the killing varied according to the testimonies but Kurosawa made one significant change from that story by wisely (in my opinion) removing that ambiguity, and focused his film on the ambiguity of the motives of the people involved, thus lifting it up above the genre of a mere whodunnit. The Outrage unfortunately did not follow Kurosawa's example.

See the trailer of The Outrage:

Another problem with the remake may have been the period. Instead of taking just the central concept of Rashomon and re-visioning it to the new time and place as the other successful remakes of Kurosawa did, this remake stuck very closely to the original screenplay. But what seems plausible in 11th century Japan may not be so in the 19th century American west. Take for example, the testimony given by the dead man through the agency of a medium. While one can conceive of judges in Japan in the dark ages taking such testimony seriously because the existence of spirit worlds were a basic part of their beliefs, I cannot imagine a judge in the US in the late 19th century doing so. The sight of an Indian shaman, gripped in a trance, and speaking in the voice and words of a dead man to a judge in a frontier court setting was just too much to take.

Also the shock and disbelief of the woodcutter and the priest at the differing testimonies they heard, and their bafflement as to the motives of the people, seemed much less convincing in the later film. In both cases, the priest's faith in humanity is so threatened by what he sees as human evil that he is willing to renounce his calling. But while that seemed to make sense in the context of a remote part of Japan and strong ancient Japanese traditions of honor, it was much less so in the context of the American west where murder, rape, brutality, and lying must have been facts of life that would not be unfamiliar to a priest.

In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that The Outrage was simply an enormous waste of talent.

January 18, 2010

Turbulence in the air

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

On December 26, 2009 I flew to Sri Lanka to attend a college reunion. It was the day after the 'underwear bomber' incident that took place on the transatlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. I was glad to go out of the country since I knew that the media here would be saturated with the usual hysterical "Oh my god, we're all going to die unless we give up to the government all our rights and liberties and privacy so that they can protect us from all danger!" that always follows these attempts by suicidal persons to inflict harm on others.

Although such bomb attempts do not scare me from flying despite the absurd hysteria they arouse, I fully expected to deal with a lot of security. But there was nothing unusual and I breezed through security with just the routine checks.

But the second leg of my flight from Washington (Dulles) to London (Heathrow) was far from routine. About 45 minutes before we were due to land in London, I was trying to take a nap when suddenly I heard shouting and opened my eyes to see two men running up the two aisles from the back to the plane towards the center where there was the galley and bathrooms. I also heard the sounds of fighting in the narrow passage between the bathrooms with someone seemingly being beaten and their head pounded against the wall or floor. The two men whom I had seen running took positions in each aisle where they could see up and down, whipped out badges that were on chains around their necks, and shouted out that they were police and that everyone should immediately take their seats and remain seated thereafter. They stayed in this position while the sounds of fighting continued, accompanied by shouts of "Stop beating your head against the wall!" and "Stop beating me!" and I realized that two other air marshalls were the ones subduing someone in the passage between the bathrooms.

Eventually, after about fifteen minutes, the sounds of fighting subsided but the two air marshalls in the aisles stayed in their positions and kept surveying everyone in the plane all through the landing. We were told to remain in our seats until the British police could arrive and take charge of things. This took about 20 minutes and after that we were allowed to leave the plane, though those who had been eyewitnesses to what had happened near the bathrooms were asked to remain. No one told us the cause of fracas. I later checked the web for information and found nothing so I figure that the disturbance was caused by a drunk or psychotic or otherwise unruly passenger, not someone with any intent to destroy the plane.

Even though this occurred the day after the Christmas bombing attempt, I did not feel any panic or fear during the entire episode, nor did I detect such feelings in the other passengers that I could see. People seemed to be simply curious about what was going on, craning their necks to get a better view. In fact, one passenger allowed his little daughter to stand in her seat so that she could get a better look. I think that this sense of calm was due to the fact that the air marshalls seemed to quickly take control of things and also because the flight attendants, even while there were sounds of fighting, created an air of normalcy by going about doing routine pre-landing tasks such as collecting cups and so on.

On my return trip to the US on January 11, there did not seem to be any extra security either, even at London as I was boarding for the US. The security people at Heathrow airport did not require everyone to take off their shoes but looked at them first before making the request. My shoes were given the green light and could be kept on but people with boots were asked to remove them. The only extra measure was at the boarding gate. I was singled out of the line and asked to check in my carry-on bag because new size restrictions for carry-on baggage had apparently been imposed on January 1 because of the underwear bomber incident and my bag that had passed muster all these days was now suddenly deemed to be too large.

Although the request was made courteously and I complied without making any protest, I was a bit suspicious because other passengers with similar sized bags were allowed to keep them and I was wondering whether my skin color had caused me to be singled out as a potentially dangerous person. After arriving in the US at Washington and passing through customs and immigration, I was told that I could once again take my bag as a carry-on on my last leg to Cleveland, suggesting that this new size rule was being applied somewhat inconsistently.

On the flight from London to the Washington, they also announced that there was another new rule, that when the 'fasten seat belt' sign comes on, everyone must return to their seats immediately, with no exceptions even for those going to the bathroom or already in it. For this seven-hour flight, they put on the sign a full hour before landing, which is the time when a lot of people use the facilities. This caused some friction between a few passengers and the flight attendants, who knocked on the door of the bathroom and asked the people inside to return to their seats. The reason for this new rule seems to be that the underwear bomber tried to detonate his explosives during the last half-hour of this flight, but since that seemed to be an arbitrary decision on his part, the logic of this new rule escapes me, since another bomber could merely make his move earlier.

On my return to the US, I discovered that the usual hysteria over the underwear bomber had indeed occurred, with people demanding even more security measures such as full body scanners, profiling, and the like.

I wonder when people are going to say that they have had enough. I myself have long ago reconciled myself to the fact that there will always be people crazy enough to try and find ways to kill others and that there is no way to be 100% secure even if we give up all our rights and liberties and freedoms and privacy. Systems and people are fallible and there will always be some cracks in the security system that can be exploited. So I am willing to take the risk of loss of life in a terrorist attack in return for living a life that is free from highly intrusive government security. This is why I think I was so unperturbed by the fight on the earlier flight. After all, the risk from dying in a terrorist attack is surely less than the risk of dying from other causes that I face every day such as car crashes or common criminals or building collapses. I don't obsess over those risks so why should I obsess over dying in a plane crash?

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on liberty vs. security

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January 15, 2010

Religious beliefs as a house of cards

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2010.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 14, 2010

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

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2010.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 13, 2010

Questions for believers in a god and the afterlife

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am really curious about this because it seems like this is a central issue. I have posed these questions before in the comments discussions but never got a clear and direct answer.

POST SCRIPT: Tech support in the middle ages

January 12, 2010

Is there an atheist philosophy?

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

I received a private email from a reader of this blog asking what exactly an atheist is and pointing out that my critiques of god and religion are written with a primarily western and Christian concept of a personal god in mind. I was asked how I felt about eastern concepts derived from religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which the reader points out, do not require belief in a personal god.

It is true that I have focused primarily on Christianity. This is because it is the religion I was brought up in and is the one I am most familiar with. I have also studied it in some depth and am aware of much of its subtleties and apologetics, and of the differences in beliefs among its various sects. If I wrote about other religions, I would be necessarily less familiar with their details and more likely to commit gross generalizations that might be considered unfair by followers of those religions.

But one can make some general statements about atheism. As far as I am concerned, atheism rejects the idea of any supernatural entity that can influence the world. It does not have to just be a personal god in the western sense. Even if the word god is not used and the idea is called a 'force' or 'principle' or 'consciousness' or something else, as long as it represents some non-material intelligent entity that influences the material world, an atheist is likely to reject it for the same reasons he or she rejects god, unless some convincing positive evidence is produced in its favor.

Having said that, we should understand that atheism is not really a philosophy in itself. It is also not merely rejection of religion. Instead, atheism is a consequence of taking seriously the necessity of using evidence as a basis of beliefs. In other words, atheism is a particular result of a general policy of adopting a rigorous scientific worldview to things. I suspect that most atheists take the minimalist point of view expressed by Laplace in explaining to the emperor Napoleon why he had not mentioned god in his treatise on the working of the universe: "I have no need of that hypothesis."

Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 51) says:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

But the reasons (the lack of evidence and the high degree of implausibility that there exists a non-material entity that can interact with the material world) that lead a person to reject any specific god, also lead them to reject all gods. I would suggest that all atheists reject the idea of a supernatural entity or supernatural behavior in all its forms, which would rule out the Jewish god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and the like, in addition to the Christian god. It would also rule out ideas of an afterlife.

If one asks followers of one particular god why they do not believe in a different one, you will usually find that they argue much like atheists, citing the lack of evidence or reasons for belief. The difference is that they apply the rule only selectively, to rule out all other gods except their own preferred one, although there is no empirical difference between them.

An atheist applies that principle uniformly across the board.

January 11, 2010

The consequences of atheism

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

While atheism is not a philosophy as such, the reasons that one has for being one (mainly, the rejection of those beliefs for which there is no evidence) necessarily lead to certain consequences. Collected together, this set of results may look like a philosophy, but is not really. It is merely the playing out of the consequences of a scientific approach to every aspect of life.

For example, the same arguments that atheists use to reject the existence of god also lead them to the rejection of an afterlife. This has profound consequences for the way one lives and how one relates to others. For me, the fact that this life is all there is makes more imperative the importance of everyone being able to make the best of the one life they have. There is no heavenly compensation to satisfy the yearnings of people who are suffering here and now. All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and there is no excuse for societies not being structured to provide them with those necessities.

Similarly, all people have a right to seek happiness wherever they can and with whomever they wish as long as they are not harming others. Hence gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are entitled to every right enjoyed by others, and atheists oppose objections to their behavior based on reasons like "god considers such acts sinful and they will go to hell" or because some religious text forbids it. (It is only such kinds of reasoning that is rejected. There may be atheists who disapprove of homosexuality on other grounds, such as that it is 'not natural' (whatever that may mean), but that is a different issue not involving religion.)

The same reasons that lead atheists to reject god also lead them to reject the idea of an independent soul that can survive the body. The problems of reconciling the idea of a non-material soul (or mind) interacting with the material brain and body are just as great as trying to figure out how a non-material god interacts with the material world. So I would argue that another corollary of being an atheist is to reject the idea of having a soul that can exist independently of the body. One can retain a concept of a 'soul' as long as it is merely a euphemism for the mind, a creature of the brain that ceases to exist when a person dies.

The idea that there is no god out there setting the standards of ethical and moral behavior also means that, rather than fighting to see which version of religious morality and behavior should prevail, atheists believe that we have to figure out what are the common bases on which we can live with one another in peace and justice in the world.

So in other words, the fact that atheism correlates with rejection of an afterlife and souls and religious text-based moral and ethical values means that the whole package has the trappings of a philosophy. But actually they are the almost independent consequences of having a philosophical naturalism philosophy that uses a scientific approach (empirical evidence and logical reasoning) to determine which beliefs are worthy of acceptance and which are not.

January 08, 2010

How to talk to religious believers-5: Dealing with irrational beliefs

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

People can be persuaded to relinquish, at least intellectually, small-scale beliefs like superstitions, although the reflexive habits associated with them may be hard to give up. Deeply held religious beliefs are not like that, though, even though they have the same lack of evidence as superstitions. Believing in god has enormous ramifications and why people strongly hold on to that belief requires some explanation and understanding. Those beliefs are far more closely intertwined with people's self-identity and are not as easily conceded to be irrational. In fact, people will go to great lengths to make them appear rational. Why this is so is the fundamental question.

In trying to answer why otherwise rational people believe in such a hugely irrational idea like a god, there are certain ideas that are not helpful in reaching an understanding. For example, just as there is no evidence that religious people are more moral or ethical than atheists, there is also no evidence that atheists are smarter than religious people. So we should rule out differences in intelligence in explaining the difference. Belief in god is irrational but that does not mean that people who believe in god are irrational in general.

I speculate that the problem is that more sophisticated religious believers know that they believe things that are not supported by any empirical evidence but have found reasons to come to terms with it. Michael Shermer in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002) puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid. He says: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." (p. 283).

Almost all our religious beliefs and superstitions are acquired early in life, as young children, for non-smart reasons. Children arrive at their beliefs about god, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, fairies, ghosts, etc. not on the basis of a reasoned judgment based on empirical evidence, but simply by trusting that the authority figures in their lives (especially parents, teachers, and priests) are telling them the truth. As we get older, some of these beliefs tend to get undermined and disappear while others remain. The difference lies in the level of effort made by the people around us to sustain the beliefs.

Some parents will go to extraordinary lengths to perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus while their children are young but then wean them away from this belief as they get older, because Santa Claus is not a belief sanctioned by adult society and a grown up who believes in him will be considered nuts. The same is true with the Easter bunny. As the child grows up and finds that none of the adults around him really believes in those things, he relinquishes the beliefs with perhaps only a faint nostalgic regret for a loss of childhood innocence

But that is not the case with beliefs about god. Because the adults around him continue to believe, the child continues to be given reasons to believe in the absence of any evidence and even in the face of massive counterevidence. And the reasons for belief become more and more elaborate the older people get and the more sophisticated they are.

Shermer describes a 1981 study by psychologist David Perkins who found "a positive relationship between intelligence and the ability to justify beliefs, and a negative relationship between intelligence and the ability to consider other beliefs as viable. That is to say, smart people are better at rationalizing their beliefs with reasoned arguments, but as a consequence they are less open to considering other positions. So, although intelligence does not affect what you believe, it does influence how beliefs are defended after the beliefs are acquired for non-smart reasons." (p. 302)

If children are not taught their religious beliefs when they are young, they are very unlikely to adopt them when they are old. The very fact that the religion of children is almost always the same as that of their parents, and that they have no difficulty in dismissing the beliefs of other religions as weird and unbelievable, is a testimony to the power of this childhood indoctrination, because their own religious beliefs are learned when they were impressionable children, unquestioningly accepting the authority of their parents, while they usually encounter the beliefs of other religions later in life. The fact that parents usually teach their young children that other religions are wrong helps to maintain this allegiance.

The people who have defended the existence of god and the afterlife in the comments to my previous postings on why belief in god is irrational or the afterlife are clearly people who have arrived at sophisticated reasons for believing in both. And they are helped by the fact that many very smart people (such as theologians, philosophers, and other scholars) have devoted their entire lives to find reasons to continue to believe in the absence of evidence and in the face of massive counterevidence. As a result, one finds the curious result that people find the supernatural elements and bizarre practices of their own religions quite plausible while the equally supernatural elements and bizarre practices of other religions are seen as unbelievable.

Recently, former Republican congressman Tom DeLay said the following: "God has spoken to me. I listen to God and what I've heard is that I'm supposed to devote myself to rebuilding the conservative base of the Republican Party." When religious people say things like this, there is a surprising lack of curiosity among those who claim to believe in the same religion. You would think they would ask questions like: "Really? How exciting! Was it a male voice? What did his voice sound like? Did he speak in English? Did he have an accent? Where did you hear the voice? Did you take down the exact words? Was anyone else there to hear it?" And so on. But they don't because, I suspect, asking such questions would expose the silliness of the whole idea of god "speaking" to people. Religious moderates have learned to keep things vague and unspecific and not ask probing questions, so that they can believe what they like and shift their beliefs when convenient.

This illustrates how important it is to religion that children be indoctrinated early and that they be brought up in an environment of like-minded believers. This also explains why 'mixed' marriages, where the parents are practicing members of different religions, are frowned upon by religious institutions, because children in such households are unlikely to receive the kind of thorough indoctrination necessary to maintain religious beliefs into adulthood.

January 07, 2010

How to talk to religious believers-4: The liberal or moderate believer

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer, the devout offended believer, and the fundamentalist religious intellectual when you tell people you are an atheist. Today I will deal with the last case.

The liberal or moderate believer: The hardest group for the atheist to deal might be, strangely enough, the people who are religious believers of the 'moderate' and 'liberal' variety. This may seem odd because such people tend to be rational and scientific about almost all aspects of their lives, so one would think that it would be easy to have a dialogue with them. But we know that often the most severe disagreements and arguments occur within families or like-minded groups, mainly because we understand each other so well and know each other's weaknesses.

The reason for the awkwardness between atheists and liberal or moderate religious people arises for the same reason. Most people grow up with the same beliefs as their families and their communities. Once you become an atheist, the scales fall from your eyes and you realize that many of the religious beliefs you used to cherish make no sense at all anymore. But the rest of your views and values have not changed much and the people around you still are the same. So you have the difficult challenge of trying to understand how you could have unquestioningly believed all this stuff for so long and also why the people around you still continue to do so.

This is especially true if your epiphany occurs later in life, as in my case. The whole religious belief structure seems so preposterous and outlandish to me now that I am incredulous that I could ever have believed in any of it before. How could I have possibly believed in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving but invisible god? How could I have not seen that the entire structure of the universe is consistent with the non-existence of such a god? How could I have ever taken the story of Jesus seriously? And, even more difficult to answer, how can those around me, who are like me in so many ways, not see the world as I now see it?

And it is precisely this attitude that causes problems. It is hard for you to understand how the religious people around you could be so like you and yet believe such different things from you. Author Douglas Adams captured this sentiment when he said: "I find the whole business of religion profoundly interesting. But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously." (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)

Suggested response: It is tempting to think that because these religious believers are just like you in almost everything else, and are open to scientific ways of looking at the world, that one can hope to persuade them to have the same kind of epiphany that you had, that religion and god makes no sense. This is a mistake and can lead to long and fruitless discussions. While it is true that you can discuss things on a deeper level that you can with fundamentalist religious believers, I think that moderate religious people are harder to persuade because they are much better at finding sophisticated reasons for belief.

It is easier to get a handle on understanding this if you bear in mind that the world is not divided into rational and irrational people or between intelligent and stupid people, but only between rational and irrational beliefs. None of us is purely rational. All of us are irrational in some areas of our lives, in that we believe things for which there is no evidence.

There are many examples of irrationality in my own life. I think my dog is smarter and better looking than most dogs. I also think that I am a better-than-average driver. I cannot really provide any evidence in support of either belief. Sri Lankan society is riddled with all kinds of superstitions and one absorbs them as one grows up. Even now, I sometimes find myself doing something mechanically that, on reflection, turns out to be based purely on superstition.

We are not in a position to provide evidence to justify everything and in most cases this kind of belief is quite harmless. For example, most people will wish someone 'good luck' when they are about to go for a job interview or take an exam or take the field in a sport. Many people have their own superstitions, especially concerning sports, like wearing a lucky shirt or waving a towel when their favorite team is playing. Many people try not to say something that will jinx their team. Many read their horoscopes every day and some even take fortune cookies seriously. They will not walk under a ladder and are uneasy when a black cat crosses their path. A Friday that falls on the 13th day of a month causes them anxiety.

All these things are completely irrational and atheists are as susceptible to them as anyone else. But when questioned about any of these minor irrationalities, most people (religious and atheists alike) are sheepishly apologetic and will concede that what they believe and do is just a relatively harmless superstition and will not try to defend the practice as having any kind of real justification.

But religious beliefs do not belong in this class and understanding the nature of this difference is crucial if we are to have a cordial dialogue with moderate religious believers.

To be continued. . .

January 06, 2010

How to talk to religious believers-3: The religious fundamentalist intellectual

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer and the devout offended believer when you tell people you are an atheist.

Today, I will address the religious fundamentalist intellectual: These people are the most fun to deal with because there is usually no rancor or personal element involved in the disagreements. These are people who have essentially constructed an alternate reality. They believe that the Bible is literally true, that Noah's flood and ark are historical events, that humans lived alongside dinosaurs, that the Earth and the universe is less than 10,000 years old, and so on. They have satisfied themselves that what they believe can be substantiated and will try to convince you of it. They are usually not offended by you being an atheist but are convinced that you are mistaken. If you are lucky enough to engage such people in conversation and have the time, you should probe their beliefs and why they believe them and you will witness the unfolding of a fascinating and complex set of hypotheses that are invoked to explain why their beliefs are so out of step with the results of mainstream science.

I met a lot of these people when I was in Kansas is 2002 to debate the intelligent design creationists. People who attended the debate would take me aside and read passages from the Bible to try and convince me why it was true and I was wrong. They were mostly very nice people. Even though they were convinced I was going to hell, they were nice about it and did not gloat, and only a few fell into the angry offended devout believers category I described earlier. But they were living in an alternate world from me. A professor of constitutional law who was on the same debate panel with me captured the situation very well when he said that he felt like he was at a Star Trek convention. Those who are on the outside cannot comprehend the devotion of such people to a fictional world, but can only marvel at it.

Suggested response: There is no point in trying to win such people over by arguments, especially standard scientific ones. They have heard most of them before and their responses take a standard pattern. They will start from a fairly mainstream scientific and historical position and at a crucial moment insert some piece of esoteric information that they claim throws doubt on the entire theories of evolution or geology or physics or any science that contradicts their worldview. This is then used to make a leap to justify their alternate reality. This leap will seeming totally lacking in logic to you but they are convinced it makes perfect sense.

A good example of this can be seen in the set of videos called Chatting with Charley. Charley is typical of this attitude. For example, he accepts the fact of continental drift but argues that it separated America from Africa in a couple of months, and a great flood caused the Grand Canyon to be formed in days rather than millions of years! I think that I would enjoy talking with Charley because it is just fun to listen to his 'arguments' because they are so weirdly fascinating.

I would similarly enjoy talking with Kent Ham, the force behind the new creationist museum that opened in Kentucky yesterday. An article in the May 18, 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (page B10) has the author asking Ham how many sheep Noah's Ark would have to contain in order feed all the dinosaurs. This question was based on an article published by Bishop John Wilkins in 1668 claiming that the Ark contained 1600 sheep, sufficient to feed the carnivores. But the existence dinosaurs weren't known then, and their presence would increase the numbers of sheep required beyond the capacity of the Ark, prompting the question.

The author (who felt that the whole idea of the Ark being historical was preposterous) feared that Ham might feel that this question was a mocking one, but Ham answered in all seriousness. He suggested that the dinosaurs that Noah saved might be young ones, before they were full grown and thus needed less food. Ham also suggested that more animals might have been vegetarian then, becoming carnivores only later.

Ham also suggested that the Biblical 'kinds' of animals that were saved in pairs were not meant to be species but a higher category (say the genus or even higher) thus requiring fewer animals. In other words, Noah did not save a pair of every breed of (say) dog, but only a single pair of dogs. Of course, this means that the present number of species had to evolve and differentiate into their separate species types in a few thousand years, but this can probably be explained with another ad hoc hypothesis.

People like Charley and Ham tend to not understand in a very deep way the nature of science and how science acquires and creates knowledge, and the basic interconnectedness of scientific knowledge. You cannot invoke ad hoc hypotheses to take care of one problem without exploring the consequences for other related situations where that hypothesis has applications.

They also skip over the basic problem of Cartesian dualism of how a non-material mind could interact with the material body. They cannot be convinced by arguments. After all, Ham has convinced religious people to spend $27 million dollars to build a museum enshrining this weird belief structure and that bespeaks a serious devotion. Because they are determined to believe at any cost, at any tricky point they invoke the Mysterious Ways Clause (Shorter version of the MWC: God has a reason for doing this and for keeping the reasons hidden from us and anyway our minds are too puny to understand god's plan.)

What is best in such conversations is to take an anthropological attitude and try and understand how these alternative realities are created. Simply posing questions about their beliefs, asking for evidence, posing counter-evidence and seeing how they respond, are the best ways to deal with them. Since you are not trying to convince them of anything but simply trying to understand why they believe what they do, this enables you to be detached and thus subject their beliefs to a clinical examination.

When you do so, you will find yourself gazing through a window into a world that is truly bizarre, in a fascinating kind of way, as if you had entered a looking glass world.

January 05, 2010

How to talk to religious believers-2: The offended devout believer

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

In the previous post, I discussed how to deal with the concerned devout believer. Today I deal with a more difficult case.

The offended devout believer: Like the concerned believer, this reaction will come from someone who is devoutly and unquestioningly religious. But their reaction will be to take strong offense at the idea that you have rejected beliefs that they hold dear. Some of them will be people who are close to you. Parents often fall into this category since they are the ones who taught you their religious beliefs and your rejection of the beliefs will be interpreted also as a rejection of them.

Julia Sweeney, who grew up as a devout Catholic, in her show Letting Go of God describes her parents' reaction when she said she was an atheist.

My first call was from my mother was more of a scream. 'Atheist? ATHEIST?!?!'

My dad called and said 'You have betrayed your family, your school, your city.' It was like I had sold secrets to the Russians. They both said they weren't going to talk to me anymore. My dad said, 'I don't even want you to come to my funeral.'. . . I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I'd said I didn't believe in God any more, but being an atheist was another thing altogether. (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 324)

But more likely it will be people who are little more than strangers or acquaintances. Some of these people will jump to the conclusion that because you are an atheist, you are a person with no morals or ethics and someone to be avoided for fear that you are a bad influence. Such people will also sometimes say "I will pray for you" but what they mean by this is quite different from the concerned devout believer. In this case it is merely a code for saying that they have no doubt that you will suffer the torments of hell and that they relish the prospect of looking down and seeing you suffer while they sit in their Laz-y-Boy in heaven, sipping their lemonade. They do really tend to think of heaven and hell in such concrete terms and have no doubt that they are the apple of god's eye and have lots of treats in store for them when they die. This reaction will likely come from people who believe in the most extreme Biblical literalism, and even totally bizarre ideas like the Rapture.

Suggested response: There is no point getting angry with people who delight in the idea of their tightness with god and think that they know god's mind so well that the things and persons they like and dislike are identical with what god likes and dislikes. God is so real to them that they would likely not understand what Anne Lamott was driving at when she said that: "You can safely assume you've created god in your own image when it turns out that god hates all the same people you do." (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote)

Such people are hopeless. What can you say to people who actually delight the thought of other people suffering torments in hell? Sophisticated religious believers tend to think that such views are held by only ignorant people with an Old Testament mentality but that is not the case. Richard Dawkins writes (The God Delusion, p. 320) about the manifest relish with which many people write about others going to hell, smugly assuming that they are not in danger of ending up there.

Whatever they believe hell is actually like, all these hell-fire enthusiasts seem to share the gloating Schadenfreude and complacency of those who know they are among the saved, well conveyed by that foremost among theologians, St Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica: 'That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.' Nice man.

(Dawkins adds a footnote about proud Christian Ann Coulter who said 'I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell.')

The only reaction to such people is to keep your sense of humor. You have to simply smile or laugh when people say these crazy things about atheists and atheism and express weird ideas about what might happen to you after you die. There is no reasoning with them because the ideas are so irrational and trying to do so is a waste of time. The best thing to do is to joke about going to hell and the like. Such people thrive on being fearful and creating fear in others. They cannot defend their religious ideas on any rational grounds. Heaven and hell are the only things they have and they use them to try and intimidate their opponents.

To treat the whole thing as a joke will infuriate them because it turns their biggest weapon into a damp squib.

Next: The religious fundamentalist intellectual.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian George Carlin on god and hell

January 04, 2010

How to talk to religious believers-1: The concerned, devout believer

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

One of the consequences of the outspokenness of the new atheists is that it enables people who are quasi-atheists to become more frank about their doubts about religion. Unlike closet atheists who are people who keep quiet about their atheism, 'quasi-atheists' those people who would not call themselves atheists but are already tugging at the some of the beliefs that hold together the fragile structure of belief and are thus close to bringing down the whole house of cards. Such people tend to say they are agnostics and not identify any specific religious group and instead hold on to some unspecified notion of spirituality.

Quasi-atheists' religious beliefs are just hanging on by a thread. Most thoughtful people have serious doubts about the existence of god and the afterlife. How could they not since everyday experience provides no support at all for such beliefs? But given the climate of official piety, most people will just keep their doubts to themselves to avoid the attention that expressing views that are different from the mainstream brings.

But the new atheists, by being so public in their dissection and dismissal of religious beliefs and the lack of evidence for them, are creating room in the space of public dialogue for regular people to take their more limited and hesitant doubts public. When they find that the heavens don't come crashing down on their heads for expressing doubts about religious dogmas, they will be on the road to a more complete disavowal of religion.

So my prediction is that within the next few years one will find opinion polls that show a dramatic rise in the numbers of people who describe themselves as non-religious, as more and more people become willing to express their doubts publicly and respond frankly to such polls. People may still shy away from the word 'atheism' and use euphemisms, but the shift away from belief will be palpable.

As more and more atheists and quasi-atheists speak about their lack of belief in god, it is going to be increasingly common for them to have to deal with the reactions of the religious believers around them. The kind of reaction they will experience will vary widely and require a flexible attitude, so here is my contribution to keeping the dialogue friendly.

Dealing with the concerned devout believer: This is the reaction of a devoutly religious person who knows you well, either as a family member or close friend. They will experience complete incredulity that you have rejected ideas that seem to them to be so obviously true. For them, everything that they see around them is testimony to god's existence. They are unshakeable in their beliefs and cannot imagine how anyone could think otherwise. Since they are good people, they will not be angry with you but will worry that you risk losing your soul and going to hell. They will make earnest attempts to convince you of your error, suggesting that you try different churches and pastors and Bible study groups, they will recommend books for you to read, and they will tell you that they are praying for you.

Suggested response: It is important to realize that such people are well meaning and have your best interests at heart. One should take react graciously to their efforts to try and bring you back into god's good books and not get upset. Such people are so wedded to the rightness of their beliefs that they do not see the irony of saying that they will pray for you to someone who thinks the whole idea of prayer is a waste of time.

With such people, one should simply and gently tell them why you don't believe in god. Remember that these people genuinely care about you and are concerned about you, even if in a misguided way, and such people are to be valued and treasured. Eventually, over time when they realize that you are still the same person that they always knew and loved and haven't suddenly become a mass murderer or rude and abusive and a person who is cruel to animals and children, they will learn to accept you for who you are.

Next up: The offended devout believer.

January 01, 2010

A wish for the New Year: A world without religion

(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. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

The recent appearance of best-selling books by atheists strongly criticizing religion has given rise to this secondary debate (reflected in this blog and the comments) as to what attitude atheists should take towards religion. Some critics of these authors (including fellow atheists) have taken them to task for being too harsh on religion and thus possibly alienating those religious "moderates" who might be potential allies in the cause of countering religious "extremism". They argue that such an approach is unlikely to win over people to their cause. Why not, such critics ask, distinguish between "good" and "bad" religion, supporting those who advocate good religion (i.e., those parts of religion that encourage good works and peace and justice) and joining with them to marginalize those who advocate "bad" religion (i.e., who use religion divisively, to murderous ends, to fight against social justice, or to create and impose a religion-based political agenda on everyone.)

It is a good question deserving of a thoughtful answer, which you are unlikely to find here. But I'll give it my best shot anyway.

Should religion be discouraged along the lines advocated by these books, by pointing out that evidence for god's existence does not rise above the level of evidence for fairies and unicorns, highlighting the many evils done in religion's name, and urging people to abandon religious beliefs because they violate science and basic common sense? Or should we continue to act as if it were a reasonable thing to believe in the existence of god, thereby tacitly encouraging its continuance? Or should religion be simply ignored? The answer depends on whether one views religion as an overall negative, positive, or neutral influence in society.

If you believe, as atheists do, that the whole edifice of religion is based on the false premise that god exists, then it seems logical to seek to eliminate religion. As believers in the benefits of rationality, we believe true knowledge is to be preferred to false knowledge. In fact, there is much to be gained by eliminating belief in the supernatural since that is the gateway to, and the breeding ground for, all manner of superstition, quackery, and downright fraud perpetrated on the gullible by those who claim to have supernatural powers or direct contact with god. I offer TV evangelists as evidence, but the list can be extended to astrologers, psychics, faith healers, spoon benders, mind readers, etc. All of them claim to provide a benefit (perhaps just emotional and psychological) to their followers, just like religion does, but few observers would argue that that reason alone is sufficient to shield them from criticism.

Those atheists who argue against seeking to undermine belief in religion and favor the other two options (i.e., tacit support or ignoring) usually posit two arguments. The first point is really one of political strategy: that by criticizing religion in general we are alienating a large segment of people and that what we should preferably do is to ally ourselves with "good" religion (inclusive, tolerant, socially conscious) so that we can more effectively counter those who profess "bad" religion (exclusive, intolerant, murderous). The second is that religion, even if false, can also be a force for good as evidenced by the various religious social justice movements that have periodically emerged.

I have touched on the counterarguments to the first point earlier and will revisit it later. As to the second point, that religion can be justified on the basis that even if not true it provides other benefits that make it worthwhile, discussions around this issue usually tend to go in two directions: comparisons of the actions of "good" religious people versus that of "bad" religious people, or comparisons of the actions of religious people with that of nonreligious people. But such discussions are not fruitful because they cannot be quantified or otherwise made more concrete and conclusive.

I prefer to argue against the second point differently by pointing out that every benefit claimed for religion can just as well be provided by other institutions: Provides a sense of community? So do many other social groups. Do charitable works? So do secular charities. Work for social justice? So do political groups. Provide comfort and reassurance? So do family, friends, and even therapy. Provide a sense of personal meaning? So does science and philosophy. Provide a basis of morality and values? It has long been established that morals and values are antecedent to and independent of religion. (Does anyone seriously think that it was considered acceptable to murder before the Ten Commandments appeared?)

There is not a single good moral principle that modern civilized societies can be proud of that an atheist cannot subscribe to. But there are many despicable practices that religions espouse and practice as part of their doctrines (such as discrimination against women, homosexuals, and people of other religions) and that being a believer in good standing requires one to subscribe to.

Now it is true (as was pointed out by commenter Cindy to a previous post) that religious institutions do provide a kind of ready-made, one-stop shop for many of these things and new institutions may have to come into being to replace them. Traditional groups like Rotary clubs and Mason, Elk, and Moose lodges, that mix community building with social service, may be the closest existing things that serve the same purpose. The demise of religion may see the revival of those faltering groups as substitutes. Some countries have social clubs that people belong to that, unlike in the US, are not the preserve of only the very wealthy. England has the local pub that provides a sense of community to a neighborhood and where people drop in on evenings not just to drink but to meet and chat with friends, play games, and eat meals. The US has, unfortunately, no equivalent of the local pub. Bars do not have the family atmosphere that most pubs do, though coffee shops may evolve to serve this purpose. It may be that it is the easy convenience of religious institutions that inhibit people from putting in the effort to find alternative institutions that can give them the cultural and social benefits of religion without the negative of having to subscribe to an irrational belief.

I cannot think of a single benefit that is claimed for religion that could not be provided by other institutions. Meanwhile, religions carry with them all kinds of negatives. We see this in the murderous rampages that have been carried out over thousands of years by religious fanatics in dutiful obedience to what they thought was the will of god. I am not saying that getting rid of religion will get rid of all evil. But it will definitely remove one important source of it. The French philosopher and author Voltaire (1694-1778) had little doubt that religion was a negative influence and that we would be better off without it. He said: "Which is more dangerous: fanaticism or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion whereas fanaticism does; atheism is opposed to crime and fanaticism causes crimes to be committed."

While the evils done in the name of religion are often dismissed as aberrations by religious apologists, they actually arise quite naturally from the very basis of religion. When you believe that god exists and has a plan for you, the natural next step is to wonder what that plan is, what god wants you to do. To answer this, most people look to religious leaders and texts for guidance. As political and religious leaders discovered long ago, it is very easy to persuade people to believe that god expects them to do things that, without the sanction of religion, would be considered outrageously evil or simply crazy. (As an example of the latter, recall the thirty nine members of the Heaven's Gate sect who were persuaded to commit suicide so that their souls could get a ride on the spaceship carrying Jesus that was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet that passed by the Earth in 1997.)

The belief that god is solidly behind you and will reward you for obeying him has been shown to overcome almost any moral scruples or inhibitions concerning committing acts that would otherwise be considered unspeakable. The historical examples of such behavior are so numerous and well known that I will not bother even listing them here but just look at some of the major flashpoints in the world today, where the conflicts (even if other factors are at play) are undoubtedly inflamed by perceptions that people are acting on behalf of their god: the vicious cycle of killings in Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland (now thankfully abating), and between Hindus and Muslim in India.

Just recently, certain Islamic groups have called for the death of a Swedish cartoonist who is supposed to have drawn a cartoon disrespectful to Islam. This is yet another example of how religion seems to destroy people's basic reasoning skills because for some religious people, it seems perfectly reasonable that they have to fight and kill to defend their god's honor.

The obvious response to this call to avenge god by killing the cartoonist is to point out how absurd it is that humans think they have to protect their god's interests by fighting and killing people. Do such believers think that god is some kind of mobster boss who has to have goons to carry out his wishes? Pointing this out would reveal the impotence of god and ultimately the absurdity of the idea of god. After all, any rational person should be able to see that if their god has the abilities they ascribe to him, he should be quite capable of taking care of himself. He can not only kill the offending cartoonist but even wipe the entire country of Sweden off the map to drive the lesson home that he will not be trifled with.

But our 'respect for religion' attitude prevents us from pointing out such an obvious truth, because it gets too uncomfortably close to revealing the absurdity of the underlying premise of religion. So instead what happens is some theologian is trotted out who argues that what their religious book is 'really' saying is that it is wrong to kill, despite the existence of other passages in the same religious books that have been used to argue to the contrary. And so we end up with yet another dreary debate between the so-called 'moderates' and 'extremists' about what god is 'really' like and what he 'really' wants from us.

This is why religion is bad. Not only is it false, it is dangerously false. Believing in such a false idea requires people to abandon rational thinking and makes even murderous intentions seem noble to them. If, as I argue, all the claimed benefits of religion can be provided by other institutions, and it has negatives that are solely its own creation, then it is hard to see what utility religion has that makes it worth preserving. I think that the conclusion is quite clear. The best selling atheist authors are, in the long run, doing us all a favor by directly confronting religion and showing that we would all be better off without it.