THIS BLOG HAS MOVED AND HAS A NEW HOME PAGE.

Entries for February 2010

February 26, 2010

Jackasses, fools, knaves, and miscreants

(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.)

Recently, President Obama's White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was in the news when it was leaked that he had referred to liberal activists who are complaining about Obama's lack of follow through on his campaign promises as "f---ing retarded."

While one might think that the real story here is the revelation of the contempt with which the White House views its most passionate supporters, Sarah Palin pre-empted that by once again complaining that her family had been slighted and that Emmanuel should resign for his slur that disparaged people like her son Trig who has Down syndrome. Palin seems to have decided that she can run on a platform of grievances against her family on whose behalf she demands privacy and respect, although it is she that uses them as props, Trig especially, and puts them forward in the public eye whenever it suits her purposes.

She faced some embarrassing moments when Rush Limbaugh, one of the key de-facto leaders of the Republican Party and before whom all Republicans must grovel, also used the term 'retard' repeatedly, but she tried to brush that off by saying that Limbaugh's usage was acceptable because it was 'satire'. Sometimes it seems to me that Palin actually enjoys being ridiculed.

The story developed even more legs when an episode of the animated TV program Family Guy (a comedy show that no one can accuse of sensitivity and good taste) had the son take out a girl with Down syndrome who describes herself as the daughter of a former governor of Alaska. (You can see the clip here.) The Palin outrage machine once again roared into the red zone.

But while I think Palin is in serious danger of further trivializing herself and being seen as a perpetual whiner if she keeps up this high volume campaign against slights from even cartoon TV shows, she does have a point that the casual use of words like 'retard' as insults should be discouraged.

Michael Berube, a professor of American literature who also teaches disability studies and has a child with Down syndrome, is someone on the opposite pole of the political spectrum from Palin but although he does not take offense nearly as easily as Palin does, he points out that it is somewhat unfair to use words like 'retard' to compare people who should know better and should be functioning at a higher cognitive level but are not, with people who, for reasons beyond their control, have diminished mental capabilities but yet are often exercising their capacities to the fullest and living exemplary lives. As Berube says, "Many, many morons and retards have very good judgment about some matters, whereas many, many ostensibly intelligent people make bafflingly, excruciatingly bad decisions."

Many of the terms that are now used derogatorily are (or at least once were) clinical terms of description. As Berube writes:

Do you know any idiots? How about morons, or imbeciles? Retards, perhaps? People riding the short bus?

The first three items were once part of standard terminology in intelligence measurement: "moron" is the most recent of them, having been proposed in the early twentieth century by Henry Goddard. Before the twentieth century, "idiot" and "imbecile" were general insults, as they are today, though they too were once pressed into service as classifications. For those of you who don't remember those days, "morons" had what we now call "mild" mental retardation, or IQs between 50 and 70; "imbeciles" had what we now call "moderate" mental retardation, or IQs between 26 and 50; and everyone below that threshold, whom we now call people with "severe and profound" mental retardation, were idiots.

A century ago, "Mongoloid idiot," for example, was not (as so many people think) a slur. It was a descriptive term, a diagnosis.

Berube's piece made me realize that I should re-evaluate my own occasional unthinking use of the words 'moron' and 'idiot' and their derivatives. (I never use the word 'retard' because that has always seemed to me to be ugly and hateful, reflecting more negatively on the person using it than the person it is directed at.) The question is what word to use as a replacement when one is confronted with people who are behaving in exceptionally stupid ways. Berube suggests that we look for a word that is descriptive of performance rather than capacity. In addition to possible Shakespearean insults such as knaves, gulls, hoodlums, and miscreants (a fuller guide to which can be found here), he also proposes fool, wuss, sap, chump, poltroon, schlemiel, and patsy as alternatives. He finally recommends the word 'jackass' as a good substitute. Of course this is a slur on an innocent animal that may be also functioning at a high level given its abilities, but we have to assume that the feelings of jackasses are not hurt, and that those who love jackasses will not take offense either. However, I think I will choose to go with the word 'fool' to describe a person, and 'stupid' to describe their actions, with the more exotic ones thrown in occasionally for variety.

Perhaps the final word on this should be given to Andrea Fay Friedman, the 39-year old woman who voiced the offending part in the Family Guy episode and, despite having Down syndrome herself, has a full life and active career as an actor and public speaker. In an interview with the New York Times, she manages to make two important points. One is that she thinks Sarah Palin does not have a sense of humor and the other is that she demonstrates with her own life why people with mental disabilities should not be spoken of disparagingly.

As a footnote, the Times made an interesting edit of the interview. One of Friedman's full answers was:

I guess former Governor Palin does not have a sense of humor. I thought the line "I am the daughter of the former governor of Alaska" was very funny. I think the word is "sarcasm."

In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes.

The NYT eliminated the section in bold. I wonder why. Could it be that they did not want to flip the hair-trigger on Sarah Palin's outrage machine once again? Too bad. It would have been interesting to see how Palin would have responded to such a sharp criticism from Friedman.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on the 'retard' issue

Sarah Palin's double talk that Limbaugh's use of the word 'retard' is acceptable because it is satire was a gift to real satirists like Colbert.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sarah Palin Uses a Hand-O-Prompter
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations

February 25, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-5: Rhetoric in politics and 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.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

In a response on the Machines Like Us website as to whether my three assertions:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

constituted rudeness or arrogance, a commenter kaath said that:

The three points you make above are not rude as points of view when stated in that way. However, in my experience they are 1) factually incorrect or 2) unfalsifiable. Further, they are often rephrased in antagonistic or sarcastic ways.

This last item has been noted even by other atheists on this site—the idea being that if what you really want is a serious and reasonable debate you use serious, reasonable words. That is not what happens here a goodly amount of the time.

A number of the folks who post on the site either as bloggers or as commentators resort to sarcasm to make fun of the religionist. (my italics)

I think that this is what everything essentially boils down to. Many religious people feel that their beliefs should not be made fun of even in the public sphere.

Is the request to not make fun of religion a reasonable one? My response is no. Religious beliefs have no special status and should be treated just like any other beliefs. When it comes to the public sphere, I agree totally with author Salman Rushdie who, in opposing an attempt by the British government to pass legislation for a ban on incitement to "hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds", reflected on an aspect of his own education.

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible. (my italics)

To see why the appeal that religious beliefs deserve special treatment in debate is invalid, compare religion to politics. One is warned that in social gatherings one should avoid the topics of politics and religion, because people hold strongly entrenched views on both and thus discussions have the potential to blow up into angry confrontations. But although both topics are considered sensitive and even explosive, when we compare public discussions in the world of politics with those in the world of religion, we immediately see that the call for respectful treatment of religious beliefs for what it is: special pleading for ideas that cannot withstand critical scrutiny.

The difference in the way those two topics are debated in the public sphere is very revealing. In the political sphere people feel quite free to make strong and even personal criticisms of political figures. Political cartoonists, for example, not only lampoon public political figures and ridicule their ideas, they even make fun of their appearance, by caricaturing their physical features and making them look ridiculous. And we think this is perfectly acceptable and part of the natural give and take of public debate. No one accuses these cartoonists of being rude or arrogant or practicing hate speech, even though for many people their political views may be held more deeply than even their religious views.

So why should we not be similarly allowed to caricature public religious figures like Jehovah/Melvin/Jesus/Allah/Mohammed/Krishna/… and ridicule their ideas? And yet, when a Danish cartoonist made fun of Mohammed, we have the absurd spectacle of people rioting in the streets and calls for the introduction of blasphemy laws, a reversion to the Dark Ages. People's feelings on religion are so easily inflamed because for too long, unlike the case with political beliefs, they have been used to those around them pretending to act as if those beliefs made sense even though they may privately think they are ridiculous.

Islam is a particular extreme case of what happens when we grant religious beliefs undue deference. In addition to the cartoon incident, we had the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004. He was shot by Mohammed Bouyeri as he rode his bicycle to work. His killer then cut his victim's throat, almost decapitating him, and then stabbed him in the chest and a left note embedded in his body. Van Gogh's crime? He had made a 10-minute film that told the story of four abused Muslim women (see below). Bouyeri made a courtroom confession of his crime but was unapologetic and said he killed van Gogh out of religious conviction and that he would do the same again if given the chance. Holding a copy of the Koran, he said that "the law compels me to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet." So Bouyeri thinks that his mighty god, the ruler of the universe, is so insecure and thin-skinned that he cares about a short film. The reality is of course that it is Bouyeri who is so unused to having his religious beliefs criticized that he becomes unhinged when it occurs. This shows what happens when religious people get used to thinking that their beliefs should be immune from criticism.

H. L. Mencken, in the wake of the Scopes trial in 1925, defended Clarence Darrow's harsh treatment of William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand by making this very point. (You can find the full context on pages 150-151 of my book God vs. Darwin.) It is worth quoting him at length:

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act. Bryan went there in a hero's shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense. He came out a wrecked and preposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs. Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours.

We must of course respect the right of people to believe whatever they want to believe. But that is a completely different issue. We have no obligation whatsoever to respect the beliefs themselves and, in criticizing them, the use of every available rhetorical technique is legitimate, whether it be sarcasm, derision, ridicule, or whatever. The only restraints should be those that are self-imposed by the people making the criticisms, on the basis of their personal preferences or whether they think the methods they are using are effective as persuasion. In some situations, sarcasm and derision may be perfectly appropriate, in others not.

There are those who argue that sarcasm and derision are not effective in getting people to change their minds, so it is self-defeating to use such rhetorical methods. But people who engage in public debates know that the person whose ideas they are directly challenging is not the real target of persuasion because such people's views are unlikely to change. The real targets are the curious and more dispassionate observers watching the debate. Humor, sarcasm, and even ridicule of ideas may well be effective with them because they are not so wedded to the ideas being targeted. It is also perfectly true that what may be appropriate in the public sphere may not be so in the private sphere. What people who accuse the new/unapologetic atheists of being rude, arrogant, etc. seem to be doing is applying the standards of the private sphere to the public sphere.

When it comes to public debates about public issues and ideas, we must come to terms with the fact that pretty much anything goes, apart from obvious prohibitions against lying and defamation and libel. And religion has to take its lumps along with everything else.

POST SCRIPT: Submission

This 10-minute film narrating the abuse of four Muslim women is the reason for the brutal murder of Theo van Gogh.

February 24, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-4: More on the conversion question

(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 earlier posts in this series, see here.

I want to address the crux of Jared's objections to my post on the alleged arrogance of atheists, which was that my hope for a world without religion was essentially also a call for the elimination of religious people.

When we seek to eradicate what we think are false or harmful beliefs that are held by people close to us, are we trying to "wish them away" as individuals? Of course not. What we seek is to improve their lives on the assumption that believing things that are supported by evidence and have the potential of being true is better for people than believing things that have no evidentiary support and are likely to be false.

In that sense, I understand better the desire of evangelical Christians and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses to convert the world to their beliefs. They are at least being consistent in wanting to spread what they believe to be true, though I disagree with their methods of thrusting their views on people, even strangers, without first ascertaining whether they want to discuss them.

So Jared, I am trying to convert you to atheism, just as I am trying to convert every reader of this blog who is a believer. Indeed, much of all forms of communication are attempts at persuasion over something or other. I do it not to "wish you away" but because I think you would be better off for being an atheist than a religious believer. It is no different from my attempts to convert people in general away from any racist, sexist, xenophobic, and any other form of bigoted views that they may hold that I think harms them and society at large. They too may resist. But to not expose people to alternative views in an attempt to wean them away is to not do them any favors. In fact, I think it is wrong to shield people from criticisms of their ideas because having one's ideas critiqued are an important component of learning and growth. People may disagree and retain their beliefs, but that is a choice they have to make.

So if I think that trying to convert people to one's point of view makes sense, why I am not knocking on people's doors like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses or standing on street corners like the Jesus people, handing out tracts containing the doctrines of atheism, which would consist of blank sheets of paper? Why don't I channel every conversation with relatives, friends, and colleagues into discussions about atheism? As a matter of fact, I almost never initiate the topic of religion in those situations and it is almost always the case that it is other people who initiate such conversations with me because they are curious about my views. And in those private conversations, I simply state what I believe and why, and counter their arguments for god. That's it. There is no atheist equivalent of the 'altar call', of asking people to come to Jesus.

I do not try to convert people in person because personal relationships involve many facets and one cannot easily walk away from conversations about unwanted topics without some awkwardness. Thrusting a topic on people is generally not a good idea. People may not be interested in discussing the topic at that particular time and are merely going to get annoyed with you for what they view as an imposition. So the people I meet personally can rest assured that I am not going to collar them and talk about atheism unless they tell me they want to.

But in the public sphere such as this blog, people are free to read or not read, agree or not agree. People can choose to enter into the conversation or walk away. Ideas can be more easily discussed and critiqued as just ideas, apart from the people holding them.

If religious people hold their beliefs so dearly that they think that any criticism of those beliefs is an attack on their right to hold those ideas or even their right to exist, that is a misconception that they themselves have to overcome. In the public sphere, any idea or belief should be freely criticized in any way. To criticize an idea or belief strongly using all the evidence, reason, and rhetoric at one's disposal is not to seek the elimination of the people holding those ideas and beliefs. It is to seek the elimination of those ideas and beliefs.

The last issue that I will discuss in the next and final post in this series is the issue of tone, which was implied in Jared's response but stated more directly by kaath in his response on the Machines Like Us website.

POST SCRIPT: White House duplicity

In my recent series of posts titled The End of Politics I described how the oligarchy that rules the US hides its power behind a screen of supposedly heated partisan politics. In particular, when it came to health care reform, I described how Obama and the Democrats choreographed this elaborate dance to hide the fact that they had no intention whatsoever of doing anything meaningful that would hurt the financial interests of their patrons in the health industry.

The latest White House proposals advanced in front of the so-called health care summit reveals this duplicity clearly for what it is. Glenn Greenwald dissects the charade in a must-read article.

February 23, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-3: The conversion question

(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 earlier posts in this series, see here.

In the previous post, I said that the statement that Jared found offensive and hurtful is that "The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural." He said that "I think you really don't get how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith. To wish away their religion is almost to wish away them" and that it implied that I felt that "The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (etc)" and that "to propose the nullification of that part of me is to propose my nullification", and as such constituted hate speech.

Actually, I really do get "how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith". After all, I was one of those people once and am still surrounded by them in the form of friends and relatives. It is this very deep-rootedness that I identify as precisely the reason why religions are so persistent despite the lack of evidence in favor of them and the abundance of counter-evidence. What I don't understand is why that fact should earn the believers of religions a pass from criticism.

I also frankly do not understand what is meant by to "wish away" people and propose their "nullification". I assume it does not mean that I want them exterminated! Is the desire to "wish away" certain beliefs the equivalent of wanting to "wish away" the people who hold those beliefs? Surely not. What I think Jared means is that religious beliefs are such an essential part of people that losing them destroys them as individuals.

That assertion is flatly contradicted by the fact that many people have given up their once deeply held religious beliefs (to either join other religions or become skeptics) and been none the worse for it and even come out stronger. Just because a belief is deeply held does not give it some kind of immunity. After all, people deeply hold views that are racist, sexist, xenophobic, or exhibit other forms of bigotry. Some people also label themselves by the signs of the Zodiac and infer innate qualities based on them and even act on that basis by consulting astrologers and horoscopes before making important decisions. No one would seriously argue that the world would not be better off without those beliefs or that those views should be protected just because some people identify with them strongly, or that we are hurting those people when we try to convert them away from these absurd or noxious beliefs. Why is it hate speech to encourage people to use evidence, rationality, and reason in every area of their lives?

The only reason to argue that religious belief should be treated differently from those others is because religious beliefs are obviously good or beneficial and the others obviously bad. Religions have used that trope for years to try and shield themselves from criticisms. But isn't that the very point in dispute? I don't think religious beliefs are good or benign, even though religious individuals can be both. For reasons that I have given before, I think a world where religion has ceased to have people in its thrall and where people no longer identify themselves by divisive religious labels would be a better world than what we have now. But why should such a view constitute hate speech?

The issue of attempted conversion seems to be another element of Jared's discomfort with my post because he says:

I'm not asking you to stop being an Atheist.
I don't believe you are going to Hell.
I don't want to convert you to my way of thinking.

I would just hope that when you publicly "wish us away" that you realize it's not friendly. And if you know it and you don't care - then its just not nice.

As I have said before, I don't understand this disdain towards conversion. (See here and here.) In the first of those two links I said (slightly edited):

The present situation, where some religious people seem to think that politeness demands that they should refrain from claiming superiority for their own religion, seems (within the framework of religion) contradictory. After all, religious people presumably think that their faith is the most important thing in their lives, so why be so reticent about it? Like the many debates we have had during the primary elections, why not have debates as to which religion is the best and which god is the right one to be worshipped? If we can spend so much time and energy in selecting a mere president, surely we should be willing to do at least as much for something as important as the ultimate fate of people's immortal souls?

I for one would enjoy listening to public debates as to why any one religion is better than the others.

Addressing Jared directly for the moment, if you think that your own religion of Judaism is true and that the god of the Jews is the one true god, then what is wrong in saying so and trying to persuade other people of it? I certainly would not be "offended" by such an attempt even though I would disagree with it. Surely you are a Jew (in the religious sense, not as a member of an ethnic group) because you think that it confers some spiritual benefit to you? Why would you not want to share that benefit with others?

Next: More on the conversion question.

POST SCRIPT: Diet fads

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on an industry that thrives on people's ignorance.

February 22, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-2: Public and private personas

(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.)

My post about the alleged arrogant statements of atheists generated some interesting responses. In that post I asserted three basic assertions that I, as a new/unapologetic atheist make, and asked which ones would be considered arrogant or rude or offensive, which are the charges leveled most often at us. The assertions were:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

In this short series of posts, I will address two responses because they touch on two different aspects because they raise some important issues of general interest. One is by Jared Bendis, someone whom I have known personally for many years. You can read his full comment in the original post but I will excerpt the key portions and respond to each. The other response appeared on the Machines Like Us website and was by someone named 'kaath' whom I do not know personally.

Jared begins:

Mano, I have read your posts for years - and I know you in person. I'm often shocked about how confrontational your posts can be. I can't imagine any other person I know not just discussing their opinion publicly but making clear their feeling on the beliefs of others.

Today I was hurt by what I read. I don't think you meant it to hurt - I know it wasn't directed at me personally - and I don't think you will care for my counterargument but I felt I needed to say it: Today your words hurt me.

Jared is expressing a view that is not uncommon for those who know me personally and also read my blog. On my recent trip to Sri Lanka a very old friend of mine from boyhood days (who is religious) asked me out to lunch just so that he could have an extended private conversation with me because he too had found my blog to be very strongly worded against religion and he found it hard to reconcile with his personal impression of me. After our lunch, he said he understood why there is a difference and maybe this series of posts will similarly clarify it for others. Or maybe not.

As I have said before, my argumentation style in private forums (in my classes or in conversations with people) is quite different from that in public forums (such as this blog or public talks) which is why I may seem to have a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde dual personality to those who know me personally. Part of the reason for this difference is that unlike Dr. Jekyll, I have chosen to adopt a particular persona for my blog posts on atheism, for reasons I have spelled out earlier. Another reason is that people fail to distinguish the styles of discourse used in private and public forums and apply the standards that are appropriate for the former to the latter.

When you are talking with people directly, person to person, it is hard to separate an idea from the person expressing and supporting it, so it requires a much slower and gentler approach, in order to make clear that you are attacking the idea and not the person. But in public forums, ideas can and should be viewed under the clear light of reason and evidence, and even on occasion subjected to derision and ridicule, for that is the way we determine which ideas are durable and which are ephemeral, and how we distinguish between ideas that have value and the potential to be true and those that are meaningless or false.

Once an idea is out in the public forum, it is open to any and all forms of scrutiny. When you criticize ideas in public forums, you are not attacking any person, even though it is likely that many people will have identical ideas to the ones that you are attacking and may have explicitly expressed them. The people whose ideas are thus scrutinized may choose to take it personally, but that is their problem to deal with.

Coming back to the substance of my post, Jared agrees 100% with my first assertion so that is not the cause of the problems he has with my post.

While he does disagree with my second assertion that "Science and religion are incompatible worldviews", he does not find it hurtful, so that assertion is also not one that causes offense.

It is my third assertion, that "The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural", that he finds offensive. He says:

I think you really don't get how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith. To wish away their religion is almost to wish away them.

I could read your statement as
The world would be better off without Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (etc)

And I could read your statement as
The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (etc)

Now I am not saying you meant that, but, to propose the nullification of that part of me is to propose my nullification. And I read it as hate speech.

To say that my words " The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural" can be taken to mean that I want the "nullification" of people who hold such beliefs, and to thus conclude that it is hate speech seems to me to be a stretch, and in the next post I will examine this point in more detail.

POST SCRIPT: John Cleese on genetic determinism

February 19, 2010

Film review: The Invention of Lying

(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.)

In a series of recent posts titled The Noble Lie (part 1, part 2, and part 3), I explored the idea of whether lies can have some positive benefits. The highly enjoyable film by comedian Ricky Gervais adds interesting perspectives to this question. (Note: Almost everything in this review about the film can be seen in the trailer below, so there are no real spoilers.)

For those not unfamiliar with the film's premise, it uses the alternate reality concept that starts by assuming that the world is pretty much the same as it is now, except for one key feature: people don't tell lies. Everyone tells the truth. The concept of a lie is unknown to them. As a result, people live miserable lives because there is no escape from reality. The idea of a 'white' lie, told with good intentions to cheer someone up, is totally absent. People tell each other the truth about what is on their minds, however brutal and unkind it might be, such as that they are ugly or losers or that they hate them. Old people in nursing homes, for example, are told that they are going to die soon. What would seem to us to be cruel or callous behavior is normal in this world.

Invariably telling the truth also leads to some comical setups. For example, there is no such thing as fiction or feature films or TV programs as we know them. They do have films and TV but all they show are people reading scripts that describe actual historical events. They don't even have re-enactments of real events. The stars of these films and TV shows are the readers and the scriptwriters. The 'advertisements' of products are hilarious because they tell the truth about them. For example, a spokesman says that Coke is nothing but brown sugared water and causes obesity but that he hopes people will continue to buy it.

The film starts with Gervais' character Mark Bellison being fired from his scriptwriting job because he had the misfortune to be assigned to write scripts about the 14th century and the depressing events of that period about the plague and so on did not attracts lots of viewers. He is also not physically attractive, being fat with a snub nose, as the attractive woman he is wooing repeatedly keeps pointing out to explain why she cannot have a relationship with him.

Unable to pay the rent and in danger of being evicted, he goes to the bank to withdraw the last of his money. The computers are down and the teller asks him how much he has in his account. As he is about to answer truthfully, there is a misfiring of synapses in his brain and he blurts out a figure that is way more than he knows he has. Although the computers start working at that point and give a much lower figure, the teller assumes that the computer must be wrong and he is right, and gives him the larger amount he asked for.

Stunned, Bellison tries to digest what had just happened and tries out various lies on people to see the effect. He finds that he can be successful and make other people happy by, for example, telling his depressed and suicidal neighbor that things will get better. He spreads sweetness and light all around by telling the kind of white lies that we all tell to those we know and love: that they look good, that their clothes suit them, of course they have lost weight, and so on. So these lies have a positive effect and Bellison enjoys spreading joy.

Here's the trailer:

What the trailer does not hint at is that the second half of the film has a lot to say about religion. It happens because Bellison's attempt at spreading joy by telling little white lies snowballs into eventually telling people the Christian myths about heaven and of god as an omnipotent invisible man in the sky, although of course he does not use the words 'heaven' or 'god' because those words and concepts did not exist prior to his invention of the myths. When the people are told for the first time about the invisible man in the sky, they ask obvious questions, such as: Where in the sky? In the clouds? The troposphere? Deep space? Bellison makes up stuff as answers and the people believe him.

Gervais is making some interesting points with this film. One is that although Bellison's lies result in something that resembles the claims of the religions we have today, the big difference is that in our reality, children are indoctrinated with these stories at an early age and are discouraged from questioning them, so that as adults they either unquestioningly accept them or accept 'answers' that are riddled with contradictions, and told to have faith that it will all make sense after they die. A second point is that although little white lies can bring about happiness, the big lies about heaven and god eventually lead to unhappiness as people now focus on the promises of heaven and how to get there, rather than living in the here and now.

The Invention of Lying is a very clever film. It is not easy to make alternate reality films that change just one key element of life as we know it now without creating gaping plot holes or inconsistencies but Gervais manages to pull it off pretty well. The film makes important points about religion while not losing sight of the fact that it is a comedy. It stays funny and does not become preachy. The fact that I agreed with the point of view of the film about the essential falsity of religion undoubtedly increased my enjoyment of it, and people who are religious may not like it as much.

But it was refreshing to see a film that treats religious beliefs without bogus or fawning reverence. The Invention of Lying tells the truth.

POST SCRIPT: Upcoming speaking engagements

On Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 10:30 am, I will be talking about the continuing efforts to undermine science to the North Coast Fossil Club at the Cuyahoga County Library in Parma, 2121 Snow Road, OH.

Then on Monday, February 22, 2010 I will be on a panel called Mythbusters: Religion Edition where people from various religions (and myself as the atheist) will briefly speak about one or two major misconceptions about their religions (or atheism), and then answer questions from the audience. This event is at 8:00 pm in the Great Room of House #4 of the Village at 115 (the new apartment-style dorms at Case Western Reserve University) at 1665 E. 115th Street, Cleveland.

Both events are free. The first one is open to the public while the second (Mythbusters) event is for students and faculty and staff at Case.

February 18, 2010

The danger of exceptionalist thinking

(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.)

Back in 2006, in a series of posts titled Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us, I spoke of the dangers that are inherent when any group of people start thinking of themselves as possessed of some mystic virtue that makes them intrinsically better than other people. (See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

Unfortunately, political leaders tend to feed that very evil. President Obama, like all presidents and other political leaders before him, repeats as a mantra and without proof that Americans have to be the best in everything. So when he talks to organized labor he will say that American workers are the best in the world, when he talks to soldiers he says that they are the best in the world, and when he speaks to business leaders he says that they are the best in the world. When he talks to high-tech leaders, he says that American inventiveness and ingenuity are unsurpassed. The only place where it is politically safe to criticize America is its educational system. It gets beaten up a lot, which is a little odd when all the things that Americans are supposedly the best at depend on the educational system for their success.

It is undeniable that America is a leader in many areas of technology and in productivity. Those are statements that have an empirical basis. The very fact that it has been able to provide such a high standard of living for most of its inhabitants is evidence of that. The problem is that this evidence is interpreted as meaning that Americans must possess some innate mystical quality that has produced this result. It is rarely pointed out that there usually are a whole host of contingent factors that contribute. Empires have risen and fallen, and during their heyday they too tended to think that they were special people possessed with of some special gift or blessed by god. But this attitude can lead to a dangerous sense of hubris and lack of self-awareness.

In the previous post, I discussed how following the massacre by American forces of civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha, the editor of The New Republic Peter Beinart acknowledged that it was an awful act but still tried to make the case that Americans are uniquely superior to other people. But even this grudging acknowledgment that the US can on occasion act as barbarically as other people and are thus slightly less than perfect was too much for neoconservative William Kristol, the man who loves wars against Muslim countries, the bigger, the broader, the better. He responded to the Haditha atrocity as follows:

What makes us exceptional is that we stand for liberty, and that we are willing to fight for liberty. We don't need to "prove" we are different from the jihadists by bringing our own soldiers, if they have done something wrong, to justice. Of course we must and will do this. But our doing this "proves" nothing. Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to "prove" that we are "different from the jihadists". The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous.

Note that "Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to prove that we are different from the jihadists. The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous." Why is the idea offensive? Why don't we have to prove that we are different? What makes us exempt from the requirements we routinely impose on others? Such a statement epitomizes American exceptionalism.

The neoconservatives are the last people who should preen themselves on their innate goodness, given their record of advocating truly horrible policies. Here is Glenn Greenwald writing about them in 2006 after their disgusting show of glee at the horror and destruction inflicted on Lebanon by Israel:

And the more one reads and listens to neoconservatives in their full-throated war calls, the more disturbing and repellent these ideas become. So many of them seem to be driven not even any longer by a pretense of a strategic goal, but by a naked, bloodthirsty craving for destruction and killing itself, almost as the end in itself. They urge massive military attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Iran -- and before that, Iraq -- knowing that it will kill huge numbers of innocent people, but never knowing, or seemingly caring, what comes after that. And the disregard for the lives of innocent people in those countries is so cavalier and even scornful that it is truly unfathomable, at times just plain disgusting. From a safe distance, they continuously call for -- and casually dismiss the importance of -- the deaths of enormous numbers of people without batting an eye.

But Kristol is merely an extreme example of a more general mindset. However terrible the result, any assertion that America is uniquely possessed of incorruptible wholesome virtues and incapable of doing evil acts does not require proof. It is just a given.

I wrote earlier about how the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia reveals the double standard by which the American political establishment reacts to events and how the media reflexively adopts that point of view. In another post, I discussed how corrosive this myth of America's Essential Goodness is. In an interesting study of individual psychology published under the title of Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? (Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 4, no. 1, May 2003, p. 1-44), Roy Baumeister and co-workers found that people who had high self-esteem in the absence of any concrete reasons for it were more dangerous than other people because they reacted with anger and violence at any perceived threat to their inflated self-image. What applies to individuals may also apply to nations so feel-good pandering to your audience is not benign. You are not just breeding a harmless conceit. Beliefs such as these, in the absence of any substantive basis, can actually lead to harmful acts.

Immanuel Wallerstein outlined why he thinks that because of this self-image of innate goodness, both parties will never have a decent foreign policy. The article was written in 2006 before the Congressional elections that gave the Democrats majorities in both houses. He said that while he would vote Democratic, he was unconvinced that a Democratic Congress would do better.

Indeed, one has to doubt that the Democrats collectively have a better foreign policy to offer. The primary problem of the leadership of the Democratic Party is that it believes, at least as much as the Republicans, that the United States is the center of the world, the font of wisdom, the great defender of world freedom -- in short, a deeply virtuous nation in a dangerous world.

I think that events have shown that Wallerstein was prescient.

POST SCRIPT: Elliot Spitzer on The Colbert Report

The former governor of New York is one person who belongs in public office. It is incredible to me that someone with his talents should have risked it all for so little.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Eliot Spitzer
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorEconomy

February 17, 2010

Pandering to the American people

(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.)

In any election to any public office in the US, all candidates have to agree that America is the greatest country in the world and its people the greatest people. This has to be asserted without proof or evidence. Even to offer proof or evidence is seen as shameful as not only must a politician take such statements as true, they must take it as so obviously true that it requires no evidence. Anyone who offers proof of any kind immediately becomes suspect as not being a true believer.

No politician ever paid any price for pandering shamelessly to the ego of the American voter, however ridiculous the claim. You can see this whenever someone criticizes the actions of the US governments or the military. Immediately the cloak of American Goodness is used to absolve the actions. Here is George W. Bush trying to dodge the question of whether he is pursuing a flawed strategy in his fight against terrorism by turning it into a criticism of American Goodness: "If there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic. It’s just - I simply can’t accept that." So according to him, some things are simply unthinkable, unacceptable on its face, whatever the facts and evidence may be.

I recall the time when Bush was (once again) using the events of 9/11 to pander. He said that after that disaster, how uniquely American it was for people to rush out and help one another. News reporters and analysts let this absurd statement go without challenge because it is an unwritten rule of journalism that you never challenge someone when he or she is operating on full pander mode. In fact, researchers find that whenever disaster strikes anywhere in the world, the people who rush to help and do the most good, are those in the vicinity such as family, friends, neighbors, and bystanders, even if they themselves were affected. The impulse to help others in times of great tragedy and need seems to be universal. It took comedian Jon Stewart to replay Bush's remarks about the uniquely helpful Americans and add ironically "unlike, say, the Swedes who never help each other, ever."

Iraq warmonger and editor of The New Republic Peter Beinart provides another example of pandering. This followed the massacre by American forces of civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha. He used even this atrocity as an occasion for preening and smug self-congratulation.

This horrible story from Haditha powerfully underscores the liberal vision, which is this. We are not angels: without sufficient moral and legal restrictions, and under conditions of extreme stress, Americans can be as barbaric as anyone. What's makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of that fact. We are capable of Hadithas and My Lais, so is everyone. But few societies are capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again. That's how we show we are different from the jihadists. We don't just assert it. We prove it. That's the liberal version of American exceptionalism, and it's what we need right now in response to this horror. (my italics)

Note that after admitting that on rare occasions we can be the equal of others and commit atrocities too (but we do it only "under conditions of extreme stress" unlike, presumably, people in other countries who commit them casually, just for the fun of it), he then immediately points why we are still superior to everyone else. But his justification is absurd on a number of levels. Other societies never recognize their own errors? Other countries don't bring killers to justice? Others don't institute policies to prevent future occurrences? The number of atrocities committed by the US forces is decreasing? Where is the evidence for any of this? But evidence is not necessary when you are in full pander mode. Especially after some awful event like Haditha when there is the danger that people might fear that we are just like other people, the need of the hour is to absolve ourselves of guilt and make us feel good about ourselves again.

It would be nice to have a Tom Paine in politics today, Paine saw himself as a citizen of the world and one who believed that one's obligation was to humanity before any nation. He is said: "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good" although the actual words he is quoted as saying is different:

"My country is the world, and my religion is to do good" is a line written by Thomas Paine in his political work Rights of Man (not Age of Reason, as many people believe). It's often quoted in a somewhat different form, as "The world is my country, and to do good is my religion"; possibly because Robert Ingersoll quoted it that way (probably without checking the source), but it could have simply become popularized that way because, frankly, it sounds better.

Paine's frank views on this and other topics (such as religion) did not endear him to the public during his own time, just as any politician who espouses such a global view today can give up all hope of being elected to any significant office.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on pandering

February 16, 2010

Academic blogging

(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.)

More and more academics are taking to blogging. Here is a sampling, in no particular order: Pharyngula (biology and science politics), Cosmic Variance (physics), Panda's Thumb (biology), Volokh Conspiracy (law), Cliopatria (history), Brad DeLong (economics), Informed Comment (Middle East politics), Geniocity (law), Current Epigraphy (classics). You can see a comprehensive list of academic blogs classified by subject matter here.

Some academics contribute to group blogs, thus relieving themselves of the pressure of being solely responsible for creating new content, while some are individual blogs. As a reader of many blogs, I can testify that they save me an enormous amount of time. Although I never watch TV 'news' shows (the ironic quotes because they have hardly any news), I have a good idea of when something truly newsworthy happens because blogs alert me. Furthermore, blogs provide me with immediate knowledgeable and specialized information on topics, written by people who care enough about the issue to take the time to study it in some depth and develop expertise in that area. This is different from most mass media journalists these days who, because of budgetary cutbacks, are forced to be generalists skipping from topic to topic and unable to devote a lot of time to detailed study of policies and issues. By harnessing the energy of engaged and informed volunteers, blogs also enable the kind of close reading of official texts that an older generation of journalists like I. F. Stone did with his newsletter.

One important function that academic blogs may play is as a trail of the evolution of ideas. In the old days, academics used to write letters to colleagues where new ideas were discussed and refined and these letters have been valuable for understanding how ideas evolved. With the advent of telephones, easier travel to conferences and meetings and email, written records of embryonic ideas are harder to obtain. Blogs may well be the source material for a future generation of scholars. have of blogs

Blogs also quickly focus attention on stories that the major media do not highlight (because it contradicts then ruling class narrative) or follow up or simply get wrong. The plans by the US to bomb the offices of the news organization al-Jazeera or the Downing street memos are good examples. Blogs can also immediately correct the record when there are attempts to mislead (example: NSA wiretapping, the war on Christmas,) and can clarify complicated issues like Valerie Plame, Abramoff scandal, NSA wiretapping, etc. Best of all, it enables more people to follow in the steps of I. F. Stone's Newsletter which at its peak had a weekly circulation was 70,000. Now dailyKos gets a daily hit count of many times that.

The reasons why anyone blogs is probably as varied as the number of bloggers itself but I would like to suggest some reasons why they do:

  1. The discipline of daily or otherwise regular writing helps to both stimulate thought and increase writing output.
  2. The internal dynamic of academia tends to push people into very narrow areas of specialization (i.e., they know more and more about less and less), and thus when it comes to their professional writing output, they tend to stick to their very narrow field of expertise. But most academics are also generalists, having wide interests and interesting opinions on a huge range of topics, which formerly had been restricted to personal conversations. Blogging provides an outlet for such people. I personally enjoy the freedom and opportunity to range far and wide on my blog.
  3. Blogging creates links with others and networks of new communities. Academic conferences serve that role too but are more expensive to attend and limited in the range of people one meets. Blogging can be seen as extensions of conferences.
  4. Writing a blog can be a means for testing out early versions of ideas.
  5. The feedback and comments feature often stimulates new ideas.
  6. It is much easier now to assume the role of a public intellectual. Before one had to publish a book or an article and that took time and there was no guarantee that it would be published at all or be widely read. Blogging has greatly lowered the barrier to becoming a public intellectual, more people are doing it, and the tide is shifting away from disapproval of such a role. Some, like political scientist Juan Cole and biologist P.Z. Myers, have become well-known to the public and the media purely as a result of their blogging.
  7. There is an increasing realization among academics that the general public has no idea what they do, why they do it, and what benefits they provide society. Scientists especially have been surprised at the rise of anti-science movements that oppose the teaching of the theory of evolution and advocate religious alternatives. Blogging is the most efficient way to increase public awareness of science by providing informed commentary on the new scientific advances that emerge each day.
  8. Some academics relish the exchange of ideas but are socially somewhat awkward and inept. It has been suggested that academia maybe has a higher fraction of people with Asperger's syndrome, people who are high functioning intellectuals but are very poor at picking up the everyday interpersonal cues that are so essential to being able to have cordial relations. Blogging enables such people to navigate that minefield better.

While more and more academics are taking to blogging, there are reasons why some are wary of joining the group.

  1. The early image of bloggers as no-life, under-employed losers, living in their parents' basement and merely venting, may cause academics to worry about how they might be perceived by their peers. This view is changing slowly. A colleague of mine used to blog under a pseudonym for fear that being known as a blogger would harm his chances of being taken seriously as a scholar and getting tenure and promoted. He now feels that there is enough acceptance of blogging to do so under his own name.
  2. Blogging takes time, which academics always complain that they have very little of.
  3. It requires you to write, which everyone including academics, hate to do, even though it is an important part of our work.
  4. It is not yet part of the traditional reward structure in academia.
  5. Academics who speak directly to the general public (for example, by writing popular books or magazine or newspaper articles) are often viewed by their peers as not being 'serious' or merely seeking fame. The more successful you are at doing this, and the more famous you become with the general public, the less seriously you might be taken by your peers.

But despite these disadvantages, I expect blogging to become even more popular among academics.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and the Promised Land

February 15, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists

(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.)

Over at Machines Like Us, my post on introducing the label 'Unapologetic Atheist' started a lively debate in the comments section. In the course of it, people have once again raised the charge that unapologetic atheists (also known as 'new atheists') are rude and arrogant and uncivil and needlessly hostile towards religious people. (The cartoon strip Jesus and Mo comments on this charge of 'atheist bile'.)

The catch is that we are never told exactly what statements fall under these categories. To so to try and clarify things, I will list the statements that I commonly make and I would be curious to know which ones religious people find objectionable and why. So here goes:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

Everything else I or any other new/unapologetic atheists write follow from these premises and are arguments designed to support and advance them. (Jerry Coyne has a nice summary of the atheists position.) So are the above statements rude, arrogant, hostile, uncivil, etc.?

To help us make a judgment, let us formulate what the opposite pole of those statements might look like:

  1. There is more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are compatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be worse off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

If any statement in the first set is rude, then by symmetry one should concede that so is the corresponding opposite statement. I think that I am safe in saying that most people would say that the second set of statements are completely inoffensive. In fact such statements are routinely made by religious apologists and are praised as 'moderate'. And yet you never find atheists saying that religious people are being arrogant and rude because they say that god exists and atheists are wrong. It is this difference that is telling.

So if what we atheists say is rude and hostile, why doesn't it hold true for the opposite? The situation is even worse than a mere lack of symmetry. Religious people don't feel that there is anything wrong in even saying that nonbelievers are going to hell and making absurd demands in the guise of seeking accommodation. In fact, that is their standard shtick, as my conversations with the Jesus people showed. (See here, here, and here.)

I think I know what really offends religious people about what new/unapologetic atheists say and why. What they want us to say is that belief in some form of traditional religion is somehow respectable and rational to believe in. What they desperately want to avoid is having their beliefs lumped in with all the other evidence-free superstitions, like astrology or witchcraft or Scientology or Xenu or Elohim or Rael or unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When we say that there is no credible evidence for any of these things and hence they must be treated equally, they get upset. They desperately want to distinguish themselves from what they consider to be fringe beliefs but they cannot find any meaningful criteria by which to do so. So they want us to stop reminding them of the embarrassing fact that they are no different.

If you listen to the many debates that have been held on whether god exists what you essentially hear from the religious side is the plaintive cry "Please, please don't say that our beliefs are irrational. Please, please say that it is reasonable for us to believe in Jehovah/Yahweh/Melvin/Jesus/Harvey/Allah/Krishna/…(circle the name of your preferred god or insert your write-in candidate) and we will join you in denouncing things like astrology, witchcraft and the like."

But of course atheists will not say that because to do so is to give up atheism and we are not going to do so without evidence.

Atheists are confident that there is no god or other form of supernatural agency. Having believers simply say we are wrong or even going to hell does not offend us because they never provide any evidence in support so why should we care? But religious people know that they have no evidence to support their belief and are embarrassed by the thought that their beliefs are irrational and unscientific, and haunted by the fear that they are wrong. Rather than shutting their own ears to avoid hearing things they dislike, they want us to shut our mouths.

Maybe I am wrong in my analysis of why believers make the charge that new/unapologetic atheists are arrogant. So here is my request to those who believe it is true: Tell me exactly what statements that the new/unapologetic atheists make that are arrogant/rude/uncivil and why.

POST SCRIPT: Bertrand Russell on atheism and its implications

This clip reminds us that the 'new' atheism is pretty old.

February 12, 2010

The religious atheists get even more atheistic

(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.)

I have been writing about the fact that as scientific knowledge advances, ultra-sophisticated Christian apologists, desperately seeking to find a way to reconcile their need to believe in a god while not contradicting science, have had to redefine god in such a vague and non-interventionist way that I felt justified in giving them the label of 'religious atheists'.

Georgetown University theologian (and accommodationist) John Haught provides the latest example of this kind of religious backtracking by recently writing that the hitherto bedrock religious idea that there is design in life is no longer necessary for religious belief. He says:

The typically design-obsessed frame of mind through which so many devout theists, as well as staunch atheists, are looking at the question of God and evolution is a dead end both scientifically and theologically.

Claiming that Darwin has disposed of divine design, atheistic evolutionists assume that science has thereby wiped away the last traces of deity from the record of life. Yet they have failed to notice that the very features of evolution--unpredictable accidents, predictable natural selection, and the long reach of time--that seem to rule out the existence of God, are essential ingredients in a monumental story of life that turns out to be much more interesting theologically than design could ever be.

The most important issue in the current debate about evolution and faith is not whether design points to deity but whether the drama of life is the carrier of a meaning. According to rigid design standards, evolution appears to have staggered drunkenly down multiple pathways, leading nowhere. But viewed dramatically, the apparent absence of perfect order at any present moment is an opening to the future, a signal that the story of life is not yet over. (My italics)

That is interesting. So now even the lack of design is evidence for god! There goes Thomas Aquinas. There goes Paley's watch. There goes intelligent design. The foundational argument of all religions that the cosmos exhibits features of design that are inexplicable without assuming the existence of god is thrown out the window. Instead what he talks about is the 'story and drama of life being much more interesting' than design could ever be. What he seems to be saying is that whether it is true or not that god exists is irrelevant. What is important is whether the explanation provides good drama. Can he be serious?

The arguments of religious atheists like Haught can be summed up simply as: Whatever science discovers, it points to god.

Some years ago, I debated intelligent design proponents in Kansas at their annual soiree. There was a large audience present consisting almost entirely of religious believers, mostly biblical literalists. During the debate, I kept hammering away at the indisputable fact that intelligent design had failed miserably to suggest a mechanism for how it operates or to generate even one prediction that scientists could look for and that therefore it could not be considered a scientific theory.

This message that there was no evidence for god must have disturbed one woman because she came up to me afterwards to give me a definition of god that she felt met all my objections. She had written it on a small scrap of paper during the session. I have kept it all these years, because I was impressed by her sincerity. Her note said:

Consider: Rendered "general" (I.E. The Law of Complex Systems) by the millions of created objects known about, (observed) daily, that: all complex systems (that we know about) owe their existence to acts of creation using planning and work by one or more intelligent living beings (not one exception). (All emphases in the original.)

We should ignore the lack of precision and coherence because it was clearly written in a hurry and spontaneously during the session itself. She was also trying to write it in what she thought was scientific language, adding to its obscurity. But what she is essentially saying is that every single thing in the world is designed, so that they all constitute evidence for the existence of god. She thought that this was a watertight definition of god that could not be refuted.

This is naïve and circular reasoning but excusable in someone who is not a professional theologian but is instead a devout believer who was thinking on the fly. But it actually makes more sense than the convoluted reasoning of Haught and other religious atheists who claim that no evidence is even necessary for god, that the question of his objective existence is also irrelevant, and that all that matters is whether god serves as a good metaphor and provides a dramatic story.

Haught's essay presents an incredibly pathetic argument for god that basically denies god. Jerry Coyne takes it apart, point by point.

If there was ever a time to accuse someone with the cliché of making a virtue out of necessity, Haught's piece provides it.

POST SCRIPT: That Mitchell and Webb Look on Abraham and Isaac

Truly one of the weirdest stories in the Bible. Why would anyone even want to worship a god who is such a cruel jerk?

February 11, 2010

Creationists target the history curriculum

(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.)

In my latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, I suggest that following the resounding defeat for intelligent design creationism in the Dover trial in 2005, religious people seem to have run out of options in trying to insert religion into the public school science curriculum.

Having failed to subvert the science curriculum, religious people are now trying to include religion and an overtly partisan political viewpoint in the history curriculum, to include "recommendations that children be taught that there would be no United States if it had not been for God."

One of the panel, David Barton, founder of a Christian heritage group called WallBuilders, argues that the curriculum should reflect the fact that the US Constitution was written with God in mind including that "there is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature", that "there is a creator" and "government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual".

The flat assertions made by Barton of god's existence and role are simply false. There is nothing in the US constitution that could even be remotely construed to mean what he says. While the drafters of the US constitution had diverse views on religion and the religious faith of some undoubtedly influenced their thinking, what is remarkable is that the US constitution is an explicitly godless one. There is not a single reference to god and the only reference to religion is a negative one that denies a role for religion. Article 6, section 3 states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

The response to this attempt by Barton to distort history by inventing reasons to insert god into the history curriculum exposes that weakness of the accommodationist approach to religion, in which people try to argue against such policies while not arguing against god itself. But once you concede that some vague idea of god makes sense to believe in, immediately the discussion becomes one of how and how much god was involved in US history, a discussion that can have no resolution because it involves theology and is thus devoid of any empirical content.

As an example of where this kind of woolly response gets you, an opponent of this new move by the creationists says that "I don't think anyone disputes that faith played a role in our history" but that "it's a stretch" to claim things like the above. A stretch? A stretch implies that there is some truth to the assertion, which is simply not the case. But accommodationists do not want to say this outright, even thought many accommodationists, especially those who belong to the Church of the Slacker God, don't believe that god had any role in the history of the US either. This is because according to their view, god either does not exist or immediately retired after creating the universe in the big bang. But because of the political strategy they have adopted, they now have to struggle to find ways to say so without offending religious people.

The new/unapologetic atheists say quite simply: "Since there is no evidence for god's existence, it is absurd to debate how much he was involved in anything at all. If you want to believe that he was, that's fine. But you cannot impose your private beliefs onto everyone in the public sphere unless you have some evidence to justify that it is true."

See how simple and logical that is?

POST SCRIPT: Defining gay and straight marriage

Cartoonist Mark Fiore illustrates the absurdity of trying to draw a distinction.

February 10, 2010

The hypocrisy and double standards of mainstream 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.)

(This earlier post from some time ago got deleted. I am reposting it with the comments since they added some interesting information and perspectives. Sorry about that.)

Sophisticated religious believers in the older religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) have almost nothing in common with the average follower. At the very extreme these sophisticated religious people belong to a category that I have labeled as religious atheists. But since they feel a need to cling on to religion, they tend to use theological language to hide the fact that what they say has little or no content. Taking a cue from George Orwell's 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, one can say that religious speech and writing, like political lanuage, are largely the defense of the indefensible, designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

But while such people disdain magical thinking, rightly realizing that such things are blatantly anti-science, these sophisticated believers tend not to harshly criticize the magical thinking of their own co-religionists. Instead they turn their fire on the magical thinking of believers in other religions.

As Jerry Coyne says:

The question of why bizarre Christian beliefs are treated with more respect than the equally bizarre tenets of Scientology has a simple answer. "Modern" religions, like Scientology and Mormonism, seem more bizarre simply because they’ve arrived on the scene only recently, making their man-made nature more apparent, and because their adherents are not in the majority.

Indeed, next to the problem of evil, the problem of Why My Religion Is The Only True One is the greatest of all arguments against faith. Christians — or adherents to any other religion — can simply give no good account of why their beliefs are the right ones, while those of Hindus, Scientologists, and Muslims are badly wrong. It would be a dishonest Christian who would deny that had he been born in Saudi Arabia, he would be as big an advocate for Muhammed as he is now for Jesus. Ask an evangelical Christian how he knows for certain that all Muslims and Jews are going to hell! Believe me, the answer won’t satisfy you.

These sophisticates often employ a hypocritical double standard, ridiculing other religions as false or even absurd while being quick to complain whenever anyone attacks their own religion. A prime example of such behavior is columnist Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic. Coyne blasts him for carrying on a sustained campaign of ridicule against Scientology (calling is a 'super adventure club') while being the first to whine when atheists criticize the equally bizarre beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church.

In an earlier post on Scientology I linked to the South Park video that made fun of that religion and flat out accused it of being a scam. I was reminded by commenter Eric that they had done a similar show on the Mormons that you can see here.

So South Park has made fun of the core beliefs and origins of Mormonism and Scientology. I do not know if South Park has done any shows making fun of the core beliefs of Christians, Muslims, or Jews. I suspect not because there would have been a huge hue and cry but if anyone has information on this please let me know. [Update: See the comment below by Eric about how South Park dealt with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and atheism. See also the comment by Disgruntled Goat about a court case.]

If Mormons and Scientologists wanted to, they could fight back by ridiculing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam the same way that they are ridiculed. They could portray Christianity in the manner of The Atheist Camel who defines it in 110 words as:

The belief that a walking dead Jewish deity who was his own father although he always existed, commits suicide by cop, although he didn’t really die, in order to give himself permission not to send you to an eternal place of torture that he created for you, but instead to make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh, drink his blood, and telepathically promise him you accept him as your master, so he can cleanse you of an evil force that is present in mankind because a rib-woman and a mud-man were convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

But they cannot do so. It is not because their beliefs are more ridiculous but because they are not the dominant religion. What they instead try to do is protect themselves by trying to pull the protective blanket of mainstream religions to cover themselves too. For example, Mormons often try to argue that they are just another denomination of Christianity, who happen to have some extra prophets and holy books. They are helped in this effort by the realization of some mainstream religious believers that the arguments used to discredit Mormonism and Scientology can boomerang, as this Jesus and Mo cartoon strip points out.

Marina Hyde at the Guardian, commenting on the interview that the Scientology spokesperson had with ABC News's Martin Bashir, ruthlessly exposes the hypocrisy of those who protect some religions while attacking others.

Clearly, Scientologists should be forced to justify their doctrinal lunacies – the only sadness is that other religions are apparently exempt from having to do the same. Imagine for a moment a Bashir-type interviewing some senior cardinal. "So," he might inquire, "you're saying that by some magic the communion wafer actually becomes the flesh of a man who died 2,000 years ago, a man who – and I don't want to put words into your mouth here – we might categorise as an imaginary friend who can hear the things you're thinking in your head? And when you've done that, do you mind going over the birth control stuff?"

What a shame that we see rather fewer of these exchanges, however amusing and useful a sideshow Scientology may be.

Very true.

POST SCRIPT: ABC's Nightline report on Scientology

The news program interviews Jenna Mescavige, the niece of the current leader of the church of Scientology to learn about what happened to her and others when they decided that the church was abusive and controlling and wanted to leave.

Part 1:

Part 2:


Comments
___________________________
Mano -

Thank you for the shout-out; a few things of note:

1) Sullivan's reference to Scientology as "Super Adventure Club" is ALSO a South Park reference; it refers to the episode made mocking Isaac Hayes for leaving the show in a snit because it made fun of Scientology. In that episode, Chef (Hayes's character) gets seduced into a pederast cult who brainwash & force him to cut off ties with his family and friends. In one sequence remarkably similar to the "This is what scientologists actually believe," there is an equally ludicrous origin myth with the text of "This is what Super Adventure Club actually believes."

2) South Park has been mocking the core beliefs of Christianity & Judaism for far longer than they have any other religion. They just happen to do it more piecemeal. The original pilot, "The Spirit of Christmas," features a fight to the death between Jesus and Santa over the reason for the season. The 2nd season's "Jewbilee" involves a brainwashing by the ghost of Moses, who looks suspiciously like the MCP from "Tron." Islam finally got the treatment in the Season 10 2-parter, "Cartoon Wars."

Atheism isn't immune to South Park, either - Season 10's "Go God Go" was their send-up of the militant atheist movement; but, not having a belief structure to mock, it ended up being an hour-long poke at creationists, people in general, and a really bad impression of Richard Dawkins.

I suspect that the reason why the "Big 3" haven't been hit as directly is that it wouldn't get aired, so they have to be a little more subtle. But Parker & Stone have basically said that they're trying to make fun of pretty much everything.

Posted by Eric on December 10, 2009 10:33 AM
___________________________
Hi Eric,

Thanks for this info. I should track down and check out the shows you mention. I am glad that South Park is hitting everything (including atheism). There should be no sacred cows. If a belief structure cannot withstand satire and derision, then it is too weak to be worth holding.

Posted by Mano on December 10, 2009 03:22 PM
__________________________
Here's the U.S. Supreme Court on religious freedom:

"The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects, of the violence of disagreement among them, and of the lack of any one religious creed on which all men would agree. They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views...The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain." U.S. v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1943)

Translation: courts can't inquire into whether crazy religions make sense, because then our religion would come under scrutiny too.

Posted by Disgruntled Goat on December 10, 2009 07:41 PM
_________________________________
Which is the point of FSMism - if the Judeo-Christian origin myth can be taught as science in schools, so can the Tale of the Noodly Appendage.

Posted by Eric on December 10, 2009 07:50 PM
__________________________________

February 09, 2010

The weird appeal of apocalyptic thinking

(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.)

Many people are scared of the thought of their own death. This is especially true of fundamentalist Christians who are terrified of going to hell and think that pledging allegiance to Jesus will save them from some horrible fate. They may say that they are confident that they are going to heaven because they are 'saved' but their obsession with this topic, their repeated groveling protestations to god about their unworthiness, and their constant appeals for forgiveness belie that confidence. They are too obviously trying to whistle away their fears.

Why is there this fear? After all, if there is one thing that we can be absolutely sure about, it is that we will die some day. And yet many people will refuse to contemplate it or make the necessary arrangements to ensure that everything is in order and that life goes on smoothly after they die. They just don't want to contemplate the possibility of their own deaths.

But oddly enough, an apocalyptic event in which the world ends and everyone dies (say because of a nuclear winter or a meteorite collision or Jesus coming again) does not seem to frighten them as much as their individual deaths. In fact, down the ages there has been quite an interest in speculating on this topic.

In my series of posts on the age of the Earth, I said that the suggestion that the six days of creation recorded in the Bible meant that the world would end after 6,000 years was what may have spurred interest in calculating when this imminent end would occur. Ussher's calculation of 4004 BCE as the year of creation made 1997 the 6,000th year and thus the year when the world would end. But since different versions of the Bible gave slightly different results, the exact year could not be pinned down and this was what was behind some of the apocalyptic thinking of people who thought that Rapture would occur sometime near the end of the previous millennium.

Of course, now there is a whole industry devoted to predicting the date of the end of the world, all of which have failed so far but that does not seem to deter the true believers. The beauty of theology is that it is infinitely malleable since it has no empirical basis. Your prediction of the end of the world not work out? No problem! Just change the interpretation of some obscure Biblical passage and you're in the prediction business again. We just survived two predicted Rapture dates from this site of September 21, 2009 and October 21, 2009 (I didn't tell you earlier to spare you needless worry), and now the latest end time date making the rounds, based on the reading of some Mayan calendars, is 2012 and credulous people are making some serious preparations.

So why is it that the idea of an apocalyptic end in which everyone dies does not seem as frightening as just your own death? I think that it may be due to the fact we don't like the idea that the world will go on without us, that things will happen, people will have fun, new things will be discovered, and not only will we not be there to see and enjoy it, we will not even be missed. It is hard to accept the fact that the world will go on just fine without us.

I think that this sense that we will be missing out is what people don't like to contemplate. Whereas if everyone dies at the same time, then nothing is going to happen after that and it does not seem so bad, though by any objective measure it is much worse.

It's quite odd.

POST SCRIPT: The Great Disappointment

Stephen Fry talks about The Great Disappointment that occurred in 1844 when millions of people were sure that the world would end with Jesus's second coming. It didn't but some of the people who believed in were the ones who started the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

(Thanks to onegoodmove)

February 08, 2010

Media and Democracy: Hopes and Cautions

(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.)

My fundamental interest politics is what it says about the state of democracy and not the fake politics that the media wants us to pay attention to. As should be obvious to any observer, political power in this country has been completely hijacked and now resides in the hands of the oligarchy consisting of big business interests, especially in the financial and military sectors, who determine the policies and control the elected leadership. The fundamental problem that we now face is how create an informed and active general public that will seize control of political life and decision-making in this country away from this oligarchy.

Enabling this subversion of democracy is a relatively small coterie of people, labeled the 'Villagers', consisting of key political leaders, some media figures (publishers and editors at the major newspapers and national TV outlets), the bigger think tanks, and opinion makers such as well-known political op-ed writers and newscasters (Jim Lehrer, Cokie Roberts, George Will, David Broder, Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen, etc.). This fairly extensive network of connected people informally arrive at a rough consensus of what news we should hear, what range of opinions are acceptable in public discourse, and who is 'worthy' of being elected to high office.

The Villagers may really believe that they are the 'voice of the people'. It is easy to delude yourself that it is so if everyone around you hails you as a sage, and the Villagers are unstinting in their praise of each other. It is also important to note that the Villagers are not a secret conspiracy or cabal. Such groupings are easily discredited. The secret of the Villagers' success is that they act openly. They are a loose network of individuals and groups, all connected by their shared business, political, journalistic, financial, and social dealings that result in them moving in the same circles. People living in an echo chamber do not realize that the voices they hear are not that of the people at large but merely their own.

But there is hope. The anarchic nature of the internet threatens to undermine the power of the Villagers. There will still be a place for traditional, trained journalists who go out into the field and have the resources and some standing to find out answers to important questions on issues of concern to the public. But the more important development is that the mainstream media are rapidly losing their gate-keeping privilege when it comes to deciding what becomes news and what kind of analyses people can access. This is a very good thing, in my opinion.

The web now provides an easy access point to many people to become public intellectuals. In the past, this privilege was reserved for a few highly eminent people who achieved notable distinction in their fields (like Albert Einstein) or those who spent considerable time and effort to cultivate a public persona, by writing popular books and articles. Now almost anyone with something interesting to say has a platform with which to reach the whole world easily and, most importantly, cheaply. Over time they can build up a large audience. Some good examples are Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Josh Marshall, Matt Yglesias, Markos Moulitsas, and Duncan Black.

I predict that one important component of the Villager network, the syndicated newspaper columnist will be extinct within a few years, and I will shed no tears. They are already rapidly becoming irrelevant as one can find far better analyses on the web than on the op-ed pages of your newspaper. I have stopped reading them because I simply cannot take anymore Maureen Dowd's speculations on the Clintons' marriage written in the tone of a high-school cheerleader, David Broder's drearily predictable conventional wisdom and calls for bipartism, David Brooks' absurd conceit that he knows what Americans want and think, Richard Cohen's smug self-assuredness even though he is almost always wrong, and Charles Krauthammer advocating torture and the killing of more Arabs and Muslims. Who needs that?

The other thing that has changed is the relationship of the journalist to their audience. No longer is the audience impotent at the choices that journalists make on what news to cover. Now journalists and the media get rapid feedback from informed critics.

We are fortunate to be living in time in which the web gives us the ability to create a combination of best of two worlds that existed in the past: the timeliness of the pamphleteering that existed at the time of the American revolution and which proved so valuable to revolutionaries like Tom Paine, and the relatively low cost of gaining access to a large audience that was the early days of radio.

Of course the Villagers would like to protect their role as gatekeepers and limit free and open discussion. The best way to do that is not to directly suppress alternative views but to make the cost of access so high that only the Villagers can pay the admission price, as was done in the past with newspapers and radio. It costs a huge amount now to start a newspaper or a radio and TV station. The latter two options, although they use the public airwaves, have been effectively given over to the multinational corporations, rather than to promote more media egalitarianism.

This is why net neutrality is such an important issue worth fighting to preserve. This is why free and easy community broadband access, of the kind promoted in the Cleveland area by Lev Gonick at Case Western Reserve University and OneCleveland, is so important to spread. If everyone has equal access to broadband access that is free (or at least at minimal cost), there is hope of wresting at least some of the power away from the oligarchy and salvaging democracy.

The danger is that the media monopolies will try to prevent both those things and will succeed unless we fight to preserve them.

POST SCRIPT: The TV 'news' formula

Have you noticed how the TV news segments have a certain similarity? Well, Charlie Brooker reveals the formula that they use. (Language advisory)

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

February 05, 2010

The Noble Lie-3: The Noble Lie applied to 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.)

One place where one hears the argument about the virtues of the Noble Lie is in the case of religion.

Atheists are sometimes criticized for undermining belief in god because some sophisticated religious people feel that even if there is no god, believing in one may serve some good ends by helping people overcome personal adversity, prevent them from doing evil things, and even inspire them to do great things.

Some political thinkers feel that religion plays an important role in maintaining social order and seek to perpetuate religious beliefs even if they themselves are unbelievers. Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) argued that belief in god is a fraud perpetrated on the public in order to sustain a ruling class: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."

The recent political movement known as neoconservatism, whose roots can be traced to the University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss and whose adherents were a major force urging the US to launch the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now seeks to expand to new wars against Iran and other middle eastern countries, also promotes the virtues of the noble lie. (I have written before in 2006 about Strauss and his belief that only an elite can handle the essential truths about society and the rest must be shielded from the truth by manufacturing consoling lies.)

Ernest Hemingway said that "All thinking men are atheists." Such a quote may seem to embody the arrogance that atheists are routinely accused of but he is not alone in thinking so. Martin Luther (1483-1546), the leader of the movement known as the Reformation that created the Protestant churches, was convinced that reason and religion were antithetical because faith required the denial of reason. At various times he said, "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God." Also, "Reason should be destroyed in all Christians" and "Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason." (All quotes from Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 190)

By contrast, atheists like Baron D'Holbach (1723-1789) argue that it is reason that enables people to be good citizens, and that the truth must be propagated even if it means undermining cherished falsehoods like religion. "Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack [religion], because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated."

The idea that sophisticated thinkers have always known that there is no god is not new. As John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) said, "The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion." No doubt Mill was influenced by his father who told him, " There is no God, but it’s a family secret." (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 4)

What is new is that atheists are challenging the idea that encouraging belief in god constitutes a Noble Lie. Instead they argue that the truth that god does not exist must be made known to everyone, not just an elite, and are publicizing it widely.

POST SCRIPT: Tennessee Ernie Ford sings 16 tons

Growing up in Sri Lanka without TV, there were many songs that I knew well but had never seen performed. Thanks to YouTube, I keep stumbling over them now. Here's one about indentured labor that has the now-famous line "Another day older and deeper in debt."

February 04, 2010

The Noble Lie-2: The Noble Lie as a deliberate political strategy

(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.)

One might think that the idea of the Noble Lie existed only in ancient times where access to education was reserved for a small elite. But the proponents of the Noble Lie exist to this day.

A long and fascinating article titled Origin of the Specious: Why do neoconservatives doubt Darwin? by Ronald Bailey that appeared in the July 1997 issue of Reason magazine lays out how leading neoconservatives such as the late Irving Kristol (father of the always-wrong current neoconservative William Kristol) have been arguing against the theory of evolution because of the fear that it might undermine religious beliefs, even though they themselves are often not religious at all and consider themselves pro-science. Such people feel that religion is needed for social stability and must be preserved for that reason alone, even if it is a false belief that might harm scientific advances.

It is worth quoting Bailey at some length:

[Irving] Kristol has been quite candid about his belief that religion is essential for inculcating and sustaining morality in culture. He wrote in a 1991 essay, "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded--or even if it suspects--that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

Another prominent neoconservative, Leon Kass, author of Toward a More Natural Science (1985), and a member of the University of Chicago's prestigious Committee on Social Thought, also believes that evolutionary theory poses a threat to social order: "[T]he creationists and their fundamentalist patrons...sense that orthodox evolutionary theory cannot support any notions we might have regarding human dignity or man's special place in the whole. And they see that Western moral teaching, so closely tied to Scripture, is also in peril if any major part of Scripture can be shown to be false."

At the heart of the neoconservative attack on Darwinism lies the political philosophy of Leo Strauss. Strauss was a German political philosopher who fled the Nazis in 1938 and began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1949. In an intellectual revolt against modernity, Strauss focused his work on interpreting such classics as Plato's Republic and Machiavelli's The Prince.

Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. "What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that 'the truth will make men free.'" Kristol adds that "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences."

Kristol agrees with this view. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," he says in an interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

In crude terms, some critics of Strauss argue that he interpreted the ancient philosophers as offering two different teachings, an esoteric one which is available only to those who read the ancient texts closely, and an exoteric one accessible to naive readers. The exoteric interpretations were aimed at the mass of people, the vulgar, while the esoteric teachings--the hidden meanings--were vouchsafed to the few, the philosophers. Philosophers know the truth, but must keep it hidden from the vulgar, lest it upset them. What is the hidden truth known to philosophers? That there is no God and there is no ultimate foundation for morality. As Kristol suggests, it is necessary to keep this truth from the vulgar because such knowledge would only engender despair in them and lead to social breakdown. In his book, On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon's Hiero, Strauss asserts with unusual clarity that Socratic dialogues are "based on the premise that there is a disproportion between the intransigent quest for truth and the requirements of society, or that not all truths are always harmless."

Political scientist Shadia Drury, a passionate critic of Strauss, puts it this way: "For Strauss, the ills of modernity have their source in the foolish belief that there are no harmless truths, and that belief in God and in rewards and punishments is not necessary for political order.... [H]e is convinced that religion is necessary for the well-being of society. But to state publicly that religion is a necessary fiction would destroy any salutary effect it might have. The latter depends on its being believed to be true.... If the vulgar discovered, as the philosophers have always known, that God is dead, they might behave as if all is permitted."

Thus, to preserve society, wise people must publicly support the traditions and myths that sustain the political order and that encourage ordinary people to obey the laws and live justly. People will do so only if they believe that moral rules are divinely decreed or were set up by men who were inspired by the Divine.

Kristol restated this insight nearly five decades ago in an essay in Commentary dealing with Freud: "If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without...let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine--for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish." [All the bold passages are my emphasis-MS]

In the next post, I will continue the examination of the policy supporting religion as part of the Noble Lie philosophy.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on sports

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sport Report - All-White Basketball & Jana Rawlinson
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorEconomy

February 03, 2010

The Noble Lie-1: The slippery slope from benign to evil

(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.)

As children, we are repeatedly told that we must tell the truth at all times. But despite the indoctrination, all of us lie in small and sometimes big ways because we are weak or because we feel trapped in a situation where lying is the only way to escape without harming ourselves. However, all except pathological liars know that they are doing something wrong when they lie for those and similar self-serving reasons and feel guilty about it.

But while it is generally agreed that truth is preferable to falsehood, the idea that truth is a fundamental virtue that trumps all others does not always hold true. One can easily think of scenarios where lying for immediate tactical advantage is not only not wrong but is actually a virtuous act, say in order to save someone's life by misdirecting a killer. But most people would agree that apart from such extreme situations, lying is to be avoided.

More difficult situations are those in which no serious harm is threatened but the lie might benefit others. So for example, we might lie to protect a co-worker who might lose her job if we told the truth or people may tell lies to benefit the company they work for because to tell the truth might result in the company being hurt and many people losing their jobs.

But what about in the world of ideas? Is true knowledge always preferable to false beliefs? Some would argue that even here it may be acceptable or even desirable to lie but I feel that this line should not be crossed. All people should be encouraged to seek the truth, even if it may destroy cherished beliefs. Furthermore, the reason that something is false is because either the evidence contradicts it, or the arguments in favor of it don’t make sense, or believing it leads to logical contradictions. Encouraging people to believe in false things is to also encourage them to discount the value of evidence and to abandon their reasoning skills and this can making them easy prey for liars and charlatans and demagogues.

One often hears the case made that believing false things can be beneficial. One can think of many situations where people choose to propagate falsehoods over truth for what they believe are benign or even positive reasons. For example, parents often deliberately tell their children things they know to be false (like the stories about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy) and these are thought to be harmless, because at some point the children are told the truth if they haven’t figured it out for themselves. Even though this deception is probably harmless, when children learn that they were deceived by the people they trust the most, they may become somewhat cynical.

Furthermore, there is the danger that this attitude can be extended to assert that it is acceptable to tell even adults lies 'for their own good'. Political leaders often fall prey to this temptation, thinking that people cannot handle the truth, that they must do things 'in the public interest' that the actual public may not agree with, and the only way to do that is to lie. The trap here is obvious. There is a very thin line that separates telling lies for the benefit of the people being lied to, and telling lies that benefit the liars themselves. It is all too easy for political leaders to think that only they have the wisdom and judgment to understand the complexities of a situation and the action it demands, and treat the public as simpletons who must be fed some bogus story to get them to agree to a pre-determined action.

The war against Iraq was such a case. It was based on falsehoods that were clearly known to be falsehoods by those who took the country into war. Were the leaders self-aware that they were cynically manipulating public opinion in order to achieve crass goals of power and money that they knew the public would not support? Most people would agree that that would be wrong.

But what if the leaders were engaged in what they thought was a 'Noble Lie', because they thought they were serving a greater good that the public was too naïve to understand if they were told the truth? I would argue that it would still be wrong. The idea of a Noble Lie depends upon the notion that the people who can deal with the unvarnished truth consist of a small elite, while the mass of people are either incapable of understanding it or are too fragile to handle the truth and thus must be protected from this knowledge.

Such an attitude is condescending and profoundly anti-democratic that feeds on, as well as nourishes, the self-regard of the people who espouse it. Such people invariably think of themselves as part of the elite who can handle the truth and should know it. You never hear people demanding that they be lied to.

Next in the series: The Noble Lie as a deliberate political strategy

POST SCRIPT: "You can't handle the truth!"

Here is a clip of Jack Nicholson's speech in the film A Few Good Men, where he argues that a few people must make hard and unpleasant and secret decisions, even if they are criminal, in order to protect the very people who object to such acts. It is a good example of the mentality behind the Noble Lie.

February 02, 2010

Film review: Avatar (Spoiler alert!)

(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.)

I suspect that my spoiler warning will not matter much because going by the box office records this film is setting, I may have been one of the last people to see it last weekend.

I don't usually go to see much-hyped blockbusters as they are often overly focused on action for its own sake and thus not the kinds of films I enjoy but I felt that I should see Avatar. At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students various questions to help me get to know them better and one of these is their favorite film. Many of them replied that it was Avatar, which made me intrigued as to what was so appealing, especially since some of my faculty colleagues also said it was their favorite film ever. (I also ask students their favorite book and this year for the first time many students said Harry Potter, which suggests that the first generation of students for whom those books were a formative reading experience are now entering college.)

I was also intrigued by reports of the 3D effects and the new special effects using avatars that went into its production. The idea of using computer-generated avatar technology to tell a story about the use of avatar technology was clever.

First the good points about the film. The 3D and special effects are quite stunning. The vistas that we are shown of the fictitious planet Pandora are truly beautiful. I am persuaded that writer-director James Cameron has revolutionized filmmaking, as so many reports suggest.

But while Cameron (none of whose films I have seen before) may be a pioneer in technique, his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. Avatar is very long (160 minutes) and weighted down with one cliché after another, coupled with often clunky dialogue. What we have is the well-worn premise of the conflict of civilizations. On one side we have the Noble Savage, a tribe of lithe and graceful (and blue) people known as the Na'vi who live on the distant planet Pandora. The Na'vi blue people are close to nature, worship a tree-god (yes, they are really tree-huggers), use bows and arrows as weapons, ride horse-like animals and pterodactyl-like birds, and kill animals only when they must, and do so with regret and reverence. There is a good deal of talk of eternal spirits that unify plants and animals. Against them is pitted the US military-industrial complex, the 'modern' world, who kill and destroy indiscriminately, callously, and with impunity. To drive home the point, we are repeatedly exposed to juxtapositions of highly sophisticated modern technology at the American base camp with the simple dress and life of the Na'vi.

There is also the cliché of the good-hearted but ignorant and arrogant American who blunders into a culture he does not understand, committing one faux pas after another, grinning all the while, before eventually learning the ways of the natives and gaining their acceptance and eventually becoming one of them. Think of the old cowboys and Indians film clichés, except with the Indians as the good guys as in Dances with Wolves and Little Big Man, and you get the idea.

Cameron heavy-handedly loads the film down with obvious political and social messages, the primary one being the evil of the military-industrial complex. The overwhelming might of the US military is placed at the service of a private company that seeks to mine the precious and rare ore called Unobtainium (really, that's its name) that is available on Pandora. The catch is that the richest vein of ore lies slap in the middle of the area occupied by the Na'vi and their most sacred tree. The stage is thus set for conflict, as the US military unleashes its full power on the Na'vi, even destroying the holy tree, in order to force them to move.

These allusions to the actual history of the US using its massive military to invade defenseless countries in order to secure their raw materials for the profit of private companies are unmistakable. In case you are too dense to get it, one character even refers to the policy as 'shock and awe', which must make that character a military history buff since the events of the film take place in 2154.

The problem is that even if the allusions are valid, the evil characters lack depth and are merely cartoon villains. The colonel in charge of the military is totally heartless and single-minded in his pursuit of victory, a crude caricature of Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. At any moment I expected him to yell out "I love the smell of burning Na'vi in the morning!" He and the soldiers under his command are all stereotypical 'ugly Americans' (except for one) and show no hint of any regret at the slaughter they unleash on people who simply want to live on their traditional lands. The head of the mining company is only concerned about his company's profit report and shows only the slightest hesitation at the thought of the havoc he is about to unleash on the peace-loving Na'vi.

But despite its attempts to expose the cruelty of US policy, there is one American conceit that Cameron cannot bring himself to give up. The leader of the Na'vi revolt that defeats the machinations of the military-industrial complex is an American marine who switches sides. Cameron may have felt that allowing the US to be defeated by a purely Na'vi opposition would lose him audience sympathy (and thus ticket sales). After all, many Americans cannot still accept that the 'primitive' Vietnamese were able to defeat the US. Or maybe even he is unable to conceive of American forces being defeated by non-Americans. So ultimately the film becomes a battle in which the good Americans defeat the bad ones, with the Na'vi in supporting roles. The ending in which the evil colonel and the renegade marine go mano-a-mano is another cliché, but an excusable one.

Apparently some people dislike the film because of its portrayal of an evil alliance between the US military, government, and exploitative companies, even though such an alliance manifestly exists. There is also the inevitable Christian reaction that the film gives credence to pagan religious beliefs like tree gods, and Jesus does not make even a cameo appearance. The renegade marine even ends up praying to the tree-god and his prayers are apparently answered in the usual oblique way that all gods are expected to behave according to their union rules. Of course, the very idea of life on other planets undermines Christianity, so one can see why the fundamentalists might be bothered by the film.

From the point of view of scientific consistency, I found Cameron's futuristic vision to be not persuasive. Pandora and its inhabitants seemed very Earth-like, just a little more exotic. That is fine if he takes the defensible position that only Earth-like conditions can support life. But we are also told that the atmosphere is not suitable for Earth people, which suggest that the wildlife should be more different. Although there is a reference to Pandora's low gravity, people seemed to move around the same way that they do on Earth. If gravity and the atmosphere are different, it is not clear that the military aircraft could function on Pandora. It may have been better to make Pandora's atmosphere and gravity similar to that of Earth to avoid some of these difficulties. What Cameron needed was a science fiction writer of the caliber of Arthur C. Clarke to make his scientific vision better. Stanley Kubrick's decision to have Clarke work on the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey was undoubtedly one of the things that made that film so great.

The weapons used by the military seemed very similar to what are used now, even a little old by today's standards. There were no drones, for example, of the kind being used extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan right now.

One oddity in the film was that the head of the scientific program (played by Sigourney Weaver) was a smoking addict. It was an odd, jarring, and gratuitous touch and one wondered why Cameron included it. It is unlikely that smoking will still exist in 2154, let alone be allowed inside research facilities in distant planetary locations. Is Cameron a smoker, striking a small blow for beleaguered smokers against the current campaign to curb that practice?

Today is the day the Academy award nominees are announced and someone on NPR said that Avatar is a strong contender for winning the best film award. This amazes me. I can see it getting awards in technical categories. I have to give credit to Cameron for using the 3D technology tastefully. We were not constantly exposed to crude in-your-face shocks. Instead it was used to create beautiful images of the planet and its exotic life forms. But I cannot see how people can overlook its weaknesses in the more important areas of filmmaking, such as story, dialogue, and acting.

Halfway through while watching the film, I decided to not let the trite story and the often-painful dialogue bother me, but enjoy the film as I would a wildlife documentary. And for that, it was worth it.

POST SCRIPT: South Park parody of Avatar

You can see the full South Park episode titled Dances with Smurfs here. The episode is also a parody of Glenn Beck and the teabaggers.

February 01, 2010

Film review: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

(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.)

I realized that I hadn't discussed a film that deals with evolution and intelligent design (ID), topics that are central to this blog, so here is my long overdue review.

Frankly, Expelled is a mess. The film is polemical but that is not the problem. There is nothing wrong with having a point of view and making the case for it. The creators of Expelled have a story to tell of a scientific community (especially biologists) acting like a totalitarian cabal that demands Darwinian orthodoxy from all scientists and expels heretics from their midst, by denying them tenure, rejecting their papers, and firing them. All those who would even dare to whisper that evolution may be wrong and that there is a possibility that a designer is at work in life processes are victimized, ostracized, and expelled from the academy.

To tell this story, the narrator Ben Stein basically tries to copy Michael Moore's patented shtick of the bemused Everyman, just a simple guy who has a childlike belief in truth and justice, trying to figure out what's going on, and constantly being surprised at all the chicanery and bad intentions that he stumbles across almost by accident. In Stein's case, he acts like a naïf who assumes that scientists were open to every possibility and every alternative theory and he is shocked, just shocked, at the extent they are willing to go to suppress ideas that they see as contradicting Darwin, and the appalling lengths they will go to destroy the people who are brave enough to do so.

Stein starts off by speaking to five scientists and a journalist who say their careers were destroyed because they criticized aspects of evolution and spoke in favor of intelligent design. I am not going to examine the validity of these claims since they have already been scrutinized here, but will instead focus on the filmic aspects.

The major difference between Moore and Stein is that Moore has a deft touch with comedy. He knows how to make people laugh by inserting verbal, visual, and musical gags that can startle the viewer into laughter while at the same time making an important and serious point. With his huge bulk, disheveled appearance, and trademark baseball cap, Moore comes across as a big lug, a doofus, a regular guy confronting the rich and powerful.

Stein, by contrast, looks throughout the film like an undertaker having a bad day. He seems to never crack a smile and speaks in a monotone. We see a lot of him walking everywhere in a dark suit and sneakers, with an inflectionless voiceover narration, and interviewing people with a dour expression.

The filmmakers have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the word 'overkill' is not in their vocabulary. The tone is set right at the beginning, with stark black and white images of the Berlin Wall going up as dismayed onlookers watch helplessly. The Berlin Wall is a central metaphor throughout the film. (The scientific community wants to prevent the free flow of ideas, just like the Communists, get it?)

From then on, we get repeated black and white stock film footage of Nazi and Communist soldiers marching in formation (the scientific community marching in lockstep, get it?). We also see lots of footage from what seems like old school education filmstrips and newsreels and films, with the grimacing, scowling faces of old wrinkled people (the hidebound nature of the scientific old guard, get it?) and slapstick comedy (the childish arguments against intelligent design, get it?).

And then there is Hitler. There is always Hitler. Religious people never seem to get enough of Hitler. They seem to think he is an argument against evolution and atheism even though Hitler was a Catholic and his entire program of mass extermination was carried out by a nation of presumably devout Catholics and Lutherans. We see images of Nazi death camps and hear much about their eugenics program. The claim is made that the theory of evolution leads in a straight line to eugenics, which in turn leads to not only the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps but also to euthanasia and abortion. In other words, when you accept evolution, you embrace a culture of death. The scientific community apparently just loves the thought of killing people in huge numbers. Oh, and Stalin appears in the film too but Pol Pot does not. He must have ended up on the cutting room floor.

The heavy-handed allusions last right up to the end. The film concludes with clips of Reagan making his famous speech calling for the Berlin wall to be torn down, juxtaposed with cuts to Stein concluding a speech to some college students, exhorting them to break free of the chains of scientific orthodoxy and fight for freedom. As the students stand and cheer Stein at the end of his speech, the film cuts away to the Berlin wall being brought down by young people. The take-home message is clear: Stein=Reagan and Evolutionists=Berlin wall. The self-aggrandizement is so painfully obvious as to be cringe-inducing.

The film was interesting to me in that it gave me a glimpse of some of the people in this debate whom I had not seen before. Evolutionist (and atheist) P. Z. Myers, author of the blog Pharyngula that has a pugnacious, take-no-prisoners writing style, comes across as low-key, soft-spoken, and mild-mannered. Mathematician David Berlinski, an apologist for intelligent design, comes across as smug, supercilious, condescending, and thoroughly unpleasant.

Richard Dawkins is of course the person the ID people hate and he gets a lot of questioning from Stein, mainly to highlight the fact that he thinks evolution and science tend to support and encourage atheism. Stein goes to great pains to get Dawkins, perhaps the world's most famous atheist, to explicitly say that he does not believe in any god. In fact, after Dawkins has made it quite clear that he thinks the idea of god is absurd, Stein starts listing the gods of the various religions individually by name, asking him if he believes in each. Dawkins's expression clearly signals that it is beginning to dawn on him that he may be talking to an idiot. He asks, "How could I? Why would I? Why would you even need to ask? Any god, anywhere, would be completely incompatible with anything I've said."

Stein spends a lot of time in the film talking about the origin of life and the fact that we do not as yet have a good theory of how the first self-replicating molecule and the first cell appeared, even though neither the theory of evolution nor intelligent design has anything to say about this question. The reason is, of course, that religious people's last resort is to insert god as an explanation for whatever question science has not yet answered, and the origin of life and the origin of the cosmos is their Little Big Horn, their last stand. But even here, they will meet the same fate as Custer.

One of the chief negatives about ID is that it is a useless theory that does not make any predictions or provide the basis for any research program. The film did not provide any either, because there is none. In the DVD edition though, it promised a bonus segment dealing with the practical applications of ID. This I had to see. It lasted a little less than three minutes and dealt with just two items: a neurosurgeon who looked at how engineers designed buffer systems and used that idea to understand how blood pressure to the brain is modulated, and another person who said that he thought a part of a cancer cell looked like a turbine (which is of course designed) and used that idea in his research.

That was truly pathetic. Scientists borrow ideas from other areas all the time. The fact that you got an idea from something that was designed and used it to understand the workings of a biological system is not evidence for the truth of ID. Doing science means postulating mechanisms that enable one to predict new outcomes and do experiments to test hypotheses. After all these years and all that money, ID still has not done any of that basic science and this is the truth that they cannot hide from.

ID is rejected by the scientific community because it has failed as science, not because of any grand conspiracy to keep it from exposing the weakness of evolution. This film is, at the end, a confession of this failure.

POST SCRIPT: Obama's disingenuousness

In his State of the Union address, Obama said the following concerning the current health care reform plan being discussed by Congress, whose weaknesses I have discussed here and here:

"[I]f anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I'm eager to see it."

Really? He hasn't heard of the single payer option, the Medicare-for-all option, and the public option? All of these things would achieve all his goals and have been widely discussed. It was he and his cronies in Congress who went out of their way to make sure that they were never seriously considered.

To pretend that he is open to better ideas is simply a flat out lie. He sold out to the health industry and all his fine words cannot hide that ugly truth.