Politics and religion

One of the interesting things that I noticed on my recent trip to Sri Lanka is how three current political developments in the US (which I view as negative) were anticipated in Sri Lanka politics over the last half century. These are: (1) pandering to religious sentiment in making public policy; (2) attacking and undermining trust in the judicial system; and (3) using raw political power to override minority interests. I will look at these three parallel developments in sequence, starting with the religion question.
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Politics and the Fear Factor-3

In the two previous posts (see here and here), I spoke about the seeming paradox that in countries with endemic political violence, the people seem to be less frightened by it and the governments downplayed the fear. Whereas in the US, where political violence occurs very rarely, people are much more frightened and the government seems to fan the flames of it as much as possible, constantly referring to the war on terror, using color-coded alerts, scary language, etc.

I previously speculated as to the reasons why people responded differently, suggesting that endemic violence can result in a partial immunity to fear, purely as a survival mechanism. In this post, I will look at why governments respond differently.

One reason might be that in those countries where violence is endemic, governments tend to be unstable, under risk of collapsing at any time. The groups fighting the governments are usually trying to bring it down and the government has to use valuable resources (which might otherwise be used for development and public services) to supply the military and police in its anti-rebel efforts. All these things tend to be de-stabilizing. It is not uncommon for massive street protests in those countries to bring down a government. Hence it is in the interests of these governments to try and maintain a facade of stability, to assert that everything is just fine despite a little trouble here and there, so that people will retain some confidence in the government. Thus the reaction of governments to political violence is to downplay it, to say that it is not a threat. To do otherwise would be to display a dangerous sign of weakness.

But the US is different. The government structure here is designed for maximum stability. (Some might argue that there is too much stability, that it enables the two political parties to ignore the will of the people altogether, but that is the subject for another posting.) It is hard to imagine what kind of events can result in the collapse of the government in the US. The mass demonstrations that do occur here (such as those opposing the Iraq war) have very limited goals, such as showing the depth of feeling on a particular issue, rather than seeking to topple the government itself. They do not pose any threat to political stability.

In such a situation, there is no incentive for the government to downplay fear and in fact there is every reason to increase it. Because when people are very frightened they can be convinced to support government policies that would be unthinkable at other times. What has been appalling to me is that the very features of US law and government that were so admired worldwide have been systematically dismantled in the so-called war on terror. Habeus corpus has been undermined, we now have indefinite detention without trial or even access to lawyers and families, we have abuse and torture of prisoners, no-fly lists based on secretive criteria, and other measures that undermine the Bill of Rights, that jewel in the crown of constitutional principles. And worst of all, fear about terror has been used to take the country into a war against a weak nation that did not attack us and did not even threaten us, either by word or deed.

None of these things would have been possible without people being cowed by fear. Governments have always known this and use this whenever possible. In an interview with Gustave Gilbert, author of “Nuremberg Diary” (Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947, pp. 278-279), Hermann Goering (Nazi Reichsmarshall and Luftwaffe-Chief under Hitler) said:

“Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.”

His interviewer replied: “There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and, in the United States, only Congress can declare war.”

Goering: “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Goering was right. In order to counteract this form of governmental manipulation, we have to overcome our fear. It is quite possible that the US might be subject to another terrorist attack. While I worry about that on a political and humanitarian level, on a personal level, I have no fear of being killed or injured in an attack by Al-Qaeda or any other group. The chances of that happening are so remote as to be not worth bothering about. It would be like worrying about getting hit by lightning. I find it difficult to understand, for example, those who are afraid to fly in commercial airplanes in the wake of 9/11.

But the fear that I do have (which is very real) is that the constitutional principles that ensure life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being systematically undermined in irreversible ways, using these acts of political violence as a pretext. (See the article by Nat Hentoff for some indication of what is going on.)

We need to overcome personal fear of death and injury (which can paralyze people and make them weak) and instead develop a greater fear about the loss of political and personal rights. The latter fear can actually energize people and get them to organize themselves to protect those precious rights.

Politics and the Fear Factor-2

In the previous post, I said that I perceived a difference in the way that people in Sri Lanka and in the US reacted to political violence. There the reaction was to try and get back to normal patterns of behavior as soon as possible while here the reaction seemed to be to dwell on the violence unceasingly (how many times per week do we hear references to 9/11?) and to keep people in a state of fear.

I think that it is the behavior in the US that is exceptional and not that in Sri Lanka. I recall that when Lebanon was going through its extended period of civil war, the people there too would try to get back to normal too.

As I said in the last post, the average level of political deaths per year over the past thirty years in Sri Lanka equals that which occurred on 9/11. And since the country is small in size (about two thirds the size of Ohio, with a population of around 20 million), this means that violent acts are likely to have been directly experienced by many people. For example, an important government official was ambushed and gunned down in broad daylight right in front of my mother’s house in Colombo. And almost any person can tell you stories of personal losses or near misses from the violence. So the calmness with which they go about their daily business is quite remarkable.

I remember my previous trip to Sri Lanka in 2001. A week before our departure from the US, the LTTE carried out a daring attack on Colombo airport, bombing four planes on the tarmac and attacking the main terminal building, resulting in a prolonged gun battle with government troops. We went ahead with our trip anyway, and upon arrival in Colombo, as our plane taxied up to the terminal, we saw the charred remains of the bombed aircraft by the side of the tarmac. There were bullet holes in the glass windows and walls of the terminal too. But except for the presence of armed security personnel, the other people in the terminal seemed as relaxed as if nothing had happened just a week earlier.

Even during the two weeks I was there this month, the government was on the verge of collapse, A Buddhist priest was on a hunger strike, demonstrations were being held in the heart of the capital city with riots squads called out to quell the mobs, and yet life in the areas not immediately affected by the events proceeded normally.

Why is this?

This has nothing to do with personal courage. I find it absurd to think that people in different countries differ significantly in the amount of personal qualities (like courage) that they possess.

My theory is that it is the very ubiquitousness of violence in some countries that makes the people there deal with it so seemingly calmly. People cannot live for extended periods of time in fear and uncertainty. Doing so would drive you crazy, so people recalibrate their expectations, treating as normal what other people might see as exceptional. People quickly come to realize that unless you happen to be very unlucky and are in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, you will be ok. So why worry about it? You might as well worry about being killed or injured in a car accident. In fact, if you are an ordinary citizen, the odds of the latter are probably higher than being killed by political violence.

Is this sort of insouciance a good thing? I don’t know. It seems sad that the way to become immune to political violence is to be inoculated by steady doses of it.

I feel that my own experiences of endemic violence living in Sri Lanka have given me a higher threshold for worry and so I am bemused when people in the US get hot and bothered by ‘threats’ that are really quite small. (Remember the ‘dirty bomb’ scare?). After all, the chance that an act of political violence will directly affect any given person in the US is vanishingly small. While people and government leaders should think about how to deal with political violence as a political issue, it seems to me a little bizarre for the average citizen to worry about it in terms of personal safety.

This should be especially true here since people in the US lived through the cold war with the Soviet Union, where the threat of danger to each person was real, significant, and palpable because of the vast array of nuclear weapons on both sides. I am surprised that the much smaller threats posed by the actions of small political groups like Al-Qaeda can now strike so much fear in people.

When we take away the risk of the use of many nuclear weapons over a wide area (something that only a technologically advanced state can do), what we are left with is the threat of localized attacks. Despite all the scares over biological or chemical weapons, they are ultimately effective only as tactical or battlefield weapons, and are difficult to use over large areas of land or for big populations. Nuclear weapons (and many of them) are the only real weapons of mass destruction.

But fear of being the victim of a political act of violence can be a useful political weapon and it is this issue that I will examine in the next posting.

Politics and the Fear Factor

Well, I’m back!

My silence for the past three weeks was because I was in Sri Lanka (the land of my birth and where some of my family still resides,) during the first two weeks of June, and then spent a few days in England on my return trip. During my time in Sri Lanka, there were some contrasts with life in the US that struck me that I will post about this week. These are not the obvious contrasts about wealth and lifestyles but more subtle ones.
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What, me worry?

As we are all aware, efforts by intelligent design advocates to have their theory labeled as science have been getting a lot of media attention, since they have been somewhat successful at persuading some school boards around the country to either include some versions of it in their curricula or to insert language disparaging evolution. The most recent events occurred in Kansas as the elected school board seems to be on its way to changing their science curricula to accommodate the ID agenda.

At some level I am concerned about these developments because it seems to me to be a blatant effort to redefine science to serve a political and religious agenda and I think thata such attempts ought to be resisted.

In the long run, however, I am not too concerned because I am certain that this effort will fail. One of the advantages of looking at things with a historical perspective is that one sees how similar efforts have fared in the past. And on this score, things do not look at all good for ID supporters. There are many precedents to draw upon. The attempts in 1925 (highlighted by the Scopes trial) to forbid the teaching of evolution and the attempts in Louisiana and Arkansas in the 1980s to mandate the teaching of creation science were debacles for their proponents and similar to earlier attempts such as the Catholic Church’s attempt in 1616 to ban Copernican theory or the Soviet Central Committee’s attempt in 1948 to dismiss Mendelian genetics as a “bourgeois pseudo-science.” All of these political attempts to influence the way science worked not only failed but are now widely viewed as embarrassments for the people who tried to thwart the progress of science.

One reason that political attempts to promote ID will fail is that science does not belong to one country and one cultural or religious tradition. It is true that modern science draws much of its heritage from the knowledge generated in the early Greek-Arab communities, but it now belongs to the world. Science is one of the truly transnational enterprises and it is amazing (and to me exhilarating) that scientists all over the world can agree on what is good science without paying much attention to where it originates.

Even at the time of Copernicus, science was not limited to one region, but with the rapid communications that we now have, science clearly cannot be controlled within one nation. So even if ID supporters were successful beyond their wildest dreams, and the entire US congress and the White House agreed that ID was the only theory that should be taught in US schools and universities and passed a constitutional amendment to that effect, the negative effect of such actions on science worldwide would be minimal. The rest of the world would just go ahead.

At the time of Galileo, the Catholic Church had arguably more global influence on the world of ideas and yet, despite the far reach of the Inquisition and its ability to torture scientists (recall that even Galileo was made to recant his Copernican beliefs under threat of torture from the church) and have books banned, the geocentric model of the universe was soundly rejected and the Catholic Church still has not lived down the ignominious role it played then.

I predict that the same thing will happen again with ID. In the age of the internet, it is hard to imagine that what constitutes science can be defined according to the religious persuasion of one country. I expect that in the future, people will marvel at the idea that ID ideas and their young-Earth creationist fellow-travelers were ever taken seriously. Could it really be, they will ask themselves, that people in the 21st century actually thought that the Earth was 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, or that God intervened to create something so mundane as the bacterial flagellum?

So on a world-wide scale and in the long term, the caravan of science will move on. But that does not mean that in the short term science in the US will not be hindered by the adoption of ID ideas in science curricula. One result of widespread actions along those lines might be a shift the center of gravity of science away from the US.

Such shifts have occurred in the past. In the early 20th century, Germany was the foremost country for physics, and the US was a backwater. When one looks at the names of those associated with the revolutions we now call modern physics, Germany’s pre-eminence becomes apparent. Students went there to learn from the masters, and in turn contributed to the building of the scientific strength in that country. But Germany’s attempts to stamp out ‘Jewish science’ resulted in the migration of many of their most creative scientists to other countries, including the US. Students followed them and in fairly short order Germany lost its position as the physics superpower. It has never recovered from that.

It is not hard to imagine that if science in the US comes under political control, scientists and future students will migrate to those countries where they can investigate freely. Scientific ideas are not bound by geographic boundaries. For example, it should come as no surprise that restrictions on embryonic stem cell work in the US was followed by the recent announcement that South Korean scientists have created new lines of embryonic stem cells for research. South Korea is emerging as the leader in this area of scientific investigations. I would not be surprised if researchers in that field start migrating out of the US if the restrictions here continue. The pattern of scientific migration that physics initiated prior to World War II might be repeated now with biotechnology.

So the efforts of ID, young-Earth, and creationist advocates will not do much harm to science itself, but could well, over time, result in the US losing its present position as the leader in scientific research.


There will be no posts for the next three weeks. Posting will resume on Monday, June 27, 2005.

For those who are interested in the topics that are discussed here but came to the blog late, you can check out the archives. All the posts that I have made (since I began posting every weekday in January 26, 2005) can be found there. Unfortunately they have not been sorted into categories but the search feature of this blog is a good way of finding topics that interest you.

The changing problems of science and religion

In the previous posting, I discussed some of the problems that arise is reconciling science and religion. These problems change with time as our understanding of science changes and the explanatory powers of science encompass more and more phenomena.

For example, in the pre-Copernican era, one could have had a model of God that is much harder to sustain in the light of post-Copernican scientific developments. This was because the universe then was seen as consisting of a spherical Earth located at the center of a finite universe and surrounded by a concentric rotating sphere in which the stars were embedded. (See Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution for a detailed history.) People thought that the stars were very small objects, and thus the outer sphere containing them could be quite nearby.
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Science, religion, and Ockham’s razor-2

Following up on the previous posting, I want to look at how Ockham’s razor comes in to play in the science and religion discussion.

As I have stressed repeatedly in previous postings, developing a personal philosophy of life can be very rewarding and may be one of the most valuable things we start learning to do in college. But I do not mean to imply by this that people do not have a philosophy already. I think all of us do, at least implicitly. What I am recommending is that we use the many resources of the university to bring to the surface our existing and implicit philosophies and learn how to refine that philosophy.

In that process, the integration of science and religion into one coherent philosophical framework becomes one of the most difficult challenges and there is no simple solution to it. And all of us use Ockham’s razor to resolve it, even though the results are not the same for everyone.

A belief in the existence of God implies that there must be at least some phenomena caused by the intervention of God that lie outside the purview of science. (I am not considering the point of view that God created the world and its laws in one instant of time long ago and then has had a completely hands-off policy since then.)

For example, Biblical literalists will start with the assumption that the Bible is a historical document and that the events described in it (the world was created in six days and is only 6,000 years old, Joshua caused the Sun to stand still, Noah’s flood did occur, etc.) Then they will painstakingly try and reinterpret all evidence to the contrary in the light of these axioms. The website Answers in Genesis goes to extraordinary lengths to try and answer questions such as “Where did Cain find his wife?” and “Did dinosaurs live alongside humans?” These are questions that do not trouble anyone who does not treat the Bible as an authoritative source for science and history.

But even those who take the Bible less literally have to confront difficult questions because at some point, the question is going to arise about where you draw the line and ascribe something to the actions of God. This is something that believers in any theistic religion have to confront.

At some point, if you are a religious believer, you have to postulate that God’s actions are inscrutable and that we cannot know the answers to at least some of the events that occur in the world. Each person will draw the line between God’s actions and the actions of natural laws differently, depending on their personal level of comfort with the explanation.

Some will believe that any event that does not have a ready explanation to hand (a death in the family, an escape from injury, an unexpected recovery from a seemingly fatal illness) are directly due to God’s intervention to change the course of events.

At the other end, others might believe that God does not actually cause a change in the natural sequence of events but instead exerts his/her influence by working through people. In other words, people are the agents of God’s actions and the sole mechanism by which he/she influences events. So people are cured of illnesses because God inspires researchers and physicians, and so on.

There are also an infinite number of intermediate states between those two extremes. For example, people like the biochemist Michael Behe, who is an intelligent design advocate and author of the book Darwin’s Black Box, accept natural explanations for everything except for a few selected phenomena at the biochemical level (such as the blood clotting mechanism or the creation of the bacterial flagellum) that he feels are unlikely to have been created by natural processes.

(See the New Yorker article by H. Allen Orr for a clear description of what Behe’s argument is. Cory also sent me a link to a nice article (written by John Rennie, editor of Scientific American) that addresses some of the key points raised by ID advocates.)

Or one can use decide that there is no God (or supernatural entity of any kind), and all that exists is the material world. This is the position of philosophical naturalism or atheism. (I am treating the two terms as effectively synonymous, although professional philosophers might disagree).

Which position one ends up taken is largely determined by deciding which is ‘simpler’ to believe in, which usually means deciding which belief structure you find personally enriching and meaningful, since there is no unambiguous measure of simplicity for incommensurable theories. So Ockham’s razor is used differently by each person.

In a comment to an earlier posting, Kurtiss made a suggestion: “Imagine that in the normal course of your day, science accurately predicted 95% of the events that took place, but the other 5% had an outcome decided by the god.” Now we can compare Kurtiss’ model with other models in which (say) 100% of the events are attributed to God, or 0% is due to God. There is no way that I know of to convincingly say which of these models is true.

So we are left with only Ockham’s razor with which to make a decision but in this case, it is a very personal razor whose use will satisfy only us. And there is nothing wrong with that. That is what developing a personal philosophy of life is all about, finding something that gives meaning and direction to your own life.


In the first two weeks of May, I referred in several postings to the Harper’s article by Chris Hedges dealing with the influence of the Dominionist movement and the rapture. (You can search this blog under “Hedges” to find those postings.) The Hedges article is now available online here.