Should atheists “come out”?

In a previous essay, I suggested that people tend to have a negative view of atheism. In his blog essay Sam Harris provides support for this view, saying that “More than 50 percent of Americans have a “negative” or “highly negative” view of people who do not believe in God.”

Possible reasons for this dislike were discussed earlier but here I want to focus on what, if anything, should be done about it.

One option is to just ignore it. After all, why should atheists care what other people think of them? But this ignores the fact that if atheists allow themselves to be defined by others in negative terms and do nothing about it, they allow the negative portrayals of them to dominate public consciousness.

Another option is for atheists to learn from the steady way that gay people have won increasing acceptance. This has partly come about because gays are “coming out” more to their families and friends and co-workers. They are becoming more visible in everyday life and are being seen as ordinary people. Famous actors are revealing themselves as gay without it being career suicide and gay characters are appearing in films and plays and on television, without their gayness being necessary to the storyline. The fact that they are gay is just incidental.

Richard Dawkins suggests that atheists should also “come out”, so that others can see that we are in fact numerous and everywhere and that life goes on nonetheless. Of course, no one would dream of suggesting that atheists encounter discrimination and vilification on the scale that gay people still face. I suspect that most atheists don’t “come out” because they don’t give much thought to religious matters and when they do, view religion as a private matter and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Atheists may think that “coming out” in any self-conscious way is a silly thing to do and so “coming out” in the way Dawkins suggests will be awkward.

But perhaps if the opportunity arises where one can make it known in a natural way, then one should do so. I, for example, have been an atheist for over ten years but felt no compunction to make it publicly known. It is only with this blog that I have really publicly stated it, and that was because it seemed relevant to some of the postings. As a general rule, I feel religion is not something that one should make a big deal out of, one way or the other.

“Coming out” might also be a source of encouragement to those who are toying with the idea that they are atheists but hesitate to say so publicly because they feel that being an atheist is somehow reprehensible.

What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more public statements questioning the fundamentals of religion, so what Dawkins is advocating may be already happening organically. For example, take this article by Justin Cartwright in the British newspaper Guardian (which I got via onegoodmove). I am quoting it at length because it articulates the atheistic point well but you should read the full article for yourself.

Near the end of his life, [philosopher and historian] Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: “As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken.”

It’s time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim “scholars”, people who believe that the Qur’an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point.

It follows that I believe we have to acknowledge happily that ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely that we should as a nation distance ourselves from religious explanations.

What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society.

And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has “some cosmic, all-embracing libretto”, the better.

The next frontier will be popular culture. Since I do not watch much television, I am not sure to what extent programs that have religious themes have atheist characters. But if we do reach the stage where atheists are portrayed as just regular people whose lack of religious belief is incidental to who they are, then we would have reached a significant milestone.


In a previous post, I wrote about Ockham’s razor. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has an example of how the razor currently is being used by some political observers.


This is too late for action but I just heard that the Secular Students Alliance had a conference at OSU last weekend. The group’s website says that they are:

an educational nonprofit whose purpose is to educate high school and college students around the country about the value of scientific reason and the intellectual basis of secularism in its atheistic and humanistic manifestations….While some students are comfortable with an atheistic outlook, others identify as secular or religious humanists, and yet others prefer the emphasis of skepticism. The SSA acknowledges these differences and seeks to provide channels through which all of these students can explore their particular interests and inclinations through involvement with similar organizations once they graduate.

To any minimally astute observer of the free thought movement, it is apparent that our lack of numbers inhibits our ability to educate the public about atheism, free inquiry, critical thinking and scientific reasoning.

Some time ago, a student at Case approached me about setting up an affiliate group at Case and asked me to be its advisor. I agreed but did not hear anything about it afterwards.

Should all scientists try to accommodate religion?

Within the scientific community, there are two groups, those who are religious and who hold to the minimal scientific requirement of methodological naturalism, and those who go beyond that and are also philosophical naturalists, and thus atheists/agnostics or more generally “shafars”. (For definitions of the two kinds of naturalism, see here).

As I have said earlier, as far as the scientific community goes, no one really cares whether their colleagues are religious or not when it comes to evaluating their science. But clearly this question matters when science spills into the political-religious arena, as is the case with the teaching of so-called intelligent design (ID).
[Read more…]

Has the ID movement jumped the shark?

Some time ago, I wrote that I was not worried in the long term about the so-called intelligent design (ID) movement because it would ultimately lose, sharing the fate of all previous faith-based theories in their disputes with science.

The reason is that science has no place for useless ideas. Theories that do not have mechanisms or make predictions or which can be used for some purpose simply do not make it in science. And ID strikes out on all three of those requirements, thus fitting perfectly the description of a useless theory. All it does is provide a story that meets the needs of those who want to think that god intervenes in the world. And that’s fine as far as it goes. But what good are such stories for science? Science even prefers demonstrably false theories as long as they are useful. Excellent examples of such latter theories are Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation.
[Read more…]

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

Like most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.

But atheists have no organization to support and keep alive with membership dues. We have no special book or building or tradition to uphold and maintain. You will never find atheists going from door to door spreading the lack of the Word.

This raises an interesting question. Should atheists be concerned about religious symbolism in the public sphere such as placing nativity scenes on government property at Christmas or placing tablets of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, both of which have been the subjects of heated legal struggles involving interpretations of the First Amendment to the constitution? If those symbols mean nothing to us, why should we care where they appear?

In a purely intellectual sense, the answer is that atheists (and other secularists) should not care. Since for the atheist the nativity scene has as little meaning as any other barnyard scene, and the Ten Commandments have as much moral force as (say) any of Dave Letterman’s top ten lists, why should these things bother us? Perhaps we should just let these things go and avoid all the nasty legal fights.

Some people have advocated just this approach. Rather than fighting for 100% separation of church and state, they suggest that we should compromise on some matters. That way we can avoid the divisiveness of legal battles and also prevent the portrayal of atheists as mean-spirited people who are trying to obstruct other people from showing their devotion to their religion. If we had (say) 90% separation of church and state, wouldn’t that be worth it in order to stop the acrimony? Bloggers Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum present arguments in favor of this view, and it does have a certain appeal, especially for people who prefer to avoid confrontations and have a live-and-let-live philosophy.

But this approach rests on a critical assumption that has not been tested and is very likely to be false. This assumption is that the religious community that is pushing for the inclusion of religious symbolism in the public sphere has a limited set of goals (like the items given above) and that they will stop pushing once they have achieved them. This may also be the assumption of those members of non-Christian religions in the US who wish to have cordial relations with Christians and thus end up siding with them on the religious symbolism question.

But there is good reason to believe that the people who are pushing most hard for the inclusion of religious symbolism actually want a lot more than a few tokens of Christian presence in the public sphere. They actually want a country that is run on “Christian” principles (for the reason for the quote marks, see here.) For them, a breach in the establishment clause of the first amendment for seemingly harmless symbolism is just the overture to a movement to eventually have their version of religion completely integrated with public and civic life. (This is similar to the “wedge strategy” using so-called intelligent design (ID). ID advocates see the inclusion of ID (with its lack of an explicit mention of god) in the science curriculum as the first stage in replacing evolution altogether and bringing god back into the schools.)

Digby, the author of the blog Hullabaloo argues that although he also does not really care about the ten commandments and so on, he thinks that the compromise strategy is a bad idea. He gives excellent counter-arguments and also provides some good links on this topic. Check out both sides. Although temperamentally my sympathies are with Yglesias and Drum, I think Digby wins the debate.

So the idea of peaceful coexistence on the religious symbolism issue, much as it appeals to people who don’t enjoy the acrimony that comes with conflicts over principle, may be simply unworkable in practice.


In an earlier post, I discussed the op-ed by a cardinal of the Catholic Church who seemed to be backtracking on the church’s acceptance of evolution and floating a trial balloon advocating a position close to that advocated by so–called intelligent design. Now comes an article by George Coyne SJ, the Director of the Vatican Observatory which says that the op-ed was wrong.
So, nearly 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species we may be seeing the beginnings of an internal debate in the Catholic Church on what official stand to take on the teaching of evolution. If the earlier struggle over Copernican ideas is any indication, prepare yourselves for a long, long, debate. (Thanks to Cathie for the link to the Coyne article.)

When principle collides with power worship, the wreck is not pretty

One of the leading intellectuals of the so-called “neo-conservative” movement (their motto: “We will not rest until all countries are invaded”) is Charles Krauthammer. However, just because one is a rabid warmonger does not mean that one has completely lost one’s senses and in a recent opinion column in Time magazine entitled Let’s Have No More Monkey Trials: To teach faith as science is to undermine both, Krauthammer came down hard on the issue of teaching so-called intelligent design (ID). He decries the recent events in Kansas as “new and gratuitous attempts to invade science, and most particularly evolution, with religion.” He calls ID a “tarted-up version of creationism” and hails evolution as “one of the most powerful and elegant theories in all of human science and the bedrock of all modern biology.”

He goes further and condemns Cardinal Schonborn’s recent ID-inspired critique of evolution, saying:

What we are witnessing now is a frontier violation by the forces of religion. This new attack claims that because there are gaps in evolution, they therefore must be filled by a divine intelligent designer….How many times do we have to rerun the Scopes “monkey trial”? There are gaps in science everywhere. Are we to fill them all with divinity?….To teach faith as science is to undermine the very idea of science, which is the acquisition of new knowledge through hypothesis, experimentation and evidence. To teach it as science is to encourage the supercilious caricature of America as a nation in the thrall of religious authority.

Pretty strong stuff. The problem was that on the very same day that article was published, President Bush, showing no consideration at all for one of his most ardent admirers, comes out in favor of teaching ID in science classes.

When confronted with this unfortunate turn of events, what is an intellectual to do? Does Krauthammer stick to his principles and say that Bush is wrong on this issue and should reconsider his stand? Of course not, because one of the tenets of neocondom is to see Bush as an equal with god in terms of infallibility. To question Bush’s rightness on anything (other than to suggest that he should invade more countries more quickly) is to invite immediate dismissal from the neoconservative club, presumably involving some secret midnight ritual sponsored by Fox News.

Instead Krauthammer showed that there is no principle that cannot be sacrificed, no position that cannot be backpedaled from, if one’s desire to grovel to power is strong enough.

In his rush to try and reconcile the irreconcilable and ensure that he does not have to face any more embarrassing Presidential undercutting on this issue, Krauthammer takes two contradictory positions. The first is the familiar one that is used to excuse all the policy idiocies of the current administration, that what really matters is the sincerity of the President, not whether the policy is good or even makes any sense (“We really, really believed Iraq had WMDs.”). As long as the administration believes in what they are doing, that makes it ok. “It is very clear to me that he is sincere about this,” Krauthammer says, “He is not positioning.”

But what if the President is not sincere and comes out the next day and says that he was just joking, thereby making Krauthammer look foolish again? To cover that flank, Krauthammer also takes a backup position that that’s ok too, so the President is right either way. Krauthammer adds: “If you look at this purely as a cynical political move, it will help in the heartlands and people of my ilk care a lot more about Iraq than about textbooks in Kansas.”

In other words, who cares what the hicks in Kansas and the other loser states (codename: “the heartlands”) learn in their science classes? After all, our “ilk” and our ilk’s children don’t live there. We can sacrifice those other children’s education as long as it buys us votes and enables us to keep invading other countries.

James Wolcott, always quicker on things like this than anyone else, skewers Krauthammer’s craven behavior in his own inimitable style.

Distorting the message of Jesus

In the previous posting, I spoke about how the version of Christianity that predominates in the US and its media is one that does not draw much at all from Christ’s own teachings. This means that these particular “Christians” have to really stretch to justify some of the intolerant positions that they espouse.

For example, take the current hot-button issue of homosexuality and gay rights. Some Christian groups (like the followers of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson) go to great lengths to portray this as one of the great abominations. But the problem for them is that nowhere in the Bible does Jesus himself even speak about homosexuality, let alone rail against it.

So I was surprised by this letter in the Saturday, July 30, 2005 issue of the Plain Dealer. It was by a Rev. Robert C. Hull of Lakewood who said:

In the discussions about homosexuality, there has been much confusion and many misrepresentations of the Bible. For starters, the biblical references have always been focused on homosexual acts – on sodomy. There has not been a biblical discussion of homosexual tendencies or the inner proclivities of a human being regarding sexual preference.

Jesus speaks directly against sodomy in four passages of the Gospels, all of which are in sections of direct instruction for the immediate task of spreading his word to the whole world (Matthew 10:14-15 and 11:23-24; Luke 10:10-13 and 17:28-30). Since the word “sodomy” comes from the name Sodom, it is evident that the reason Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God was because they engaged in sodomy, among other faithless acts. (emphasis added)

This was an impressive array of citations, enough to convince the casual reader that Falwell, Robertson and company are right and actually channeling Jesus on this issue. How could people like me have missed such a seemingly clear prohibition? But when you actually look up the verses you see that Hull’s thesis is a lie and it exposes the fact that these groups have to go to great lengths to distort Jesus’ message.

The first problem is that of sheer bad logic. All four citations are variations on the same theme, which in the first one (Matthew 10:14-15) has Jesus telling his followers to go and preach in his name and saying “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

So basically, Jesus is comparing what will happen to the people who reject his disciples to what happened to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom is being set as a standard of punishment, not of crimes. You cannot infer from this that it is an indictment of homosexual behavior. At most, the words are clearly a warning against being inhospitable and rude and indifferent.

The second point is that the sins that the people of Sodom allegedly were punished for were not what we commonly think them to be. In fact, as the prophet Ezekiel (16:49-50) points out, “Now this was the sin of Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

So if you want to associate a “sin” with the word “sodomy” and the people of Sodom, it would more properly apply to those who are haughty, arrogant, unconcerned, and who do not help the poor and needy.

The sexual connotations of the word sodomy were imposed as a much later development and to read them back into Jesus’s words is just plain wrong. If a lay person had written that letter to the Plain Dealer, I would have been generous and dismissed it as intolerance arising from ignorance. But since this is by a clergyman who should know better, I can only put it down to a willful attempt to mislead, its success depending on people being too gullible and lazy to look up the citations.


Paul Krugman describes how those with overtly political agendas are using their rich sources of funding to create a parallel intellectual universe that has little to do with reality. This strategy was initially used with some success to promote things like supply-side economics despite the absence of any evidence that it worked, and now this method is being turned to subjects like global warming and evolution.

“Christian” country?

When some people claim that the US is a “Christian” country, they may have a point. In the August 2005 issue of the invaluable Harper’s Magazine, Bill McKibben provides some statistics that indicate that the US is “among the most spiritually homogeneous rich nations on earth. Depending on which poll you look at and how the question is asked, somewhere around 85 percent of us call ourselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish.” McKibben also reports that 75 percent claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, but only 33 percent say that they go to church every week.

But the interesting point about McKibben’s article The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong is that what all these believers mean by being “Christian” may not bear much resemblance to what Jesus actually preached. In fact, what is conspicuous is the widespread ignorance about the religion and the leader they purport to follow.

For example, he points out that “[o]nly 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels” (my emphasis). And 12 percent believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! (I have long had the impression that there is no proposition, however idiotic, that you cannot find at least 10 percent, often 20 percent, to agree to on such nationwide surveys.)

What McKibben’s article asserts is what I have long suspected, that the “Christianity” that is genuflected to in the US bears only a slight resemblance to the message actually preached by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. As McKibben (a Sunday School teacher at his local church) points out, if one breaks down the essentials of Jesus’ teaching, it was very socially oriented, emphasizing the need for us to look out for each other. Jesus’ summary (Matthew 25: 32-46) of what distinguished a righteous person from the damned was whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick and the prisoner. (The last requirement should be particularly easy to carry out since the US has six to seven times the number of prisoners of other rich nations.)

This social message has been replaced by a personal, individualistic, self-empowerment, ‘feel good’ one, that looks on personal wealth and well-being as signs of God’s favor. Consider Jesus’ advice (Matthew 19:16-24) to a rich man who had asked him what he should do to gain eternal life. He told him to sell everything he add and give it all to the poor, following that with this aside to his disciples: “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This is not a message, one suspects, that is preached in the modern mega-churches which feature drive-through latte stands, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at services, and sermons on how to reach professional goals and invest your money.

Perhaps the most telling symptom of this deviation from the Gospel message is the fact that three out of four American “Christians” believe that the saying “God helps those who helps themselves” comes from the Bible. It was actually said by Benjamin Franklin and is directly opposite to the message of interdependency preached in the Gospels. But it fits in nicely with a political message that favors tax cuts for the rich, cutting welfare benefits for the poor, and reductions of foreign aid.

What we seem to have in the US (at least among the Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson crowd and their followers) is a religion that is based on the Bible except for the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. It seems to be something cobbled together from pieces of the old testament, some of Paul’s letters, and the book of Revelations. What should this hollowed out religion be called? I have so far put the name “Christian” in quotes since this commonly used label hardly seems appropriate for a belief structure that ignores the essentials of Christ’s teachings. It seems clear that “Christianity” doesn’t fit. What alternative name might be suitable? Any ideas?


I have never understood why people buy bottled water if you don’t happen to live in a country where tap water is contaminated. As this article points out, in the US itself, where there is every indication that tap water is in fact better than bottled water, people spend vast amounts of money for what they could get free. The author says that bottled water has become seen as a lifestyle choice, rather than as something that is necessary, and he goes on:

Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year. This is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water.

I drink the bottled water that is now routinely provided at meetings. But I don’t spend my own money to buy it, except for the gallon or two I keep for emergencies.

The journey to atheism

In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:

It’s also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.

“I contend we are both atheists – I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well.” – Stephen F. Roberts

This quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.

But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.

But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?

I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is possible that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one’s personal philosophy. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize hat my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.

Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.

A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.

It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence. I don’t personally know of anybody who did such a thing.


It is always interesting how the media instinctively resorts to certain standard tropes to reinforce religious beliefs, even when they are wholly inappropriate. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show skewers this way of thinking when the media quickly jumped on the “It’s a miracle!” bandwagon to “explain” the lack of any fatalities from the recent Air France plane crash in Toronto when there was a perfectly natural and even admirable alternative explanation at hand. This reason is of, course, the competence of the crew that managed to get everyone off the plane less than two minutes after the crash. And yet the media, rather than giving credit to all the emergency personnel involved, quickly started playing the “miracle” theme.

As Stewart says: “The only thing that was a miracle in that situation was the lightening that hit the plane, that was the act of God. If anything, God was trying to kill these people. His plan was foiled by the crew’s satanic competence.”

See the video here.

Foreign news and foreign correspondents

In July 1983, I lived through a major upheaval in Sri Lanka where rampaging mobs raged through the streets looking for the homes and businesses and members of the minority Tamil community, killing and destroying everything in their path, with the government and the police just standing by doing little or nothing. There was strong speculation that the government had actually instigated and guided the events to serve their own political agenda, but since the government itself was doing the subsequent investigation, one should not be surprised that nothing came of it.

The scale of the events attracted worldwide media attention and huge coverage. After I arrived in the US in October of that year, I visited the libraries to read the newspapers and newsmagazines of that period and was appalled at how the events had been reported here. I was shocked to find that the reporting by nearly all the major newspapers and newsmagazines in the US were incredibly narrow, shallow, biased, and misleading. The sole exception was Mark Fineman, then with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The reports were wrong, however, in an interesting way and with an interesting pattern. It seemed as if the reporters had relied on a combination of just three sources: US (and other western) embassy sources, official Sri Lankan government sources, and members of the upper and middle-class English speaking minority, the kinds of people who populate the cocktail lounges of the major hotels. All these groups had a vested interest in giving just one side of the story. (This was the beginning of my interest in how the media works and how its has agendas other than just giving the facts.)

To understand why this is so, one has to know that the Sri Lankan government at that time was extremely closely allied to the US government, and was adopting very pro-Western policies, strongly favored by the English speaking elites. So all these groups were anxious to disassociate the mobs from the government and to pin the blame for the upheaval on whatever convenient and mysterious elements that they could conjure up.

If the reporters had got translators, gone outside the capital city Colombo and beyond the confines of their luxury hotels and official briefing rooms in the capital, and actually spoken to more representative groups of people and local journalists and academics (which is what Mark Fineman seemed to have done) they were more likely to have obtained an accurate version of events.

This problem is endemic to coverage of fast-breaking news events in foreign countries. Journalists are flown in who know nothing of the local languages, history, and culture, and thus are dependent of little more than official sources and the few English-speaking people who happen to be around.

This is why I am skeptical of foreign news coverage of such events, unless they are by journalists who have a long history of working in the region, have knowledge of its history and culture, preferably know the language as well, and have over the years developed knowledgeable sources. So in the case of Iraq, I take seriously the reporting of Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, and people like them from Iraq. I do not bother to watch the “reporting” of US TV news anchors and journalists who fly in one day, do a report, and fly out the next day.

People like Juan Cole, who is not even a reporter but is a US-based academic, has more to offer than a lot of these foreign correspondents because he has studied the language and history of the middle east, lived in that region for an extended period, can read the newspapers and listen to the broadcasts of the region which feature the writings of the local journalists who are much better informed, and has a good sense of which reports are credible and which are not.

So when you read the news reports of some event from some foreign country, be alert that what you might be reading could be just the version of events put out by the US embassy there, the government of that country (if it happens to be friendly to the US), and a few members of the English speaking elite who have access to the foreign press and like to hang out with them at upscale bars and hotels in the capital city of that country. All of them have a particular agenda, a particular story to tell, and that agenda might have very little to do with the truth.


Historian and Middle East scholar Juan Cole has given excellent capsule history of the way that the US government, along with Saudi Arabia, starting with Ronald Reagan in 1980, helped to create what is now Al-Qaeda by supporting Usama Bin Laden, the Afghan mujahideen, and Afghan warlords as a way to undermine the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Cole provides an interesting sidelight:

In the US, the Christian Right adopted the Mujahideen as their favorite project. They even sent around a “biblical checklist” for grading US congressman as to how close they were to the “Christian” political line. If a congressman didn’t support the radical Muslim Muj, he or she was downgraded by the evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The whole sordid story of how that strategy, which you will rarely see publicized in the mass media, backfired can be read here.


Under the category of news reports that make you shake your head comes this study that suggests that “if you made men more insecure about their masculinity, they displayed more homophobic attitudes, tended to support the Iraq war more and would be more willing to purchase an SUV over another type of vehicle.” Women did not show similar correlations.

Scientists’ Achilles heel

I was reading an article the other day about how, during the World War II, the US government assembled a team of anthropologists to investigate whether there were any fundamental differences between the Japanese “race” and white people which could be exploited to wage biological warfare that would harm them only.

The anthropologists found no differences and that particular war plan was abandoned. This is consistent with our modern scientific consensus that “race” has no biological markers and only makes sense as a social and cultural construct.

But the interesting point is that the anthropologists were told to not consider the ethical implications of their work, and that ethical issues would be taken into account by others when decisions on implementing the biological weapons were made. And presumably, the anthropologists went along with that.

This is the Achilles heel of science, the fact that so much of our work can be easily twisted to serve ends that we might not approve of. And yet we do it anyway. The allure of science is such that it draws in people to work on problems that could, with a few slight modifications, be used to harm innocent people.

Physicists are perhaps the most culpable. After all, we have been responsible for the invention and development of atomic weapons that, in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a million people. And when one counts the deaths from ore conventional weapons that physicists have helped bring into being, the numbers run probably into the tens, if not hundreds, of millions.

(Some physicists have refused to go along with this. Physics Professor Charles Schwartz at the University of California, Berkeley felt that university federal-funded science (especially physics) was so closely tied to the Pentagon that he refused to ask for grants and started to advise physics students on how to avoid getting sucked into making the Faustian bargain with the military machine. This seriously hampered his career but he stuck to it.)

How can physicists do our research and still sleep at night, knowing the purposes for which it might be used? I think we do the same thing that the anthropologists did. We avoid thinking about the ethics of our actions and hope that others will take ethics into account in due course at the appropriate time. We hope that policy makers will not take advantage of the science we develop for evil purposes, although time and again that hope has proven to be ill-founded. Or we persuade ourselves that while we may be doing something evil, we do it in the cause of preventing an even greater evil. Or we say that on balance science does more good than evil and has saved millions of lives in other ways. (A few of us may actually believe that developing weapons is a good thing and suffer no angst at all.)

All these things are true and they do provide some consolation. But they never quite wash away all the blood on our hands and I think that we physicists justifiably bear a burden of guilt that academics in other disciplines such as (say) history or English or music do not.

In his memoir A Mathematician’s Apology, written in 1940, G. H. Hardy takes pride in working on pure mathematics because he felt that it was “useless.” By this, he did not mean that it was of no value (he loved the beauty of the subject) but that he felt that, unlike applied mathematics, his field could not be used for evil purposes, that it had no applications at all to the outside world. But time has proved him wrong, and mathematics results that might have been considered too esoteric to have any real usefulness then are now being used in all areas.

It is probably safe to say that there is no area of science or mathematics that is immune from potential misuse. Apart from avoiding science altogether, perhaps our only option is to simultaneously work to prevent governments from using our work for destructive purposes.


The Knight Ridder newspapers say that President Bush has endorsed the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in schools. This should not be too much of a surprise. He has been saying similar things in the past.