“Merry Christmas” or “Season’s Greetings”?

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term “Christmas shopping season” instead of the more generic “holiday shopping season,” since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written “Christmas” season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, a silly person named John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O’Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to “save” Christmas by bringing back the greeting “Merry Christmas” and fighting those stores that have promotions saying “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O’Reilly replied “Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa.”

Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell, in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, says that he too is fighting to save that holy holiday and that he’ll sue and boycott groups that he sees as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon,…wants to see “Merry Christmas” signs displayed prominently “if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season.”

And he isn’t worried if they offend people who aren’t Christian.

“They can walk right by the sign,” Wildmon said. “It’s a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation.”

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

To be quite honest, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see people like Gibson and O’Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about what is the proper thing to say at Christmas. How can adults waste their time on the trivial when there is so much other stuff to think about?

As for me personally, I just can’t take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people’s religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? The words do not matter in the least. It is the sentiment behind it that is important.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children, and its message of promoting peace and goodwill among people. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. Why are some people so touchy? When someone wishes me “Season’s Greetings,” I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or “Happy Solstice” or any other greeting from any other religion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me “Merry Christmas” and I reply “Same to you,” this is not an affirmation of faith any more than “Season’s Greetings” is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one’s beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O’Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up.

I am talking here about how the holiday is interpreted in the private sphere of person-to-person interactions. If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying “Season’s Greetings,” why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say “Merry Christmas” instead. That is not something that bothers me, because such mandated greetings are not borne out of personal care and concern but are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used. It is in the same category as the mandated “Have a nice day.” You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required. The actual words are immaterial.

If Bill O’Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say “Merry Christmas” to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say “Season’s Greetings,” then he is a man in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

The question becomes different when we talk of the public sphere because then we are talking about the government taking an official stand on religion and this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential treatment is to create discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy. You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter.

POST SCRIPT: A Parable of Iraq

Tom Tomorrow has another good cartoon.

Hollywood remakes

I don’t think that I will ever understand the logic by which some films get made in Hollywood, especially the decision on which older films to remake.

Over the holiday weekend, we watched two films that happened to be remakes of films that I had seen in their original versions. One was The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep (the 1962 version of the film with same name starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury). The other was The Truth About Charlie starring Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, and Tim Robbins, which was a remake of Charade (1963) starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Coincidentally, both remakes were produced and directed by acclaimed director Jonathan Demme, who made Silence of the Lambs.

Another common feature they shared is that both new versions were simply terrible, which prompted me to wonder why these remakes were ever even contemplated. It seems to me that the main reason to remake a film is because the story is interesting and had promise but the original version was somehow botched and the new director feels that he or she could do a much better job with it. But that did not apply in these two cases, so my question is what were Demme and the other people who backed these productions thinking?

The original Manchurian Candidate was a taut cold-war thriller in which a soldier is captured and brainwashed by Communists during the Korean war in order to make him into someone who would unthinkingly follow instructions so that he could serve a political purpose back in the US. The basic brainwashing plot of the original, as in the sequel, was somewhat far-fetched, but the original film worked as a political satire as well..

As for the original Charade, that was perhaps the best romantic comedy-thriller ever made, with a superb musical score by Henry Mancini as a bonus. I have seen it more than once and have never failed to be captivated by it, even though I know all the plot twists.

In remaking films like this that were so good in their original forms, it was clear that the new films could only fare badly by comparison. What surprised me was how awful they were, especially The Truth About Charlie.

Both remakes kept the basic story lines intact, but updated them and added new wrinkles to make them more topical. In The Manchurian Candidate, for example, the soldier son was now brainwashed during the first Gulf war by a huge business conglomerate. The plot often made no sense at all, with huge gaps in logic and character motivation. The filmmakers seemed to try and overwhelm the viewer by making the story very complicated and high-tech, but all that these devices achieved was to irritate me. The only redeeming feature of the new version was an excellent performance by Meryl Streep, matching in her steely ambition the original performance by Angela Lansbury.

Remaking Charade is even harder to understand. Cary Grant set the standard in playing the suave leading man and no one does the wide-eyed innocent better than Audrey Hepburn. “Classy” is the word that always comes to mind when thinking of either of these two actors. The dialogue was clever and the on-screen chemistry between them was almost magical, despite their age difference of twenty five years. The supporting cast of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Jacques Marin (who played the French detective), was also first-rate.

In the remake, Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton are nowhere in the same league as Grant and Hepburn, either as actors or on-screen personalities. It actually felt kind of cruel to put them in a situation where they would inevitably be compared unfavorably to those two greats who were at the top of their game. In addition, although sticking to the same basic story line, Demme introduced plot twists and characters and scenes that simply made no sense, with obscure minor characters reappearing for no apparent reason. What the original had in witty dialogue, the remake tried to make up for in gimmicks. It was as if the director was trying for an absurdist effect and failed miserably.

An example of a good remake is Ocean’s Eleven. The 1960 original in that case was just so-so, an excuse for the Rat Pack to hang out together on screen, while the 2001 Steven Soderbergh remake was what a remake should be, taking a poorly executed first attempt and showing how it could be done well.

Doing a remake of a good first effort makes no sense to me. Updating the plot to make it topical does not seem like a good enough reason to do the film over. After all, we can still enjoy classic films the Dr. Strangelove even though the political context that gave it its edge is no more.

But The Truth About Charlie was an absolute travesty, making me want to watch the original Charade again just to rid my mind of the pollution created by the remake.

I am curious as to what readers of this blog who have seen both the original and remake of any film think about this question.

And if you have never seen Charade, try and get hold of a copy. It is a film everyone should see. I am going to see it yet again.

POST SCRIPT: What on earth is going on?

This link takes you to a video that seems to show people in a moving vehicle in Iraq firing machine guns randomly at cars behind them, causing them to swerve and crash and possibly killing the occupants. The bizarre and unbelievably callous nature of these acts is accentuated by the fact that the whole video is accompanied by Elvis Presley singing.

It is alleged by the British newspaper The Telegraph that the shots were fired by members of private foreign security forces working in Iraq. These companies are a law unto themselves, immune from prosecution from either Iraqi or British or American authorities and are said to have caused numerous civilian deaths. This video has sparked calls for an inquiry into the shootings and a British security company Aegis Defence Services says it is also carrying out an internal inquiry, since the video was first posted on its own website, creating suggestions that it was put on the server as a “trophy.”

Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy it. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me cold.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

I mainly like the fact that it has (still) avoided being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. It is purely secular so no one need feel excluded. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or even dressing up. It is just a time to get together with family and friends and share food. And even the food menu of turkey, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard menu for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness. Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time.

Thanksgiving remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the “Christmas shopping season.” Each year I am revolted at the attention that the media pays to the retail industry the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like “Black Friday” and more recently “Cyber Monday.”

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to the new year because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help “grow the economy.” I still don’t understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

The only things about Christmas that I still like are the carols. The a cappella arrangements of traditional Christmas carols produce some of the most beautiful music, and to hear good choirs singing the delicate harmonies is something that even someone as musically challenged as I am can appreciate. Although I am no longer religious, the one thing that can tempt me back into church is a Christmas carol service.

Let me be clear that I am referring to Christmas carols and not to the abomination that one often hears on the radio during this season, which are the popular Christmas “songs.” The latter consist of some of the most irritating music ever invented. I am referring to things like “Silver Bells” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” “Holly Jolly Christmas” and others of that ilk. These awful songs are played over and over again at this time of year until I am ready to take a hammer to the radio. If I never hear those songs again, I will be happy.

I have an audiocassette that has about twenty carols that I sometimes play around Christmas time. But what prevents me from fully enjoying it is that the producers, in an appalling act of bad judgment, have sandwiched the beautiful a cappella choral arrangements, with “White Christmas” at the beginning and “Silver Bells” at the end, making it even worse by adding schmaltzy piano accompaniment. My enjoyment of the carols is tempered by the knowledge that these annoying songs are going to eventually come on, ruining the warmth generated by the carols. My hatred of such music is such that I am tempted to head over to the new Friedman Media Center in the Kelvin Smith Library and use their terrific equipment to digitize the tape, and transfer the songs to a CD, leaving out those two imposters. (If you have never used this facility, I strongly recommend a visit. There is almost nothing that you cannot do there in terms of audio-visual effects. It’s free to all Case people. And the staff there are very helpful too.)

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

Catholic Church turns away from Intelligent Design Creationism?

Perhaps the high point for the IDC (intelligent design creationism) movement in recent times was the New York Times op-ed essay on July 7, 2005 by the supposedly influential Roman Catholic Cardinal Schonborn, where he seemed to advocate the IDC position about the alleged weaknesses of Darwinian natural selection. He said “The Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of “chance and necessity” are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.” He even went so far to say that Pope John Paul II’s statement saying that evolution “was more than just a hypothesis” could be ignored.

At that time, this op-ed caused a stir as it seemed like the Roman Catholic Church was setting itself up for another epic confrontation reminiscent of the one that it had with Galileo about Copernican theory. I suggested then that the cardinal’s stance was probably a trial balloon, perhaps initiated by the new Pope Benedict XVI, to see what the reaction might be. The reaction was swift and not good, even from within the Catholic Church.

The Catholic World News reports that:

The director of the Vatican Observatory has lashed out at proponents of the theory of Intelligent Design, the Italian news service ANSA reports.

“Intelligent design isn’t science, even if it pretends to be,” said Father George Coyne. He said that if the theory is introduced in schools, it should be taught in religion classes, not science classes.

In another story news story:

The Vatican has issued a stout defence of Charles Darwin, voicing strong criticism of Christian fundamentalists who reject his theory of evolution and interpret the biblical account of creation literally.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the Genesis description of how God created the universe and Darwin’s theory of evolution were “perfectly compatible” if the Bible were read correctly.

His statement was a clear attack on creationist campaigners in the US, who see evolution and the Genesis account as mutually exclusive.

“The fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim,” he said at a Vatican press conference. He said the real message in Genesis was that “the universe didn’t make itself and had a creator”.

This idea was part of theology, Cardinal Poupard emphasised, while the precise details of how creation and the development of the species came about belonged to a different realm – science. Cardinal Poupard said that it was important for Catholic believers to know how science saw things so as to “understand things better”.

His statements were interpreted in Italy as a rejection of the “intelligent design” view, which says the universe is so complex that some higher being must have designed every detail.

Further support for evolution came from Monsignor Gianfranco Basti, director of the Vatican project STOQ, or Science, Theology and Ontological Quest who reaffirmed John Paul’s 1996 statement that evolution was “more than just a hypothesis.”

“A hypothesis asks whether something is true or false,” he said. “(Evolution) is more than a hypothesis because there is proof.”

He was asked about comments made in July by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who dismissed in a New York Times article the 1996 statement by John Paul as “rather vague and unimportant” and seemed to back intelligent design.

Basti concurred that John Paul’s 1996 letter “is not a very clear expression from a definition point of view,” but he said evolution was assuming ever more authority as scientific proof develops.

Cardinal Schonborn himself (in a sermon in October) now seems to be backpedaling from his earlier assertions in the face of all this opposition from within the church itself:

[I]n a lecture given at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna on Sunday, Schoenborn said that it was possible he had not expressed himself clearly.

“Such misunderstandings can be cleared up,” he said, according to a Reuters report.

The 60-year-old cardinal now says that there need not be an inherent conflict between divine creation and evolution. He says that one is a matter for religion, the other for science, and that the two disciplines are complementary.

Schoenborn said: “Without a doubt, Darwin pulled off quite a feat with his main work and it remains one of the very great works of intellectual history. I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, under one condition – that the limits of a scientific theory are respected.”

He explained that in his view, those limits would be overstepped if scientists claimed that evolution proves that there could be no creator. Since science has never made any such claim on evolution’s behalf, it looks like it’s still OK by the Vatican.

But Pope Benedict XVI is still not giving up this fight. On November 11, 2005 it is reported: “Pope Benedict XVI has waded into the evolution debate in the United States, saying the universe was made by an “intelligent project” and criticizing those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order.”

But the Pope seems to be missing the point. People are free to believe in any kind of designer they wish. However the practice of science is based on methodological naturalism, which rules out using any supernatural mechanisms in any scientific study of any natural phenomenon.

POST SCRIPT: Too considerate?

A woman tried to open a door to step outside to smoke a cigarette. The catch is that the door was on a plane which was flying from Hong Kong to Brisbane, Australia. She was arrested.

“This I believe: I believe there is no God”

Those of you who regularly listen to NPR’s Morning Edition know that they are running a series called “This I Believe” where various people talk about the important beliefs in their lives. I have been listening on occasion and most contributors have expressed beliefs in motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of things. But Monday’s contribution by Penn Jillette (who describes himself as “the taller, louder half of the magic and comedy act Penn and Teller”) was striking in the way that he so closely echoed my own beliefs. You can read the transcript and listen to the audio here, but here are the passages that particularly resonated with me:

I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond Atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy – you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do.

So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power.

Believing there’s no God means I can’t really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That’s good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn’t caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn’t bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-o and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

I thought it was rather nicely put.

POST SCRIPT: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I saw the latest Harry Potter film and it deserved all the praise that it is getting. It has been awhile since I saw a film so soon after reading the book on which it is based and I must say that I was impressed with the judicious selection of material from the book to go into the film. I also liked the way the screenwriter and director transferred Rowling’s vision onto the screen. Sometimes such transitions don’t work well but this was almost perfect. There was nothing at all jarring. The film was at once both faithful to the book and self-contained as a film, quite an achievement.

Intelligent design creationism losing ground?

Some time ago, I speculated that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement might have jumped the shark and was on a downward slide. Some recent developments might suggest that I was premature is seeing the demise of IDC. After all, just last week, the state of Kansas formally adopted language in their science standards that sought to undermine natural selection. But that particular act was foregone conclusion once the elections in Kansas had produced a pro-IDC majority.

Up to that point, IDC had managed to gain some ground purely because it was based on a stealth strategy. IDC strategists realized that the courts would not allow any overtly religious doctrine to be taught in science classes. And it is not clear that most people would have liked that idea either, whatever their religious persuasion. People tend to see the function of science classes as being to teach science and instinctively sense the potential danger in mixing science with religion.

As a result of this, the IDC people had to go to great lengths to deny any religious underpinnings for their theory. Yet, since IDC advocates needed the support of their religious base in order to make any headway in their attempts to garner political support at the local and state levels to have IDC ideas included in science curricula, they had to perform this delicate balancing act of publicly disavowing any religious intent while privately letting their supporters know their true motivation.

But that balancing act has collapsed. It is pretty clear to everyone by now that the intelligent designer is a pseudonym for god, and alarm bells are going off all over as people start to become aware of the consequences of this stealth attack on science education. Interestingly, some of the most vocal critics of IDC have been people like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, people from the same ideological camp as many of the IDC proponents.

Krauthammer says:

Let’s be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological “theory” whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge – in this case, evolution – they are to be filled by God.

In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase “natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us,” thus unmistakably implying – by fiat of definition, no less – that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.

The school board thinks it is indicting evolution by branding it an “unguided process” with no “discernible direction or goal.” This is as ridiculous as indicting Newtonian mechanics for positing an “unguided process” by which Earth is pulled around the sun every year without discernible purpose. What is chemistry if not an “unguided process” of molecular interactions without “purpose”? Or are we to teach children that God is behind every hydrogen atom in electrolysis?

Strong words, especially from someone who earlier had downplayed the importance of the Kansas developments implying that, in the grand scheme of things, it did not really matter what the yokels in Kansas did. He seems to have belatedly realized that IDC is a profoundly retrograde development.

George Will on Nightline contrasts the openness of science to the approach of IDC:

It’s openness to discussion of testable hypotheses, falsifiable hypotheses, hypotheses for which you can conceive of contradicting evidence. And I do not believe that the adherents to the doctrine of Intelligent Design are open to that kind of evidence. I think what they say is that random, unguided evolution, without the purposefulness of God, is inconceivable. Now that is – may be true, but it’s not falsifiable, and therefore has no place in a science curriculum.

In another article, Will says:

Dover’s insurrection occurred as Kansas’s Board of Education, which is controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people, voted 6 to 4 to redefine science. The board, opening the way for teaching the supernatural, deleted from the definition of science these words: “a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena.”
“It does me no injury,” said Thomas Jefferson, “for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education.

The IDC people needed people like Will and Krauthammer as allies and supporters if they were to make any headway on the national stage. They are influential opinion makers, appealing to that part of the political spectrum from which IDC draws much of its support. Losing them is not a good sign.

What is worse for IDC, people like Will and Krauthammer, whatever their private religious beliefs, generally view the public sphere as secular and write about politics from a secular perspective. Their disavowal of the IDC argument leaves the IDC camp being supported exclusively by people like Cal Thomas and Pat Robertson, people who openly want to see their particular version of Christianity dominate public life, who clearly see IDC as part of Christianity, and who are generally seen (Robertson in particular) as just plain nuts. Having such people on the IDC side does not really help their cause.

At some point, the official IDC stance that their designer is not god and that IDC has no religious intent is going to be so obviously at odds with the public perception of it that they will have to either confess to its true nature or be increasingly seen as treating the people as gullible fools.

Already there are signs that some of the tentative support the IDC camp has had in the past has started to peel away. Tomorrow we will look at some former supporters who are having second thoughts.

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial: The constitutional issues

Many people wrongly assume that you cannot mention religion and god in the public schools. They speak of “god being driven out of the schools.” This is not correct. After all god and religion are necessary in order to understand much of US and world history and government and literature, to mention a few subjects. But the constitutional questions about what kinds of mention of god and religion are allowed and what are not are a little tricky and I want to briefly discuss them here. (The usual disclaimer: I am not even a lawyer, let alone an expert on constitutional law, so what follows is a lay person’s understanding of the issues.)

The relevant part of the US constitution is the first amendment that goes as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The US constitution is admirably terse in its wording but this means that the US Supreme Court has to interpret its meaning, and over the years there have been some landmark decisions that have formed the basis for subsequent rulings.

The key portion of the first amendment as it pertains to the religion in schools issue is the so called ‘establishment clause’ that the amendment starts with, that says ” Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The key interpretation of this clause was provided in 1947 by Justice Hugo Black in the case of Everson v. Board of Education (330 U.S. 1, 15-16 (1947) where he wrote:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church-attendance or non-attendance. No tax, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or what ever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause … was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and State.” (my italics)

But how do you judge whether this Jeffersonian ‘wall of separation’ has been breached? This was further clarified in 1971 in the case Lemon v. Kurtzman (403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971)), the result of which has been the adoption of the ‘Lemon’ test to see if any government action has violated these sections of the first amendment. For legislation to pass the constitutional requirements of the establishment clause, the “Lemon’ test says the legislation must meet three criteria:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;

Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion;

Finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

So the judge in the Dover, PA case will have to rule whether allowing IDC ideas to be advocated by the school board passes all three items in the Lemon test.

The Lemon test explains why it is permissible to bring in god and religion into history and literature courses, because if taught correctly, it can meet those criteria. But in the IDC case, the only “secular legislative purpose” that I can see seems to be to show students a specific alternative to natural selection. I do not find that convincing since it is by now apparent to everyone that the alternative selected by them is based on a specific religious belief and that they see undermining natural selection as a necessary step towards adoption of their religious belief.

Furthermore, if the judge determines that IDC is a religious belief, then it would be hard to pass the third test.

In an previous posting, I discussed the legal history of the “religion in schools” issue, and especially the important role that the 1987 Louisiana case played in determining the current IDC strategy. In its 1987 decision against the teaching of creation science in Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that it did so because the legislation “lacks a clear secular purpose” and went on to add that “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind. The legislative history demonstrates that the term “creation science,” as contemplated by the state legislature, embraces this religious teaching.” The decision said that the creation science legislation failed all three Lemon tests. This is why the IDC people are trying to avoid at all costs being tarred with “creationist” label. It is the kiss of death.

It is hard to see how the judge in the Dover case can avoid coming to a similar conclusion with IDC, despite the strenuous efforts of IDC strategists to hide its creation science roots.

For these reasons, I expect the judge to rule against the (former) Dover school board. But as I said, I am not an expert on constitutional law, so don’t bet the farm on this prediction.

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial: IDC as comparative religion?

Now that there is a new school board elected in Dover, there is an interesting wrinkle to this story.

The new school board ran on a platform that did not call for the complete elimination of IDC from the schools. They said that it should be taught, except not in science classes. They said that it should be taught as part of an elective comparative religion class, so that students who want to learn about it could do so.

This seems like a reasonable policy. After all, although the winners of the election obtained a clean sweep of all the contested seats on the school board, they were careful to point out that it could not be really be considered an overwhelming mandate since the margins separating the winners and losers was very small. This was a refreshing piece of political honesty, unlike the case of President Bush claiming in 2004 that he had a mandate to make huge changes after winning just slightly more than 50% of the vote.
It is clear that the school board winners are mindful of the fact that there are a lot of IDC supporters in their community (possibly even among their own ranks) and it made sense to provide some accommodation to those people.

As far as I can tell, there are no constitutional problems with teaching comparative religion in schools and including IDC ideas in such a course. But by advocating what they may have seen as a gracious compromise, the new school board may have unwittingly created a major headache for IDC supporters. (Or maybe they did this wittingly, I don’t know.)

If I were an IDC advocate, here is the dilemma I face with this offer to teach IDC in a comparative religion class. If I allow IDC ideas to be taught in such a class, would it not be a tacit admission that IDC is, in fact, a religion? If so, wouldn’t it undermine the carefully constructed story that IDC is not a religious belief, and cause problems in Kansas and elsewhere? Remember that the goal of the IDC people is to include IDC ideas nationwide in science classes as a means of undermining the teaching of evolution and natural selection. Having it taught in a religion class would not only not advance this goal, it would set it back.

On the other hand, on what grounds can I (still playing the role of IDC advocate) challenge the inclusion of IDC in a comparative religion class? There don’t seem to be any constitutional concerns (to be discussed in a later posting), so I would not seem to have a legal case. I would have to argue that since IDC is not a religion, teaching it in comparative religion is going outside the curriculum of a religious studies course.

But that will be a hard sell. The curricula in social studies and the humanities do not have the paradigmatic structure of the sciences where there is a fairly clear consensus on what does and does not belong in science classes, especially in K-12 classes. The former curricula are much more flexible and so it will be hard to argue for the exclusion of IDC ideas from a comparative religion class. After all, the winks and nudges that IDC advocates gave their supporters to indicate that even though they did not say ‘god’ they really were meaning god, will now come back to haunt them, because by now everyone knows that the words ‘intelligent designer’ is code for god.

Take Pat Robertson (please!), who can always be counted upon to say the wrong and idiotic thing. He is upset with the citizens of Dover for the way they voted and since he has god’s unlisted number, he knows for a fact that god is ticked off as well. He said: “I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don’t wonder why He hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for His help because he might not be there.” (See here for the video. It always amazes me that Pat Robertson can say the most absurd things but as long as he maintains an even tone of voice and smiles as he speaks, the media don’t treat him as a certifiable wacko. Watching the video it is hard to escape the sense that Robertson is hoping for some disaster to strike Dover in order to make the people there see the error of their ways.)

So Pat Robertson is convinced and openly saying that the intelligent designer is god. Since Robertson is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, it is a safe bet that if he has figured out that the intelligent designer is god, then so has pretty much anybody with a pulse. And, most importantly, this will not have escaped the notice of federal judges who have to rule on the constitutionality of including IDC in science classes.

The IDC strategy of trying to conceal the religious basis of their theory by using neutral language, while using nudges and winks to their religious supporters to signal their covert agenda, was always heading for this kind of collision. Covert strategies work only when they are not widely publicized. Now that IDC has become high profile, its religious foundations have become clear to everyone and trying to hide it becomes obviously and embarrassingly disingenuous. Paradoxically, becoming well known might turn out to be the undoing of IDC.

IDC’s grass-roots supporters in Dover, who may not be fully tuned to the grand IDC wedge strategy, might take offence if the IDC top brass try to argue that if IDC is not allowed in science classes, then it should not be allowed anywhere else in the curriculum. After all, all other disciplines (science included) would be delighted if other disciplines included their subject in their teaching plans. My feeling is that the grass roots supporters of IDC in Dover want it taught somewhere in their schools and if they can’t get it in the science classes, they would settle for it in other classes, even if it torpedoes the case that IDC is not religious. Most people care a lot more about local issues than grand strategies.

It will be interesting to see how the strategists at IDC headquarters deal with this problem.

POST SCRIPT: US admits use of white phosphorus weapons in Fallujah

In a previous post, I discussed the allegations of the use by US forces of the lethal chemical white phosphorus in the attack on Fallujah in November 2004. The BBC now confirms that story saying “The US has now admitted using white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah last year, after earlier denying it.”

It is interesting that the foreign press is giving much more play to this story than the US print media. Members of the British parliament are calling for an inquiry and even the Iraqi government has ordered an inquiry in response to the anger that has been generated by these reports. (I don’t watch TV news so don’t know if it received much coverage in that medium.) In the Plain Dealer it was a one paragraph story in the “Nation” news summary column on the back page of the front section, easily missed by the casual reader.

This lack of coverage in the US of things like this explains why people here keep being baffled by the depth of hostility that some Iraqis exhibit towards the US presence. When the next atrocity occurs against US troops or contractors or even some hapless journalist or civilian who happens to be the victim of a reprisal, people will wonder what caused such behavior and ask bewilderedly “Why do they hate us? Aren’t we trying to help them?”

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial

It is time to take stock of what is going on in the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) front in the wake of the events of the past week and to see what it might all mean. The federal trial about whether the Dover school board’s policy on IDC was constitutional ended on Friday, November 4. The judge has said that he will deliver his ruling before January. The lawsuit was triggered when the school board had ordered that at the beginning of ninth grade science classes, a statement would be made to students questioning Darwinian evolution and telling students to read a book called Of Pandas and People, many copies of which had been provided to the school. (I will discuss the legal issues involved in this case in a future posting.)

Then on November 8, the elections to the Dover school board resulted in all eight of the incumbent Republican members running for reelection, who all supported the IDC inclusion policy, being swept from office and replaced by a slate of eight Democratic candidates who had a platform that said that IDC would be shifted from the science class to an elective comparative religion class. (One of the winning candidates is also a plaintiff in the court case.) Needless to say, this complicates matters because even if the plaintiffs lose the case and the earlier school board’s decision is ruled constitutional, the new school board has the option of appealing the ruling to a higher court or, more likely, simply overturning the policy on their own to spare themselves further legal expense.

If the plaintiffs win and the IDC policy is declared unconstitutional (which is what I expect to happen), then it is not clear what the losing side can do. It is not clear if the losing school board members can even appeal the ruling since they are no longer have any official status, having lost the election.

Actually, there are few good legal options for the pro-IDC side in the Dover case. From the beginning, their case was weak. The policy they instituted was so problematical that even the people at IDC “headquarters” (the Seattle-based Center for Society and Culture operating out the Discovery Institute) thought it was problematic, called it a “misguided policy” and did not support this case and kept their distance, fearing that it would go down in flames, risking their carefully planned strategy. It was like planning a secret attack and the Dover school board was a crazy member of the assault team running out into the open yelling “Here we come!” and spoiling the element of surprise. Two of the IDC strategy stalwarts (William Dembski, and Stephen Meyer) withdrew as defense witnesses even before the trial began. The only major IDC figure to testify at the trial was Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and author of the IDC bible Darwin’s Black Box. But even his testimony did not go over well, especially when he conceded under cross-examination that under the preferred IDC definition of science, even astrology could be classified as science and eligible to be taught in science classes. (See this summary of the trial fromThe Panda’s Thumb.)

To see why the IDC bigwigs were uneasy about the actions of their erstwhile Dover school board allies, you need to recall the history of IDC. In the early 1980’s the state legislatures of Louisiana and Arkansas passed laws mandating that whenever evolution was taught, so-called ‘creation science’ should be given equal time. This was challenged in the courts and in 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that creationism was a religion and that these equal time laws violated the first amendment.

So it was back to the drawing board for the anti-Darwinists to figure out how to get religion and god back in the public schools and it was from this brainstorming that IDC was born. The first thing they did was to distance themselves (at least publicly) from the avowed creationists, although privately they are allies. The second thing was to strip all references to god from the IDC literature and instead refer to a vague and unspecified ‘intelligent designer’. By this strategy, they hoped to persuade the courts that IDC was not a religion, accompanied by copious winks and nudges to the faithful to reassure them that the intelligent designer was, in fact, god (though we now know that there is a competing theory that the intelligent designer is, in fact, Lord Voldemort).

This stealth strategy was trampled on clumsily by the Dover school board because they did not seem to get the memo about how to cover god’s fingerprints on their policy. The first problem was that the school board members had made many public statements about their religious intent in pushing their school policy, and these were matters of public record, reported in the local papers. The money to buy the books Of Pandas and People was raised in churches after appeals to the congregation by some school board members.

The book itself was also a problem. The book has been around a long time and in its earlier incarnation it freely used the word ‘creationism.’ After the 1987 Supreme Court setback, a ‘new’ edition of the book came out which seemed to differ from the earlier versions mainly in the fact that someone had used the ‘search and replace’ function of their word processor to remove all references to the word ‘creationism’ and replace it with ‘intelligent design.’

Such a thin disguise is unlikely to work. As I learned from a lawyer who legislated the earlier Louisiana case, judges do not simply look at the words of policies and laws to infer their intent. They also look at the historical record of the policies and the statements its advocates made in other forums. In other words, they look at the paper trail to work out intent. And in the Dover case, the paper trial is clear that the members of the school board who pushed this policy had religious reasons for doing so.

For these reasons, I expect that the judge will rule in favor of the plaintiffs and declare the Dover policy unconstitutional, especially since the lawyers for the plaintiffs seemed to have done a good job in the case.

But few things in life are certain and it will be interesting to see how the judge rules.

Defending the indefensible

The White House has begun a curious defense of its decision to attack Iraq. Cartoonist Tom Toles of the Washington Post captures the absurdity of the argument perfectly.

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