The balance of power in the Middle East

The recent attacks by the Israeli armed forces in Gaza and Lebanon is evidence, if anyone needed it, that Israel is the overwhelming military power in that region. The reason it could bomb Beirut and other parts of Lebanon and impose an air and sea blockade on that country is because it can do so without fear of meeting any major resistance. What we are currently witnessing is a demonstration of unmatched power.

Thanks to sustained economic and military support from the US (Israel is the single largest beneficiary of US aid, with about $3 billion annually in aid), Israel not only has developed overwhelming conventional military power over its immediate neighbors in the region, it is even a nuclear power. Estimates give Israel about 100-200 strategic nuclear weapons, well ahead of India and Pakistan, and comparable to England. When this military dominance is coupled with the diplomatic backing of the US, which provides it with cover to prevent any international diplomatic moves against its use of this power, this enables the Israeli government to take military actions against its neighbors that would be unthinkable for almost any other state.

The passive response of the world to the current actions by Israel in Gaza and Lebanon is symptomatic of this situation. The US has vetoed UN resolutions calling for a halt to the attacks on Gaza and blocked international attempts to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon, as requested by the beleaguered government of Lebanon, thus enabling Israel to proceed unchecked.
Other governments that responded to provocations the way Israel has would face immediate condemnation. India and Pakistan have long shared a tense border with Kashmir, where along the ‘line of demarcation’ it is almost routine to have border incursions and skirmishes of the kind that just occurred in the Middle East. In addition, just this past week we also saw the bombing in India of commuter trains that killed about 200 people. There are strong suspicions being voiced that the perpetrators of this atrocity are Islamic groups based in Pakistan. But India did not unleash an invasion of Pakistan, say by bombing civilian centers like Karachi and Islamabad, because Pakistan is a nation of comparable strength, able to defend itself and even retaliate, and for India to do so would have been to invite worldwide condemnation for over-reacting. This necessitates that the two countries try and talk their way through the tensions.

As another example, the Prime Minister of India (Rajiv Gandhi) was murdered by members of Tamil separatist groups from Sri Lanka. India did not invade and bomb Sri Lanka in response, which it could have easily done if it wanted to because of its overwhelming military superiority, because that would have been a hugely disproportionate response that would have invited immediate worldwide condemnation.

The fact that the US has enabled Israel to do what it likes militarily is perhaps why Israel is so isolated politically. When you have unmatched military power and also no diplomatic constraints, leaders tend to succumb to the fatal temptation of thinking that they can use force to solve political problems, and spurn diplomatic avenues. There is no incentive to try and negotiate long-term political solutions, even though those are the only ones that can promise any kind of peace and justice for all. Because it can so easily unleash military power in response to any provocation, Israel can avoid the necessity of seeking diplomatic and political solutions to the problems in that region.

But despite this clear demonstration of power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, the myth continues of Israel as the underdog in the region, constantly fearful for its existence. Does anyone (other than the irrationally insecure) seriously think that the actual existence of the state of Israel, the fifth largest nuclear power in the world, is in any danger? To do so is like seriously thinking that al Qaeda can overthrow the US government. Yes, you get the occasional threats and boasts of few people, and some militant groups opposed to the existence of Israel are capable of striking the occasional blow here and there, but they are nowhere close to being a serious threat to the actual existence of the state. No state in the region, however belligerent its rhetoric, is going to actually attack Israel with a view to destroying its existence, because almost the entire world would condemn and oppose and rebuff this attempt, let alone the fact that Israel is quite capable of defending itself without any outside help. The worldwide response when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a far less influential state than Israel, should persuade people that the territorial integrity of Israel is secure.

But the idea of a beleaguered state that is facing an existential threat has always been useful because it enables countries to unleash disproportionate responses to attacks. This has been the practice of many governments in response to even minor threats to its authority. The US has done it with terrorism, creating the feeling that the whole country is in danger in order to dismantle long standing civil rights protections at home and wage war abroad. And now Israel has used it to respond with disproportionate force in Gaza and Lebanon.

In this case, the capture of an Israeli soldier near the West Bank border, and the capture of two soldiers near the Lebanese border, were used as justification for invading Lebanon and Gaza and bombing its cities, resulting in enormous numbers of casualties. The whole of Lebanon is now under siege and blockaded, its airports and highways and residential areas indiscriminately bombed, and its infrastructure in shambles. It is, of course, a given that any nation has the right to defend itself from external aggression but to argue that the capture of one or two soldiers near a tense border is sufficient cause to unleash a massive assault on civilians centers in a neighboring country is to lower the bar for inter-nation warfare to such a low level that almost any country that shares a border with a hostile neighbor will be in a state of permanent warfare.

And even before this, for a long time now, Israel has responded to attacks from missiles or by suicide bombers by massively retaliating against the Palestinians. Attacks on Israeli territory and settlers by individuals have been used to arrest family members and friends of the alleged perpetrators, bulldoze their family’s homes, destroy their farms and communities and villages, and imprison large numbers of people. Such collective punishments violate the norms of justice and proportional response. What is currently taking place in Gaza and Lebanon is another over reaction to an undoubted provocation.

As a result of its power dominance in the region, there is no compulsion for Israel, at least in the short run, to seek a just and permanent solution to the core issue of Palestinian statehood, the very thing that inflames the passions. In fact, the ongoing creation by Israel of settlements in the West Bank is resulting in no viable Palestinian state being possible. What is being offered by Israel to Palestinians is a kind of Bantustan, a Swiss-cheese like entity consisting of enclaves (‘cantons’) of non-contiguous Palestinian areas, that are broken up by Israeli settlements and roadways that will result in Palestinians having to pass through Israeli checkpoints to go from enclave to another. Bantustans were created in South Africa under the former apartheid regime and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who experienced them first hand, said at a Boston conference in April 2002 “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land. It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

Professor Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Israel and a peace activist, says that the goal of Israel seems to be to:

establish a tiny Palestinian state of, say, five or six cantons (Sharon’s term) on 40-70% of the Occupied Territories, completely surrounded and controlled by Israel. Such a Palestinian state would cover only 10-15% of the entire country and would have no meaningful sovereignty and viability: no coherent territory, no freedom of movement, no control of borders, no capital in Jerusalem, no economic viability, no control of water, no control of airspace or communications, no military–not even the right as a sovereign state to enter into alliances without Israeli permission.”

Is it any surprise that Palestinians would reject such a future?

I myself had not realized how bad the situation was until a talk given at Case last year by Professor Halper who explained in alarming detail how the settlement building on the West Bank is surely extinguishing any hope for a lasting peace settlement. He presented detailed maps that showed how what is envisaged by Israel and the US for Palestinians is life under permanent Israeli control. He pointed out that even if the entire West Bank and Gaza were handed over to a Palestinian state, that state would still constitute only about 22% of the total land currently occupied by Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but what is offered is far less than that.

While there is a huge amount of coverage of the Middle East, most of it is simply a lot of blather about whether the “peace process” is on track or off, dead or alive, and one rarely gets crucial details about actual plans or sees actual maps detailing what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza and what is being proposed for Palestinians. Hence most Americans have no idea about what is being offered to the Palestinians and cannot understand why it is being rejected. They are simply told that the Palestinians are ungrateful for rejecting a ‘generous’ Israeli offer of land, but are not given the data to evaluate the merits of this offer for themselves.

If we are going to have any kind of resolution to the problems of the Middle East, a viable and independent self-contained Palestinian state has to be created, which will then have a vested interested in building itself in peace. Creation of that state will require the withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders and the dismantling of the settlements in the occupied territories. If instead what Palestinians are offered is a non-viable state with non-contiguous pieces of land under Israeli control, we are all doomed to an endless cycle of violence that will repeatedly spill over into the rest of the region, and perhaps engulf us all.

Next: Why some people are pleased at the recent upsurge in violence and want an even wider war.

Israel and the Palestinians

If there is one thing that lies close to the heart of the problems in the Middle East, it is the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. The status of the Palestinians has been a scandal for over a half-century, and resentment over their situation has created the breeding ground for the unrest that regularly and periodically spills over into outright violence. The current invasion by Israel into Gaza and Lebanon is just the latest direct manifestation of the consequences of leaving this long-standing problem unresolved, though the Iraq war and the attacks of 9/11 can also be seen as other less direct ones. After all, bin Laden and al Qaeda stated explicitly that one of the reasons for their actions was because they were opposed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and America’s support for those policies.

Even since the state of Israel came into being, the Palestinians have been dispossessed of their land and homes and left stateless, many of their people shunted to refugee camps and denied any meaningful form of self-governance.

The fact that the world has allowed the wretched plight of the Palestinian people to continue for so long is unconscionable. There has to be a permanent and just solution to the problem of the statelessness of the Palestinian people. The lack of such a solution has resulted in spiral of violence and counter-violence that cannot be stopped by merely looking at the immediate causes of the current crisis.

In order to achieve such a long-range solution, it will help if we stop thinking so reflexively in terms of ethnicity and religion and nationality, as if these purely human constructs have any deep meaning.

I have long felt that dividing people and nations along the lines of ethnicity or religion is absurd, a relic of ancient tribal histories that should have long ago been rejected by modern people. My own personal philosophy and sense of identity is captured exactly by the philosopher Tom Paine, when he wrote in his Rights of Man: “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” Or if we want more modern examples of famous people who were able to overcome parochial thinking, we have people like Albert Einstein who felt that he was a citizen of the world, and for whom allegiance to the fundamental principles of shared humanity were more important than sectarian thinking.

There is no biological basis for distinguishing between ‘races,’ and myths abound in the stories, such as those in the Bible, of people’s ancient origins, making them of little value as historical records. People’s religion, ethnicity, and nationality are almost entirely predictable based on the purely accidental factors associated with their birth. By virtue of being born and growing up in a particular community, people identify with and acquire the characteristics of that group, and there is no deeper significance to that affiliation, although people may like to think that there is.

This situation is not unlike the fact that most people born in the Cleveland area are fans of the city’s football team, the Browns, and the people who grow up in Pittsburgh are Steelers fans. To be ‘proud’ of belonging to a particular ethnicity or nationality or religion makes as much rational sense as being proud of being a Browns fan and to link one’s self-image with the rise and fall of that team’s fortunes. To go to war based on those identities is as ridiculous as the city of Cleveland going to war against the city of Pittsburgh because some of their fans taunted and beat up on some of our fans.

The only positive advantage to labeling people according to their ethnicity, religion, and nationality is as a tool for research, for statistical, demographic, and sociological purposes. But unfortunately ethnicity and religion and nationality have always been useful to those who seek and benefit from war, using those labels as a means of fomenting conflict between peoples who would otherwise have no real quarrel with one another. After all, let us not forget that war has been a source of enrichment and power and control for political leaders from time immemorial. Some people see a real benefit in keeping people fearful and tense and paranoid about others, and religious and ethnic and nationality differences have always been convenient for getting people to be suspicious of one another.

I tend to favor secular states and oppose identifying countries according to ethnicity and religion. This is also why I feel that there is no intrinsic reason why the people of Israel and the Palestinians could not have shared the same geographical region that is now labeled as Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Or, for that matter, why the Sinhala and Tamil people in Sri Lanka could not continue to share one state.

But the realist in me sadly recognizes that thanks to religious and ethnic partisans who have been successful in pushing their divisive views and building hatred between groups by appealing to their tribal allegiances, that dream of peaceful coexistence, of people simply living their lives together according to common secular and human interests and principles maybe dead, and we may have no alternative, at least in the short run, but to go to two-state solutions based on ethnicity. (The situation in Sri Lanka is not yet as dire as in the Middle East but the way it is heading, that country too may have to result in partition.)

What we need are solutions that are just and equitable and provide long-term peace and security, so that the bitter past can fade into obscurity. In the case of the Middle East, the basis for a negotiated two-state solution has always been clear. It requires that Israel withdraw completely from the West Bank and Gaza (the areas occupied in the 1967 war) and a Palestinian state established there, with international pressure and monitoring and security guarantees to ensure that the two states leave each other alone and in peace until decades have passed and the bitter enmity that has been allowed to be generated dissipates. The optimist in me even hopes that after a long period of time, the two states may even form economic and political alliances, the way that the countries of Europe have overcome warring pasts and come together to form the European Union.

It also means that we have to get beyond the proximate causes of the immediate conflict, and shelve questions of who is responding to whose actions, and who is provoked and who is doing the provoking. The conflict has gone on for so long that looking for prime causes is futile. Each side can provide an antecedent cause to justify any action.

What we can be absolutely sure of is that the ultimate losers in this conflict, as in any conflict, are ordinary people, men, women, children, old and young, people who are just trying to live their lives. They are the ones who will pay the highest price. The bombardment by Israel of Lebanon and Gaza has already resulted in hundreds of deaths and displacements of civilians. The rockets being hurled by Hezbollah forces into Israeli cities are killing Israeli civilians. And it is going to get worse, since modern warfare has the creation of civilian terror as a key objective, and access to ever more powerful weaponry is getting easier. This is so obvious and drearily predictable that it amazes me that people still support war.

Why has the Palestinian statelessness issue been allowed to continue to fester for so long? Why is it that their legitimate right to a state where they can truly govern themselves and live in dignity been ignored? Why isn’t the granting of that basic need at the forefront of discussions?

For those in the Middle East (and Sri Lanka) who think that their national and ethnic identity is so important, and their own religion so noble, that their self-image is inexorably bound up in them, I recommend this Richard Dawkins quote (thanks to MachinesLikeUS.com), where he speaks with typical lucidity:

Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one.

Until people realize that their allegiance to their nationality or ethnicity or religion has the same superficial significance as support for their favorite sports team, we will continue to have wars, with people having this bizarre notion that it is actually noble to kill or die for their flag, their race, and their god.

Next: The balance of power in the Middle East.

The origin of life

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection deals with the question of how life evolves and does not directly address the question of the origin of life itself. The fields of cosmology and physics and chemistry have provided models of how the universe evolved and created the solar system, among other things. But those theories do not explain how organic molecules, the basic building blocks of life, came about.

An article by Gareth Cook in the August 14, 2005 issue of the Boston Globe examined this question in the light of an initiative (known as the ”Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative”) by then Harvard president Lawrence Summers to invest millions to investigate this important question, partly in an effort to have Harvard try and catch up the leaders in this field at the University of Arizona, the California Institute of Technology, and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif..

Cook says that the questions to be addressed are: “How can life arise from nonlife? How easy is it for this to happen? And does the universe teem with life, or is Earth a solitary island?”

Scientists generally work on the assumption that the laws of physics and chemistry that we work with on Earth should also apply everywhere in the universe. But those laws need not result in the same environment being created on different planets and since it is the environment that will determine the nature of the life forms that come into being, the laws of biology could be, and in fact would likely be, quite different from planet to planet, depending on the environment that was in existence at the time that living organisms came into being there.

Of course, we have no evidence right now that life forms exist on other planets. But “biologists have been finding that life can survive in much more hostile environments than thought possible — such as microbes that live deep in rock or in searingly acidic water — meaning that planets with more extreme environments might support life”, lending support to the idea that life is likely to be found elsewhere.

Hence an important related question would be studying how different environments came into existence in the different planets and how the nature of life is related to the environment that produced it.

Cook’s article summarizes some theories for the origins of life. The first is the famous 1953 Miller-Urey experiment: “A flask, containing elements of the early Earth’s atmosphere, was jolted with electricity, like bolts of lightening. This simple setup created a wealth of organic molecules, but since [then], the prevailing view of the makeup of the early atmosphere has changed, and the experiment doesn’t work well with the new recipe.”

Others have suggested that “organic molecules could have been carried to Earth in the icy core of comets” (which presupposes the existence of life elsewhere and does not really answer the question of how life began, only how it began on Earth), or that “life began near the intense heat of deep sea vents, an environment that drives unusual reactions.”

Yet other possibilities exist, such as the idea of chemist Scot Martin, who

“believes that ultraviolet light from the sun, shining down on tiny mineral crystals floating near the surface of the early ocean, may have generated organic compounds.

In his flask, he has shown that molecules of bicarbonate, common in the early ocean, attach themselves to a mineral called sphalerite. When the ultraviolet light hits the sphalerite, it sets off a chain of events that makes the bicarbonate more reactive, and that leads to a wide range of organic compounds in Martin’s flask.”

I find reports of this kind of research exciting because of the deep questions they address. It is undoubtedly challenging work, and finding answers will require intense effort by many dedicated scientists over many years. What will keep them going, apart from funding, is the belief that scientists have in methodological naturalism, the idea that the only thing that stands between them and answers to these important questions is their ingenuity.

As David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, says: ”We start with a mutual acknowledgment of the profound complexity of living systems” and he continues ”my expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention.”

Of course not everyone is happy with that last thought. Those who seek to preserve a role for god are hoping that this effort fails, as their claim for the inexplicability of the origin of life is almost their last refuge, perhaps behind only consciousness and the mind. Cook reports:

Michael Behe, a biologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, said he was glad that Harvard was going to try to address the issue.

”If, as I suspect will happen,” Behe said, ”they fail to find a plausible answer without invoking intelligence, then maybe science will be less hostile to folks who see intelligent direction in the history of life,” he said.

To my mind, this sentiment captures perfectly the anti-science view of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) people, and shows very clearly why IDC should never be part of science. When Behe says he “suspects” that answers won’t be found, he really means “hopes,” since he has no basis for his suspicions except his faith that god created life. The IDC people actually want to see science fail to answer an important question in order to preserve their religious beliefs.

People with such attitudes can never do really good science because they will willingly and happily give up at the first sign of difficulty and let god do the explanatory heavy lifting. To do science at the frontiers requires one to be willing to work very hard, overcoming setback after setback, spurred on by your belief that an answer exists and is discoverable. The IDC people, always eager to pull god out of their hip pockets to answer tough questions, just do not have what it takes.

We can let Richard Dawkins have the last word on this (thanks to MachineLikeUS.com):

You see, if you say something positive like the whole of life – all living things – is descended from a single common ancestor which lived about 4,000 million years ago and that we are all cousins, well that is an exceedingly important and true thing to say and that is what I want to say. Somebody who is religious sees that as threatening and so I am represented as attacking religion, and I am forced into responding to their reaction. But you do not have to see my main purpose as attacking religion. Certainly I see the scientific view of the world as incompatible with religion, but that is not what is interesting about it. It is also incompatible with magic, but that also is not worth stressing. What is interesting about the scientific world view is that it is true, inspiring, remarkable and that it unites a whole lot of phenomena under a single heading. And that is what is so exciting for me.

POST SCRIPT: No Joementum!

The indispensable Stephen Colbert looks at democracy and the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut.

The origin of life

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection deals with the question of how life evolves and does not directly address the question of the origin of life itself. The fields of cosmology and physics and chemistry have provided models of how the universe evolved and created the solar system, among other things. But those theories do not explain how organic molecules, the basic building blocks of life, came about.

An article by Gareth Cook in the August 14, 2005 issue of the Boston Globe examined this question in the light of an initiative (known as the ”Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative”) by then Harvard president Lawrence Summers to invest millions to investigate this important question, partly in an effort to have Harvard try and catch up the leaders in this field at the University of Arizona, the California Institute of Technology, and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif..

Cook says that the questions to be addressed are: “How can life arise from nonlife? How easy is it for this to happen? And does the universe teem with life, or is Earth a solitary island?”

Scientists generally work on the assumption that the laws of physics and chemistry that we work with on Earth should also apply everywhere in the universe. But those laws need not result in the same environment being created on different planets and since it is the environment that will determine the nature of the life forms that come into being, the laws of biology could be, and in fact would likely be, quite different from planet to planet, depending on the environment that was in existence at the time that living organisms came into being there.

Of course, we have no evidence right now that life forms exist on other planets. But “biologists have been finding that life can survive in much more hostile environments than thought possible — such as microbes that live deep in rock or in searingly acidic water — meaning that planets with more extreme environments might support life”, lending support to the idea that life is likely to be found elsewhere.

Hence an important related question would be studying how different environments came into existence in the different planets and how the nature of life is related to the environment that produced it.

Cook’s article summarizes some theories for the origins of life. The first is the famous 1953 Miller-Urey experiment: “A flask, containing elements of the early Earth’s atmosphere, was jolted with electricity, like bolts of lightening. This simple setup created a wealth of organic molecules, but since [then], the prevailing view of the makeup of the early atmosphere has changed, and the experiment doesn’t work well with the new recipe.”

Others have suggested that “organic molecules could have been carried to Earth in the icy core of comets” (which presupposes the existence of life elsewhere and does not really answer the question of how life began, only how it began on Earth), or that “life began near the intense heat of deep sea vents, an environment that drives unusual reactions.”

Yet other possibilities exist, such as the idea of chemist Scot Martin, who

“believes that ultraviolet light from the sun, shining down on tiny mineral crystals floating near the surface of the early ocean, may have generated organic compounds.

In his flask, he has shown that molecules of bicarbonate, common in the early ocean, attach themselves to a mineral called sphalerite. When the ultraviolet light hits the sphalerite, it sets off a chain of events that makes the bicarbonate more reactive, and that leads to a wide range of organic compounds in Martin’s flask.”

I find reports of this kind of research exciting because of the deep questions they address. It is undoubtedly challenging work, and finding answers will require intense effort by many dedicated scientists over many years. What will keep them going, apart from funding, is the belief that scientists have in methodological naturalism, the idea that the only thing that stands between them and answers to these important questions is their ingenuity.

As David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, says: ”We start with a mutual acknowledgment of the profound complexity of living systems” and he continues ”my expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention.”

Of course not everyone is happy with that last thought. Those who seek to preserve a role for god are hoping that this effort fails, as their claim for the inexplicability of the origin of life is almost their last refuge, perhaps behind only consciousness and the mind. Cook reports:

Michael Behe, a biologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, said he was glad that Harvard was going to try to address the issue.

”If, as I suspect will happen,” Behe said, ”they fail to find a plausible answer without invoking intelligence, then maybe science will be less hostile to folks who see intelligent direction in the history of life,” he said.

To my mind, this sentiment captures perfectly the anti-science view of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) people, and shows very clearly why IDC should never be part of science. When Behe says he “suspects” that answers won’t be found, he really means “hopes,” since he has no basis for his suspicions except his faith that god created life. The IDC people actually want to see science fail to answer an important question in order to preserve their religious beliefs.

People with such attitudes can never do really good science because they will willingly and happily give up at the first sign of difficulty and let god do the explanatory heavy lifting. To do science at the frontiers requires one to be willing to work very hard, overcoming setback after setback, spurred on by your belief that an answer exists and is discoverable. The IDC people, always eager to pull god out of their hip pockets to answer tough questions, just do not have what it takes.

We can let Richard Dawkins have the last word on this (thanks to MachineLikeUS.com):

You see, if you say something positive like the whole of life – all living things – is descended from a single common ancestor which lived about 4,000 million years ago and that we are all cousins, well that is an exceedingly important and true thing to say and that is what I want to say. Somebody who is religious sees that as threatening and so I am represented as attacking religion, and I am forced into responding to their reaction. But you do not have to see my main purpose as attacking religion. Certainly I see the scientific view of the world as incompatible with religion, but that is not what is interesting about it. It is also incompatible with magic, but that also is not worth stressing. What is interesting about the scientific world view is that it is true, inspiring, remarkable and that it unites a whole lot of phenomena under a single heading. And that is what is so exciting for me.

POST SCRIPT: No Joementum!

The indispensable Stephen Colbert looks at democracy and the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut.

Is the US a ‘Christian nation’?

If one views this as a question of demographics, the answer is yes because the majority religion is Christianity. But that is not what those who clearly would love to see America be called a ‘Christian nation’ mean when they use the term because this is too fluid a definition and could change with time to become Muslim or Catholic or atheist nation, depending on demographic changes.

What such people would like to see is the US becoming a theocracy in which the barriers between the church and state are dismantled and the country run according to “Christian principles.” Of course, it is not clear what exactly these Christian principles are since, as I have discussed earlier, the Bible, the supposedly authoritative word of the Christian god, is all over the map when it comes to supposedly telling us what god wants.

But this does not faze those who seek to turn America into a theocracy. They share the idea, common to fanatics of all religions, that god, by a surprising coincidence, happens to share their own particular narrow-minded and intolerant view of how the world should be run. Of course, they do not see themselves as intolerant. They see themselves as benign, willing to accommodate other religious views as long as they do not run counter to their own.

One of the means by which they justify their goal of seeking a theocracy in the US is by essentially rewriting history, to argue that this country, after the arrival of the colonialists, was founded on Christian principles. They argue that the nature of the nation is inextricably bound up with Christianity and is thus impervious to demographic changes. They seek to persuade people that what they want is a return to those original principles and that this idea of a secular state with church-state separation is a more recent aberration, a deviation from the intent of the founders of the US constitution and the signers of declaration of independence.

Brooke Allen in his article Our Godless Constitution, which appeared in The Nation magazine (February 21, 2005) convincingly debunks that notion and I strongly urge you to read the full thing. As Allen writes, “Our nation was founded not on Christian principles but on Enlightenment ones. God only entered the picture as a very minor player, and Jesus Christ was conspicuously absent.”

Theocracy supporters try to blur this by acting as if more recent incorporations of god into public life were actually part of the original deliberations in the creation of the state. But Allen points out that popular invocations of the supposedly Christian origins of the US, such as “In God We Trust” on coins and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, were both introduced much later, the first at the time of the Civil War, and the second during the McCarthy hysteria in 1954.

In fact, the founders seemed to go out of their way to keep god out. Allen provides copious examples to support his claims. He says “Our Constitution makes no mention whatever of God. The omission was too obvious to have been anything but deliberate.”

“In the eighty-five essays that make up The Federalist, God is mentioned only twice (both times by Madison, who uses the word, as Gore Vidal has remarked, in the “only Heaven knows” sense). In the Declaration of Independence, He gets two brief nods: a reference to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” and the famous line about men being “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Allen reports that in a 1797 “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, or Barbary,” (or more commonly, the Treaty of Tripoli), article 11 contains these words “[T]he Government of the United States…is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion[.]”

As Allen emphasizes:

This document was endorsed by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams. It was then sent to the Senate for ratification; the vote was unanimous. It is worth pointing out that although this was the 339th time a recorded vote had been required by the Senate, it was only the third unanimous vote in the Senate’s history. There is no record of debate or dissent. The text of the treaty was printed in full in the Philadelphia Gazette and in two New York papers, but there were no screams of outrage, as one might expect today.

The founders took great pains to keep the fundamentalists of their time (the Puritans) from having too great an influence over civic life because they were well aware of the damage this could do. This attitude is refreshing when compared to the attitudes of current politicians who fall over themselves in pandering to the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons, while shutting their eyes to their messages of intolerance.

Jefferson warned of people “civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Allen goes on to provide evidence that the key players among the founders were at most deists, “that is, they believed in one Supreme Being but rejected revelation and all the supernatural elements of the Christian Church; the word of the Creator, they believed, could best be read in Nature.”

He also says that:

Jefferson felt that the miracles claimed by the New Testament put an intolerable strain on credulity. “The day will come,” he predicted (wrongly, so far), “when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” The Revelation of St. John he dismissed as “the ravings of a maniac.”

One wonders what Jefferson would have thought of the current religious climate where even such truly crackpot notions as the rapture (based on the Book of Revelations) hold sway over a large number of Americans.

This did not mean that there was no undercurrent of religion in the US at the time of its founding. There was, and all of the founders seemed to have realized that declaring oneself to be an atheist caused political problems. Thus they seemed to adopt a minimalist religious philosophy as a hedge, to avoid controversy. But their careful positioning on this issue is quite different from the conspicuous public piety that is displayed by the current crop of political leaders.

“Like Jefferson, every recent President has understood the necessity of at least paying lip service to the piety of most American voters. All of our leaders, Democrat and Republican, have attended church, and have made very sure they are seen to do so. But there is a difference between offering this gesture of respect for majority beliefs and manipulating and pandering to the bigotry, prejudice and millennial fantasies of Christian extremists. Though for public consumption the Founding Fathers identified themselves as Christians, they were, at least by today’s standards, remarkably honest about their misgivings when it came to theological doctrine, and religion in general came very low on the list of their concerns and priorities–always excepting, that is, their determination to keep the new nation free from bondage to its rule.”

Brooke Allen’s article is excellent. You really should read it in full.

POST SCRIPT: The new, improved US constitution!

The US constitution is remarkable for its brevity. But many people would have not realized that it has been revised to make it even briefer. It now has only two articles:

Article I. In times of war, the President is always right and can do what he wants.

Article II. The President alone determines when the country is at war.

At least this is how the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel seems to see it.

Is the US a ‘Christian nation’?

If one views this as a question of demographics, the answer is yes because the majority religion is Christianity. But that is not what those who clearly would love to see America be called a ‘Christian nation’ mean when they use the term because this is too fluid a definition and could change with time to become Muslim or Catholic or atheist nation, depending on demographic changes.

What such people would like to see is the US becoming a theocracy in which the barriers between the church and state are dismantled and the country run according to “Christian principles.” Of course, it is not clear what exactly these Christian principles are since, as I have discussed earlier, the Bible, the supposedly authoritative word of the Christian god, is all over the map when it comes to supposedly telling us what god wants.

But this does not faze those who seek to turn America into a theocracy. They share the idea, common to fanatics of all religions, that god, by a surprising coincidence, happens to share their own particular narrow-minded and intolerant view of how the world should be run. Of course, they do not see themselves as intolerant. They see themselves as benign, willing to accommodate other religious views as long as they do not run counter to their own.

One of the means by which they justify their goal of seeking a theocracy in the US is by essentially rewriting history, to argue that this country, after the arrival of the colonialists, was founded on Christian principles. They argue that the nature of the nation is inextricably bound up with Christianity and is thus impervious to demographic changes. They seek to persuade people that what they want is a return to those original principles and that this idea of a secular state with church-state separation is a more recent aberration, a deviation from the intent of the founders of the US constitution and the signers of declaration of independence.

Brooke Allen in his article Our Godless Constitution, which appeared in The Nation magazine (February 21, 2005) convincingly debunks that notion and I strongly urge you to read the full thing. As Allen writes, “Our nation was founded not on Christian principles but on Enlightenment ones. God only entered the picture as a very minor player, and Jesus Christ was conspicuously absent.”

Theocracy supporters try to blur this by acting as if more recent incorporations of god into public life were actually part of the original deliberations in the creation of the state. But Allen points out that popular invocations of the supposedly Christian origins of the US, such as “In God We Trust” on coins and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, were both introduced much later, the first at the time of the Civil War, and the second during the McCarthy hysteria in 1954.

In fact, the founders seemed to go out of their way to keep god out. Allen provides copious examples to support his claims. He says “Our Constitution makes no mention whatever of God. The omission was too obvious to have been anything but deliberate.”

“In the eighty-five essays that make up The Federalist, God is mentioned only twice (both times by Madison, who uses the word, as Gore Vidal has remarked, in the “only Heaven knows” sense). In the Declaration of Independence, He gets two brief nods: a reference to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” and the famous line about men being “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Allen reports that in a 1797 “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, or Barbary,” (or more commonly, the Treaty of Tripoli), article 11 contains these words “[T]he Government of the United States…is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion[.]”

As Allen emphasizes:

This document was endorsed by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams. It was then sent to the Senate for ratification; the vote was unanimous. It is worth pointing out that although this was the 339th time a recorded vote had been required by the Senate, it was only the third unanimous vote in the Senate’s history. There is no record of debate or dissent. The text of the treaty was printed in full in the Philadelphia Gazette and in two New York papers, but there were no screams of outrage, as one might expect today.

The founders took great pains to keep the fundamentalists of their time (the Puritans) from having too great an influence over civic life because they were well aware of the damage this could do. This attitude is refreshing when compared to the attitudes of current politicians who fall over themselves in pandering to the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons, while shutting their eyes to their messages of intolerance.

Jefferson warned of people “civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Allen goes on to provide evidence that the key players among the founders were at most deists, “that is, they believed in one Supreme Being but rejected revelation and all the supernatural elements of the Christian Church; the word of the Creator, they believed, could best be read in Nature.”

He also says that:

Jefferson felt that the miracles claimed by the New Testament put an intolerable strain on credulity. “The day will come,” he predicted (wrongly, so far), “when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” The Revelation of St. John he dismissed as “the ravings of a maniac.”

One wonders what Jefferson would have thought of the current religious climate where even such truly crackpot notions as the rapture (based on the Book of Revelations) hold sway over a large number of Americans.

This did not mean that there was no undercurrent of religion in the US at the time of its founding. There was, and all of the founders seemed to have realized that declaring oneself to be an atheist caused political problems. Thus they seemed to adopt a minimalist religious philosophy as a hedge, to avoid controversy. But their careful positioning on this issue is quite different from the conspicuous public piety that is displayed by the current crop of political leaders.

“Like Jefferson, every recent President has understood the necessity of at least paying lip service to the piety of most American voters. All of our leaders, Democrat and Republican, have attended church, and have made very sure they are seen to do so. But there is a difference between offering this gesture of respect for majority beliefs and manipulating and pandering to the bigotry, prejudice and millennial fantasies of Christian extremists. Though for public consumption the Founding Fathers identified themselves as Christians, they were, at least by today’s standards, remarkably honest about their misgivings when it came to theological doctrine, and religion in general came very low on the list of their concerns and priorities–always excepting, that is, their determination to keep the new nation free from bondage to its rule.”

Brooke Allen’s article is excellent. You really should read it in full.

POST SCRIPT: The new, improved US constitution!

The US constitution is remarkable for its brevity. But many people would have not realized that it has been revised to make it even briefer. It now has only two articles:

Article I. In times of war, the President is always right and can do what he wants.

Article II. The President alone determines when the country is at war.

At least this is how the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel seems to see it.

Election year politics

We are well into an election year. In my opinion, every major decision that this administration takes from now on, every major statement of policy will be based on how they think it will affect the fall elections, if it will raise Bush’s poll numbers and most importantly, whether it will help maintain Republican control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The last feature is particularly important to this administration. Part of the reason they have been able to stonewall investigations into the Iraq war (both the run-up and the conduct) and into the secret CIA prisons overseas, NSA wiretapping, indefinite detentions and violations of habeus corpus, torture, etc. is that the Republican leadership in both houses have abdicated their oversight role. In particular, since the majority party holds the chairs of the committees, they have not invoked their subpoena powers or their right to ask that witnesses and administration officials testify under oath. As a result, we have seen time and again, that congressional hearings have turned into friendly chat sessions, where administration witnesses have been able to evade accountability under gentle questioning.

To be sure, the Democrats have not shown much vigor either. They were also complicit in letting the administration get away with the foreign policy disaster that is the war in Iraq. The Democrats in Congress have their own corporate and lobbyist base to please and it is expecting too much to see them play the role of vigorous watchdogs of the public interest. But if even one of the two legislative branches of government gets a Democratic majority, then at least a few of the resulting committee chairs will be people who will invoke their subpoena and oath power, demanding answers to at least some hard questions, resulting in the kind of scrutiny and exposure that has been avoided so far. This is something that the administration does not want to see in its last two years, especially as its failed policies at home and abroad start to unravel. Hence we will see a very determined effort to do whatever it takes to retain Republican control of both houses.

As a result, the overture to familiar strains of election year sloganeering are being heard, following a similar pattern. In the months leading to November, one can expect to hear a lot about the following: gay marriage, abortion, immigrants, flag burning, English-only rhetoric, UN bashing, estate tax repeal, and assisted suicide.

All these issues (except for immigration and the estate tax) share the characteristic that they are largely symbolic and directly affect only a tiny minority of people. They have little relevance to the actual lives of most people, but they do aim straight at the emotional core of the base and provide many opportunities to push people’s buttons and make them angry. And expect to hear lots of talk about god and religion, perhaps involving those old faithfuls such as displaying the ten commandments in public places or the pledge of allegiance or prayer in schools and similar church-state separation issues.

However, I would not be surprised if a completely unexpected, but equally trivial, new issue emerges suddenly, since the ones I have listed are, like, so-o-o-o 2004, and the extremist base loves fresh raw meat.

The permanent repeal of the estate tax benefits only a tiny number of extremely rich people and provides their heirs with a huge windfall. A more accurate name for the estate tax repeal act would the “Give Paris Hilton an Even Bigger Inheritance Act.” But the act will affect all of us since the economic costs of the move are not trivial, removing a huge chunk of revenues that the government will have to recoup from the rest of us. You can ignore the rhetoric about how this tax results in family farmers and other so-called ‘ordinary Americans’ losing their farms and undergoing other hardships on the death of a parent. That is a myth to make the tax sound as if it affects more people than it does, and is carefully designed to obscure the fact that the beneficiaries are extremely rich people.

The issue of immigration is the only one that is even remotely serious but even this is unlikely to be debated in a serious way. Instead it is likely to play on xenophobia and tap into latent racism.

And if all these things fail to generate support to maintain the congressional status quo, then one can always ratchet up the hysteria about terror. We can expect to see terror alerts being manipulated and the foiling of alleged terror ‘plots’ being announced with great fanfare, even if they involve seemingly inept groups of clueless people who, apart from grandiose ambitions and rhetoric, have little else going for them, for example, like the pathetic one in Florida and the so-called New York subway plot (see here and here and here.)

We should also expect to see a continuation of attacks by hyperventilating columnists and op-ed writers on the media for reporting any news on the war and the administration’s actions that show it in a negative night. These people will accuse reporters of deliberately advancing the interests of terrorists. The amazing thing is that such people can make these bizarre charges with a straight face, and are still treated as if they were serious people, instead of being marginalized for being irrational and incoherent.

(Glenn Greenwald has a typically astute post dealing with how politics in the US have realigned from the traditional liberal-conservative divide to a pro-neoconservative v. anti-neoconservative split. He uses the tough challenge being provided by Ned Lamont to neoconservative Joe Lieberman in the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut to showcase this change. You can read his piece here.)

And if all else fails, there is always the threat of war (or even actual war) with Iran and North Korea to fall back on. If they think that an attack on Iran or North Korea will distract voters from the administrations failures and rally people around them, they will do so.

It is interesting that in Sri Lanka too, election time brings out this kind of hysterical talk, base-pandering, and fear-mongering over hot button issues that had little to do with any issue of actual practical significance to most people. It seems as if politicians the world over instinctively resort to the same methods, irrespective of country, language, religion, and ethnicity.

I used to think that at some point people would wise up and realize that they are being played for suckers. But that day has not come yet. People seem to be willing to be used again and again, and have cynical politicians exploit their passions to advance the material interests of a few. Will this strategy work yet again to mobilize supporters this year or has it finally become so threadbare that it is seen as phony even by putative Bush supporters?

POST SCRIPT: New cartoonist

One of the many nice things about the internet is that it provides opportunities for people to get their ideas out to a wider audience and to communicate with others. I just discovered that a neighbor of mine is an amateur cartoonist who has a blog that deals with some of the same religion issues as this blog. You can see his full selection of cartoons here but two that I particularly like are this and this.

Details in politics

I wrote earlier how easy it is to believe in broad, sweeping statements. It is the details that are hard to accept. I said that a key difference between science and religion is that religious beliefs actually discourage people from asking detailed questions and investigating how the big picture manifests itself in concrete and specific situations, while in science it is precisely the issue of how well the details are explained that established the plausibility of the big picture.

The same holds true for politics. Politicians are fond of grand sweeping gestures and policies and equally fond of avoiding the details of implementation. Take for example the recent (but failed) attempt to enshrine in the constitution an amendment that would allow congress to pass laws preventing desecration of the flag. If you ask most people if they oppose flag desecration, they would likely say yes. But it is only when you get into the details of this policy that you see its ridiculousness. (Incidentally, I find this veneration for the flag in the US to smack of fetishism or even idolatry, but that is a topic for another day.)

What exactly constitutes desecration? Since the impetus for this amendment arises from people who are offended by flag burning protestors, one can infer that it is the very act of burning that constitutes desecration. The Washington Post reports that “The Citizens Flag Alliance, a group pushing for the Senate this week to pass a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, just reported an alarming, 33 percent increase in the number of flag-desecration incidents this year.” As the reporter dryly notes, when one looks at the actual number of burnings, this constituted an increase from three to four, hardly an epidemic. In fact, the comic strip Doonesbury is running a series of strips (starting July 3) in which the Bush administration, frustrated by how few burnings there are to stir up outrage, covertly hires someone to burn a flag.

But the recommended method of disposing of old flags is burning, so it cannot be the act of burning that is objectionable, it must be the thought behind the act. So is the amendment aimed at creating a ‘thought crime’? If so, then if someone simply says that the flag should be burned and does not actually burn it, is that desecration? Or someone silently burns a flag while not saying or doing anything to indicate motive, is that a crime?

And what exactly constitutes a flag? The flag emblem is used for commercial purposes all the time and can be found on all manner of objects, including clothing. Can paper napkins with the flag design used at picnics be tossed in the trash or burned? Does such an act become desecration only if accompanied by some kind of protest statement?

But ‘defenders of the flag’ don’t like these questions being raised because it exposes the utter silliness of the issue. They would much rather stay with the big picture and intone with gravity about the deep significance of the flag.

The same thing about the importance of details is true for the much graver issues of war. If journalists covering the run up to the attack on Iraq had focused on investigating the details of the charges that were made by the Bush administration, instead of just reporting their global statements, the fraudulence of the case for war would have been exposed to a far wider audience.

The Bush administration simply kept making the charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the US and implied that they had links with al Qaeda and thus were complicit with the attacks of 9/11. People seemed to have no trouble believing all these big picture claims, which is why there was support for the war, at least initially.

Major media journalists should have repeatedly asked for details of each of these assertions, and asked questions such as: What evidence does the administration have that Iraq has threatened the US? What evidence does it have that they actually have the capacity and the intent to do so? What evidence exists for the alleged al Qaeda links? If they had done so, the case for attacking Iraq would have quickly fallen apart. But they will only do so if we, the public, insist that we want to know the answers to such questions before we approve military actions.

Another example of how details can reveal important truths in a political context is provided in this article by Los Angeles Times reporter Carol Williams on June 18, 2006.

What little we learn often comes to light by accident, through casual slips-of-the-lips by military doctors, lawyers and jailers innocently oblivious of their superiors’ preference for spin. A battery of questions to the prison hospital commander — who for security reasons can’t be identified — elicited that prisoners are force-fed through a nasal-gastric tube if they refuse to eat for three days and that 1,000 pills a day are dispensed to treat detainee ailments, anxiety and depression.

Those details became relevant when two prisoners attempted suicide May 18 by consuming hoarded prescription medications. Likewise, we understood why a hunger strike early this month began with 89 prisoners but swiftly fell off to a few defiant handfuls with the onset of painful and undignified force-feeding
. . .
I’ve been to Guantanamo six times. It was during my first visit in January 2005 that I learned how expressions of polite interest in minute details can elicit some of the most startling revelations. As Naval Hospital commander Capt. John Edmundson showed off the 48-bed prison annex, for instance, I asked, apropos of nothing, if the facility had ever been at or near capacity.

“Only during the mass-hanging incident,” the Navy doctor replied, provoking audible gasps and horrified expressions among the public affairs minders and op-sec – operational security – watchdogs in the entourage, none of whom were particularly pleased with the disclosure that 23 prisoners had attempted simultaneously to hang themselves with torn bed sheets in late 2003.

Details matter. It is well known that when people try to lie, they are often exposed by little details that trip them up, which is why crime suspects are urged to talk. It is easy to lie on a grand scale. It is hard to make details internally consistent if the big picture is false.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to deceive the Supreme Court

On June 29, 2006, the US Supreme Court in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et. al. struck down the Bush administration’s assertion that they could basically do what they like with the detainees at Guantanamo, and that the courts had no jurisdiction over them. The court argued that the Geneva conventions, among other things, applied to the prisoners and that they had basic rights of due process.

When the Supreme Court hears arguments about the constitutionality of a law, it frequently examines the legislative debates that took place during the enactment of the law in order to more accurately determine legislative intent. Some Republicans have tried to use this to try and deceive the court during the arguments on this case, which involved the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), passed on December 20, 2005.

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John Kyl (R-Arizona) created a script of a bogus colloquy between them that did not actually occur while the act was debated, inserted the script into the congressional record after the legislation had passed, and then used that bogus debate as the basis for filing a friend of the court brief in the case to argue that the law meant the opposite of what it meant. The Justice Department also used that bogus debate as part of its brief.

As John Dean writes:

Hamdan’s lawyers, however, spotted the hoax. In their opposition to the motion to dismiss the case, they advised the Court that the supposedly conflicting legislative history was entirely invented after the fact, and that it consisted of “a single scripted colloquy that never actually took place, but was instead inserted into the record after the legislation had passed.” The brief noted, quite accurately, that this Graham-Kyl colloquy was “simply an effort to achieve after passage of the Act precisely what [they] failed to achieve in the legislative process.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court did not decide the jurisdictional issue until it rendered its full ruling on June 29 of this year. There, Justice Stevens concluded correctly that the Congress had not stripped the Court of jurisdiction with the DTA.

Out of an apparent concern for interbranch comity, the High Court has chosen to ignore the bogus brief filed by Senators Graham and Kyl, rather than reprimanding the Senators. Nevertheless, when Graham and Kyl sought to file the very same brief, a month later, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columba (sic), Slate’s Emily Bazelon reports that court “issued an unusual order rejecting” their amicus brief alone, although they accepted five others.

No one familiar with this remarkable behavior by Graham and Kyl can doubt why the court did not want to hear from these senators.

This is the kind of chicanery that ensues when people try to defend the indefensible. How dishonest can these people get? Do they have no sense of ethics? Does no one hold them accountable?

The role of emotion in maintaining religion: a follow up

There were some very interesting comments to the original post on this topic that I would urge people to read. There was one point raised that I realized required a much more extended response. In that comment Corbin questioned some of my conclusions and asked “Is there really evidence to support Marx’s claim that religious persons and societies are more docile and more likely to simply endure social injustice?”

He went on to say:

I can think of several counter-examples, ranging from the religious roots of the racial justice movement of the 60′s in the US to the role of liberation theology in the Polish Solidarity movement. And although I am not a historian, I think that one can find many examples in history of individuals who played major leadership roles in social justice movements feeling motivated, supported, and/or enabled to action in large part due to their faith experience and perspective.

For example as an (highly unscientific) experiment, I found a list of about 25 names of persons famous for leadership in social justice on a web site http://collegeten.ucsc.edu/activists.shtml. I see a lot of names of people who are not only religious but for whom their faith played an central role in their actions.

I cannot disagree with any of these statements. Corbin is absolutely correct that there are many, many examples of religious people being at the forefront of major social change movements. One can immediately think of Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Oscar Romero, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and others like them for whom religion was the driving factor in their social justice philosophy.

But I don’t think that the percentages of high profile atheists and religious people is a good measure. One needs data on the attitudes of regular people. While I agree that the question of whether religious people are more likely to be docile in the face of injustice is an empirical one, obtaining actual data is going to be tough, given that people’s religious beliefs are hard to pin down, and that atheism is seen as so reprehensible.

Even within Judaism and Christianity, the Bible, by itself, is varied enough that people can draw inspiration for all kinds of attitudes. For example, the book of the prophet Amos contains some of the most scorching condemnations of social injustice that one can find anywhere, excoriating those who exploit the poor and promising severe retribution on them. The gospels recording Jesus’ life are also full of passages that serve as inspiring calls to action in the service of social justice.

In fact, my own religious beliefs were strongly influenced by religious people (both clergy and lay), who were themselves inspired by liberation theology and other similar strains, and who felt that the gospels called on them to act for justice. They saw the afterlife as real but also focused on the importance of this life and the obligation of Christians to work for the betterment of everyone. I do not think that I would ever have been attracted to Christianity by a purely “heaven in the sky when you die” message, and these people provided me with a meaningful religious alternative. I was inspired by them and still recall their influence fondly. I look on the religious guidance and values they provided as providing a kind of scaffolding for building my own views. I have since discarded that scaffolding since my beliefs and values can stand independently of them.

But even then I knew that these were not the messages that are dominant in religion. Such people have always formed a distinct minority within the Christian church. The predominant message is one that calls upon people to bear their suffering with dignity, to see their reward in heaven, and not to rise up against their oppression and their oppressors.

In the absence of actual data correlating religious beliefs towards attitudes of social justice, one has to resort (as I did) to more indirect inferences. For example, religious missionaries were in the forefront of colonial penetration by European powers in Africa and Asia and South America, arriving almost concurrently with the invading armies, and given wide latitude to spread their religious message. While these missionaries may have been motivated by purely religious inclinations to “save” the “savages’ souls”, the colonial powers undoubtedly also saw them as serving an important auxiliary function by keeping the colonies quiet by diverting energies away from the injustices perpetrated on them. As the famous quote by a colonized person goes “When the colonialists arrived, they had the Bible and we had the land. Now we have the Bible and they have the land.” It is hard to imagine that preaching for freedom and social justice and self-determination would have been tolerated by colonial administrators.

Or take the bitter experience of slavery. There is no question that religious beliefs sustained the black community during a time of incredible cruelty and hardship, enabling them to endure by hoping for a relief and reunion in heaven. The words of the spirituals are a testimony to that forbearance and that religious tradition remains strong within the black community to this day. But one wonders what might have been the result if they had not had heaven to look forward to. Would there have been more agitation and unrest among the slaves? Would more people have joined in the occasional slave revolts? We are speculating here about an alternative history and we cannot definitively know the answer. But it is hard to get away from the idea that religion does provide a sedative that the powerful can use to make those they control more docile. In fact, as has been discussed by others, promotion of religion is a conscious policy of social control.

The idea that god has a plan for us and that our suffering is part of that plan, while comforting in some way, cannot help but be a bar to taking action to change those conditions. Marx, living in the heyday of colonial expansion and seeing these things in real time, would undoubtedly have taken note of this role of religion in arriving at his metaphor of opium for religion.

If one also looks at religious music (hymns and spirituals) one rarely finds stirring songs that call upon people to unite and fight for justice. Most of them are other worldly, saying that this world is not important, that what really counts is the care of one’s soul, extolling patience and forbearance, and promising in return the reward one gets in heaven. When I was a lay preacher conducting services, I found it almost impossible to find hymns that were not of this kind.

Does this prove my point that religious people are more likely to be docile about their fate? Not really. It is still a circumstantial case that is being made. But in the absence of actual surveys and data, this is the best I can do.

Of course, the fact that one is not religious does not automatically imply that one is less likely to tolerate social injustice. One has to want things to be better. The point I was driving at is that if one does not believe in god or cosmic justice or rewards in an afterlife, then the fact this life is all that we have cannot help but be an incentive to action.

POST SCRIPT: Media masochism

Some of you may have been following the venomous attacks on the media following the revelations of administration snooping, such as NSA wiretapping and bank transfer records. It is quite amazing that major newspapers are being accused, of all things, of treason, and calls are being made for reporters to be jailed. These commentators seem to have lost all sense of proportion. It looks like they want to intimidate the media even more so that they will not make even the most timid criticisms of Bush policies. (See Glenn Greenwald who has been tirelessly reporting on these tactics of media intimidation.)

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow skewers the way that mainstream media gives so much air time to these hysterical extremist commentators who hate them.

The role of emotion in maintaining religion

As I have said before, I grew up being very religious and actively involved in church and Christian youth activities. I enjoy meeting old and close friends and relatives, many of whom I have known since my early childhood. Growing up, they all had known me as a practicing Christian, even more so than your regular Sunday churchgoer since I was an ordained lay preacher and regularly conducted services that many of them had listened to as members of the congregation.

Most of my relatives and childhood friends are still religious. When I encounter them now, many have heard on the grapevine of my apostasy and start up a conversation about faith, sometimes out of curiosity as to why I renounced my own belief, at other times to try and bring me back into the fold.

This happened again recently and during the discussion, the question was posed to me as to what, as an atheist, I could offer someone whose lot in life was wretched and hopeless. She said that at least religion could promise that person a better life in heaven, something that they could look forward to, and thus make life on Earth, however harsh, at least bearable.

It made me recall an Andy Capp cartoon where he and his wife Flo are stopped by a perspiring man carrying a heavy suitcase who asks them how far it is to the railway station. Flo replies that it is just a short distance away. The man perks up considerably and goes off. Andy then asks her why she said that since the station is a good way away. Flo replies, “The poor man looked so tired that I thought it would cheer him up.”

This is probably the main appeal of religion, that it provides hope (even if false) that enables people to face life. Religion provides a strong emotional appeal, providing people with something to look forward to so that they can face the present, however harsh, with a greater degree of equanimity.

It is this feature of religion that Karl Marx described as the “opium of the people.” What Marx was objecting to was that such an attitude had the effect of preventing people from protesting the injustice of their situation and seeking to change it. As he said in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (February 1844):

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

Marx was accurate with his metaphor of opium for religion. It not only takes away pain, it also dulls the will to action. Perhaps religion persists because it is a form of addiction, removing us from the realm of reality just as effectively as heroin or cocaine, and is just as hard to relinquish. What the promise of heaven does is to ease the pressure on us to improve life on Earth. It is the ultimate cop-out.

But if we do not have religion, we are forced to take action. In the Andy Capp cartoon context, that translates into not lying to the person as Flo did in order to help that person feel good in the short run, but to either help him carry his suitcase so that his journey would be easier or to add wheels to the suitcase so that his journey is made easier.

The emotional appeal of religion is strong. It is appealing to think that there is some sense of cosmic justice where good is rewarded and evil punished. It is nice to think that in the afterlife, those who suffered unjustly will be rewarded and that there is a heavenly war trial where all those who have been responsible for willful and major human suffering would face their ultimate comeuppance. I think that it is this emotional appeal that keeps people faithful to religion.

Just yesterday, the news media reported that Ken Lay, the disgraced Enron head, had died of a heart attack just prior to his sentencing. Many people, appalled at the high life he led while swindling thousands of people of their life savings, were hoping to see him brought down from his life of luxury and spend his last days in jail. Some people expressed disappointment at the news of his death, that he had escaped the hardship of jail but expressed hope that he would pay in the afterlife. This is a common enough reaction and presumably gives those feeling aggrieved some consolation.

But atheists know that no such cosmic justice exists. The fate that evil people ultimately face is the same as the fate that anyone else faces, and that is death. Paradoxically, this need not be depressing but actually can serve as a call to action. If this is the one life that we have, it becomes clearer that our obligation to ourselves and to others is to make sure that it is the best it can be, so that everyone had a chance at a decent life.

If we seek justice, then it has to be done by us right here on Earth. That buck cannot be passed. That is the message that atheists have to offer to people. It may not have a soothing effect but is more likely to lead to concrete action.

POST SCRIPT: Minor Milestone

In checking the statistics for this blog, it appears that on June 30, 2006, the one million hit mark since its inception on January 26, 2005 was reached. Thank you very much to all those who visit, read, and comment. It has been a pleasure to write and, I hope, to provoke thought and discussions.