The new atheism-3: What the new atheists are saying

(See part 1 and part 2.)

The peaceful coexistence model that has long been used to maintain peace between elite science and elite religion was reinforced by the National Academy of Sciences when the science-religion issue became heated during the heyday of the intelligent design creationism movement. In a 1998 statement titled Teaching about Evolution and Science, the NAS said: “At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. . .Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”

The new atheists make the claim that we should not uncritically accept the NAS statement’s implication that god could exist in an undetectable supernatural world about which science can say nothing. For god to have any meaning at all, a universe in which god exists has to be observably different from one in which he or she or it does not exist. Thus Richard Dawkins, for instance, argues that if god exists, then that is an empirically testable proposition. He argues that it is the obligation of believers in a god to provide evidence, in the form of testable propositions, for this difference, and have those predictions confirmed by experiment or observation. Otherwise, god is merely a name and an idea conjured up out of nothing and that can do nothing. As it stands, no such evidence of the kind he seeks has ever been provided.

Dawkins also argues that the god that most people envisage has to be a complex being, since it is capable of doing complex things. If so, he argues, how could god have existed in that form at the beginning of time, since everything else in the universe (both matter and life) started from very simple forms and evolved into complexity slowly? How could god come into being as a complex entity right from the start?

It is clear that these kinds of arguments have struck a nerve. They have not only caused a split between elite religion and elite science, they have also caused a split within elite science, between those (like the late Stephen Jay Gould) who want to continue to maintain the political alliance between the two groups, and other scientists who say that a political alliance is too high a price to pay for not speaking out against what they truly believe, that belief in a god not only has no evidentiary basis, it does not even make coherent sense as a philosophical construct. Again, it is Dawkins who states this position most forcefully, stating that the ‘two worlds’ model is a “cowardly cop out. I think it’s an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It’s good politics. But it’s intellectually disreputable.” (quoted by Larson and Witham, Nature, vol. 386, April 3, 1997, p. 435-436)

What is happening now is that atheist scientists are no longer silent or discreet about their atheism. More and more secular scientists are not shying away from the explicit implications of how the science in their fields is steadily eroding the remaining niches in which belief in god has taken refuge. Physicists like Victor Stenger in his God: The Failed Hypothesis takes on religion from the physics perspective, while cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works examines how and why natural selection might have worked to create an advantage for modules to exist in the brain that have a propensity to believe in god and the afterlife, thus making people think it is natural. Neuroscientist Marc Hauser in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong does the same thing for morality, seeking to understand how natural selection may have worked to select for the moral values that we see in people. And Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained takes on the task of seeing how consciousness can arise without any need for any supernatural explanation.

All these works are somewhat speculative since the kinds of investigations being done are quite new. I am not claiming that these major problems have been solved or that these particular authors have even got it right. In fact, although I am broadly familiar with the thrusts of the books mentioned in the previous paragraph, I have not read them all as yet but will report on them in more detail when I do read them, which should be fairly soon. (A good general review of what these books and others in the same vein say can be found in the essay The DNA of Religious Faith by David P. Barash in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 53, Issue 33, Page B6, April 20, 2007.)

The suggestion that there is nothing metaphysical and non-material about the mind and morality and consciousness has been advanced in the past. The significant new feature is that while in the past questions of mind and morality and consciousness were largely the province of philosophers and theologians and social scientists, it is now scientists, armed with the latest research tools, who are taking direct aim at these areas of knowledge that were once set aside as part of the ‘spiritual world’ and thus outside the real of scientific investigation.

What has made this shift possible is that scientific knowledge and technology have advanced to the point that we have the ability to construct and test theories and collect actual data that can shed light on these questions. As a parallel, ideas of evolution and common descent existed even before Darwin and Wallace but it was their collection of huge amounts of data in support of those ideas that put the theory of natural selection on a solid empirical footing. The same kind of progression is now happening for the areas of mind, morality, religion and consciousness. And when scientists start to make concerted efforts to solve problems, advances in knowledge tend to occur. If history is any guide, the net result is usually a retreat for religious explanations.

These new atheist scientist authors are in the vanguard of presenting to the general public new scientific research into these areas of knowledge and religious people need to brace themselves for fresh challenges to their beliefs. The theoretical paradigms that emerge from this research will change and improve with time but like previous advances in science that have undermined the credibility of miracles and similar obvious interventions by god in the physical world, it seems inevitable that these new areas of research will proceed in the direction of making religious explanations unnecessary.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Ricky Gervais tackles the book of Genesis

The new atheism-2: Breaking down the wall

In the post-Galileo world, elite religion and elite science have tended to get along pretty well. Opposing the heliocentric model of the solar system has been roundly criticized as a stupid thing for the Catholic church to do and, since then elite science and elite religion have seemed to find a modus vivendi that enables them to avoid conflicts.

A large number of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, have managed to believe in a deity while at the same time being more-or-less active members of churches, temples, and mosques. They have managed to do this by viewing the creation narratives in their respective religious texts as figurative and metaphorical, and not as records of actual historical events. Such people also tend to believe that the world is split up into two realms, a belief which is captured in a statement issued in 1981 by the council of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences which says “[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief.”
[Read more…]

The new atheism-1: The times they are a-changing

The year 2006 may have seen the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between religious people and atheists. As I emphasized in my 2000 book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (from which I am excerpting certain passages here), the relationship between science and religion is very complex because the words ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are both umbrella terms that encompass a wide range of ideas and attitudes.

The changing relationships become easier to understand if we follow theologian Langston Gilkey and divide up each group into two: elite religion and popular religion, and elite science and popular ‘science’.

Elite religion is that which is believed by theologians and the more sophisticated members of mainstream religions. This group seeks to accommodate the knowledge created by science. It sees science and religion as describing two complementary areas of knowledge and tends to take scientific advances in its stride. Such people are comfortable with demythologizing the Bible and other religious texts and reinterpreting its knowledge in terms of recent developments in science. This group tends to have little difficulty seeing almost all the Biblical stories such as those of Noah and Moses (and especially the miraculous events) as metaphors and not historical. They believe in a god who can and does act in the world but how that happens is left unspecified and it is also left vague as to whether such interventions violate established scientific laws. Their religious beliefs are elastic enough that such people can absorb almost any scientific advance. That still leaves some problematic miracles at the heart of each religion (the resurrection of Jesus being one for Christians) that they are reluctant to demythologize, but in such cases refuge is taken by saying that science cannot disprove that it happened and so it could be true.

Popular religion, on the other hand, takes almost all its authority from religious texts and insists that all scientific knowledge must be interpreted to be consistent with these texts, since the latter are supposedly infallible. Fundamentalist religions of all stripes fall into this category. In the case of Christians, this group is likely to insist on the historicity of Noah, Moses, Jesus and all the other stories for which there is little or no corroborating historical evidence. For popular religionists, it is essential that the Bible and Koran and other religious texts be treated as scientifically and historically unimpeachable.

Elite science is that produced by the scientific establishment in universities and other research centers and published in scientific journals. Such science follows a strict methodological naturalistic philosophy, which argues that when investigating any phenomenon, we postulate as explanations only natural causes based on physical laws that lead to reproducible results. Elite science does not allow for the intervention of agents that can act arbitrarily in violation of natural laws as the explanation for any phenomenon.

Popular ‘science’ does not limit itself to methodological naturalism but allows for the action of supernatural forces. Such people find no difficulty believing in superstitions, horoscopes, astrology, telekinesis, witchcraft, and so on, and have no trouble believing that there could be some substance to the claims of astrologers, parapsychologists, fortune tellers, spoon benders, mind readers, faith healers, and the like. The idea of widespread existence of supernatural forces of all sorts does not strike such people as implausible. (The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said, “Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.”)

I hate to assign the label ‘science’ to what are such blatantly unscientific beliefs but feel obliged to follow Gilkey’s terminology completely, and it does provide a kind of symmetry in terminology. But I will try to remember to put it in ironic quotes to remind us that all these beliefs are not really science in any sense of the word that a scientists would accept.

So what is the status of the relationship between the four groups?

Popular ‘science’ and popular religion have never had any real problems with each other methodologically. After all, they both are willing to accept the intervention of supernatural agents in everyday lives, in violation of the laws of science. For example, creationists mix their popular religion about god specially creating species with ideas about a 6,000 year-old Earth, which they try and justify using popular ‘science’, which essentially means rejecting much of accepted science and creating ad hoc theories and fitting evidence to reinforce beliefs that are based on religious texts. What differences there are between popular ‘science’ and popular religion lie along moral dimensions. Fundamentalist Christians might dislike and oppose witchcraft, but that is because they think the latter is ‘evil’, the product of a ‘bad’ supernatural agent, not because they think that the idea of witchcraft itself is preposterous.

Elite religion has had an uneasy relationship with popular ‘science’. Elite religion is embarrassed by the notion that god, which for them is a sophisticated concept, would be compatible with other supernatural agents that go running around interfering with the laws of science on a daily basis. But they cannot come down too hard on popular ‘science’ because the only way to consistently do so would be to unequivocally rule out the action of all supernatural agents, which would put themselves too out of business. Once you have accepted the existence of at least one supernatural agent, you have pretty much lost any credibility to oppose any others. So this prevents elite religion from expressing a full-throated denunciation of popular science.

Elite and popular religions tend to get along better. Most large religious denominations encompass both kinds of believers and try not to antagonize any segment. So, for example, even though clergy are likely to know that very little of what is contained in the Bible and other religious texts is historically true (See here and the links therein), they are likely to not emphasize that fact to their congregations. While most people start out as children as popular religionists, if they begin to develop doubts about the historicity of the great flood and the like and ask questions, their priests and parents are likely to concede privately that it is acceptable to not believe in the literal truth of the events portrayed in the religious texts, because they are metaphors of a higher and deeper truth. Thus people who begin to question are slowly edged along the road to elite religion.

Elite science has been in conflict with popular ‘science’ and popular religion for some time now and this situation is likely to continue since the principle of methodological naturalism is a non-negotiable divide. One either accepts it or rejects it as a working hypothesis. Elite science rejects astrology and the like as frauds perpetrated on the gullible. The methodological naturalism that is characteristic of elite science does not allow the intervention of supernatural agents. Thus believers in popular science and popular religion are hostile to elite science because the latter does not allow for supernatural agents as explanations for anything.

All these relationships have been fairly stable for the last few centuries. It is the final remaining relationship, between elite science and elite religion, that is currently undergoing some serious upheaval and sparked the intense science-religion debates that we are currently experiencing, and will form the subject of future postings.

POST SCRIPT: New secular student group at Case

A group of students have taken the initiative to create a Case chapter of the Campus Freethought Alliance. The organizer is a student named Batool who can be reached at bxa21(at) if you would like more information about the group. I have been asked to serve as the group’s advisor and have accepted.

The CFA’s mission can be found on its website.

The Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) is an international not-for-profit umbrella organization uniting freethinking, skeptic, secularist, nontheist, and humanist students and student organizations. Its purposes are:
-To encourage freedom from superstition, irrationalism, and dogma.
-To further the acceptance and application of science, reason, and critical thinking in all areas of human endeavor.
-To challenge misrepresentations of non-religious convictions and lifestyles.
-To create a campus community for freethinkers and skeptics.
-To cultivate in ourselves — and others — a sense of responsibility to, and compassion for, humanity.
-To counter all forms of religious political extremism.
-To defend religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
-To defend individual freedoms and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of race, sex, gender, class, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.
-To unite freethinkers, skeptics, and humanists and consolidate campus resources to these ends.

When good people do bad things

Amongst Catholics, it had long been thought that “children who die without being baptized are with original sin and thus excluded from heaven, but the church has no formal doctrine on the matter. Theologians have long taught, however, that such children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness, a state commonly called limbo, but without being in communion with God.”

However, it seems that concerns have been raised about this because of the growing number of children who now die without being baptized. (I am not exactly sure why this is seen as a bigger problem now than before. Is there a finite amount of space and thus overcrowding in limbo?) Anyway a recent news report says that the Catholic Church has appointed a high powered International Theological Commission to study this problem (really) and now thinks that there is “reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven.”

All Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin. This asserts that all people are sinful by their very nature because they are born that way and thus must seek forgiveness to achieve salvation. I had rejected the idea of original sin at a very early age, even when I was still religious in other ways. The idea that newborn babies are sinners struck me as just too preposterous to be taken seriously. Furthermore, since I had never accepted the Genesis story as being literally true, the ‘fall from grace’ which is supposed to be the source of original sin and is depicted in the famous story of Eve tempting Adam with fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, could not have occurred anyway, making the whole idea very dubious.

For me discussions about the nature of limbo (or even its existence) and the importance of baptism of infants for salvation are utterly pointless, similar to questions concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But such questions have serious consequences in the lives of real people. Richard Dawkins describes the tragic story of Edgardo Mortara in his book The God Delusion (p 311-315), which he takes from another book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer.

Edgardo was a boy born to Jewish parents in Bologna, Italy who, as an infant, had a fourteen year old Catholic nanny. When the baby got very sick one day, the nanny panicked and thought that he was going to die. Not wanting him to end up in limbo, she discovered that anyone (not just priests) could baptize anyone else by sprinkling water and muttering the appropriate words, and she did so to Edgardo in order to save his soul. Edgardo recovered, however, and many years later, the news that he had been baptized came to the attention of church authorities and since a baptized child was legally considered to be a Christian, it was considered intolerable for Edgardo to be brought up in a Jewish home. So in 1868 the papal police, acting legally under the orders of the Inquisition, seized the six-year old boy and brought him up in a special home used for the conversion of Jews and Muslims.

His distraught parents naturally tried everything they could to get their child back but it was to no avail. In fact, the church was bewildered that anyone would even make a fuss about this. After all, the child was now a Christian by virtue of having been baptized and the church thought that being brought up in Christian environment was best for the child. A Catholic newspaper in the US even defended the Pope’s action as taken on behalf of the principle of religious liberty, “the liberty of a child of being a Christian and not forced compulsorily to be a Jew. . . The Holy Father’s protection of the child, in the face of all the ferocious fanaticism of infidelity and bigotry, is the grandest moral spectacle which the world has seen for ages.”

Although Edgardo’s story was highly publicized, it was by no means unusual at that time and this is what makes the whole thing so bizarre. It was apparently routine for well-to-do Jews to hire Catholic nannies, and this kind of surreptitious baptism and taking away of children from Jewish parents had happened before.

This immediately raises the obvious question of why Jews, although aware of this potential problem, would take the risk of hiring Catholic nannies instead of Jewish ones. The reason, it turns out, is that since observant Jews are prohibited by their religion from doing a vast number of routine tasks on the Sabbath, having Catholic servants enabled them to get things done without offending their own god. So the risk of losing a child was seemingly outweighed by their sense of obligation to follow their own god’s rules.

But even after the abduction of their child and when all their efforts to get him back through other means had failed, Edgardo’s parents still had one sure-fire remedy, and that was to agree for themselves to be baptized. Even if they did not believe in the Christian god, if they had agreed to have water sprinkled on themselves and the ritual words spoken, they would get their child back since they would now be considered Christian by the church. But they refused to do this, out of loyalty to their own Jewish god. As Dawkins says: “To some of us, the parents’ refusal indicates wanton stubbornness. To others, their principled stand elevates them into the long list of martyrs for all religions down the ages.”

Dawkins uses this story to make a telling point. Every person and institution in this sorry episode was a ‘good’ person, in the traditional sense that they were acting according to the highest ideals of their religion. The nanny was trying to save the child from limbo. The church honestly seemed to believe that it was in the best interests of a Christian child to be brought up by and amongst other Christians. Edgardo’s parents were trying to observe their religion by hiring a Catholic nanny (despite the known risks) so that they could faithfully observe the Sabbath. And in not agreeing to go through even an insincere baptism, they were acting to avoid incurring the wrath of their own Jewish god because he is well known to be a jealous god who gets really angry at any form of allegiance to other gods, even the Christian god. Presumably the parents sincerely felt that their god would not understand and forgive a baptismal charade, even though their motives for agreeing to a phony baptism would have been unimpeachable.

These were all ‘good’ people, not setting out deliberately to do evil. They were all acting very devoutly according to their own religious lights. But the net result of their actions was evil – a family torn apart and a child deprived of the love and companionship of his parents.

This sad story illustrates better than any other the truth of Steven Weinberg’s statement: “Without [religion], you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins and Bill O’Reilly

You can see the clip of the exchange here. O’Reilly basically said that because he believes in the Christian god, what he believes must be true. He also said that the tides going in and out, the sun rising and setting, all could not happen without god. In short, he trots out all the simple and fallacious arguments that should be familiar to readers of this blog.

Political tone-deafness

You would think that experienced career politicians would have some sense of how to avoid saying things that gratuitously insult people. And then you read things like this:

Former Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson told Jewish activists Monday that making money is “part of the Jewish tradition,” and something that he applauded. 

Speaking to an audience at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington D.C., Thompson said that, “I’m in the private sector and for the first time in my life I’m earning money. You know that’s sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that.” 

Thompson later apologized for the comments that had caused a stir in the audience, saying that he had meant it as a compliment, and had only wanted to highlight the “accomplishments” of the Jewish religion.

Much attention has been focused on Thompson’s casual invocation of the stereotype of Jews as being focused on money and being surprised that his audience did not receive it as a compliment.

But there is another offensive idea in this passage that I hear repeatedly and which has not been remarked upon, and that is his assumption that people who occupy high government office don’t make any money worth speaking of, and only begin to do so when they leave government service and enter the private sector. Surely most people would find this offensive? After all, this person was the governor of a big state and also the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. In both those jobs he would have been paid a salary and obtained perks that almost everyone else in this country can only dream of. But for Thompson and others like him, that is nothing. And what is worse, they act like they have sacrificed on our behalf when they take on these high paying jobs.

Yes, it is true that they probably make much more money when they move to the private sector and exploit the contacts they developed while working in government. But what they get paid as high government officials is still not peanuts and it is a slap in the face to those who earn much less to act as if it were nothing.

Very, very few people will make as much money as Tommy Thompson in either of the two jobs whose salary he disdains. Surely he cannot be oblivious that he earns more than the vast majority of Americans, and when compared to the rest of the world, where poverty is rampant, must rank in the very top tier of income earners. So how is it that a career politician like Thompson can be oblivious to the effect of his words?

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives and potential presidential candidate Newt Gingrich provides another example of obliviousness. He recently caused a fuss when he seemed to imply that Spanish was the language of the ghetto. He then tried to make amends by saying (in Spanish) that what he was really trying to say was that you really needed to learn English if you want to succeed in America.

Really? He thinks that this is news to people? Gingrich painfully spelling this out indicates that he thinks that Hispanics are too stupid to have figured this out by themselves. Of course everyone in America knows that knowledge of English is necessary to advance in almost any aspect of life. The real issue is why this knowledge and awareness does not always get translated into concrete action.

I similarly cringe when politicians preach to children that success in school will lead to better lives. Do they think that these students don’t realize this? Have they never talked to these children? Have they never read any of the research on what students’ views on education are? Children know that high levels of education usually results in a better standard of living. They just don’t act on this knowledge. Again, the real question is why their awareness does not manifest itself in appropriate actions.

And then there is John Edwards. Here he is, from a very poor family background, running for president on a platform that is about the two Americas, the rich and the poor, and the need to be sensitive to the needs of those less fortunate. And then he goes and gets a $400 haircut, for which he has been roundly criticized.

How is it that experienced politicians do not realize how such words and actions might rub people the wrong way? Perhaps it is because they have no real conception about how most people live. Thompson’s world, the people he hangs out with, is probably that of corporate CEOs and other wealthy people and that is the kind of money that he thinks he too deserves to earn. Gingrich’s world is that of successful English speakers who cannot conceive of why other people might not aspire to be like them. John Edwards probably moves among people for whom such expensive haircuts are standard. Laura Bush apparently spends $700 to get her hair done, so I am guessing that these people don’t go to Best Cuts.

None of these things necessarily reflect on how well they might perform in office and should not be overanalyzed. But they do indicate a curious obliviousness to how they might be perceived.

If they really moved around with the people they claim to represent, they might not speak or act so objectionably.

POST SCRIPT: Must-see TV for media watchers

Bill Moyers has a special that examines the media’s complicity in selling the Iraq war under false pretenses. It airs on PBS stations on Wednesday, April 25 at 9:00 pm (check your local listings).

Editor & Publisher says of the program:

The most powerful indictment of the news media for falling down in its duties in the run-up to the war in Iraq will appear next Wednesday, a 90-minute PBS broadcast called “Buying the War,” which marks the return of “Bill Moyers Journal.” E&P was sent a preview DVD and a draft transcript for the program this week. While much of the evidence of the media’s role as cheerleaders for the war presented here is not new, it is skillfully assembled, with many fresh quotes from interviews (with the likes of Tim Russert and Walter Pincus) along with numerous embarrassing examples of past statements by journalists and pundits that proved grossly misleading or wrong. Several prominent media figures, prodded by Moyers, admit the media failed miserably, though few take personal responsibility.
. . .
Phil Donahue recalls that he was told he could not feature war dissenters alone on his MSNBC talk show and always had to have “two conservatives for every liberal.” Moyers resurrects a leaked NBC memo about Donahue’s firing that claimed he “presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
. . .
At the close, Moyers mentions some of the chief proponents of the war who refused to speak to him for this program, including Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol, Roger Ailes, Charles Krauthammer, Judith Miller, and William Safire.
. . .
The program closes on a sad note, with Moyers pointing out that “so many of the advocates and apologists for the war are still flourishing in the media.” He then runs a pre-war clip of President Bush declaring, “We cannot wait for the final proof: the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Then he explains: “The man who came up with it was Michael Gerson, President Bush’s top speechwriter.

“He has left the White House and has been hired by the Washington Post as a columnist.”

You can see Bill Moyers being interviewed by Bill Maher and a preview of the program here.

The serious business of comics

I don’t know what it says about me but the section of the paper I read most carefully is the funny pages. While I can zip through the rest of the paper quickly, gleaning the gist of articles by quickly scanning and skipping, I slow down and read carefully every word in the comics, even the ones I don’t find funny.

I have always taken newspaper comic strips seriously. The papers in Sri Lanka when I was growing up did not have the multipage spreads that US papers have but they had enough comics to whet my appetite for the genre and I became an addict, faithfully reading them every day to this day. In those days there was a greater proportion of ‘serious’ strips, daily serialized versions of comic book stories. I recall The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Tarzan, which I enjoyed at that time, in addition to the gag strips (Mr. Abernathy, Bringing Up Father) which were not that funny. Peanuts was the exception, being consistently high quality, with Hi and Lois being fairly good.

Although I have severely criticized the way newspapers in the US cover news, there is no question that they generally provide you with a good selection of mainstream comics. Whenever I travel to another city, I always buy the local papers to see what comics they run, and while I am away the Plain Dealer copies at home are collected and kept for me so that on my return I can read the comics in sequence and get back up to date.

I know I am not alone in my devotion to comics. It is generally conceded that newspaper readers are most passionate about their comics and woe to the editor who drops a favored strip. I have heard editors say that the only time to make any changes to the comics page is just before you leave town to take another job, so that you can avoid the wrath of fans protesting the loss of their favorite strip.

This intense loyalty has the unfortunate tendency to make the comics pages static, with strips continuing long after their creators have run out of ideas, or even died, with their work being carried on by successors. In a shakeup a few years ago, the Plain Dealer dropped Spiderman and Judge Parker but there was such an outcry that they had to bring them back. Since they had no room anymore on the comics pages because of the replacements, they had to insert them into the classified ads section. As a result I don’t read them anymore since Spiderman was an awful strip, with plots dragging on interminably. Judge Parker was better but not enough to make me rummage through the classified section to find it.

It is only when a cartoonist retires or dies that new trips tend to be introduced and this has happened recently with the retirement of Fox Trot creator Bill Amend. The paper said they would run four different strips for a month each and then get readers to vote for which of the four should be the permanent replacement strip. But for some reason, after three months, while the auditions for the Fox Trot replacement was still going on, they suddenly dropped Pre-Teena (which was not bad) and inserted one of the new candidate strips Pearls Before Swine (which is also not bad) in its place.

The death last week of Johnny Hart, creator of the painfully unfunny B.C. and Wizard of Id may provide opportunities for two new strips, once the backlog of his strips is completed.

In general I hate strips that feature children or animals acting ‘cute’. It seems like their creators, rather than aiming for laughs, want their readers to say “Awwww, how sweet!” Family Circus, Marmaduke and Jump Start are the worst examples of this tendency. I also hate strips like Ziggy that are often simply sappy and repetitious, seemingly written as greeting cards.

Garfield, Get Fuzzy, Peanuts, and The Boondocks (the last via the internet) are examples of strips that have animals and children but where they have personalities and are interesting, even edgy. Peanuts is now running some of the early strips drawn in the 1950s and 60s and it amazing how laugh-out-loud funny they are, compared to Charles Shulz’s later works when they became more focused on being heartwarming rather than funny. Linus especially is a hoot and my favorite character, along with everyone’s favorite Snoopy.

Amongst the other current comics, the ones I like are Dilbert, Non Sequitur, Speed Bump, Bizarro, Real Life Adventures, Zits, and Doonesbury. Blondie, despite its age, still has the ability to occasionally be quite funny, as does The Born Loser.

The thing that has changed since my youth is the emergence of the semi-comic narrative strip, which has continuing story lines that do not always aim for a laugh. For Better or Worse and Funky Winkerbean are better examples of this genre, while Crankshaft is tiresome. Although Tom Batiuk is the creator of both Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft, the former benefits from having a larger ensemble of varied and interesting characters and story lines, while the latter’s running gags of mothers chasing the bus (sorry for the pun) and Keesterman’s mailbox being destroyed have long since ceased to be funny.

Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, and Sally Forth are also strips that I would not miss if they disappeared, being funny only on very rare occasions. Mary Worth is a soap-opera strip that also tends to drag the plot lines out and should be retired.

So what about the four candidates that are supposed to be auditioning to replace Fox Trot? One was Dog Eat Doug, which features a dog and a baby both acting cute, and hence was really awful. Another was Pearls Before Swine which seems to have already usurped the Pre-Teena slot. Another is called Diesel Sweeties about a robot and his human girl friend, which looks like it was drawn using an Etch-a-Sketch. This strip is quite weird and I just don’t get some of the jokes or even the point. The fourth candidate was the first to run and I have forgotten it already.

The comic strip that I miss most is, of course, Calvin and Hobbes. What a brilliant strip that was. But I have to admire creator Bill Watterson for recognizing that after ten years, it was time to stop. It is always better to leave people wanting more than have them wish you would go away.

POST SCRIPT: This should be fun

Richard Dawkins will be interviewed by Bill O’Reilly on Monday, April 23, at 8.00pm Eastern time on FOX. The program will be rebroadcast at 11.00pm. (You may want to check your local listings for times.)

O’Reilly’s shtick is to try and bully and badger those with whom he disagrees. But Dawkins is more than his match intellectually and does not suffer fools gladly.

I have seen many Dawkins interviews in which he is engaged by British TV interviewers who have been sharp in their questions but cordial and civil in their manner. I am not sure if Dawkins has ever been interviewed by someone as overbearing, self-absorbed, and obnoxious as O’Reilly, so this encounter will be like the proverbial unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

Unfortunately I do not have cable and am teaching a class until 9:00pm anyway. I hope the video appears on the internet soon after.

Reacting to other people’s tragedies

Perhaps one of the hardest things to deal with is how to respond when tragedy strikes other people.

When tragedy strikes you personally, then any response by you is fine and no one else has the right to tell you how you should feel and what is appropriate behavior. I find it strange when others sit in judgment and look on disapprovingly if someone does things that they themselves would not do in a similar situation. For example, Elizabeth Edwards’ decision to continue with her life just as it was before her cancer struck again was her right to make and should not have been second-guessed by anyone. She said that the only alternative was preparing for death and she rejected that option.
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The Virginia Tech tragedy

What was your reaction when you first heard the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech? When someone in my office told me around noon on Monday that about twenty people had been shot dead on that campus, my first reaction was that this was probably another case of someone snapping under the pressure of something or other and setting off on a killing spree.

One thing that did not occur to me, despite the fear-mongering that has gone on under the guise of the so-called ‘war on terror’, was the possibility that this was a terrorist attack. After all, these kinds of killings happen periodically in America, though admittedly this was on a larger scale than usual. Although I checked the internet for news, I have long realized that you should never take seriously the initial news reports that emerge from such chaotic and fast-moving situations.

The first news that emerges almost always depend on reports, often second or third hand, originating from people having a slight connection with the incident, perhaps because of being nearby. But eyewitness reports given by most people in situations like this are notoriously unreliable. People often confuse what they actually observed with what they inferred, they re-order events, they confuse identities. Most of this is because they are not dispassionate observers, clinically taking notes. Instead they are trying to make sense of the events as they rapidly occur so that they can take action, often defensive action.

So I have found that it is usually after a few days, when the dust has settled and people have managed to get enough information from diverse sources, that reliable news about even the most basic aspects (how many people died, how many were injured, when and where the events occurred) can be gleaned. So I reserve judgment until that time.

Oddly enough, as even more time goes by, the story gets distorted again. This is because after awhile, an ‘official’ narrative starts to get constructed. People like to have a nice story line that fits a pattern and this official narrative begins to be constructed that tries to explain everything neatly. This is rarely an act of deliberate dishonesty. It can arise naturally, often out of good motives. The authorities want to get back a sense of normalcy, so they have a vested interested in acting as if everything is over and known. People want to get back to their lives and they can do that if they think there is nothing more to be learned. All these things conspire to pressure everyone to suppress discrepant data and discordant explanations and to produce an ‘official’ history of the events that then becomes ‘fact’.

So my view is that it is in a small window of time after the events, not immediately during or after, and not too long afterwards, that we get the most accurate picture of what really happened, with all its seeming contradictions and loose ends. This is why historians go back to the contemporary records of events they are investigating, to primary sources, and are often surprised that the actual history of some event is often much more complicated than the official version that was subsequently passed on.

So not jumping to conclusions and waiting for a few days to draw conclusions has always seemed to me to be a wise move. But clearly not everyone agrees with that approach. Some people, on first hearing the Virginia Tech news, immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a terrorist attack by Muslims and then tried to fit all the details that emerged into that pre-determined narrative structure.

One of these people was someone called Debbie Schlussel, a Third-Tier Pundit. Her immediate suspicion was that the killer was a Muslim and that this was a terrorist attack. Her suspicions were fuelled by initial reports that the killer was Asian. She immediately looked around for likely Asian Muslims, although no data was available to support her speculations. She wrote: “The Virginia Tech campus has a very large Muslim community, many of which are from Pakistan” and added “Pakis are considered “Asian.” ” (She seems not to realize that while ‘Pakistanis’ is an acceptable description of people of that nation, and ‘Paks’ is also sometimes used, especially to describe their sports teams, the word ‘Paki’ is considered a racial slur, especially in England. When someone pointed this out in the comments she reacted angrily and defensively)

She went on obsessing about the possibility that the shooter was a Muslim: “So who is the shooter? What is the shooter’s nationality? What is the shooter’s religion? Waiting to find out. And wondering why the police and media are referring to the shooter as “Asian” and not by specific nationality.. . Why am I speculating that the “Asian” gunman is a Pakistani Muslim? Because law enforcement and the media strangely won’t tell us more specifically who the gunman is. Why?”

She seems to have this bizarre idea that there is a vast conspiracy by the authorities to hide the killer’s Muslim identity under the broad umbrella label of Asian, and she tries to enlist other Asians to her cause by appealing to a bogus sense of grievance: “If I were Asian, I’d be legitimately upset with this broad generalization of the mass murderer’s identity.” I am not sure why any Asian should be upset at this. If someone saw me on the street, they would not know if I was Indian or Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi or Pakistani. If you don’t know for sure, ‘Asian’ seems a much better description, though still having the potential to be wrong.

Perhaps suspecting that at this point she may be have gone too far, Schlussel tries to hedge her bets. “Even if it does not turn out that the shooter is Muslim, this is a demonstration to Muslim jihadists all over that it is extremely easy to shoot and kill multiple American college students.” Really? She thinks that people don’t know that college campuses in the US are open places where people wander around freely?

But then news emerged that the shooter was “Chinese,” thus destroying her Muslim theory, so she jumps to another conclusion, to tackle another pet project which is exploiting xenophobic anti-immigrant feelings. “The shooter has now been identified as a Chinese national here on a student visa. Lovely. Yet another reason to stop letting in so many foreign students.” Of course, that also turned out to be wrong. The student was from South Korea and had been here from the time he was eight, and did not need or have a student visa because he was a permanent resident.

So then what to do? One of her commenters tries to salvage her Muslim phobia by suggesting that the shooter might be a Chinese Muslim, helpfully providing a Wikipedia link to show the existence of such people. (When I read the angry tone and language of the comments on her blog and her responses to them, and compare them with the kinds of thoughtful and sophisticated discussions that go on here, it is like night and day.) Schlussel still tries to find a Muslim connection by referring to some other incident that happened elsewhere last year and adds darkly: “And remember: Just because this attacker was not Muslim, doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of potential and hopeful ones among the thousands Muslim nations are sending here to “study” under Saudi King Abdullah’s scholarships.”

But meanwhile she is also hints that such a mass killing had to have greater planning and done by more than a lone lunatic, and also pushes other pet projects such as this atrocity proving the need to allow everyone to carry guns, and decrying the wimpiness of current American students who should have rushed and overpowered the gunman instead of hiding or running.

Then she struck pay dirt. A report came in that the student had the words “Ismail Ax” written on his arm! Ismail! A Muslim name! The smoking gun at last! This news has set off another furious round of feverish speculation in the blog world that the killer might secretly have been a Muslim. I find it curious that all these people seem to want a terrorist attack by Muslims to occur in the US. Why is this?

Was the shooter a Muslim? Who knows? That information will eventually come out. And if so, what of it? Maybe he was just a fan of Moby Dick. Maybe “Ismail Ax” was some literary creation of his highly disturbed psyche. We know he was an English major who had strange creative impulses.

I am spending so much space on a fairly obscure person’s rantings because it provides a useful case study to indicate what can happen when you jump to conclusions right at the beginning of fast moving events and then try fit everything to meet that conclusion.

We all have some kind of immediate reaction to any event but the sensible thing, it seems to me, is to realize that our initial guess could be way off and wait until we have at least some reliable data before shooting off at the mouth. Otherwise you end up looking like an idiot. As Sherlock Holmes said in A Scandal in Bohemia: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Keith Olbermann takes to task the people who said the most idiotic and insensitive things about the Virginia Tech tragedy. Schlussel merely gets the bronze medal, which gives you an indication of how bad the others must be.

POST SCRIPT: New episode of Mr. Deity

Mr. Deity is the hilarious set of short films that feature God (Mr. Deity), his occasional girl friend Lucy (Lucifer), his assistant Larry (who seems to have a Mr. Burns/Smithers relationship with Mr. Deity), and Jesus.

Episode #9 is now available, where Mr. Deity is annoyed with having his name publicized as creator of the Bible.

The full set of clips can be seen here.

False symmetry

In recent posts, I have been pointing out that while it is impossible to disprove god’s existence, that did not mean that it was rational to believe in god. The reason for those posts was to address a false symmetry that is sometimes posed between atheism and religious belief. That symmetry takes roughly the following form:

1. It cannot be proved that god does not exist
2. Therefore not believing in god’s existence is as much an act of faith as believing in it.

Some extend this line of reasoning even further, to argue that therefore atheism is also a religion and that thus keeping prayer and religious education out of schools is equivalent to promoting one particular ‘religion’ (atheism), and thus violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

This is a false symmetry. While atheists would accept the first statement, they would reject the second. The crucial difference is the role that evidence plays in shaping beliefs.

I said that because of the impossibility of proving a negative, the current state of absence of evidence for god and the afterlife was all the proof we were ever going to get. If people think that a more convincing proof is required for disbelief in god, then I am curious to learn what form it would take. So far, nothing has been offered, as far as I know.

Atheists take the following position:

1. We believe in those things that have sufficient and convincing evidentiary support.
2. We disbelieve those things for which there is insufficient evidentiary support.
3. The more evidence there is in favor of a belief, the more we are likely to believe and vice versa.

The crucial difference can be seen in response to my question as to what evidence it would take to make them disbelieve in god and the afterlife. The commenters in this blog (who are all people who have obviously given this question considerable thought) agreed that there was no conceivable evidence that would make them give up their beliefs. And yet, they do not believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, which have no evidentiary support either. So religious belief is decoupled from evidence. In fact, belief in god in the absence of evidence is taken as a virtue, a sign of the depth of one’s faith.

On the other hand, atheists take a position that is consistent with a scientific outlook. They believe in those things for which there is persuasive, objective, corroborative, and cumulative evidence, even if it cannot be proved beyond any doubt. They can also always conceive of some evidence that would persuade them to give up their most cherished theories. For example, if human fossils that are two billion years old were ever found, that would seriously undermine the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Similarly, atheists can conceive of all manner of things that would require them to accept the existence of god. As another example, suppose god were to suddenly appear on all TV stations, announcing his/her existence, the way that V appeared in the excellent film V for Vendetta. Of course, that by itself would not be convincing since people nowadays are skeptical of the power of technology. Some people are convinced that the Moon landings and the 9/11 attacks were hoaxes.

So to be really convincing, god would have to announce in that broadcast that he/she would stop the Earth’s rotation for 24 hours, starting at some specified time. Such an act would violate the laws of conservation of energy and angular momentum, which are foundations of physics. If that happened, I don’t see how anyone could doubt god’s existence.

Of course, god would have to take some precautions. Simply stopping the Earth’s rotation would, according to the laws of physics, at the very least unleash huge tsunamis and earthquakes that would wreak destruction on a massive scale. But since an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god can keep track of and do everything at once, I am sure that these negative consequences of stopping the Earth can be avoided. And this is not asking for too much evidence since the Bible says that god has done this in the past (Joshua 10:12-13). To be accurate, the Bible says that god stopped the Sun, not the Earth’s rotation, but we can grant some license for pre-Copernican thinking.

I am not saying that this is the only proof of god’s existence that would be acceptable to atheists. One can suggest a vast number of similar evidences. But it does suggest the nature of the evidence that would be required to be convincing.

So that is where things stand. Atheists, like scientists, can always articulate what evidence (or lack of it) makes them believe some things and disbelieve others. They can also specify what kind of evidence would make them call into question what they currently believe and convert them to belief about things they are currently skeptical of.

But religious believers have no choice but to say that there are some beliefs that they will never give up on, whatever the evidence. It is important to realize that there is nothing inherently wrong with taking this position. Kathy in her comments to previous posts quite rightly points out that faith is irrational and that logic and evidence have nothing to do with it. I agree with her.

What I am saying is that the atheist’s lack of belief in god and the afterlife are, like a scientist’s, based on logic and the absence of evidence while religious beliefs have to part company with evidence at some point. And this is where the symmetry breaks down.

POST SCRIPT: The secret doubts of believers

In a previous post, I suggested that it was strange that religious believers in their daily lives did not act in ways that were consistent with an all-knowing, all-powerful god and suggested that perhaps people were more atheistic than they were willing to let on. Of course, there is hardly any new idea under the sun. It turns out that long ago philosopher David Hume suspected the same thing, as he wrote in his The Natural History of Religion chapter XII (1757):

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

This is supposed to be funny?

When I was in my early teens, I was the proverbial ‘good’ boy. I was religious, didn’t swear, didn’t smoke or drink surreptitiously, and drugs were simply out of the question. But I had a neighbor of the same age who was much more worldly than I. And this youth used to tell coarse jokes. These jokes dealt with sex and bodily parts and bodily functions. They poked fun at gays and women and were outrageously sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic, although I did not know these words at that time.

As I recall, the jokes were mostly labored puns, and depended on a character having a highly improbable and contrived name that was essential for the working of the joke. So when the character was introduced by name in the set up, you pretty much could guess what the punch line was going to be. After all these years I can still recall one joke, not by remembering it entire, but because I can remember the name of the main character and thus can reconstruct the joke from that name.

Clever, these jokes were not. Even at that young age, I could see that they were labored and crude. But still I enjoyed hearing them and laughed along with the teller, feeding his ego that he was a witty raconteur, a veritable Lenny Bruce, so that he would tell more. I think that the appeal of these jokes for me was that they were a guilty pleasure, a way for me, the ‘good’ boy, to have an outlet for speaking about socially repressed topics like sex and yet preserve my self-image. After all, I wasn’t saying any of these things, I was just a bystander.

But then I grew up. As an adult, I had the freedom to speak openly about these topics and didn’t need to giggle furtively at crude humor and language as a means of expression. I think that perhaps my experience was not uncommon. At the awkward adolescent age that young men go through, when they are trying to figure out their gender and ethnic identities in societies that are uncomfortable with openly discussing them, this kind of humor may for some be a necessary phase for trying out speculative ideas.

As an adult, if one is fortunate enough, one becomes more aware of the diversity of the world and the shared human values. One also encounters and makes friends with people of different ethnicities and religions and genders and sexual orientations and begins to realize that humor that is based on gratuitously insulting those groups is simply not funny.

Sometimes the lessons are learned painfully. I remember attending a World Student Christian Movement international conference as the Sri Lankan delegate in the early 1970s. The American delegation consisted mostly of women who were feminists and I remember making ‘jokes’ (of the ‘there, there, little girl’ type) that were condescending and patronizing to women and feminism, The women were, naturally enough, infuriated and did not hesitate to tell me why they thought I was an idiot. Although I brushed off their criticisms at the time, I think their comments worked on me slowly and I realized later that I had acted like a jerk. (I still cringe at the memory and in the highly unlikely event that decades later any of them are reading this blog, I apologize.).

This is not to say that humor based on gender or sex or sexual identity and ethnicity need to be avoided. We have to take pleasure in our differences and our diversity, and a rich vein of humor can be mined by playing off stereotypes. Dave Barry shows how it can be done well in his brilliantly funny essay on The Difference Between Men and Women. But there is a world of difference between clever and mean, between witty and crude. Depending upon insulting words and denigrating stereotypes means that you have no creativity and are simply desperate to get a laugh, any laugh..

This is what seems to be at the heart of the Don Imus episode. Although I have never watched or listened to his show (except for the occasional YouTube clips when it dealt with some political topic) what caused the furor seemed to me to be like the situation when I was young, laughing along with my neighbor’s lame attempts at humor. All the celebrity guests, the so-called ‘respectable’ people, the movers and shakers in the political and media world, who repeatedly appeared on his show and indulged his alleged racist and sexist and homophobic humor seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to enjoy this forbidden pleasure, while still clinging to their respectability because they themselves did not say any of those things. They, like me, adopted the ‘innocent bystander’ defense. And this acceptance of his actions by them in turn enabled Imus to feel that what he was doing was just fine, even perhaps admirable.

The whole thing reminds me (as so many things do) of a Monty Python sketch. This one starts with Terry Jones as a little naughty schoolboy thinking that it is very funny to say the word ‘bottom’ while his ‘good’ friends giggle, and ends with the famous ‘nudge, nudge’ sketch where Eric Idle is satirizing grown men who never really became mature. They want to talk about sex but can only do so in innuendo.

What surprises me is one ‘defense’ that is being offered on Imus’s behalf, that he was an equal-opportunity offender, insulting almost every possible minority group. When did that become a good thing?

I am not much in touch anymore with talk radio and talk TV (or even popular culture in general for that matter) and so have no idea if Imus was better or worse than others in those media or whether his summary firing was justified by those standards. I suspect that he was fired for business reasons and the defection of advertisers, the real arbiter of media content, and not due to a sudden increase in refinement in the sensibilities of his audience or of the corporate bigwigs who own the stations his show ran on.

But what I feel is that while the type of humor Imus got into trouble for is not funny, and the behavior as practiced by him and his associates and guests is perhaps understandable in callow youths as a temporary phase on the road to maturity, it looks sad and pathetic when practiced by old men.

POST SCRIPT: Parody of Parodies

While searching for the above video, I ran across this very funny clip that pokes fun at the church of Monty Python, of which I am a devout member, as I am sure that readers of this blog have figured out.