Get your war on Christmas here!

My, how time flies. What with one thing and another, I realized that it is already past mid-December and my fellow atheists and I have forgotten all about starting our annual war on Christmas. I really do apologize. I have had a lot of things on my mind lately but I’ll get on it right away.

You know what war I mean. All of us for many years have been plotting secretly in our underground cells with just one goal in mind: to destroy Christianity by undermining the very foundation of that religion: the Christmas holiday. The way we do that is by sending greeting cards or wishing people well with religiously neutral phrases like “Happy Holidays” or “Compliments of the Season” or simply wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill to all, without invoking Jesus or Biblical verses. By using such language our goal was to try and create a time of year when the whole world might be united around the secular ideas of peace and goodwill, anchored by a celebration that originated in a pagan celebration of the winter solstice.

We also try to destroy Christianity by encouraging people to not take part in the traditional orgy of spending vast amounts of money and resources on ‘gifts’ that have ceased to become gifts in the sense of genuine and spontaneous gestures of affection or response to needs, and have now become the obligatory filling of almost extortion-like expectations which often leads to disappointment and anger and resentment because the gift wasn’t good enough or not what was expected or because someone else was given something better.

Another part of the atheist plan to destroy Christmas was to discourage people from gluttonous eating and drinking and to simply spend time socializing with friends and family.

The plan was going along well until it was discovered a few years ago. Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson of Fox News, clever people that they are, saw through our plan. They realized that once people start thinking beyond their own religious tribe and in terms of our common humanity, that was the first dangerous step on the slippery road that led inevitably to humanism, agnosticism, and atheism.

Being manly warriors for god, never braver than when they are facing down imaginary enemies, they started a counter-offensive, wreaking vengeance on those stores and shop clerks who do not use the short list of approved language such as “Merry Christmas” and do not festoon every display and image with the nativity scene and Biblical phrases, such shibboleths being necessary parts of proving that they share warrior Bill’s fervor for the Christian god and Jesus.

But is it me or have others also noted that O’Reilly and others seem to have run out of steam on this issue? This year I do not hear the same level of hysteria on their part as in previous years. Are they tired from their strenuous efforts of previous years and handed the baton on to others? Have they declared victory and moved on to other issues that promise better ratings?

Whatever the reason, it looks like the enemies of atheism are weak right now. So this is the time for all of us atheists to increase our efforts in the war on Christmas. Make sure you attend the secret cell meetings to plan our next offensive. You know the time and place. The secret password this week: When the guard at the door says “O’Reilly is a nitwit”, you respond “And so also is Gibson.”

Be there or be square!

POST SCRIPT: And they thought Harry Potter was bad

As if the religious nuts did not have enough to worry about with all the magic and sorcery in the Harry Potter books, now along comes the film The Golden Compass based on the first book of a fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman, an avowed atheist who views C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series as religious bilge.

Thanks to the flap created by the usual religious hyperventilators, I have now heard of a book, film, and author I had not heard of before but is now definitely on my list of films to see.

The Israel lobby-3: The tide turns against the lobby?

In the first post in this series, I looked at the main arguments made by John J. Mearsheimer and Steven M. Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy. In the second post, I described how they defined the lobby and how it works. In this last post, I look at how their book has stimulated a closer examination of the work of the lobby and the policies it advocates.

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The Israel lobby-2: Who makes up the Israel lobby and how does it work?

In the previous post, I described the main thesis of University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy.

So who or what constitutes the ‘Israel lobby’? Well aware that criticism of the Israel lobby will immediately result in the lobby trying to label them as being anti-Semitic, Mearsheimer and Walt go to some lengths to deflect that charge. They point out that it is wrong to identify the Israel lobby as a Jewish lobby. Not only are non-Jews key players in the lobby, the Israel lobby very often pursues policies that are not even supported by a majority of American Jews. They provide statistics and surveys that suggest that substantial majorities of American Jews disagree with many of the policies advocated by the lobby.
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The Israel lobby-1: The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy

Most political observers have by now heard of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy by University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt. It is an expanded and updated version of their much-discussed March 23, 2006 article in the London Review of Books, and the working paper on which that article was based. The two authors gave talks at Case on September 26, 2007 as part of their book tour. The earlier articles and the current book have sparked considerable controversy and in this and the next two posts, I will try to present the main arguments made by the authors.

The main thesis of the book is quite straightforward and can be summarized as follows:

The US gives Israel a level of unconditional military, economic, and diplomatic support that far exceeds what it gives to any other country, both in absolute and per capita terms. This level of support cannot be justified on strategic or moral grounds and in fact has resulted in actual harm being done to the long-term interests of the US and even Israel. The existence of the current policies can only be explained as due to the successful lobbying efforts of a powerful group that they call the ‘Israel lobby’. A frank discussion would quickly reveal the negative consequences of these policies but this has not occurred because the lobby not only has the ability to influence the speech and actions of the administrative and legislative bodies, it also tries to stifle in the media any examination of its role in influencing policy by accusing critics of the policy and the lobby of being anti-Semitic, and lumping them with Holocaust deniers and purveyors of various conspiracy theories.

One thing that struck me from reading the book and article and listening to their talk is that the two authors, far from being some kind of radicals expressing extreme views, belong to the so-called ‘realist’ school of American foreign policy. They are not idealists. They start from the premise that the US should take whatever steps it needs to take to protect its own interests and that it is US interests that should drive US foreign policy. For example, they feel that the US has a right to ensure that supplies of Middle East oil are available to the West and should do what it takes to ensure it. The authors do argue for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East but not because such a presence is wrong in any moral sense. Instead they say that American strategic interests are better served by maintaining what they call an ‘over the horizon’ capability, with a rapid deployment force able to strike quickly when needed to protect US interests. The permanent physical presence of US forces in that region merely breeds resentment without achieving any worthwhile strategic goals.

Their main thesis is that the group they identify as the Israel lobby has steered US foreign policy away from that serving its own purely national interest, and towards identifying the interests of the US as identical with the interests of Israel (more accurately, with a particular segment of the Israeli political spectrum), and that what is good for one is good for the other. In particular, they say that the lobby urges the US to treat as enemies those whom Israel sees as its enemies (e.g., Iraq, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, the PLO). The authors argue that this has resulted in policies (the invasion of Iraq, belligerence and bellicose rhetoric aimed at Iran and Syria, opposition to Palestinian rights, attacks on Lebanon) that have resulted in the US’s strategic interests being compromised and made the US a target of terrorism.

[These policies were] due largely to the political power of the Israel lobby, a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence American foreign policy in ways that will benefit Israel. In addition to encouraging the United States to back Israel more or less unconditionally, groups and individuals in the lobby played key roles in shaping American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, and the ongoing confrontations with Syria and Iran. We suggested that these policies were not in the U. S. national interest and were in fact harmful to Israel’s long-term interests as well. (p. viii)

They do not charge that the members of the Israel lobby are seeking to benefit Israel at the expense of the US. They say that the members of the Israel lobby probably genuinely feel that both countries are served well by such a close identification of interests. But the authors strongly disagree with this. They argue that such a close identification has resulted in policies that are actually harming both the US and Israel. Strong, unconditional support for Israel has resulted in the most extreme members of the Israeli government being emboldened to pursue policies in the occupied territories that are rapidly precluding the possibility of any meaningful chance for long-term peace. While US interests may often coincide with the interests of allies like Israel, it should never subordinate itself to those other interests.

The authors argue that while there are some obvious common interests between the two countries, the US should treat Israel the same way that it treats any other ally, say Great Britain or Canada or Mexico. “When Israel acts in ways that the United States deems desirable, it should have American backing. When it does not, Israel should expect to face U.S. opposition, just as other states do.” (p. 341)

As they point out in their book, Israel receives a level of unconditional economic, military, and diplomatic support that is far in excess of that received by any other country and that this extraordinary level of support cannot be justified on either strategic or moral grounds. Israel is one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. Its per capita income is 29th in the world, nearly double that of Hungary and Czech Republic, and far higher than Portugal, South Korea or Taiwan (p. 30). The US provides more aid with fewer strings attached to Israel than to any other country, which works out to about $500 per person. The second largest recipient of US aid (Egypt) gets $20 per person. Even extremely poor countries with whom the US has long historical ties, like Haiti, get just $27 per person. (p. 25)

The US also provides Israel with a great deal of military support, providing them with access to top-level hardware and technology. Israel is now a major military power with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs but is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) or the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions (p. 36). The authors argue that even without its nuclear capability, Israel maintains an overwhelming military superiority to all its neighbors and thus does not face an existential threat.

Israel is often portrayed as weak and besieged, a Jewish David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath. This image has been carefully nurtured by Israeli leaders and sympathetic writers, but the opposite is closer to the truth. Israel has always been militarily stronger than its Arab adversaries. (p. 81)
. . .
Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to those of its neighbors, and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons. (p. 83)
. . .
Indeed, current conditions in the Middle East pose a serious dilemma for the more hard-line elements in the lobby. Instead of defending a weak state surrounded by enemies, created in the aftermath of a great historical tragedy, they are now forced to defend a powerful, modern, and prosperous state that is using its superior force to confiscate land from the Palestinians and to deny them full political rights, while dealing harshly with troubled neighbors such as Lebanon.” (p. 353)

They argue that even the moral case that Israel is somehow ‘better’ than other states cannot be sustained, and that in fact its treatment of Palestinians and Lebanon are appalling. But despite this, the US provides almost unconditional diplomatic cover for such actions, enabling Israel to pursue policies that would merit swift condemnation if done by other countries. While Israel may have had some strategic value during the Cold War, it has ceased to be a strategic asset and is now a liability in that unconditional support for Israeli policies in the Middle East with respect to the Palestinians and Lebanon has fueled anti-Americanism worldwide and terrorism aimed at the US. (p. 65)

Next: Who makes up the lobby?

POST SCRIPT: Hey, what about the Wiccans?

Before I leave the Mitt Romney beat, my attention was drawn to the part of his speech on faith where he panders to every significant religious voting bloc, saying:

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.

The Weekly Standard has obtained the preliminary draft of this section.

Are all religious leaders con men?

In his comment to my earlier posting on Romney and Mormonism, Jared says “[Mormon founder Joseph] Smith wasn’t just a con man (which is basically how he started). He came to really believe the things he made up, and was probably insane.”

This is an interesting point worth exploring. The founders of religions tend to make extraordinary claims such as god talking directly to them, having the power to work miracles, and so on. If we dismiss this as impossible, the remaining options are: Did they genuinely believe the things they said (i.e., they were delusional at best and psychotic at worst)? Or were they outright charlatans, cynically using tricks and smooth talk and their personal charisma to fool the suckers?

Christopher Hitchens in one of the best passages his book God is Not Great (2007, p. 165) discusses this point:

Professor Daniel Dennett and his supporters have attracted a great deal of criticism for their “natural science” explanation of religion. Never mind the supernatural, argues Dennett, we may discard that while accepting that there have always been those for whom “belief in belief” is a good thing in itself. Phenomena can be explained in biological terms. In primitive times, is it not possible that those who believed in the shaman’s cure had a better morale as a result, and thus a slight but significantly higher chance of actually being cured? “Miracles” and similar nonsense to one side, not even modern medicine rejects this thought. And it seems possible, moving to the psychological arena, that people can be better off believing in something than in nothing, however untrue that something may be.

Some of this will always be disputed among anthropologists and other scientists, but what interests me and always has is this: Do the preachers and prophets also believe, or do they too just “believe in belief”? Do they ever think to themselves, this is too easy? And do they then rationalize the trick by saying that either (a) if these wretches weren’t listening to me they’d be in even worse shape; or (b) that if it doesn’t do them any good then it still can’t be doing them much harm? Sir James Frazer, in his famous study of religion and magic The Golden Bough, suggests that the novice witch doctor is better off if he does not share the illusions of the ignorant congregation. For one thing, if he does take the magic literally he is much more likely to make a career-ending mistake. Better by far to be a cynic, and to rehearse the conjury, and to tell himself that everybody is better off in the end. [Mormon founder Joseph] Smith obviously seems like a mere cynic, in that he was never happier than when using his “revelation” to claim supreme authority, or to justify the idea that the flock should make over their property to him, or to sleep with every available woman. There are gurus and cult leaders of that kind born every day. Smith must certainly have thought it was too easy to get innocent wretches like Martin Harris to believe everything he told them, especially when they were thirsty for just a glimpse of that mouthwatering golden trove. But was there a moment when he also believed that he did have a destiny, and was ready to die to prove it? In other words, was he a huckster all the time, or was there a pulse inside him somewhere? The study of religion suggests to me that, while it cannot possibly get along without great fraud and also minor fraud, this remains a fascinating and somewhat open question.

Hitchens also makes the point that at the time of Smith, there “were dozens of part-educated, unscrupulous, ambitious, fanatical men like Smith in the Palmyra, New York, area at that epoch, but only one of them achieved “takeoff””, partly because “Smith had great natural charm and fluency: what Max Weber called the “charismatic” part of leadership.”

I suspect that Smith’s story is fairly typical of that type of person and applies to the story of Jesus, Muhammad, and the Old Testament Jewish prophets. All of them also lived in times that were more credulous of the claims of people possessing magical powers. Remember that the arts of magic and mind-reading have been around for a long time, available to con men to use to impress people eager to believe in the existence of mystical unseen powers that could be harnessed by a chosen few. The founders of the older religions are likely cut from the same cloth as Joseph Smith except that those stories have had a much longer time to get cleaned up by their followers once they realized that the rewards promised to them (like the second coming of Jesus) were not going to occur in their own lifetimes but in some indefinite future. They had to dig in for the long haul and get their followers used to the fact that supernatural events were no longer to be expected as everyday occurrences.

There is the possibility though that at some point these “prophets” may have begun to wonder to themselves, “Can it really be this easy to fool all these people? Surely they must realize that I am a fraud?” From there, their thoughts could easily shift to “Maybe these people were meant to be fooled. Maybe god does exist and is shutting their eyes to the fact that I am using trickery in order to use me to achieve some larger purpose.” Thus, after deluding others, they become (at least partially) self-delusional, believing their own nonsense, thus making themselves even more effective as “prophets” while retaining enough of a sense of reality to avoid making a “career-ending mistake.” Like good magicians, they would restrict their displays of “supernatural” power and “revelations” to carefully controlled situations where they could set things up in advance, sometimes with the aid of accomplices, so that the gullible would be impressed, all the while persuading themselves that they were doing it all for the greater good or for god, not just for themselves.

That is the most charitable gloss that I can put on the founders of religions. The only alternative is that they were totally cynical frauds.

POST SCRIPT: Bart Simpson, prophet

“The little stupid differences [between religions] are nothing next to the big stupid similarities.”

More on Romney and Mormonism

In his speech, Mitt Romney said that faith absolutely does belong in the public sphere saying, inexplicably, that “freedom requires religion”, a statement that makes no sense whatsoever, but was just blatant pandering to religious sentiment.

Given his remarks, a close examination of his own faith is now fair game. People should ask him if any and every faith (including, but not limited to, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny) belongs and if not, what exactly he believes in and why his faith should be on his ‘approved’ list and the others not. It will not, however, strike most religious people that such questions should be asked because those kinds of questions presuppose a sense of rational inquiry about the nature of faith. Religious people tend not to think is those terms because doing so is dangerous to faith itself. As the TV character House said, “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” I suspect that such questions won’t be asked by mainstream reporters either because they will open up uncomfortable questions about the rationality of the nature of the beliefs of Christians, Jews, and Muslims too.

Last Friday’s posting on Mitt Romney and Mormonism opened up a very interesting discussion in the comments, along with some useful links to more information.

Mike Pirnat provided a link to a funny South Park clip on Mormonism.

It follows pretty much what I described before except in one detail. Christopher Hitchens wrote that during the translation sessions, the scribe Harris was prevented from seeing Smith and his book and magic stones by a blanket strung across the kitchen. The cartoon gives a different version (which I have also heard) that the book and stones were hidden inside a hat and Smith buried his head in the hat in order to see the translations. Which version is true? I don’t know. Maybe both, that he put his head into a hat and also stayed behind a blanket. Who knows, this divergence may form the basis for another doctrinal schism in the Mormon Church. I am not saying that Mormons are more prone to hair-splitting doctrinaire conflicts than other religions. That basis for a split would make as much sense as the doctrinal causes of the schisms that plague all the denominations, sects, and factions within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

I heard that even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not immune from such divisive tendencies, with a sect called the Reformed Church of Alfredo splitting from the main body, and that further tensions exist caused by whether Parmesan or Romano should be the holy cheese used by the Pastafarians. And I won’t even get into the Marinaran heresy. I must say that I am disappointed. I had hoped that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was better than the other churches. Why can’t they all get along?

Jared provided a link to a PBS Frontline special on the Mormons. (The documentary is four hours long and split into 26 digestible chapters of about 10 minutes each. It is generally very sympathetic to the Mormons. For some reason, chapter one had only audio on my browser.) Jared adds that “It’s much more accurate than the cartoon you posted, which emphasizes elements in [M]ormon mythology that are more than obscure and don’t really work into the main stream theology as held by most members.”

But isn’t that how religion has worked? They usually start out with an enormous number of extraordinary claims mainly because the followers expect some big end-times event to be imminent. Both Jesus’s and Joseph Smith’s disciples expected the second coming in their own lifetimes. And then as time goes by and nothing happens and scientific advances and rational thought make their beliefs increasingly untenable, religious apologists slowly erase the more embarrassing elements from their history and reconstruct a narrative that is more acceptable to modern times. In the case of the Mormons, some revisions come in the form of “revelations” from god received by the church elders at convenient times. The origins of Christianity and Judaism and Islam were very likely filled with even more bizarre beliefs than the ones they currently have.

Jared adds, “Unfortunately for Romney, he is a very good [M]ormon. This means he is very authoritarian and probably homophobic. And sexist.”

This raises an important point. If faith is so important to Romney and he firmly believes that faith belongs in the public sphere, what exactly is Romney’s status in the Mormon Church and what does that status require him to believe?

Jesus’ General is a hysterically funny satirical website but on occasion the good General writes serious posts (the products, he says, of his ‘inner Frenchman’). It turns out that the General was once a Mormon in good standing whose family were very high up in the hierarchy and so he knows a lot of things that the general public is not aware of which enables him to describe the kinds of beliefs that Romney is likely to have.

In addition to his public statements proclaiming his religiosity, Mitt holds a temple recommend. They are only issued to the faithful. As a high priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood, he holds the highest level of priesthood a Mormon may hold. He’s also served as a bishop and a stake president (leadership positions serving areas roughly equivalent to parishes and diocese). He is unquestionably a faithful Mormon.

Mitt is a member of a very dogmatic sect. Dissent is not allowed. The late N. Eldon Tanner, a councilor to the prophet, once preached “When the Prophet speaks, the debate is over.”
. . .
As a High Priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood, Romney believes he receives revelations from God. He believes God directs him to do the things he does, and he never makes an important decision without asking God for guidance and receiving a revelation first.
. . .
The lesson Mormons, including Mitt, take from [the story of god asking Nephi to cold-bloodedly murder and behead Laban, a powerful official, in order to get his "Brass Plates"] is that the greater good may require the violation of important laws, in this case, theft and murder. It’s a lesson that is stressed in Sunday classes for adults and children as well as the weekday seminary classes Mormon teens are required to attend. It’s an important scripture and doctrine.

This is why it is critical to discuss a candidate’s religious beliefs. It gives us the best insight we can get into how someone like Mitt would govern. He’s the type of leader who would believe that his actions are condoned by God and are not subject to Earthly laws like the Constitution.

Sound familiar?

So there we are. Mitt Romney should be asked a lot of questions about his faith, as should anyone who does not believe in the separation of church and state and says that faith belongs in the public sphere and that his or her faith is important to him or her.

POST SCRIPT: Mormons and Pascal’s wager

For those not familiar with it, Pascal’s wager is the desperate Hail Mary attempt by religious people to persuade skeptics that they should believe in god as a kind of insurance policy. It goes like this: If you believe in god and it turns out that there is no god, then you are no worse off than having been as an atheist. But if you do not believe in god, and there is a god, then you are doomed to everlasting hell. So isn’t it better to play safe and believe?

This argument is so ridiculous that I am sure the readers of this blog don’t need me to spell out all the reasons why. But here is a South Park clip that illustrates just one counterargument..

Mitt Romney and Mormonism

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney yesterday gave what was billed as a major speech on faith. While it seemed to be an attempt to allay unease about his Mormon religion in the face of the surging Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, the strategy he adopted was to not go into specifics about what Mormonism is. Romney’s message was basically: Don’t worry about what “my religion” actually says (he used the word “Mormon” only once); just accept that I have faith just like you and let’s unite against those who feel that faith should not play a role in the public sphere.

He “decries the diminishment of religion in the public square” and says “in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life.”

He then trots out the old ridiculous religious standby, that secularism is also a religion, saying, “It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.” People like Romney are so unnerved by the fact that secular people are quite happy with not having to believe in religious superstitions and myths, that they try desperately to say that we are somehow religious too. Irrationality loves company, it seems.

Romney’s speech was quite different from John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1960 when he had to address concerns about his Catholicism. Kennedy was quite emphatic that religion should be a strictly private matter:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference. . . I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

As I warned earlier, Romney is pursuing a risky strategy. By saying that faith must play an important role in the public sphere, he is opening himself up to questions about what exactly he means by faith, what faiths he feels belong in the public sphere, and whether his own faith meets that standard.

It would have been better to follow Kennedy’s example and to flatly assert right at the beginning that it was only a person’s public policy principles and positions that mattered, and their personal beliefs should not be a basis for elected office, as the US constitution explicitly says.

But of course he could not say such a thing because, apart from his need to pander to the religious right that forms a core constituency of his party, we live in a crazy time when it is seen as politically damaging if a candidate should say that he or she is a person of rationality and reason and science (all esteemed Enlightenment values) while saying that you have an unwavering belief in mystical unseen entities and powers, which should label you as a holdover from the Dark Ages, is seen as a positive quality in a leader.

But since Romney has said that faith is important not only to him but should play an important part in public life, let’s take a look at his faith.

I have not read much about Mormonism but Christopher Hitchens in his book God is Not Great (2007, p. 161-168) paints a rather unflattering portrait of its founder Joseph Smith as a charismatic con man. Hitchens bases his information on the book No Man Knows My History (1945) by Fawn Brodie.

Smith was born in 1805 and at the age of 21 was convicted of being “a disorderly person and an imposter” after admitting in his trial to defrauding citizens and claiming to possess dark or necromantic powers. But he reappears four years later saying that he had been visited three times by an angle named Moroni who told him where to find the “Book of Mormon” (written on gold plates) which contained the story of creation and said, among other things, that the people of North America were founded by an Israelite named Nephi, son of Lephi, who had come there after fleeing Jerusalem in 600 BC. Moroni also told Smith of the existence of two magic stones that would enable him to translate the golden book.

Smith never showed his book or magic stones to anybody. He said (conveniently) that for anyone else but him to see them would mean instant death. But like Muhammad (whom he modeled himself after) Smith was illiterate and so had to have scribes to write down his translations of the golden book into the vernacular. Smith initially got his wealthy neighbor and disciple Martin Harris to do this task. Harris sat on one side of a blanket dividing the kitchen while Smith sat on the other speaking the translated words. Harris was warned that if he tried to take a peek at the prophet or the golden book, he would be struck dead. In other words, the Mormon god is the standard-issue “compassionate and loving” god who has no scruples about killing people for transgressing arbitrary rules.

Hitchens recounts an amusing story in which Harris’s wife got fed up with her husband’s involvement with what she thought was a racket and stole the first 116 ‘translated’ pages and challenged Smith to reproduce them using again the book and stones. Of course he couldn’t. After a few weeks of unease, he came up with a story that the Lord had told him that translating the same book again was not to be done and had provided him with new, smaller plates created by Nephi which told a similar story.

Hitchens says that Smith, like Muhammad, would regularly claim to have ‘divine revelations’ at short notice that conveniently enough seemed to meet whatever immediate need he had at that moment, especially when he wanted to take another girl as a new wife. Smith died a violent death in 1844 at the hands of a mob and is now seen by his followers as a martyr.

I came across this fascinating animation (thanks to onegoodmove) that gives the history of the origins of the Mormon religion and their mythology. The cartoon seems like it is part of a documentary of some sort but I have not had time to track down the source. The header says that the cartoon was banned by the Mormon church. I have no idea if this is true or why or if the details that it presents are accurate, but the basic features are consistent with what I have read about Mormonism. (If anyone knows more about the cartoon’s origins or its accuracy, please let me know.)

There is nothing in Mormon doctrine or its creation stories that is any more bizarre than what people in other god-based religions believe. The story of Mormon origins seems so weird because it is unfamiliar. Just as Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus who are indoctrinated into their faith as children grow up thinking, despite all the evidence, that their religious myths make sense, so I am sure do Mormons. Since Mormonism originated just two hundred years ago, however, we know more about the actual events and people involved, since there exist contemporary newspaper records that enable us to contrast the differences between what the faithful believe and the actual events. Scientology, which was founded in 1953, presents a similar case.

The facts associated with the origins of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their founders are likely to be very similar to that of Mormonism and Scientology, but fortunately for those older religions, are buried deep in the sands of time, allowing the myths to seem more reasonable than they deserve to be. If anyone today came along with stories about seeing burning bushes that remain intact or having been born of a virgin or having angels dropping in for regular chats, we would consider them to be either con men or psychotic.

One positive consequence of having a Mormon candidate for president would be if it opens up a serious discussion of why some religious people think that the Mormon origin myths are bizarre and not true, while perfectly confident that their own myths are not only rational but also true. This requires some fairly tricky and self-serving intellectual contortions, like the ones Jacob Weisberg attempted. For the same reason, I think it would be a great idea to have a Scientology candidate in the race too.

Has anyone suggested to Tom Cruise that he should run for president?

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher discusses Mormonism, religion, and politics

Reflections on writing the posts on evolution and the law

When I started out to write the series of posts on evolution and the law, I originally intended it to be about ten posts in all, divided roughly equally between the Scopes trial, the Dover trial, and the period of legal evolution in between them. As those readers who have stayed with the series are painfully aware, the subject matter carried me away and the final result is much longer.

Part of the reason is that I always intend my blog posts to have some useful and reliable information and not just be speculative rants (though those can be fun), which meant that I needed to research the subject. Fortunately, I love the subject of constitutional law because it as a spin-off of my interest in how one creates a just society. If one traces people’s constitutional protections to their source, they tend to be rooted in questions about power and control, the nature of liberty, about who gets to make decisions that govern all of us, and what constraints we impose on them.

As I started to research the subject more deeply, I became fascinated at the interplay of political, social, and religious factors surrounding the question of the role of public schools in a democratic society is and how we decide what should be taught in them. I could see that the legal history involved in the teaching of evolution in public schools was more complicated and fascinating than I had originally conceived.

I had two choices. I could close off some avenues of discussion and stick only to the main points. That would be like driving to some destination while sticking just to the highway in order for maximum speed. Or I could take some detours off the beaten track, to get a better flavor of the country I was passing through. I felt that the former option, while making for quicker reading, would result in posts that were a little too glib and not have enough supporting evidence for some of my assertions.

So I chose the latter option, feeling confident that those who read this blog tend to be those who are looking for at least some substantiation of arguments even if they disagree with my views.

The way these posts grew made me reflect on my philosophy of teaching as well. In my seminar courses, students have to write research papers on some topic. Usually a course requires two five-page papers and a final ten-page paper. Students have been through this drill of writing papers many times in many courses and they usually find that they do not have enough to say and struggle to fill what they see as a quota. They use some time-tested techniques: wide margins, large fonts and spacing, and when those things have reached their limit, unnecessary verbiage. Superfluous words and phrases are inserted, ideas are repeated, pointless examples and non sequitur arguments are brought in, and so forth.

The reason for this is that in most cases students are writing about things that they do not really care about and are just going through the motions to meet someone else’s needs, not their own. The result is painful for both the student (who has to construct all this padding without it being too obvious that that is what it is) and for the instructor (who has to cut through all the clutter to find out what the author is really trying to say). It is largely a waste of time for both, and often unpleasant to boot.

To help overcome this problem, I give my students as much freedom as possible to choose a research topic within the constraints of the overall course subject matter. I tell students that the most important thing they will do in the course is choose a topic that they care passionately about and want to learn more about. Once they do that, and start investigating and researching such a subject, it is almost inevitable that they will get drawn in deeper and deeper, like I was with evolution and the law.

Once they are on that road, the problem is not how to fill the required number of pages but how to cut it down so that you don’t exceed the page limits by too much. This has the added bonus of teaching students how to edit to tighten their prose, to use more judicious language, and to only keep those things that are essential to making their case.

The passion for the subject and the desire to know more about it is what makes genuine researchers carry out difficult and sometimes tedious tasks, because they really care about learning more.

The way this series of posts has grown is an example of this phenomenon at work. Because it is a blog without length restrictions, I have been able to indulge myself a bit. But if I had to restrict the length because of publication needs, then I would go back and do some serious pruning.

POST SCRIPT: The bullet trick

Penn and Teller do another of their famous tricks.

From Scopes to Dover-30: Looking at the big picture

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this final post in this series (Yes, there really is an end!), I want to look at the big picture, to see both how the struggle to oppose the teaching of evolution evolved as a result of legal decisions centered around the establishment clause, and why religious believers have pursued with such vigor this dead-end policy to discredit evolution.

Religious people have always been uncomfortable with the theory of evolution. The extent of this discomfort varies. At one end of this religious spectrum we have those Biblical literalists who want to believe that every single extant species was created specially by god. For these people, the theory of evolution is anathema. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are those who willing to accept an interconnected and evolving tree of life, provided that humans are not part of the tree and were somehow miraculously created separately. Such people allow the theory in some areas but arbitrarily exclude it from any part of the origins of humans. At the other end of the religious spectrum are those who accept that humans are also part of the evolutionary tree and have common ancestors with other species but want to reserve some special property for humans (the ‘soul’ for want of a better word) that was created by god using some mysterious means beyond our ken. Such people want to believe that each human being has something special, unique, mystical whose creation and existence cannot be accounted for by the mechanisms of natural selection.

All these people have the fear that lurking in the shadows of Darwinian theory is the fact if you carry the theory of evolution to its natural conclusion, there is absolutely no way of avoiding the conclusion that humans, like every other species of living thing, are entirely the product of the Darwinian mutation and natural selection algorithmic process, and thus we are entirely material objects produced by materialistic mechanisms. God is ruled right out of the picture. William Jennings Bryan correctly saw this way back in 1922 when he wrote “If a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible.. . Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism.” (my italics)

So while the form and tactics of the fight against the teaching of evolution has undoubtedly changed from the time of William Jennings Bryan, the one constant feature has been the feeling that the theory of evolution is somehow dangerous to religion and has to be either overthrown or arbitrarily limited in its scope or its teaching balanced with ideas favorable to a god-centered view of life and creation. But all efforts so far to control ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’ (as Daniel Dennett puts it) have run up against the challenge of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US constitution and its associated idea of the separation of church and state.

To briefly recapitulate this legal history, as Darwinian ideas gained acceptance at the turn of the twentieth century, it became increasingly taught in schools. Meanwhile, the rise of the ideas of the separation of church and state had resulted, by the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, in much of the teaching of religion and the Bible being eliminated from public schools. Evolution had become seen by then as anti-religious and the first attempts at counteracting its influence took the form of state legislatures passing laws banning its teaching, with the 1925 Butler Act in Tennessee being the first. It was only in 1968, in the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, that such attempts were ruled unconstitutional.

The attempts at mitigating the effects of the teaching of evolution then shifted from outright bans on teaching evolution to trying to achieve ‘balanced treatment’ (whatever that meant) for both evolution and the Genesis theory of creation. But the Tennessee law requiring this was ruled in 1974 to be unconstitutional by the US Court of Appeals in the case of Daniel v. Waters.

The next evolution in the strategy was to call for ‘balanced treatment’ for the teaching of evolution and something called ‘creation science’, the latter being essentially the young-Earth Genesis story, but carefully shorn of any mention of god or the Bible or any religious terminology. Such laws were passed in 1981 in both Arkansas and Louisiana. The Arkansas law was ruled unconstitutional in 1982 in the US District Court in McLean v. Arkansas, and the Louisiana law was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1987 in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard.

This setback gave rise to the theory of ‘intelligent design creationism’ (IDC), which was carefully crafted to address all the objections raised by these previous legal precedents. Its essential structure was to allege that certain systems in nature (the bacterial flagellum, the blood clotting mechanism, and the human immune system being the only ones that IDC advocates could come up with) were so ‘irreducibly complex’ that evolutionary theory had not only failed so far to provide an adequate explanation for how they could have come into being by the gradual mechanism of natural selection, but that the theory would never be able to explain them. This unsubstantiated assumption allowed IDC advocates to make the inference that these systems were deliberately designed and that hence there must be some ‘designer’ at work. The identity of the designer was deliberately kept unspecified and, like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, never named openly by IDC advocates, but there was never any doubt that they were referring to their god.

But this latest hope for undermining the teaching of evolution in public schools was dashed by the verdict in 2005 in Kitzmiller v. Dover, where the US District Court ruled that intelligent design was a religious belief and not science, that the reasons for introducing it into the curriculum was to advance a religious agenda, and hence such a policy was unconstitutional.

So the religious forces, having lost the scientific case against evolution (basically because they never had a scientific case to start with, just a religious belief adorned with scientific language), now have pretty much lost the legal case as well. And that is where things stand.

It is interesting that the current legal state of play supports what Clarence Darrow had argued in 1926 in the appeal of the Scopes verdict, when he said that anti-evolution efforts are not designed to foster neutrality in education but that opposition to the theory of evolution essentially sprang from a religious foundation that was hostile to science, and thus any attempt to suppress its teaching was an attempt to advance religious views at the expense of science, and that this went counter to the purposes of public schools.

It is not clear what other avenues are available to try and resurrect intelligent design creationism as a viable legal strategy. The attempts seem to have now shifted to an exclusively public relations effort by the Discovery Institute, the well-funded organization that has been behind the entire IDC strategy all along. Their attempt to push back against the disaster at Dover is taking many forms.

One facet of this effort is to try and discredit the Dover verdict, arguing that it was due to ‘judicial activism’ and over-reaching by a biased judge with ambitions to greatness. In 2006 they published a book called Traipsing Into Evolution attacking the judge’s verdict and reasoning. (For a detailed critique of this book, see here.)

The charge that Judge Jones who presided in the Dover trial is some kind of anti-religious partisan is hard to sustain since the judge is a Republican and a long-time member of a Lutheran church who was nominated for his post by then-US Senator Rick Santorum (who himself is a strong supported of IDC), was appointed to the bench by President Bush who has argued that ‘both sides’ of the evolution issue (whatever that means) should be taught, and whose assignment to the case was praised by Tom Ridge (former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and the head of the Department of Homeland Security) who said “I can’t imagine a better judge presiding over such an emotionally charged issue.”

The judge himself seemed to anticipate that this kind of attack might occur and preemptively responded to this in his opinion saying:

Those who disagree with this ruling will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. (p. 138)

On another front, in 2007, Michael Behe published yet another book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism, which tries to resurrect the corpse of IDC by adding a new claim, which turns out to be one that was already tried in the 19th century and failed.

There is also a film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that is due to be released on Darwin’s birthday in 2008 that argues that ‘big science’ is deliberately suppressing evidence of intelligent design and persecuting scientists who think there is something in it. It has already been accused of unethical practices in the making of it.

What is conspicuously missing in all these efforts is any actual old-fashioned science. You know, experiments done, data collected, hypotheses formulated, causal mechanisms suggested that can be used to make concrete predictions that can be investigated. This is the kind of detailed, careful, painstaking work that constitutes the bedrock of science. Grand, sweeping, and speculative ideas can be fun for a while but if not supported by that solid foundation, they sink and disappear leaving very little trace.

It seems like now that the pro-IDC people have lost in both the courts and the scientific arena, they are reduced to acting as if they are victims and making pleas for public sympathy, to try and convince people that the scientific and legal establishments have somehow conspired to use their muscle to suppress alternatives to the theory of evolution.

What religious people have not grasped (or perhaps do not want to grasp), is that while scientific theories can overthrow religious beliefs and have done so numerous times in history, the reverse simply does not happen.

Religious beliefs cannot overthrow a scientific theory. What overthrows a scientific theory is a better scientific theory.

In the final analysis, it is as simple as that.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart

A stand-up routine from about ten years ago that is still relevant and funny.

From Scopes to Dover-29: What next for evolution and religion in schools?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

As a result of the long string of judicial rulings and Supreme Court precedents that have been outlined in this series that seem to have eliminated almost all their options, what can religious people do now about the teaching of evolution?

In 2007, IDC advocate Michael Behe published yet another book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism (which I have written about earlier) that tries to add a wrinkle to IDC ideas by arguing that the mutations that drive natural selection are not random but are somehow guided by their peripatetic and secretive designer to achieve a desired organism.

This is a pathetically feeble attempt that will not get anywhere legally. All the reasons given in the Dover verdict for why IDC is a religion and not science apply with equal force to this idea too. Furthermore, it is not even an original idea, having been proposed in the late 19th century by eminent scientists, also for manifestly religious reasons, a fact that is not going to help the case legally.

But the opponents of evolution are determined and there are rumblings that Texas may try to get creationism and/or intelligent design creationism and/or criticisms of evolution into their state curriculum. The state’s state science curriculum director has been forced to resign her position and some suspect that this was a prelude to making such changes.

So what options does Texas or any other state body have left?

As I see it, there seem to be only three options left for those trying to undermine the teaching of evolution or otherwise get religion back into the public schools. One is to not single out just evolution for ‘critical analysis’ but include one or two other theories as well, and use them as a cover for the real goal of discrediting evolution. But given the legislative history of opposition to teaching evolution in schools, it is likely that the courts will see through this ruse to circumvent the establishment clause.

Another option is to ask that all scientific theories be subjected to critical analysis. This might pass constitutional muster but would not serve the purpose that religious people seek. It is, after all, what good science teaching has always professed to do and is routinely called for in present day science standards. Religious people seem to have no problem with, for example, the theory of gravity or Newton’s laws of motion or the heliocentric model of the solar system or the laws of photosynthesis and presumably don’t want their children’s time wasted on discussing evidence against those theories or speculate on why those theories too are wrong and the associated processes driven by an intelligent designer. As I have shown earlier, what what really bugs them is evolution.

The third option is to seek what IDC advocate Phillip Johnson seemed to be hinting at, and that is to arouse public opinion against evolution theory, in order to foment some type of popular revolution. We see that in the creation of the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed to be released on Darwin’s birthday in February 2008. (See Bad Idea Blog for a seven-minute promo for the latter film and a critique of it.) The aim seems to be to portray themselves as victims, oppressed by the scientific and legal establishment. They seem to be advancing the truly bizarre argument that scientists are secretly aware of terrible weaknesses in evolutionary theory and are afraid that the revolutionarily new arguments of the courageous IDC advocates will result in the structure of science crumbling. The only way scientists can prevent this, in their view, is by colluding to cover up the facts, suppressing all dissent, and expelling pro-IDC people from the academy.

In reality of course, scientists are comfortable with the merits of the theory of evolution even though they know it has not answered every question as yet, and reject IDC because it is an old idea that has no content that is of any value or use to scientists.

But even if this policy of painting themselves as poor, pitiful, oppressed victims is successful and arouses some public sympathy, I cannot see any way for this IDC strategy to achieve its ultimate goal of overthrowing the teaching of evolution in schools, since all their previous attempts to do so have run aground on the rocks of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution.

The only way that they can succeed, as I see it, is by calling for an overthrow of the establishment clause and undermining the whole idea of separation of church and state. But this is a huge barrier to overcome. The Bill of Rights and the other protections of the constitution have become seen as providing the bedrock protections of American society. As time when on, its protections have been expanded but never formally restricted, although administrations have from time to time curtailed those freedoms by fiat, as we see now with habeas corpus violations and gross violations of due process using the USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act. But despite such setbacks for basic liberties and justice, it seems unlikely that an attempt to formally rescind those constitutional freedoms will succeed.

But constitutional issues aside, the important question has always been about who determines what should and should not be taught in public schools.

“Who does have “the right,” [Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter] asked, to decide what gets taught as science in the public schools? Creationist parents and teachers, based on their relatively subjective religious beliefs, or professional scientists and educators, based on their relatively objective scientific theories?” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 260)

This is an interesting question to explore. If a school district decides that it should teach something absurd or even flat out wrong, like the moon is made of cheese, is it allowed to do so? Can a parent complain and have the courts overturn such a policy even though there is no obvious constitutional violation involved? As we saw in the 1982 creation science case McLean v. Arkansas, the judge ruled that creation science should not be taught because it was not science but a religion. Some supporters of the decision criticized the reasoning, saying that the reason creation science should not be taught was not because it had failed to meet unjustifiable demarcation criteria but because it was bad science and simply wrong. But is teaching even manifestly absurd ideas a sufficient reason for the courts to intervene?

In 1926, in oral arguments during the appeal of the Scopes verdict to the Tennessee Supreme Court, defense counsel Arthur Garfield Hays raised the interesting possibility that the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prevented the state from enforcing unreasonable laws and “Tennessee’s “absurd” antievolution statute violated this standard as much as a law against teaching Copernican astronomy would.” (Larson, p. 215). But as far as I know this issue has not been adjudicated.

Although this is an interesting hypothetical exercise, in reality, we may never be able to disentangle the ridiculous from the religious. The only time that people feel strongly about teaching things for which there is no evidence is when they are driven by religious convictions, such as that the Earth is 6,000 years old or that god intervened in the laws of nature to create humans.

Those who argue against teaching creationism and its derivatives in public schools tend to be split into two camps.

One the one hand there are those who think that mainstream religious beliefs are credible and valuable, but think that it is good to keep church and state separate. They argue that religious beliefs do not belong in public schools on constitutional establishment clause grounds.

On the other hand are those who are more sympathetic to Clarence Darrow’s approach in the Scopes trial. He seemed to have a different goal. He set out to argue that religious beliefs were just nonsense and that no sensible person should believe them, let alone want to teach them to their children. After all, no one is asking schools to teach children that the Earth is flat, that the Sun orbits the Earth, or that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. No legal protections have been necessary (at least not yet) to prevent teachers from teaching that thunder and lightning are symbols of god’s anger with the world or that objects fall to the ground because the Earth is at the center of the universe. When Darrow said in his interrogation of Bryan that “You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion,” he was trying to make a different point, that if you can show that a belief is silly, then no one would even want to teach that belief. And he felt that fundamentalist religious beliefs were patently ridiculous, requiring people to swallow, without any evidence, the most preposterous of ideas.

As Larson says:

Darrow. . .used his defense of Scopes to challenge fundamentalist beliefs. To the extent that lawyers defending the evolutionist position in later lawsuits appeal narrowly to constitutional interpretation, fundamentalist beliefs remain unchallenged. (p. 261)

Darrow’s basic approach has been extended by modern day scientists and atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger to argue that even so-called ‘moderate’ religious beliefs are absurd and that it is futile to pretend that the beliefs of mainstream religions have any credibility.

POST SCRIPT: Philosophy panel on progress

The Philosophy Club at Case is having a panel discussion on the topic of progress and I will speak about the nature of progress in science. The program is at 7:30 pm in Guilford Lounge on Wednesday, December 5th, 2007. It is free and open to the public.