The pernicious anti-tax attitude

The news is full of stories about the budget problems faced by the federal and state governments. But unlike the federal government which has ways to pay its bills without raising taxes, state governments have to balance their books the old fashioned way, by either reducing expenses or raising revenue or both.

But thanks to the anti-tax sentiment unleashed in 1978 by California’s passage of Proposition 13, we are now witnessing the fruits of the relentless propaganda over the past three decades that said that taxes are intrinsically evil and that lower taxes are always better.

When times are good and tax revenues are high, people demand that taxes be cut because it is ‘their’ money. When things turn sour, as they now have, people argue that to raise taxes would be to deepen the recession and that taxes should be cut even more to ‘stimulate the economy’, a phrase I have come to detest since it usually precedes some scam to siphon off wealth even more to the rich and to destroy the common good. So we have reached the stage when it has become an act of faith that it is always good to lower taxes and it is never good to raise them.

As a result, politicians refuse to consider the option of raising taxes because this is considered political suicide. Since raising taxes is ruled out, is it any surprise that states and the nation are in such a fiscal mess? The only options being considered are to drastically cut services like education, libraries, aid to the poor, lay off state workers like firefighters and police, and so on. But as time has gone by making relatively painless cuts has become harder and harder.

As a result we now see that California cannot balance its budget and is reduced to paying people with IOUs that banks may or may not honor. Ohio too should have had a two-year budget approved by July 1, but since the governor and the legislature could not agree on how to close a $3 billion dollar gap (out of a total budget of about $100 billion), they were forced to pass three one-week interim budgets to tide them over until an agreement was reached.

The Ohio case is illustrative. In 2005, the Ohio General Assembly voted a 21% across the board tax cut. The public interest group Policy Matters Ohio has a table showing by how much the marginal tax rates have been cut since 2004. Of course, now that the state is deep in the red, will the state roll taxes back to their original level in 2004, at least for those in the upper income brackets? Of course not.

As I look over my own state taxes, I notice that over the last few years the amount I paid as taxes dropped from 3.5% of my gross income to just 3.0% (a 14% reduction), even though my income has gone up. But I take no pleasure in the fact that I have more spending money. What good is that to me if valuable services are being cut and the general quality of life is going down? Am I supposed to ignore the deterioration in services and ignore the decay by eating out more and going on vacations?

It seems like people cannot think beyond their immediate interest. Last month, my community recently received its new home valuations and because of the real estate slump, our home and all the others in our area had dropped by about 7%. This means that there will be a reduction in property taxes, thus giving me even more disposable income. When I was at our street block party last week, I approached my neighbor (who is a real estate agent) and said that I wanted to ask her a favor. What I wanted to ask her was to use her access to the real estate database to check on who was the person on our street who had lived there the longest. It was rumored that an ailing housebound 97-year old neighbor was the original inhabitant of her 70-year old house. I thought that if that were true, it would be nice for her neighbors to commemorate it in some way, since she is a very sweet lady.

Before I could even make my request, the real estate agent neighbor said she already knew what I wanted, because so many at the block party had asked her the same question. But what they had all been asking her was to give them sale prices of comparable homes in the neighborhood so that they could request that their home valuation be reduced even more, so that they could pay even less taxes.

Not only was this not at all what I had planned to ask her, the thought had never even crossed my mind to seek a greater reduction that what had already been given to me. I had instead been wondering how the city and state would deal with the reduced revenues.

But it depressed me that what seemed to be on every one’s mind was how to exploit the real estate downturn to try to pay even less taxes in addition to the cut they had already received, even if their own income has not declined and it means that city and school employees will not get pay raises or might even be fired, services cut, and the general quality of community life go down. Already the fire department has had to make severe cuts. Of course, these same people will then complain loudly if they are personally affected by those cuts in some way, such as if police and firefighters take longer to arrive in an emergency or class sizes get larger. And when it comes time to sell their house, they will put as high a price on its value as they can.

People seem to think they can have quality of life without paying for it. They do not seem to care about the long-term consequences of the never-raise-taxes policy. They seem think that what is really important is to have more money in their own pockets right now. But my attitude is that because I am not poor, if I have a little less money due to paying higher taxes, I can cut back here and there without feeling any pain. But I benefit a lot more from having safe streets, prompt emergency assistance, better schools, parks, libraries, roads, public transport, and having fewer homeless and hungry people.

Surely cutting back on a few personal frills here and there for those who can afford to is worth it? Are we just going to greedily grab every cent of our money that we can until the social decay is so obvious that it may be too late to do anything about it? Is this how our civilization will collapse, just like former collapsed civilizations, by people sacrificing major long-term common good for trivial short-term personal gain?

There are a few hopeful signs that attitudes are changing. A few local politicians are saying that the tax cuts of 2005 should be rolled back, at least for those in the upper income brackets. The Plain Dealer published an op-ed by Zach Schiller on June 26, 2009 arguing for it, pointing out that lowering taxes had not provided the growth that was promised and that it would be bad to continue with that failed economic model.

I hope this movement catches on.

POST SCRIPT: United breaks guitars

I never fly United Airlines unless I have no choice. In my opinion, it is the worst of all the airlines. So I was not surprised when I heard the story of musician Dave Carroll who was appalled to hear that baggage handlers were throwing his guitar around on the tarmac and had damaged it severely. Of course, when he tried to get United to provide restitution they, following the lead of the health insurance industry on how to deny claims, gave him the classic run-around-followed-by-brush-off routine. As he said:

So after nine months… it occurred to me that I had been fighting a losing battle all this time and that fighting over this at all was a waste of time. The system is designed to frustrate affected customers into giving up their claims and United is very good at it.

But Carroll was not taking it lying down. He decided to compose three music videos about his experience and put it on YouTube. The first became a big hit, generating nearly 500,000 hits within the first couple of weeks and getting the airline to make amends.

It is actually a catchy song and a pretty good video.

People should take this kind of action with their health insurance companies too.

The state of the Republican party

Immediately after the last election, I wrote a series of posts on the future of the Republican Party and said that where it ends up depends on the relative fortunes of the four elements within the party and which group or groups gain the ascendancy.

One bloc consists of old-style conservative Republicans, the ones who used to be known as ‘Rockefeller Republicans’. They consist of people who are pragmatic, technocratic, more managerial and less ideological in their outlook, people who want smaller government, fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, rule of law, respect for personal liberties, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

The second group is the rank-and-file social values base for whom guns, gays, abortion, stem-cell research, flag, religion, homosexuality, and immigration are the main concerns. Many of these people belong to the lower and middle economic classes. These people were always the rank and file of the party, the ones who existed in large numbers in parts of the country and gave it voting clout, but they were never the leaders.

The third group is the Christianist leadership, people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and John Hagee, who claim to speak for the social values base but, as I argued in an earlier post, whose overriding allegiance is to a low-tax ideology (especially for the rich) at whatever cost, and who oppose any government programs that provide assistance to the poor.

The fourth group is the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives are the wild card in American politics, wreaking havoc wherever they go. Their interests lie less in domestic policies and more in creating a muscular foreign policy. They dream of America exercising hegemony over the world, using its might to destroy its enemies. They are firmly convinced that America is a force for good in the world and should not be shy about using its military, political, and economic muscle to dominate it. They see the interests of the US as almost identical to the interests of the hard-line right-wing segments of Israeli politics.

So what has happened since I wrote this? The situation has evolved but not clarified yet, but one interesting feature is how the four groups have started relating to Sarah Palin.

The old-style conservatives seem to have been routed and are even more marginalized than before. At this stage, they look like people unhappy with what the Republican Party has become and not sure if they can bring it back to what they see as sanity or whether it is hopelessly under the control of nutcases and they need to look for a new home. This group hates Palin with a passion, seeing her as perfectly symbolizing the depths to which their party has sunk. They despise her ignorance on the issues, her lack of competence, her fractured logic and syntax, her pride in despising learning, and her anti-intellectualism.

The second group has not grown larger but has grown more militant. It is digging in its heels and demanding to be in the party leadership and will not go back to their former role as mere foot soldiers. This group has always been made use of by their party leaders but never given a real shot at leadership. McCain’s choice of Palin changed that. For the first time, they felt that one of their own was close to the driver’s seat and they are not returning to the back of the bus. This group loves Sarah Palin and will not tolerate anyone who disparages her, which put them at direct loggerheads with the old-style conservative Republicans. Her abrupt resignation as governor of Alaska has not cooled their ardor. They see that, as they see everything she does, as a clever strategy. Whatever her next wacky stunt may be, it will be trumpeted as another example of her mavericky credentials and her policy of not practicing ‘politics as usual’. They fervently hope that she stays in politics and runs for president so that they can rally round her, although such an action probably dooms the party to a massive defeat and gives all the other potential Republican candidates the heebie-jeebies.

Jackie Broyles from Red State Update captures the views of this group precisely:

As for the third group, the Christianists, one does not hear much these days from Pat Robertson and John Hagee and the like. The Christianist leaders seem to be either on the wane or more likely are simply biding their time, waiting to see which of the candidates is most committed to their pro-rich/anti-poor/no-tax policies. They may simply be reeling from the string of sex-related scandals hitting their party and a little wary of aligning themselves too early with someone who may later taint them with scandal. They are political opportunists and although they may like Palin a lot, they love power more and would be quite willing to dump her and align themselves with someone who can win, even if that person is not completely aligned with their religion-based agenda.

The neo-conservatives within the party seem to be lying low too, licking their wounds after they lost the deep access to the high levels of the administration that they had under Bush/Cheney. But one can never write them off. They are always seeking to pursue their war-like agenda. This group is split on Palin. Since they love war and want the US to invade Iran and start fights with practically the entire Muslim world and renew the cold war with Russia, they are attracted to Palin because her own apocalyptic religious views make her sympathetic to these crazy ideas. On the other hand, they are also urbane intellectuals and Palin is simply not one of them. Some are uneasy that she could be a loose cannon they cannot control. Right now the neoconservatives are mostly a media presence on Fox News and other sites. If they think the Republicans are going to be losers for the foreseeable future, watch for them to make overtures to the Democratic Party, where they have some allies.

Probably the best barometer as to the fortunes of these groups is Fox News. The people and views that are given the most prominence on Fox are likely the ones on the upswing. So far, it seems to have dismissed the first group of old-style conservative Republicans and has tried to be the umbrella support group for the other three. It tried to drum up some enthusiasm for teabag parties, opposition to Sonia Sotomayor, and the like but those efforts seem to have fizzled, and so they seem to be resorting to even more extreme scare-mongering to raise the energy level of their supporters.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the Palin resignation

If Sarah Palin thought that she could avoid The Daily Show treatment by resigning just as they went on vacation, she misjudged them.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Half Baked Alaska
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A Friedman Prize?

As a childhood fan of the Peanuts comic strip, I enjoyed the running gag of Snoopy always beginning his novels with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” It was only much later that I learned that this was a actual opening sentence of an 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This overwrought style of writing with run-on sentences is considered so bad that it has become famous and is now the source of the annual Bulwer-Lytton prize, awarded each year by San Jose State University to the writer who can come up with the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. The 2009 prize was won by David McKenzie whose entry was:

Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin’ off Nantucket Sound from the nor’ east and the dogs are howlin’ for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May,” a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin’ and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.

It struck me that what we need is a Friedman Prize in honor of Tom Friedman, the world’s worst pundit. What makes him so bad? Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the funniest writers around, brutally exposes not only the vapidity of his thinking but also the shallowness of his research.

This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs.

Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: “I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, ‘We need better headlights for our tri-plane.'” And off he goes. You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don’t notice that tri-planes don’t have headlights.

Kevin Carey highlights one feature of the Friedman style, as seen above and identified by him in the beginning of a recent Friedman column:

I was at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, a few weeks ago and interviewed Craig Barrett, the former chairman of Intel, about how America should get out of its current economic crisis. His first proposal was this: Any American kid who wants to get a driver’s license has to finish high school. No diploma — no license. Hey, why would we want to put a kid who can barely add, read or write behind the wheel of a car?

As Carey says, “Friedman may not have invented the place-drop/name-drop/facile idea three-step, but he’s certainly perfected it.” So that is one Friedman quality to be emulated by any prize-winning entrant.

Another is the laughably mangled image, as illustrated by Taibbi:

Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:

“The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f— is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense?

As Taibbi says in another article, these Friedmanisms are a feature of his writing, not aberrations:

This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It’s not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It’s that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it’s absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that’s guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.

So there we have the guidelines for submissions for the Friedman prize. The entrant has to imagine that he or she is like this self-important pundit and write an opening paragraph for an op-ed on any topic.

Now if only we can get some organization to sponsor the contest and award the prize.

POST SCRIPT: Alternative medicine

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on homeopathy and all the other forms of alternative medicine.

Science fiction and futurism

While I was completely absorbed in reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, someone else saw me reading it and said that she had started it and had given up. When I asked why, she said that she did not like science fiction in general. But Atwood herself in some interviews has rejected the label of science fiction for her work, saying that she prefers to call it ‘futuristic’. She says that she is merely extrapolating from today’s science to see what the future might be like and that she does not postulate any radical new scientific ideas.

This started me thinking about the difference, if any, between the genres represented by those two labels. It is not easy to draw a line separating the two.

It seems like if the plots involve development of things like time travel, or the ability to quickly travel intergalactic distances by means of hitherto unknown mechanisms (hyperspace, wormholes, and the like), or human-like robots or fully developed artificial intelligence, then people immediately classify such stories as science fiction, because as yet there seems to be no way of realizing such things.

On the other hand, a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Arthur C. Clarke’s books in general) did not incorporate spectacular new scientific developments either but also just extended the science we have now. So using Atwood’s definition, we might call those things futuristic too, not science fiction.

Any story that involves contact with extra-terrestrial beings also seems to be automatically considered science fiction, though this need not necessarily involve any major new scientific developments.

It seems to me that while authors of both genres try to predict what the future will be like, the difference might lie in the extent to which developments in science and technology based on extrapolations from the present dominate the narrative. Futuristic stories are those that focus on people and try to predict how society will respond to future conditions, and do not depend that much on some new scientific or technological development to serve as a deus ex machina to solve some problem in plot development.

Conversely, those stories for which the scientific and technological developments are the main source of plot development and interest might be called science fiction.

But pinning down the labels is not a very fruitful exercise. What is clear from either genre is that predicting the future is hard. The easiest way is to extrapolate the present and this can be done in an optimistic utopian way or pessimistic dystopian way.

In the latter case, for example, we might imagine a future in which global warming is unchecked and in which rising oceans and warm temperatures and changing climate have completely changed the global landscape, submerging the currently densely populated coastal areas, and shifting populations and political power to entirely different parts of the globe. Or we might see a future in which we run out of energy and have polluted our world, with fresh water supplies depleted, the land depleted of its nutrients with resulting lower crop yields, and the population being reduced to a much lower standard of living, except perhaps for a small elite. In other words, we might in essence retreat to a medieval model with a few nobles living well and almost everyone else living as peasants. This dystopian model cannot avoid having constant battles between nation-like entities over scarce resources or brutal suppression of the majority to preserve the privileges of the elite.

An optimistic vision might see us as having successfully harnessed new forms of sustainable power (say solar) and united to conserve water, land, and resources, and controlling population growth, resulting in greater well being for the vast majority. I can only see this happening with the kind of global cooperation that comes from some kind of world government, that sees the futility and waste that comes from wars and competing for scarce resources.

One lesson that I have learned from reading science fiction is that if I ever write such a story to not put a date on it. Those writers rash enough to put a date on their creations (1984, 2001) have seen those dates come and go with few of the technological innovations realized, though the human and political questions are still relevant.

Extrapolating the future from the past is risky. For example, in the early days of computers, more power came with larger computers. Early science fiction writers correctly saw that computers would revolutionize life as they became more powerful, but they mistakenly extrapolated that early trend and made the computers of the future more and more massive, and this led to computers becoming large and looming and malevolent presences, as in the films Colossus: The Forbin Project and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Computers became Darth Vader-like entities.

As far as I know, although miniaturization was an idea that was around (for example in the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage) as far as I know no futurist or science fiction writer applied that idea to computers, or foresaw personal computers or communication networks such as the internet, and the democratizing potential of such networks. I know that many of this blog’s readers are much more knowledgeable about this genre than I am and I hope they will correct me on this if I am wrong.

POST SCRIPT: The director of Food, Inc talks with Jon Stewart

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Robert Kenner
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Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran

Why people believe in god-7: God the moody

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the way god has been characterized through history.

It is a popular belief, especially among Christians, that humans have been created in god’s image. Actually, it is the other way around. Humans create god to meet their needs, and as their needs change, then so does their image of god.

Robert Wright has published a new book called The Evolution of God (2009) that I look forward to reading that traces the origins of monotheistic religions. In an interview, he discusses the main ideas. Basically, he sees the Bible and other religious books originating as political documents meant to serve immediate political needs, which explains why god seems so moody, casually committing genocide one day and calling for love and forgiveness the next.

My basic premise is that when a religious group sees itself as having something to gain through peaceful interaction with another group of people, including a different religion, it will find a basis for tolerance in its scriptures and religion. When groups see each other as being in a non-zero sum relationship — there’s a possibility of a win-win outcome if they play their cards right, or a lose-lose outcome if they don’t — then they tend to warm up to one another. By contrast, if people see themselves in a zero-sum relationship with another group of people — they can only win if the other group loses — that brings out the intolerance and the dark side of religion.

The western monotheistic tradition began in Judaism but not the way the Bible says. In fact, there is almost no evidence for all the stories about Abraham, the captivity in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, the ten commandments, Kind David, King Solomon, etc. The Jews began as a polytheistic indigenous grouping, just like all the other polytheistic indigenous groupings that occupied the land that we now call the Middle East.

The events in the Bible only start to resemble real history around 650 BCE. In 722 BCE, we know that the polytheistic indigenous people living the northern region known as Israel were captured by the Assyrians. The ruler of the southern region of Judah, King Josiah (649-609 BCE), used the demise of the northern kingdom for his own propaganda purposes against his political rivals, arguing that Israel’s capture was due to their infidelity to god. Using the time-honored tradition of assigning supernatural agency to natural or political phenomena. King Josiah created monotheism as a political act, saying that his god was the true god and that people should appease the true god by killing off those who worshipped rival gods, and by killing off their leaders as well. He was thus able to consolidate power over his rivals, and in the process monotheism came into being.

As part of this process, it was during this time that one of Josiah’s priests conveniently ‘discovered’ in the temple some hitherto unknown ‘holy’ books. And surprise, surprise, this book provided support for all of Josiah’s claims to his god’s exclusivity and forbade people from worshipping rival gods.

This document, now considered to be that which makes up the bulk of the book Deuteronomy, was then added to over the next 300 years to become the religious book of the Jews called the Torah, the core of the Old Testament, containing the Abraham and Moses stories which are, of course, almost entirely fiction. Thus began the creation of a single narrative that sought to retroactively create a past, justify the present, and to lay the groundwork for a new social order in the future. That is how Judaism really came about.

A possible reason why the advent of monotheism led to the current Bible is given by Daniel Lazare in his March 2002 Harper’s magazine article False Testament: “A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts, and the process of composition and codification that led to what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and continued well into the Christian era.” (See part 5 of my series on The Bible as History. The whole series describes the fictional origins of what many religious people believe to be history.)

There can be no question that the top religious leaders and theologians and other religious scholars know all this, though lower level priests and rabbis and imams may not. Ordinary religious people are carefully shielded from the true knowledge of how their holy books came about, because the religious authorities risk losing their sinecures if people realized that even the commonly accepted ages of the books, let alone their claims to divine origin, are false, as are their favorite stories about their religious heroes. So religious leaders suppress the truth and perpetuate fiction about how the books came about in order to give divine credibility to what are essentially political tracts.

Priests know that people will hold on to religious beliefs unless they find themselves in an intellectually untenable position. And since in our society religion is a protected belief system, priests know that ordinary believers will rarely encounter views that force them to confront the contradictions inherent in believing in a god.

This is why the ‘new atheist’ campaign (of which I am proud to be a part) to publicly voice critiques of religion is to be welcomed and why we resist calls for us to not disparage religious beliefs or religious books because we might upset ‘good’ religious moderates. The true history of religions and their holy books must be brought out into the light if we are ever going to get rid of the pernicious effects of religion.

POST SCRIPT: Betty Bowers on prayer

America’s Best Christian explains the prayer concept.

Why people believe in god-6: The persistence of belief

Why is it that so many adults in the modern age, with full reasoning powers and all the knowledge that science and technology has made available to them, still cling to the superstitious religious beliefs of their childhood, so much so that they feel the need to even brainwash their own children? Why is it that for most adults, childish beliefs in god do not disappear in adulthood, along with their beliefs in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?

The case of Charles Darwin is again illustrative. In his autobiography, he says that:

I was very unwilling to give up my belief…But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would be sufficient to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And that is a damnable doctrine. (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed), p. 72, my italics)

Note Darwin’s revealing use of the phrase that he became unable to ‘invent evidence’ that would be sufficient to convince him, even if he gave his imagination ‘free scope’ to do so. This is what people do: they decide what they want to believe and then invent evidence to support the belief.

What most people lack is the intellectual rigor that was the hallmark of Darwin’s way of thinking and which made him eventually realize that his belief was based on his own inventions and not reality. If there is one clear image that emerges from the study of Darwin’s life and study of the natural world, it is that he was always looking for higher levels of synthesis, probing his own theories and beliefs for weaknesses, and not ignoring counter-evidence. There can be no doubt that such a critical attitude applied to religion will inevitably lead to disbelief. But most people are not like that, especially when it comes to religious beliefs, and hence they do not reach the stage where they realize that the evidence they invent just cannot do the job required of it. They seize upon any thing that even vaguely provides a justification for whatever they want to believe and leave it at that. Furthermore (as Norm suggested in a comment in response to the previous posting in this series) children do not receive any validation from the adults around them that their skepticism about god is warranted, the way they do when they start to question Santa Claus

Darwin’s increasing skepticism about god seems like a natural progression of beliefs as one matures into adulthood, but it seems to be much rarer than it should be. There could be many reasons for the persistence of beliefs in god into adulthood.

  • One is that these beliefs meet certain deep psychological needs. Some people must be receiving some comfort in believing in the existence of even a distant and inert entity like the deist god Deigod. Such people must desperately want an external meaning and purpose to life, and think that only one imposed by god, however otherwise passive, is of any value.
  • For others, the persistence of belief may be due to the fear of death. The idea that on dying we simply cease to exist may imply to them that our lives do not matter. They find this intolerable and seek a way out by clinging to the idea of an indestructible and immortal soul. This naturally leads to the idea of god and/or reincarnation. As Sigmund Freud said, “The religious impulse is ineradicable until or unless the human species can conquer its fear of death.”
  • For yet others, it may be just missing loved ones that leads to wishful thinking, hoping that after our physical death we meet them again in the afterlife.
  • Others may continue to persuade themselves that they believe because they are risk-averse and do not want to offend god (if he should exist) by allowing their disbelieving thoughts to come to the surface. Why take the chance? This is the famous, but silly, Pascal’s wager idea. Of course, the idea that an omniscient god would not know they had doubts seems preposterous but if one is religious, one learns not to ask such questions.
  • For others, belief may arise for more prosaic and practical reasons. Religion and religious practices such as going to church may form an important part of their sense of identity and social relationships and sense of belonging. They may not want to disrupt relationships with family and friends and the larger community by dropping out of that world.
  • I suspect that most people believe because they were taught to believe as children and simple mental inertia prevents them from changing as they get older. The economist John Maynard Keynes said that, “The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping from old ones.” Research in education suggests that students tenaciously cling on to their existing knowledge using ad-hoc justifications despite the best efforts of their teachers to teach them new things. They only give up their beliefs if they have no choice because the contradictions with evidence are too stark to ignore. For most people, their religious beliefs are vague and flexible enough that they can deal with contradictions using ad-hoc explanations invented to solve the immediate problem, without any concern for overall coherence or problems with internal consistency.

A religious friend of mine recently went through a rapid-fire series of misfortunes, including losing his job and having his mother die. In between, he had a small stroke of good fortune. He immediately attributed the last thing as a sign of god’s benevolence, to god looking out for him in order to give him some comfort during his time of trouble. It did not seem to occur to him that by that reasoning, god was also responsible for all his bad fortune.

If you are a religious, it is almost reflexive behavior to turn around whatever happens to make it seem like god is looking after you. As an example of this kind of thinking, here is a joke that was sent to me:

There was a little old lady, who every morning stepped onto her front porch, raised her arms to the sky, and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord!’

One day an atheist moved into the house next door. He became irritated at the little old lady. Every morning he’d step onto his front porch after her and yell: ‘There is no Lord!’

Time passed with the two of them carrying on this way every day.

One morning, in the middle of winter, the little old lady stepped onto her front porch and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord! Please Lord, I have no food and I am starving, provide for me, oh Lord!

The next morning she stepped out onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there.

‘Praise the Lord!’ she cried out. ‘He has provided groceries for me!’

The atheist neighbor jumped out of the hedges and shouted: ‘There is no Lord; I bought those groceries!!’

The little old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord! He has provided me with groceries and made the Devil pay for them!’

We should not be surprised by this kind of delusional thinking because it is typical of religious believers. They have been conditioned to think that when tragedy strikes them, god is testing their faith and will eventually reward them if they remain faithful, and if good fortune comes, god is rewarding them now. It’s a no-lose proposition for religion, guaranteeing job security for the religious establishment that propagates it.

This is why you cannot really hope to persuade the true believer of the folly of religion by using reason to mount a frontal assault. Their beliefs have to collapse from within, slowly disintegrating because seeds of doubt get lodged in the cracks and start spreading, until one day they suddenly realize that everything makes sense if they abandon belief in god, and the whole religious edifice collapses.

POST SCRIPT: The weird story of Job

Nothing illustrates the ability of religious people to delude themselves into seeing even the most appalling behavior of god as something good than the story of Job. God mercilessly tortures an innocent person more or less for the fun of it, even murdering all his children, and yet this story is seen as a glorification of god and Job.

And the Lord said “Thou must spitteth on those who defileth the Sabbath with tape recorders”

Via Pharyngula, I came across this story about the appalling behavior of highly religious people.

It turns out that Orthodox Jews in Israel are upset at a local council in Jerusalem’s decision to open a municipal car park on Saturdays and have been protesting in the streets for weeks. Why? Because this would encourage people to drive on the Sabbath, and this is one of the gazillion things that you are forbidden to do if you are an observant Jew.

(I have written before about ‘Certified Sabbath Mode’ ovens and kosher telephones that provide loopholes to such laws for those who like to consider themselves Orthodox but don’t want to be inconvenienced by these weird rules. Presumably no rabbi has as yet come forward with a blueprint for how to make a kosher car but I bet they are working on it.)

Anyway, Australian reporter Anne Barker was sent to cover the car park protests when things suddenly turned ugly. As she writes:

I suddenly found myself in the thick of the protest – in the midst of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their long coats and sable-fur hats.

They might be supremely religious, but their behaviour – to me – was far from charitable or benevolent.

As the protest became noisier and the crowd began yelling, I took my recorder and microphone out of my bag to record the sound.

Suddenly the crowd turned on me, screaming in my face. Dozens of angry men began spitting on me.

Spit like rain

I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting – on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms.

It was like rain, coming at me from all directions – hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses.

Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face.

Somewhere behind me – I didn’t see him – a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me.

I wasn’t even sure why the mob was angry with me. Was it because I was a journalist? Or a woman? Because I wasn’t Jewish in an Orthodox area? Was I not dressed conservatively enough?

In fact, I was later told, it was because using a tape-recorder is itself a desecration of the Shabbat even though I’m not Jewish and don’t observe the Sabbath.

This disgusting story illustrates the problem with religious people. Ordinary criminals and thugs probably know that their behavior is wrong but simply do not care enough to change. But religious people can act just like criminals or thugs or even murderers and actually feel virtuous about doing so, because they think that god commanded them to act in this way. In their minds it makes perfect sense to even kill people who do not abide by their rules (if they could get away with it) because their holy books say doing so is their duty and they would be pleasing god by punishing the unobservant. As Clarence Darrow once told a group of convicts, “It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment.”

Most people are blissfully unaware of the awful things the Bible advocates and which lie behind the kind of appalling behavior described above. Take for example, Deuteronomy 22:13-21 about how a father should deal with a daughter who is charged with not being a virgin when she gets married. The passage ends as follows:

If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.

Statements like “You must purge the evil from among you” is the justification these religious fanatics use for their vigilante actions like what was done to the reporter.

If such people want to tie themselves up in knots with ridiculous rules because they are credulous enough to obey the instructions in some book written by some unknown person long ago, they are welcome to do so. But they are never satisfied with that. They want everyone else to also follow their rules.

In this regard, there is no difference between fundamentalist Jews or Christians or Muslims, except as to which absurd rules they think are important or which book they consider holy. And it is no use ‘moderate’ religionists saying that these people are aberrations, and that ‘true’ religion is benevolent and benign. The religious fundamentalists take their rules for behavior from the same books as the so-called moderates do. There is no way to put a benevolent spin on the vicious and murderous misogyny of the Deuteronomy passage. The only way to combat such pernicious ideas is to denounce the whole idea that ‘holy’ books have any kind of binding authority or even moral weight.

Will the authorities take strong action against these religious thugs or will they treat them lightly because of the absurd ‘respect for religion’ attitude that says that allegedly ‘religious’ people acting on their convictions are exempt from normal rules of behavior? Of course, such indulgence is usually only granted to those people who belong to the same religion as the authorities.

If unchecked, religious people will oppress us all because they think that is what god wants. It is only the modern secular state that can protect the rest of us from these religious fanatics.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on stoning non-virgins

God and Jesus explain why the stoning commandment is a good thing.

Why people believe in god-5: The evolutionary origins of belief

Today I want to look at why people believe in god, starting with its origins.

As to why religious beliefs arise in the first place, this is a fascinating and yet open question and any theories are at best speculative. The vast number of gods that have been independently invented in human history (see Machines Like Us for an exhaustive list) suggest that it is quite plausible that there is some propensity to create god beliefs that has nothing to do with the popular perception that religion arose to provide us with a moral code. As Robert Wright argues in his new book The Evolution of God (2009):

People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn’t originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.

It is possible that a small naturally occurring tendency to assign a causal agent to certain natural events provided a survival advantage that grew over time according to the Darwinian natural selection algorithm. For example, early humans who ascribed thunder and lightning to the anger of some unseen agent and hid in fear in their caves were more likely to survive than those who did not assign agency and wandered about freely in the storm. The natural selection algorithm worked on this advantage so that over the long period of evolutionary time, people have evolved a tendency to believe in causal agents for natural phenomena that make them more easily susceptible to religious-type explanations than to scientific ones, and this tendency would become ingrained and dominant.

It is similar to how we all seem to have a fear of snakes. It seems fairly well established that we have evolved to have an instinctive fear of snakes. Even baby chimpanzees have such a fear, suggesting that this fear developed fairly early in primate development, during the time when the common ancestors of chimpanzees and humans lived.

Once you are susceptible to assigning a mysterious invisible agency to natural phenomena, certain culture-based beliefs can take root. For example, it makes sense to postulate things like a life after death to overcome the fear of death and this, coupled with beliefs about an unseen agency, would lead quite naturally towards a belief in a god-like entity that rules the afterlife.

It is easier to understand why these beliefs, once originated, continue to be perpetuated. While childhood indoctrination by parents and priests and society at large is undoubtedly a major factor in perpetuating religious beliefs, the more interesting question is why children are so susceptible to this particular kind of brainwashing.

There seems to be a clear survival advantage for young children to believe unquestioningly what their parents and other adults tell them. Those children who unquestioningly heeded warnings not to touch fire or to eat poisonous plants or try and play with lions or wade into crocodile infested rivers were more likely to survive than those who rebelled and ignored the warnings of adults. So the propensity of children to believe authoritative adults could easily have evolved to become hardwired in the brain.

The combination of assigning agency to natural phenomena and believing adults makes it easy to understand how religion originated and is perpetuated and why children are so easily indoctrinated into religious beliefs, because they do not distinguish between those adult edicts that are truly beneficial (“Don’t pick up snakes”) with those that are nonsensical (“If you pray silently to god he can hear your thoughts and will answer your requests” or “If you get together with others and pray for rain, it will rain.”)

But what is really interesting is why people still cling on to these beliefs long after they reach adulthood. After all, as we age we develop reasoning capacities that enable us to subject ideas to close scrutiny. As a consequence, there are a lot of childish beliefs we give up as we grow up, like Santa Claus. Children soon figure out for themselves that it is highly implausible for one man to fly around the entire world in one night to deliver toys, going up and down chimneys.

Why isn’t belief in god one of the beliefs we discard, since it has as much evidence in support as Santa Claus?

Next: Why religious beliefs persist.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on Mark Sanford

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Shut Up, Mark Sanford
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Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran

Sarah, come back!

My great weakness as a political analyst, and the reason I am often wrong in my predictions, is that I try to think strategically. I keep forgetting that many of the prominent people in politics are divas who think that the normal rules of politics don’t apply to them and thus do things that you never anticipate. Just look at the recent list: David Vitter, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer, and Larry Craig.

And of course we have Sarah Palin, the biggest diva of them all. Like everyone else, I was dumbfounded by Sarah Palin’s statement on Friday that she was resigning as governor of Alaska. You can read the text of her speech here but you have to view the full 18 minutes of it to fully appreciate what an extraordinary performance it was. It was a classic Palin production: rambling and incoherent, uplifting phrases strung together without much thought to continuity, putting her family in the spotlight and yet whining about the way she and her family have been treated, repeatedly praising her own doggone maverickiness, and pandering to Alaskans by the bucketful.

What the speech notably lacked was a plausible reason for resigning. Basically she said that she had first decided to not run for re-election. She vaguely implied, in another bit of blatant pandering, that her visit to wounded soldiers in Kosovo and Landstuhl were factors in this decision. She then went on to castigate all lame-duck office holders as wasters of taxpayers’ time and money by going on junkets and the like. But she was not going to do that, no sirree, because that would be ‘politics as usual’.

You would think then that what she would do to defy that stereotype is put her head down and do a boffo job as governor in the second half of her term and accumulate a list of strong accomplishments, by golly. But no, she seems to think that the only way to avoid being a typically profligate lame duck is to not be in office at all, a kind of “stop me before I hurt myself” attitude that is mystifying. She said, astoundingly, that it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars for her to continue as governor, the job they actually voted her to do. Then, after a long and confusing basketball metaphor about how good point guards deal with difficult situations, gosh darn it, she quit, which is not what champion athletes do.

While most of her speech left me baffled, there was one thing that made me wince. She made an odd comment at the end about how much we can learn from children with Downs Syndrome and said that, “the world needs more “Trigs”, not fewer”. I have known children who have Downs. They are very affectionate and sweet and their families love them. But I don’t know anyone who thinks that having Downs is a good thing, to be encouraged, simply because it teaches the rest of us important life lessons. Once again, it seemed like an attempt at using her family as props for her own self-aggrandizement, to show that she was better than anyone else.

So what is going on? Why did she resign? The most charitable explanation that I can think of is that after the heady days of running for vice-president, with the private jets, the fancy hotels, a large staff to cater to her needs, shopping sprees paid for by others, permanently on national media, and so on, the daily grind of retail politics involved in running a small state was just too boring for her.

Or maybe she was clearing her desk so that she could run full-time for president in 2012. Many commentators (even those who are among her strongest supporters) think that if she thought that this was a good strategy, then she has made a serious miscalculation because this will be taken as evidence that she cannot stick to anything for long. Any doubts that this was a terribly bad move were dismissed when Bill Kristol (Motto: “Unapologetically Wrong About Every Thing”) thought that this could be good for her and that she might be “crazy like a fox”.

There were those who thought that she could be a credible candidate in 2012 if she worked on being a good governor and hunkered down and studied up on the issues that she seemed to be so ignorant of. Clearly she has not made any attempt to get up to speed on any of the big issues. Frankly I could never see that happening. As I said back in December, such habits and interests are formed early in one’s life and has been noticeably absent in hers. I think she believes that a breezy confidence in her gut instincts, her strong convictions on some social issues, and her looks were enough to run on, and that winks and smiles and a down-home speaking style of platitudes and clichés and banalities would make voters overlook the lack of substance, you betcha.

The timing of her sudden announcement was also weird. Palin clearly is narcissistic and loves media attention. I would have thought that she would have set up a big press event and had all the national media covering her resignation so that she went out in a blaze of publicity. But among political professionals, Friday evening is the time when it is believed to be best to dump any news that you don’t want people to pay attention to. The Friday evening before the July 4th weekend would be an even bigger news black hole. But since she wasn’t delivering news that needed to be buried, the timing was puzzling.

Some have speculated that she had to get out quickly before some big scandal breaks but so far nothing has emerged. Either she acted purely on impulse or she decided to take advantage of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report going on vacation on July 3 and not returning until July 13, hoping that other events would intervene and thus she would avoid being skewered by them when they return.

Furthermore, she made the announcement in her back yard before a single local TV camera crew and microphone and, if you watch the last few seconds, the camera pans over the crowd and you realize that there are only about ten people (including some children) there for the big show. It looked like she rounded up a few neighbors for her announcement. The whole thing was clearly rushed. Even her father-in-law was taken by surprise.

As I watched her performance, it struck me once again that she might be suffering from some kind of slight mental instability that I am not competent to diagnose, perhaps some kind of attention deficit disorder or even a little bipolarity. There has always been a slightly manic quality to her behavior, a curious adolescent mixture of chipper, upbeat, self-aggrandizement mixed in with maudlin self-pity. The character of Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard comes to mind.

Others suggest that she is smart enough to realize that she was never going to win higher office and decided to start right now to make money by exploiting her fame before it waned, by going the full-time celebrity route, writing books, giving speeches, and maybe having her own TV show.

One thing that Palin was right about in her speech was in her repeated assertions she does not practice ‘politics as usual’. I have never seen anything like her brand of political weirdness.

I never believed that Palin had even the ghost of a chance of winning even the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. However I was hoping that she would make a run for the White House. It would have provided endless entertainment to see how the other Republican primary candidates would handle her because she has got the politics of victimhood down pat. If criticized for her lack of awareness on the issues, she responds that this is sexist and that women are held to a higher standard. If people point out her lack of experience, she takes this as a slur on the people of Alaska and a denigration of small town values. She hauls her family out as political props when it suits her and then whines when anything is said about them. She loves being in the media spotlight and then complains about her treatment by them.

The Democrats knew that the people who liked her would never vote for them anyway, so her tactics did not really matter to them and all they needed to do was ignore her. She actually helped them by alienating independents. But the other Republican candidates would have been competing with her for the same base of voters, and dealing with her prickliness would have been a minefield for them. You can bet that they are heaving a huge sigh of relief and hoping she really is out of politics for good.

So come back Sarah! I miss you already. Elections won’t be nearly as much fun without you. You betcha.

POST SCRIPT: Al Franken

I have been amused at how some political commentators are treating Al Franken, now declared as having been elected as Minnesota’s senator, as an intellectual lightweight because he used to be a comedian. In reality, good comedians, especially those who have done stand-up, are pretty sharp. They have to be quick-witted and knowledgeable because they write much of their own material (at least early in their careers) and they have lots of experience putting down hecklers. They also know how to go for the jugular and have killer timing. Jon Stewart has writers for his show for the set pieces, but his background as a standup is what makes him a good interviewer where, if he wants, he can easily make the other person look foolish. Ask Jim Cramer.

Although I think that Franken is going to your standard issue, middle-of-the-road liberal, there is also every indication that he is a policy wonk, so people are likely to be surprised.

Here is a clip where Al Franken and Ann Coulter respond to the question of which character from the past they would have liked to have been. Note how Franken paces his response to Coulter, using pauses to think through his response to get maximum laughs.

Ann-coulter-al-frankenThe best video clips are here

You cross a stand-up comic at your peril.

Why people believe in god-4: Darwin’s problem

In a previous post, I tried to pin down what people actually believe when they say they believe in god. Today I want to look at what goes into religious belief, using Charles Darwin’s own journey as an example.

Charles Darwin was encouraged by his father, a successful doctor, to study medicine and was duly sent off in 1825 to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a leading place for such studies at that time. But Darwin found that he hated the study of medicine, especially the horrors of surgery in those pre-anesthesia days. When his father realized that this was not the field for him, he suggested in 1828 that he matriculate at Cambridge University, get a degree, and then become a clergyman. To get into Oxford or Cambridge University at that time one had to be a member of the Church of England (i.e., an Anglican), the rule being abolished by an act of parliament only later in 1871. Although Darwin had been baptized in the Church of England, his family tradition was nonconformist Unitarians and his father and grandfather were freethinkers.

Darwin felt that he should make a good faith attempt to see if he could honestly accept the doctrines of the Anglican church. In his autobiography Darwin says that he “had scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England; though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.” (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed), p. 49, my italics.)

I think that the key phrase here is “persuaded myself”. I think most religious people deep down suspect that their belief in a god makes no sense, or at least know that they really don’t understand the things they are being asked to believe, but they are willing to persuade themselves, as Darwin did, to go along with the charade. The key question is “Why?” Why go to all that trouble to overrule an instinctive skepticism that arises from their natural logic and reasoning powers? Why does it never strike them, as it never struck Darwin until he was much older, how illogical it is to say that they believe in what they cannot understand and what is in fact unintelligible?

But there were limits to even Darwin’s youthful credulity. Even when he was a believer in the literal truth of the Bible, Darwin could not bring himself to actually rejoice in the contradictions, to make the ridiculous claim that some apologists do, that because the doctrines of religion seem nonsensical, that accepting them is somehow a sign of intellectual superiority, that it indicates that one somehow understands and appreciates deep mysteries. As he said, “I might have said with entire truth that I had no wish to dispute any dogma; but I never was such a fool as to feel and say “credo quia incredibile.” [“I believe because it is incredible.”] (Barlow, p. 49)

As we all know, Darwin ended up being an unbeliever. He shied away from the label of atheist and called himself an agnostic, the former term being a little too strong for someone who hated confrontations, though it is hard to tell the difference in his case since he said quite clearly in his autobiography that although his disbelief crept over him at a very slow rate, it “was at last complete” and that he “never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.” (Barlow, p. 72)

It seems pretty clear that most adults have no actual reasons to believe in god. They have not in their lives seen god or heard god or witnessed any acts that can be unequivocally ascribed to god. Those who claim to have witnessed miracles tend to ignore plausible alternative explanations. But they lack Darwin’s instinct to follow his thinking to its logical conclusion that there is no god.

Those who actually claim to have seen god or had god speak to them are presumed to be delusional and in need of psychiatric help or frauds of the sort who try to sell pieces of toast with Jesus’s image on it on eBay. The latest story that I heard of was someone who claimed that a rock fall suddenly revealed a ‘hand of god’ in a rock formation behind his home and he (naturally) has put it up for sale on eBay.

So why do people believe in god? This really consists of two related questions: Why did such beliefs arise in the first place? And why do those beliefs persist in the absence of any evidence in support of them?

I’ll examine these questions in the next post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: David Attenborough talks about god

The noted nature documentary filmmaker has made many people aware of the wonder of nature. He talks about why he does not believe in god. (Thanks to Machines Like Us.)