Atheism has won the debate

I think it should be clear to any thinking person that atheism has won. Not in terms of numbers, of course. People who call themselves religious still heavily outnumber those who say they are atheists, though the gap is closing. In a future post I will argue that the gap is closer than the raw numbers indicate but this post is about how atheists have clearly won the debate over whether it makes sense to believe that god exists.

The evidence for this is that religious intellectuals have pretty much given up on a god that has even a remote resemblance to what the word usually conjures up, and have instead created a faux god that merely provides them with a metaphor of transcendence to cling on to.

One can see this in the problem faced by religious intellectuals like H. E. Baber and Robert Wright. They are forced to agree with the atheist position that a god who intervenes in any way in the working of the universe is incompatible with a scientific worldview, since they realize that abandoning methodological naturalism puts them in bed with the religious crazies. But for whatever reason they are reluctant to call themselves atheists, so they are forced to invent the Slacker God to whom they can pledge allegiance and thus retain their religious credentials.

More evidence of the intellectual rout of religion can be seen in the September 11, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal, where the paper asked Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to contribute a pair of articles on the topic Man vs. God. Each person apparently knew the other was writing but did not see their essay.

Armstrong is a former Catholic nun and a religious apologist who has written a huge number of books on comparative religion. Dawkins, of course, needs no introduction.

One should really read Armstrong’s entire essay to fully appreciate the smokescreen of language that tries to hide modern theology’s retreat in the face of science. I will quote just a small piece of it that captures the unenviable position that people like her and Baber and Wright find themselves in as a result of their need to simultaneously cling on to scientific respectability while not abandoning religion entirely.

The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.

All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth (“Existence is suffering”), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God.

So there we are. As far as Armstrong I concerned, the god that most people can recognize has disappeared, to be replaced by a Zen-like aesthetic, an art form that provides an experience similar to the appreciation of poetry or music or painting. She goes so far as to equate god with nirvana, the Buddhists’ belief in a state of nonbeing that one supposedly enters if one manages to break free of the birth-death-rebirth cycle.

Dawkins, of course, has heard all this mush before and ruthlessly demolishes it. Being ‘rude’ and ‘uncivil’ as he is, he does not try to pretend that the position of Armstrong and others like her makes any sense but instead clinically dissects her argument to reveal that at its core is – nothing.

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: “Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.”

Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.

This is why I say that atheists have won. The sophisticated religious apologists have essentially conceded the argument and retreated to a small corner of the religious world that is cut off from that of the vast majority of religious believers. They are atheists in all but name.

POST SCRIPT: What happens when theology gets too sophisticated for its own good

Jesus and Mo weigh in on Karen Armstrong’s view of god.

Being a new atheist means not saying you’re sorry

The main complaint against new atheists made by accommodationists is not with what they say but with how they say it, their supposedly hostile ‘tone’. They are accused of being rude, uncivil, arrogant, extreme, militant, shrill, strident, etc. but it is important to note that they are rarely accused of being wrong. This is undoubtedly because evidence and logic is on the side of those who claim that there is no god and that to believe in one is incompatible with a scientific worldview. Believers in god have to go through all manner of tortuous apologetics to argue in favor of even a Slacker God, let alone the super-powered miracle worker believed in by most religious people.

It is undoubtedly true that in the public sphere some atheists (including me) have made fun of some of the more preposterous claims of religion. In fact, in some situations laughing is the most appropriate response, as recognized by Thomas Jefferson when he said, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them.” For example, what can you do about the ‘nutters‘ other than laugh at them? The excellent comic strip Jesus and Mo makes much the same point.

But pointing out the ridiculous implications of an opponent’s argument is part of the polemical nature of public debate on any issue. It is no different than religious people confidently asserting that there is a god and that we atheists are going to hell or at least are ‘not saved’, whatever that means. As an atheist my feelings are not at all hurt and neither am I offended by such assertions. Why should I be since I don’t believe in god or hell? From my point of view, such claims are merely laughable. Similarly, religious friends and relatives sometimes send me jokes that make fun of atheism and atheists. If the jokes are funny, I am amused. If not, it is just a few moments of time wasted. But there is nothing to be offended about.

New atheists are urged by fellow atheists like Massimo Pigliucci to be ‘measured and humble’ (in the manner of Carl Sagan) and not use the ‘angry and inflated rhetoric’ of Richard Dawkins. A new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate by Terry Eagleton supposedly attacks the new atheists. In a review of it, James Wood (a self-described atheist) suggests that “What is needed is neither the overweening rationalism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.”

I think the terms ‘humble’ and ‘disappointed belief’ used by Pigliucci and Wood are important clues to what complaints about ‘tone’ are all about. The problem is that new atheists treat the statements “religion and science are compatible” and “if we get rid of their fundamentalist elements, religion is worth preserving” as merely propositions that can be examined dispassionately and analytically, using evidence and arguments for and against, similar to other propositions like “increasing the minimum wage will reduce poverty” or “increased carbon dioxide levels will increase the risk of global warming.”

The new atheists conclude that both propositions about religion are untenable. Hence they say that religion and science are incompatible and that so-called ‘good’ religion encourages irrationality and also serves as a cover and enabler of bad religion and thus that we would be better off without religion altogether. They report their conclusions in the same matter-of-fact way that they would their conclusions about the minimum wage or global warming or any other proposition.

Wood, however, sees this as displaying “overweening rationalism” instead of “disappointed belief”. It seems as if in order to be a ‘good’ atheist one has to feel bad about not believing in god. We are expected to go to extraordinary lengths to soothe the feelings of believers, by prefacing any statement about atheism by sighing regretfully and saying things along the lines of “I hate to say this but I don’t believe in god. But this is a personal belief that I have reluctantly accepted and I can understand why others might choose to believe in god. In fact, I envy the emotional satisfaction that religious beliefs provide. I hope you are not offended by my saying I am an atheist and if you are I sincerely apologize.”

The absurdity of this expectation can be seen by looking at comparable situations that do not involve religion. Einstein, for example, was not accused of “overweening rationalism” and being arrogant when he introduced his theory of relativity that overturned centuries of belief in the validity of Newtonian physics. It would have been absurd to expect Einstein to have prefaced his papers with statements like, “I know that almost all people sincerely believe in Newtonian physics and may be really upset when I say that it is not valid. This makes me sad. However, the theory of relativity is just my personal belief and I think it is compatible with Newtonian physics and so people can choose to believe in both theories.”

Instead, Einstein simply laid out his arguments and evidence as strongly as possible in order to convince people that he was right, which is exactly as it should be. Whether it would be accepted or not by the community at large depended on whether it was supported by the evidence or not. The level of emotional attachment that people had for Newtonian physics undoubtedly influenced how readily they adopted the new physics but Einstein was under no obligation whatsoever to soften his arguments to accommodate those emotions.

New atheists treat propositions about religion in the same dispassionate way. They are no more displaying ‘overweening rationalism’ and lack of humility than Einstein was. Why should the emotional attachment of religious people to the idea of god be accorded any more solicitousness that those of Newtonians to their theory?

What really seems to irk some people is that new atheists are not at all apologetic or regretful about their atheism. New atheists are cheerful about the nonexistence of god and do not hesitate to say so because they would like others to experience the same exhilarating sense of intellectual liberation.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on Jonah and the whale

God explains all the careful preparatory work that had to be done to pull off that stunt, and the unfortunate aftermath that the Bible neglected to report.

Hail the Goddess Shirley!

During the Labor Day weekend, I spent a good portion of it going through all the comics on the Jesus and Mo website. For those not familiar with this strip, the premise is that Jesus and Mohammed are roommates somewhere in the United Kingdom who spend a lot of time at the neighborhood pub being challenged about religion by an atheist barmaid. Moses is a mutual friend of Jesus and Mo who does not live with them but drops by for periodic visits.

The comic strip is a remarkable blend of philosophy, theology, and humor that appears twice weekly and if you start from the very first strip in November 2005 and go through to the present, you get a good introduction to many of the issues concerning religion and atheism that this blog has been addressing, except that the strip says things more concisely and is funnier. It is well worth your while to read all the strips.

It is also very insightful. This strip from 2008 made me suddenly realize that we new atheist scientists have been going about things all wrong in our attempts to show that being an atheist makes the most sense intellectually.

The trouble with scientists is that when we are asked a question to which we don’t know the answer yet, we say we don’t know the answer yet. This is our usual reply when religious people ask, “What existed before the Big Bang? What caused the universe to come into being? How can matter arise out of nothing? How did the laws of science come into being? How was the first life form created?”

Religious people seize on these frank admissions of ignorance as if they are a fatal weakness of science or of atheism and their theologians triumphantly claim that religion does provide answers to all these questions and is thus superior to science, since this shows that religion has ‘ways of knowing’ that are superior to science.

But what are their answers really? When you come right down to it, what religions do to get ‘answers’ is simply make stuff up. They have no evidence or proof for their answers or even decent arguments that are not circular and self-serving. But once you invent an imaginary entity to which you can assign any powers you like, you can give facile answers to any question.

Here are some examples:

Q: Who created the universe and matter and the laws of science? A: God.
Q: How did he do all that? A: He is omnipotent so he can do anything.
Q: Why does he allow evil and suffering? A: Because he loves us.
Q: How does that make any sense? A: He has a cunning plan.
Q: What is the plan? A: It is a secret.
Q: Why? A: We are not ready to understand it.
Q: When will it be revealed? A: When we are ready to understand it.
Q: Why don’t we see any evidence of god? A: He carefully hides the evidence from us.
Q: Why? A: Because he has a cunning plan.
Q: What is the plan? A: It is a secret.

And so on, ad infinitum. You could easily write a computer program to provide these kinds of answers.

Scientists should take a cue from the theologians so that whenever we are confronted with the kinds of questions that religious people love to ask, like “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the purpose of beauty?” instead of answering honestly, we should simply make stuff up too.

This was the genius of Bobby Henderson. Rather than debating the existence of god, he simply made up a new deity called the Flying Spaghetti Monster and challenged traditional religions to explain why theirs is more credible than his. This, of course, they cannot do. So the Flying Spaghetti Monster now proudly stands as an equal in the pantheon with Amun, Zeus, Odin, Krishna, Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Zoroaster, and others. To get a sense of how many gods there have been in the history of the universe, the website Machines Like Us has compiled an alphabetized list, though the FSM is inexplicably not included.

So taking my cue from Jesus and Mo (and Bobby), here are some sample answers that I will give in the future to some popular questions:

Q: What existed before the Big Bang? A: Shirley MacLaine, in the very first of all her previous lives.
Q: What caused the universe to come into being? A: Shirley sneezed, and this was the Big Bang.
Q: Where did all the matter come from? A: Shirley baked it in her oven.
Q: Who created the laws of nature? A: Shirley again. That amazing woman can do anything!
Q: By what mechanism did the first life form come into being? A: Shirley gave birth to it.
Q: What is the meaning of life? A: To propagate Shirley’s genes.
Q: What is the purpose of beauty? A: To give pleasure to Shirley. She likes pretty things.

Actually these answers are even better than the ones provided by standard theology because they involve no secret cunning plans. Shirley tells her followers everything.

Truly Shirley is the greatest of all gods.

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Baxter!

The wonder dog is four years old today.


My colonoscopy saga-4: Some final thoughts

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

What is interesting about my experience is that even physicians whom I know personally and to whom I have told this story are surprised that whether I am charged for a colonoscopy depends on whether any polyps are found.

I also spoke about my experience at a health care panel a couple of years ago. Another panelist, a professor at another university, said that he thought that it was perfectly reasonable for us to treat health care like any other commodity and that consumers should shop around for the best deal. I responded that this was absurd. Health care is not a commodity to be compared like buying detergent. People often confront the health system in situations where they are deeply troubled or their plight is urgent or where they have few choices.

There is absolutely no justification for profit making entities like health insurance companies to be part of the system. No one has ever been able to tell me what value they add to the system. In fact they are parasites, a drain, and a hindrance to the smooth working of health care delivery. Health care services should be as universal and as profit and bureaucracy-free as your police or fire or library services.

Imagine applying the same health care logic to those other things. Suppose you had the same system for police protection. There would be separate police stations and you would have to pick a plan every year that specified your police station and the police officers who would serve you, and the services would be charged depending on what your policy said and your needs. So having a policy that would have police officers only come to investigate minor burglaries would cost less than to have them come to investigate an assault or a missing person. Such a system would be considered insane.

It used to be the case that fire protection actually was private and you would have to buy insurance in order to get firemen to come to your house to put out a fire. The system changed to a universal, single-payer public system because the unchecked fires of people who did not have insurance would spread to the houses of those who had, and people realized that fire-fighting was best dealt with as a communal responsibility. There are some things that the community should be collectively responsible for, and police, fire, and health should be among them.

The current health system in the US is run primarily for the benefit of the insurance and drug companies and also for the benefit of specialist doctors. All those groups make a lot of money within the current system at the expense of people who are sick. The US is the only country in the developed world that does not have either a socialized system like England or a single-payer system like France or Canada, both of which could be easily adopted in the US, by expanding and improving Medicare.

Even many developing countries like Sri Lanka have government-run single-payer systems as a foundation, with private health insurance supplements for those who want extras, such as private rooms in hospitals.

Some years ago, my mother in Sri Lanka was diagnosed with colon cancer. When her doctors found this out, they recommended surgery and her surgeon said that the best place for it would be in the government hospital. So she went into hospital, had the operation, and followed up with chemotherapy and radiation, all of which extended her life for some years. All the costs of her surgery and hospitalization (including intensive care) and post-operative out-patient care were free. All decisions about what treatment she should receive were made exclusively by her and her physicians, with no insurance or hospital bureaucrats involved. No conversations were required with anyone other than the doctors and nurses who treated her. No paperwork, no claim forms, no deductibles, none of maddening bureaucracy that people in the US are routinely subjected to by their private, profit-seeking health insurance companies, however sick they are.

The added value to her quality of life and to her family from not having to deal with all these hassles: immeasurable.

If Sri Lanka can do this, with a per capita health expenditure of $163 vs. $6,096 in the US, i.e. one-fortieth, why not the US?

The answer: The US can easily do it. The US spending per capita on health care is about twice that of other countries like France and Canada which have far better health care delivery systems based on the single payer model. If the money it currently spends on health care were used to fund a single-payer system, the US could easily have the best health care system in the world. Instead it has one of the worst in the developed world, entirely due to the fact that the parasitic profit-seeking entities that dominate the system, and the politicians they buy and control, seek to benefit at the expense of the sick.

It is as simple as that.

POST SCRIPT: Incredible bike riding

(Thanks to Norm.)

My colonoscopy saga-3: More discussions on the word ‘routine’

(See part 1 and part 2.)

By now I am fed up with all this back and forth and decide that I will schedule the colonoscopy anyway and deal with being charged afterwards. I call the doctor’s billing office again to get the final ok and learn something new. They say that the colonoscopy is considered ‘routine’ and thus free not only if there were no prior indications of cancer but also only if the doctor finds absolutely nothing. If the doctor finds even a single benign polyp (which is not uncommon), then it ceases to be routine (and free) and I have to pay the full amount, which is about $1,500. The insurance company had not told me this piece of interesting news nor is it spelled out in their policy. So whether I pay nothing or whether I pay about $1,500 depends not on the procedure itself but on what they find during the procedure! In other words, I have no idea going in what it is going to cost me coming out.

How crazy is this? I call the insurance company and argue that this is manifestly absurd but even after talking to the supervisor, I am told that this is what the policy is, and that’s that. However, the supervisor said that if it will put my mind at rest, she can give me an upper limit to what they will charge me, whatever the outcome. Again, like the 2-3 days rule, this seems to be one that she was making up on the spot, and I was dubious as to whether it would be honored later. It looked like the kind of answer given to pesky people just to make them go away.

I am finally fed up with the whole business, all the phone calls to the doctor’s office, the doctor’s billing office, and the insurance company. And I still haven’t spoken to an actual health care professional. This is of course the insurance company strategy all along, to wear people down so that they either go away or are willing to pay whatever is asked just to get the damn thing over and done with. Since I can afford to pay the full cost if need be, I go ahead and make the preparations and get the test.

Fortunately for me, not a single polyp is found so the colonoscopy does end up being free. But not entirely. Initially I am charged for the preliminary doctor’s office visit after all. So it is back to making repeated calls to the doctor’s billing office and the insurance company. I eventually find out that if the doctor bills me for the office visit under a difference code number from the one they originally used, the doctor’s visit is also paid for as part of the colonoscopy. So the doctor resubmits the bill with the new number and that ends that, and my particular story had a happy ending, despite all the time wasting frustrations.

But let’s take a moment to savor the absurdity of my experience. First of all, we had about six people (in the doctor’s office, the doctor’s billing office, several insurance company people, and their supervisors) involved in arcane discussions about rules for several weeks all before I even saw an actual health professional like a nurse or doctor. All the people I was dealing with were friendly and cordial and all the conversations were amicable, but we were all trapped in a maze of rules that made us go around with little progress, like hamsters on a wheel.

Furthermore, I am very fortunate. I have the time and knowledge and patience and access to the internet and phone to call people during the day, check the websites, and to do all preliminary work that I had to do to get all the information. But even with all that knowledge and after all my work, in the end, I still had to go in for my colonoscopy with no assurance of what it would ultimately cost me.

It so happens that I could afford to pay if necessary. But what if someone had taken the policy’s assurance of ‘free’ colonoscopies at face value, and the doctor had found a polyp or the insurance company had dug up one of the infamous ‘pre-existing conditions’, and then the patient had been unexpectedly hit with a large bill that he or she could not afford. This could be a serious problem for many people who live from paycheck to paycheck and do not have the savings to deal with sudden large expenses. It is this kind of thing that starts people on the slide to ruinous debt.

Or what if someone does figure all this out like I did but for whom $1,500 is unaffordable. Or what if they had some symptom that might prevent the ‘routine’ classification? There will be a strong temptation to skip the procedure, take the chance that they do not have cancerous polyps, and thus not detect the cancer until it is too late.

POST SCRIPT: Real reform or the final act of the Kabuki play?

Obama gave a strong speech last night where he said a lot of good things about what his health care plan would deliver, even though it falls short of what I would like to see. He vowed to end some of the worst abuses of the health insurance industry, such as the practice of rescissions, denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions, and putting caps on the costs of treatment, but he clearly wants to keep the fatally flawed current system in place.

He promised to vigorously fight those who oppose reform and to call out those who are blatantly lying about the proposed plans, which pretty much includes all the Republicans and many Democrats in Congress plus assorted wingnuts like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.

The eternal optimist in me hopes that he really means it and that he will not return to negotiating away even these limited improvements in order to please the business interests and its lackeys, which has been his practice so far.

The cynic in me fears that this might have been the penultimate act of the Kabuki play I described earlier and that Matt Taibbi fleshed out more fully in an excellent article, where Obama gives a pretty speech to satisfy his supporters but then acts against their interests.

What is needed now is to pay close attention to the details of the legislation that finally emerges. Real policy is not made on the floor of Congress or in public speeches but in the back rooms behind closed doors where the lobbyists exert their influence in secret.

My colonoscopy saga-2: When ‘routine’ does not mean what you think it means

In my first post in this four-part series, I pointed out that the choice of doctors and hospitals is very limited in the US. But as I continue to look further into my ‘free’ colonoscopy I discover more pitfalls.

I know that insurance companies try to find ways to avoid paying so I analyze my policy carefully and call the insurance company and ask what the word ‘routine’ means, since only those kinds of colonoscopies are free. I am told that the colonoscopy is considered routine if it is done as part of a regular check-up and not because of any symptoms that might suggest that I may actually have colon cancer.

This strikes me as bizarre, that the procedure is free only if there are no indications at all that I have any problem. The slightest hint of a symptom and bang, I am on the hook for well over a thousand dollars, the cost of the procedure.

This is of course consistent with the profit-seeking model of the private health insurance industry in the US, which seeks to only insure healthy people so as not to pay for treatment. Think for a moment of the consequences of such a policy. It means that people who suspect that they may have colon cancer but cannot afford to pay for the exam may not seek early diagnosis and treatment (and early treatment is key to a successful cure for colon cancer) but instead gamble that there is nothing there. It also means that if the insurance company can find anything at all in my past history that could be considered an indicator of colon cancer, they can deny payment. In fact they have huge staffs whose sole task is to try and find such ‘pre-existing conditions’.

But in my case, I had no symptoms so I called my primary care physician to get a referral to a gastro-intestinal specialist who does colonoscopies. He gave me a few names of people he thought were on my plan and thus should be covered. Of course, I have learned never to trust this kind of hearsay information because my primary care physician has to deal with dozens of insurance company plans and the bureaucratic maze that is the insurance industry, so I go to the insurance company website to check for myself.

The website is a nightmare to navigate. You have to select from a bewildering menu of insurance policies and within them, subclasses of policies. As Uwe Reinhart, a professor of political economy at Princeton University, said, insurance companies offer a range of policies under various names and in the employer-based health insurance system that exists in the US, each company negotiates its own benefits package. So you have to find the specific plan offered by the specific policy you signed up for from those offered by your specific company. But I am determined and plow on, having to call the insurance company a couple of times to clarify that I was on the right track.

And success! One of the recommended doctors is on the approved list. I also found that the office he works in is on the approved list of facilities. So I call the doctor’s office and speak to a receptionist there to make an appointment. Of course the first thing she asked from me was my insurance information because nothing gets done in the US unless you can prove you can pay, not on how sick you are, which is another bizarre aspect of US health care that people have become persuaded is ‘normal’. Once my ability to pay was settled, she said that before they could schedule the actual colonoscopy, I first needed an office visit to meet with the doctor for him to evaluate me.

This seemed perfectly reasonable, but it set off an alarm bell in my wary head. Was the office visit also covered by my insurance? I called the insurance company again just to be sure everything was ok. They said that the office visit was not covered. I argued with them that if the doctor required an office visit as part of the colonoscopy procedure, then it should be considered part of the cost of the colonoscopy and should be covered. After some back and forth, the person I spoke to put me on to her supervisor who, after some more back and forth, finally said that if the colonoscopy was done within 2-3 days of the office visit, it would be considered part of the colonoscopy. Otherwise it would count as a regular office visit and I would be charged in full for it.

This seemed absurd to me. She seemed to be making this rule up (the vagueness of the ‘2-3 days’ seemed suspicious). So I called the doctor’s office again. They had never heard of this 2-3 day rule. They transferred me to their billing office. The billing office manager was also baffled by this rule and she called the insurance company to find out what was going on. Of course, the billing office manager got a different insurance company person from the one I spoke to, and the new person said that she has never heard of this 2-3 day rule either and that the office visit is fully covered as part of the colonoscopy, irrespective of how many days separate the two.

The doctor’s billing office calls me back with this information. I am still a bit suspicious and call the doctor’s office to see if the office visit can be scheduled within 2-3 days of the colonoscopy, just in case. The answer is no. Why? Because the office visits takes place in one facility on one set of days and the actual colonoscopies are done in another facility on another set of days. But the fact that I have just learned that the colonoscopy is done at a different location from my doctor’s office sets off another alarm bell. Is that also an approved facility in my highly restricted list of choices? Once before I had experience of having some tests done at a non-approved facility that was used by my (approved) doctor and having to pay the full cost, so I am a little suspicious. I go back to the nightmare of the insurance company website and after much searching and another call to the insurance company, I find that it is, which is a relief.

So, am I all set for my ‘free’ colonoscopy? Don’t be silly. You think the insurance companies give up that easily?

Next: More problems with the word ‘routine’.

POST SCRIPT: The US has the best health care system in the world?

Opponents of health care reform like to boast that the US has the best system in the world. What such statements tell me is that these people have no idea what people in other countries have.

In yesterday’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross had a poignant interview with two young women who were diagnosed with cancer while still in their twenties. Like many young people, they were either uninsured or underinsured.

One of them was originally from the Czech Republic and she found it cheaper and less of a hassle to regularly fly back to that country for the free and bureaucracy-less treatment she received from the socialized health system in that country than deal with the system here. Think about that for a minute. The doctor who had initially diagnosed her and whom she trusted had since been removed from her plan which meant that she had to pay a huge amount just to see the doctor of her choice, which also makes a mockery of the claims that patients have choices in the current system.

The other woman was fortunate enough to marry a man who had health insurance coverage under his employer-based group plan that did not deny people with pre-existing conditions. So she is now covered though she still has to deal with the hassles that are routine here.

Both of them spoke about the nightmare of having to deal with the hassles and bills and the bureaucracy of the US health insurance system while they were still reeling from being told that they had cancer.

And these are the lucky ones who had at least some options. They are surviving. But for every young woman like this, there are many who have no options other than to go bankrupt or die young or, as is more likely, first go bankrupt and then die young.

As they say, only in America.

My colonoscopy saga-1: So where is this freedom of choice I hear so much about?

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

In anticipation of Obama’s speech on health care this week and as a coda to my long series on health care, in a four-part series I am going to write about a recent experience I had with the bureaucracy of the health care system in the US, not for any serious illness, but to get a ‘routine’ colonoscopy.

I recount my story in detail not because it is tragic (it isn’t) but to show how even seemingly simple things are made enormously complicated because of the private profit-seeking system that we have. The absurdity of it is that what I went through is so common in the US that people think that it is the only way to do things, unaware that in other developed countries, people do not have to go through this nonsense.

But rest assured. Unlike Katie Couric, I am not going to show images of my colon or other details. The saga is entirely about my dealings with the bureaucracy that one has to go through with private health insurance companies. Almost anyone who has had any experience with the health industry in the US has been given the run-around, with mind-numbing paperwork and endless struggles with the health insurance bureaucracy. Why people are not outraged amazes me. Perhaps it is because that most people have no idea that this is not normal, that when people in other countries need health care, they simply go to a doctor, get treated, and are done with it.

A colonoscopy is used to detect and remove ‘polyps’, which are small growths on the colon that can become cancerous. All colon cancers begin as polyps though not all polyps become cancerous, so early detection and removal is advisable. It is recommended that people over the age of 50 get a colonoscopy exam every ten years to detect and remove such polyps. I had dilly-dallied over this for many years but my mother’s diagnosis of colon cancer finally pushed me to actually get one. I then came face-to-face with the Kafkaesque absurdity of the US system that Uwe Reinhardt, a professor of political economy at Princeton University describes:

Well, I once did a dumb thing: I asked an insurance executive “What do you pay in New Jersey for a colonoscopy?”

And he just laughed at me and said, “What a silly question. There is no price for a colonoscopy. We have a different price for every hospital. And for the same hospital, we might have six prices depending on the insurance product, is it an HMO, etc.”

So I said, “This is mad. How many could there be?”

He says, “There could be 30, 40 for us, but then with Aetna, they could have another 30, and everyone has a different contract, so a hospital might receive 60, 80,100 different prices for a colonoscopy, depending on which insurance company and what contract it is. So when you say ‘What are the private market prices?’ there is no price.”

That was exactly my experience. The system was so complex and confusing that even for a routine colonoscopy, even the insurance people did not know what the rules and costs were. Is it any wonder that doctors’ offices have entire teams of people simply to do the accounting and try and figure out who should pay how much for what? And that even then they have to often guess? And that patients and doctor’s offices have to fight with insurance companies?

First of all, let me say that I am one of the supposedly ‘lucky’ ones in the US when it comes to health insurance. Both my wife and I are employed and have allegedly ‘good’ health insurance offered through our respective employers. We chose to be covered by one of my wife’s company plans, which seemed the best suited for our needs. At the end of every year we have to go through the dreary exercise of comparing all the plans offered (since the benefits and prices and lists of approved doctors and hospitals of each can and do change each year) to make our choice for the following year.

So when I decided to have a colonoscopy, I checked the plan we had that year to see if it was covered. It was and said it was free. Terrific news! Of course, aware as I am of the tricks of the private, profit-seeking health insurance industry to try and squeeze extra profits by exploiting loopholes, I know that nothing is ever that simple and so started looking into all the fine print that is buried in the policies. My policy says that a routine colonoscopy is free but only if it is done by doctors who are on my plan at only the authorized facilities on the plan.

Americans will not be surprised at this because this is what they have grown up with but it alone immediately puts the lie to those who claim that the current US system gives you more choices in doctors and hospitals than single payer systems in other countries. In reality, the choices you have here are severely restricted to the ones given to you by the insurance company, whereas in single payer countries there is no such restriction. If I were in France or Canada, I could go to almost any doctor who was willing to take me on as a patient.

Next: When routine does not mean what you think it means.

POST SCRIPT: Matt Taibbi on health care

Some time ago, I referred to a Matt Taibbi article in Rolling Stone on the horrendous state of health care in the US and Obama and the Democrats’ sordid role in preserving the system. The article was not available online then but it is now and reader Heidi has kindly sent me the link.

It begins:

Let’s start with the obvious: America has not only the worst but the dumbest health care system in the developed world. It’s become a black leprosy eating away at the American experiment — a bureaucracy so insipid and mean and illogical that even our darkest criminal minds wouldn’t be equal to dreaming it up on purpose.

The system doesn’t work for anyone. It cheats patients and leaves them to die, denies insurance to 47 million Americans, forces hospitals to spend billions haggling over claims, and systematically bleeds and harasses doctors with the specter of catastrophic litigation.

The cost of all of this to society, in illness and death and lost productivity and a soaring federal deficit and plain old anxiety and anger, is incalculable — and that’s the good news. The bad news is our failed health care system won’t get fixed, because it exists entirely within the confines of yet another failed system: the political entity known as the United States of America.

Just as we have a medical system that is not really designed to care for the sick, we have a government that is not equipped to fix actual crises. What our government is good at is something else entirely: effecting the appearance of action, while leaving the actual reform behind in a diabolical labyrinth of ingenious legislative maneuvers.

He also looks at the role-playing by the Democrats to hide the fact that they too are in the pockets of the health industry sharks.

In many ways, the lily-livered method that Obama chose to push health care into being is a crystal-clear example of how the Democratic Party likes to act — showering a real problem with a blizzard of ineffectual decisions and verbose nonsense, then stepping aside at the last minute to reveal the true plan that all along was being forged off-camera in the furnace of moneyed interests and insider inertia.

It is a terrific article. You should read the whole thing to see how the government really works and who it really works for. But be warned: it is not pretty.

It’s smiting time!

(Since it’s the Labor Day holiday, I am reposting something from July 16, 2008, updated and edited.)

The last time we encountered Christian evangelist Ray Comfort he was, along with his trusty sidekick the Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron, arguing that the exquisite design of the banana was absolute proof of the existence of god. The banana, Comfort pointed out, was “the atheist’s nightmare.” Why? See for yourself.

[Read more…]

Why Carl Sagan is considered a ‘good’ atheist

There is no doubt that the new atheists have ruffled the feathers of both religious believers and the accommodationists. But since the new atheists are on solid ground in their rejection of god, with science and logic undeniably supporting their position, the opposition to them often takes the form of chiding them for being supposedly belligerent in expressing their views. They sometimes get asked, in effect, why can’t you be more like that nice Mr. Carl Sagan and speak more softly about your skepticism and not offend believers?

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was an astronomer at Cornell University, a prolific author, host of TV shows, and a well-known popularizer of science who in his day was easily the most publicly recognizable face of science. He had an easy and engaging manner and the ability to explain science in laymen’s terms.

While he was clearly not a religious person, his views on religion and the way he expressed them are frequently brought up in discussions on the best way to deal with religious people. He is frequently held up as the model for a ‘good’ disbeliever, someone who can speak of his non-belief without antagonizing religious believers, in contrast to the supposedly unruly and uncivil ‘new atheists’.

Consider what Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York and also an atheist, said recently when reviewing Sagan’s book The Variety of Scientific Experience, which was based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures:

At the same time, it is so refreshing to read the words of a positive atheist, which do not in the least resemble the angry and inflated rhetoric of a Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. On the contrary, Sagan’s tone is always measured and humble, and yet he delivers (metaphorically) mortal blow after mortal blow to the religious in his audience.

Carl Sagan made the same strong arguments against god and religion the new atheists do, something that Pigliucci also concedes. And yet, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and other new atheists are invariably described as bad atheists, while Sagan is classified as a good atheist. What is the difference? What is it exactly that makes him ‘measured and humble’?

Picking up on my earlier post about the good atheist/bad atheist split, there seem to be emerging some criteria as to what makes an atheist a ‘good’ atheist.

Pigliucci suggests that a ‘measured and humble’ tone is one quality. But what makes an atheist ‘measured and humble’? Is it a willingness to concede that science and religion are compatible? This means a good atheist is one who is also an accommodationist. A bad atheist is one who isn’t willing to make this concession. But as one who cheerfully wears the mantle of a bad atheist, I don’t see why we should concede this point, since we think that at the heart of religious beliefs lies a deeply anti-scientific core. We don’t disagree with accommodationism in order to be unpleasant. We do so because we think accommodationism is wrong.

Another way to be classified as a ‘good atheist’ is to declare yourself to be an agnostic, the way that Charles Darwin did. Sagan has similarly said, “My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic.” Sagan seems to have bought into the notion that atheists are certain that there is no god, saying in an interview, “An atheist has to know more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God.”

But as I have written before, that attitude reveals a deep misunderstanding of what constitutes atheism. What is true is that an atheist realizes that one cannot be logically certain there is no god. But at the same time he or she is functionally certain there is no god, living in a way that is consistent with the assumption of no god. They see no need to introduce the god hypothesis into their lives for any reason.

As far as I can tell, Sagan (and Darwin before him) was as functionally certain that no god exists as I or any other atheist, whatever he might have chosen to call himself. But religious people are more comfortable with people who call themselves agnostics because it is assumed that agnostics think that belief in god is plausible, thus making them accommodationists too. Thus a claim of agnosticism does not pose a direct challenge to their religious beliefs.

Is that all that distinguishes a ‘good’ atheist from a bad one? I think that there is a deeper reason that I will explore in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Another mystery clarified

Mr. Deity explains why Jesus rode a donkey for his big entrance into Jerusalem.

The Church of the Slacker God

In the previous two posts that dealt with what accommodationists believe (here and here), I examined Robert Wright’s attempt to resurrect a theology that will likely only appeal to that minuscule group of intellectuals who want to preserve their scientific credibility (which belief in an interventionist deity absolutely destroys) while at the same time satisfy their inexplicable need to think that there is some powerful supernatural entity out there, even if that entity does absolutely nothing. Biologist Jerry Coyne, in response to a similar attempt at accommodationism by philosopher H. E. Baber, has accurately dubbed this entity a ‘slacker God’, akin to someone who has immense talent and abilities and resources, yet chooses to live the life of a bum.

So we should really think of ‘accommodationists’ as ‘worshippers in The Church of the Slacker God.’

But this raises the question of why intellectuals like Wright and Baber so desperately want to belong to such a church, which frankly does not seem to offer much to its parishioners. After all, it rules out answers to prayers, miracles, heaven, and all the other goodies that entice believers to join the more mainstream churches, even though those goodies never actually materialize. How much mileage can you get out of the mere contemplation of ‘ultimate beauty, power, and glory’, as Baber suggests. Is it likely that Catholics would have shelled out the billions of dollars that enables the Pope to live in luxury if the Catholic Church had merely promised in return little more than a Zen-like experience?

Why do religious intellectuals like Baber and Wright feel the need to find reasons to believe in the existence of such a slacker god? Cynics have suggested that the lucrative Templeton prize that is given to those who try to reconcile science and religion is a powerful incentive to gloss over the unbridgeable chasm that separates the two worldsviews. At least that is what Jesus and Mo think.

But obviously only a very, very few are in the running for such a prize. While the total membership in the Church of the Slacker God cannot be that large (after all, how many religious people would find such a noninterventionist god appealing?) it is not vanishingly small either. But since the members are usually high-level intellectuals with access to a mass media sympathetic to their point of view, they can command a high public profile out of proportion to their numbers.

But the Church of the Slacker God, like all churches, has to deal with heretics. In this case the heretics are those who think that their god is not quite the slacker that people like Wright and Baber envisage. Some heretics like biologist Kenneth Miller, author of the book Finding Darwin’s God, try to find ways for the Slacker God to intervene in the world without being detected. The favorite vehicle for this is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Such heretics share the strange belief that god needs and wants to act in the world and yet does not want to be detected doing so, and thus has to go to extraordinary lengths to hide his actions by creating laws that enable him to surreptitiously intervene.

Why does god go to all that trouble, you ask? Pose that question to believers and you will receive the favorite cop-out answer given whenever believers are posed the question of why their god behaves in such weird ways: God acts this way for reasons that our puny human minds cannot comprehend at least at this stage in time and so the reasons must remain mysterious until he thinks we are ready to receive this knowledge. There is no real answer that can be given to this except to point out that they seem to have extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the reasons for god’s behavior even while they claim that god wants us to remain ignorant.

But there are even greater heretics like mathematician John Lennox, physicist John Polkinghorne, biologist Francis Collins, and author C. S. Lewis, all of whom start out by claiming fidelity to the doctrines of The Church of the Slacker God, but then abruptly switch and say they believe, among other things, that god resurrected Jesus from the dead, thus destroying his slacker cred.

What is interesting is that all the Western followers of the Slacker God seem to get their beliefs about god ultimately from the Bible, a book that unquestionably was written by people a long time ago who had their own agenda and were not at all followers of the Slacker God. What these intellectuals have done, following theologian Rudolf Bultmann, is de-mythologize the Bible, steadily stripping away every magical element that makes their god a god. But once that process is complete, instead of conceding that there is nothing left, they give the remaining emptiness the name of god and claim existence for it, a classic reification error.

William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted John Scopes in the famous ‘Monkey Trial’ of 1925, was much more tough-minded than modern day accommodationists. He knew where this process of demythologizing would end and he was having none of it.

If a man accepts Darwinism, or evolution applied to man, and is consistent, he rejects the miracle and the supernatural as impossible…If he is consistent, he will go through the Old Testament step by step and cut out all the miracles and all the supernatural. He will then take up the New Testament and cut out all the supernatural – the virgin birth of Christ, His miracles and His resurrection, leaving the Bible a story book without binding authority upon the conscience of man. (God and Evolution, New York Times, February 26, 1922, p. 84, emphasis added)

His conclusion? “Evolution naturally leads to agnosticism and, if continued, finally to atheism.”

It is fashionable now to reject Bryan as a fundamentalist anti-science zealot, even a stupid buffoon. But Bryan was smart enough to realize that once one accepted the theory of evolution, one ought to follow its implications through to their logical end. Since he did not like the atheistic conclusion he arrived at, his solution was to reject the premise, which was the theory of evolution itself.

By contrast, the members of The Church of the Slacker God, and even its heretics, say they embrace the theory of evolution by natural selection and all that that follows from it, but shrink from accepting the ultimate conclusion they arrive at that god is superfluous and thus can be rejected with no loss. Seeing no other way out of this impasse, they tack on an ad hoc ending, simply asserting that they believe in god anyway. They lack the logical consistency of Bryan.

But why bother to do all this? Why is it that even the Slacker God is so appealing to people like Wright and Baber? Perhaps they think that even though this entity has never done anything apart from creating the universe and its laws right at the beginning, it has the potential to do something, and they find that thought somehow comforting.


POST SCRIPT: Who are you calling a slacker?

In this Mr. Deity clip that I have shown earlier, God and Jesus explain to their assistant Larry the real reason they stopped intervening in the world.