The religious atheists get even more atheistic

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have been writing about the fact that as scientific knowledge advances, ultra-sophisticated Christian apologists, desperately seeking to find a way to reconcile their need to believe in a god while not contradicting science, have had to redefine god in such a vague and non-interventionist way that I felt justified in giving them the label of ‘religious atheists’.

Georgetown University theologian (and accommodationist) John Haught provides the latest example of this kind of religious backtracking by recently writing that the hitherto bedrock religious idea that there is design in life is no longer necessary for religious belief. He says:

The typically design-obsessed frame of mind through which so many devout theists, as well as staunch atheists, are looking at the question of God and evolution is a dead end both scientifically and theologically.

Claiming that Darwin has disposed of divine design, atheistic evolutionists assume that science has thereby wiped away the last traces of deity from the record of life. Yet they have failed to notice that the very features of evolution–unpredictable accidents, predictable natural selection, and the long reach of time–that seem to rule out the existence of God, are essential ingredients in a monumental story of life that turns out to be much more interesting theologically than design could ever be.

The most important issue in the current debate about evolution and faith is not whether design points to deity but whether the drama of life is the carrier of a meaning. According to rigid design standards, evolution appears to have staggered drunkenly down multiple pathways, leading nowhere. But viewed dramatically, the apparent absence of perfect order at any present moment is an opening to the future, a signal that the story of life is not yet over. (My italics)

That is interesting. So now even the lack of design is evidence for god! There goes Thomas Aquinas. There goes Paley’s watch. There goes intelligent design. The foundational argument of all religions that the cosmos exhibits features of design that are inexplicable without assuming the existence of god is thrown out the window. Instead what he talks about is the ‘story and drama of life being much more interesting’ than design could ever be. What he seems to be saying is that whether it is true or not that god exists is irrelevant. What is important is whether the explanation provides good drama. Can he be serious?

The arguments of religious atheists like Haught can be summed up simply as: Whatever science discovers, it points to god.

Some years ago, I debated intelligent design proponents in Kansas at their annual soiree. There was a large audience present consisting almost entirely of religious believers, mostly biblical literalists. During the debate, I kept hammering away at the indisputable fact that intelligent design had failed miserably to suggest a mechanism for how it operates or to generate even one prediction that scientists could look for and that therefore it could not be considered a scientific theory.

This message that there was no evidence for god must have disturbed one woman because she came up to me afterwards to give me a definition of god that she felt met all my objections. She had written it on a small scrap of paper during the session. I have kept it all these years, because I was impressed by her sincerity. Her note said:

Consider: Rendered “general” (I.E. The Law of Complex Systems) by the millions of created objects known about, (observed) daily, that: all complex systems (that we know about) owe their existence to acts of creation using planning and work by one or more intelligent living beings (not one exception). (All emphases in the original.)

We should ignore the lack of precision and coherence because it was clearly written in a hurry and spontaneously during the session itself. She was also trying to write it in what she thought was scientific language, adding to its obscurity. But what she is essentially saying is that every single thing in the world is designed, so that they all constitute evidence for the existence of god. She thought that this was a watertight definition of god that could not be refuted.

This is naïve and circular reasoning but excusable in someone who is not a professional theologian but is instead a devout believer who was thinking on the fly. But it actually makes more sense than the convoluted reasoning of Haught and other religious atheists who claim that no evidence is even necessary for god, that the question of his objective existence is also irrelevant, and that all that matters is whether god serves as a good metaphor and provides a dramatic story.

Haught’s essay presents an incredibly pathetic argument for god that basically denies god. Jerry Coyne takes it apart, point by point.

If there was ever a time to accuse someone with the cliché of making a virtue out of necessity, Haught’s piece provides it.

POST SCRIPT: That Mitchell and Webb Look on Abraham and Isaac

Truly one of the weirdest stories in the Bible. Why would anyone even want to worship a god who is such a cruel jerk?

Creationists target the history curriculum

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In my latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, I suggest that following the resounding defeat for intelligent design creationism in the Dover trial in 2005, religious people seem to have run out of options in trying to insert religion into the public school science curriculum.

Having failed to subvert the science curriculum, religious people are now trying to include religion and an overtly partisan political viewpoint in the history curriculum, to include “recommendations that children be taught that there would be no United States if it had not been for God.”

One of the panel, David Barton, founder of a Christian heritage group called WallBuilders, argues that the curriculum should reflect the fact that the US Constitution was written with God in mind including that “there is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature”, that “there is a creator” and “government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual”.

The flat assertions made by Barton of god’s existence and role are simply false. There is nothing in the US constitution that could even be remotely construed to mean what he says. While the drafters of the US constitution had diverse views on religion and the religious faith of some undoubtedly influenced their thinking, what is remarkable is that the US constitution is an explicitly godless one. There is not a single reference to god and the only reference to religion is a negative one that denies a role for religion. Article 6, section 3 states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

The response to this attempt by Barton to distort history by inventing reasons to insert god into the history curriculum exposes that weakness of the accommodationist approach to religion, in which people try to argue against such policies while not arguing against god itself. But once you concede that some vague idea of god makes sense to believe in, immediately the discussion becomes one of how and how much god was involved in US history, a discussion that can have no resolution because it involves theology and is thus devoid of any empirical content.

As an example of where this kind of woolly response gets you, an opponent of this new move by the creationists says that “I don’t think anyone disputes that faith played a role in our history” but that “it’s a stretch” to claim things like the above. A stretch? A stretch implies that there is some truth to the assertion, which is simply not the case. But accommodationists do not want to say this outright, even thought many accommodationists, especially those who belong to the Church of the Slacker God, don’t believe that god had any role in the history of the US either. This is because according to their view, god either does not exist or immediately retired after creating the universe in the big bang. But because of the political strategy they have adopted, they now have to struggle to find ways to say so without offending religious people.

The new/unapologetic atheists say quite simply: “Since there is no evidence for god’s existence, it is absurd to debate how much he was involved in anything at all. If you want to believe that he was, that’s fine. But you cannot impose your private beliefs onto everyone in the public sphere unless you have some evidence to justify that it is true.”

See how simple and logical that is?

POST SCRIPT: Defining gay and straight marriage
Cartoonist Mark Fiore illustrates the absurdity of trying to draw a distinction.

The hypocrisy and double standards of mainstream religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

(This earlier post from some time ago got deleted. I am reposting it with the comments since they added some interesting information and perspectives. Sorry about that.)

Sophisticated religious believers in the older religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) have almost nothing in common with the average follower. At the very extreme these sophisticated religious people belong to a category that I have labeled as religious atheists. But since they feel a need to cling on to religion, they tend to use theological language to hide the fact that what they say has little or no content. Taking a cue from George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, one can say that religious speech and writing, like political lanuage, are largely the defense of the indefensible, designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

But while such people disdain magical thinking, rightly realizing that such things are blatantly anti-science, these sophisticated believers tend not to harshly criticize the magical thinking of their own co-religionists. Instead they turn their fire on the magical thinking of believers in other religions.

As Jerry Coyne says:

The question of why bizarre Christian beliefs are treated with more respect than the equally bizarre tenets of Scientology has a simple answer. “Modern” religions, like Scientology and Mormonism, seem more bizarre simply because they’ve arrived on the scene only recently, making their man-made nature more apparent, and because their adherents are not in the majority.

Indeed, next to the problem of evil, the problem of Why My Religion Is The Only True One is the greatest of all arguments against faith. Christians — or adherents to any other religion — can simply give no good account of why their beliefs are the right ones, while those of Hindus, Scientologists, and Muslims are badly wrong. It would be a dishonest Christian who would deny that had he been born in Saudi Arabia, he would be as big an advocate for Muhammed as he is now for Jesus. Ask an evangelical Christian how he knows for certain that all Muslims and Jews are going to hell! Believe me, the answer won’t satisfy you.

These sophisticates often employ a hypocritical double standard, ridiculing other religions as false or even absurd while being quick to complain whenever anyone attacks their own religion. A prime example of such behavior is columnist Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic. Coyne blasts him for carrying on a sustained campaign of ridicule against Scientology (calling is a ‘super adventure club’) while being the first to whine when atheists criticize the equally bizarre beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church.

In an earlier post on Scientology I linked to the South Park video that made fun of that religion and flat out accused it of being a scam. I was reminded by commenter Eric that they had done a similar show on the Mormons that you can see here.

So South Park has made fun of the core beliefs and origins of Mormonism and Scientology. I do not know if South Park has done any shows making fun of the core beliefs of Christians, Muslims, or Jews. I suspect not because there would have been a huge hue and cry but if anyone has information on this please let me know. [Update: See the comment below by Eric about how South Park dealt with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and atheism. See also the comment by Disgruntled Goat about a court case.]

If Mormons and Scientologists wanted to, they could fight back by ridiculing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam the same way that they are ridiculed. They could portray Christianity in the manner of The Atheist Camel who defines it in 110 words as:

The belief that a walking dead Jewish deity who was his own father although he always existed, commits suicide by cop, although he didn’t really die, in order to give himself permission not to send you to an eternal place of torture that he created for you, but instead to make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh, drink his blood, and telepathically promise him you accept him as your master, so he can cleanse you of an evil force that is present in mankind because a rib-woman and a mud-man were convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

But they cannot do so. It is not because their beliefs are more ridiculous but because they are not the dominant religion. What they instead try to do is protect themselves by trying to pull the protective blanket of mainstream religions to cover themselves too. For example, Mormons often try to argue that they are just another denomination of Christianity, who happen to have some extra prophets and holy books. They are helped in this effort by the realization of some mainstream religious believers that the arguments used to discredit Mormonism and Scientology can boomerang, as this Jesus and Mo cartoon strip points out.

Marina Hyde at the Guardian, commenting on the interview that the Scientology spokesperson had with ABC News’s Martin Bashir, ruthlessly exposes the hypocrisy of those who protect some religions while attacking others.

Clearly, Scientologists should be forced to justify their doctrinal lunacies – the only sadness is that other religions are apparently exempt from having to do the same. Imagine for a moment a Bashir-type interviewing some senior cardinal. “So,” he might inquire, “you’re saying that by some magic the communion wafer actually becomes the flesh of a man who died 2,000 years ago, a man who – and I don’t want to put words into your mouth here – we might categorise as an imaginary friend who can hear the things you’re thinking in your head? And when you’ve done that, do you mind going over the birth control stuff?”

What a shame that we see rather fewer of these exchanges, however amusing and useful a sideshow Scientology may be.

Very true.

POST SCRIPT: ABC’s Nightline report on Scientology

The news program interviews Jenna Mescavige, the niece of the current leader of the church of Scientology to learn about what happened to her and others when they decided that the church was abusive and controlling and wanted to leave.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mano –

Thank you for the shout-out; a few things of note:

1) Sullivan’s reference to Scientology as “Super Adventure Club” is ALSO a South Park reference; it refers to the episode made mocking Isaac Hayes for leaving the show in a snit because it made fun of Scientology. In that episode, Chef (Hayes’s character) gets seduced into a pederast cult who brainwash & force him to cut off ties with his family and friends. In one sequence remarkably similar to the “This is what scientologists actually believe,” there is an equally ludicrous origin myth with the text of “This is what Super Adventure Club actually believes.”

2) South Park has been mocking the core beliefs of Christianity & Judaism for far longer than they have any other religion. They just happen to do it more piecemeal. The original pilot, “The Spirit of Christmas,” features a fight to the death between Jesus and Santa over the reason for the season. The 2nd season’s “Jewbilee” involves a brainwashing by the ghost of Moses, who looks suspiciously like the MCP from “Tron.” Islam finally got the treatment in the Season 10 2-parter, “Cartoon Wars.”

Atheism isn’t immune to South Park, either – Season 10’s “Go God Go” was their send-up of the militant atheist movement; but, not having a belief structure to mock, it ended up being an hour-long poke at creationists, people in general, and a really bad impression of Richard Dawkins.

I suspect that the reason why the “Big 3” haven’t been hit as directly is that it wouldn’t get aired, so they have to be a little more subtle. But Parker & Stone have basically said that they’re trying to make fun of pretty much everything.

Posted by Eric on December 10, 2009 10:33 AM
Hi Eric,

Thanks for this info. I should track down and check out the shows you mention. I am glad that South Park is hitting everything (including atheism). There should be no sacred cows. If a belief structure cannot withstand satire and derision, then it is too weak to be worth holding.

Posted by Mano on December 10, 2009 03:22 PM
Here’s the U.S. Supreme Court on religious freedom:

“The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects, of the violence of disagreement among them, and of the lack of any one religious creed on which all men would agree. They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views…The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain.” U.S. v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1943)

Translation: courts can’t inquire into whether crazy religions make sense, because then our religion would come under scrutiny too.

Posted by Disgruntled Goat on December 10, 2009 07:41 PM
Which is the point of FSMism – if the Judeo-Christian origin myth can be taught as science in schools, so can the Tale of the Noodly Appendage.

Posted by Eric on December 10, 2009 07:50 PM

The weird appeal of apocalyptic thinking

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Many people are scared of the thought of their own death. This is especially true of fundamentalist Christians who are terrified of going to hell and think that pledging allegiance to Jesus will save them from some horrible fate. They may say that they are confident that they are going to heaven because they are ‘saved’ but their obsession with this topic, their repeated groveling protestations to god about their unworthiness, and their constant appeals for forgiveness belie that confidence. They are too obviously trying to whistle away their fears.

Why is there this fear? After all, if there is one thing that we can be absolutely sure about, it is that we will die some day. And yet many people will refuse to contemplate it or make the necessary arrangements to ensure that everything is in order and that life goes on smoothly after they die. They just don’t want to contemplate the possibility of their own deaths.

But oddly enough, an apocalyptic event in which the world ends and everyone dies (say because of a nuclear winter or a meteorite collision or Jesus coming again) does not seem to frighten them as much as their individual deaths. In fact, down the ages there has been quite an interest in speculating on this topic.

In my series of posts on the age of the Earth, I said that the suggestion that the six days of creation recorded in the Bible meant that the world would end after 6,000 years was what may have spurred interest in calculating when this imminent end would occur. Ussher’s calculation of 4004 BCE as the year of creation made 1997 the 6,000th year and thus the year when the world would end. But since different versions of the Bible gave slightly different results, the exact year could not be pinned down and this was what was behind some of the apocalyptic thinking of people who thought that Rapture would occur sometime near the end of the previous millennium.

Of course, now there is a whole industry devoted to predicting the date of the end of the world, all of which have failed so far but that does not seem to deter the true believers. The beauty of theology is that it is infinitely malleable since it has no empirical basis. Your prediction of the end of the world not work out? No problem! Just change the interpretation of some obscure Biblical passage and you’re in the prediction business again. We just survived two predicted Rapture dates from this site of September 21, 2009 and October 21, 2009 (I didn’t tell you earlier to spare you needless worry), and now the latest end time date making the rounds, based on the reading of some Mayan calendars, is 2012 and credulous people are making some serious preparations.

So why is it that the idea of an apocalyptic end in which everyone dies does not seem as frightening as just your own death? I think that it may be due to the fact we don’t like the idea that the world will go on without us, that things will happen, people will have fun, new things will be discovered, and not only will we not be there to see and enjoy it, we will not even be missed. It is hard to accept the fact that the world will go on just fine without us.

I think that this sense that we will be missing out is what people don’t like to contemplate. Whereas if everyone dies at the same time, then nothing is going to happen after that and it does not seem so bad, though by any objective measure it is much worse.

It’s quite odd.

POST SCRIPT: The Great Disappointment

Stephen Fry talks about The Great Disappointment that occurred in 1844 when millions of people were sure that the world would end with Jesus’s second coming. It didn’t but some of the people who believed in were the ones who started the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

(Thanks to onegoodmove)

Media and Democracy: Hopes and Cautions

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

My fundamental interest politics is what it says about the state of democracy and not the fake politics that the media wants us to pay attention to. As should be obvious to any observer, political power in this country has been completely hijacked and now resides in the hands of the oligarchy consisting of big business interests, especially in the financial and military sectors, who determine the policies and control the elected leadership. The fundamental problem that we now face is how create an informed and active general public that will seize control of political life and decision-making in this country away from this oligarchy.

Enabling this subversion of democracy is a relatively small coterie of people, labeled the ‘Villagers’, consisting of key political leaders, some media figures (publishers and editors at the major newspapers and national TV outlets), the bigger think tanks, and opinion makers such as well-known political op-ed writers and newscasters (Jim Lehrer, Cokie Roberts, George Will, David Broder, Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen, etc.). This fairly extensive network of connected people informally arrive at a rough consensus of what news we should hear, what range of opinions are acceptable in public discourse, and who is ‘worthy’ of being elected to high office.

The Villagers may really believe that they are the ‘voice of the people’. It is easy to delude yourself that it is so if everyone around you hails you as a sage, and the Villagers are unstinting in their praise of each other. It is also important to note that the Villagers are not a secret conspiracy or cabal. Such groupings are easily discredited. The secret of the Villagers’ success is that they act openly. They are a loose network of individuals and groups, all connected by their shared business, political, journalistic, financial, and social dealings that result in them moving in the same circles. People living in an echo chamber do not realize that the voices they hear are not that of the people at large but merely their own.

But there is hope. The anarchic nature of the internet threatens to undermine the power of the Villagers. There will still be a place for traditional, trained journalists who go out into the field and have the resources and some standing to find out answers to important questions on issues of concern to the public. But the more important development is that the mainstream media are rapidly losing their gate-keeping privilege when it comes to deciding what becomes news and what kind of analyses people can access. This is a very good thing, in my opinion.

The web now provides an easy access point to many people to become public intellectuals. In the past, this privilege was reserved for a few highly eminent people who achieved notable distinction in their fields (like Albert Einstein) or those who spent considerable time and effort to cultivate a public persona, by writing popular books and articles. Now almost anyone with something interesting to say has a platform with which to reach the whole world easily and, most importantly, cheaply. Over time they can build up a large audience. Some good examples are Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Josh Marshall, Matt Yglesias, Markos Moulitsas, and Duncan Black.

I predict that one important component of the Villager network, the syndicated newspaper columnist will be extinct within a few years, and I will shed no tears. They are already rapidly becoming irrelevant as one can find far better analyses on the web than on the op-ed pages of your newspaper. I have stopped reading them because I simply cannot take anymore Maureen Dowd’s speculations on the Clintons’ marriage written in the tone of a high-school cheerleader, David Broder’s drearily predictable conventional wisdom and calls for bipartism, David Brooks’ absurd conceit that he knows what Americans want and think, Richard Cohen’s smug self-assuredness even though he is almost always wrong, and Charles Krauthammer advocating torture and the killing of more Arabs and Muslims. Who needs that?

The other thing that has changed is the relationship of the journalist to their audience. No longer is the audience impotent at the choices that journalists make on what news to cover. Now journalists and the media get rapid feedback from informed critics.

We are fortunate to be living in time in which the web gives us the ability to create a combination of best of two worlds that existed in the past: the timeliness of the pamphleteering that existed at the time of the American revolution and which proved so valuable to revolutionaries like Tom Paine, and the relatively low cost of gaining access to a large audience that was the early days of radio.

Of course the Villagers would like to protect their role as gatekeepers and limit free and open discussion. The best way to do that is not to directly suppress alternative views but to make the cost of access so high that only the Villagers can pay the admission price, as was done in the past with newspapers and radio. It costs a huge amount now to start a newspaper or a radio and TV station. The latter two options, although they use the public airwaves, have been effectively given over to the multinational corporations, rather than to promote more media egalitarianism.

This is why net neutrality is such an important issue worth fighting to preserve. This is why free and easy community broadband access, of the kind promoted in the Cleveland area by Lev Gonick at Case Western Reserve University and OneCleveland, is so important to spread. If everyone has equal access to broadband access that is free (or at least at minimal cost), there is hope of wresting at least some of the power away from the oligarchy and salvaging democracy.

The danger is that the media monopolies will try to prevent both those things and will succeed unless we fight to preserve them.

POST SCRIPT: The TV ‘news’ formula

Have you noticed how the TV news segments have a certain similarity? Well, Charlie Brooker reveals the formula that they use. (Language advisory)

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

The Noble Lie-3: The Noble Lie applied to religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

One place where one hears the argument about the virtues of the Noble Lie is in the case of religion.

Atheists are sometimes criticized for undermining belief in god because some sophisticated religious people feel that even if there is no god, believing in one may serve some good ends by helping people overcome personal adversity, prevent them from doing evil things, and even inspire them to do great things.

Some political thinkers feel that religion plays an important role in maintaining social order and seek to perpetuate religious beliefs even if they themselves are unbelievers. Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) argued that belief in god is a fraud perpetrated on the public in order to sustain a ruling class: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”
[Read more…]

The Noble Lie-2: The Noble Lie as a deliberate political strategy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

One might think that the idea of the Noble Lie existed only in ancient times where access to education was reserved for a small elite. But the proponents of the Noble Lie exist to this day.

A long and fascinating article titled Origin of the Specious: Why do neoconservatives doubt Darwin? by Ronald Bailey that appeared in the July 1997 issue of Reason magazine lays out how leading neoconservatives such as the late Irving Kristol (father of the always-wrong current neoconservative William Kristol) have been arguing against the theory of evolution because of the fear that it might undermine religious beliefs, even though they themselves are often not religious at all and consider themselves pro-science. Such people feel that religion is needed for social stability and must be preserved for that reason alone, even if it is a false belief that might harm scientific advances.
[Read more…]

The Noble Lie-1: The slippery slope from benign to evil

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

As children, we are repeatedly told that we must tell the truth at all times. But despite the indoctrination, all of us lie in small and sometimes big ways because we are weak or because we feel trapped in a situation where lying is the only way to escape without harming ourselves. However, all except pathological liars know that they are doing something wrong when they lie for those and similar self-serving reasons and feel guilty about it.

But while it is generally agreed that truth is preferable to falsehood, the idea that truth is a fundamental virtue that trumps all others does not always hold true. One can easily think of scenarios where lying for immediate tactical advantage is not only not wrong but is actually a virtuous act, say in order to save someone’s life by misdirecting a killer. But most people would agree that apart from such extreme situations, lying is to be avoided.

More difficult situations are those in which no serious harm is threatened but the lie might benefit others. So for example, we might lie to protect a co-worker who might lose her job if we told the truth or people may tell lies to benefit the company they work for because to tell the truth might result in the company being hurt and many people losing their jobs.

But what about in the world of ideas? Is true knowledge always preferable to false beliefs? Some would argue that even here it may be acceptable or even desirable to lie but I feel that this line should not be crossed. All people should be encouraged to seek the truth, even if it may destroy cherished beliefs. Furthermore, the reason that something is false is because either the evidence contradicts it, or the arguments in favor of it don’t make sense, or believing it leads to logical contradictions. Encouraging people to believe in false things is to also encourage them to discount the value of evidence and to abandon their reasoning skills and this can making them easy prey for liars and charlatans and demagogues.

One often hears the case made that believing false things can be beneficial. One can think of many situations where people choose to propagate falsehoods over truth for what they believe are benign or even positive reasons. For example, parents often deliberately tell their children things they know to be false (like the stories about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy) and these are thought to be harmless, because at some point the children are told the truth if they haven’t figured it out for themselves. Even though this deception is probably harmless, when children learn that they were deceived by the people they trust the most, they may become somewhat cynical.

Furthermore, there is the danger that this attitude can be extended to assert that it is acceptable to tell even adults lies ‘for their own good’. Political leaders often fall prey to this temptation, thinking that people cannot handle the truth, that they must do things ‘in the public interest’ that the actual public may not agree with, and the only way to do that is to lie. The trap here is obvious. There is a very thin line that separates telling lies for the benefit of the people being lied to, and telling lies that benefit the liars themselves. It is all too easy for political leaders to think that only they have the wisdom and judgment to understand the complexities of a situation and the action it demands, and treat the public as simpletons who must be fed some bogus story to get them to agree to a pre-determined action.

The war against Iraq was such a case. It was based on falsehoods that were clearly known to be falsehoods by those who took the country into war. Were the leaders self-aware that they were cynically manipulating public opinion in order to achieve crass goals of power and money that they knew the public would not support? Most people would agree that that would be wrong.

But what if the leaders were engaged in what they thought was a ‘Noble Lie’, because they thought they were serving a greater good that the public was too naïve to understand if they were told the truth? I would argue that it would still be wrong. The idea of a Noble Lie depends upon the notion that the people who can deal with the unvarnished truth consist of a small elite, while the mass of people are either incapable of understanding it or are too fragile to handle the truth and thus must be protected from this knowledge.

Such an attitude is condescending and profoundly anti-democratic that feeds on, as well as nourishes, the self-regard of the people who espouse it. Such people invariably think of themselves as part of the elite who can handle the truth and should know it. You never hear people demanding that they be lied to.

Next in the series: The Noble Lie as a deliberate political strategy

POST SCRIPT: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Here is a clip of Jack Nicholson’s speech in the film A Few Good Men, where he argues that a few people must make hard and unpleasant and secret decisions, even if they are criminal, in order to protect the very people who object to such acts. It is a good example of the mentality behind the Noble Lie.

Film review: Avatar (Spoiler alert!)

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I suspect that my spoiler warning will not matter much because going by the box office records this film is setting, I may have been one of the last people to see it last weekend.

I don’t usually go to see much-hyped blockbusters as they are often overly focused on action for its own sake and thus not the kinds of films I enjoy but I felt that I should see Avatar. At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students various questions to help me get to know them better and one of these is their favorite film. Many of them replied that it was Avatar, which made me intrigued as to what was so appealing, especially since some of my faculty colleagues also said it was their favorite film ever. (I also ask students their favorite book and this year for the first time many students said Harry Potter, which suggests that the first generation of students for whom those books were a formative reading experience are now entering college.)
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Film review: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I realized that I hadn’t discussed a film that deals with evolution and intelligent design (ID), topics that are central to this blog, so here is my long overdue review.

Frankly, Expelled is a mess. The film is polemical but that is not the problem. There is nothing wrong with having a point of view and making the case for it. The creators of Expelled have a story to tell of a scientific community (especially biologists) acting like a totalitarian cabal that demands Darwinian orthodoxy from all scientists and expels heretics from their midst, by denying them tenure, rejecting their papers, and firing them. All those who would even dare to whisper that evolution may be wrong and that there is a possibility that a designer is at work in life processes are victimized, ostracized, and expelled from the academy.

To tell this story, the narrator Ben Stein basically tries to copy Michael Moore’s patented shtick of the bemused Everyman, just a simple guy who has a childlike belief in truth and justice, trying to figure out what’s going on, and constantly being surprised at all the chicanery and bad intentions that he stumbles across almost by accident. In Stein’s case, he acts like a naïf who assumes that scientists were open to every possibility and every alternative theory and he is shocked, just shocked, at the extent they are willing to go to suppress ideas that they see as contradicting Darwin, and the appalling lengths they will go to destroy the people who are brave enough to do so.

Stein starts off by speaking to five scientists and a journalist who say their careers were destroyed because they criticized aspects of evolution and spoke in favor of intelligent design. I am not going to examine the validity of these claims since they have already been scrutinized here, but will instead focus on the filmic aspects.

The major difference between Moore and Stein is that Moore has a deft touch with comedy. He knows how to make people laugh by inserting verbal, visual, and musical gags that can startle the viewer into laughter while at the same time making an important and serious point. With his huge bulk, disheveled appearance, and trademark baseball cap, Moore comes across as a big lug, a doofus, a regular guy confronting the rich and powerful.

Stein, by contrast, looks throughout the film like an undertaker having a bad day. He seems to never crack a smile and speaks in a monotone. We see a lot of him walking everywhere in a dark suit and sneakers, with an inflectionless voiceover narration, and interviewing people with a dour expression.

The filmmakers have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the word ‘overkill’ is not in their vocabulary. The tone is set right at the beginning, with stark black and white images of the Berlin Wall going up as dismayed onlookers watch helplessly. The Berlin Wall is a central metaphor throughout the film. (The scientific community wants to prevent the free flow of ideas, just like the Communists, get it?)

From then on, we get repeated black and white stock film footage of Nazi and Communist soldiers marching in formation (the scientific community marching in lockstep, get it?). We also see lots of footage from what seems like old school education filmstrips and newsreels and films, with the grimacing, scowling faces of old wrinkled people (the hidebound nature of the scientific old guard, get it?) and slapstick comedy (the childish arguments against intelligent design, get it?).

And then there is Hitler. There is always Hitler. Religious people never seem to get enough of Hitler. They seem to think he is an argument against evolution and atheism even though Hitler was a Catholic and his entire program of mass extermination was carried out by a nation of presumably devout Catholics and Lutherans. We see images of Nazi death camps and hear much about their eugenics program. The claim is made that the theory of evolution leads in a straight line to eugenics, which in turn leads to not only the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps but also to euthanasia and abortion. In other words, when you accept evolution, you embrace a culture of death. The scientific community apparently just loves the thought of killing people in huge numbers. Oh, and Stalin appears in the film too but Pol Pot does not. He must have ended up on the cutting room floor.

The heavy-handed allusions last right up to the end. The film concludes with clips of Reagan making his famous speech calling for the Berlin wall to be torn down, juxtaposed with cuts to Stein concluding a speech to some college students, exhorting them to break free of the chains of scientific orthodoxy and fight for freedom. As the students stand and cheer Stein at the end of his speech, the film cuts away to the Berlin wall being brought down by young people. The take-home message is clear: Stein=Reagan and Evolutionists=Berlin wall. The self-aggrandizement is so painfully obvious as to be cringe-inducing.

The film was interesting to me in that it gave me a glimpse of some of the people in this debate whom I had not seen before. Evolutionist (and atheist) P. Z. Myers, author of the blog Pharyngula that has a pugnacious, take-no-prisoners writing style, comes across as low-key, soft-spoken, and mild-mannered. Mathematician David Berlinski, an apologist for intelligent design, comes across as smug, supercilious, condescending, and thoroughly unpleasant.

Richard Dawkins is of course the person the ID people hate and he gets a lot of questioning from Stein, mainly to highlight the fact that he thinks evolution and science tend to support and encourage atheism. Stein goes to great pains to get Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, to explicitly say that he does not believe in any god. In fact, after Dawkins has made it quite clear that he thinks the idea of god is absurd, Stein starts listing the gods of the various religions individually by name, asking him if he believes in each. Dawkins’s expression clearly signals that it is beginning to dawn on him that he may be talking to an idiot. He asks, “How could I? Why would I? Why would you even need to ask? Any god, anywhere, would be completely incompatible with anything I’ve said.”

Stein spends a lot of time in the film talking about the origin of life and the fact that we do not as yet have a good theory of how the first self-replicating molecule and the first cell appeared, even though neither the theory of evolution nor intelligent design has anything to say about this question. The reason is, of course, that religious people’s last resort is to insert god as an explanation for whatever question science has not yet answered, and the origin of life and the origin of the cosmos is their Little Big Horn, their last stand. But even here, they will meet the same fate as Custer.

One of the chief negatives about ID is that it is a useless theory that does not make any predictions or provide the basis for any research program. The film did not provide any either, because there is none. In the DVD edition though, it promised a bonus segment dealing with the practical applications of ID. This I had to see. It lasted a little less than three minutes and dealt with just two items: a neurosurgeon who looked at how engineers designed buffer systems and used that idea to understand how blood pressure to the brain is modulated, and another person who said that he thought a part of a cancer cell looked like a turbine (which is of course designed) and used that idea in his research.

That was truly pathetic. Scientists borrow ideas from other areas all the time. The fact that you got an idea from something that was designed and used it to understand the workings of a biological system is not evidence for the truth of ID. Doing science means postulating mechanisms that enable one to predict new outcomes and do experiments to test hypotheses. After all these years and all that money, ID still has not done any of that basic science and this is the truth that they cannot hide from.

ID is rejected by the scientific community because it has failed as science, not because of any grand conspiracy to keep it from exposing the weakness of evolution. This film is, at the end, a confession of this failure.

POST SCRIPT: Obama’s disingenuousness

In his State of the Union address, Obama said the following concerning the current health care reform plan being discussed by Congress, whose weaknesses I have discussed here and here:

“[I]f anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I’m eager to see it.”

Really? He hasn’t heard of the single payer option, the Medicare-for-all option, and the public option? All of these things would achieve all his goals and have been widely discussed. It was he and his cronies in Congress who went out of their way to make sure that they were never seriously considered.

To pretend that he is open to better ideas is simply a flat out lie. He sold out to the health industry and all his fine words cannot hide that ugly truth.