Religious silliness

(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 the world of the Abrahamic religious traditions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), religious fundamentalism and hypersensitivity seems to be getting worse, with American-style creationist ideas (though not of the young-Earth variety) even gaining ground in the Middle East.

As an example of religious sensitivities, there was the case of a US military sniper in Iraq using a Koran for target practice. This was undoubtedly a rude act done by a stupid person but it led to an equally stupid overreaction by Muslims, who became incensed because the Koran is a ‘holy’ book. As a result, the US military had to make a groveling apology once the incident became public, even kissing a copy of the Koran and calling the soldier’s actions ‘criminal’. There were even protests that resulted in the deaths of three people. All this over nothing more than shooting a book. As someone who loves books, I find the wanton destruction of books offensive in general but I am not going to riot over it and I recognize the right of people to do what they want with the books they own.

Muslim theologians had to add their two cents worth, with the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq issuing a statement.

“As the Association of Muslim Scholars condemns this heinous crime against God’s holy book, the Constitution of this nation, a source of pride and dignity,” the groups statement said, “they condemned the silence by all those who are part of the occupation’s agenda and holds the occupation and the current government fully responsible for this violation and reminds everyone that God preserves his book and he [God] is a great avenger.”

If god is a ‘great avenger’ who ‘preserves his book’ with so much care, then why don’t they let god decide what action to take against those who use it for target practice? If it was such a gross provocation, surely god could have struck the soldier dead or at least given him boils? The fact that the soldier is fine must mean that god does not care that the Koran was shot up.

Some schools in Somalia have been forbidden to ring bells to signal the end of class, because bells sound Christian. One should not be surprised at such silliness when one hears that Muslims around the world protested the publication of cartoons showing Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. How absurdly sensitive can you get when mere cartoons can arouse protest like these?

A cleric in Iran blamed the recent earthquakes on women wearing revealing clothes and behaving promiscuously. That, of course, explains why earthquakes occur on an almost daily basis in the US and Europe. Not to be outdone in the world of religious absurdities, a Jewish rabbi said that hurricane Katrina was God’s vengeance for the Israeli pullout from Gaza. What, you don’t see the connection? Me neither.

In Malaysia, Bibles referring to God as Allah were seized by the Malaysian government which claimed that “the word Allah is Islamic and that its use in Bibles could upset Muslims.” When later a court ruled that non-Muslims could also use the word, the government appealed the verdict, resulting in violence. “Arson attacks then followed, mainly targeting churches, and wild boar’s heads were placed at mosques. Pigs are considered unclean by Muslims and their presence would be taken as an insult.”

Two Muslim journalists in Malaysia, investigating reports that Muslims were being converted to Christianity, attended a Catholic mass, took communion, and then spat out the wafers. (I am not sure why they did the spitting part. Did they fear that if the ate it they might have accidentally become Christian, and thus risked being killed which is the punishment for apostasy in parts of the Islamic world?) Naturally, this created a tizzy in the Catholic Church hierarchy which actually believes that the wafers become the body of Jesus as a result of a ritual. Riots and Muslim-Catholic conflicts ensued. Oddly enough, William Donohue of the US Catholic League or, as I prefer to refer to him, the head of the Church of POOP (Perpetual Outrage to Obtain Publicity), did not seize this opportunity to whine about Catholics being victimized. Then there were Catholics who were upset over a crucifix artwork that seemed (to their sex-obsessed eyes) to display Jesus’s genitalia.

We also have Christians in Italy who were angry at the inclusion of a mosque in a nativity scene. And then we had Christians in the US throwing a fit because of the decision to remove crosses from an Army chapel in order to create a neutral environment for all religions to pray in, as required by US military regulations.

The Irish have taken a great step backward into medieval times by actually passing blasphemy laws, so that now “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion” is liable to fines of up to 22,000 euros. Jesus and Mo have something to say about it.

And there is the high school in Missouri that banned their band’s shirt that played on the evolution theme because the shirt upset people who dislike evolution.

Meanwhile that rich storehouse of unremitting goofiness known as Conservapedia has launched a project to rectify what they see as ‘liberal bias’ in the Bible! Not satisfied with insisting that science conform to the Bible, they now want the Bible to conform to their ideology. What a fun project!

Don’t religious people realize how silly all this makes them look?

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on the Conservapedia revisions to the Bible

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Tip/Wag – Conservapedia, Louvre & Honda Unicycle
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Michael Moore

Religious thuggery

(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 written repeatedly about the absurd levels of sensitivity of some religious people, who immediately get up in arms if they feel their religion is being mocked in even the mildest way. A catalogue of religious absurdities would range from the farcical to the tragic and even criminal. Most of the time, the protests merely make religious people look silly but sometimes things get ugly and even deadly.

Saudi Arabia has to be the leader in carrying Islamic sensitivities to absurd lengths, even seeking to execute ‘sorcerers’ because it considers reading horoscopes and fortune telling to be un-Islamic. Yes, in the 21st century there exists a government that does not realize that horoscopes and fortune telling are merely swindles designed to separate gullible people from their money. Saudi Arabia also planned to execute a witch.

Somali Islamists have stoned people to death for ‘adultery’, a charge so broadly defined that it is even leveled at children who have been raped.

The latest example of the absurdity of religion and the consequences of giving undue deference to religious beliefs involves the creators of the cartoon TV show South Park who have been threatened by some Muslims with a fate similar to that of Theo van Gogh because they supposedly planned to air an episode showing the prophet Mohammed in a bear suit. I did not see the episode. There is some confusion about exactly what was shown in response to the threats, whether any self-censorship was exercised and if so, whether it was by the Comedy Central network or by the South Park creators. Jesus and Mo have something to say about this.

The creators of South Park are hardly heroes in the fight over free speech. Over at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers takes them to task for shallowness and an unwillingness to stand for anything. But even shallow speech like theirs has to be protected from religious thuggery. Those Muslims who threaten violence against those who mock their religion are taking advantage of their right of free speech to deny free speech to others.

Pat Condell tells them where to get off.

Of course, issuing threats because they are offended is not the province of only Muslims. They are abetted in their sense of entitlement by people of other religions who try to claim some kind of privileged status for religious beliefs in general. American Christians, in addition to the deadly violence they use against abortion providers, can be as eager as Muslims to threaten anyone who offends them. Glenn Greenwald lists Jewish and Christian religious people who murder because they think their god wants them to. He describes the case of Yaakov Teitel who was charged with two murders, three attempted murders and other acts of violence. “It was a pleasure and an honor to serve my God,” said Teitel at the Jerusalem courthouse. “I have no regret and no doubt that God is pleased.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that:

Just weeks after the arrest of alleged Jewish terrorist, Yaakov Teitel, a West Bank rabbi on Monday released a book giving Jews permission to kill Gentiles who threaten Israel.

Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro, who heads the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the Yitzhar settlement, wrote in his book “The King’s Torah” that even babies and children can be killed if they pose a threat to the nation.

Shapiro based the majority of his teachings on passages quoted from the Bible, to which he adds his opinions and beliefs.”(my italics)

In an NPR interview recently, a young woman in Pakistan said that people who commit violent acts cannot be ‘true’ Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace. Christians and Jews often say the same thing when confronted with people who commit similar acts in the name of their god. But such people are missing the point. It does not matter what they think. The people who commit these acts of intimidation, thuggery, and murder think that they are the true believers. This is why religions are so dangerous. True believers actually take their religious texts seriously and think they are being faithful to their god’s commandments by doing these unspeakable acts.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on the South Park incident

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'South Park Death Threats
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Making up stories about god

(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.)

On my last trip to get a haircut, I overheard a different barber talking with his customer in the next chair. The barber was telling a joke that was aimed at atheists. I could not hear all of it because my own barber was making conversation with me and I did not want to seem rude by telling him that I was more interested in what was going on in the adjacent chair, but I managed to get the gist.

The joke was about an atheist who goes on a hike alone in a remote area and confronts a bear who overpowers him and is about to kill him. The atheist cries out to god to save him from an awful death. At that point god freezes time (and the bear) and has a conversation with the atheist where he essentially asks him why he should save him now, given that he did not believe in him until the atheist really needed his help. I missed hearing the next bit but the punch line was that the bear got on his knees and gave a prayer of thanks to god for the meal that he was about to enjoy. So presumably the atheist dies because of his denial of god. The barber and his customer shared a good laugh at the joke.

Of course, there are many such jokes that circulate. Some religious people seem to get a big kick out of the idea that atheists will be punished by god for not believing in him, and take a lot of glee in the thought that they will suffer awful deaths and eternal torment in the afterlife. The Jesus people often take that tack, never missing an opportunity to let you know how awful hell is. Some of them realize that harboring such thoughts of gruesome vengeance does not reflect well on their own professed religious values so they try to disguise their sense of satisfied anticipation by cloaking it as concern for our souls, that they are not enjoying the thought of our suffering but are merely trying to warn us away from an awful fate in the afterlife.

What was interesting to me is that all these stories that religious people tell are just that – fiction. Things like the barber’s tale never occur in reality. Religious people seem to believe that god can unambiguously appear to people, stop time, and do all kinds of amazing things to show off his power but it doesn’t seem odd to them that such things never ever happen in real life. Apart from repeating the events written about in their unreliable ancient religious texts, they have to resort to making up stories (jokes or otherwise) about god. It never seems to strike them that the stories in their religious texts that speak of god’s intervention in earthly events also probably started out as just these kinds of fictional stories designed to reinforce religious people’s belief that god was on their side.

You would think that it might occasionally strike them “Why doesn’t god do this kind of thing once in a while nowadays? Why is he so silent? He never writes or calls.” After all, we new/unapologetic atheists in particular have given god enough provocation to make him good and mad at us, enough to make him want to teach us a lesson by very publicly smiting us. You would think that the fact that god has never unambiguously appeared or spoken to anyone or done anything would be sufficient to at least suggest to religious believers that god might not exist. But such is the power of faith to overwhelm reason that the thought never seems to even occur to them, let alone convince them.

This is because when it comes to god, religious people do not seem to be able to distinguish fiction from reality.

POST SCRIPT: Choosing between science and religion

Alas, not everyone chooses sensibly, thus revealing the power of early religious indoctrination to convince believers to deny reality if it contradicts belief.

The health care scam

(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.)

So after much drama, the health care bill finally became law. If anything demonstrated the fecklessness of Obama and the Democratic Party and their willingness to sell out of their supporters in order to appease their corporate overlords, it is the way that the health care bill was constructed and passed.

There is no question, as Robert Weissman writes, and which I have repeatedly pointed out, that a single payer system, the system of choice for almost every other country in the industrialized world, is more humane and more efficient than what the US currently has. (See here for all my previous posts on health care.) Even candidate Obama conceded as much during his presidential campaign. T. R. Reid’s new book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care also debunks the myths of the alleged superiority of America’s health care system. Even Sarah Palin admits that when she was a child, her parents took advantage of Canada’s system, saying, “we used to hustle on over the border for health care”, adding “I think isn’t that ironic now.” Yes it is, Sarah, yes it is.

The pressure for health care reform comes largely from the fact that the private, profit-seeking entities that dominate the system (insurance and drug companies and hospitals and specialist doctors) are driving up the costs and employers want to shed themselves of this burden. (Also see another comparison of costs.)

The logical thing would have been to go to a government-run single-payer system that would be cheaper because it would spread the costs over the entire population, have the power to negotiate lower prices, reduce bureaucratic duplication, and eliminate the profit element that plagues the current system and results in such horrors as the rescission of coverage after one receives a diagnosis of a disease. The despicable insurance companies also find sleazy ways to drop coverage for people who discover they have breast cancer:

They had no idea that WellPoint was using a computer algorithm that automatically targeted them and every other policyholder recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The software triggered an immediate fraud investigation, as the company searched for some pretext to drop their policies, according to government regulators and investigators.

Once the women were singled out, they say, the insurer then canceled their policies based on either erroneous or flimsy information.

Of course, Congress and the Obama administration will not do anything to harm the interests of these companies since these very organizations that profit greatly from sick people are major contributors to their coffers. And so what we finally ended up with was a mere tweaking of the existing system.

It is not that there are no good features at all in the bill. There are, such as expanding coverage and restricting some of the worst industry abuses. But these were the bones that were tossed to the Democratic Party supporters to mask the fact that the resulting plan has internal contradictions that will eventually wreck it. The Democratic party deliberately sabotaged the one big chance the country had to enact the kind of reforms that are necessary to prevent the looming catastrophe that will occur because the basic causes of cost increases have not been addressed. As Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, says:

What this bill does is not only permit the commercial insurance industry to remain in place, but it actually expands and cements their position as the lynchpin of health care reform. And these companies they profit by denying health care, not providing health care. And they will be able to charge whatever they like. So if they’re regulated in some way and it cuts into their profits, all they have to do is just raise their premiums. And they’ll do that.

Not only does it keep them in place, but it pours about 500 billion dollars of public money into these companies over 10 years. And it mandates that people buy these companies’ products for whatever they charge. Now that’s a recipe for the growth in health care costs, not only to continue, but to skyrocket, to grow even faster.

Glenn Greenwald quotes a Kaiser Health News report that “details the massive benefits each industry [Doctors, Hospitals, Insurers, Pharma] receives (compared to their mild costs), the success they had in killing any real competition and reform in the bill (i.e., the public option, Medicare expansion, drug-reimportation, bulk price negotiations, and an end to the insurers’ anti-trust exemption)” and that the bill was enacted by “invoking and strengthening precisely the same corrupt, sleazy practices that have long driven Washington.”

There have been many analyses detailing how the Democrats sold out on health care, calling the Obama strategy essentially a scam on the American people. Angell says of Obama that, “He gave away the store at the very beginning by compromising. Not just compromising, but caving in to the commercial insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry.” Glenn Greenwald and Norman Solomon lay out in detail exactly how the scam by Obama and the Democratic Party was executed. It was the shocking loss of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown that exposed the scam for all the world to see, while paradoxically hastening the passage of the final bill.

While the Democrats still had sixty votes in the Senate, they could play out this charade that they really and truly wanted real reform as represented by a single-payer system or Medicare for all (or at least expanded) or a public option, but that they had to overcome this darned filibuster threat by the Republicans, which meant that they had to appease the most reactionary elements in their own party in order to hold on to every one of their sixty party members and thus were forced to give up on the more ambitious plans. Oh, but they were so sad that they had to compromise their ideals like this.

But as Greenwald says,

[A]dvocates of the public option kept arguing that the public option could be accomplished by reconciliation — where only 50 votes, not 60, would be required — but Obama loyalists scorned that reconciliation proposal, insisting (at least before the Senate passed a bill with 60 votes) that using reconciliation was Unserious, naive, procedurally impossible, and politically disastrous.

But the win by Scott Brown meant that they could not overcome the filibuster after all because of the unanimous opposition of the 41 Republicans. Faced with the possibility that they might not get any health reform bill at all through the Congress, which would have meant political disaster for them, they suddenly decided that they would use the reconciliation path to passage after all. So given how much they had said about their desire for more sweeping reform plans, you would think that now they would bring back all those elements they so ardently desired and spoke so passionately about. But no. They went with the health-insurance industry friendly bill, thus exposing that this was the bill they had really wanted all along and that everything they had said suggesting otherwise were nothing but lies. If one needed any more proof, along the way it was revealed that Obama had made a secret deal early on with the pharmaceutical industry to kill the public option, thus confirming the existence of the scam.

It should have been clear to the dimmest bulb that the health care bill that Obama and the Democrats finally passed was what would have been considered in the old days a Republican plan, one whose main goal was to leave untouched (and even enhance) the interests of big business and the wealthy. It is no coincidence that it is similar in philosophy and structure to the plan introduced in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney when he was governor. He now has the unenviable task of disowning his own plan in order to appease the crazies who now running the Republican party.

What has happened in American politics is that the Democratic party has become the Republican party and the Republican Party has gone nuts.

POST SCRIPT: The ignorance of health care opponents

The party groups that demonstrated on April 15 to denounce the health care bill, among other things, as part of some socialistic takeover of America’s economy are remarkably ignorant of the reality of American politics but are driven by some inchoate sense of frustration and impotence that makes them succumb to paranoia. They pose a real danger to the Republican party, risking making it into a fringe and nutty cabal.

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow describes how detached from reality health reform opponents really are.

Passivity in the face of authoritarianism

(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 long since ceased to be shocked at the awful things that governments do while unctuously mouthing platitudes about freedom and democracy and the rule of law. This kind of deep and blatant hypocrisy is now so commonplace that while it still angers me, it no longer has the power to surprise. What still has the capacity to shock, however, is how people are so passive in the face of their government’s most appalling actions, letting the pro-establishment media decide for them what they should care about. While we hear about the tea-partiers all day long, how many people noticed or cared about the McCain-Lieberman bill that authorized harsh treatment for people who were merely suspected of evil intent? How many media outlets publicized its features? The media were much more excited over Tiger woods returning to playing golf, as cartoonist Matt Bors points out.
[Read more…]

Hypocrisy in the war on terror

(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.)

It is interesting how the US media is always shocked, just shocked, when they see people in other countries seem to be oblivious to the abomination of torture. A recent French TV show essentially repeated the famous Stanley Milgram experiment which found that ordinary people were often willing to obey instructions to inflict torture on other people. The French show found a similar result, the difference being that in the Milgram experiment, 62% of people obeyed despicable orders while it was 80% in the latest incarnation.

The Game of Death has all the trappings of a traditional TV quiz show, with a roaring crowd chanting “punishment” and a glamorous hostess urging the players on.

Christophe Nick, the maker of the documentary, said they were “amazed” that so many participants obeyed the sadistic orders of the game show presenter.

“They are not equipped to disobey,” he told AFP.

US commentators wondered what might be wrong in the French psyche that enabled the contestants to inflict such pain of people. They were either oblivious about the Milgram precedent or to the fact that the US government routinely practices torture and that the hit show 24 is one that unashamedly promotes torture.

While Obama has claimed for himself the kingly power to order the death of anyone whom he thinks deserves it, other fans of authoritarian rule are now seeking to enshrine some of those powers into law. John McCain and Joe Lieberman have introduced the Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act that “would empower the U.S. military to arrest anyone, U.S. citizen or otherwise, who is suspected of terrorist associations and detain them indefinitely, without right to a trial.” If the captured person is deemed to be an “unprivileged enemy belligerent”, that person would be denied all rights, including Miranda rights and the rights to a lawyer. That person would then be placed in the custody of a “high-value detainee interrogation group”, which is a euphemism for people trained in the art of torture. “If there is any disagreement about a person’s unprivileged enemy belligerent according to the above criteria, the final determination goes to the President. Once determined to be an unprivileged enemy belligerent, a person, regardless of citizenship status, can be detained indefinitely, without trial, until terrorist threats against the U.S are determined to be over.”

This law hasn’t been passed yet but can we doubt that it will be, given the mood of the country? Glenn Greenwald comments:

Meanwhile, the bill recently introduced by Joe Lieberman and John McCain — the so-called “Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act” — now has 9 co-sponsors, including the newly elected Scott Brown. It’s probably the single most extremist, tyrannical and dangerous bill introduced in the Senate in the last several decades, far beyond the horrific, habeas-abolishing Military Commissions Act… It’s basically a bill designed to formally authorize what the Bush administration did to American citizen Jose Padilla — arrest him on U.S. soil and imprison him for years in military custody with no charges.

This bill has produced barely a ripple of controversy, its two main sponsors will continue to be treated as Serious Centrists and feted on Sunday shows, and it’s hard to imagine any real resistance to its passage. Isn’t it shocking how easily led and authoritarian the French are? (my italics)

The hypocrisy of the US policy against terrorists is nowhere better illustrated than in the case of Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born exile who worked for the CIA.

There’s ample evidence Posada tried to assassinate a world leader, hatched a plot that killed scores, and dismembered a tourist in a hotel bombing. Yet he is not being tried for any of those offenses, because the government botched the case and shredded critical evidence. In the end, Posada is being accused of lying to authorities, a slap on the hand that would outrage the nation if he were, for instance, an Arab. But he’s Cuban, and that makes all the difference.

[W]ith the help of millions of American tax dollars, Posada began a bloody, half-century-long campaign against the Castro government. He set off pencil bombs in the island’s capital and coordinated the 1961 Bay of Pigs attack from Central America. After the invasion failed, he was among exiles who attended an elite Army academy in Georgia; he graduated two years later as a spy and lieutenant.

He then tried to kill Castro using a gun disguised as a camera and plastic explosives stuffed into a Prell shampoo bottle. In 1976, he masterminded the downing of Cubana Flight 455 with 73 people onboard. Six years later, pressured by the United States, a Venezuelan court cleared him; then it bizarrely changed course and decided on a retrial. But the wily spy bribed guards, escaped, and two decades later bombed Havana hotels, causing millions of dollars in damage and killing an Italian tourist.

[T]he FBI, which spent millions of dollars over several decades probing Posada’s spy work, inexplicably shredded most of its evidence. What’s more, the Reagan administration hired Posada as part of the Iran-Contra scandal.

U.S. pressure has even had an effect abroad. A Panamanian court convicted Posada of plotting to kill Castro during an Ibero-American Summit. Then, in 2004, President Mireya Moscoso pardoned Posada. (my italics)

The US has grandly said that any country that harbors terrorists should expect to be treated like a terrorist nation and be subject to all the consequences that ensue. Indeed this is the claimed basis for many of the assassinations that the US has conducted in foreign countries. And yet the US has long provided refuge to Posada, who has actually been convicted of terrorist acts.

Cuba has as much reason, if not more, to kill Posada as the US has to target the people it has killed. But imagine if the Cuban government sent in drones to kill Posada in the US. Even if in the process they did not kill ordinary American civilians the way that American assassination attempts in other countries often do, there would be such outrage and condemnations that Cuba would be invaded within days.

And yet, when the US does exactly the same thing to others, it goes unnoticed.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart vs. Bernie Goldberg and Fox News

I don’t know why people try to take on Stewart. Even an average stand-up comedian can rip apart smart and reasonable people and make them look stupid because they are good with words and can think on their feet. Stewart is not only well above average, he even has a talented team of writers at his disposal and his own show. He is always going to have the last word and you are always going to lose. Goldberg seems to be too dense to understand this and keeps getting mauled.

The clip is worth watching to the end just to see Stewart do a great impersonation of a gospel church preacher, followed by a Groucho Marx dance routine.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Bernie Goldberg Fires Back
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Non-believing priests and their parishioners

(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.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in their paper Preachers who are not believers say that one of the biggest problems that non-believing clergy face is what to tell their parishioners. It is not only their disbelief that they have to hide, it is even the stuff they learn in divinity school which is quite different from the simple biblical views that their parishioners believe. The Washington Post has a panel of writers who contribute to their On Faith column and they have all weighed in with different ideas about what they think non-believing clergy should do.

However, the priests interviewed in the study all decided that they needed to conceal their disbelief and doubts but find it burdensome to publicly spout beliefs that they themselves can no longer accept.

Whatever their initial response to these unsettling revelations, the cat was out of the bag and both liberals and literals discerned the need to conceal their knowledge about the history of Christianity from their congregations.

A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary. This gulf is well-known in religious circles.

What was interesting was that they all seemed to think that many of their fellow priests also believed things that were quite different from their parishioners. They saw themselves as professionals with insider professional knowledge that they could not share with their flock. “I mean, you have a professional class of people, basically, who are working with an organization of non-professionals.”

Still, they all find themselves with a secret: they don’t believe what many of their parishioners think they believe and think they ought to believe.

When asked his opinion of why ministers do not pass on their knowledge of Christian history to parishioners, [one of the disbelieving clergy] said:

“They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to lose donations. They want to keep their jobs. They don’t want to stir up trouble in the congregation. They’ve got enough trouble as it is, keeping things moving along. They don’t want to make people mad at them. They don’t want to lose members.”

They struggle to find ways to deal with the cognitive dissonance between what they believe and what they publicly profess.

Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing.”

But they often feel so stifled that they try to find ways to seek out parishioners with whom they can explore their unconventional ideas.

One tactic they have discovered is the book club or study group, where self-selected parishioners get to read one of the controversial books by Bart Ehrman or Bishop Shelby Spong… or even Sam Harris.

Those who participate are alerted to the nature of the materials in advance and are then gently encouraged to discuss the ideas, in an unusually tolerant atmosphere, a sort of holiday from the constraints of dogma. Here the pastors can demonstrate their open-mindedness and willingness to take these shocking ideas seriously, and let the authors be the mouthpieces for what is in their hearts. Again, they need to have plausible deniability: they aren’t preaching these ideas, just acquainting their parishioners—those who are interested—with them.

This was a revelation to me. My own religious upbringing in Sri Lanka was strongly influenced by three very progressive and humane clergymen, people about whom I still have fond memories. They were the two Anglican chaplains at my school (my school in Sri Lanka was established by Anglican missionaries from England and it had a tradition of having English chaplains), and the Methodist minister of my church, also an Englishman. They were people who were very open and accepting and you felt that you could explore any idea with them without them becoming shocked or outraged or condemning you for having heretical thoughts. They were people who were smart, scholarly, and thoughtful. In fact, just the type of deep thinkers who might end up not believing in god.

Looking back I wonder if they were this open-minded because they were also secretly grappling with unbelief and the frank discussions we had were their way of dealing with their own issues, like the priests in the Dennett-LaScola study.

Though I never took the Bible literally, I was a strong believer (though not a fundamentalist) and I don’t recall ever actually questioning the existence of god. But if I did so and told them, I think they would have taken it in stride. But it never crossed my mind until now that they might have been secret non-believers. It never occurred to me to ask them if they actually believed in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection from the dead of Jesus. But looking back, I am beginning to wonder. It might be interesting for those readers of this blog who know clergy well enough to ask them point blank if they actually believe in god and the virgin birth and the resurrection.

It is strange that such questions are never asked. It makes one suspect that such discretion is practiced because people fear that disbelief of basic dogma is far more prevalent among clergy and laity in churches than they are willing to let on. It is a can that many suspect contains worms but no one wants to open to find out.

POST SCRIPT: Talks by Dan Barker in Cleveland

Dan Barker is a former evangelical preacher who became an atheist and left the church and founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

He will be speaking at CWRU tomorrow (Friday, April 23, 2010) in Wickenden 322. The talk is free and open to the public. The title of his talk is “Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists,”

The event is sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry. For more details go to the group’s Facebook page or contact president Andrew Schriver at

The next day (Saturday, April 24) Barker will talk on “How to be good without God” at Cleveland State University at 6:00 pm in Nance College of Business (1860 Euclid Ave.) room 118. The event is sponsored by the CSU Non-Prophets.

For more details see their April 24 Event page on Facebook or contact Bryan Pesta at

The loneliness of the unbelieving priest

(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.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University report in their paper Preachers who are not believers that in order to overcome their sense of loneliness, unbelieving clergy quietly seek out cues and clues to identify which of their colleagues share their disbeliefs. “Among their fellow clergy, they often develop friendships, and suspecting that their friends share their views, they gingerly explore the prospect, using all the ploys that homosexuals have developed over the centuries.” (I wrote earlier about this topic and the Dennett-LaScola study here and here.)
[Read more…]

Government-sanctioned killing

(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 yesterday’s post, I highlighted the order by Obama to kill a US-born citizen Anwar al-Awlaki because he believes that he has been inciting people to violence. In other words, he has been targeted for summary execution, not because of any actions, but because of things he is alleged to have said. Columnist and analyst Glenn Greenwald, who is also a constitutional lawyer, recounts the legal history of the rights of free speech.

The question of where First Amendment-protected radical advocacy ends and criminality begins is exactly the sort of question with which courts have long grappled. In the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed a criminal conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader who — surrounded by hooded indivduals [sic] holding weapons — gave a speech threatening “revengeance” against any government official who “continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race.” The Court held that the First Amendment protects advocacy of violence and revolution, and that the State is barred from punishing citizens for the expression of such views. The Brandenburg Court pointed to a long history of precedent protecting the First Amendment rights of Communists to call for revolution — even violent revolution — inside the U.S., and explained that the Government can punish someone for violent actions but not for speech that merely advocates or justifies violence. (my italics)

Given this extremely broad interpretation by the Supreme Court of the protections granted by the constitution to free speech, how does the government get away with the claim that it can actually kill anyone whose speech it dislikes? It is using the fear and paranoia that has been carefully cultivated by the Bush-Cheney-Obama regimes to make people so fearful of vague threats that they are willing to shred the hard-won rights laid out in the constitution and put their fate in the hands of a protective father-figure. The ‘home of the brave’ has become the home of people hiding under their beds.

How the government gets people to acquiesce in these policies is to use anonymous sources to leak to the media that someone is a very, very bad person who deserves to die. The media dutifully report this and then excitedly and gleefully report as a success in the ‘war on terror’ when that person is reported killed, no matter if other people are killed along the way. No one seems to ask how we really know if this person is bad if there hasn’t been a trial, and whether mere assertions by government officials (often anonymous) are sufficient to deny that person’s right to life or even due process rights. It seems as if all that is necessary is to use the words ‘war on terror’ or to call someone a ‘terrorist’ for the constitution to be shredded.

As Greenwald says:

[I]n Barack Obama’s America, the way guilt is determined for American citizens — and a death penalty imposed — is that the President, like the King he thinks he is, secretly decrees someone’s guilt as a Terrorist. He then dispatches his aides to run to America’s newspapers — cowardly hiding behind the shield of anonymity which they’re granted — to proclaim that the Guilty One shall be killed on sight because the Leader has decreed him to be a Terrorist.

All of this underscores the principal point made in this excellent new article by Eli Lake, who compellingly and comprehensively documents what readers here well know: that while Obama’s “speeches and some of his administration’s policy rollouts have emphasized a break from the Bush era,” the reality is that the administration has retained and, in some cases, built upon the core Bush/Cheney approach to civil liberties and Terrorism.

When Obama was seeking the Democratic nomination, the Constitutional Law Scholar answered a questionnaire about executive power distributed by The Boston Globe‘s Charlie Savage, and this was one of his answers:

5. Does the Constitution permit a president to detain US citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants?
[Obama]: No. I reject the Bush Administration’s claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.

So back then, Obama said the President lacks the power merely to detain U.S. citizens without charges. Now, as President, he claims the power to assassinate them without charges. Could even his hardest-core loyalists try to reconcile that with a straight face? As Spencer Ackerman documents today, not even John Yoo claimed that the President possessed the power Obama is claiming here.

In another post Greenwald pursues this theme:

Here again, we see one of the principal and longest-lasting effects of the Obama presidency: to put a pretty, eloquent, progressive face on what (until quite recently) was ostensibly considered by a large segment of the citizenry to be tyrannical right-wing extremism (e.g., indefinite detention, military commissions, “state secrets” used to block judicial review, an endless and always-expanding “War on Terror,” immunity for war criminals, rampant corporatism — and now unchecked presidential assassinations of American citizens), and thus to transform what were once bitter, partisan controversies into harmonious, bipartisan consensus.

As regular readers know, I quote Greenwald extensively because, unlike most commentators in the mainstream media, he not only knows about what he writes but he cares deeply about upholding basic civil and constitutional rights. If you are not reading him regularly, you are missing a lot.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show (February 2009) on fear-mongering

Using these kinds of tactics, any and every atrocity is justified under the guise of ‘protecting’ us. (For some reason, after the 3 second Comedy Central introduction, you have to click the pause button and then the play button to start the video.)

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Why Are You Such a Dick? – Audio Tape
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

The president as king

(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.)

It seems to have been accepted as the norm that the US has the right to declare that certain countries are free fire zones in which they can kill civilians, irrespective of whether they are young, old, men women, or children, purely because they happen to be in the vicinity of people the US has deemed its enemies. Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen are now among countries where the US sends unmanned drones on assassination missions that often go wrong and result in innocent people being blown to bits. Obama has been the most enthusiastic user of such methods. If you live in any of those countries, you run the risk of being gunned down by US forces at any time.

Dana Priest of the Washington Post reported back in January that:

U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.

Obama has ordered a dramatic increase in the pace of CIA drone-launched missile strikes into Pakistan in an effort to kill al-Qaeda and Taliban members in the ungoverned tribal areas along the Afghan border. There have been more such strikes in the first year of Obama’s administration than in the last three years under President George W. Bush, according to a military officer who tracks the attacks.

Obama also has sent U.S. military forces briefly into Somalia as part of an operation to kill Saleh Ali Nabhan, a Kenyan sought in the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Kenya.

In November 2002, a CIA missile strike killed six al-Qaeda operatives driving through the desert. The target was Abu Ali al-Harithi, organizer of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Killed with him was a U.S. citizen, Kamal Derwish, who the CIA knew was in the car.

Word that the CIA had purposefully killed Derwish drew attention to the unconventional nature of the new conflict and to the secret legal deliberations over whether killing a U.S. citizen was legal and ethical.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. The evidence has to meet a certain, defined threshold. The person, for instance, has to pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests,” said one former intelligence official.

The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, “it doesn’t really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them,” a senior administration official said. “They are then part of the enemy.” (my italics)

The US government has been murdering people as a matter of policy for a long time but it used to be done covertly because it used to be considered an illegal and shameful act. Older people can remember the uproar that greeted the revelations in 1975 of the Church Committee when the government’s assassination policy was revealed. But now it is quite brazen in its assertion that it has the right to kill people at will.

The latest outrage that is passing almost unnoticed is an order by the Obama administration authorizing the ‘capture or killing’ of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Islamic cleric who is supposed to be the person who inspired and the Christmas day underwear bomber as well as the army major who murdered his fellow soldiers at an army base in the US. Awlaki is a US-born citizen who is now believed to be in Yemen.

In other words, the US government has decided that it has the right to simply murder anyone, even US citizens, whom the president has decided should be murdered. As Glenn Greenwald says:

Just think about this for a minute. Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests.” They’re entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations. Amazingly, the Bush administration’s policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals (along with a couple of American citizens) without charges — based solely on the President’s claim that they were Terrorists — produced intense controversy for years. That, one will recall, was a grave assault on the Constitution. Shouldn’t Obama’s policy of ordering American citizens assassinated without any due process or checks of any kind — not imprisoned, but killed — produce at least as much controversy?

Obviously, if U.S. forces are fighting on an actual battlefield, then they (like everyone else) have the right to kill combatants actively fighting against them, including American citizens. That’s just the essence of war. That’s why it’s permissible to kill a combatant engaged on a real battlefield in a war zone but not, say, torture them once they’re captured and helplessly detained. But combat is not what we’re talking about here. The people on this “hit list” are likely to be killed while at home, sleeping in their bed, driving in a car with friends or family, or engaged in a whole array of other activities. More critically still, the Obama administration — like the Bush administration before it — defines the “battlefield” as the entire world. So the President claims the power to order U.S. citizens killed anywhere in the world, while engaged even in the most benign activities carried out far away from any actual battlefield, based solely on his say-so and with no judicial oversight or other checks. That’s quite a power for an American President to claim for himself.

The ability to throw someone into secret prisons without trial and indefinitely deprive them of all their rights and even subject them to torture isn’t enough for Obama. He has now asserted that he has the omniscience to find people guilty and impose the death sentence on them without any trial or giving the victims the right to any defend themselves or to even know the charges against them. If King Obama says someone should be murdered, that is it. All the might and power of the US can now be used to simply gun down that person in the street anywhere in the world and no questions will be asked.

POST SCRIPT 1: Ron Paul on shredding the constitution


Today (Monday, April 19) at 7:45pm I will be talking to Case people about my book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom in the 5th floor Library in the Clocktower building of The Village at 115.