Why Carl Sagan is considered a ‘good’ atheist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POST SCRIPT: Another mystery clarified

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

The Church of the Slacker God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird.

POST SCRIPT: Who are you calling a slacker?

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

The irrational core of accommodationism

In the previous post, I said that Robert Wright’s attempt at a compromise between accommodationists and new atheists is likely to be rejected by most religious believers because it requires them to abandon almost everything they hold dear about the idea of god, such as that he has magical powers.

Meanwhile what are atheists supposed to do as part of his grand bargain? His early hint that we should accept some notions of “higher purpose” pretty much gives the game away. According to the gospel of Wright later in his article, we are supposed to “acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.”
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The accommodationists try again

Robert Wright is a science writer and one of those accommodationists who is disturbed by the new atheists, people who say that science and religion are incompatible. He, like many accommodationists before him, wants to build a bridge between science and religion.

He has written a book The Evolution of God in which he argues that our image of god has evolved depending on the needs of society at any given time. For example, when times seemed to require that a tribe ruthlessly destroy its perceived enemies, the god that emerged was the jealous, vengeful, murderous, genocidal god so favored by Pat Robertson, John Hagee, the late Jerry Falwell, and the assorted end-timers. When times required peaceful co-existence, god became the love-thy-neighbor type now propagated by mainstream religions. Hence religious texts like the Bible that are accumulations of texts written over various times contain all these contradictory views of god.

All that is fine and dandy and uncontroversial. Once you accept that god is a human creation, it makes sense that the nature of that creation will sway with the prevailing political and social currents.

But Wright, like all accommodationists, shrinks from going all the way with this idea of god as purely a human invention. He wants to retain an independent existence for some kind of god but also wants to retain his scientific credibility. So he adopts the usual accommodationist strategy of blaming ‘extremists’ on both sides for creating a split between science and religion: On the one hand are the religious fundamentalists who insert god into those areas that are supposedly the proper domain of science, and on the other are the new atheists who say that the idea of god is totally superfluous and can be dispensed with.

As he says in a New York Times op-ed published on August 22, 2009:

There are atheists who go beyond declaring personal disbelief in God and insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview. And there are religious believers who insist that evolution can’t fully account for the creation of human beings.

Oh, these silly extremists, always causing trouble by being so stubborn. But not to worry! Wright has the solution, which he announces with great fanfare: “I bring good news!” The problem, as he sees it, is that both sides make the common mistake of underestimating natural selection’s creative power. All it requires to reach a consensus solution is for the extremists on both sides to each make some teensy-weensy concessions. What are they?

Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism.

Let’s see how Wright unpacks these two prescriptions for peaceful coexistence, starting with what he requires of religious believers:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever.

If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic. (emphasis added)

So as part of this grand bargain, he wants religious believers to give up the idea that god intervenes periodically in nature to create organisms or moral sensibilities or anything else, and instead accept that natural selection can do all that heavy lifting all by itself, and was designed to do so right from the beginning.

In other words, Wright is postulating a teleological (i.e. goal directed) view of evolution. He seems to be saying that this far-sighted god inserted into the natural selection algorithm itself everything that was necessary to eventually and inevitably produce some sort of sentient beings at least approximating humans that would have something like our moral sensibilities that gave us the ability to perceive what we now do about the existence of god. This is why the world seems to work perfectly well as if there is no god but god still exists.

This idea is not new. The lack of directionality and intentionality of natural selection was troubling back in Darwin’s time and led to the theory of orthogenesis, which suggested that evolution followed a path determined by forces originating within the organisms themselves. (Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 1983). But that view has long been rejected by almost all biologists as being incompatible with what we know about how evolution works, which is by natural selection acting on random mutations as a result of selection pressures. One does not need to postulate a hidden greater purpose or a hidden mechanism to produce the results that evolution did, so Wright’s requirement that god had to insert that mechanism is superfluous.

What Wright is postulating is something between strict deism (where god created the universe and its laws without any idea of what would happen subsequently, letting the chips fall where they may), and intelligent design creationism (where god has to directly intervene and nudge things along at critical intervals to get the results he wants). In other words, Wright creates ‘intelligent design lite’ that (to him, at least) tastes great and is less filling.

I suspect that most religious people will find that Wright’s compromise, as far as they are concerned, tastes lousy and not at all satisfying because he requires religious believers to abandon almost everything they hold dear about the idea of god. As biologist Jerry Coyne says in the course of a detailed critique of Wright’s article:

[T]his scenario doesn’t offer much solace to believers. Where is God, Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed in this process? What about heaven, or an afterlife? Are prayers answered? If there’s nothing “mystical or immaterial going on, what becomes of the billions of believers whose faith rests firmly on those “mystical phenomena”? As many Christians have recognized (C.S. Lewis among them), if Jesus wasn’t actually the son of God, the whole structure of Christianity collapses.

But I’ll leave those problems to the religious people to deal with. In the next post, I’ll look at what he wants from us new atheists. (Sneak preview: Wright is wrong there too.)

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on why ignorance is bliss

God tries to persuade Lucy (Lucifer) that it is good that people take solace in believing in magic, and why knowledge is bad and curiosity about how things work is to be discouraged. Note at the beginning that Lucy is reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

The health care debate-17: Obama’s choice

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

In this last post in this series, I want to look at the way the health care ‘debate’ has progressed because it provides a classic example of how Congress and the president, supposedly meant to represent the ‘will of the people’ who elected them, maneuver to actually do the will of the business interests.

Polls have repeatedly shown that people are highly dissatisfied with the current system of employer-based health care in this country in which the private, profit-seeking insurance companies exert such a stranglehold. As Paul Street writes in the September 2009 issue of Z Magazine (not online), 73 percent feel that health care is either in a “state of crisis” or has “major problems” (Gallup, November 2007), and 71 percent feel that we need “fundamental changes” or have the US health system “completely re-built,” compared to just 24 percent who wish only for “minor changes” (Pew Research Center, 2009).
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The health care debate-16: Health reform Kabuki theater

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

In this post in this series, I want to look at the political gamesmanship that is going on in health care.

As I have said repeatedly, the US is a pro-war/pro-business one party state with two factions that differ on some social issues. However, people would revolt if they realized the extent to which so many of their elected representatives of both parties are the servants of corporate interests. In order to disguise this fact, whenever an issue that involves corporate interests arises, one sees an elaborate Kabuki theater performance in which the elected officials play assigned roles, one of which involves pretending to have a major fight over some peripheral issue, while the final outcome is never in doubt.

The massive bailout to Wall Street interests was a case in point. Remember the big fuss over bonuses? Regulations? Corporate jets and other perks? That was pure Kabuki theater, the equivalent of the circuses that Roman emperors put on to amuse the people and appease their blood lust. Once a few executives had been excoriated in public and made their public penance, once the media spotlight shifted to other things, the looting of the public resumed. The big Wall Street banking interests were ultimately left alone to make huge profits and hand out big bonuses, which is exactly what is happening right now.

It is the same with health industry reform. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone argues persuasively that Obama was, from the beginning, in the tank with the health insurance/drug/physician/hospital industries and was never serious about making the kinds of far-ranging changes that would improve health care, if those measures went against the interests of those industries. Jonathan Cohn already had pointed out that Obama cut a deal with the drug industry not to seek lower prices. But he did want to create an image of himself as a serious reformer and use fixing the health care system, which is obviously broken, as a vote getter. So he played his Kabuki role.

Obama started out on the campaign trail talking about the virtues of the single-payer system and then falsely asserting, without any argument, that because the employer-based system was already in place, single payer cannot be implemented now in the US, despite evidence to the contrary. This enables him to rule out, right at the beginning, single payer systems as one among the mix of options to be discussed in his health care reform panels.

Then later he says that what is most important to him is not getting good health care reform passed but that it must be bipartisan. Why on earth should bipartisan acceptance be more important than good policy? That statement was the confirmation of my suspicions that Obama was not serious, because that appeal to bipartisanship immediately put him at the mercy of the Republican Party and those in his own party who were never interested in any reform, who then went on to play their Kabuki roles of objecting to any meaningful reform proposals. Obama of course had to know that they would do this. He is not stupid. This predictable opposition enables him to act as if he is being forced to compromise more than he wants to, thus preserving his reformist credentials while abjectly serving the interests of the health industry. As Glenn Greenwald says, “There is one principal reason that Blue Dogs and “centrists” exert such dominance within the Party: because the Party leadership, led by the Obama White House, wants it that way and works hard to ensure it continues.”

Then Obama starts signaling that he is willing to abandon even the limited public option. All this is to lead up to the final scene of the Kabuki theater in which he finally agrees to a system that the health industry would love, such as mandating that everyone buy insurance from the private, profit-seeking health insurance industry with the government paying the premiums of those who can’t afford it, while the insurance companies are given the freedom to continue the treatment-denying policies that is at the heart of their business model.

Greenwald continues:

White House threats that “you’ll never hear from us again” are issued to defiant progressives only. Not only are such threats never issued to “centrists” and Blue Dogs who are supposedly impeding the President’s health care agenda, but the White House does everything it can to protect those ostensible obstructionists and further entrench them in power. Isn’t all of this fairly strong evidence that the White House knew, accepted and likely even desired from the start that — despite the President’s public assurances to progressives — the “public option,” understandably despised by the insurance industry, would be dropped from bill?

The very idea that Obama is valiantly struggling to cleanse the party of its corporate and centrist dominance, yet is just haplessly and helplessly unable to do so, is ludicrous beyond words.

Former insurance industry insider Wendell Potter also sees quite clearly how Obama playing his role in this Kabuki play.

Not only is Obama clearly ready to throw the public option overboard, he is embracing the requirement that we all be forced to buy insurance from private insurers. That means your tax dollars and mine will be used to pay subsidies to the big insurers to provide coverage to people who can’t afford to buy their policies, because the big insurers charge far more than they should because Wall Street investors demand that they do.

During his speech in Montana, Obama talked a lot of trash about the insurance industry. Don’t be fooled by that tough talk. It’s all part of a strategy to try get us to believe we’ll get the reform he promised during the campaign. Industry leaders are in fact delighted he’s denouncing their behavior, because they believe most of his supporters — who were hopeful the stars might finally have aligned for real reform — will be fooled into thinking the reform bill that reaches his desk will benefit them more than the special interests with their armies of lobbyists.

That final scene hasn’t been arrived at yet because there is one group that is not playing its designated role and is thus threatening to disrupt the performance. These are the progressives in Congress whose role is to be cheerleaders for Obama because he is allegedly one of them. There are hopeful signs that the progressive members of the public and Congress are seeing through this charade. They are getting angry at this sell-out on a fundamental campaign issue and they are warning Obama that they will revolt if he abandons meaningful reform.

I hope they are successful in pushing back against Obama’s sell-out.

POST SCRIPT: The Onion on health reform deadlock

As usual, it is the comedians and parodists, not the news media, that sees through the Kabuki façade.

After months of committee meetings and hundreds of hours of heated debate, the United States Congress remained deadlocked this week over the best possible way to deny Americans health care.

“Both parties understand that the current system is broken,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Monday. “But what we can’t seem to agree upon is how to best keep it broken, while still ensuring that no elected official takes any political risk whatsoever. It’s a very complicated issue.”

“Ultimately, though, it’s our responsibility as lawmakers to put these differences aside and focus on refusing Americans the health care they deserve,” Pelosi added.

The legislative stalemate largely stems from competing ideologies deeply rooted along party lines. Democrats want to create a government-run system for not providing health care, while Republicans say coverage is best denied by allowing private insurers to make it unaffordable for as many citizens as possible.

That is about as succinct a presentation of how the pro-business one party state in the US works as you will find anywhere.

The infantilization of religious faith

Once in a while I get private emails from readers of this blog who disagree with my atheistic stance. Recently I got one that said in its entirety:

Dear Sir, from your comments about the religious beliefs of scientists, I gather that you contend that, for the scientist, the greater the learning, the lesser the belief in God; and, conversely, the greater the belief in God, the lesser the knowledge of science. It never ceases to fascinate me, the adoring eyes of a child for the elderly, yet the grown up has little need for them, and, so, they confine them to a home and out of their way. By far, what the child has is greater than what the grown up has. Love never enters the equations of scientists, nor does faith; consequently, the eternal God is not in view of scientists, but only His temporal creation. Archeology has uncovered less than 1% of all the treasures of our past (just scratched the surface), yet, for many decades, archeologists, in their haughtiness, have spoken with authority against the Bible, as bulls from the chair. Many scientists today, and of the past, with their silver surfboard in hand, have yet to feel a wave flow by their ankles, as they have barely just stepped into the ocean. What the eye cannot see, and the ear cannot hear, and the mind cannot understand, the spirit (even of a child) can fathom.

This letter, in somewhat flowery language, illustrates some of the contradictory beliefs that religious people commonly express without them even realizing it.

For example, it says that a child’s understanding of the world is superior to that of the adult. It says that in order to perceive god, we need to be like children in our ignorance, and listen to the voices in our head, rather than the concrete senses of sight and sound. In other words, deeper knowledge and greater learning undermine faith. I actually agree with the last sentence but view it as a good thing.

It amazes me that people think that ignorance is a good thing. When people sing the praises of childlike faith, I don’t think they quite realize how insulting that is to their religion. It is saying that faith in god is on a par with faith in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, things that only a child would believe in. I agree with that last sentence too but am surprised that religious people advocate it as a virtue.

But the letter writer then promptly contradicts that position by implying that scientists know so little now and presumably that when we get to know more, evidence for god will emerge. So in order to perceive god should we be like children unburdened by knowledge or should we seek more knowledge? Religious people want to have it both ways, on the one hand saying that we see god only by faith and not by knowledge, and on the other hand that we are ignorant now and that more knowledge will provide the necessary evidence for what now must be accepted only on faith. What is interesting is that this contradiction never strikes them, providing another illustration of how religion undermines the ability to think rationally.

The contradictions go even deeper. After all, if god created us then he also created our unusually large brains and gave us the power to think and reason and use logic. As Hamlet says (Act II, Scene II), “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!” If so, then why would god not expect us to use the abilities he/she supposedly gave us to understand everything about the world, including religious beliefs? Why would he/she give us this extraordinary intellectual ability and then make it into a liability?

In the end, what religions want you to do simply boils down to this prescription: “You must believe in god. Anything that helps you believe is good. Anything that undermines belief is bad. Ignore any contradictions. Use your brain for everything except examining your religious beliefs to see if they make any sense.”

In the great title song from the film O Lucky Man, singer Alan Price describes the qualities that a lucky man possesses. One of them is not being tempted by promises of heaven or made fearful by threats of hell but he also adds that, “If knowledge hangs around your neck like pearls instead of chains, you are a lucky man.”

This phenomenon of religious people sacrificing knowledge and reasoning abilities in order to preserve beliefs for which there is no credible evidence whatsoever is sad, really. For religious people, knowledge is indeed like heavy chains, holding them back and burdening them because it contradicts their myths. Atheists, on the other hand, not being bound by dogma and religious texts, delight in discovering pearls of knowledge.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus and the dinosaurs

Many Christians are anxiously waiting for the promised second coming of Jesus when they will get their reward for being faithful believers. But what they don’t realize is that the first coming of Jesus was not at the time described in the Gospels in the Bible but actually occurred much earlier, during the dinosaur age. Eddie Izzard recovers this lost history.

So the second coming of Jesus has already occurred. Sorry, Christians, the show is over, there is nothing more to wait for.

The health care debate-15: The ruthless science of health industry profits

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

Some of the supporters of the current health system have a somewhat naïve view of capitalism. They seem to have bought into the myth that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market will always result in good quality goods and services being provided at lower costs. That model works in some situations when there is competition among many suppliers and when the consumer has the option of not buying a product at all if they are not satisfied with the price or quality of the offerings, say as with the purchase of specific foods or a new car or a washing machine.

But it ceases to be true when people are in dire need and their options are limited. This is why one finds price gouging in essential supplies like water, food, blankets, and power generators in the immediate aftermath of a disaster like a hurricane or earthquake, when callous merchants take advantage of the misery of people to rake in huge profits. It would be insane for the government not to intervene and provide people with necessary supplies and services at those times. Look at how George Bush got hammered for the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

Since health care is one of those situations in which people do not have the option of not obtaining services, and usually have to seek it in emergency situations, it is closer to the hurricane situation than that of buying a new car, which is why a strong government role is essential.

But the private, profit-seeking health insurance industry wants to go in the opposite direction. As Wendell Potter, who used to be the head of corporate communications of CIGNA, the highest public relations position of one of the largest health insurance companies, says in an interview with Bill Moyers, “The industry doesn’t want to have any competitor. In fact, over the course of the last few years, has been shrinking the number of competitors through a lot of acquisitions and mergers. So first of all, they don’t want any more competition period. They certainly don’t want it from a government plan that might be operating more efficiently than they are, that they operate. The Medicare program that we have here is a government-run program that has administrative expenses that are like three percent or so”, compared to the health insurance industry’s 20%.

Potter explains to Moyers the brutal calculations that go into increasing profits by denying treatment.

WENDELL POTTER: …[T]here’s a measure of profitability that investors look to, and it’s called a medical loss ratio. And it’s unique to the health insurance industry. And by medical loss ratio, I mean that it’s a measure that tells investors or anyone else how much of a premium dollar is used by the insurance company to actually pay medical claims. And that has been shrinking, over the years, since the industry’s been dominated by, or become dominated by for-profit insurance companies. Back in the early ’90s, or back during the time that the Clinton plan was being debated, 95 cents out of every dollar was sent, you know, on average was used by the insurance companies to pay claims. Last year, it was down to just slightly above 80 percent.

So, investors want that to keep shrinking. And if they see that an insurance company has not done what they think meets their expectations with the medical loss ratio, they’ll punish them. Investors will start leaving in droves.

I’ve seen a company stock price fall 20 percent in a single day, when it did not meet Wall Street’s expectations with this medical loss ratio.

For example, if one company’s medical loss ratio was 77.9 percent, for example, in one quarter, and the next quarter, it was 78.2 percent. It seems like a small movement. But investors will think that’s ridiculous. And it’s horrible.

BILL MOYERS: That they’re spending more money for medical claims.

WENDELL POTTER: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: And less money on profits?

WENDELL POTTER: Exactly. And they think that this company has not done a good job of managing medical expenses. It has not denied enough claims. It has not kicked enough people off the rolls. And that’s what– that is what happens, what these companies do, to make sure that they satisfy Wall Street’s expectations with the medical loss ratio.

BILL MOYERS: And they do what to make sure that they keep diminishing the medical loss ratio?

WENDELL POTTER: Rescission is one thing. Denying claims is another. Being, you know, really careful as they review claims, particularly for things like liver transplants, to make sure, from their point of view, that it really is medically necessary and not experimental. That’s one thing. And that was that issue in the Nataline Sarkisyan case.

Many of the people who oppose single-payer and other comprehensive attempts at health care reform may be doing so out of a sense of smug complacency. They may think they are healthy and have good coverage from their current employer and so life is good. Why mess with something what seems to be working so well for them? In fact, one of the most disgusting arguments that I have heard recently from opponents of health reform is that by adding the 40 million or so currently uninsured to the rolls, there would necessarily be increased waiting times to obtain medical services. In other words, in order to save a little time for them, they would like to see others have no access to health care.

The fact that so many other people suffer from either inadequate coverage or no coverage at all may not be sufficient to move those who think they have good coverage now to embrace reform. What they do not realize is that their seemingly comfortable situation could change practically overnight through no fault of their own. All it would take is for one or two of their fellow employees to get a serious illness for them to lose their own coverage. Potter explains how this happens as a result of deliberate policy by the health insurance companies:

But another way is to purge employer accounts, that– if a small business has an employee, for example, who suddenly has [to] have a lot of treatment, or is in an accident. And medical bills are piling up, and this employee is filing claims with the insurance company. That’ll be noticed by the insurance company.

And when that business is up for renewal, and it typically is up, once a year, up for renewal, the underwriters will look at that. And they’ll say, “We need to jack up the rates here, because the experience was,” when I say experience, the claim experience, the number of claims filed was more than we anticipated. So we need to jack up the price. Jack up the premiums. Often they’ll do this, knowing that the employer will have no alternative but to leave. And that happens all the time.

They’ll resort to things like the rescissions that we saw earlier. Or dumping, actually dumping employer groups from the rolls. So the more of my premium that goes to my health claims, pays for my medical coverage, the less money the company makes. (emphasis added)

Potter warns people who resist reform attempts that the very things they say they fear about single payer or socialized systems or even the public option are actually more likely to occur under the present employer-based system.

And another thing is that the advocates of reform or the opponents of reform are those who are saying that we need to be careful about what we do here, because we don’t want the government to take away your choice of a health plan. It’s more likely that your employer and your insurer is going to switch you from a plan that you’re in now to one that you don’t want. You might be in the plan you like now. But chances are, pretty soon, you’re going to be enrolled in one of these high deductible plans in which you’re going to find that much more of the cost is being shifted to you than you ever imagined. (my emphasis)

The private, profit-seeking health industry is a cold-blooded and ruthless business in which meeting the needs of sick people is at the very bottom of their list of priorities, while making profits for their shareholders and paying for their executives’ luxurious lifestyles is right at the top. Why anybody would want to preserve that system can only be explained either by their ignorance of how it actually works or because the politicians have been bribed by the industry.

POST SCRIPT: Billionaires for Wealthcare speak out

“If god loved the poor people, he wouldn’t let them get sick.” So true.

College as a Disney World of Learning

(Talk given at Case Western Reserve University’s Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 21, 2009 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the common reading book selection Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Mortenson will be the speaker at the annual fall convocation to be held on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 in Severance Hall at 4:30 pm.)

As I read the book Three Cups of Tea, two stories struck me. One begins on page 202 and is that of the little boy Mohammed Aslam Khan who was sent by his father alone on a perilous journey downriver in frigid waters, all so that he might get a chance at an education. Despite all the odds against him, he not only survived the trip but got a good education and returned to the village to become an educational leader.

The other story is on page 31 where Mortenson describes his amazement when he saw eighty two children assemble by themselves and do their lessons on their own in the open, in the cold, some writing on the ground with sticks, since the village could only afford a teacher for three days a week, and on the other days they were on their own.

As Mortenson said, “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?”

Why were the people in that remote region of Pakistan willing to go through so much in order to get an education? Compare the situation in the US where learning is often seen as something to be avoided, and the complaints that some teachers get when they cover too much ground. When schools are closed or lessons cancelled due to some emergency, it is usually a cause for cheering amongst students. As a colleague of mine here said recently, education may be the only thing in the US where people actually want less than what they pay for.

There are of course classes, teachers, and students in the US where learning for its own sake is valued. But these are unfortunately few. But I do not believe that there is any fundamental difference between the children in those remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan and those in the US that explains this difference in attitude.

What may be true is that America suffers, if that is the right word, from too easy access to education. Schooling is fairly easily available and, at least in the K-12 sector, is free. A good analogy is with food, which is also freely and cheaply available in the US, when compared with other countries. And we waste and throw away vast amounts of it. I am sure your mothers pleaded with you to eat your vegetables, invoking images of starving children in China who would gladly eat with relish the food that you want to dump in the trash. Actually given the economic crisis in the US and the rapidly rising economic power of China, soon Chinese mothers might be pleading with their spinach-rejecting children to think of poor starving children in the US.

Students in the US, because of the ease and abundance of educational opportunities, have to be exhorted to take advantage of these abundant resources, just like they have to be coaxed to eat their broccoli, and this may be devaluing education in students’ eyes, because people tend to not value the things that are easily available.

This is why the story of the immense struggles and sacrifices made by the villagers that Mortenson worked with to build their schools is so inspiring. They realized that education is a precious gift to be cherished, not something whose availability can be taken for granted.

All of you are now embarking on four years of education here at Case Western Reserve University. Some people may tell you that college will be the happiest time in your lives. I disagree. In fact, it would be very sad if the happiest years of your life were over by the age of twenty-two. So I hope that you will have much happier times in the future.

But there is one aspect in which these four years will be a unique experience that you must take advantage of to the fullest. It is the one time in your life when you will be surrounded by people who want nothing else but to help you learn. The world-class faculty here, who are experts on all manner of things, will share their knowledge and expertise freely and willingly. Here you will get free access to incredible libraries full of books, journals, magazines, audio-visual materials, and newspapers, and to librarians who are positively eager to help you use them. And it is all available to you just for the asking. Once you graduate and go out, that opportunity is gone.

Of course, all this is not technically ‘free’ since you are paying tuition that, despite the extraordinary fund-raising abilities of our president, is still considerable. But the way to think of tuition fees is the way you would the admission price to Disney World or other amusement parks. It is not cheap to get in but once you are in, people try to get as much out of their time there as possible. It would be absurd to spend all your time sitting on a bench eating ice cream or surfing the web or sleeping.

You should have that attitude during the years you spend here. Think of Case Western Reserve University as the Disney World of learning. You have paid the admission fee in terms of grades and tuition. Now that you are in, rather than get by with minimal work, you should try to get in as much learning as possible, formally in classes, and informally in all the talks and seminars and casual discussions with teachers and fellow students. Once you develop that attitude towards learning, you will find that it is much more fun than roller coaster rides and with none of the accompanying motion sickness.

I am lucky in that I actually work here and take full advantage on a daily basis of the knowledge that is so freely available. And I would urge you to do the same. In fact, as soon as this program is over, and you have some free time, you should go over to the library and see what they offer, and you should go to all the museums that are right here in University Circle, as the first steps in a four-year adventure of learning.

Trust me, you will never regret it.

POST SCRIPT: The story of Genesis as told by Eddie Izzard

Much more interesting than the original. Makes more sense, too.

The health care debate-14: The ‘death panels’ of the insurance companies

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

Wendell Potter used to be the head of corporate communications of CIGNA, the highest public relations position of one of the largest health insurance companies. That position gave him a special insight into how the health insurance industry actually works and the very different way they present themselves to the public. At some point the contradictions became unbearable for him. He could not take it anymore and left his position and since then he has been spilling the beans about how the insurance companies really operate, how they put profits before any other consideration, and make money from the misery of sick people by denying them care in their time of need.
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