Religious beliefs as a house of cards

I have argued before that to sustain a belief in god requires one to construct an elaborate system of auxiliary beliefs to explain away the fact that no convincing evidence has ever been provided for god’s existence, even though there is no discernible reason why god is prevented from doing so. The very qualities that most religious people ascribe to god (omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence) are the ones that give the most trouble in explaining why the evidence is not revealed.

Since the sustaining of religious beliefs require such an elaborate construction of auxiliary beliefs, it is not hard to see that religious believers have essentially constructed an alternate reality that is divorced from the usual rules of logic and evidence that govern the rest of our lives. But alternative realities are tricky things. They are like a house of cards, with each card representing some unsubstantiated belief that must be held in order to support other beliefs. As long as no one seriously questions any single element of this structure, it may be possible for the creaky structure to remain intact. But take away any element and that whole edifice of belief collapses.

Something like that happens, I think, to every religious believer who becomes an atheist. At some point that person dares to take away a single card to see what would happen and the whole structure comes crashing down. For each person, the first card that is removed may be different but the end result is the same for all – unbelief. This is what happened to me when I started asking questions about where in the universe god existed and whether god was a material or non-material object. If god was a material substance, how come we could not detect him/her? And if he/she was non-material, how could a non-material substance interact with the material world?

These questions arose naturally out of my study of physics because questions about the nature of any entity and how its properties can be measured are standard ones in that field. To maintain the standard belief that god was a non-material entity that was able to avoid detection while interacting with the world required the construction of an elaborate set of auxiliary beliefs, each of which required yet other beliefs to sustain it. Giving up on any one of those beliefs resulted in the whole structure collapsing. Now I cannot imagine how I could have thought that that shaky house of cards was a solid structure.

Religious beliefs can only be sustained if there is a common understanding shared by believers that prevents such awkward questions from being asked or where glib and facile answers are treated as if they are deep arguments. When most people believe in something, and belief in that thing is important to them and fills some deep need, they unwittingly conspire to keep discordant facts from disturbing their faith. So maintaining those beliefs depends on having a community of believers who will sustain each other in their beliefs and this is where the common worship and ritual play an important role. Constructing elaborate and exclusionary rules and rituals involving food, dress, and behavior, necessarily results in non-group members avoiding contact, thus less likely to bring with them ‘heretical’ thoughts.

This explains why most religious groups seek to either increase their numbers by proselytizing and gaining new converts or at least maintain their numbers by indoctrinating their children at an early age. It also explains why the act of ‘blind faith’, normally not seen as a good thing, is so highly praised in religion, since it discourages questioning of core beliefs by implying that such behavior represents a reprehensible lack of faith. Seen in this way, it becomes understandable why atheists are portrayed in such a negative light, since that encourages religious people to avoid contact with them and they are thus less exposed to dangerous challenges of core beliefs.

In effect, religion is like a giant Ponzi scheme that requires new believers in order to perpetuate itself. Since there is no convincing evidence for the existence of god, people who hold religious beliefs and yet want to think of themselves as rational are forced to construct such an elaborate alternate reality, a house of cards.

By creating unwritten rules whereby questions of religion are discussed only in closed communities of shared beliefs, or if discussed publicly, ‘respect for religion’ and fear of causing offence are used to exclude questioning of core ideas, the shaky foundations of religious beliefs are prevented from being exposed. What is currently happening is that outspoken atheists like Richard Hawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger are encouraging more and more people to tug at the cards by looking more closely at what religious beliefs actually imply.

POST SCRIPT: Open Forum on Iraq

Topic: Bringing the War Home to Case: An open dialogue on the conflict in Iraq led by individuals with a personal connection

When: Friday, April 13, 12:30 pm-1:45 pm
Where: KSL Oval (Rain site Thwing Atrium)

Pizza and refreshments will be served.

Dan Moulthrop (WCPN Radio) will be the moderator of the panel.

Panelists: Paul Schroeder (Founder of Families of the Fallen for Change), Ramez Islambouli (Advisor to the Muslim Student Association), Joe Mueller (Member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq), Erin Monroe (English grad student and spouse of a US soldier), Keith Schnell (Graduating senior and Army ROTC)

Co-sponsored by the Share the Vision Committee, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence, the Hallinan Project, Case Democrats, and Global Medical Initiatives (GMI).

Religious by day, atheists by night?

Here’s a puzzle. Most people in this country are religious. The god they believe in is an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful god. If that is the case, why is it that people still do wrong things, things that they believe god will disapprove of? We know that even very religious people still lie and steal and cheat and do all manner of things that their religion tells them is wrong. But if they are sure that god knows all the things they do and is capable of punishing them, why do they still do it?

An obvious response is that human beings are not perfect, they are prone to temptation and that they are going to stray from the path of good behavior. A religious person might couch this in terms of human beings being weak and sinful and that they need to depend on god’s forgiveness to save them form their sinful natures. (An atheist would have to depend on his or her conscience and moral sense to help overcome the temptation to harm others for their own gain.)

That’s fair enough, but it seems to me that that only explains behavior in which people do something wrong on impulse or on the spur of the moment or by mistake because they did not have time to think things through or figure out what was the right or wrong thing to do. This can arise in tricky ethical situations where one has to make a decision on the spot and one can momentarily forget that god is watching your every move.

But that does not explain why religious people deliberately do things over a long period even when they know that what they are doing is wrong. Disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard, who railed against gays while having a relationship with a male prostitute, is only one highly publicized example of many cases of both clergy and laity indulging regularly and in a systematic manner in a whole host of activities that they strongly assert to be unquestioningly wrong, not just in sexual matters. If they really thought that god was watching their every move and knew their every motive and that their immortal souls were being imperiled, surely they would desist?

This leads me to wonder as to whether people really believe that god is all the he/she is cracked up to be. Perhaps what we have are closet atheists who pay lip service to the existence of a god but really don’t believe it, or at least have serious doubts. Thus they are gambling that they can get away with things they believe are wrong because they think there is a good chance that god does not exist.

It is true that people can be aware of being observed and yet forget that they are under surveillance and act as if they are unobserved. For example, most stores now have cameras that record everything that goes on but we usually ignore them. But our nonchalant behavior usually extends only to those actions that are not serious transgressions. So we might clown around, pick our noses, yawn without covering our mouths, scratch ourselves, and do similar things and not care that we were being watched and recorded. But a serious criminal acting with premeditation would be aware of the cameras and take steps to avoid being detected or identified while stealing. The greater the levels of security, the more likely people would avoid doing something wrong in that store.

Similarly, if you knew that your boss in your workplace had a surveillance system that was monitoring your every move and that people were watching you, surely that would affect your behavior and you would not do what you felt your boss did not want you to?

But we need not limit ourselves to petty criminality. The examples can be multiplied in the worlds of politics, big business, and in interpersonal relations. People consciously do wrong things (cheat on their taxes, defraud their companies, tell lies about others, etc.) all the time, gambling that they can escape the adverse consequences because the earthly authorities are not likely to find out because they do not have the resources to find out everything.

There is no reason to think that such people are any less religious than the average person. Since surely god is the most perfect security system of all, how is it that these people can so easily ignore the fact that the god they believe in knows exactly what they are up to and considers it wrong? Could it be that, deep down, people do not really believe in this kind of god at all, but are simply spouting the pieties that they have been brought up to say from the time they were children?

Are we really a world of closet atheists, too nervous to say out loud what they really believe? That would explain this cavalier attitude to god’s watchfulness but I suspect that religious people would not accept it.

I would be curious to hear alternative explanations for this.

POST SCRIPT: Photo touch ups

I recently saw a magazine cover photo of actress Sally Field. She is 60 years old but in that photo she looked a lot younger and I was impressed at how well she had taken care of herself. But was that photo touched up to ‘improve’ her looks? I don’t know but it is clear that the technology is there that gifted people can use to improve your image immensely.

Take for example, this photo. By moving the cursor over and off the image you can compare the images before and after the photo was touched up.

In another image, the bare shoulders from the image of a different woman was grafted onto the image of a woman who was wearing a dress. It is so well done as to be seamless and unnoticeable.

You can see more examples here. Just click on any thumbnail to get the full image.

These touch ups are done by the company Nasonart.com which is run by the editor of MachinesLikeUs, who is also a professional graphic designer, which explains why his website is so attractive!

In some ways, this is disturbing. Can you believe any image anymore? No wonder some women in this country suffer so much, trying to reach the unattainable standards of beauty they see in magazines. Granted, these women are attractive to begin with (he would have a tough time improving a photo of me!) but the retouching takes them to a level of flawlessness that is unattainable in real life.

But it seems that most young people now assume that the people they see in magazines have had their photos touched up, which is reassuring. I think high school yearbooks now do this kind of thing routinely, making people aware of the fact that things are not always what they seem.

Why it is so hard to give up belief in the afterlife

It is interesting how one’s views can be changed by a comment. Such was the case with Cindy’s comment on my post regarding the absence of proof of an afterlife. Cindy said:

I tend to think that lack of belief in the afterlife is more fundamental to atheism than lack of belief in a God. I think I would have become an atheist a lot sooner if it weren’t for my emotional aversion to non-existence (which has really gone away after a years of thinking about it). Also, while a lot of people think it’s fun to talk about arguments for an against the existence of gods regardless of their beliefs, I’ve seen reasonable people reduced to tears with just a few good points raised about the lack of an afterlife. It seems like theism of any kind is based on two strong emotional ideas: 1) I’ll never really lose anything or anyone 2) The world is inevitably fair. And if they can’t have 2, they’ll still cling to 1.

I think Cindy is really on to something. Clearly people want to believe in the existence of a god and the after life, despite the lack of evidence for either. Although the two beliefs are linked, I used to think that wanting to believe in god was the primary impulse and that belief in an afterlife was something that came along with a belief in god, a fringe benefit if you like.

But Cindy’s suggestion is that the reverse is true, that what people really want to believe in is the afterlife, and that belief in god is merely a mechanism that enables that belief.

That makes a lot of sense. After all, god is an abstraction. Hardly anyone, except Pat Robertson, would claim that they have any kind of real relationship with god. Imagine meeting god. You really would not have much to say and it could be quite awkward, like encountering a stranger at a party. After a little small talk (“Hi, god, nice place you got here. So, . . . read any good books recently?”), you start wishing you could get away to the buffet table.

But that is not the case with people whom we like who have died. It would be like meeting a close friend after many years. We can’t wait to find out what they have been up to and getting them up to speed on out own lives. We can imagine ourselves talking to them for hours and days.

All of us have had people and pets whom we have loved and who have died. We have fond memories of them and the desire to continue that relationship is very strong. A recent study reported by Elizabeth Cooney in the Boston Globe of February 21, 2007 says that:

Contrary to traditional notions of grief after the death of a loved one, a new study finds that yearning is felt more powerfully than depression. . . . “Yearning is reacting to the loss of someone or something, and once that is gone, you miss it, you pine for it, you hunger for it, you crave it. That was the primary emotional experience after bereavement, rather than depression,” Holly G. Prigerson, one of the authors, said in an interview. . . . “People never get over a loss, they just get used to it,” Prigerson said. “Even years after someone dies, they get pangs of grief, they need to think about the person, and they miss them with heartache,” she said.

What people find most difficult to deal with in the death of a close loved one is missing the companionship that person provided. It is natural to want to believe in something, such as the afterlife, that promises that that link may someday be renewed.

In my own case, now that I think about it following Cindy’s comment, giving up believing in god was not that hard. But my father died nearly thirty years ago, before my own children were born. My greatest regret is that he would not see them growing up because I know how much he would have enjoyed knowing them and playing with them and how much they in turn would have enjoyed his company. The idea of meeting him again was much more appealing to me than the thought of seeing god. Believing that he was somewhere ‘up there’ looking down on my children was comforting. Even as I write these words, memories of him and the sadness associated with missing him comes flooding back. Giving up that belief was much harder than giving up belief in a god about whom I really knew nothing and with whom I had had no prior relationship or shared memories.

So it makes sense that belief in an afterlife is more important to people than belief in god and that maybe people desperately want to believe in god because it enables them to believe in an afterlife.

POST SCRIPT: Beautiful sand art

While the people who make sand art are obviously very skilled and patient people, what really amazes me is their willingness to spend so much time and effort something that gets destroyed soon after. You can see more exquisite sand art.

sandArt13.jpg

Cricket World Cup excitement

The vast numbers of cricket fans out there in my blog’s readerland are no doubt anxiously wondering what is going on in the World Cup of cricket currently taking place in the West Indies. As I wrote earlier, the end of the first stage of group matches saw the shocking defeat of the strong Pakistani team by the lowly Irish, and the surprising elimination of the Indian team by the Bangladeshis. The murder of the Pakistani coach Bob Woolmer following his team’s defeat still remains unsolved, with no arrests.
[Read more…]

How I almost changed the face of TV

Recently I received a letter from a company called Television Preview. In big block caps, it said the following:

DEAR TELEVIEWER:

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO PARTICIPATE IN A SURVEY WHOSE FINDINGS WILL DIRECTLY INFLUENCE WHAT YOU SEE ON TELEVISION IN THE FUTURE.

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO EVALUATE NOT-YET RELEASED TELEVISION MATERIAL THAT IS BEING CONSIDERED FOR NATIONWIDE BROADCAST.

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO HELP REPRESENT TELEVISION VIEWING PREFERENCES OF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

[Read more…]

How to read scholarly works

Most of us in our lives will be required to read a lot of stuff and it will take a lot of time. To become more efficient at it, it helps to realize that there are many types of readings, and that you need to adopt different reading strategies for the different kinds of documents you will encounter. The purpose of the readings will also vary. Sometimes you will read for the gist, sometimes for the argument, and sometimes for certain details. Your reading strategy has to be adjusted accordingly.

For example, you don’t read a science textbook the same way you read a novel. (This may seem obvious but I am always surprised by the number of people who try to read such textbooks from beginning to end, just as they would a novel.) You don’t read journal articles in the natural sciences the same way that you read articles in the history and philosophy of science.

In the case of science journal articles, expert readers tend to focus closely on the abstract, introduction, and conclusions, and much less on the background theory, methods, and even the data. Much of the theory and methods is boilerplate that can be skipped or skimmed over in the first pass.

When reading scholarly works in the history and philosophy of science (such as we encounter in my seminar course on the evolution of scientific ideas), the literature tends to take a particular form and it helps to read it with this form in mind. The form is as follows:

1. The author identifies the MAIN problem(s), explains why it of interest, and why it is important to find a solution.
2. The previous solutions to the problem are discussed and reasons are given (in the form of evidence and arguments) why those solutions are unsatisfactory.
3. The author proposes a new solution to the problem and gives reasons (in the form of evidence and arguments) why the new solution should be accepted.
4. In making the author’s case, other auxiliary problems will usually also be identified and addressed in the course of making the larger case.

So when reading these kinds of works, it is good to try and understand them using the above framework. While the underlying structure of the argument will be similar, different authors will present it in different sequences and styles, so these papers usually require several readings before the answers to the above four questions become clear. It takes a while for us to become comfortable reading papers this way, and practice helps.

This brings me to the notions of how you respond to the things you read. In academic discussions, we place a high priority on first understanding what the author is trying to say, to try and see the world through the author’s eyes. This requires us to be in an accepting mode of mind. This does not mean that we have to agree with everything the author says. But you have to also be able to switch into a skeptical mode at times in order to critique the author, and expert readers keep switching between accepting and skeptical modes repeatedly and know when they are doing so.

If you disagree with the author’s point of view, you need to state how your conclusions differ from the author’s, and why. This can be done negatively (by pointing out flaws in the author’s reasoning, or challenging the validity of the evidence presented) and positively (by presenting a different line of reasoning and contrary evidence, and arguing as to why your approach is superior.) In other words, you yourself have to go through the above four steps for your argument to be taken seriously in academic circles.

Notice that you usually have to conform to the canons of evidence and argument that are accepted in that particular field. For example, in physics and other sciences, evidence usually means experimental data or observations, but in the history and philosophy of science, evidence does not necessarily mean data or experimental results or surveys, though these are not excluded. Scholars in the latter field (such as Karl Popper, Thomasa Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, etc.) use the historical record, the ideas and writings of other authors, and appeals to everyday experience as evidence in structuring their arguments.

It is important to bear in mind that just saying that you do not agree with the author’s point of view does not carry much weight in academic discussions. However outrageous the author’s conclusions might seem to you, and however strongly you might disagree with them, you cannot assume that that is enough to discredit the argument. You still need to criticize it using the conventions of academic debate.

Criticizing the author’s style (by saying that the author is making his or her case badly or even offensively) is fine as far as helping you develop your own distinctive writing style, but is not sufficient as an argument against the author’s ideas. You still have to address the substantive content of the writing.

Trying to understand the author’s motivation can also help in understanding the structure of the argument, but just because the motivation is not agreeable does not automatically make the author’s arguments invalid. For example, in the literature on the philosophy of science, it seems clear that Karl Popper wants to define science in such a way that it excludes the central ideas of Marx or Freud or Adler. Popper seems to want to protect the prestige of science and, for some reason, dislikes these particular three fields of study and objects to their supporters claiming scientific status for them. Those who would like any or all three subjects included as part of science might disapprove of Popper’s motivation, but that does not make Popper wrong. To challenge him on the substance, you will need to show why his definition of science does not work, propose another definition that meets your purposes, and provide evidence and arguments to persuade the reader to prefer your definition over Popper’s. Again, you have to go through steps 1-4 above.

In short, to become better readers, we need to understand the modes of scholarly discourse in each discipline, the purpose of the reading, and use that knowledge to adjust our reading (and writing) strategies and styles accordingly.

Good reading and writing skills are two sides of the same coin and Heidi Cool has an excellent post on what makes for good writing, with lots of useful resource links.

POST SCRIPT: Rep. Ron Paul

Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) is running for the Republican presidential nomination. He is an old-style Libertarian-Republican (as opposed to the Authoritarian-Republicans that currently dominate the party) who has opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. Although I don’t agree with some of the things he says, he is definitely a much more thoughtful person than the other Republican candidates, and his views should get a much wider hearing than what they are currently receiving.

Here he is interviewed by Bill Maher.

.

Iran and the captured British sailors

One cannot view the reaction of the British and US governments and media to the capture of 15 British naval personnel by Iran without feeling even more cynical about the double standards that are now taken for granted.

It is being simply assumed here that the British government’s claim that their people were not in Iranian waters is true, without any further discussion. Bush, itching for a reason to bomb Iran, has even called them ‘hostages.’ He says this with a straight face even as the fate of five Iranian officials captured by the US January 11, 2007 remain unknown:

Even though high-level Iraqi officials have publicly called for their release, for all practical purposes, the Iranians have disappeared into the U.S.-sanctioned “coalition detention” system that has been criticized as arbitrary and even illegal by many experts on international law.
. . .
One diplomat was released, but the other five men remain in U.S. custody and have not been formally charged with a crime.

“They have disappeared. I don’t know if they’ve gone into the enemy combatant system,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served in the White House under former President Jimmy Carter. “Nobody on the outside knows.”

Patrick Cockburn, writing in the British newspaper The Independent on April 3, 2007 reports that the capture of the British naval personnel may have been an angry Iranian retaliation for a botched attempt by the US to capture the Iranian equivalents of the heads of the CIA and MI6, who were visiting northern Iraq at that time the US took into custody the six much lower level officials. The idea of this being a retaliation seems a bit far-fetched to me, given the time lag between the two events, but I had been unaware of the more important story about a possible US attempt to capture two high-ranking visiting Iranian dignitaries on what appears to be a visit sanctioned by the Iraqi government, since the two of them had just had a meeting with the Iraqi president.

There are also doubts about the British government’s claims about their sailors not having gone into Iranian waters, such as those voiced by a former British Ambassador Craig Murray, who also once headed the British Foreign Office’s maritime section and is thus very familiar with the ways that maritime boundaries are determined. Murray gives a detailed explanation of the problems with identifying maritime boundaries and how they are arrived at. He concludes:

But what about the map the Ministry of Defence produced on Tuesday, with territorial boundaries set out by a clear red line, and the co-ordinates of the incident marked in relation to it?

I have news for you. Those boundaries are fake. They were drawn up by the MoD. They are not agreed or recognised by any international authority.

To put it at its most charitable, they are a potential boundary. It is accepted practice, where no boundary exists, to work by a rule-of-thumb idea of where a boundary, based on a median line between the two coasts, might be.

But to elevate that to a hard and fast boundary, and then base a major international incident on being a few hundred yards one side or the other, is out of order.

There are a few exceptions to the coverage of the British naval captives as suffering unspeakable horrors, especially in some of the British press. Ronan Bennett writes in the Guardian:

Faye Turney’s letters bear the marks of coercion, while parading the prisoners in front of TV cameras was demeaning. But the outrage expressed by ministers and leader writers is curious given the recent record of the “coalition of the willing” on the way it deals with prisoners.

Turney may have been “forced to wear the hijab”, as the Daily Mail noted with fury, but so far as we know she has not been forced into an orange jumpsuit. Her comrades have not been shackled, blindfolded, forced into excruciating physical contortions for long periods, or denied liquids and food. As far as we know they have not had the Bible spat on, torn up or urinated on in front of their faces. They have not had electrodes attached to their genitals or been set on by attack dogs.

They have not been hung from a forklift truck and photographed for the amusement of their captors. They have not been pictured naked and smeared in their own excrement. They have not been bundled into a CIA-chartered plane and secretly “rendered” to a basement prison in a country where torturers are experienced and free to do their worst.

As far as we know, Turney and her comrades are not being “worked hard”, the euphemism coined by one senior British army officer for the abuse of prisoners at Camp Bread Basket. And as far as we know all 15 are alive and well, which is more than can be said for Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist who, in 2003, was unfortunate enough to have been taken into custody by British troops in Basra. There has of course been a court martial and it exonerated the soldiers of Mousa’s murder. So we can only assume that his death – by beating – was self-inflicted; yet another instance of “asymmetrical warfare”, the description given by US authorities to the deaths of the Guantánamo detainees who hanged themselves last year.
. . .
With disregard for the rights of prisoners now entrenched at the very top of government, it comes as no surprise that abuses committed by rank and file soldiers go virtually unremarked. No one in politics or the media dares censure the military, surely today the only institution still immune from any sort of criticism, even when soldiers are brutal and murderous towards captives.

Monty Python’s Terry Jones writes with biting sarcasm:

I share the outrage expressed in the British press over the treatment of our naval personnel accused by Iran of illegally entering their waters. It is a disgrace. We would never dream of treating captives like this – allowing them to smoke cigarettes, for example, even though it has been proven that smoking kills. And as for compelling poor servicewoman Faye Turney to wear a black headscarf, and then allowing the picture to be posted around the world – have the Iranians no concept of civilised behaviour? For God’s sake, what’s wrong with putting a bag over her head? That’s what we do with the Muslims we capture: we put bags over their heads, so it’s hard to breathe.
. . .
It is also unacceptable that these British captives should be made to talk on television and say things that they may regret later. If the Iranians put duct tape over their mouths, like we do to our captives, they wouldn’t be able to talk at all. Of course they’d probably find it even harder to breathe – especially with a bag over their head – but at least they wouldn’t be humiliated.

And what’s all this about allowing the captives to write letters home saying they are all right? It’s time the Iranians fell into line with the rest of the civilised world: they should allow their captives the privacy of solitary confinement. That’s one of the many privileges the US grants to its captives in Guantánamo Bay.

The true mark of a civilised country is that it doesn’t rush into charging people whom it has arbitrarily arrested in places it’s just invaded. The inmates of Guantánamo, for example, have been enjoying all the privacy they want for almost five years, and the first inmate has only just been charged. What a contrast to the disgraceful Iranian rush to parade their captives before the cameras!

What’s more, it is clear that the Iranians are not giving their British prisoners any decent physical exercise. The US military make sure that their Iraqi captives enjoy PT. This takes the form of exciting “stress positions”, which the captives are expected to hold for hours on end so as to improve their stomach and calf muscles. A common exercise is where they are made to stand on the balls of their feet and then squat so that their thighs are parallel to the ground. This creates intense pain and, finally, muscle failure. It’s all good healthy fun and has the bonus that the captives will confess to anything to get out of it.
. . .
What is so appalling is the underhand way in which the Iranians have got her “unhappy and stressed”. She shows no signs of electrocution or burn marks and there are no signs of beating on her face. This is unacceptable. If captives are to be put under duress, such as by forcing them into compromising sexual positions, or having electric shocks to their genitals, they should be photographed, as they were in Abu Ghraib.

All prisoners, whoever they are and by whomever they are held, have the right to be treated humanely and with dignity, brought to trial speedily, and receive a fair and open trial. This applies to the naval personnel captured by Iran and people being held by the US and Britain in the ‘war on terror.’ Bennett and Jones are simply stating the obvious: By the way that they themselves have treated prisoners, Cheney/Bush and Blair have forfeited the right to sanctimoniously preach to others about how prisoners be treated.

POST SCRIPT: I’ll be talking about atheism on WCPN 90.3

Today (Wednesday, August 4, 2007) from 9:00-10:00 am I’ll be on WCPN 90.3’s Sound of Ideas to talk about atheism. A fellow guest on the show will be Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, who is also speaking today at the City Club.

You can also listen online (though the Safari browser does not work for this) and there will be a podcast.

The case of the ‘Australian Taliban’

After calling David Hicks one of the worst of the worst of terrorists and keeping him in solitary confinement for over five years, in a lightning turn of events, he was suddenly sentenced to just nine months imprisonment, to be served in Australia. This was the first case under the so-called ‘military commissions’ system which has been strongly criticized for their rules of operation which violate the kinds of basic judicial protections designed to provide fair hearings.

According to Josh White writing in the Washington Post on April 1, 2007:

In what became a highly politicized situation involving the Australian government, [Susan J. Crawford, the top military commission official] allowed Hicks a short sentence in exchange for a year-long gag order, a guarantee that he will not allege illegal treatment at the hands of his U.S. captors, and a waiver of any right to appeal or sue.

Though Australian officials have said they were not directly involved in plea negotiations, [Hick’s lawyer Micahel “Dan”] Mori declined to answer questions about what, if any, influence they had. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, up for reelection this year, has been under public pressure to bring Hicks home. He turned to Vice President Cheney to implore that the case be resolved. Crawford was the Defense Department’s inspector general from 1989 to 1991, when Cheney was defense secretary.

“What an amazing coincidence that, with an election in Australia by the end of the year, he gets nine months and he is gagged for 12 months from talking about it,” said Australian lawyer Lex Lasry, who was in Cuba to monitor the case over the past week.

Notice that the deal was not even made by the defense and prosecuting attorneys along with the presiding judge, as would be customary in a normal trial. Instead it was made by the defense lawyer directly with the civilian political official overseeing the military commissions, showing that all these ‘trials’ are really political theater. Conveniently enough, this person [Susan Crawford] has a long relationship with Dick Cheney, so the suspicion is strong that the Hicks plea agreement was a deal put through by Cheney’s agent to give political cover to his Australian supporter.

Josh White and Carol Williams writing in the Sydney Morning Herald of April 2, 2007 point out that this trial and sentencing has little credibility.

Robert Richter, QC, one of Australia’s most experienced criminal lawyers and a Hicks supporter, said the trial was a sham that had wholly discredited the Pentagon’s war-crimes process.

“The charade that took place at Guantanamo Bay would have done Stalin’s show trials proud,” Mr Richter said in a commentary for The Sunday Age.

“First there was indefinite detention without charge. Then there was the torture, however the Bush lawyers, including his attorney-general, might choose to describe it. Then there was the extorted confession of guilt.”

Even former Bush and Iraq war supporter Andrew Sullivan is disgusted by what these proceedings reveal:

So Cheney goes to Australia and meets with John Howard who tells him that the Hicks case is killing him in Australia, and he may lose the next election because of it. Hicks’s case is then railroaded to the front of the Gitmo kangaro [sic] court line, and put through a “legal” process almost ludicrously inept, with two of Hicks’ three lawyers thrown out on one day, then an abrupt plea-bargain, with a transparently insincere confession. Hicks is then given a mere nine months in jail in Australia, before being set free.
. . .
If you think this was in any way a legitimate court process, you’re smoking something even George Michael would pay a lot of money for. It was a political deal, revealing the circus that the alleged Gitmo court system really is. For good measure, Hicks has a gag-order imposed so that he will not be able to speak of his alleged torture and abuse until after Howard faces re-election. Yes, we live in a banana republic. It certainly isn’t a country ruled by law. It is ruled by one man and his accomplice.

As Josh Marshall sums up:

What we have here is a plea bargain in which the government leverages its vast control over the life, liberty, and body of the defendant to obtain for itself a release from potential liability for its own conduct and a one-year protection from bad PR. Truth, justice, and the Gitmo way.

And Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights that is coordinating the representation of detainees in many suits challenging Guantánamo detention adds his own take on the convenient silencing of Hicks: “It is a modern cutting out of his tongue.”

I am currently reading The US Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, a professor of constitutional law at Yale University, where he gives the background to how that document came about and the debates about specific articles and clauses. It is interesting to see, despite all their faults when it came to the rights of slaves and women, what pains the drafters of that document took to try and ensure that ordinary people would not be tyrannized by the government. He says that the framers were clear that Congress would be the first among equals of the three branches of government. But the present Bush/Cheney administration has systematically concentrated power in the executive branch and gutted the intent of that document in ways that even the most ardent Federalist of that time would have found horrifying.

The blogger Tbogg has said that Bush is not only the worst US president of all those who have already held that office, he is clearly aiming to be the worst even when allowing for future presidents. I think that’s right.

POST SCRIPT 1: I’ll be talking about atheism on WCPN 90.3

Tomorrow (Wednesday, August 4, 2007) from 9:00-10:00 am I’ll be on WCPN 90.3’s Sound of Ideas to talk about atheism. A fellow guest on the show will be Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, who is also speaking Wednesday at the City Club.

You can also listen online (though the Safari browser does not work for this) and there will be a podcast..

POST SCRIPT 2: Kucinich on Iraq occupation and Iran clouds

US congressman and Case alumnus Dennis Kucinich will be speaking “Iraq and Iran: The Way Forward”, followed by Professor Pete Moore of the Political Science department. Professor and chair of History Jonathan Sadowsky will moderate as well as give some introductory remarks.

The talks are promised to be brief leaving a lot of time (50 minutes) for questions and discussion.

When: Tuesday, April 3 at 4:00pm
Where: Strosacker Auditorium

The event is sponsored by Case for Peace, and co-sponsored by the Center for Policy Studies of the Department of Political Science.

The event is free and open to the public.

Driving notes

Why is that some drivers don’t understand simple road courtesy that should be instinctively obvious to anyone? Here are some examples of what I mean.

1. I think it was Gregory Szorc who raised this driving peeve some time ago but I want to bring it up again. I drive to work along residential streets that allow for just one lane of traffic each way. But cars are allowed to park on one side of the street so sometimes you will find that a parked car is blocking your lane. If another car is approaching on the other side, it should be obvious to anyone that that car has the right of way and that you should remain behind the parked car and only pull out and go around the parked car once the road is clear. And yet I repeatedly find that cars swerve around the parked car and expect the oncoming traffic to stop and wait for them until they get back into their own lane. It seems as if the blocked lane car drivers have a sense of grievance that because they were blocked, others should move out of the way to accommodate them. A curious reaction.

2. Another peeve occurs when approaching Case along North Park at the point where it merges with MLK drive. At that point, North Park narrows from two lanes of traffic to just one with no indication as to which lane should yield. So it should be obvious that drivers in the two lanes should alternate while merging zipper-style. But very often, there is a driver who is determined to get ahead of the rightful car and so comes right up to the bumper of the car in front so that two cars from the same lane enter the narrow strip. On occasion I have seen even a third car try to creep in ahead of the rightful car.

What puzzles me is that there is so little to be gained by this act of petty road rudeness. The only time you have saved is the time taken to travel one car length, which is less than one second. So why do drivers do this?

3. Then there is the person who is scared to wear out their turn signals. On occasion I will see a car ahead of me in the adjacent lane wiggling back and forth sideways erratically. I usually assume that it is someone on a cell phone but they sometimes suddenly cut into my lane and I realize that what they were really trying to do was get into my lane and the wiggles were merely aborted attempts. All this angst on their part could have been avoided if they simply signaled their intent. Like many drivers, if I see someone indicating that they want to move into my lane in traffic, I drop back and flash my high beams to let them know they can. So why do people not even bother to signal their intentions and let other people make room for them?

4. When visibility is poor due to heavy rain or snow, it sometimes is of no help to you to put on your lights because it does not increase your own range of vision. But you should put them on anyway because it helps other people to see you. Why is this so hard to understand for some drivers, who insist on surprising other people by their sudden appearance out of the gloom?

5. The bank I use has two drive-up ATMs next to each other. Because they are close to each other, you cannot cut sharply enough to get close to the second one if there is a car at the first one. If both machines are being unused, you would think that the first car to arrive would move up to the farther machine so that the car behind would be able to drive up to the first one. And yet, time and again, I have seen the first car stop at the first machine, thus causing the second car to have to wait for them to finish their transaction, even though there is a vacant machine. I have to think that such people are simply oblivious to the world around them.

6. This is not a peeve but an observation. Traffic circles are a rarity in the US, reserved for major intersections. But I found that in Australia and New Zealand traffic circles are very common, replacing four-way stop signs even in residential areas. They work very well because a circle causes traffic to slow down without having to stop, the right of way is clear, and it makes for smooth driving. They use circles even for T-junctions.

I have even seen them used where there is no intersection at all, where they seem to serve as a speed control device in residential areas. A long uninterrupted road might tempt people to speed, even in a residential area. Having to slow down to go around the circle serves to moderate speeds without the jarring effect of speed bumps, the option most frequently used here. This is an idea worth adopting from those countries.

7. There is one thing that those countries could learn from the US and that is the use of the center yellow line to separate lanes of traffic going in opposite directions. They use a complicated system of solid, long-dashed, and short-dashed lines, all white, and on multiple lane roads it was sometimes not clear to me where the line separating opposing lines of traffic was. Given that I was having to be extra cautious because I was driving on the “wrong” side of the road, this was quite a concern. A yellow center line removes all the ambiguity.

POST SCRIPT: Interviews with Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins

Terry Gross of Fresh Air had two in-depth interviews last week on the science religion issue. The first interview was with Richard Dawkins and the second was with Francis Collins.

Both people are eminent scientists who took quite different paths when it comes to religion. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who was mildly religious as a child but became an atheist in his teens when he discovered Darwin’s ideas. Francis Collins was head of the Human Genome Project and was not religious as a child but became an evangelical Christian in his twenties.

Dawkins’ views are quite well-known. Collins is a ‘two-worlds’ advocate (science deals with the material world, religion deals with the spiritual world) who thinks that god works though the laws of science like evolution.

Terry Gross does a good job of letting the two guests expand on their views. The interviews are each about 40 minutes in length. There are also supposed to be a downloadable podcasts but I could not find them.

“Bong hits 4 Jesus”

The US Supreme Court heard arguments last week in the case where a high school student was suspended by the principal for unfurling a 15 ft banner that said “Bong hits 4 Jesus.” (The transcripts of the oral arguments can be seen here.)

In 2002, the student (Joseph Frederick) had revealed his banner on a public street in Juneau, Alaska during a parade where the torch for the winter Olympics was being carried, and the school had allowed students out to watch the parade. The student involved had wanted to get on the TV news programs covering the parade and had decided that this phrase would do the trick in drawing attention to him.

I must congratulate the student on showing remarkably accurate judgment on what local TV news finds newsworthy. The phrase he used is inane and meaningless but had the right combination of concepts (drugs and Jesus) put into a snappy sound bite that is fun to say and very memorable, making it perfect for TV news. Say “Bong hits 4 Jesus” and you will see what I mean.

(There are some words that are funny just because of the way they sound and “bong” is one of them. It reminds me of a Monty Python joke where one person asks another “What is yellow and sounds like a bell?” The respondent says “I don’t know. What?” And the first person says “Dung.” The whole joke depends upon the person drawing out the ‘ng’ sound of “Dung” like it was a church bell.)

The case is being tried as a free speech issue. The school principal (Deborah Morse) defends her action as being an appropriate response to a student who was advocating an action (drug use ) that is against the law and school policy. The student (who has now got publicity that must have exceeded his wildest dreams) is defending his action on free speech grounds.

I don’t want to get into that argument but instead focus on a different issue and that is the need for teachers to have a sense of humor when it comes to dealing with students. One of the enjoyable things about teaching students is that many have a sense of fun. Sometimes it is silly, sometimes clever, and sometimes irreverent. Almost always it is harmless and not meant to humiliate the teacher or bring the institution into disrepute. Very often the students may not have completely thought through the consequences of their humor or considered how it might look from a different perspective. Teachers need to be aware of this and be able to see the silliness for what it is, laugh it off, not take offense so easily, and even use such incidents as teaching moments.

But apart from the apparent lack of humor on the part of the principal, there is also another aspect of this case that has intrigued me. Why had the principal taken such strong offense and gone to the (to me) extreme step of ordering the banner be taken down and suspending the student? I suspect that the real trigger was not the stated one that the phrase was advocating illegal drug use (which strikes me as a bit of a stretch) but that the principal was offended at the suggestion that Jesus was being called a pothead, and thus Frederick was making fun of Christianity. If the sign had said “Bong hits 4 Joe” I do not think it would have caused anywhere near the ruckus. It probably would also not have got the student on TV because the meaninglessness of the phrase would have been apparent.

Inserting the name Jesus was the real cleverness on the student’s part, showing that he has a shrewd instinct for how to push people’s buttons.

POST SCRIPT: Kucinich on Iraq occupation and Iran clouds

US congressman and Case alumnus Dennis Kucinich will be speaking “Iraq and Iran: The Way Forward”, followed by Professor Pete Moore of the Political Science department. Professor and chair of History Jonathan Sadowsky will moderate as well as give some introductory remarks.

The talks are promised to be brief leaving a lot of time (50 minutes) for questions and discussion.

When: Tuesday, April 3 at 4:00pm
Where: Strosacker Auditorium

The event is sponsored by Case for Peace, and co-sponsored by the Center for Policy Studies of the Department of Political Science.

The event is free and open to the public.