Reason’s Greetings!

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have mossed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

I hope all this blog’s readers have a pleasant and safe holiday season. For today’s holiday, here are three of my favorite seasonally appropriate Rowan Atkinson video clips.

On Jesus’ miracles:

On The General Synod’s Life of Christ:

On hell:

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited if necessary. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.

Meanwhile, I would like to wish all this blog’s readers Reason’s Greetings (with thanks to Norm for that coinage). Thank you for reading.)

As it is for most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.
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Meet the Villagers-1: How the American political system really works

It is hard to understand American politics without having a clear idea about the nature of how power is controlled and the important decisions made.

The first step to understanding is to not take seriously divisions along the lines of Democrat-Republican or liberal-conservative or left-right. While such terms may be useful in limited contexts, they are mostly used to distract people from seeing the real action, similar to the way that magicians Penn and Teller distract you without you even realizing it so that you do not see how the trick is really done. A good example of issues that are meant to distract was the infamous Terri Schiavo affair. (This is why I always say that it is not the things that politicians strongly disagree about to which we should pay close attention but the things that they agree on.)
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The Republican hysteria over Huckabee

As the interminable political primary season drags on, I have to say that the Republican race has proved to be far more interesting than the Democratic one. We have the drama of Mitt Romney trying to fend off unease over the issue of his Mormon religion and worrying about how his switching of positions to pander to the Christianists in the party will play out, serial philanderer Rudy Giuliani having to deal with one sex and money and corruption scandal after another, Ron Paul irritating the rest of them and the media with his constitution-based attacks on war mongering producing a remarkable response for someone considered a nobody, the once great hope Fred Thompson sleepwalking through the primaries, media darling John McCain looking more and more like a has-been, and those lovable scamps Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter (can anyone tell them apart?) falling over themselves in seeing who can hate immigrants the most. As if that was not enough fun, for the last debate they brought in surprise contestant Alan Keyes (yes, Alan Keyes!), an egomaniac of such giant proportions compared to whom even the insufferable Giuliani comes across as modest and self-effacing.

But the latest development is the sudden vaulting into the top tier-ranks of Mike Huckabee. In many ways, he was always a natural to lead the pack because he had, on the surface, few of the negatives associated with the others and all the positives. He was a southerner, a former governor, a Baptist preacher, and has long held the kinds of views that the religious right wants its leaders to have on issues like abortion and gays. He may not have been as hard line as they might have wished on issues like not raising taxes or hating immigrants, or as enthusiastic about supporting the Bush wars and torture that the crazies in his party would like. But these drawbacks were merely matters of degree and one would have thought that given the strong negatives of the other choices that Republican primary voters had, he would have been the one they liked most. So the surprise for me is not his rise in the polls but why it took so long.

But what is really interesting is the reaction to his rise from the power brokers of the Republican Party. They have responded with alarm and brought out the long knives, trying to cut Huckabee down. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum piles on, essentially calling him a moron and even obliquely suggesting Huckabee of being a kindred spirit of Scientologists.

So why all this angst about this southern Bible thumper, who seems to be very similar in background and views to George W. Bush, the president the Washington insiders love, even if he will go down as the worst president in US history and whose current approval ratings are in the sewer?

Kevin Drum at the blog has the best explanation that I have seen so far for this Huckabee hate fest among leading conservatives:

There are a variety of ostensible reasons for this: lack of foreign policy bona fides, too compassionate for their taste, too willing to consider spending money, etc. But I think the real reason is simpler: as with blogosphere conservatives, mainstream conservatives are mostly urban sophisticates with a libertarian bent, not rural evangelicals with a social conservative bent. They’re happy to talk up NASCAR and pickup trucks in public, but in real life they mostly couldn’t care less about either. Ditto for opposing abortion and the odd bit of gay bashing via proxy. But when it comes to Ten Commandments monuments and end times eschatology, they shiver inside just like any mainstream liberal. The only difference is that usually they keep their shivering to themselves because they want to keep everyone in the big tent happy.

But then along comes Huckabee, and guess what? He’s the real deal. Not a guy like George Bush or Ronald Reagan, who talks a soothing game to the snake handlers but then turns around and spends his actual political capital on tax cuts, foreign wars, and deregulating big corporations. Huckabee, it turns out, isn’t just giving lip service to evangelicals, he actually believes all that stuff. Among other things, he believes in creationism (really believes), once proposed that AIDS patients should be quarantined, appears to share the traditional evangelical view that Mormonism is a cult, and says (in public!) that homosexuality is sinful. And that’s without seeing the text of any of his old sermons, which he (probably wisely) refuses to let the press lay eyes on.

John Cole, a conservative who has watched with dismay the Republican Party pandering to the religious extremists, also lists some of the nasty things that are being said about Huckabee and enjoys a moment of schadenfreude:

I simply can not tell you how much I am enjoying this. The GOP has been pandering to these stupid bastards for years, and every time I pointed it out I was called “anti-Christian” or something or other. Those of us who saw what the party was becoming were told to shut up, that it was good politics.

Enjoy your new GOP, folks. And here is something else to think about – are the evangelicals going to support Romney or Giuliani if you do manage to trash Huckabee enough to secure the nomination for them? Will the eye for an eye crowd learn to forgive and forget? Have fun!

Next: Meet the Villagers: The real political divide in America

POST SCRIPT: Torture

One of the most depressing phenomena of recent times is how so many people who should know better are willing to defend the use of torture, using legalistic quibbling to justify barbaric practices that would have been unhesitatingly condemned if the identities of the torturers and the tortured were switched.

Tom Tomorrow as usual says it most concisely.

Collateral damage from the war to defend Christmas

The absurdity of ‘defending Christmas’ in the US of all places reached a new low when the US House of Representatives actually passed a bill on December 11, 2007 “Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith”. (Thanks to Ross for alerting me to this.)

The text of the bill starts by listing all the reasons why Christianity is so wonderful (“contributed greatly to the development of western civilization”, yadda, yadda, yadda) and then goes on:

Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

(1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;

(2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;

(3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;

(4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;

(5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and

(6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.”

The vote on the bill was 372 in favor, 9 against, 10 voting ‘present’, and 40 not voting.

Christians around the world can sleep better tonight knowing that the US Congress is working feverishly to respect them as deeply as it is humanly possible.

I do not for a minute think that Bill O’Reilly or the other hypervintilators fear that there is a genuine war on Christmas. It would not surprise me in the least if they themselves were not very religious at all but simply going through the motions. I think the whole issue of claiming that Christianity is under siege is cynically drummed up by urban sophisticates like them because they think that riling up the yahoos and hicks on some emotional hot button issue will keep them in the public eye and makes for good ratings, which is the only thing they really care about.

(Actually Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the sponsor of the above bill, might really believe all this stuff. He is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, if you catch my drift.)

But the tragedy is that the people who get riled up don’t realize that this is just a game for O’Reilly and his fellow travelers who laugh all the way to the bank even as they exploit this petty issue. They think that this is real. Witness what happened on a New York subway on December 7.

On Friday, Four Jewish subway riders who wished other people Happy Hanukkah were pelted with anti-Semitic remarks before being beaten, New York police and prosecutors said.
. . .
The four were on a train in Manhattan on Friday night, during the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, when they were approached by a group of 10 people who offered holiday greetings. The victims responded, Happy Hanukkah and were assaulted by the larger group, police said Tuesday.

Another report gives more details of what happened:

The altercation erupted when Adler and his friends said “Happy Chanukah” to a group yelling “Merry Christmas” on the Brooklyn-bound train.

Adler told the New York Post that one of his attackers rolled up his sleeve to display a tattoo of Jesus Christ.

“Happy Chanukah. That’s when the Jews killed Jesus,” the attacker told Adler.

The assaulting group consisted of ten people aged 19 and 20, with a long career fighting for Christ ahead of them. The only redeeming feature of this story is that a Muslim student on the train sprang to the aid of the Jewish students, although he ended up being beaten too.

Yes, fighting to save Christmas is great fun (and profitable) for those who exploit it as long as people realize that it is not to be taken seriously. But of course, O’Reilly, Gibson, and their ilk cannot be blamed for those morons who don’t realize that it is all a big joke can they?

POST SCRIPT: Impeaching Cheney

Congressman Robert Wexler and two other members of the House Judiciary Committee are calling for impeachment hearings on Vice President Cheney. They received over 80,000 signatures on their petition in just four days and are looking for more.

To read about it, go here and to sign the petition go here.

It is this kind of action that is necessary these days to signal support for politicians who are willing to go beyond platitudes so please take the time to check this out and sign if possible.

Get your war on Christmas here!

My, how time flies. What with one thing and another, I realized that it is already past mid-December and my fellow atheists and I have forgotten all about starting our annual war on Christmas. I really do apologize. I have had a lot of things on my mind lately but I’ll get on it right away.

You know what war I mean. All of us for many years have been plotting secretly in our underground cells with just one goal in mind: to destroy Christianity by undermining the very foundation of that religion: the Christmas holiday. The way we do that is by sending greeting cards or wishing people well with religiously neutral phrases like “Happy Holidays” or “Compliments of the Season” or simply wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill to all, without invoking Jesus or Biblical verses. By using such language our goal was to try and create a time of year when the whole world might be united around the secular ideas of peace and goodwill, anchored by a celebration that originated in a pagan celebration of the winter solstice.

We also try to destroy Christianity by encouraging people to not take part in the traditional orgy of spending vast amounts of money and resources on ‘gifts’ that have ceased to become gifts in the sense of genuine and spontaneous gestures of affection or response to needs, and have now become the obligatory filling of almost extortion-like expectations which often leads to disappointment and anger and resentment because the gift wasn’t good enough or not what was expected or because someone else was given something better.

Another part of the atheist plan to destroy Christmas was to discourage people from gluttonous eating and drinking and to simply spend time socializing with friends and family.

The plan was going along well until it was discovered a few years ago. Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson of Fox News, clever people that they are, saw through our plan. They realized that once people start thinking beyond their own religious tribe and in terms of our common humanity, that was the first dangerous step on the slippery road that led inevitably to humanism, agnosticism, and atheism.

Being manly warriors for god, never braver than when they are facing down imaginary enemies, they started a counter-offensive, wreaking vengeance on those stores and shop clerks who do not use the short list of approved language such as “Merry Christmas” and do not festoon every display and image with the nativity scene and Biblical phrases, such shibboleths being necessary parts of proving that they share warrior Bill’s fervor for the Christian god and Jesus.

But is it me or have others also noted that O’Reilly and others seem to have run out of steam on this issue? This year I do not hear the same level of hysteria on their part as in previous years. Are they tired from their strenuous efforts of previous years and handed the baton on to others? Have they declared victory and moved on to other issues that promise better ratings?

Whatever the reason, it looks like the enemies of atheism are weak right now. So this is the time for all of us atheists to increase our efforts in the war on Christmas. Make sure you attend the secret cell meetings to plan our next offensive. You know the time and place. The secret password this week: When the guard at the door says “O’Reilly is a nitwit”, you respond “And so also is Gibson.”

Be there or be square!

POST SCRIPT: And they thought Harry Potter was bad

As if the religious nuts did not have enough to worry about with all the magic and sorcery in the Harry Potter books, now along comes the film The Golden Compass based on the first book of a fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman, an avowed atheist who views C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series as religious bilge.

Thanks to the flap created by the usual religious hyperventilators, I have now heard of a book, film, and author I had not heard of before but is now definitely on my list of films to see.

The Israel lobby-3: The tide turns against the lobby?

In the first post in this series, I looked at the main arguments made by John J. Mearsheimer and Steven M. Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy. In the second post, I described how they defined the lobby and how it works. In this last post, I look at how their book has stimulated a closer examination of the work of the lobby and the policies it advocates.

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The Israel lobby-2: Who makes up the Israel lobby and how does it work?

In the previous post, I described the main thesis of University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy.

So who or what constitutes the ‘Israel lobby’? Well aware that criticism of the Israel lobby will immediately result in the lobby trying to label them as being anti-Semitic, Mearsheimer and Walt go to some lengths to deflect that charge. They point out that it is wrong to identify the Israel lobby as a Jewish lobby. Not only are non-Jews key players in the lobby, the Israel lobby very often pursues policies that are not even supported by a majority of American Jews. They provide statistics and surveys that suggest that substantial majorities of American Jews disagree with many of the policies advocated by the lobby.
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The Israel lobby-1: The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy

Most political observers have by now heard of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy by University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt. It is an expanded and updated version of their much-discussed March 23, 2006 article in the London Review of Books, and the working paper on which that article was based. The two authors gave talks at Case on September 26, 2007 as part of their book tour. The earlier articles and the current book have sparked considerable controversy and in this and the next two posts, I will try to present the main arguments made by the authors.

The main thesis of the book is quite straightforward and can be summarized as follows:

The US gives Israel a level of unconditional military, economic, and diplomatic support that far exceeds what it gives to any other country, both in absolute and per capita terms. This level of support cannot be justified on strategic or moral grounds and in fact has resulted in actual harm being done to the long-term interests of the US and even Israel. The existence of the current policies can only be explained as due to the successful lobbying efforts of a powerful group that they call the ‘Israel lobby’. A frank discussion would quickly reveal the negative consequences of these policies but this has not occurred because the lobby not only has the ability to influence the speech and actions of the administrative and legislative bodies, it also tries to stifle in the media any examination of its role in influencing policy by accusing critics of the policy and the lobby of being anti-Semitic, and lumping them with Holocaust deniers and purveyors of various conspiracy theories.

One thing that struck me from reading the book and article and listening to their talk is that the two authors, far from being some kind of radicals expressing extreme views, belong to the so-called ‘realist’ school of American foreign policy. They are not idealists. They start from the premise that the US should take whatever steps it needs to take to protect its own interests and that it is US interests that should drive US foreign policy. For example, they feel that the US has a right to ensure that supplies of Middle East oil are available to the West and should do what it takes to ensure it. The authors do argue for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East but not because such a presence is wrong in any moral sense. Instead they say that American strategic interests are better served by maintaining what they call an ‘over the horizon’ capability, with a rapid deployment force able to strike quickly when needed to protect US interests. The permanent physical presence of US forces in that region merely breeds resentment without achieving any worthwhile strategic goals.

Their main thesis is that the group they identify as the Israel lobby has steered US foreign policy away from that serving its own purely national interest, and towards identifying the interests of the US as identical with the interests of Israel (more accurately, with a particular segment of the Israeli political spectrum), and that what is good for one is good for the other. In particular, they say that the lobby urges the US to treat as enemies those whom Israel sees as its enemies (e.g., Iraq, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, the PLO). The authors argue that this has resulted in policies (the invasion of Iraq, belligerence and bellicose rhetoric aimed at Iran and Syria, opposition to Palestinian rights, attacks on Lebanon) that have resulted in the US’s strategic interests being compromised and made the US a target of terrorism.

[These policies were] due largely to the political power of the Israel lobby, a loose coalition of individuals and groups that seeks to influence American foreign policy in ways that will benefit Israel. In addition to encouraging the United States to back Israel more or less unconditionally, groups and individuals in the lobby played key roles in shaping American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, and the ongoing confrontations with Syria and Iran. We suggested that these policies were not in the U. S. national interest and were in fact harmful to Israel’s long-term interests as well. (p. viii)

They do not charge that the members of the Israel lobby are seeking to benefit Israel at the expense of the US. They say that the members of the Israel lobby probably genuinely feel that both countries are served well by such a close identification of interests. But the authors strongly disagree with this. They argue that such a close identification has resulted in policies that are actually harming both the US and Israel. Strong, unconditional support for Israel has resulted in the most extreme members of the Israeli government being emboldened to pursue policies in the occupied territories that are rapidly precluding the possibility of any meaningful chance for long-term peace. While US interests may often coincide with the interests of allies like Israel, it should never subordinate itself to those other interests.

The authors argue that while there are some obvious common interests between the two countries, the US should treat Israel the same way that it treats any other ally, say Great Britain or Canada or Mexico. “When Israel acts in ways that the United States deems desirable, it should have American backing. When it does not, Israel should expect to face U.S. opposition, just as other states do.” (p. 341)

As they point out in their book, Israel receives a level of unconditional economic, military, and diplomatic support that is far in excess of that received by any other country and that this extraordinary level of support cannot be justified on either strategic or moral grounds. Israel is one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. Its per capita income is 29th in the world, nearly double that of Hungary and Czech Republic, and far higher than Portugal, South Korea or Taiwan (p. 30). The US provides more aid with fewer strings attached to Israel than to any other country, which works out to about $500 per person. The second largest recipient of US aid (Egypt) gets $20 per person. Even extremely poor countries with whom the US has long historical ties, like Haiti, get just $27 per person. (p. 25)

The US also provides Israel with a great deal of military support, providing them with access to top-level hardware and technology. Israel is now a major military power with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs but is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) or the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions (p. 36). The authors argue that even without its nuclear capability, Israel maintains an overwhelming military superiority to all its neighbors and thus does not face an existential threat.

Israel is often portrayed as weak and besieged, a Jewish David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath. This image has been carefully nurtured by Israeli leaders and sympathetic writers, but the opposite is closer to the truth. Israel has always been militarily stronger than its Arab adversaries. (p. 81)
. . .
Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to those of its neighbors, and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons. (p. 83)
. . .
Indeed, current conditions in the Middle East pose a serious dilemma for the more hard-line elements in the lobby. Instead of defending a weak state surrounded by enemies, created in the aftermath of a great historical tragedy, they are now forced to defend a powerful, modern, and prosperous state that is using its superior force to confiscate land from the Palestinians and to deny them full political rights, while dealing harshly with troubled neighbors such as Lebanon.” (p. 353)

They argue that even the moral case that Israel is somehow ‘better’ than other states cannot be sustained, and that in fact its treatment of Palestinians and Lebanon are appalling. But despite this, the US provides almost unconditional diplomatic cover for such actions, enabling Israel to pursue policies that would merit swift condemnation if done by other countries. While Israel may have had some strategic value during the Cold War, it has ceased to be a strategic asset and is now a liability in that unconditional support for Israeli policies in the Middle East with respect to the Palestinians and Lebanon has fueled anti-Americanism worldwide and terrorism aimed at the US. (p. 65)

Next: Who makes up the lobby?

POST SCRIPT: Hey, what about the Wiccans?

Before I leave the Mitt Romney beat, my attention was drawn to the part of his speech on faith where he panders to every significant religious voting bloc, saying:

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.

The Weekly Standard has obtained the preliminary draft of this section.