Archive for April, 2011

The So-called “Royal” Wedding (and Birtherism)

April 28, 2011

I have recently seen a clip of the 1981 attempted marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. The lady is asked by the officiating poobah, “Do you take Charles Philip Arthur George . . . “ And she answers, “I take Charles Arthur Philip George . . . “ with the names mixed up. Did no one notice this quite explosive fact?

I say it means she never properly vowed to marry the man. The wedding was invalid; Diana was never Charles’s wife. That makes the so-called “Prince” William a bastard with no legitimate claim on the English throne; the real next-in-line, after Charles, would be his brother Andrew. William can marry Kate, but it’s no “royal” wedding!

I humbly submit that this offers much more promising fodder for controversy than the “birther” stuff. Remember, the English have fought civil wars over this sort of thing.

Anyhow, birtherism never made any sense for this reason: Obama’s mother was indisputably a U.S. citizen. If a U.S. citizen happens to be overseas and gives birth, does that mean the child is not a “natural born” U.S. citizen? Of course not. The child is automatically a U.S. citizen and does not have to be naturalized. While it does not appear that the courts have ever ruled on this point, a Congressional Research Office memo does take the same logical view. Obama, even IF born outside the U.S., would still be a “natural born citizen” eligible for the presidency.

The Dark Side and its False Prophets

April 21, 2011

A new book by Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, argues against the idea that the internet helps democratization in places like Iran. Rather, Morozov says, it has actually empowered dictators with new tools for suppressing dissension and maintaining control. (Confession: I haven’t read the book; I read The Economist’s review.)

Publication of this book was exquisitely timed just before the revolutions sweeping the Arab world proved it wrong.

"We are the web"

It’s true that authoritarian regimes like China’s, Russia’s and Iran’s have utilized the internet to bolster control, by, for example, tracking down dissidents. Such regimes do not hold power by being stupid and unresourceful. So we should hardly be surprised by Morozov’s cautionary tales. He argues that this is a continuation of past history, whose technological advancements, like radio and TV, were also expected to bolster democracy, but failed to live up to expectations.

Really? Before the TV era, in fact, only a handful of democracies existed on Earth. As TV has spread, so has democracy – like wildfire (in the long view of history). I would not be so bold as to claim direct cause and effect; but I do think it’s pretty bold to say TV has failed to promote democracy when so much democracy has been promoted by something.

And if the Iranian regime has utilized modern media in combating dissent, it wouldn’t have had much of a problem in the first place were it not for such media. A regime like that has always had plenty of means to contain opposition: propaganda, guns, thugs, torture, etc., and corruption to finance it all. That arsenal may be enhanced marginally by internet tools – but for a regime’s opponents, the effect is not marginal, it is crucial. It adds to their capabilities much more, proportionately, than it adds to regime capabilities; on balance, it’s a great equalizer between a regime and its opponents.

Egypt conclusively demonstrated this, refuting Morozov’s whole thesis. Yes, the regime attempted to use modern media in Morozovian ways as part of its anti-revolutionary efforts. But modern media was far more empowering for pro-democracy forces, being undoubtedly critical for them to organize, spread their message, attract support, mobilize masses of people, and ultimately to prevail.

Thomas Friedman’s March 1 column, though not focused entirely on this issue, highlighted some unexpected ways in which the internet (e.g., Google Earth) has propelled Arab revolutions.

But the bigger point is that the spread of democracy, and of technology, are all of a piece, all part of one big story – the empowerment of the individual. I’m not talking just of communications technology. The automobile, for example, has been a huge factor giving people more control over their lives. So has the whole range of technologies revolutionizing industrial productivity, spreading wealth and thereby also giving people more options. Against this background it’s no surprise that people would be demanding – and achieving – more empowerment in the sphere of governance and politics too. Once again we see refuted the pessimistic cynics who are always foolishly arguing that cultures cannot be changed.

Are there downsides to all this? Of course! How could there not be? The world and human affairs are very very complicated. Morozov epitomizes a long line of naysayers who focus on the downsides and thereby paint a bleak picture. Well, their analyses can sometimes actually be useful. But we should never let them distract us from the bigger picture of human progress, in which surely the downsides are outweighed by the upsides.

(Yes, this is the basic theme of my own highly wonderful book, The Case for Rational Optimism. And, in contrast to Morozov’s book, what’s said therein is thoroughly vindicated by recent Arab world events – see the chapter posted at the book’s website!)

American Humanist Association Conference Review

April 11, 2011

Sponsored by the Capital District Humanist Society, my wife and I attended the American Humanist Association’s 70th Anniversary Conference in Cambridge, MA, on April 8 & 9. (We had to miss the Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning sessions).

Below, in separate postings, I will review the conference events I attended. I will try to keep it interesting. (One topic addressed is TESTICLES.)

But first, an overview comment:

By no means did I agree with everything said at the conference. But it was inspirational, in many particulars, and, more importantly, in a global sense. It epitomized the kind of positive human interaction that I always find so uplifting – people acting constructively, engaging with each other in good fellowship and sincere intellectual exchange. To me this refutes the all too common pessimist take on human nature. And the very fact that a gathering like this could take place in public, with no mobs bearing pitchforks and torches, shows how much progress modern American society embodies.

This is what makes me an optimist – and a humanist in the literal sense – a lover of humanity.


The Psychology of the Born Again Syndrome

April 11, 2011

Dr. John Compere is a former Baptist preacher from Mississippi; now a clinical psychologist and author of Towards The Light: A Fifth-Generation Baptist Minister’s Journey from Religion to Reason.

Dr. Compere was ordained at 18. The church, he explains, was not part of life, it was his life – “the air I breathed.” But one day, while he was rehearsing a sermon aloud, saying that all people not believing in Jesus are doomed to eternal punishment, he suddenly was brought up short and said to himself: could this possibly be true?

That was the beginning of doubt. Compere tried mightily, but couldn’t keep his finger in the dike. Finally at age 32 he left the ministry and went back to school in search of a new profession (and life). It should be obvious that such a change is wrenching and requires huge courage. Compere said a lot of ministers find themselves in the same predicament as he did, but can’t get out of it – they don’t really believe, but are stuck. “Publicly phony and privately cynical,” he said.

Turning to the Born Again (BA) phenomenon, Compere explained that it is grounded on John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.“ And this, he asserted, is the most pernicious doctrine in all of religion – in order for you to be forgiven your sins and saved, somebody had to be killed.

But the appeal of immortality, as against personal annihilation, is obvious. Adding to the appeal, BA is sold as a life-changing experience, making one a better person. And people do seem to feel they experience this. Dr. Compere likened this to the placebo effect: if you expect something to happen, you will tend to think it does happen.

He identified 3 other factors: first, how far down you are; BA appeals to people really desperate for a fix in their lives. Second, there is a powerful emotionality component. To illustrate emotive power, he recited the famous poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. And third, it’s very important to people to fit in with a group they belong to. This, he said, is what leads to the “true believer” phenomenon; and he saw this factor as being the true explanation for what some have seen as a “religion gene.”

The above discussion led to the issue of what it really means to say a person “believes” something. What a man says he believes, what he thinks he believes, and what he actually believes may all differ.

Compere noted that Catholics “believe” (or are supposed to believe) that suicides go to Hell; but virtually no Catholic really believes this about a loved one who commits suicide.

In my view, the problem here is that there really isn’t a single “me” in a person’s mind; not a captain at the helm so much as a bunch of first mates fighting over the wheel (as Daniel Dennett argued in Consciousness Explained). This was illustrated by the story of mathematician John Nash, portrayed in A Beautiful Mind. He recovered from a mental illness that entailed paranoid delusions. But he did not stop having the delusions. Rather, he developed the ability to recognize them as delusions, and to ignore them! So a person can believe something with one part of his mind and believe something different with another part. That makes “belief” a very tricky concept.


International Humanism and “Defamation of Religion”

April 11, 2011

Roar Johnsen from Norway profiled the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). He vaunted its website with a large searchable archive of articles and papers; here is the link, so I won’t go into detail. The website also has information about the next triannual international humanist congress in Oslo, August 12-14, 2011. Its theme is “Humanism and Peace.”

Matt Cherry

The IHEU’s Matt Cherry discussed the organization’s efforts in relation to international bodies such as the UN. A key issue here is the movement to ban “defamation of religion” (including “negative projection of Islam in the media”). Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights” codifies the “right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion;” and a comment by the UN’s Human Rights Committee clarifies that this protects theistic, non-theistic, and atheist beliefs. Nevertheless, the Islamic nations over the last decade have mounted efforts to enact what amounts to a global law against blasphemy. This is a very serious matter not only because it concerns freedom of press and expression, but in Muslim countries like Pakistan, significant numbers of people have lost their lives in consequence of accusations of blasphemy. UN votes condemning “defamation of religion” thus are clear violations of UDHR Article 18.

The IHEU has been very active combating this – and many religious organizations have joined in this effort. Why would religious groups take such a stance? Because every religious belief can be deemed “blasphemy” vis-à-vis virtually every other religious belief! Global “Defamation of Religion” legislation is potentially a recipe for global religious conflict; thus a really really bad idea.


Religion in the Brain – Privileged Player or Fellow Traveler?

April 11, 2011

Dr. Jane Holmes Bernstein is a neuropsychologist. While the topic seemed like it would cover familiar ground, in fact Bernstein did a great job unpacking how brains/minds work and why, with a special concern for the roots of religion.

At the outset, she disclaimed believing in “scientism” – the idea that science is the only valid path for understanding. Ethical questions, she said, are philosophical, not scientific. However, in my own view, this whole “scientism” business is a straw man concocted by people who actually want to evade what science has to say about things that are indeed legitimately the province of science. No scientist, or believer in science, adheres to the “scientism” caricature.

Turning to our brains – what drives them is one thing – sex! No, really. Because the only thing nature cares about is the survival of the individual and the species – indeed, more specifically, the replication of molecules we call genes. Everything about every organism is engineered by natural selection to serve this objective, and no other.

Not, for example, the search for knowledge. Nature doesn’t care if our thinking is faulty, as long as it’s good enough that we survive to reproduce. Our brains use a lot of “rough-and-ready” algorithms that enable us to deal sufficiently well with the world but don’t give us scientifically rigorous information. A key example is confirmation bias, which affects all our thinking. The scientific method requires that we overcome this and focus on disconfirming data.

So, the unpacking: what must our brains/minds do in order to see us through to reproduction? The first thing is obvious: to not die. Hence a terror at the idea of self-annihilation. You need self-awareness – the individual caring whether it dies or not. Then, when you have to navigate the natural world, you have to know stuff like what’s a possible mate, what’s food, and what wants you to be food – pattern recognition. And when you introduce other people into the picture, you get an urgent need to belong – that is, to know who’s in your group, and who is not. And you want aggression toward those who are not.

Add in language and the pattern recognition app goes into overdrive. It turns into a search for meaning – looking for patterns in things that are not survival related. (And, in the case of religion, in things that aren’t patterns at all.)

Religion exploits all these brain drivers. It fends off the terror of self-annihilation. It provides meaning. It helps you know who’s in your group, and who’s not. This is the way in which Dr. Bernstein casts religion as a “fellow traveler,” riding on the backs of the things that really drive us.

But, she maintained, the brain hasn’t stopped evolving – and the most remarkable development is the capacity for new ideas, which actually enables us to ever more break away from biology. While she did not think religion would disappear – “people won’t stop being born” (and fearing death) – religion will have to change its face to fit with our cultural evolution.


“The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today”

April 11, 2011

That was a 1945 newspaper headline in Champaign, Illinois, quoting the local public lawyer, defending against a lawsuit claiming a church-state violation. It is also the title of a film which will air on PBS in May.

The town had a “released time” program, sending kids to religion classes. It was ostensibly voluntary and parents had to authorize their kids’ participation. Of course, this being America, everybody did. Except, of course – this being America – for one.

Vashti McCollum

Vashti McCollum was a young mother of 3 boys; the eldest, Jim, was being given a very hard time about his non-participation in the religious classes. She sued, claiming a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

Cue the standard response of Christians demonstrating God’s love, Christian charity, and so forth – by pelting the McCollums with rotten vegetables, cursing them out by mail and phone, beating up the kid, dismembering their cat, and so forth.

The case was a sensation, billed as God versus Atheism. McCollum’s lawyer tried to show that the school program was promoting a single religion (Christianity), leaving out all others. They put young Jim McCollum on the stand to testify about the persecution he’d endured. The other side tried to show that his problems were not due to the religious education program, but to his being a weird messed up kid.

McCollum lost in the trial court, and in the Illinois appellate court. She appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The ruling came down on March 8, 1948. By 8 to 1, the Court struck down Champaign’s program as unconstitutional. It was the first time the First Amendment’s establishment clause had ever been applied to rule out a government-sponsored activity.

The discussion following the showing of the film included some of the predictable Supreme Court bashing. Some participants even feared the Court would rule the other way if the same case came up today. I think not. In fact, given how establishment clause law has evolved since 1948, the case would never get to the Supreme Court because a program like the one at issue would today be struck down out of hand. In fact, I believe that the modern Supreme Court has screwed religious believers far more than dissenters.

The film showing was emceed by Dan McCollum, Vashti’s second son. The town that had vilified and ostracised his family in the ‘40s elected him Mayor three times in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His older brother Jim went on to a successful life and career in engineering.

Vashti McCollum died, unrepentant, in 2006 at 93.


The Out Campaign

April 11, 2011

Dr. R. Elisabeth Cornwell is Executive Director of the U.S. branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The thrust of the “Out Campaign” is to take the stigma out of atheism, and give it a positive image. She saw no need to soft-peddle the word “atheist” – it’s the best word for the purpose, clear and concise.

The campaign has adopted the “Scarlet A” – t-shirts and buttons with a big red letter A proclaiming atheism. It’s a bit of a joke, referring to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, whose heroine was forced to wear it to advertise her sin. Of course, atheism is not a sin.

Also part of the campaign to purge negative stereotypes about atheists is to participate visibly in good works. My local humanist group, for example, helps out in the town’s annual Aids Walk.

I would add that one aspect of atheism’s negative image is the notion that atheists “believe in nothing,” and have no anchor for morality. To the contrary, all the atheists I know have very strong positive beliefs, and embody the human instincts for fair and moral behavior, which have nothing to do with religion – as I have argued in depth, in this blog, and elsewhere.


Richard Dawkins on Why Metaphors Metastasize – The Perils of Personification – Sinister Symbolism

April 11, 2011

Richard Dawkins is, well, Richard Dawkins. He started out by talking about how metaphors can be useful, enabling us to understand and conceptualize things that would otherwise pose difficulties. To fulfill this role, a metaphor must do real explanatory work, and must not be confused with reality. He gave several examples in science – e.g., the personification of genes, looking at them as though they were conscious agents, helping us to understand how they behave, without anyone actually thinking that genes are in fact conscious agents.

Religion, he argued, got its start in this way, with the personification of natural phenomena –

A metaphor

the Greek Gods, for example. But in modern religion, Dawkins said, the use of metaphor and symbolism has become a con trick. Whereas at least fundamentalists know what they really believe, sophisticated theologians have become so drunk on symbolism that they don’t know what they really believe.

An example is the treatment of the Genesis story, which is so often cast in terms of metaphor and symbolism by people who don’t believe in the story’s literal truth. But the problem is that a lot of people sitting in the pews do believe the literal words, and are being flim-flammed.

To exemplify the theological dishonesty, Dawkins spent some time deconstructing one theologian’s torturous disquisition on the virgin birth, which belabored the story’s “necessity” and “importance” in disregard of any concern for its truth or falsity. Further, and worse, in Dawkins’s view, the love of metaphor seduces religionists into what is really a love of atrocity: the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, and of course Jesus’s death – both incorporating a grotesque idea of blood sacrifice, that without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins. (A point similar to Dr. Compere’s discussed above.)

Of course, again, sophisticated Christians will deny that they actually literally believe any of this stuff. As Dawkins sees it, they can’t defend it, so they redefine it. The whole of Christianity becomes a metaphor.

And why should atheists be concerned about any of this? Dawkins observed that the tendency of religious believers to get drunk on symbols produced a recent episode in which actual human beings were killed in Afghanistan, as a response to a symbolic act – the burning of a symbol, a book, by a jerk in Florida. There is, indeed, a great tendency for going to the extreme inherent in the whole phenomenon of religion.


A True Believer

April 11, 2011

At the Friday night banquet, we sat next to a guy named Paul. Speaking of true believers, there is nothing of the hard Left catechism Paul hasn’t imbibed. He believes in Hugo Chavez. He believes that Zimbabwe’s Mugabe is taking from the rich to give to the poor. I thought this was ironic given the pervading emphasis at this conference on separating reality from myth. Lefties love to toss the epithet “fascist.” Nobody is more fascist than Chavez and Mugabe. But if they don the label “socialist” or “anti-capitalist” or “anti-imperialist,” the Left says, “Oh! All right then!” and turns a blind eye to the most despicable violations of human rights.

I did not mince words in responding to Paul. But (vide my opening comment) further encounters with him were perfectly cordial, and in fact, he was not deterred from begging a lift to the train station the next night – ever the ideologue, he insisted on torturing himself by using public transport exclusively, to and from the conference – though I guess bumming a lift in our car somehow didn’t count as a violation of his principle. Anyhow, we gave him the lift.