Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bush & “Pro-Lifers” Still Wrong On Stem Cells

The discovery that stem cells may be able to be produced without destroying a human embryo was announced two weeks ago. Ever since, Bush supporters and “pro-life” Republicans have been waxing triumphant about how Bush was right to oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research: Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, writers at The National Review and The Weekly Standard, and this week, Charles Krauthammer, also of the Washington Post, whose article “Stem Cell Vindication” flatly declares that “Bush won”.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, which coincidentally also appeared in another Post article. That article quoted a prominent genetic scientist who said that the Bush-imposed federal ban on embryonic stem cell research probably set the field back four to five years. A new avenue of research has been developed, but valuable time has been lost.

Stem cell research is likely to yield new medicines that can alleviate suffering and prolong life, hopefully in the near future. Then we will be able to calculate the needless suffering that Bush and his “pro-life” supporters caused; then we will be able to see the damage that can be done when religious ideology dictates policy.

But all of this is lost on the “pro-life” apologists. Not one of them mentions that this new line of research represents an opportunity cost of lost time doing other research, or the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists still supports continuing the earlier stem cell research (because it is too early to tell if the new avenue truly represents a complete and viable substitute).

Let me be clear: if this new research does make it unnecessary to destroy human embryos, that’s great. But it’s not the point. It never has been.

I have yet to meet a “pro-lifer” who opposes in vitro fertilization and calls it “murder”, even though embryos are destroyed in the process. The religious fundamentalists who tell us that abortion should be illegal are perfectly willing to let people go to great lengths to produce their own biological children; they know that the public would never agree to government interference in fertility decisions of this kind.

But when the destruction of an embryo might lead to a cure for cancer or paralysis (even an embryo that is going to be discarded anyway), the “pro-lifers” say that life can’t be taken. Their position is inherently inconsistent, and yet virtually no one calls them on it.

Hopefully, in 2009 we will elect a president who is willing to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell research. Let the best minds go figure out the best methods, unimpeded by religious fundamentalists.

Update:The Washington Post gets it right.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Myth Of A Religious Moral Consensus

No one has been more successful at challenging the intellectual foundations of religion than Sam Harris. In his books and speeches Harris’s arguments have only grown sharper, leaving religious believers with little but blind faith to fall back on. (For the best summation of his major arguments check out his recent talk in Colorado.)

Surprisingly, there is a strong critique of religion that Harris has left largely untouched in his writings and talks: the myth that religious beliefs establish a clear and largely uniform set of moral principles. This is the primary argument which believers use to criticize the non-religious, yet it is also one of the easiest to debunk. On issue after issue, not only is there nothing approaching a consensus between the major religions; in fact there is large disagreement.

Since America is a predominantly Christian nation and the Christian religions are the ones that the majority of Americans use as the basis for their moral beliefs, let’s start there.

It takes only a quick observation to see that the gulf between Catholicism and the other Christian religions is immense. Recently the Pope issued comments in which he criticized other forms of Christianity as deviations from the true faith. This sentiment was echoed by columnist Robert Novak when he said, according to an interview in last week’s New York Times, that Catholicism was the only “true faith”. Religious divisions between Christians don't end there. For example, Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney faces an uphill battle give the deep distrust of Mormonism throughout most of America.

Not only do the various Christian religions disagree vehemently on the basic tenets of their religions. It’s common for their differences to spill over into the political arena as well. Their religions can affect how they stand on issue after issue: the war in Iraq, gay rights, abortion, poverty, the death penalty, even the environment.

Just recently NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote how George Bush’s commitment to the Iraq War is partially driven by his belief that he is helping to do god’s will, which (according to George) consists of spreading freedom around the globe. At the same time, dozens of Christian organizations opposed the war from the start and still do.

There are Christian denominations that accept gays and those who preach hatred against them; there are pro-choice Catholics and anti-choice Catholics; the environment is a major issue for many evangelicals and a complete non-issue for others; many religions support the death penalty as a form of justice while others oppose it based on their view of the sanctity of all human life. On stem-cell research there are hardcore “pro-life” senators (McCain and Hatch) who support federal funding, while Bush and other Christian fundamentalists firmly reject it.

Bottom line: it is hard to find a single issue where there is anything close to consensus or unanimity within the Christian community.

Of course the divisions across religions are huge as well, both with respect to these issues and many others.

What is ironic is that I suspect there is actually more agreement on moral principles among secularists than there is among the religious. Free of the dubious, contradictory, and often whimsical nature of the morality found in religious texts, those with a reason-based view of morality can take a fresh and clear-eyed look at the issues.

Who knows? As more and more people begin this journey towards a rational and systematic approach to morality, we may actually achieve a greater consensus than religion has so far afforded us.

P.S. A new poll has come out once again showing that atheists are the most discriminated against people in all of American politics.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Aftermath Of The Court's Latest Abortion Ruling

Make no mistake, if there are such things as “activist” judges the five who voted to uphold the Congressional ban on “partial birth abortion” are now the poster children. In a blatantly religiously and politically motivated decision, they ignored recent court precedent (only 7 years old), based their decision on discredited science, and interjected arguments about protecting women from their own decisions (because according to the “conservative” mindset, women are feeble and infantile and need to be prevented from doing things that they will later regret). It was a low point for a court that has not lacked for low points in recent years.

What is particularly sad is how predictable it was, and how Democrats never mounted a real fight to prevent it from happening. Replacing Sandra Day O’Connor, a moderate female judge, with Samuel Alito, a far right Scalia copy, who during his confirmation hearings made it clear that he still resented the “irresponsibility” of the 1960s, left no doubt about how the Court would change. Alito’s confirmation hearings even revealed memos that he submitted to the Reagan Administration outlining the exact strategy for stripping women’s rights that he helped put into effect in the latest decision.

But I think there are a number of silver linings worth noting. In fact, I think this decision may end up being a gift for progressives in their struggle to protect women’s rights. Here’s why:

1. Progressives need to confront the ethical challenges that late-term abortions pose. As I noted on VoR long ago, both extremes in the abortion debate lead to immoral policies. Those on the right who elevate embryos to the status of human beings strip women of their fundamental right to control their bodies, in addition to preventing medical advances that could well save millions. Those on the left refuse to acknowledge that a developed fetus has at least some rights: there is a point short of nine months when the fetus is sentient, conscious, and can feel pain.

Instead of trying to ignore this, progressives should be asking why significant numbers of women let pregnancies develop so long that a procedure hardly distinguishable from infanticide becomes necessary. No doubt there are cases where complications arise late in a woman’s pregnancy that threaten a woman’s health and make this procedure necessary; but just as surely there are cases that arise for less defensible reasons. Since the far right wants to criminalize abortion, their efforts to restrict and regulate the procedure are justly viewed as nothing but interim steps towards their ultimate goal; they cannot be trusted to have the best interests of women at heart. Only pro-choice progressives, who have fought and defended a woman’s right to choose, have the trust and confidence of women. It’s up to them to make a good faith effort to see that late-term abortions become even more rare. Perhaps they can never go down to zero, but that should be the goal. If progressives can get beyond the belief that any questioning of any abortion is a betrayal to women, they may realize that this issue provides an opportunity to continue to win over the public.

Abortion is an issue where the middle ground has it right. A strong majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all 50 states in the early part of pregnancy. This is when the embryo or fetus is in a pre-conscious state (and in fact when millions each year are destroyed through natural miscarriages). But the public recognizes that at 4-5 months these fetuses not only start resembling babies, they can also think and feel. So people want restrictions on late-term abortions: not because they want to deny women’s rights, but because they have legitimate moral qualms about destroying sentient beings.

The left must realize that affording moral status to highly developed fetuses does not make them “sell outs” and does not “buy into the right-wing frame”; it is instead an honest attempt to grapple with the issues that abortion presents. If they can make this leap, the left will find that public opinion supports their position.

2. This brings me to the second silver lining. If Roe v. Wade is ever overturned the conventional wisdom is that the “blue” states will legalize it and the “red” states will criminalize it in varying degrees, creating a patchwork of rules and regulations. What seems more likely to me, however, is that a federal law requiring all states to permit abortions would be enacted by a Democratic majority in Congress (Eliot Spitzer of NY has just produced a model for this type of legislation). This law would immediately be challenged and the case would make its way to the Supreme Court. The Justices would have to decide whether Congress has the right under the Commerce Clause to regulate abortion. Since women denied abortions in one state would obviously cross state lines to receive abortions, any sensible reading would indicate that of course Congress has this right.

More importantly, the Court’s recent ruling for the first time upheld a federal law regulating abortion. This gives the Court its own precedent validating this reading of the Commerce Clause. Justices Thomas and Scalia, recognizing that the precedent they were setting could be used to enact laws in favor of abortion rights, made it clear in their concurring opinions that they were not deciding on the merits of Congress’s authority, just on the specifics of the regulation. They obviously wanted to leave open the door to their ultimate goal: not only to overturn Roe v. Wade, but to deny the federal government any ability to require states to permit abortions.

Would three more Justices agree with such a radical position? A position which would obliterate centuries of precedent, and throw into question literally hundreds of Commerce Clause cases? After decrying “activist” liberal judges and saying for decades that abortion should be decided by the legislature, would five Justices have the nerve to deny the government this power? I don’t think so: it would destroy the Court’s reputation and legitimacy for decades. I cannot see a scenario where Chief Justice Roberts (or even Alito, who is if anything an incrementalist) would agree to this reading.

3. This brings me to whether the recent decision is a step towards overturning Roe v. Wade. I think it does the opposite. It further strengthens Roe because, more than anything, every new case that affirms Roe’s basic structure, as this did, solidifies Roe as precedent. While no doubt the Court undermined some of the spirit of Roe, particularly in its disrespect for women’s ability to make decisions for themselves, Kennedy in his majority opinion went out of his way to affirm Roe’s fundamental tenets. I think a woman’s virtually unfettered right to an early-term abortion has less of chance of being overruled now more than ever. I may be wrong. We will see what new obstructions the far right comes up with, and which if any the Court upholds.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Right Wing's Conflicting Narratives

It never takes long after a major tragedy in America for rightwing extremists to lay the blame on evolution and/or abortion.

After the Columbine massacre Tom Delay had this to say:

“Guns have little or nothing to do with juvenile violence. The causes of youth violence are working parents who put their kids into daycare, the teaching of evolution in the schools, and working mothers who take birth control pills.”

After 9/11 Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays and People For the American Way shared the blame for the attacks.

Karen Hughes, counselor to the president and now Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, once tried to compare supporters of abortion rights with terrorists when she said, “the fundamental issue between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life” (Tell that to the Iraqis, whose civilian deaths we refuse to count).

And now in the wake of the Virginia massacre we have these words from Pastor Parsley, president of the Center for Moral Clarity in the “On Faith” section of the Washington Post:

“Choosing a world view that excludes God and disregards the value of human life makes the unforgettable scenes from Virginia Tech possible.”

(Apparently Pastor Parsley didn’t read what the Virginia killer had to say about his motives, such as this: “Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”)

Obviously, the rightwing extremists in our society and government don’t care about facts. The places in the world where abortion is safe and legal are by and large the most peaceful and prosperous on earth; the societies where abortion has been criminalized are by and large repressive and filled with violence. Aside from most of the Middle East and Central Asia, take Brazil, where abortion is illegal except in cases of rape and incest: in the last five years almost 2,000 minors have been murdered in Rio alone.

The rightwing doesn’t seem to care that there are over 200 million guns in the hands of Americans, half of the world total for small arms, which helps to fuel the approximately 30,000 gun-related deaths per year. In fact, America is an anomaly in terms of the high level of violence in a country where abortion is legal.

But again, facts are beside the point. Even if abortion were criminalized (which will fortunately never happen; more on this next week) the rightwing would find someone or something to blame for the violence that persists because their worldview is not amenable to reason.

At the same time that we are told by the far right that our domestic violence is a product of our moral decay, President Bush tells us repeatedly that we are at war with terrorists because they “hate our freedoms”. Which freedoms I wonder? I doubt Osama Bin Laden cares that we have 500 channels to choose from or 10 types of toothpaste or even that we can own guns; he probably respects that part of our culture.

What bothers the Islamic terrorists is that we have freedom from religion. For the Islamists this is the greatest sacrilege: to have the arrogance to be a secular society. Islamists also hate the fact that women are free in our society, free to dress in skimpy clothes, free to be the bosses of men, and yes, free to control their own reproductive decisions.

This is where the rightwing’s narratives collide. On one hand they want us to believe that all of our problems are due to our secular society, but the freedoms of this secular society are supposedly what we are fighting to protect. The rightwing can’t have it both ways.

The far right’s continued efforts to criminalize abortion demonstrate their insistence that women are morally and intellectually infantile and that their bodies should be subjected to the whims of a patriarchal state; their continued attacks on evolution demonstrates that the far right wants to discredit basic science; their persistent and hate-filled attacks on homosexuals demonstrate that they want a sexually oppressive and unequal society. All of these goals are shared by the Islamic terrorists with whom we are at war.

I have one humble desire for our next president. I want him or her to work to strengthen, not undermine, the basic freedoms and liberties that our enemies despise. I want there to be nothing in common between the goals of my government and the goals of the Taliban, Al Qeada, Iran, and the rest of the Islamic extremists who are the enemies of free and just societies.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

In Defense Of Atheism And Free Thinkers

I recently read Michael Novak’s essay “Lonely Atheists of the Global Village”. The essay is his response to the works of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, all avowed atheists. Novak takes a respectful stance, but his essay, while trying to provide a sophisticated response, includes so many errors and so much poor reasoning that it deserves a full-fledged rebuttal. This provides not only an opportunity to debunk many of the current myths surrounding atheism, which still seem to have currency even among the well-educated on the right, but also to provide a few additional thoughts on why the term “free-thinker” is superior to the term atheist.

Myth #1: Atheism posits that life has grown out of completely random processes

False. Such a statement betrays an ignorance of basic evolutionary science. The universe contains many scientific laws that govern reality, none of which are random. The evolutionary process, while influenced by random mutations in genes, is based on scientific principles of adaptation, survival, and gradual change. What troubles religious believers is the fact that human beings were not the inevitable product of evolution on planet Earth; evolution does not perfectly predict the future since chance events can alter its course. If we were to go back in time the fact is that humans might not come into existence. In addition, we are still evolving; if we manage to survive into the distant future we can be almost 100% certain that human beings will be radically different than we are today.

Myth #2: Atheists believe that life has no purpose

False. Atheists believe that life has profound meaning. With respect to Earth, evolution is the purpose. On an individual level that means growing, learning, experiencing all that life has to offer, and expanding one’s consciousness. In addition, atheists believe that existence is purpose enough. Do the planets or the billions of galaxies need what we call a purpose? No; their existence and majesty alone are sufficient.

Myth #3: Atheism is an extreme form of anthropomorphism

False. While atheists do rely on human reasoning and capabilities to form judgments about the universe, the same is true for religious people. Just because they point to scriptures for their inspiration doesn’t mean that they have circumvented the limitations of human cognition and attribution that they ascribe to atheists. And whereas atheists reserve judgment about the ultimate origins of life, it is the religious who create myths that are clearly anthropocentric; they even attribute gender (he) to god and ascribe actions to this god that can sound like a combination of bad soap opera and cruel jokes. (Novak goes so far as to actually criticize atheists for thinking of god as a human being in the same line as he uses “He” to describe god).

Myth #4: Atheists are just as fundamentalist as the religious fundamentalists they criticize

False. To my knowledge all atheists are on the record (including Harris and Dawkins) stating that they don’t have all the answers and they might be wrong. Sam Harris has explicitly said there is a chance that he is wrong and that he might go to hell for not believing in Jesus Christ. How many religious people admit that their worldviews may be entirely wrong, that their beliefs may be based on little more than myths and fairy tales?

In addition, in most religious societies majorities express profound prejudice and bias against atheists, often resulting in more discrimination than against ethnic minorities and gays.

Myth #5: Atheism leads to complete moral relativism

False. There is a growing body of scientific work which shows that morality preceded religion and that many animals exhibit basic moral behavior. There are dozens of good reasons for a person to be moral that have nothing to do with religion. In addition, religious people disagree vociferously on key moral questions such as war, income redistribution, stem-cell research and abortion. So the belief that somehow religion creates a uniform moral system, even on the biggest moral questions, is clearly wrong.

Atheists also reject the belief that relying on extrinsic punishment or reward for one’s conduct represents true morality; a dog can be trained to respond in such a way. Morality that comes from wanting to act ethically for its own sake, without any notion of judgment or reward in the afterlife, is for atheists a deeper and more sincere form of morality.

Myth #6: Hitler and Stalin were atheists, so atheism leads to genocide and mass murder

False. To begin, Hitler is on record making many religious statements and his genocide of the Jews was consistent with a long history of Christian pogroms against the Jewish people. Stalin and Mao killed people based on their belief that power should be centralized within the state and that individual rights had no value. This philosophy was not a natural extension of rejecting religion, nor was the lack of religious conviction central to their worldviews.

On the other hand, Christian societies have a long history of slavery and a Christian society carried out the genocide of Native Americans. I would not suggest that religion was the cause of this mass murder (power and greed were more likely the causes), but it is clear that religious societies have been just as capable of genocide and barbarity as non-religious societies.

The only countries in the world where clear majorities of people don’t believe in god are in Scandinavia, where peace, prosperity, freedom, and human development are at their highest levels in all of world history.


A few last points. As Sam Harris notes, we don’t have a word for people who don’t believe in Zeus or Baal, which is why the term atheism is redundant and should no longer be used. I prefer the term “free-thinker”, which refers to a state where one acknowledges the limits to our understanding and is open to alternative explanations based on reason, science, and evidence. To the extent that there are things beyond our comprehension for which there is not sufficient evidence, free-thinkers are willing to admit ignorance in the face of profound mystery. What free-thinkers refuse to do is to take the easy way out and ascribe realities to the unknown just for the sake of it.

Free-thinkers cannot help but notice how the competing religious doctrines, none of which are based on evidence, contradict each other and rely on visions of a creator who seems to bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the conflicted and petty humans who are supposed to pay allegiance. Free-thinkers are content to let their awe of the universe, and the works of the great moral philosophers (Jesus among them) help craft worldviews that are inclusive and respectful of the great miracle that is life.

That being said, free-thinkers believe deeply in freedom. If people want to believe in the tenets of this or that religion so be it. What we would like to remedy are the false notions about those who claim no religious affiliation, because we are confident that once these myths are debunked more and more people will realize that a full and meaningful life doesn’t require putting one’s faith in ancient texts; in fact, the world that science continues to reveal dwarfs the world depicted in these books.

P.S. In today's Newsweek there is a great debate between Rick Warren and Sam Harris (as usual Sam Harris gets the better of his opponent; pay attention to Warren's final statement, in which he admits that his belief in Jesus is akin to a cosmic insurance policy). Also, check out this now famous lecture by Dawkins in which he fields questions from students at the Christian Liberty College and runs circles around them in the most respectful way.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Endpoint Of Faith

I am a great admirer of Sam Harris, whose book The End of Faith, came out only a couple of months after I launched Voices of Reasons and dedicated it to rational discourse. Almost single-handedly Harris broke the taboo that it is somehow inappropriate or impolite to openly criticize religion. He has helped to create an intellectual climate in which people can no longer hide behind religion when making claims that are nowhere supported by facts.

But there has always been a major strand in Harris’s reasoning that has been left undeveloped. After completely undermining the religious foundations for morality, Harris has been slow to offer an alternative source for our moral values.

He often speaks of our collective “moral intuition” and the need for a “21st century conversation about the origins of morality”, but so far he has yet to take these notions to the next level. For example, Harris recently took part in a three-day symposium entitled “Beyond Belief”, during which he and Richard Dawkins sparred with numerous scientists and philosophers over many of the issues raised in his and Professor Dawkins’s work. I listened to the more than a dozen hours of discussions, some quite stimulating, but I was disappointed because again there was talk of the “need” for more conversation about the secular origins of value, but the conversation never took place. If ever there was a forum for such a discussion, this was it.

The reason I think this conversation didn’t occur is relatively straightforward: there is no objective basis for morality.

Let me be clear what I mean by this (and in so doing so I will use one of Harris’s own metaphors). He often points out that there is no such thing as “Christian math” or “Buddhist math” or “Islamic math,” there is simply the universal field of mathematics. This example shows the absurdity of trying to break the world up into competing moral communities based on religious texts; if something is true it should be true to everyone, just like 2+2=4.

However, his use of mathematics is revealing, for mathematics rests on certain axiomatic principles, which are propositions that are not susceptible to proof or disproof; their truth is assumed to be self-evident. In other words, while the principles derived from mathematics are truly universal, they rest on propositions which after due deliberation must simply be accepted without conclusive evidence.

The same goes for values. When pressed, Harris has mentioned two values which he believes can be derived from moral intuition: the desire to promote happiness and the desire to decrease suffering. No doubt the majority of people in the world, religious or non-religious, would agree. A concrete example: murder is wrong. Why? It increases suffering and decreases happiness; it robs someone of life. But why is it wrong to do any of those things? Ultimately, we cannot answer except by resorting to an axiomatic position.

I think the best we can hope for as an alternative to religion is a consensus view on the values we believe in and those we reject. We will never have perfect consensus, and there will always be minorities who claim that their moral systems are no less valid. Even were we to rid ourselves of our irrational religious basis for morality, it doesn’t mean we’ll ever have a moral system with anything approaching the universality of mathematics. We are always going to be engaged in a struggle for hearts and minds to convince people that certain values are worth believing in, while others are not.

We need look no farther than the Declaration of Independence to see some of the first American political evocations of what Harris calls “moral intuition”:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (emphasis mine).

While many religious people cite the ambiguous term “Creator” as evidence that these values were inspired by their God, what is striking is that even if we removed the word the statement wouldn’t sound any less reasonable: one hardly has to be religious to be struck by how eminently sensible it is.

We can look to documents such as the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights for a more detailed description of the components of liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the world community has agreed on over the last 50 years. We can look to philosophers, ethicists, and scientists to help inform us about the desires and needs of human beings, what motivates us, and what makes us fulfilled.

But what people like Harris must accept is that at the end of the day, we have nothing more than persuasion and good argumentation as allies. We have no formula, no grand proof, nothing absolute; we can never provide the certainty that those who cling to religious doctrine crave. The best we can do is make substantiated claims about the values that most people in most cultures, when presented with the full range of facts and arguments, agree on as the best components of a moral system. As an added bonus we can point out that it is more genuine to believe in something because you think it is true, just, and good, than because you think you will be rewarded for believing in it, because some divine force told you to, or because you think certain books are magical.

Once we establish core moral values, then reason, science and objectivity are at our disposal to help us achieve the goals we set forth. Even then there will always be ambiguity, and there will be always be a need for updating and revision; what is radical genetic technology if not a new moral question that needs to be faced and answered.

In summary, holding that simply because Jesus, Buddha or Mohammed said something makes it right or moral is no reason at all. Harris, more than anybody else today, has utterly debunked these sources of morality. He has shown quite convincingly that it is not the “holy” books that have led us to realize that blacks are full human beings, or that gays should enjoy equal rights; we have arrived at these conclusions using exactly the type of moral intuition that religious people mistakenly believe they circumvent through obedience to religious texts.

But Harris and others have come up short at offering alternatives to religious sources of morality. They have done so not because there are no other sources, but because these too must ultimately rest on improvable, subjective beliefs.

However good, caring, compassionate and wise these morals may be, they are still axiomatic. Even if they represent an informed and reasoned faith instead of one based on superstition, in the end they are still faith-based.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Clarifying Freedom

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Yet it more than anything defines liberal democracies, and differentiates us from many of the “un-free” Muslim and Arab societies with which we are at odds.

Throughout Western Europe, which is experiencing an influx of largely unassimilated Muslims, there is the perception that some freedoms need to be curtailed in order to ensure that Muslim immigrants conform to European norms. In the Netherlands the Dutch have just passed a law banning the burqa and other types of Muslim clothing, and France has already banned the Muslim headscarves in schools. (In one of the biggest infringements of free speech in a liberal democracy, the Austrians have made it a crime to deny the Holocaust.)

While some of these laws are understandable from the standpoint of a people worried that its cultures and traditions are slowly being eroded by a foreign illiberal wave, they are largely misguided. What is needed is a careful clarification of what freedom means in the context of liberal democracies, including which ones are non-negotiable and which are more fungible. Tony Blair has begun to lay out such guidelines, making a point of which aspects of liberal democratic society in Britain all immigrants must respect if they are to be welcomed.

The bedrock principles of liberal democracies are equal rights for all, including women and minorities. Also, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from unlawful persecution, and freedom of association. The Western powers should go out of their way to make clear to the Muslims and Arabs who live in their societies that these elements are non-negotiable for all members of society; that where these principles conflict with Islamic principles, it is the principles of freedom that win out. The tenets of no religion or culture can supersede these basic freedoms.

At the same time it should also be made clear that all aspects of a person’s culture and way of life that do not conflict with these basic freedoms are left entirely up to them. If women freely chose to wear burqas or headscarves, fine; it is only when they are coerced that it is wrong. People are free to celebrate whatever holidays they want, and to practice their religion openly and freely; the West welcomes new cultures with open arms. (Keeping in mind of course that limits on freedom of speech and association for those who incite violence have always been a part of liberal democracies, and are not aimed at Muslims or Arabs).

In summary, there are fundamental rights that must be honored by everyone in a liberal democracy, and these need to continually be repeated and reinforced. However, members of other cultures should not be made to feel that all aspects of their cultures are under attack by the West.

Putting this in the context of American society, where we have been much more successful at assimilating minority religious and cultural groups, it is the U.S. Constitution that lays down these liberal democratic principles while it paves the way for an ever-evolving American culture. Those who argue that we are a Christian nation are wrong; we are a constitutional democracy that does not draw whatsoever on Christianity for its structure. However, it is correct that America’s cultural mores have predominantly been of the Judeo-Christian variety, including our holidays, slogans, and dominant religion. This can and likely will change. As the makeup of the American population changes so will our culture; we will further integrate the Hispanic and Muslim cultures, all the while maintaining our constitutional tradition.

A side note: It is ironic that demagogues such as the rightwing radio host Dennis Prager, who confuse and obscure the difference between our liberal democratic legal foundations and our cultural history, advocate contradicting our legal statutes in order to promote a narrow view of American culture. Prager caused a stir when he recently said that the new Muslim Congressman-elect must take his oath of office on a Bible and not a Koran. In reality, our legal tradition requires neither, nothing more than one’s right hand held in the air, and the Congressman has every right to choose to use a Koran for symbolic purposes as a representation of his culture. Prager’s insistence demonstrates that the right wing only believes in freedom of religion when it is Judeo-Christian religion; it is quick to call for unconstitutional rules, which infringe on religious freedom, when other religions seek a place within American culture. (The American Family Association is lobbying for a new law that requires swearing on the Bible for public office.)

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 3, 2006

It Is All About Sex Part #2

As if on cue, this week’s New York Times Magazine has a feature article on the increased repression of gays in many Arab and Muslim countries. Many of the details are harrowing: men being beaten, tortured, and blacklisted for nothing other than their sexual orientation. Perhaps even more disturbing is that one of the reasons given for this rise in anti-gay oppression is that tolerance towards gays is associated with “Western” culture, which many in the Arab and Muslim world violently reject.

A number of points which this article brings to mind are worth emphasizing:

1. Islamic fundamentalists do hate our freedoms

President Bush has often stated that we have been targeted by Al Queda and other Muslim radicals because they hate our freedom. Many have ridiculed the president for this simplistic notion, and correctly pointed out that many jihadists state clear political goals that are only marginally related to what America does or does not stand for. But there is still considerable truth to what the president says: Muslim fundamentalists despise a culture that allows what it perceives as hedonistic and lustful behavior in the name of freedom. The Taliban is the closest we have to the ideal world of Muslim extremists, and it is so authoritarian and repressive that everything from music to dancing to kite flying is prohibited, let alone displays of sexual desire.

2. The Christian Right has much in common with Muslim fundamentalists

Only on what are considered fringe leftwing blogs is this point ever mentioned, but it simply cannot be denied. While the Christian Right’s ideal America would never go as far as the Taliban, it shares many viewpoints, not the least of which is the disdain for and hatred of homosexuals. This is impolitic to say, but it needs to be said.

It also relates directly to what has always been one of my greatest criticisms of the Bush Administration, and why I do not think it has moral legitimacy. At the same time as the Administration has been fighting Islamic fundamentalists overseas, it has been busy empowering Christian fundamentalists at home. While I would never have supported the Iraq War (because I thought it was simply bad foreign policy), I would have at least believed that Bush was sincere if he had used his political capital from 9/11 to argue for a more inclusive and less fundamentalist vision of America. Instead we have the worst of both worlds: a terribly articulated and executed foreign policy and a radical fundamentalist agenda at home.

3. The struggle is for human rights above all

As I have argued in earlier pieces, while democracy is a worthy and noble goal and essential to any long-term peace in the Middle East, the global struggle we face is more about human rights than it is about democracy. Due to many factors, not the least of which is the insecurity and rapid change brought about by globalization, we are experiencing a reactionary moment in history when people of all stripes yearn for a fictional ‘golden age’ that is characterized by what they perceive as more stability. Invariably, however, what comes with this stability is less freedom and fewer human rights. The only way to combat this is to argue for and support universal human rights on all fronts and at all times.

Whether a gay man is beaten and killed in America or executed on the streets of the Iran, at bottom it is the same oppression with the same underlying motive. Until we see all these acts as part of the same larger struggle, our efforts will be only partial and largely unsuccessful.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

It Is All About Sex

I have come to believe that the root of fundamentalism (which has spawned some of the most virulently anti-liberal and violent behavior in the world) is a dysfunctional view of sexuality. I know it seems extreme to boil one of the great geopolitical struggles down to this level, but I think the facts bear this out.

Let us begin at home. The most recent gay sex scandal involving the now-disgraced evangelical leader Ted Haggard has opened a window into a world that tens of millions of Americans belong to that most of us who live in cities, especially liberal ones, have no connection with. In this world, sexual purity, defined as no sexual experience outside of heterosexual marriage, is viewed as the ultimate virtuous behavior. Not only is homosexuality viewed as a temptation by the devil, but premarital sex and even masturbation are viewed as abhorrent in the eyes of God. Best-selling books by evangelical authors are dedicated to fighting the “evil urge” to masturbate and men with homosexual tendencies are “cured” through shock therapy. What is perhaps most sad and disturbing about this latest episode is that Mr. Haggard is so full of self-loathing for his homosexual behavior that he has committed himself to healing by none other than one of the most anti-gay bigots in the country, James Dobson of the Family Research Council (who recently said that he is too busy to counsel Ted). Mr. Haggard goes so far to deny that homosexuality even exists.

The obsession with sexuality has spilled over into the virulent anti-gay activity of many on the Christian Right and is also intimately linked with their campaigns against sex education. In addition, much of their case against abortion rests on the view that sex is strictly for procreation and nothing more. To an outsider like myself, the more I learn about the inner workings of the Christian Right, the more I realize what an unhealthy and combustible mix it is. It has established a movement with an almost singular focus on sexuality, while at the same time creating conditions in which sexual confusion and frustration thrive. By denying the genetic nature of homosexuality and associating virtually all sexual desire with shame, the Christian Right creates mandates that lead to profound cognitive dissonance. It then funnels the frustration people feel when they can’t live up to these impossible and unrealistic ideals against liberals, gays, lesbians, and Hollywood (recall, Jerry Falwell blamed the attacks of 9/11 on just these groups.)

At the other end of the spectrum, halfway across the world, we have the Muslim fundamentalists, who blow themselves up believing that they are going to be rewarded in paradise with 72 virgins. If there is anything more obviously driven by sexual dysfunction I don’t know what it is. Because of the disempowerment and distrust of women throughout much of the Arab and Muslim world, many Muslim men experience their first sexual relations with other men (and yet, in six Muslim countries homosexual acts are punishable by death). This too leads to extreme forms of shame and self-loathing. The belief that men are unable to control their wicked sexual impulses is so strong that a Muslim cleric in Australia just went on record saying that women who don’t cover themselves deserve to be raped because they have tempted men (and he is just one of many). The entire cultural phenomenon of covered women is little more than a means to control sexual impulses and achieve some unattainable and unhealthy version of sexual purity.

While I do not have statistics to back me up, I can say with some confidence that people who are comfortable with their sexuality are some of the most contented people in the world, while those who are sexually conflicted and frustrated are among the least contented. I believe this level of contentment is inversely correlated with many antisocial behaviors, including violent aggression, the need to scapegoat vulnerable groups, and the need to force others to conform to one’s own view of reality.

Where this all leads I am not sure. I do not want to downplay the problems that some people encounter when they engage in sex with numerous partners, including sexually-transmitted diseases. Nor do I want to discount the needs of children, who require loving and committed parents.

How to strike a balance between sexual freedom and acceptance of non-traditional views of sexuality with a commitment to strong relationships and family is difficult. But there is no doubt in my mind that fundamentalism at its core is driven by sexual dysfunction and that until this issue is approached head-on we can look forward to more gay-bashing, violence against women, and suicide bombers. If there really is a clash of civilizations it is between the fundamentalists and liberal society, and the most potent issue that separates these two groups is their views towards sex.

P.S. Someone read my piece and forwarded me a link to one of Bill Maher's rants that's too good to pass up. Check it out- it's hilarious and on the money!

Jason Scorse

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October 22, 2006

Much Less than a Christian Nation

Those who argue that the United States is a Christian nation are hard-pressed to explain why our founders went out of their way to make sure that our founding document, the U.S. Constitution, lacks any mention whatsoever of God, church, the Bible, or Jesus. It is inconceivable that men who put so much time into crafting the Constitution would so explicitly and thoroughly steer clear of religious justifications for their beliefs in any way if they wanted to convey some particularly religious status to our nation.

Perhaps even more striking, if we go back a few years before the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence, there is even greater, and much less publicized proof, that not only did the Founders reject any notion of the United States as a Christian Nation, but they explicitly rejected any notion of today’s view of the Christian god.

Many Christians like to cite this sentence in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These Christians run into serious difficulty trying to explain why the signers of the Declaration used the ambiguous word “Creator”, which is consistent with any deistic interpretation of the origins of life and is not exclusively Christian, but even more importantly, they never quote what comes in the very first paragraph even though the word “God” is used:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. (Highlighting mine.)

Not only did the authors put the “Laws of Nature” as a justification for independence before the word “God” they explicitly state that God is subservient to Nature! When I first read this I was astonished since this is so embarrassing to the proponents of the Christian Nation myth, and I was surprised that it hadn’t gotten more press.

I could spend pages more discussing the historic views of “Natural Law” philosophy that animated and motivated many of the Founding Fathers, and how the majority of them held deistic beliefs that were more consistent with modern forms of agnosticism than anything approaching the assertions made by many modern-day Christians. And of course, some religious people could throw back a few cherry-picked religious quotes from some of the Founding Fathers that point to a greater degree of religiosity than is found in our founding documents.

None of this is necessary.

In both the U.S. Constitution, and even more strongly in the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers explicitly rejected any notion that our nation is based on the tenets of Christianity and the Bible. I can only shudder at the theocracy we would live under if the Founders had given religious literalists any opening whatsoever.

Fortunately, they didn’t and for that I am ever grateful.

J.S.

P.S. Here’s a scathing critique of the Bush Administration by Pat Tilman’s brother, also in the military; it’s one of those pieces that apologists for Bush and company’s failures hate to see.

Jason Scorse

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April 23, 2006

A Call for Conversational Intolerance

Despite all the talk about a “war on Christianity”, our society actually suffers from the opposite ailment: a deference to religious believers that is an abdication of our responsibility as citizens in a democracy. In Sam Harris’s scathing critique of the irrationality and danger of religion, The End of Faith, Harris calls for “conversational intolerance” as a way to break out of this passive acceptance of religious dogma; I would like to expand on what this entails.

There are many (including some of my friends) who believe that challenging religious people is somehow impolite. Sadly, generations ago, these people might have been the ones who did not speak out against statements that blacks were inferior or that Jews were evil.

I heard a perfect example of this new form of political correctness on a recent broadcast of On Point on NPR (which is one of my favorite shows and usually top-notch). The show highlighted an interview with three college seniors at Patrick Henry College, a Christian college whose explicit mission is to create the next crop of America’s political leaders. The college attracts some of America’s most academically gifted students (their average SAT score is over 1300). Many of the students work directly with GOP officials in Washington, including the White House. A quick visit to the college’s website reveals, however, that Patrick Henry subscribes to an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism. Its “statement of faith” declares that every word in the Bible is the literal word of God, that Satan is physically present on Earth, and that all people who don’t believe in Jesus will burn in hell for eternity, among other equally extreme views (take a look and see for yourself).

On the NPR program, when asked about their personal views, all three mild-mannered and articulate students made statements such as: they know the ultimate truth, the Bible’s view of creation is the best work of science we have, evolution is a theory that will soon be invalidated, their version of truth is better than honoring a diversity of views, and threats to “traditional family values” (i.e. gays) are the biggest threat to America. They also made statements implying that only “true” Christians are ethical people, that we should adopt the Ten Commandments as the law of the U.S., and that abortion should be criminalized. The interviewer had opportunity after opportunity to press them on the extremism and irrationality of these beliefs, and to note that even within the Christian community there is serious disagreement on all of these issues; instead he offered platitude after platitude. (I emailed On Point radio to voice my complaint. The senior producer responded that he thought the interviewer did a fine job; listen and judge for yourself.) As a side note, every single photo on the Patrick Henry College website is of white men and women, and their list of social activities includes a “liberty ball” in which students get to take “leisurely strolls about the scenic grounds of the historic Selma Plantation”! (I’m not making this up.)

Sam Harris makes another important point in his book: that moderates are actually part of the problem because they provide cover for the extremists. I think this NPR show was a perfect example. If one didn’t take the time to peruse the Patrick Henry website and look closely at what these people, who aim to be the future leaders of our country, espouse, one would’ve come away thinking they were nice kids who might get a little carried away (instead of committed ideologues with dangerous views, in addition to being nice kids).

Let me make clear: they are fully entitled to believe what they want, and I am glad to that they are invited to participate in public forums like NPR. It is only when the public gets a chance to fully appreciate the religious fundamentalist agenda, which is trying to incrementally change America into a quasi-theocracy (if not a full-blown one), that it will be defeated as a political force.

If the interviewer had asked the tough questions and pressed the students to back up their claims and explain more precisely the laws and public policies they would like to see enacted in a “Christian” America, NPR’s listeners might have gotten a fuller account of how detached from reality the Christian right is (and how it does not represent the viewpoints of the majority of Americans, who are committed to science, facts, and less intrusive government). The Patrick Henry students expressed confidence that they will ultimately win the war of ideas if they get to make their case. While the entire history of the U.S. is a testament to how wrong they are (after all, the Constitution does not have a single reference to God, Jesus, church, or the Bible), we can only ultimately win this battle of ideas if we actually engage in it. Whenever we talk with religious fundamentalists, we must insist that they articulate the specifics of their vision for America, instead of allowing them to hide behind code words such as “traditional family values”, “pro-life”, “moral majority”, “creation science”, etc.

One of the signature claims of the religious right (and Patrick Henry College) is that great societies owe their greatness to religion. In fact virtually all of the empirical evidence, including the most recent, points to the opposite conclusion. The post-1960s, when America supposedly slipped into secular chaos, has included America’s most prosperous decades: longevity and standards of living have skyrocketed while crime rates have hit record lows. If one were to look at a map of the world, the places that are the most backwards and the most oppressive are almost exclusively those where religious dogma and fundamentalism reign, while the most successful countries in the world are the least religious. Even within America, the most prosperous areas are those where religion is least practiced (the “liberal” metropolitan areas) and those areas where religion is most dominant suffer from a greater degree of society’s ills.

Whereas religious fundamentalists (including the students at Patrick Henry) believe that the breakup of the nuclear family is the gravest threat to American society, the threat to our economic dominance is actually of greatest concern. And it is religious extremism, with its war on scientific inquiry, which may pose the single greatest threat to continued American dominance. If during this century America loses its place as the number one power, it will not be because gays married, terrorists struck, or people didn’t go to church; it will be because we lost our edge in innovation.

Unfortunately, many of us who cherish Enlightenment principles (which the Founding Fathers enshrined in the Constitution that forged the United States) and assume that we will always remain committed to the separation of church and state, have grown complacent. We kid ourselves that religious fundamentalists don’t have as much power as they do (and strive for), lull ourselves into believing it will naturally wane, or are too timid to risk being viewed as antagonistic to religion.

If you think I am nitpicking or over-reacting, you’re not paying attention. The religious right’s activities are causing serious harm to many Americans: from the extreme anti-gay measures that have banned even civil unions (which means gay partners don’t get basic legal protections) to the proposed measures to ban gay adoption (including taking away a child from a gay parent and putting them in the custody of strangers if the biological parent dies) to the complete criminalization of reproductive rights in South Dakota, even in cases of rape and incest. In addition, there is no doubt that some of the brutal hate crimes against gays are the product of the climate of bigotry and hatred stoked by religious extremists.

In summary, if you are a person who understands that it is the power of human reason to which we owe our prosperity, who realizes that truth is more than claiming divine origins for books written thousands of years ago by men, who recognizes that the Constitution both guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from religion, who can see that the scientific method is the best path to knowledge and truth about the world, I urge you to stand up and fight for these principles wherever they are under attack: whether at home, in the workplace, on blogs, in the media, at parties, in school, even on a checkout line at the grocery. Always be respectful, but don’t let claims based on religious superstition and dogma go unchallenged. Stand up for reason at every opportunity.

J.S.

P.S. f you’re in the mood to be controversial, here are a few questions you might pose to religious fundamentalists:

- How are your religious rationales any different than those employed by Islamic extremists such as Osama bin Laden who also claim absolute truth from “holy” books?

- If God made us in his image, and we are still evolving (which we are), does that mean God is still evolving?

- Did it ever occur to you that people may have made up religious texts (like the Bible and the Koran) simply to usurp power?

- How can you claim to know the “truth” of the Bible when the text has been translated from many languages hundreds of times? When the Bible itself is based on hearsay of events that happened decades or even centuries before they were written about?

- If God made us exactly as he wanted, doesn’t that mean he is evil since he made us with a strong inclination to kill and steal? Isn’t the god of the Bible evil for routinely massacring humans at will? And why would you want to revere a genocidal god anyway?

- If you think abortion is murder, do you also believe that women who have abortions should be arrested and thrown in jail?

- If the Bible is the literal word of God, do you stone your children when they disobey you (as the Bible recommends)?

- If you had to decide between saving an embryo in a Petri-dish or a three-year old child, would you be indifferent and have to flip a coin?

- Since you believe gays are immoral and should not enjoy the same legal rights as heterosexuals, do you believe they should officially be considered second-class citizens?

- Since there is no mention of democracy anywhere in the Bible and God rules as a strict authoritarian, how is democracy consistent with your view of religion?

Jason Scorse

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February 26, 2006

Should the Left Get Religion? Spirituality?

I reject the notion that religion, with its proclivity for dogma and superstition and its internal contradictions, is a desirable or necessary requirement for finding meaning in life or developing a strong sense of ethics. Enlightenment principles are sufficient to provide awe, moral codes, and a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment, and they have the benefit of being applicable without all the baggage that accompanies religion. I recognize, however, that for the majority of people in America religion is their primary source of meaning and ethics, and this is not going to change anytime soon .I also recognize that most religions deliver positive messages with which I can empathize, such as helping the poor, stewardship for the environment, and compassion.

Currently, there is a growing movement on the left that believes Democrats should tie their messages into these “progressive” spiritual or religious principles, instead of ceding the ground to right wing fundamentalists. (Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, author of the Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back From The Religious Right, is a prominent proponent of this movement. There is also a spin-off of the popular leftist blog Daily Kos, called Street Prophets, whose mission is to “change the moral values conversation” and inculcate it with progressive notions of religion.) With all the talk of how “cultural values” dominate many people’s voting patterns, as well as the fact that many people do vote for candidates based on whether they agree with voters’ own religious leanings, at first glance this seems that it might be an effective political strategy.

In fact, it is a recipe for political disaster. Here’s why:

1. Essentially, the strategy behind this movement is to shift attention towards the positive messages that are found throughout the religious traditions. In reality, however, this does little more than downplay the bad and zero in the good. There is no denying that both books of the the Bible and the Koran contain numerous passages that promote intolerance, hatred, and prejudice against not only women and gays, but all non-believers. As Sam Harris points out in The End of Faith, religious extremists are simply the ones who take their religious texts seriously. Even Jesus, considered a symbol of pacifism and caring, supposedly made many comments (can we ever be really sure what he said, especially in the English language?) that can be interpreted as inciting violence (“I have come to bring the sword”, “I have come to set father against son, brother against brother”, as well as statements that people must follow him or else). The point is that while progressives might be able to shift the focus slightly, there is no way to escape the fact that the “holy” books at religions’ core are hardly progressive documents. Basic liberties and democracy are nowhere found in the Bible or the Koran; in fact, the god of the Bible acts like a dictator throughout.

2. When it comes down to it, the people on the right who are most adamant about their religious beliefs are the people for whom the key issues are abortion and gay rights. Yes, they may very well care about the poor and the environment, and not like war, but they will never vote for a candidate who doesn’t unequivocally oppose abortion or who believes that gays should have equal rights. There is simply no way around this; there are probably 30 million voting Americans, mostly fundamentalists, who will never vote for a pro-choice, pro-gay rights candidate, no matter how much that candidate quotes the Bible and Jesus.

3. The people the left most needs to attract are the religious moderates and independents. The number one reason why these people voted for George Bush has little to do with their religious values, and everything to do with the left’s lack of credibility on national security (whether deserved or not). The thrust of the progressive spiritualists will only weaken this credibility further, in ways that must make Karl Rove salivate. Listening to Michael Lerner on NPR is like listening to a speaker at a socialist love-fest, exactly the type of talk that will make moderates in the middle believe that the left does not have a realistic and credible approach to dealing with terrorism (and terrorism is going to be the defining national security issue for a long time). Peace and love are great, but they will not win you the votes of people who are genuinely concerned about being blown up by suicide bombers or other religious fanatics (apart from how serious these threats really are, which is a topic for another day).

4. One of the key problems on the left is not being able to crystallize a message that Americans can identify with. Whether or not the GOP actually adheres to its message, there is no denying that “small government, low taxes, traditional values, and strong national defense” are amazingly effective one-liners that the GOP has wielded with huge success. The progressive spiritual movement wants to take the left in exactly the opposite direction: on Tikkun’s website their core vision is, drum roll please, more than 12,000 words! It’s a manifesto for saving everything, even things that aren’t in danger. It also includes the worst forms of populism, such as the outlandish suggestion that every 10 years citizen juries should decide whether corporations have been “good citizens”, and if not, revoke their corporate charters. Talk about a way to destroy American competitiveness and turn the pro-business crowd against you!

So while I agree that there are many Americans who yearn for a greater sense of meaning and community, it is not the job of government to provide this. The government’s role is to establish the rule of law, to keep us safe and secure, to promote a level playing field for businesses, and to protect our public environmental resources; government has no business in our private lives. With the majority of Americans agreeing with the left on just about every domestic issue, Democrats desperately need to develop a coherent and powerful national security platform (for great ideas on this front check out the blog democracyarsenal and this conversation with former Democratic senator Gary Hart). If they can do that, they will become the party that no one on the right, religious or otherwise, will be able to beat. Anything that detracts from this objective will only take the left backwards and render it a permanent minority.

Jason Scorse

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February 12, 2006

No Apologies

The furor over the Danish cartoons that depict Mohammed in an unfavorable light is getting crazier by the day so here are my thoughts:

1. Some commentators have gone to great lengths to state that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful people who don’t engage in violence. The problem is that this doesn’t really matter. No one is claiming that Muslim hordes are about to try to conquer Europe; with well over one billion Muslims in the world, if even a small percentage of them are incited to violence this is a BIG problem. And if even a bigger percentage tacitly support extremists this is an even bigger problem.

2. Many also like to point out that Islam is a “religion of peace”, and that people who kill in the name of Islam are perverting the true nature of the religion. This requires a little more attention. In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris identifies dozens of passages in the Koran where Muslims are urged to commit violent acts (or at least welcome them) against non-Muslim infidels. (Harris has a chillingly provocative piece on Islam on truthdig.com.) In addition, while much of the rage in the Muslim world is directed towards the West for all sorts of real or perceived grievances that have to do with honor, imperialism, and territorial disputes, there are a fairly large number of examples of Muslims killing Westerners explicitly in the name of Islam (e.g., in Spain, Britain, the U.S., Indonesia, the Netherlands, Jordan, Turkey, and of course Iraq and Afghanistan.). The problem with (all) religion is that while many can say that the fanatics are not “real” Muslims, there is no objective standard with which to make the case. I’m sure Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi can point to plenty of examples in the Koran that support their arguments. (And remember, the god in the Christian Bible routinely acts like the biggest terrorist on the planet, killing entire races of people and their newborns so it is very easy to use religion as a pretext to mass murder.)

3. It would be a lot easier to sympathize with Muslims if over the past few years we had witnessed massive public protests when Muslims (who are supposedly acting against the true meaning of Islam) massacred innocent people in the name of Islam. Instead we have the Iranian president recently saying that the Holocaust didn’t happen, and that Israel should be eliminated. The Muslim press routinely publishes all sorts of anti-Semitic propaganda and we hear barely a peep. It is the official policy of Saudi Arabia to prevent Jews from setting foot in the Muslim holy land. Even more disturbing, consider the Jordanian wedding bombings a few months ago. Only after this horrific attack did many Jordanians begin to reconsider their favorable impression of Al Queda. So it took a bombing in their own country to make them wonder whether bin Laden’s mission was actually something to be supported! Jordan is one of our staunchest allies in the Middle East, and while it is extremely difficult (and perhaps life-threatening) to stand up to religious extremists, until Muslims start doing so en masse, people in the West are going to believe that the majority of Muslims aren’t really too concerned that their religion has become a tool of terrorism. It isn’t fair, but it’s reality. Where is the Muslim MLK or Gandhi? (Click here for a disturbing piece on the Jordanian journalist who has been imprisoned and harassed for publishing the cartoons.)

4. A fantasy shared by many in the West is that if only U.S. troops would leave the Middle East, all this animosity would go away. After all, this is Osama’s main rationale for fighting against the West. I have opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and I believe the continuing absence of a Palestinian state has hampered U.S. security, but it is naïve to believe that terrorism would go away if the Middle East were free of Western military intervention. Western values of freedom, women’s rights, and free religious expression run counter to Islamic fundamentalism; given the pressures of globalization, these influences will be considered a serious threat by Muslim extremists regardless of whether they are accompanied by U.S. soldiers. That being said, I think U.S. foreign policy has exacerbated the problem tremendously, and is the principal failure that the Bush Administration will ultimately be held accountable for.

5. As for the cartoons themselves, there should be no apologies. The ones that are supposedly the most inflammatory show Mohammed with a bomb for a turban, and Mohammed telling would-be paradise-seekers that there are no more virgins left. As to the one with the bomb, with the major terrorist organizations in the world using Mohammed as one of their inspirations for Muslim conquest (given that he was a warrior for Islam), the cartoon makes a point. As to the other, given the number of suicide bombers who have blown themselves up with dreams of 72 virgins, simple math is all you need to conclude that perhaps paradise really is running out of chaste maidens. The point is that if these cartoons did not contain at least a modicum of truth they wouldn’t be considered offensive. This is what makes good satire, even satire directed at “sacred” figures. Muslims are free to be as offended, and they can boycott Danish products and criticize the West and protest. But they cannot demand that we in the West give up our right to offend people’s sensibilities, religious or otherwise, in our free societies. (As a side note: the Iranian president called for a competition for the best cartoons that trash Jews and say the Holocaust didn’t happen. Anyone who believes there is a moral equivalence between criticizing Islam’s connection with modern terrorism and denying the Holocaust needs a lesson in ethics. In addition, the contention that the cartoons were in some sense equivalent to yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater is absurd; cartoons do not present a potentially life-threatening situation.)

In summary, Muslim outrage at the cartoons is perfectly acceptable, but violent reaction is not. One doesn’t have to be a cynic to suppose that these cartoons have done significant damage to relations between the Muslim world and the West, and probably were not the wisest thing to do. But I defend the right of any newspaper anywhere to print satirical cartoons of any religion (and in most circumstances I welcome them). In addition, maybe there will be a silver lining to this otherwise bad situation; perhaps we will finally get a dialogue going with the Muslims who don’t want to be hijacked by the religious fundamentalists in their midst, and this will lead to a coordinated and sustained campaign against extremism. Muslims themselves must act; no amount of military force from the outside is going to transform their societies into peaceful and stable areas that coexist peacefully with the West and respect freedom, even freedom that offends.

J.S.

“Insisting that we must all be subservient to an evil and vengeful god, now that is offensive.”

P.S. In last week’s post I discussed the tenuous historical link between democracy, human rights, and peace. I posted much of this piece as a comment on the Becker-Posner blog in response to their discussion of the significance of the Hamas electoral victory. Here is what Richard Posner said in his response to the comments:

“I completely agree with those commenters who say that democracy is not a panacea, that it is compatible with cruel and aggressive policies (with many illustrations from U.S. history). Remember that I'm a Schumpeterian; to me, democracy is simply the system in which the rulers stand for election at frequent intervals. Such a system tends to align policy with public opinion, but there is no reason why public opinion can't be exploitive, discriminatory, etc. What does seem true is that democracy, plus rights, provides a good framework for prosperity, and that a prosperous country is unlikely to initiate a war, because commercial values tend to be antagonistic to martial values. "Unlikely" is an important qualification. A democratic country such as the United States, which has been thrust into an "imperial" position, becoming the "world's policeman," is likely to be involved in frequent military operations, some of which it will have initiated. But if democratic countries are indeed unlikely to go to war, then two democratic countries are very unlikely to go to war with each other.”

One other quick observation: In my piece I don’t think I spent enough time discussing women’s rights. With the passing of Betty Friedan, it is worth remembering how full rights for women are also relatively new to our great democratic nation.

Jason Scorse

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January 15, 2006

The Immorality of the “Pro-Life” Movement

Those who advocate the extreme religious “pro-life” position regarding the sanctity of human life, i.e., those who want to ban virtually all abortions, prolong life regardless of the person’s condition (e.g., Terri Schiavo), and ban stem-cell research, turn to morality to justify their stance. Even the “pro-life” label carries a profound sense of righteousness; after all, how could “pro-life” be anything but good? However, under close inspection the “pro-life” position is no such thing; in fact, its logical conclusions are immoral.

According to the “pro-life” position, you and I are morally equivalent to a microscopic embryo in a Petri dish, or a person in a vegetative coma, simply because we share human DNA. Think about the implications of this position: it is worse to destroy an embryo that we can barely observe with the human eye than to torture or maim a living human being, the former being murder and the latter being a lesser crime according to the “pro-life” worldview. Interestingly, even the most ardent “pro-life” advocates don’t truly believe their own rhetoric and its perverse conclusions. For example, exceptions for abortion are usually made in cases where the woman’s life is in jeopardy. But wait a moment: if the embryo or fetus is 100% morally equivalent to a full human-being, isn’t it selfish for a mother to choose her life over the life of her child? A woman who ran out of a building during a fire in order to save her life, while leaving her child to die, would in most circles be considered a monster. For those extremists who believe that abortion should be outlawed even when a woman’s life is in danger, consider the “pro-life” message that sends: Attention women! Pregnancy may be a death sentence; approach at your own risk!

Stem-cell research is the arena where the illogic of the “pro-life” position is most evident. The embryos that scientists require for stem-cell research are microscopic. To put things in perspective, they are about 1/1000th the size of a fly’s brain. And yet the “pro-life” movement wants to impose on society the view that the rights of these microscopic cells trump the rights of the millions of living people who are suffering and dying from some of the world’s most debilitating diseases. Yet these same “pro-life” people sanction dubious medical research on primates who are highly sentient, and thus suffer immensely in medical labs throughout the country. This is human exceptionalism brought to a chilling conclusion; no cruelty inflicted on non-humans is ever considered worse than what is done to a few human cells under a microscope.

Ironically, “pro-lifers” criticize those who advocate animal rights based on the belief that the case for these rights is founded on purely biological notions of identity; in other words, that apes should be afforded similar rights to humans because they are nearly genetically equivalent. In truth, however, animal rights’ advocates base their claims on the fact that humans are much more than their biology, that what defines us is our ability to learn, to feel pain, our sense of identity, our social relationships, our complex emotions, and that the animals who share these traits (as well as most of our DNA) should be afforded greater protection under the law.

It is the “pro-life” movement which uses only crude biological arguments on which to base its moral claims: that because an embryo and a brain-dead coma patient share the same DNA as you or I, we are all morally equivalent. This is an almost complete denial of what it means to be human, and is such a low common denominator that it degrades our humanity. It is also poor science since there are large genetic differences even among humans. My DNA exists in my skin, which through technology will no doubt one day have the potential to form the building blocks of an entirely new human being, but that doesn’t make this sliver of biological mass a moral entity. It is my ability to think, feel, and my sense of identity which does.

“Pro-lifers” argue that anything but their extreme position eventually leads to moral relativisim, in which certain groups get to decide which “others” are actually human. While, no doubt, a morality that takes into account the full spectrum of consciousness, identity, and sentience must be approached with great care, and has the potential to lead to abuse, it ultimately rests on objective facts and science. Arguments that blacks, women, gays, or Jews are inferior have been forever relegated to the dustbin of disrepute and have no chance of resurfacing with significant force in a society dedicated to reason (unfortunately, they still thrive in circles where dogma and religion reign). But societies dedicated to reason and scientific progress will ultimately judge the extreme “pro-life” position harshly as well; it relies on purely reductionist genetic arguments that put the interests of human DNA, no matter what its form, over the interests of all other sentient life, including that of living, breathing human beings.

Jason Scorse

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January 1, 2006

The Opposite of Faith Is Not Emptiness

It is common for those of religious faith to use the words “empty,” “meaningless,” and “pointless” to describe the inner lives of non-believers. For believers, religion is so central to their being that its absence is a black hole. This is troubling for many reasons, not the least of which is that throughout history such thinking has been only a small step away from declaring those who don’t share one’s religious views as worthless; worthless people are expendable people, which of course is the essential logic of global jihadists and suicide bombers.

Personally I will never understand why a belief in a contradictory, irrational, and vengeful supernatural being, especially one who is preparing to dish out Armageddon-like punishment, should provide “meaning” in my life. (Of course this is not all that the Creator represents for the big three religions, but it is a dominant theme throughout the Bible and the Koran. As for Buddhism, Jainism, or Hinduism, I am less sure since so many gods and spirits vie for attention in these religions).

To correct the misperceptions of the religious regarding the beliefs of secular-minded people, it would be helpful for those who are not religious to put forth their views on what gives life meaning. I hardly claim to speak for all atheists or agnostics, but I would like to do my part in having such a dialogue.

Here’s a quick summary of what one non-believer believes:

1. To be alive is like winning a cosmic lottery with the longest possible odds, and therefore life is the most precious thing of all: the original miracle. (I have a saying that I think would make a great bumper stick: Show me something that isn’t a miracle.)

2. Since there is little chance that our consciousness or identity remains after we die (although all the energy does, since it cannot be destroyed), I cherish this life dearly. The only heaven and hell that I know are the ones here right on Earth (life in California is pretty heavenly, while life in Darfur couldn’t be more hellish).

3. There are those who believe that humanity would descend into chaos without the fear of punishment in the afterlife. I strongly reject this view. Realizing that this is probably the only chance at life you will ever get is a powerful incentive to act more responsibly and compassionately.

4. Human life is not the only form of life that has value. Animals (and plants) are other miracles, and we should go to great lengths to protect them as well.

5. Through purely rational means we can conclude that there are powers much greater than us in the universe that we don’t understand, especially those at the source of existence. I have no idea what forms these powers take, but they awe and humble me. I look forward to continued scientific progress trying to solve life’s great mysteries (although I concede that we probably will never figure “it” out completely).

6. Human morality can be derived through reason, science, and introspection; religious dogmas are a specious and incomplete method for establishing moral codes. While I recognize that moral relativity presents a danger, I don’t think it’s the natural conclusion of non-religious ethics. In addition, this same danger is no less present in religions than it is in secular ethics (as evidenced, just to begin with, by the widespread disagreements among those who hold religious beliefs on everything from war, capital punishment, abortion, gay rights, animals rights, etc.).

7. As much as I value my life, the thought of living forever doesn’t necessarily appeal to me (modern conceptions of heaven make it seem like an endless bore), but I wouldn't mind pushing the envelope to130 or 140. I eat my greens and (lucky me) have good genes.

In summary, as someone without a shred of religious faith, I want to declare loudly and proudly for this New Year that I have no shortage of meaning in my non-believing life. Blind faith is not required to have purpose, awe, a strong moral code, and the deepest appreciation for being alive. The only requirements are a thinking mind and a feeling heart.

J.S.

P.S. A great article on evolution is in today’s NYT.

P.P.S. For those interested in the issues surrounding capital punishment, which I discussed a couple weeks ago, check out this discussion by Becker and Posner. They make a persuasive case that the death penalty DOES in fact deter crime.

Jason Scorse

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December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas?

Imagine if we compiled a team of writers to come up with a holiday that contrasted as much as possible with the message and life of the mythical character Jesus. What might they come up with?

1. Since Jesus lived in the desert cold weather themes, especially with lots of snow would be a good start.

2. And since Jesus eschewed all material possessions and traveled with little more than a robe and a walking stick, mass consumerism would be about the other end of the spectrum as far as he was concerned.

3. And finally, since Jesus abhorred idol worship and paganism, we should probably throw in some bizarre fairy tales, such as an old man in the North Pole with shops full of toy-making elves and talking reindeer just to make sure this holiday has as little as possible in common with Jesus’ life and message.

So what’d you know, our imaginary team couldn’t have come up with anything more antithetical to the “real” meaning of Christmas than Christmas as practiced in the United States. How this seems to go largely unnoticed in what is supposedly a “Christian” nation is one of life’s great mysteries (or at least America’s). You would think that instead of criticizing people for not saying “merry Christmas”, Christians would be doing everything in their power to distance themselves from this pagan festival of hedonism that terribly despoils the legacy of their savior (which is actually what the Puritans did centuries ago).

But alas, reason and rationality have never been the strong suit of the religious in America (or anywhere for that matter). Some have gone so far as to criticize President Bush’s holiday cards that too steer away from overt Christmas messages. I guess for some people, anything short of praising Jesus with every breath (and fistful of dollars) falls short of the true Christmas spirit.

So anyway, happy holidays everyone. I hope you’re enjoying a new ipod, taking your kids to visit Santa Claus, and eating lots of sugar cookies….or maybe even thinking about ways in which to ease the suffering that persists in the world after all these thousands of years since civilization began.

J.S.

P.S. For an even more scathing critique of Christmas check out what Christopher Hitchens has to say.

P.P.S. It seems like the Federal District Court agrees with Duane Valz on “Intelligent Design”, and that’s truly something to celebrate this holiday season.

Jason Scorse

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December 4, 2005

Why Evolution Truly Does Threaten Religious Beliefs

(A couple of weeks ago Duane Valz debunked “intelligent design” by showing how it is nothing more than Creationism in new packaging; today I follow up with a discussion of how evolution itself undermines core religious beliefs.)

As the battle of rationality and reason against religious dogma continues in American society, I have recently observed a particularly disturbing trend: scientists and science writers seem to be going out of their way to say that evolution does not contradict religious belief. In fact it clearly does.

Many scientists may be loathe to directly challenge religious views for fear of retribution, both political and otherwise, and so they skirt the clear implications of evolutionary theory, which invalidate one of the key tenets of almost all religions (and certainly all Judeo-Christian religions): the myth of human exceptionalism. (For those who have yet to read Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith, I would compare many of today’s evolutionary scientists to the religious “moderates” whom Harris blames for allowing religious extremism to flourish.)

It is a central tenet of most religions that God created human beings in “His” image, and that human beings are somehow the highest and final product of creation. In addition, religions teach that humans are the only beings with souls, and that our lives are infinitely more valuable than the lives of all other creatures. Evolutionary theory disproves this train of thought for the following reasons:

1. Genetic research has proven that all of life evolved from a single source and that human beings are the direct descendants of primates. What we consider “human” actually came into being over millions of years, so that it would be impossible to identify the “first” human being on this long continuum. While no doubt there was a time when modern humans first started to exhibit traits that we now associate with human consciousness, these did not happen at one single instant in time. Therefore, if such a thing as a soul actually exists, it is not possible that only humans would have them; there is no clear dividing line between us and our “pre-human” ancestors. Either no beings have souls, or our primate relatives and other animals have them as well.

2. Humans do not represent the “end point” of evolution. We are still evolving; millions, hundreds of millions, or even billions of years from now, humans will have become markedly different creatures from what we are now. Future humans will likely view humans as they existed in the 21st century as less evolved creatures (perhaps just as we view monkeys and gorillas today).

3. From what we know about evolution, if there were to be another Big Bang (as is predicted in 3-4 billion years), there is no guarantee that humans as we understand them today would come into being. It is simply a fact that while we are not entirely the products of random phenomena, neither are we the inevitable destiny of creation. In addition, it is extremely likely that evolution is playing out differently on other planets in other galaxies, and that whatever higher-order life forms develop, they will likely not resemble human beings.

In summary, the creative force at work in the universe has no prejudice in favor of human beings. We are the product of mysterious and complex forces that we are only beginning to understand, and our evolution is by no means finished. The religious belief that somehow a static representation of “humans” as they exist now represents the highest end product of all of creation is untenable; it is completely unsupported by the biological and evolutionary facts.

This invalidation of the core of most religious belief does not, however, invalidate what might be considered “spiritual” principles. If anything, the fact that our existence is even more tenuous than we ever believed should further humble us and make us realize how extraordinarily fortunate we are to be alive and to inhabit this amazing planet. In addition, our scientific knowledge should continue to inspire awe and a sense of mystery regarding the universe and the creative power that drives it.

In essence, science and rationality are entirely consistent with various forms of deism and spirituality, but not with religions that are unable to come to grips with the scientific advances of the last two centuries. Perhaps if our country’s top scientists were more vocal about this fact we would witness a decline in the religious dogma that continues to poison American society.

J.S.

P.S. Biologist Kennith Miller (one of the scientists who I believe is too timid with regards to criticizing religion- based on his recent comments on Open Source Radio) read my piece and unsurprisingly disagreed. He said that the issues I raise are philosophical and therefore not in the realm of science. I disagree since everything I stated above are straight-forward implications of the science of evolution. Your thoughts?

P.P.S. A great article on the new ID theory of "Incompetent Design".

Jason Scorse

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November 13, 2005

Intelligent Design: Debunking the New Creationism

Let’s just call Intelligent Design what it is: a slyly positioned and disingenuous form of Creationism that is inconsistent with the good faith, honesty, and fairness that Judeo-Christian philosophy at its best is meant to exemplify.

The credo of Creationists is fairly straightforward and there is at least an intellectual honesty to their faith-driven beliefs. Creationists come in all flavors and stripes, but they all fundamentally believe that the God of their particular faiths was directly responsible for creating the universe, our planet and all life forms here on Earth, including human beings. Judeo-Christian Creationists vary in how literally or symbolically they subscribe to the versions of creation laid out in the Bible at Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Some Creationists accept “micro-evolution” (observed biological processes responsible for variations within species or classes of life forms), but reject “macro-evolution” (the notion that all life forms have a common biological source and that a distinct species or class of organism can emerge from another, given enough time and chance). For these Creationists, the notion of “theistic evolution”—whereby God has created all life forms and built some evolutionary adaptation characteristics into their genes—is not inconsistent with the Bible or the role of God as the supreme creator. Other Creationists reject both forms of evolution. Whatever version of creation they subscribe to, Creationists all believe in the premise that the God who they know and in whom they have faith is the entity ultimately responsible for originating life on Earth.

Creationists are certainly entitled to their views and I have no quarrel with the substance of the various Creationist positions. Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. The faithful have every right to believe what they believe. Based on the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, however, and the long established American mandate to keep certain affairs of the church separated from those of the State, Creationists have run into trouble whenever they have tried to have doctrines like “Creation Science” taught in public schools. Creationists can impart their views to children in the privacy of their owns homes and more broadly in their places of worship, but federal courts, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision, have held that teaching a Judeo-Christian version of the origins of life and the Earth violates the separation of church and State. The judicial reasoning is that, as extensions of governments, public schools must not foster or mandate a particular set of religious views to the exclusion of others. Creation Science is not science at all, but a set of purely religious explanations of the origins of life. Creationists have argued in response that evolutionary theories of the origins of life are not proven science, and that to the extent that such theories present inconsistencies with Creationism, and contradictions with its precepts, Creationism should be taught alongside evolutionary theory as an alternative views. Otherwise, they argue, evolutionary theory would present a singular view on a topic with inherently religious significance and omit other alternative views regarding this key matter of understanding. The courts have ultimately not agreed, and have held that evolutionary theory, however flawed or incomplete it might be as a scientific theory, is purporting only to be a scientific theory and so need not be accompanied by overtly religious theories that happen to address the same subject matter.

Enter Intelligent Design (“ID”). It presents itself as an alternative scientific theory to mainstream evolutionary theories concerning the origins of life. ID’s main precept is that life itself, both the larger ecosystem and biosphere of Earth and each of its organisms, are way too complex to have arisen through a chance process of natural selection and gradual adaptation. Because life could not have come about on our planet in a random and haphazard manner, we can only conclude that there is some “intelligent force” that injected order into chaos and brought about life in all its complex manifestations.

ID advocates take the strangely neutral position that they are not seeking to promote any one notion of God as the intelligent designer of the universe and all its living content. They resort to the position that there must be some overarching intelligence that created such complex, yet highly functioning and interdependent life forms, such as the living things on planet earth. ID leaves open room for the notion that life “evolves,” but that is only based on the grand plan of the intelligent designer. The whole notion of natural selection—the primary mechanism behind Darwin’s notion of evolution—is unsupportable. Life as we know it is far too complex for it to have resulted from a series of random events and survival impulses at the individual organism or species level alone. DNA and genes, the blueprints for all life forms that we have identified to date, had to have been preconceived by a master planner.

A more careful examination of ID shows that it is nothing but pseudo-science with a covert agenda. It is obscured religious philosophy attempting to costume itself in scientific garments, which should be unacceptable to both scientists and those of religious faith.

1. Intelligent Design is Not a Legitimate Scientific Theory

ID is not so much a scientific theory, as it is a position. Theories not only have positions or conclusions that they set forth, but provide explanations about how to derive those positions or conclusions. Scientific theories, particularly, offer explanatory mechanisms or analytical frameworks for the conclusions they espouse. Those mechanisms and frameworks either provide useful expositions of the natural phenomena in concern or, more powerfully still, the ability to predict certain outcomes consistent with a theory’s conclusions or the capability to intervene and manipulate the natural phenomena itself. ID offers no explanatory mechanisms or analytical frameworks. It offers no predictive ability or procedures by which to intervene with or manipulate nature. It rests solely on a negative inference: that living nature is too complex to have come about without an intelligent architect. There is no way that we can prove or disprove this negative inference. Who is to say, scientifically or otherwise, that complexity precludes the random, spontaneous emergence and generation of life? Similarly, who is to say that we are not discerning the blueprints or traces of an intelligent force when we discover, scientifically, nature’s extremely complex structures and mechanisms? The very fact that we can argue about (and investigate) these issues without ever reaching a correct or more scientifically useful resolution is the very thing that proves ID cannot be a scientific theory. It is a basic requirement of any scientific theory that its conclusions and methods be subject to confirmation or disproof through testing and application. ID possesses none of the features required for a legitimate scientific theory. This relegates it to the status of an unscientific presupposition—an untested and indeed untestable hypothesis—rather than a scientific theory. As I discuss later, there are only politically driven and ulterior motives for the ID initiative.

Yet ID distinctly holds itself out as a scientific theory, one concerned with “design detection.” What is the methodology of design detection? All that one is able to glean from ID proponents is that design detection consists of two “methods”: (1) taking scientifically detected microscopic and macroscopic phenomena and declaring them too complex to have not been designed, and (2) inducing a designing intelligence from the fact of human intelligence (i.e., if manifestations of complex human creation, such as a written text, require an intelligent creator, then manifestations of complex natural phenomena, such as written text-like DNA, also require an intelligent creator). Both of these design detection “methods” incorporate circular reasoning. At best they are scientifically lazy (i.e., this is too hard for us to figure out, so let’s say a supreme intelligence came up with it), and at worst disingenuous attempts to couch religious presuppositions in scientific terms. The founders of the ID movement also support their major point of view with a smattering of anecdotal musings from practicing scientists who ascribe wondrous discoveries or research limitations in their own fields of pursuit to an irreducible complexity formed of intelligent intervention. Of course, that certain scientists of faith may come to these conclusions means nothing, at least nothing scientific. Those scientists arrive at the same untestable hypothesis that lay proponents do, favoring an easy negative inference over positive scientific proof or application. It is fine to do so as a matter of faith, but not as a matter of science.

2. Intelligent Design was Specifically Calculated to Dodge Legal Restraints on Religion in Public Schools.

It is unsurprising that the proponents of ID have a hidden agenda; simply to wedge Creationism back into public schools by circumventing the established legal restrictions against promoting or favoring one set of religious views over others. The founders of the ID movement are all Christian, so we would expect that each privately believes that the intelligent designer of their initiative would be the Christian God. So why would they actively then promote an initiative that obscures or denies the role of the Christian God in creating life? The only purpose for this denial is an outcome-driven, politically tactical one—to skirt legal barriers to teaching overtly religious theories of the origins of life in public schools.

In summary, people can believe whatever they want about the ultimate origin of life. Someday science may provide an answer, but currently it is the greatest mystery of all, and people of religious faith have the absolute right to attribute life to their views of God and the divine. What they don’t have the right to do is impose their religious views on the rest of us in the public school system under the auspices of science, which is exactly what proponents of ID are trying to do.

Duane Valz is an Emory-based technology attorney who holds a J.D. from UC-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.

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September 25, 2005

Biblical Religions Have it Backwards

One of the axioms of Biblical teachings is that human beings have “fallen from grace,” in that there was a time when humans (Adam and Eve) were in harmony with God, but this connection was lost due to disobedience. The Bible describes how after Eve ate the forbidden apple, she realized her nakedness and felt ashamed now that she had the knowledge of good and evil. Many religious thinkers view this parable as pointing to the corrupting influence of civilization on human sensibilities, which in some corners has produced an excessive aversion towards modernity that continues to this day within all three Biblical traditions. From Islamic clerics to orthodox Jews to the teachings of the Pope, reactionary stances on many issues of cultural change and progress are commonplace amongst the world’s religious leaders on issues as far ranging as stem cell research, access to contraceptives, women’s rights, and gay rights.

These religious leaders have it all backwards, which is why their teachings are so at odds with modern life.

Humanity didn’t start out pure; just the opposite. While there is no clear dividing line between our pre-human ancestors and modern homo-sapiens, we can rest assured that our ancestral brethren were largely ignorant, selfish, warlike, and amoral. Our ascension to moral beings did not come from the grace of God, but through thousands of years of trial and error, hard work, deep thought, and intellectual evolution. Almost all of the things we can point to as moral progress and largely take for granted in Western societies– the end of slavery, equal rights for all races as well as between men and women, and basic democratic freedoms– are nowhere to be found in the Bible. In fact, what is so amazing about the United States of America is that the Founders (however imperfect) crafted this country’s principal documents without a single reference to the Bible, church, Jesus, or God. Think about that the next time someone tries to say that we are a “Christian nation.” (The Founders were largely deists, who while acknowledging a higher power, knew that human morality did not rest in religious texts. There is one reference to the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, which is purposefully vague and about as ambiguous as you could get in the 18th century without overtly offending the religious order.)

The mistaken belief that somehow it is society that corrupts people is most evident in common perceptions of children. They are often referred to as “angels” when nothing could be farther from the truth. However lovable, children are the most self-centered of creatures, and this is why having good parents to raise them is so important. It is ironic that the religions that so emphasize the role of parenting are the same ones that idealize children, as if it is we who should be emulating them. That is a recipe more for Lord of Flies than any type of heavenly kingdom. (It is likely that much of the current obsession with microscopic human embryos exhibited by religious fundamentalists is due to their belief that somehow purity is inversely proportional to a person’s physical development; i.e. the longer people are tainted and corrupted by the world the farther they are from God. This also helps explain why many religious people believe killing an embryo is murder but are not necessarily opposed to capital punishment or even war, or why virginity is so often associated with saintliness).

No doubt, much of the great progress in human rights and freedoms has been initiated by religious people, but the calls for equality have been based on the principle that our common humanity transcends our differences (in simple religious terms we are all children of the same Creator), not any detailed reading of religious texts. In fact, this foundation can be arrived at completely independent of religion, which is what makes it so extraordinarily powerful.

One of the most striking moral advances in history has been humanity’s belief that all individuals have value. Although this thinking has been inspired by many religious thinkers, any objective look at the world demonstrates that whatever force created the universe isn’t particularly concerned with the well-being of individual humans. From plagues to earthquakes to tsunamis to droughts, natural forces have been and continue to be unmerciful in their disregard for the lives of individuals. But we as a collective human society have elevated the status of individuals to a privileged place, and this is a most amazing and beautiful thing; in the face of natural forces that kill people with no remorse, we have decided that we should value each and every person. And, in fact, we go to great lengths to try to protect individuals and imbue them with rights that are nowhere evident in almost any religious text.

As I have pointed out in earlier pieces, the reactionary and pre-modern impulses found in many of today’s religions have a parallel on the Far Left, which sees its utopia in “traditional” societies that came before the advent of modern life. No doubt the evils inflicted on indigenous peoples are some of humanity’s greatest shames, but it is foolish to put these societies on pedestals. They were just as prone to slavery, oppression, constant warfare, and environmental excesses as today’s dominant powers; their influence only tempered by their lower level of technology and smaller numbers.

In summary, religion has it backwards; it is civilization, reason, and science that have led us to a nobler destiny, not some deity who lives outside of us that can bestow upon us its grace. The world of the Bible was an undemocratic world where basic freedoms were virtually non-existent, and God rarely, if ever, did much about it. In fact, some of the greatest cruelty was perpetrated directly by God (read the accounts for yourself if you don’t believe me). Luckily, we humans did care, and we have made great strides through our persistence and self-sacrifice. This is why I will always put my faith in humanity above all else. Despite all the evidence that the universe couldn’t care less about individuals, one of our greatest accomplishments is assigning individuals inalienable rights.

As science continues to teach us how closely rel Sitemap