Men and #MeToo

In evolutionary biology, significant changes are normally thought of as gradual over incredibly lengthy periods. Yet sometimes major changes—according to some biologists like the late Jay Gould—occur quickly though infrequently, called in theory “punctuated equilibrium.” Political and social phenomena can be similar. An example concerns the role and treatment of women, a sensitive topic recently illuminated by instances of sexual abuse by powerful men, followed by the #MeToo crusade in the United States, Canada, and perhaps beyond.

Much has been written about the male-female social differential, of course, but #MeToo just might be a vehicle for real change, ushering in a punctuated equilibrium occurrence. There is a long arc of human improvement of which it is a part, so the progress in treatment of women it promises can as easily be but a small segment that fizzles and adds little, or a turning point that announces the revolution, like Seneca Falls or women’s suffrage. But whatever #MeToo’s eventual contribution to this portion of the human condition, I’m convinced that failure of men (and, in fact, women as well) to seriously consider what #MeToo promotes is to turn our backs on legitimate and overdue progress.

One source of guidance that has impressed me is the essay written by Nicole Stamp, first on her Facebook page, then in a slightly a shortened version published by CNN at Stamp’s article conveys the obvious but easily overlooked point that the #MeToo message is just as much men’s issue as women’s. As the title announces—”What decent men can do in response to #MeToo”her focus is on offering concrete, uncomplicated tips for men, for example, being prepared to say to other men something like “that’s not cool” when they’ve said disrespectful things about or to women.

She urges care in introducing women at formal occasions, citing as an example the frequency male physicians at a medical conference introduced male physicians with the title “doctor” 95% of the time, but female physicians only 49% of the time. She even advises men how to behave during a sexual encounter: “If your partner hesitates, stops reciprocating, avoids eye contact, becomes quiet, tense or frozen, or otherwise slows the tempo of any sexual encounter, then you should STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING [uppercase in original; JC].

There is more to Stamp’s article than these examples, enough for me to suggest strongly that you follow the link above or read the longer version on her Facebook page. (There are other relevant writers on the topic, of course, though this post was motivated by Stamp.) We are warned that to focus solely on headline-grabbing, high visibility cases like that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, or Donald Trump is to miss the point. This is a more deeply ingrained matter to which men—and some women—have widely contributed, whether in a more odious way or merely by the toleration of behaviors that set the stage for private distress. We can learn to recognize behaviors that in themselves seem minor, but shroud and thereby make possible much worse treatment. We can learn . . . yes, even those of us who like to think—no doubt erroneously—that we are not part of the problem.



Posted in Morality, Secular humanism | 1 Comment

Are we crazy?

Are we crazy?

The Las Vegas death toll has shocked the nation, as all such events do. News channels are full of the usual hunt for information on the assailant, identity of the victims, and examination of the circumstances that made the scene ripe for mass killing.

Politicians will speak of their prayers and the condolences they’ve sent to victims’ families. The president will offer—as best he is capable—sympathy. But despite the dutifully repeated words of on-air journalists that we shall never forget those who died, we will.

We will forget them the way we always do. Politicians, in fear of the National Rifle Association with its deep pockets and gerrymandered districts with their concentration of right wing voters, will go right back to doing what they can to allow the country to be flooded with guns—guns that have no hunting or target practice utility, guns meant only to kill in warfare. The slightest of extra care about gun availability is rejected by hiding behind the 2nd Amendment.

I want to drive as fast as I’d like; my freedom of movement should trump government’s control on my highway speed. I have a Constitutional right to bear arms; so there should be no or minimal government control over the arms with which I choose to exercise my right. And even speaking of controls the way we would about passenger airplane maintenance, restaurant safety, and building codes produces a well-funded frenzy of opposition from the NRA and politicians acting as their apologists and megaphones.

Most of the nations of the world have a higher murder rate (recently 9.63 per 100,000 annually). But in the parts of the world to which we should be compared, viz., Canada, United Kingdom, Central and Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, murder rates are below 2.63. Ours is 5.22, twice as high. (These are murder rates, not gun murder rates; making a case that there’s a significant difference would be a hard argument to make. Moreover, these data omit suicides by gun.) We cannot stop murder, we cannot stop violence, we cannot stop gun violence; that we can is not my point. But we can make a far more reasoned, muscular attempt to stop being a nation sick with guns.

The media in the next few days will be full of examining the Las Vegas tragedy—the victims, the blame, and the perpetrator. Yes, there’ll be discussion of gun laws, but we’ve proven we’ve a habit of letting those matters fade. The White House has even commented that this is not the time for politics. Really?

All the data we’ll hear and read about the scene and perpetrator will be interesting, to be sure, but only broad social effects will address the issue, and that means politics. In fact, the concentrated criminal investigation, as imperative as it is for law enforcement officers, when it is the focus of citizens’ attention, actually interferes with demanding and persevering with an honest political resolution. Anyone who maintains that this is not the right time owes the country and future victims an answer. Just when is the right time?

Posted in Politics | 6 Comments

Illegal immigration, dreamers, and mixed messages

I’m a bit of a hawk on illegal immigration; well, in theory. I have a liberal friend who disagrees with having national borders to begin with, though as well-meaning as is her position on pan-citizenship, I’ve never been convinced by it. The world may someday show me to be wrong on this, but as for now I support each country’s right to control its borders, free from encroachment and interference from without.

Lawful immigration is a country’s way of determining who will be allowed to put down roots in the geography under its jurisdiction. When individuals override those immigration laws, they exercise a right they do not have. They are substituting their own judgment for that of the country’s citizens, an offense that justifies punishment or deportation. The right to immigrate to the United States is exercised by those who legitimately speak for the United States—our elected government—not persons who wish to come and reside here. That said, I must explain the hesitation that causes me to add the proviso, “in theory.”

Part of my training in psychology dealt with behavioral communication as well as that which is written or spoken. Our behavior frequently embodies messages that are more intended, clearer, and more authoritative than our explicit language. Consider parents saying to their child with regard to some action, “If you do that again, you’ll have no television tonight.” Let’ say that when the child continues the action, the parents not only repeat the admonition, but end up allowing television anyway. Now, what would you say was the parents’ message to the child?

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that the relevant but unspoken message is, “It doesn’t matter that you’re doing that, except that I’ll speak to you disagreeably.” We have all seen parents who send this obvious but unspoken message, then when provoked enough turn on the child with punishment for disobeying. My point here is that the child has not disobeyed. He or she has accurately figured out and followed the real (behavioral) parental message, not the pretended (verbal) message. In frustration, the parents finally change the rules, so that now they do mean the verbal admonition, when before they clearly didn’t. But they give the child no signal that the meaning of their words is going to change.

Over decades, the United States has sent discrepant messages about illegal immigration, particularly that which crosses our border with Mexico. Our laws said clearly it was illegal. The behavior of employers in the United States said, as they still do, “come on anyway, we have employment for you.” In fits and starts, we have cracked down on those who accepted the virtual invitation, showing that sometimes and in some ways we actually mean the words. A wink and a nod are effective tactics for nullifying the rule of law, but doing so in a way that enables us to have our cake and eat it.

Although there have been efforts to act more honorably with regard to this issue, they’ve tended to be half-hearted, used as a political football, or workable but not sustained. Now the matter is again animated with a political environment of conservatives versus liberals, and politically courageous versus politically faint-hearted. Elected officials are often inclined to avoid decisions for which there may be no winners. Tossing difficult matters between executive and legislative branches has become time-honored.

But now there’s a new element: Dreamers—young people, brought to the United States by their undocumented parents, who’ve grown up here almost as integrated into the American experience as the native born. Through no fault of their own, often not even speaking their parents’ native language, they are vulnerable to deportation. The temporary refuge (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) they’ve been granted is currently endangered by political currents. Given decades of our mixed messages, our duplicity, our dishonesty about those messages, we now jerk the Dreamers about, hiding behind the fear of appearing to support “amnesty” when by our actions we’ve already granted amnesty many times over. Perhaps it is no surprise that we are more concerned with saving face—veiling the inhumane discrepancy in our messages—than with simple compassion toward youth innocently caught up in an adult stand-off.

If Make America Great Again has meaning beyond a throwaway motto, we must examine how such an embarrassingly mean-spirited action can be justified by a great nation.




Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Fish rot from the head

Memory and attribution serve me poorly, but I’ll credit the late management guru Peter Drucker for this insight: the cost of working for a corrupt boss is to become corrupt yourself. We don’t work for Donald Trump, but much of our attention since late 2016 has been dominated by his every move. This week as I pondered what it must be like now to work in the White House, it occurred to me that each person there risks the kind of corruption that characterizes Trump.

I don’t mean corruption in its financial sense, but in the sense of moral decency. Neither am I using its frequently trivial sexual sense, but in the sense of commitment to ethical treatment to truth and to protection of rights and processes necessary for honorable national governance.

Donald Trump is corrupt in ways crucial to national leadership. That corruption has been evident since long before his presidency, even before his candidacy. Many others, including myself in this blog, have written enough about his failings that doing so has become a fatiguing, nauseating endeavor. Even so, a substantial number of Americans voted to impose this fact-free man-child on the America they claim to love. Even more so, the majority of Republican Senators and Representatives still refuse to take a stand against his depletion of America’s political leadership, its “capital stock” of public ethics and truthfulness.

It is clear that Drucker’s observation applies to those in the White House and the cabinet. How can his corruption not envelop them? How can they stand committedly behind him in press conferences while he spews inaccuracies and civic immorality? How can the vice president carry his reflection about like a mini-me? Like an odor, Trump’s stench saturates them all.

Some elected officials have been ready to bless Trump’s behavior and mentality by taking advantage of the opening he provides for damaging, uninformed speech. But perhaps more disturbing, some have blessed Trump’s behavior by their silence, their practice of cowardly whitewashing his name from their condemnation of anti-Semites, white nationalists, and other racists in America’s shameful underbelly. Is their behavior what they will try to defend in a few years? Will they excuse their reluctance to save what is good about America? Has being in league with a corrupt president rendered them corrupt as well?

Of course, Trump did not make himself president. Millions of Americans did, due to identifying with his so-obvious unfitness or due simply to their elective carelessness. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. Trump has not only tarnished White House staff and his cabinet, along with elected officials who stand by weakly in the face of his perfidy, but debased us all.



Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

Americans stand for democracy! Really?

From the successful marketing of what became America’s Constitution in 1788 until today, we Americans have not only celebrated our commitment to democracy, we have proudly proclaimed our union to have brought democracy to the world and that, even now, we are the world’s most democratic nation. I’ll leave those boasts unquestioned in this post and just focus on my observation that we seem less clear about just what democracy means. We typically speak of widespread franchise, rule of law, personal freedom, egalitarian counting of votes, and 50%+1 wins, along with rights enumerated in our Constitution and its amendments.

At least, those are the things we talk about in Fourth of July speeches and political campaigns. Closer inspection, I’m afraid, shows a bit less commitment to democracy in our day-to-day politics and ongoing conduct of the country’s business. Political actions in matters of on-the-ground behavior, rather than in our patriotic rhetoric, reveal less commitment to democracy than we’d like to believe. Here are a few examples to illustrate my point.

Restricted franchise by race. We began as a nation by excluding slaves from the “we the people” from whom all political authority arose and for whom the new nation existed. Not only did slaves have no voting rights, their “owners” were awarded with 3/5 of a count toward U. S. House representation for each slave owned, a double repudiation of democracy. Things did change after a horrid war and Constitutional Amendments 13, 14, and 15, but even that slowly and grudgingly. At the end of the 1950s, seven Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) used literacy tests to keep blacks from voting. As we all know, there was still much to be done.

Restricted franchise by religion: In the years before the American revolution, the vote was denied to Catholics in five colonies and Jews in four. Those without any religion were widely unfranchised, a number that on close inspection would have included a number of our founders. Even today, seven states’ constitutions single out atheists for numerous roles of citizenship. Those are now unenforceable, but woe to any legislator who proposes to remove the wording.

Restricted franchise by property ownership: In pre-constitutional America, there were wide variations of the general prohibition against voting by men without property. This was due in part to a “no representation without taxation” approach (so that payment of property tax qualified one to create public debt). Only white males with property could vote, said to be 10 to 16 percent of the population. After the Constitution was in place, the limitation of voting to property owners continued for decades. States during the 1800s gradually rescinded the property requirement.

Restricted franchise by gender: Women were excluded from voting and holding office until much later upon passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. While the controversy led to no war, it was nevertheless hard fought.

 Inconvenienced franchise by economics: Anti-black practices sought to nullify some of the freeing effects of post-Civil War amendments. They included poll taxes, setting inconvenient voting times, and intimidation. The current controversy over voter identification is part of this struggle.

Restricted franchise by age: One can make the case that the proper age for voting can never be established with certainty. In 1970 suffrage was extended to age 18 by Amendment 26. It was due, in large part, to young people having died in conflict in Vietnam. Those for the amendment were, in effect, saying that to exclude persons over 18 (already authorized if 21) from the right to vote was insufficient democracy.

Passive-aggressive indecision: Politicians can simply allow a balanced political unit to deteriorate due to resignations, rendering an ostensibly bilateral unit representing one party more than another. This tactic was, in part, involved in nomination of members to the National Labor Relations Board in the years 2007-2013. (You could make the case that these dynamics were actually not so passive.)

Open choice not to perform: Similar to the former action, this is openly aggressive. A 20th century examples is Pres. Roosevelt’s seeking to pack the Supreme Court in 1937. A 21st century example is Sen. McConnell’s refusal for the Senate to fulfill its Constitutional job of considering Pres. Obama’s SCOTUS nomination based on a thin—even mendacious—rationalization.

Mis/disinformation from leaders: When political leaders convey inaccuracies, some groups are disadvantaged more than others. (I’ve no data about the relative occurrence by party, so my example here will be biased if mistaken to intend a specifically Republican behavior.) The 2016 campaign was bursting with “alternative facts,” so mis/disinformation occurred regularly. Newt Gingrich in a TV interview referred to America’s high crime rate. When the interviewer challenged Gingrich’s misinformation, he replied that people feel there’s more crime, and feeling is reality to them. Yet treating fear as equal to fearful conditions is self-fulfilling, leaving gullible voters even more misinformed in the direction of supporting one partisan side.

Deliberate impairment of the voting system: Gerrymandering may be the single most damaging political practice facing American democracy now and, if so, second only to out-and-out obstruction of voting. The past few years have seen an astounding increase in gerrymandered House districts, largely by and favoring the Republican party. This has been an admittedly intentional Republican strategy to attain more seats than a democratic process would otherwise produce. In voting for Members of Congress, consider the percentage of votes by party compared to the percentage of House seats rendered by gerrymandering in each year of the most recent Congressional races:

Year of vote Dem votes Rep votes Winner of votes Dem seats won Rep seats won Winning % of seats
2012 48.4% 47.1% Dem won by 1.3% 200 234 Rep won by 7.8%
2014 44.9% 50.7% Rep won by 5.8% 188 247 Rep won by 13.6%
2016 47.3% 48.3% Rep won by 1% 194 241 Rep won by 10.8%

I must share a few provisos. First, these data (source: Fareed Zakaria) do not consider other factors, some of which are about to be considered by the Supreme Court. For example, do voters “gerrymander themselves,” as one conservative spokesperson put it, in that liberals are disproportionately moving to cities and conservatives the reverse? Second, is it even possible that Congressional districts can be calculated with fairness in light of uneven geography and social dynamics? Third, have Democrats done their own share of gerrymandering (albeit less effectively), thereby reducing the whole matter to turn-about-is-fair-play? Fourth, as to Representatives whose re-elections are protected by gerrymandering, is there a way to force engagement with what otherwise would be normal legislative compromise (since their seats are safe, even weakened by compromise)? Fifth, is there a critical mass of gerrymandering that would foreclose going back to less partisan districting—that is, might the interlocking effects on state legislatures and on Congressional seats become irreversible?

Lack of informed citizen participation: “We have met the enemy and he is us,” Pogo said. As a society, we act as if political protections are important only when they are critically endangered or lost. In voter turnout, the United States places 28th among the 35 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (source: PEW Research). In the 2016 election, 55.7% of the voting age population voted; even among those, a distressing number gave the matter less studied attention than their next smart phone purchase. Midterm elections run about 40%.


Freedom and liberty are our watchwords, but as often as not we attach them to narrow interests and rarely engage with either the philosophical or the practical depths of the issues. Democracy does not automatically maintain itself. We have the capacity to contemplate and to write profoundly about its importance to a free society. We have the flag-waving pride to boast of our commitment to democracy. We even have a history of a number of incremental improvements in democratic inclusion.

But we are also imbued with the drive to get our own way, to please our own desires and those of our close comrades. In the face of more immediacy, our commitment to safeguard the system itself retreats to the background. The needs of the moment—perhaps a proposed bill, a partisan advantage, willingness to override a democratic safeguard—are in the foreground, and therefore command our attention. There are always legislative skirmishes to be won. The vulnerable system of democracy can wait . . . though weakened with each erosion.

Just as Ben Franklin warned (yes, I’ve used this quote before), we have a republic, if we can keep it.




Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

The awesome power of faith

Religious faith—a formidable force—has figured prominently in human experience for untold millennia. We have faith with regard to much in life, but in this post I’m concerned with religious faith. I’m excluding faith in one’s airline pilot, in aspirin for a headache, in your home team, and that a critical mass of PU239 will produce nuclear fission. Religious faith is the feeling of certainty about a postulated aspect of the supernatural, including that there is a supernatural to begin with. The supernatural is that real or imagined realm beyond or outside of that which can be observed by our senses or by sense-extending mechanisms like radio telescopes and the falsifiable theory testing of science.

Before what came to be called the scientific method, much of what people thought of as true about the earth, psychology, astronomy, drugs, and virtually everything was based on faith similar to religious faith. Well, not everybody. In their desire to figure out the scary, mysterious nature of nature, a few of my heroes five centuries BCE tossed aside the elaborate accounts of spirits, devils, and cavorting gods. Democritus, Anaximander, and others got the ball rolling, then together with later thinkers like Lucretius established what became the basis of a philosophic and scientific tradition that didn’t blossom until millennia later.

But those developments did not touch the Hebrews nor many others caught up in faiths that were protected by rules against questioning and testing much as they are today, notably among fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. It would not have been startling that the apostle Paul bizarrely defined faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”—evidence, by the way, when illuminated by newfound rigor in determining truth was not evidence at all, but a mirage. Considering emotional appeal, hope, and invisibility to be proof of anything is to validate “fake news,” to use a recent term.

The advent of science as a meticulous search for truth laid bare many errors, among them our thinking that great hope indicates truth and the absurdity that lack of evidence can be construed to be evidence. (For example, that we don’t know all the universe’s secrets is an admission of ignorance, not an argument for God.) Part of the awesome power of religious faith is demonstrated by the billions who still make a virtue of that faith in a process that Sam Harris (in The End of Faith) called “the suspension of reason in order to believe that for which there is no evidence.”

But is there no virtue in religious faith? Is it not a compliment to call someone a “person of faith”? Can’t religion cause greater benevolence? Doesn’t religion bestow comfort on the troubled? Does it not help us make sense of a confusing world? Has it not inspired great music, architecture, and painting? Is it not true that religion motivates tenacity and endurance? Can’t religion help build community? Does it not teach and promote peace? The answer to all those questions is YES!….some of the time. But even if those good effects were true all the time, that is, if there were no downsides to religious faith, in no way do good effects prove truth.

We know that in the present day as well as historically, religion is as likely to cause ill effects for humanity as it is to yield benefits. Religious faith can and often does cause the exact opposite effects as those I’ve enumerated. The truths of the foregoing list are limited truths, Unbelievers and even believers who don’t believe quite strongly enough or subscribe to precisely the right thing are damaged by exclusion, shaming, and other religious mistreatments that can go as far as execution. The comforts of religion must be compared with the discomforts it causes and, if Islam and Christianity are to be believed, divine punishment is discomfort at the extreme.

Improvements in humane practices are resisted and retarded by the faithful, for changes must pass a religious test, often with great pain. Consider slavery, treatment of gays, suppression of women, and unsanctioned sex. As to the latter, human closeness and pleasure have been regularly subject to shaming and even persecution by religion. Morality itself, so crucial in a world where we are a greater threat to each other than is disease, continues to be foolishly built on bronze-age thinking rather than humanist principles. And I’ve not mentioned wars and civic unrest. The list goes on with an appalling inventory of ill-treatments, disinformation, and horrors caused by religion. But these downsides are not a legitimate argument against faith qua faith, for in no way do bad effects prove error.

My point is better made by Fred Edwords in What is Humanism: “Much of human progress has been in defiance of religion . . . The defiance of religious and secular authority has led to democracy, human rights, and the protection of the environment.” The resistance religious dogma has done to improvement in the human condition has been at least as great as the direct damage it has inflicted. That damage can be found historically and even recently in actions of Islamic and Christian fundamentalists. My point is not that all the impediments to humaneness, freedom of inquiry, and fulfillment are due to religious faith, just that faith has a striking propensity to feign goodness while doing evil. To a great extent, religious faith continues, despite the damage it does and despite humans’ unparalleled intellectual capacity, an influence that requires enormous power.

Apologists for religion point out that bad effects of religion are due to bad religions, not to religion itself. Bad effects are ascribed to religion less often than to certain religions—Christians toward Muslims and the reverse, Protestants toward Catholics, Pentecostals toward Mormons, and as I’ve often pointed out, Churches of Christ toward everyone else. Bad effects are rarely blamed on one’s own religion, but on religions deemed untrue and perhaps even evil. They are faith gone awry; faithful people are misled. But truth cannot be determined by comparing good and bad effects, as I’ve just argued. So how are faith-seekers to discern the difference between a religion that is true and religions that are false in order not to misplace their faith?

The ability to do that assumes not only that there is a true religious faith, but that we are capable of distinguishing it from untrue ones. For most religionists, the differentiating factor is that one religion is more comfortable than another, feeling more natural, like common sense. However, the feelings of comfort and “fit” are strongly associated with childhood acquaintance, so much that the probability is extremely high that an American child will become or advocate Christianity and a Middle Eastern child will become Muslim or advocate Islam. But even if not an accident of birth, that a religion feels right is less meaningful than it appears. A lie can give as much comfort as truth, just as truth can cause as much consternation as a lie. Faith is the ultimate placebo.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The power of faith is so deeply instilled that it vies with and frequently overcomes reason even in persons who scrupulously exercise their intellect in other walks of life. How else, decades after what was called by Thomas Paine and others the Age of Reason, can we explain that even now about five billion persons are affiliated with one or another religion. Of the 7.5 billion humans alive in 2017, 85% hold to religion-based positions. It would be a strain to demonstrate that the world is a better place due to this sea of religion, just as it is impossible to find a religion not festooned with creeds and reasoning that in non-religious contexts would be seen as inexplicable if not downright wacky (e.g., a body transformed into crackers, talking snakes, the sun standing still, 72 virgins). Perplexingly, the wackiness is cherished by devout sects as if to declare their uniqueness.

The various faiths have little in common except for their reliance on faith that’s no more than tradition-blessed guesses, resistance to generally accepted logic, lack of evidence, and a mixture of haughtiness and compassion toward those not similarly inspired. It is obvious that because religions contradict each other, they cannot all be right, though they can all be wrong. A number of sources report that Christianity is splintering at the rate of two new denominations per day, suggesting that religious people don’t reject their supernaturalism so much as they move from one supernatural explanation of life to another. That suggests that the hold of religious faith is so great that religious persons worship belief itself. Unlike Dan Barker in his Losing Faith in Faith, they simply shift from one set of rituals or dogma to another, normally having to do less with theology than with unrelated circumstances (e.g., marriage, relocation, change in a reference group).

But in those cases wherein a religious person sincerely wants to pick the “right” religion, if one actually exists, on what basis does he or she do so? I turned in the writing of this post to Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt that describes where Michel de Montaigne (16th century French philosopher and author of Essays), unhappily came out on that search, “We cannot know anything—the only evidence for even God, let alone any dogma, is ancient hearsay—so we might as well stick with the Catholic Church, just as the ancients advised.” That approach to religion is called fideism—knowingly basing our choice on blind belief! (Remember, the Roman Church was pretty big then.) Throwing a dart is as good a path to religious truth as careful thought.

So what is it about us that enables religious faith and its powerful influence to be so dominant in human affairs? The answer may be summarized in one word:

Feelings. Emotional satisfaction. The comfort of the familiar. The soaring spirit of rhetorical flourishes. The camaraderie of friends, family, or authorities. Tied to these muscular aspects of our psychology, religious feelings can be overwhelming, so controlling as to defy objective truths.

Feelings enable congregations to tremble with the shared testimony of the faithful, to swell with magnificent emotionality, to elevate joy to ecstasy, to bond believers together in community-as-one, to enjoy a miraculous sense of goodness and abundance, and to experience transcendence.

Feelings that support religious faith are substitutes for facts. And they are powerful enough to exist without real factual support, overpowering our allegiance to whatever intelligent thought we have.

To be clear, I make no suggestion that feelings are bad, useless, or dangerous. My position is not a diatribe against the value and natural gift of feelings, but against the foolishness in thinking they prove either truth or untruth, no matter how impressive and emotionally satisfying. Psychological research has demonstrated our tendency to accept emotions as indicators of fact in many spheres even beyond religion. For example, millions firmly believe without evidence in witchcraft, psychokinesis, extrasensory perception, clairvoyance, precognition, and mental telepathy. They differ in no significant way from superstitions about voodoo, black cats, broken mirrors, horseshoes, the number 13, 4 leaf clovers, coins in a fountain, rabbits’ feet, wishbones, and cracks in the sidewalk.

But taking those sidewalk cracks seriously differs in no significant way from assuming religious beliefs are factual. So why do we continue to treat religion as a respectable human activity, even when it interferes with scientific and humane activities, even when its good side (e.g., charity, forgiveness) are achievable (and are being achieved) by nonreligious motivation and means?

Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain, argues that the reason rests in primitive wiring that enables us to find “meaningful patterns in meaningful and meaningless [italics mine, JC] patterns alike.” Why? Because “the brain is a belief agent,” he says, geared to detect patterns as a defense against dangerous animals in the bush and other threats. False positives only trouble us, while each false negative may be our last. After those primitive threats have been eliminated, however, the wiring remains with its misplaced method of testing reality, giving our cortex unnecessary baggage to overcome.

Teaching children religious faith—despite whatever comfort it bestows—is to reverse in many small ways the enlightenment of the human race, doing damage throughout life to the epistemic integrity of millions. Richard Dawkins called it “pernicious [to] teach children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.” Religious faith, as Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith, “is somehow a sacred human convention—distinguished . . . both by the extravagance of its claims and by the paucity of its evidence . . . an uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds . . . foisted upon each generation anew, it renders us incapable of realizing just how much of our world has been unnecessarily ceded to a dark and barbarous past.”

Religionists are not content to enjoy their evidence-free suppositions in private, for most religions seek to influence others, sometimes by unpleasant means. Islam obviously carries out such influence with an iron fist where it is the majority religion. Christianity did as well before the Enlightenment caused it to be contained. In countries wherein religious power has been curtailed by governmental concepts that grew up in the Enlightenment, religion’s attempt to recover its hegemony makes subtler moves.

In the United States, the “Christian nation” message of discredited activist David Barton seeks to roll back America’s long-observed separation of church and state. There are fundamentalists’ claims that they be exempt from laws barring discrimination against gays or against same sex marriages. Even public servants have claimed that their religious convictions should be recognized by the state more than sincere non-religious beliefs.

Churches in the US receive special tax breaks not available to nonreligious charities. When some ethical matter arises in a community, television and radio stations often assemble religious leaders as a panel for moral guidance, as if their claimed links to God give them special authoritativeness in ethical matters. There are more examples, but my point is that religionists, except in the most unrelated circumstances, expect to have their views treated as the superior criteria.

We have struggled for scores of millennia to better understand ourselves and our universe. In that undertaking, we have intellectual shortcomings to overcome. Another is our vulnerability to the fog of faith; our evolution did not equip us well to distinguish reality from intractable beliefs. Whatever impedes our ability to tease facts out of reality’s confusion keeps discovery to a slower pace, confounds ethics with archaic moral codes, encumbers social justice, and generally squelches human pleasure and fulfillment. Religious faith comes necessarily with a number of such hurdles, slowing the maturity of our species in graduating from fabrications to facts. We are greatly opposed in that progress by that which fraudulently promises to protect us, abetted by

The awesome power of faith.



Posted in Faith and reason, Religion's costs and foibles | 3 Comments

Tennessee’s monkey trial revitalized

Due to a 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, many Americans are familiar with the 1925 trial of high school teacher John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, just north of Chattanooga. Because Scopes had violated the state law against teaching Darwinian evolution in the public schools, the event became known widely as the “monkey trial.” It was an all-star event, with William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow—each with a nationwide reputation—arguing for the prosecution and defense, respectively. As you’d guess, feelings ran high against Scopes and, as local emotions soared, against Darrow as well. Bryan won and Scopes was fined $100, though in later years the verdict was reversed.

The proud and thankful Christian majority of Rhea County was pleased in 2005 that local Bryan Baptist College, an evangelical school, dedicated a statue of Bryan on the courthouse lawn. (The college’s mission is “for the purpose of establishing . . . a university for the higher education of men and women under auspices distinctly Christian and spiritual, as a testimony to the supreme glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Divine inspiration and infallibility of the Bible.”) There was no statue of Darrow . . .

Until yesterday.

The new statue was dedicated at the same old Rhea county courthouse where the trial had been held and where Bryan’s likeness had stood for 12 years. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) spearheaded the effort to honor Darrow. The sculptor commissioned to create the statue was, with pleasing serendipity, already a Darrow fan: well-known sculptor Zenos Frudakis.

Opinions in Dayton are considerably less negative than in years past, but are still mixed. It is informative that Bryan College in the early 2000s was forced to stop its practice of deploying students to teach religious classes in local public schools. Further, the College required professors to sign a statement of beliefs that declared Adam and Eve to be “historical persons created by God in a special formative act.” Though I’ve no data specific to Rhea County, a 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 34 percent of Tennesseans still reject evolution. Now nearly a century after the Scopes trial, an aversion to scientific findings continues to shape American public policy.

In Dayton’s fundamentalist environment, it is impressive that the Rhea County Historical & Genealogical Society helped make the new statue’s placement possible. Moreover, Tom Davis, himself a creationist, had been president of the Society when the Darrow statue plan was approved. As the project came to fruition Friday and despite rumors of planned violence by a few fundamentalists, the July 14 dedication was peaceful.

My wife and I were privileged to be part of the previous evening’s celebration in Chattanooga where we met the sculptor, the FFRF leadership, and other guests of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (in which I am a Life Member).

Today, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow finally face each other again at Dayton’s historic courthouse.

Posted in History, Science and society | 2 Comments