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 | Leave a comment

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 | 1 Comment

Our republic . . . if we can keep it

Citizens of the United States made Donald John Trump the most powerful man in the world. Citizens of the United States made a grave, careless error.

A mechanism for removing an unfit, incompetent, shallow president is available only if his or her behaviors rise to the level of “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors” (U.S. Constitution, Art. II, Section 4). Currently, that solution requires the United States House and Senate to have more integrity in placing country above party than they have thus far shown.

Our country introduced to the world a new approach to governance and the rights of individuals. For more than two centuries, the design of its public institutions has helped it weather massive storms of change and war. Now, for the first time, a president seems determined to weaken, perhaps even cripple, those institutions. Among his wrecking tools is destruction of the concept of truth, as if in a bizarre enactment of 1984.

The president embarrasses us before the world with his infantile, narcissist, charade of leadership. A recent Pew Research Center study of 37 nations’ confidence in the U.S. president to “do the right thing in world affairs” showed the 64% level attained by President Obama near end of his presidency dropped to 22% in spring 2017 with regard to Trump. To many if not most Europeans and British, our president is a perilous joke.

Trust in what President Trump reports and claims is abysmally low. He lies as a matter of constant habit. In my February 10 post, “Trump and the new American truth,” I presented an argument that nothing Trump says about anything can be trusted. Nothing. Therefore, we can fairly assume him to be either lying, misinformed when he claims to be informed, or dangerously mentally disturbed. Not one of those alternatives is tolerable or forgivable in a president of the United States.

And what about that position? This country of almost 330 million Americans vests extraordinary authority in the presidency. Arguments leading to adoption of the Constitution included how to balance the former colonists’ fears about such enormous executive authority versus the necessity for strength in the new central government. Most Americans understand the apportionment of power among federal branches, one that establishes a presidency that is both strong and limited. For four years at a time we entrust that role to a single human being.

But the presidency does not belong to the president. It is ours, putting the lie to President Nixon’s misguided remark, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” To be sure, the presidency is for a time the president’s to decisively use, but just as importantly, the presidency is his or hers to protect.

We could see this debacle coming: Eligible voters who didn’t vote. Low information voters who did. The steady drumbeat of Fox News and other purveyors of disinformation. Voters easily duped by antics of a crude, deceitful savior. Voters fearful of diversity. Readiness to accept a world of comfortable, but manufactured facts. Normalization of bizarre, indecent behavior. Discounting of a severe narcissistic personality disorder. A party milieu unable to stand against its radical right wing. These were circumstances that created the shameful ethos into which Trump’s lying and fabricated expertise fit so well.

My posts—similar to those of well-known commentators—have detailed the immature, unprincipled, smallness of Trump’s proto-despotic, banana republic version of presidential power. I’ve worried whether Trump’s lack of knowledge or his authoritarianism is the greater apprehension. It provides me little comfort that his incompetence might save us from his autocracy. Although we’ve had good presidents and bad, Donald J. Trump is the first to threaten the balances that safeguard the republic.

Following completion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a lady on the street asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic,” replied Franklin, “if you can keep it.”



Previous posts relevant specifically to President Trump: “America’s celebration of ignorance,” Sep. 26, 2016; “October relief…sort of, Trump’s still here,” Oct. 28, 2016; “Please, Mr. President-elect,” Nov. 15, 2016; “What does a proto-despot look like?” Dec. 12, 2016; “Trump and the new American truth,” Feb. 10, 2017; “Flirting with fascism in Trump’s America,” Jan. 23, 2017; “Despot Don,” Feb. 27, 2017; “Congratulations, Trump voters,” Mar. 6, 2017; “You and I deserve Despot Donnie,” Mar. 20, 2017.

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

My steps from sacred to secular

Atlanta’s begun another sweltering, but gorgeous summer. I’m going to take a break from blogging for a few weeks. There are now 154 posts in this blog, all accessible using the listing just to the right of this text. It seems a good time to explain, in highly summarized form, how the major philosophic strains of my life come together, from Christianity to atheism to secular humanism, and the attitudes that accompanied them. Step by step, it goes like this:

  • I am an atheist and agnostic as to the existence of gods or, for that matter any supernatural realm. Agnostic addresses an attitude toward extraordinary claims, usually but not always religious ones, in some ways it conveys a “Missouri show me” mindset. Atheist means I’ve no belief in the existence of god or gods or their supernatural kin. (It does not mean I know that none of them exist; though they’re pretty much in the same class as Superman, Santa Clause, and Zeus). My youth, however, was spent as a pulpit-bound Christian until almost 20. I did not then lose my faith; I jettisoned it.
  • I don’t seek—in most circumstances—to convince you or someone else to agree with me. I very rarely set out to persuade Christians, Muslims, Jews, or New Agers of my views. In fact, I’d wager I’m more accepting and respectful of them than they are of each other. I will, of course, explain my point of view for anyone who wishes to read it or discuss it. That’s the reason for most of this blog (though a very small portion is related to politics rather than philosophy).
  • I do seek—in certain circumstances—to attack religionists’ bullying with all the verbal tools I can muster. What are those circumstances? They include use of religion to tell me or others what to do, special tax advantages given to religion, and religious appropriation of public facilities, decorations, and practices as if the civil government is taking sides between one religion and another or between religion in general and non-religion. They include making laws favoring one or more religions, teaching Christianity or a brand thereof in public schools, adorning police cars and city council chambers with symbols of a “chosen” religion, and erecting civic religious monuments. All these are widespread practices and all of them are theocracy getting its nose under the tent.
  • Finally, it only follows that my atheism means I respect no one’s god or gods (or their spokespersons-of-the-cloth) when it comes to my own behavior or yours. With no supernatural authority to tell me how to live, I must accept the obligation myself. That challenge for me led to secular humanism. It is a thoughtful moral code that addresses my indebtedness to other persons as it regards my behavior toward them. Morality/ethics considered this way is not derived from primitive people, but from careful consideration of our responsibility to each other. It has overlaps with other moral codes (e.g., the Golden Rule), but also large differences. Explaining secular humanism—as well as atheism—gave rise to this blog.

So that’s about it. I am neither Democrat nor Republican, though since the latter party has deteriorated in frightening ways over the past couple of decades, I have been more akin to liberal than conservative. Still, as stated earlier, political commentary was not the purpose for this blog nor has politics been more than occasionally the practice. In the future, there are more topics I foresee addressing, such as the awesome power of faith, religions’ net damage to humanity, the nature of Christianity’s “holy” book, the misconception of religious liberty, religious mistreatment of LGBTQs and other minorities, how Americans don’t really want democracy, and more.

But an aside before I close this post: I want to invite you to celebrate the birthday of the United States of America as a new nation added to the world on June 21, 1788. That’s right, not July 4, 1776. Don’t believe me? Take a look at my posts “Happy birthday, USA!” June 17, 2013 and “America’s birthday is next week,” June 12, 2016. Armed with the new information, you’ll be able on July 4 to have your hot dogs and fireworks served with a dose of counterintuition.

Posted in Atheism and other freethought, This blog, this blogger | Leave a comment

Prerequisites for the presidency

What should we look for in a president? I don’t mean the obvious consideration of whether a candidate’s vision for the country is compatible with our own. Nor do I mean political choices like health insurance, immigration policies, or other matters on which—given a candidate’s basic readiness—that would then determine our vote. I don’t even mean matters of character like being truthful, accepting personal responsibility, behaving ethically, and bringing out the best in the rest of us. Those are legitimate and crucial matters of ethical leadership, but not my focus here.

The foregoing issues by themselves set a demanding standard of staggering proportions. And still it is insufficient, for even spotless rectitude is not enough. After all, who would choose unskilled surgeons for delicate operations based simply on their unblemished integrity? There must be crucial skills and experiences that would render a candidate more likely to succeed or, at least, the lack of which would have the opposite effect.

Asking this question by no means suggests I have a credible list of answers in mind. In fact, I feel incompetent in the face of the question. I find I am more inclined to distrust answers I’ve heard from others (or even, from time to time, from myself) than to identify whatever crucial skills and experiences in which I can put my trust. But having even negative things to say is, in fact, having something to say. So I share here a few of the presidential requirements I’ve heard and my comments about them. I make no claim that these thoughts are sufficient or, in a few instances, are even accurate. But to get the ball rolling, let me report that I have heard it said that . . .

  • Having business experience is essential in the presidency. It is often unclear just what kind of business experience is meant by this statement. I will assume here it means understanding and using budgets, planning tools, assessments of risk, choice of markets in which to compete, how much inventory to have on hand, and other such tools of enterprise. President Obama was inexperienced on this measure. President Trump appeared to have such experience. However, it is normally overlooked by voters that while business leaders deal with these issues of micro-economics, a president must deal with macro-economics. One can be good at the first while being ignorant about the latter. I saw no mastery of macro-economics in either President Obama or President Trump as candidates, though Obama did learn; Trump might.
  • Having management experience is essential in the presidency. It is often unclear just what kind of management experience is meant by this statement, too. To separate it from the business experience just listed, I will assume here that this means more of the people, talent, and delegation portion of management. That includes infusing values including purpose, choosing executives, setting a leadership pace, delegating authority, assigning expectations, and evaluating performance—what a long-time CEO of the American Management Association called “getting things done through other people.” That is immeasurably more difficult in huge organizations. President Obama was deficient on this score; Senate service and a small nonprofit don’t help. President Trump, despite moving a lot of money and contractors, had only a small core set of employees, so his success in business did not depend on excellent management of huge numbers of employees. His amateurish management in the White House testifies to that inexperience. Ambiguity in assignments, over- and under-lapping of responsibility areas, loyalists inserted into chains of command, and inconsistent presidential behavior were and continue to be features of the Trump White House. Obama must have enlisted experts in his education, for he did not have it to begin with. Trump seems never to notice he has something to learn.
  • Having held elected public office is essential in the presidency. I assume people mean (a) practice dealing with a public wherein everyone has a different expectation and (b) experience with the shifting and politically treacherous arena of dirty fighting. Trump and Obama both had a modicum of this experience, though clearly in different arenas.
  • Knowing constitutional law is essential in the presidency. In terms of understanding the foundations of the job, this requirement seems critical, as does the relationship between the presidency and other branches of government. Obama knew it well. Trump did not and acts regularly as if his ignorance persists and, in fact, doesn’t matter to him.
  • Being of superior intelligence is essential in the presidency. If so, Presidents Wilson’s and Carter’s stars would shine brighter in our history books. Obviously, a lack of intellectual curiosity (President G. W. Bush) and emotional interference with intellect (Trump) are handicaps, but superior intelligence itself seems not to separate successful from unsuccessful presidential performance.
  • Ability to size up a situation and move quickly is essential in the presidency. In Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, the character Samuel Daniel says, “While timorous knowledge stands considering, audacious ignorance hath done the deed.” True or not, we all know that some balancing with knowledge is important. The problem for a leader is in that balance, a wise measure of action with whatever degree of consideration is appropriate to the circumstances. Some aspects of the Constitution intentionally make government action slow, an irritating feature to an impulsive president, prone to damage carefully designed Constitutional systems in order to move more quickly. The Obama/Trump difference is sufficiently striking as to be frightening.
  • Understanding American history and America’s place in world history is essential in the presidency. Again, the Obama/Trump difference is sufficiently striking as to be frightening.

As I admitted before making this list, these thoughts are neither complete nor well thought out. But for me they are a start. And for you, if you are so moved, they might be useful, even if only to stimulate counter arguments. I began the list not intending to make specific reference to Donald Trump or to Barack Obama, but found the impulse to use them for illustration too appealing to omit.

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

Faith in science gaining on faith in faith

As what we now call “science” developed a few centuries ago, Christians—along with other religionists—took arms against facts accumulating due to the new method. (“Taking arms” was not only just figurative, but frequently physical.) Over time fewer natural phenomena were ascribed to divine action, a process that moved the philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell to speak of the shrinking package of phenomena for which God remained, for a time, the explanation. Even non-scientists were coming to understand causes that religion had not contemplated and often opposed. That process continues even now, though persons mentally trapped in religious ideas concocted millennia ago persist with impassioned determination fueled not by reason, but by fact-free passion.

Among its plethora of polls, Gallup since 1982 has asked persons to pick one of three choices in a simple telephone poll about human beginnings. The latest data were gleaned May 3-7 this year by polling 1,011 randomly sampled adults 18 years of age and older in all 50 U.S. states and D.C. The Gallup request for those polled was to choose one of the following propositions that most closely reflected their view:

  • A] “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”
  • B] “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.”
  • C] “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

Comparing the responses to these questions across several years, we see that the percentage of opinions with respect to A and B varied very little, while during the same period C they slightly more than doubled. Gallup opined, “The strict creationist view [the position shown as A above: JC] reached a new low.” Here are those percentages for 1982, a midpoint (2000), then this year 2017 (in each case, the sampling error maximum was +/-4%):

  • A] 44% in 1982, 47% in 2000, 38% now
  • B] 38% in 1982, 40% in 2000, 38% now
  • C] 9% in 1982, 9% in 2000, 19% now

While the hegemony of religion, particularly fundamentalist Christianity, has suffered an obvious decline, it is important to notice that about three quarters of Americans (+/-4%) this year believe God was involved, though perhaps not exclusively. Notice also that not only atheists might select choice C, but liberal Christians as well. In this post, I have relied mostly on the aforementioned Gallup report. It can be found at the internet site where a breakdown of religious affiliation is shown.

To reach a firmer conclusion about matters such as this, a number of polls should be considered and, even then, smoothed across minor variations over time. Still, it seems apparent that after 1999 (where C, the wholly secular choice) began its climb, something causative was going on. These data cannot explain why, but my first guess would be the impact of a flurry of books as the new century was born, such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 1999, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon in 2006, and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007.

It would be a mistake to assume that the percentage of persons holding scientifically indefensible views due to their religious beliefs would be reflected in their voting strength. There is, for example, a robust endeavor by religious fundamentalists to have public schools teach as science Biblical creation and faux-speciation stories, along with naïve criticisms of evolution by natural selection.

There is cause for dismay among persons eager for us to get beyond all residual fragments of supernaturalism. But it is heartening to remember successes against long centuries of ignorance and brutality that religious beliefs have fostered. In view of those secular successes, continuing struggle is still required to curb religion’s unending, hegemonic ambitions.

Posted in Faith and reason, Religion's costs and foibles, Science and society | Leave a comment

Church donations trump secular ones by IRS

In case you’ve missed the news the last couple of weeks about the Johnson Amendment, named after Lyndon Johnson, its promoter, let me catch you up. The provision requires a few pages to understand, but in general it establishes that taxpayers’ donations to 501(c)(3) entities (in general, these are religious, charitable, and educational organizations) would not be tax deductible if the recipient organization takes part in elective politics, that is, “participates in, or intervenes in (including the publishing or distributing for statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

A church or any other 501(c)(3) could lobby for greater attention to global warming or abortion, but could not support a candidate for office. President Trump’s executive order causes the IRS not to pursue churches as that law requires. (I do not for a moment think he did so due to conviction on the matter, but for its effect in retaining the religious right cheerleaders in his base.)

His misleadingly worded executive order said his action would give churches their “voices back” by directing the Treasury Department not to take action against religious organizations that engage in political speech. He’d been criticizing the law for some time, but actual repeal is solely under Congressional authority.

By the way, Trump’s own speech, as it frequently does, includes an implicit lie in order to make his action sound more reasonable. The Johnson Amendment does not penalize political speech, only political speech that addresses a specific candidate for office. Speech that addresses policy choices or general governmental action is not penalized. Yet statements by the mostly fundamentalist Christian opposition to the law continue, along with Trump, to employ the useful fiction.

For years, the IRS has been extremely reluctant to enforce the Johnson Amendment anyway, choosing to look the other way in almost all instances of church politicking. (I’ll save space by not saying church, synagogue, mosque, or other word. I’ll use the word church as shorthand for all organizations of worship.) Another favor from the IRS to churches (but not other 501(c)(3) organizations!) frees them from detailed accounting to substantiate that their expenditures really are on their supposed charitable/religious function and that they refrain from prohibited political activities. Secular organizations that are just as charitable, educational, or philosophical are subject to IRS audits even though they are in the same tax category. Equally curious, a minister’s (rabbi’s, Iman’s) housing allowance is not taxable to him or her, whereas payment to a secular leader’s housing is taxable to that leader. In other words, being religious gets special breaks despite the U. S. Constitution.

Church spokespersons disagree on whether they think the Johnson Amendment makes sense and whether Trump’s executive action is warranted. In general, Christian fundamentalists favor Trump’s action. While those religious leaders want the special tax treatment without giving up being politically active in elections, others fear so close a tie between church and state, seeing it as not conducive to church independence. Since churches, unlike other 501(c)(3)s, do not have to reveal their contributors, removing even the weak provisions of church accountability opens the door to greater use of churches (or new entities organized as churches) as a secretive funding source for political campaigns, as well spelled out in “Trump Wants to Make Churches the New Super PACS by Emma Green, The Atlantic, August 2, 2016.

Religious leaders disagree with each other, as a brief review of the controversy will illustrate. (I should point out that this matter is only tangentially related to the “religion in the public square” controversy [see my posts “Religion in the public square,” Oct. 10, 2015; “Atheists in public office,” Nov. 25, 2013]). Each of these quotations (borrowed heavily though not exclusively from “Enthusiasm, dread greet church order” by Amy Forliti, AP, May 9, 2017) is marked as either “Enforce the Johnson Amendment” (i.e., against the Trump action) or “Ignore the Johnson Amendment” (i.e., for the Trump action):

  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Gus Booth, pastor of Warroad Community Church, Minn.: “I ought to be able to say anything that I want to say, wherever I want to say it, I don’t lose free speech rights when I step behind the pulpit. In fact, that should be some of the most protected speech.”
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Gregory Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, St. Paul. Minn.: “[For pastors to use the pulpit] “to get others to buy into their particular way of voting is, I think, a real abuse of authority.”
  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: David Fiorazo, Christian blogger, “A pivotal law, was passed by a shrewd politician to intimidate people of faith. Was this even constitutional? The Left uses this to bully Christian pastors and groups with threats of losing their nonprofit status should they dare talk about the Bible as it relates to cultural, political, fiscal, and social issues, which all fall under the category of moral issues.”
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Wallace Bubar, pastor at Central Presbyterian Church, Des Moines, Ia.: “[The EO is] pandering to the religious right. For whatever reason, the religious right evangelicals have developed a persecution complex here in the last few years, and I think this is intended to address that.”
  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Charlie Muller, pastor of Victory Christian Church, Albany, N.Y.: “I’m very involved politically, but we’ve been handcuffed. We want to have a voice, and we haven’t had that.” He went further to say his church plans to endorse a candidate for mayor.
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: Rev. Mike Kinman, rector, All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif. “[The clergy’s task] is to interpret our faith for the common good.” He called Trump’s EO “supremely unhelpful.”
  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: Deacon Keith Forunier, “Trump is Right: Repeal the Johnson Amendment That Muzzles Pastors,” July 20, 2016. “The government’s agents increasingly come into our churches . . . claiming that our obligation as faithful Christians to address the major moral issues of our age from our pulpits amounts to ‘political’ activity. Then they threaten to revoke our tax exempt status. Will they soon insist that we may not preach or teach either? The church must be free to speak from her pulpits and in the public square. The Johnson Amendment is a gag order backed by the guns and jails of the state, which threatens that churches which step out of line will have their savings confiscated and their leaders crippled by fines.”
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who runs the social and advocacy arm of Reform Judaism, the largest American Jewish movement: “[The Johnson Amendment is] a gift to preachers. It gives me the freedom, from the pulpit, to preach about values and policy, but to be protected from partisanship. If I were able to cross that partisan line as a preacher, I’d be under enormous pressure from stakeholders, from members, from donors. It would undermine my moral authority as a guardian of religious tradition.”
  • Ignore the Johnson Amendment: Michelle Terry, “How the Johnson Amendment Threatens Churches’ Freedoms,” ACLI, 2016. “There’s a little-known amendment that has been restricting the First Amendment rights of churches and faith-based organizations for more than 60 years. The state should allow the church to speak truth, and instead of silencing unpopular opinions, should let the free market of ideas decide who wins.
  • Enforce the Johnson Amendment: The Rev. Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said the Johnson Amendment can protect the clergy from being put in awkward spots, such as being asked to endorse a parishioner’s relative.

Even small steps toward theocracy can initially appear to be harmless, well-intended special favors politicians bestow on religion. But taken together, they entangle government in deciding one religion is more deserving than another, or one side of a dispute within a religion deserves government support more than another. Many religious people recognize the jeopardy in accepting government largess; many don’t. Members of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (of which I’m a member) are made up of both religious and non-religious members, led by an ordained minister. Its purpose is to keep government and religion out of each other’s domains as a benefit for both religious freedom and good government.

As usual, however, many religionists claim not only religious freedom—which they deserve and to which I am committed—but governmental perqs that others don’t receive. This blog has addressed that phenomenon in various settings repeatedly. As an example in this case, as noted above, Charlie Muller of Victory Christian Church says “We want to have a voice, and we haven’t had that.” Really? Does Mr. Muller forget that not only as a person does he have the same right to free speech as anyone else, but each of his parishioners does as well. But he wants an additional right for his parishioners as a group. I don’t get that extra right and neither do you except through your church. (Note that even then, the Johnson Amendment allows Mr. Muller and his congregation as a group the right to say whatever they wish as long as it is not for a specific candidate.)

If non-religious persons or religious persons form a non-church organization, even if it has an even more targeted charitable function, their non-religious 501(c)(3) does not receive that right to a tax exempt double voice! In other words, President Trump’s action, by brazenly favoring religion over non-religion will have, in effect, changed a marginally Constitutional arrangement into an unconstitutional one!

An interesting, lawyerly twist on the way the Johnson Amendment is frequently discussed is this framing by Gregory W. Hamilton, writing what appears to be a counterpoint in a Liberty University publication, “How Repealing the Johnson Amendment Harms Religious Liberty,” Feb. 15, 2017: “The Johnson Amendment does not ban churches from endorsing political candidates. Neither does it in any way criminalize or punish churches that endorse political candidates. The Johnson Amendment is a part of Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, which establishes that charitable organizations are exempt from taxation. The amendment, therefore, is a limit on that benefit [italics mine, JC].”

I’ll summarize this post by quoting Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association: “Repealing the Johnson Amendment would unleash an opportunity for dark money in politics that can only be described as Citizens United on steroids. Without the Johnson Amendment, churches could operate like super-PACs by funneling anonymous, tax-deductible donations to political candidates. When churches and other faith groups become embroiled in politics, our nation moves dangerously toward becoming a theocracy, not a democracy.”

[Note: Before this post was finalized and sent to WordPress for publication, I found only three other sources that had noticed the First Amendment violation effect of disfavoring donors to secular 501(c)(3)s as compared to donors to churches. I am sure there will be many more.]

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