Category Archives: Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson vs. the right: “Cosmos,” Christians, and the battle for American science

The religious right has been freaking out about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” for what feels like an eternity. And, while the theological complaints seem laughable for their rancor and predictability, it’s time we thought harder about what they represent, because the Christian right’s “Cosmos” agita actually indicates a far deeper problem in religious conservatism — the selective acceptance of Enlightenment values. Religious conservatives have selectively adopted the legacy of liberal Enlightenment, from free speech to science, and jettisoned it when it does not suit their narrow ideological aims.

There is a nasty tendency for those arguing for their case to adopt a stance of enlightened empiricism on one issue to devolve into empirical nihilism on another. There is also the habit of shifting from a high praise of liberal values on one issue to utter contempt on another. Of course, our various liberal values will come into conflict frequently and must be weighed, but we must be disturbed at how quickly some, particularly on the religious right, are willing to twist these traditions for their own gain.

The odd conflict of science and religion has come to define modern religious fundamentalism. While most religious people happily accept scientific theories about gravity, claims about the age of Earth are subject to a strange scrutiny by those who believe that the literary creation narratives in the Bible describe actual events.

The scientific consensus about global warming must be untrue, because, as Dr. Innes writes in “Left, Right and Christ,” the world is “not a glass ornament that we might accidentally destroy … we are not capable of destroying it, whether by nuclear weapons or carbon emissions.” Young earth creationism is the ultimate attempt to both accept modern science, but also to deny it. Fundamentalists like Ken Ham argue that the world and laws we currently observe simply bear no resemblance to the past.

In truth, we cannot get fundamentalism without the scientific revolution. Fundamentalism does not exist independently, but rather defines itself in relationship to post-Enlightenment values. It is the odd melding of science and religion that creates fundamentalism — the belief that the Bible is ultimately both a scientific and religious text. Fundamentalists, like the conspiracy theorists they resemble, will build up reams of evidence creating the case for something that can be disproven with a simple logical proposition. Few thinkers have built such an impressive edifice of logic and evidence upon such a thin foundation of speculation.

Dinesh D’Souza, for instance, has taken to using science as proof of religion — he argues, rather absurdly, that the Bible’s explanation of the origins of the universe predates modern science. In his speech at Intelligence Squared, he claims:

When the discovery of the big bang came — this, by the way, was at a time when most scientists believed the universe was eternal, the steady state universe was the prevailing doctrine of American and Western science — so it came as a shock that the universe had a beginning. Why? because, in a way, it wasn’t just that matter had a beginning, but space and time also had a beginning. In other words, this was something that the ancient Hebrews had said thousands of years ago and without conducting a single scientific experiment. By the way, this is not the same as other cosmologies. Other ancient cosmologies posited the universe being fashioned by a kind of carpenter god who made it out of some preexisting stuff, but the ancient Hebrews said, “No, first there was nothing, and then there was a universe.”

But this rhetorical flourish is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the creation narrative, and religion in general. Religion, ultimately, aims at truths deeper than science and trying to apply religious reasoning to the natural world is absurd. Augustine warned as much, telling Christians in “De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim” to avoid, “talking nonsense on these topics.”

More worryingly, the idea that a rather tenuous reading of a literary work holds the same weight as centuries of scientific evidence is more than a little absurd. D’Souza is trying to selectively apply science, but without its foundation — empirical, testable, repeatable propositions.

We see here the fundamentalist flaw: a mass of rhetoric, reason and evidence built on the utterly insane proposition that the Old Testament is meant to be a scientific account of the origins of the universe.

The reason any somewhat knowledgeable Christian is frustrated by these debates is that they simply pit one fundamentalist against another. One tries to use science to disprove religion, the other to prove it — both apparently unaware that belief is something that cannot be “proven.” That’s the entire point! Too often, religious excursions into science resemble the thinking of the suicidal people described by Anne Sexton, “They ask only what tool, they never ask why build?” Fundamentalism at its core is the misunderstanding of the proper relationship between science and religion — one practiced just as frequently by atheists as Christians.

Another form of this trend is the co-option of liberal values. The religious right cannot generally be found decrying freedom of speech or freedom of religion, instead they make a selective application of these values — much the way they’ll talk science when you question nuclear power but deny a consensus about evolution or global warming on entirely spurious grounds.

One recent example of this illiberalism was the quickness with which Catholics decried a “Black Mass” at Harvard. The “Black Mass” is merely a satanic parody of the Catholic mass — which, while it may be offensive to some Catholics, is totally harmless in practice. Of course, the idea of Catholics demanding special privileges is not rare, but to be expected; one wonders if Satanist child abusers could claim that their church would deal with the matter internally.

Liberal values are not weighed in a vacuum, but this weighing appears to be something many religious conservatives are incapable of doing. During the Black Mass controversy, Father James Martin appeared on MSNBC and said, “I think to put it in perspective, we could say, how would we feel if they said, ‘we’re going to do a little cultural thing, we’re going to do something that’s anti-Semitic, or racist, or homophobic, just as a cultural experiment, we’re going to set up the reenactment of a lynching …’” Father Martin claims to put the event in perspective, and then does the opposite, equating the merely offensive with an act of white supremacy.

Lynchings were intimately tied to white supremacy in the post-Civil War South — their intention was to establish white hegemony and create a permanent underclass. Lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan and the burning of crosses were either overtly violent or symbolically violent. The reenactment of a lynching would not be acceptable at a liberal university because it would amount to the direct threat of violence to minorities on campus. It would be aimed at suppressing their rights to expression.

One wonders how Father Martin has lived his entire life in the United States and is still capable of making such an odious comparison. The distinction between the merely offensive and what amounts to group libel or defamation is hard to make, but the Supreme Court has endorsed the idea that some speech may be more than just offensive, and can therefore be regulated. As Clarence Thomas noted in his correct dissent in Virginia v. Black,“just as one cannot burn down someone’s house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment, those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point.” Father Martin seems to miss this distinction and believes that he should be protected from ever being criticized or offended.

Hobby Lobby provides another example of the selective use of the liberal tradition. One might find it ironic that Catholics aim to carve out an exception for themselves from laws of general applicability when denying other religions that privilege. But sadly, religious majorities have a long history of understanding the First Amendment diametrically wrong, as a protection of powerful religions rather than weak ones. It is the latter the Founders knew would need special protection (see: Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah), not the former.

To both of these claims — that many on the religious right have entirely abandoned the post-WWI liberal consensus of scientific inquiry and Enlightenment values — there are those who would like to say the same about the left. The Economist is quick to point to GMOs as the left’s version of anti-scientific inquiry. Such claims are entirely overblown. More recently, there have been claims that the left is showing the same illiberal tendencies as the right, most notably Michelle Goldberg of the NationShe argues we are “entering a new era of political correctness,” which she calls “left-wing anti-liberalism.”

While she cites some rather damning movements, they are all fringe movements that have produced pixels but will not bring about change. As Marx once wrote of Communism, “In order to supersede the idea of private property, the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary.” We might note that the idea of illiberalism is something liberalism must countenance, even though it must be prevented from ever being existent.

And here the threat from the right is far stronger: We have seen free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion and rights of due process come under scrutiny at all levels. Workers are being denied even the semblance of control over their labor and women over their bodies. Money is making a mockery of democracy.

What we see is an asymmetric illiberalism. The religious right and some portions of the conservative movement have hijacked Enlightenment values for selective use. A truly deep (almost dogmatic) commitment to free speech, say, that practiced by the ACLU, which will defend the right of neo-Nazis to protest, is not what we find in many conservative circles. Instead, we see an embrace of empiricism when it is good and a rejection when it is bad. We see an embrace of religious freedom for me, but not for thee. Harry Emerson Fosdick preached in 1922:

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity.  I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist.  Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.

His words are still more important today. We live in an increasingly connected and multicultural world, and yet many major religions refuse to recognize marginal ones. We also live in a world threatened by global warming, and yet some Christians deny it, even though it has long been a tenet of religion to live in harmony with nature.

Originally published on Salon.

Jesus and the death penalty

I’ll take a break from procrastinating with video games to procrastinate with a quick blog post. On The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt writes,

We must be careful not to put words in Jesus’ mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the ancient rabbi. But the more I reflect on this issue, the more I agree with the majority of Americans. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that the executed first-century teacher would not support the death penalty or want his followers to.

Here’s a similarly formulated argument:

We must be careful not to words in Lincoln’s mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the great President. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that, given the circumstances of his death, he’d be in favor of gun control. 

 

This lead to the following Twitter-log:

We must not lazily ascribe positions to Jesus, @JonathanMerritt writes before lazily ascribing a position to Jesus. http://t.co/6hTZV2Skya

My point is simple: there’s been a lot of stuff written about Jesus and a lot of words attributed to him. No need to guess his position on this issue based on the circumstances of his death.

Merritt’s response to me is also odd. It’s basically, “Hey, I got published on The Atlantic, and they don’t publish bad arguments.” I wish I had known that was a reasonable defense when I was discussing my Atlantic pieces. The problem is that while The Atlantic has really solid politics, culture and business editors (the only ones I have worked with and can attest to) that can generally call out your bullshit, as far as I know, they don’t have a dedicated religious editor. That means noted sentimentalist Brandon Ambrisino can write things like this:

If Raushenbush is right [that being against gay marriage makes you anti-gay], then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay.

Leaving aside my normative problems with this statement, I thought most people knew that Jesus didn’t saying anything about homosexuality. But I digress.

Back to the Merritt piece. Merritt doesn’t make any attempt to distinguish between the historical Jesus or the Jesus of the gospels and Christianity. Assuming he means the latter, the answer is pretty unequivocal. But after citing a pretty definitive quote (“turn the other cheek”), we get a discussion of the famous adulterous woman passage. Given that most conservative scholars will tell you this is apocryphal, I have no idea why this is even mentioned, if we’re trying to get at what “Jesus” believed.

There’s some meandering including an odd digression about the Old Testament, we get to this sentence:

Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.

But this is the key question, and one that Merritt dances around in his piece but never really digs into. Christians have to be part of a larger society. Earlier, Merritt notes that,

He was teaching that only a perfect being—only God—should have power over death and life.

With Jesus’s stark words and example, no wonder early Christians opposed military service and the government-sanctioned killing of anyone for at least 300 years.

Obviously, this is a nice idea, but as it happens, if a nation-state wants to continue to exist and make actually enforceable laws, it has to exert violence, often lethal violence. Whatever Christians believe about their private actions, we must also make decisions about the role of the state. That’s why a lot of Christians would never have an abortion, but believe it should be legal. So in the end, we’re left nowhere. We know Jesus’s teaching – that Christians should not be violent. We also know that the death penalty is an awful, horrible thing. But murder is too. We know that the state must use violence to protect its citizens. How much, to what extent and under what circumstances are questions that Jesus doesn’t really have much to say about. This is where the actual debate is happening. Merritt ignores this and says something about Mother Theresa.   I’ve limned some thoughts elsewhere that I think stand up.

I want to make three final points about the death penalty debate:

1) There’s an awful moralist sentimentalist strain in this argument that needs to go away. Stop talking about the value of human life, and its sanctity. We know. Human life is important, and should be valued. But most of us live in a world where are values come into conflict. There isn’t evidence for the proposition, but let’s imagine it’s true the death penalty deters crime. Well then you have to weigh the lives of potential victims with the life of the murder. Is one life more sacred? The problem with sentimentality is how easily it’s countered by more sentimentality.

2) Conor Friedersdorf argues that the state can never kill anyone ever. He drops a sentimentalist bomb:

I can imagine one objection: that the guillotine is barbaric. But to me, that’s a point in its favor. Let’s have no illusions about what we’re doing when the state carries out the killing of captive prisoners.

Were there people who thought the death penalty involved giving little boys and girls ponies? Remember what I said about sentimentality? I could do the same thing here.

Let’s have no illusions about what those criminals did when they raped, killed, etc. They are barbaric and deserve no mercy, etc.

Most people know what the death penalty is about, and treat it seriously. If there were a stronger deterrence argument and less of a racial bias, I’d have to rethink my argument. Modern society exists because of the threat of, or the use of violence. All society does. The goal is to make that violence selective, rational and toward a just end.

3) I don’t think most murders are rational, and I’m convinced that developments in neuroscience are going to continue to shatter our silly moralization. I’d prefer a system based on rehabilitation for those who can helped, deterrence for rational rule-breakers and incapacitatation for those who cannot be released into civilized society (retribution is a vulgarity). But as Conor notes,

locking a man away for decades with no hope of ever being released is arguably a more severe punishment than death.

I see no need for senseless human suffering, so the best solution is to offer death row inmates the right to choose suicide. There should be a waiting period of two years and those who choose suicide should be offered the best legal defense society can give them, but then they should be allowed to end their life. This seems to be the more humane justice system. It’s slightly ironic that under this system we would treat death row inmates more humanely than the elderly, but so be it.

John Lennox is an idiot and other musings on intelligent design

Intelligent designers are hilarious, because they have all the blustering certainty and assholery that comes from being really smart and knowing it, without the actually being smart. Most of them come from scientific fields not associated with biology (Lennox, for instance, is a mathematician) and they regularly say hilariously idiotic things. I remember watching Lennox speak and he said, “There were three great thinkers of the 20th century, Marx, Freud and Darwin. Two have fallen, when will the third?” Obviously, only one of those men lived in the 20th century, and Darwin’s theories were pretty well-established within the scientific community before the turn of the 20th century, but we’ll skip over that. Have Marx and Freud fallen? Really!? I know it’s all in vogue to be like, all past Freud or whatever, but what happens here is that Marx or Freud are vulgarized (i.e. oh, Marx thought capitalism sucked and it was doomed and Freud that you could explain all human actions in terms of penises) and then kick the shit out of that vulgarization. To a large extent, this is what the ID community (which is creationism, let’s stop with the B.S.) does to Darwin. But if the idea that Freud and Marx could be dead given that every serious thinker has to grapple with them is absurd, the idea that Darwin could die is even more absurd. To even do biology, you have to accept Darwin’s theories. Important disciplines (paleontology and neuroscience come to mind) rely of Darwinian mechanisms. There are even fields dedicated strictly to a applying Darwinian methods more broadly (i.e. evolutionary psychology). Have we in many ways transcended Darwin? Not quite as much as with Freud and Marx, but certainly there have been modifications, brought about by fields like genetics, neuroscience and paleontology, but broadly speaking, even those who move beyond Darwin (say a Dawkins or a Gould) owe him a huge debt.