Religiosity and morality

Does God benefit from a double standard?

In hopes of sparking a civil war between secular and religious conservatives, I offer this delicious quote from Heather Mac Donald, writing inThe American Conservative:

If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place? It would seem as if God benefits from double standards …


It is often said, in defense of religion, that we all live parasitically off of its moral legacy, that we can only dismiss religion because we are protected by the work it has already done on our behalf. This claim has been debated ad nauseam since at least the middle of the 19th century. Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today’s religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment.

A secular value system is of course no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity. America’s antebellum plantation owners found solid support for slaveholding in their cherished Bible, to name just one group of devout Christians who have brought suffering to the world.

Intelligent voters vs. “intelligent design”

Kansans turn out to be smarter than Ann Coulter.

Kansans aren’t as dumb as the anti-science fanatics hoped they were.


Footnote If I were an actual conservative, I’d resent the use of “conservative” as synonymous with “stubbornly ignorant” and “liberal” as meaning “favorable to science.” As a liberal, I’m happy to have conservatism associated with obscurantism at the state level as well as incompetence and corruption at the federal level.

Ecumenical bigotry

What can Christians, Muslims, and Jews agree on in the Holy Land? Why, gay-baiting, of course.

As an atheist, I dissent from much of the cognitive content of “revealed” religion. But it seems to me that prudence and good manners alike dictate expressing that dissent as politely as possible, and with due deference to the possibility that what appear from the outside as (false) propositions of fact are instead to be understood as metaphors. I try hard to remember that much good, as well as evil, has been done by and in the name of religious beliefs and organizations.

Sometimes, however, prudence and good manners are unusually difficult to maintain, and my inner Voltaire cries out to be heard.

The Lord, it has been said, gave us faith, but the Devil responded by giving us the clergy.

Hat tip: Hit and Run.

Maciel and the Pope

If I have the Maciel story right, he was given a rather mild punishment, sort of a quiet retirement with no heavy lifting, at the very end of his life, for unspeakably bad behavior, with no resolution of whether he actually did anything bad. What in the world is going on here?

(1) We couldn’t figure out whether he did it for decades, but now we’re finally sure, and he’s a frail old man, and he’s our old man, and the kids were in another country, and nobody died.

(2) We’re still not sure, so we’ll give him a mild punishment. I think it would almost make more sense to roll a die and (if the odds are 2:1 for innocence) put him in a dungeon if it comes up 1 or 2, otherwise nothing. This has a sort of lunatic logic: everybody who’s accused gets some jail time, a lot if the state has a strong case, a few weeks if it’s just an uncorroborated accusation from an ex-spouse? Should we try this?

(3) We know he treated those kids badly, but we’re not sure if it was gross sexual abuse or maybe just too-harsh criticism when their altarboy robes were dirty for mass, so we’ll assume the latter category of offense.

(4) The Vatican’s administrative, investigational, and justice systems are in a state of complete moral and competency collapse. It’s who you know, and sucking up to a good umbrella of powerful protectors, that count: the sixteenth century is back or never went away.

Who Won the Culture Wars?

The Blue Team mostly won the culture wars. Unfortunately, that helps the Red Team win elections.

David Courtwright, the pre-eminent historian of drug abuse and drug policy, asks that question &#8212 formally analogous to the political question asked in the post immediately below &#8212 in a book to be published by Harvard University Press. I can hardly wait.

Courtwright’s answer: the Blue Team won. When a “victory” by cultural conservatives consists of preventing some states, but not others, from recognizing gay marriage, and when they don’t even contest the abolition of the laws against gay sex, and when the live question about reproductive choice is whether minors can have abortions without their parents’ consent rather than whether married couples can buy contraceptives, it’s clear that this war is being fought deep inside Red territory.

So the culture warriors can’t repeal the Sixties any more than the economic conservatives can repeal the New Deal. But fighting deep inside one’s own territory has considerable tactical advantages; the other side’s supply lines are long, and the civilians near the battlefield are mostly friendly. Precisely because the rate of cultural change has been so fast, the median voter tends to be for slowing things down rather than speeding things up. So the Blue Team won the culture war, but the Red Team has been winning the elections.

Unfortunately, there are real-world consequences of being ruled by people whose defining political characteristic is hatred of the Sixties and the Dr. Spock/Baby Boom generation. (That can be true, of course, of people such as Bush and Bill Bennett who are Boomers themselves.) I’m a little bit leery (Leary?) of the Pleasure Principle myself, but being ruled by worshippers of the Death Principle (should we call them Death Eaters?) turns out to be a total drag.

Chinese bishops

Among the most difficult parts of leadership for ordinary people, even for distinguished ones, is to protect your access to things you don’t want to hear. Because your lieutenants and inside team know bad news will make you angry or upset, they will not pass it on unless you seek that most priceless information out proactively.

FDR used to set his people against each other to be sure this kind of thing got to him. One of the best bosses I ever had did it by hiring no two people alike, nobody like himself, and no-one who wasn’t smarter than he was in at least three of Gardner’s eight ways.

The Chinese autocrats have the idea that staffing the Catholic Church in China themselves would be a lot more comfortable for them than having an independent church telling people, and them, who knows what; of course the Vatican sees it differently even though the pope certainly faces this problem in his own administration.

The story echoes some very on-point historical precedents. Nathan told David exactly what he didn’t want to hear about Bathsheba, an early and classic example of what Aaron Wildavsky called “speaking truth to power.” To David’s credit, he listened instead of sending Nathan the way of Uriah. Henry II had the same idea the Chinese have, that putting his main guy, Thomas Becket, in charge of the church as well as the government would be much more comfortable and an implementation coup for all sorts of good initiatives. Unfortunately, Thomas realized that an independent (of the civil power) church was a valuable institution, gave back the chancellor’s ring, and got into a fatal spat with Henry over–you guessed it–appointment of bishops. The story is usually told emphasizing the importance of this independence for the souls of the people, and for the welfare of the church itself, as though church and state are engaged in a sort of zero-sum battle. We tend to forget that it’s invaluable to the civil power to have independent, courageous sources of moral and other (scientific and military, to choose examples completely at random, um hum) guidance. Our current administration, of course, is not entirely clear on this principle.

Killing messengers or writing their lines for them is always disastrous. If the Chinese don’t wake up about this, they will come to regret it.

I once heard Dick Neustadt muttering something negative in a seminar about the “speaking truth to power” motto for public policy schools, a motto which is, of course, very flattering to those of us who make a living in them. I asked him to elaborate, and he said “well…the idea that anyone has The Truth, let alone them! [meaning especially our wet-behind-the-ears though generally wonderful young alums].” Both Aaron and Dick are right up there in my personal pantheon of high-candlepower sources, so the real complexity of the idea of informed expert counsel to legitimate authority has stuck with me. What’s important is that authority hear a lot of ideas it doesn’t enjoy, not that all of those need to be correct.

Birth-again control

Liberty University is noxious because it’s run by Falwell—but lay off its no-born-once-need-apply policy.

Mark’s entry calling John McCain a hypocrite, who panders to the Right more than he used to, is generally convincing. (Though it may give McCain’s past self a bit too much of a free pass, since his voting record, as opposed to his GOPically incorrect campaign quips, always placed him on the far Right.)

But one element of Mark’s argument confuses me. It’s completely valid to call McCain a hypocrite for comparing Falwell to Farrakhan and then keynoting at the former’s university. It’s fine to say (or imply, as Mark presumably meant to) that Falwell personally should be persona non grata for all decent people due to his serial bigotry and gleeful comments about how U.S. liberalism drew God’s wrath in the form of 9/11. If Liberty University systematically teaches its students such things (which I strongly doubt, actually), “madrassa” is the fitting insult for it.

But Mark also suggests that Liberty University should be off-limits to McCain simply because it’s “a ‘university’ which, as a matter of stated policy, hires only ‘born-agains’ as faculty members.” Huh?

Brigham Young University requires, last I heard, that professors be Mormons or at least do nothing inconsistent with the tenets of that faith. (Does it still require that students be Mormons? It used to, but perhaps civil rights law has made that harder. At any rate, I doubt non-Mormons would find it comfortable.) Pepperdine has a born-again clause similar to Liberty’s. No doubt there are small Catholic, Jewish, Brethren, or what-have-you colleges that believe their communities of learning should also be communities of faith, though most bigger ones have given up.

I’m not a believer, and I wouldn’t want to teach (or to have studied) at such a place either. But beliefs different from mine deserve freedom of religion and association too. Nobody makes me join a college where instruction has a faith background, but those who choose to should have not only legal freedom but—on Millian grounds—freedom from social ostracism as well. That’s only just to the students and faculty.

But the presence of faith-based universities is not all bad for academe either. When “diversity” is the official ideology of the academic establishment, religious purity is a welcome challenge to the—rather striking, actually—idea that variety of demography and life experience is an academic good in itself on a par with intelligence, studiousness, and the love of knowledge. Certainly nobody thought diversity such a crucial academic value until Justice Powell, swing vote in hand, used his concurrence in Bakke to tell admissions officers that it was the only justification for Affirmative Action that he’d uphold. (At the time, we forget, few legal commentators thought this made sense.) And anybody who thinks that critical inquiry and serious scholarship can’t take place in a background of religious uniformity has done more deductive reasoning—from specious premises—than looking around or reading history. Finally, those who believe that the biggest threat to intellectual freedom and true diversity of opinions comes from (disappearing) religious tests for faculty hiring should consult me for easy terms on a bridge in Bronxville.

I don’t think Mark meant in fact to argue that religious tests for faculty made a university either a bad university or (even stronger, since politicians speak at truly awful universities all the time) automatically off-limits for respectable politicians. But the slip from hating the substance of particular preachings to distrusting the freedom to choose one’s own mode of preaching is both tempting and dangerous enough that we should struggle against it. To repeat: Falwell is noxious, and I support a boycott of any forum that he chairs. But let’s get our reasons straight, and let’s leave the associational freedom of religious people alone.

UPDATE: Two readers write to correct my guesses about BYU. Stephen Fromm, a former faculty candidate, says that he didn’t have to be Mormon to be considered for a job–but did have to get a reference from a Church elder. This didn’t bother him but would, I think, have turned off many secularists, even those not particularly anti-Mormon (me, in both cases)—not to mention many non-Mormon people of faith. Another points out that BYU students never absolutely had to be Mormon, especially if they have unusual talents—but the example he gives hardly challenges my suspicion that non-Mormons find the place a bit constraining. (Didn’t they fire a professor a few years back for coming out as a lesbian?)

My point, which survives the (amusing) corrections, is that unusual universities like BYU can and do impose rules, by policy or norm, in the name of a common faith, and that we shouldn’t pillory them for adopting such rules even if they flout our own preferred values. A lot of mischief occurs when we import crusading secularist positions born in an age of persecuting Church monopolies into a pluralistic age in which everyone has options—and eighty-some percent of undergraduates attend State institutions where none of this matters.

Sex, science, and the Bush Administration

Yes, the Bush Administration is holding up approval of a vaccine against the Human Papilloma Virus because the Christian Right thinks threatening girls with cancer is a good way to keep them virgins.

I’m not surprised that the fanatics at Focus on the Family and other groups on the Christian-Right lunatic fringe oppose vaccines against sexually transmitted diseases, even fatal ones, because vaccination might encourage sexual activity. But I’m still a little bit surprised (even after six years of such nonsense) to learn that one of them is on the FDA vaccine advisory committee and is using that position to fight approval of a vaccine against Human Papilloma Virus, which is causally associated with cervical cancer.

There are two political angles to this for the Democrats to ponder:

1. Is it possible that the combination of the South Dakota abortion law, the Plan B fiasco, and the HPV vaccine scandal can start to convince suburban “security moms” that reproductive freedom is really at risk if they keep voting Republican? How about a nice TV spot with a cervical cancer victim and a scientist in a white jacket explaining that the vaccine is ready but is being held up by bureaucrats and politicians?

2. Is it possible to organize scientists as an active political force? There are lots of them, and they’re paid decently. They have two important sets of interests at stake: a direct material interest in funding for research and education, and what Weber called an “ideal interest” in having decisions made on scientific grounds. But they’ve never been mobilized. Has someone started a Science PAC?

The Danish cartoons

Discussion of the really scurrilous Danish cartoons (see Mark’s go at this here) has so far properly established that creating and publishing them was stupid, rude, and ignorant, and that the riotous popular, and over-the-top official (boycotts and such) responses to them are stupid and ignorant as well. As to the latter, for example, they are ignorant of the relationship between a newspaper in the west and (i) the government of its nation (ii) the people who read it (iii) the people who don’t read it.

Some western commentators have pointed to the wide dissemination of really frightful and savage cartoons of Jews, Americans, and Christians that regularly circulate in the Moslem world to claim hypocrisy, and the standard rejoinder is that none of this goes to the core religious beliefs of those groups, so there’s no parallel. Of course, since Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are venerated in Islam, no real parallel is imaginable from an Islamic source; on the other hand, if vicious and hateful public discourse against this or that group in the last couple of decades is totted up, I think the Islamic side is way ahead. No western instructions from high in the Vatican or the rabbinate or Jerry Falwell or even Pat Robertson to all the faithful to seek out and kill anyone because we don’t like his book so far, but Mr. Rushdie was hiding out from one for many years.

The cost in property, and maybe lives, of the nitwit cartoonists and editor’s idea may have passed the hypothetical cost of the famous “Fire!” in a crowded theater Holmes used to illustrate what freedom of speech does not comprise. Where the rubber hits the road, I nevertheless agree with Mark that the freedom of the press principle protects the cartoonists and the publishers.

Hard cases make bad law, but this episode still has some lessons. First, I’m astonished at the fragility the protestors and their eggers-on (let’s note immediately all the zillions of Moslems who haven’t been in the streets or throwing rocks over this) impute to their co-religionists’ faith. So we have evidence that some European Christians and, I guess, agnostics think they are immune from the displeasure of Allah at idolatry, and that Mohammed is in some way associated with Islamic violence. Did the Islamic world previously believe this was not the case; will learning of it make a lot of Moslems lose their faith? I guess if an epidemic of impious cartoonatry were to break out in Islamic media there would be some cause for concern, but the worst a reasonable person can make of this is that a lot of Danes don’t share the beliefs of Islam, and some of them have no manners. Duh. How is this worth throwing anything more lethal than a creampie at anyone? (I’m genuinely mystified that dissing someone else’s holies can so consistently provoke this lethal rage, assuming that rage is triggered by fear. I’ve been trying to think how I would feel if someone of another confession publicly besmirched a symbol venerated by me and mine, and I’m pretty sure the main reaction would be pity. When one of ‘my people’ does it, as when my government drapes my flag around some especially vile behavior, I am enraged, but I think not in the same way. Maybe I’m incorrectly wired on this matter… )

As Robert Frank notes, cartoons are data: they show us what people think is funny, or what people think other people will think is funny (and apropos or relevant to something). I don’t think the sewer of Islamic anti-western and anti-Semitic gutter media indicates that all or most Moslems are hateful, violent bigots, though it does indicate that some of their opinion leaders think it would be a good idea if they were, and amid an ocean of underemployed, poorly educated, cruelly oppressed Moslems it would be surprising if a fair number didn’t seize on a hateful civic faith just as the white dispossessed of America grow skinheads, and the inflation- and poverty-ridden Germans of the 20s grasped for someone to blame. I don’t even think the recent worldwide orgy of violence perpetrated explicitly as a Moslem campaign, and justified by signed, explicit commands from notable leaders, indicates a general judgment on Moslems.

Why, then, did the cartoon of Mohammed as a violent figure make it into print? A cartoon of Mother Teresa with an Uzi would just be silly and pointless; an editor would reject it for lack of import before even thinking about whom it would offend. The real bite of this cartoon, which suggests terrorism as an intrinsic trait of Islam, is its implicit condemnation of the civil, humane, decent Moslem community for its tolerance of the violence and hate being orchestrated in the name of Islam. Please don’t email me statements from this and that imam; I’m not talking about total silence. The fact is that soi-disant Islamic terrorists and savages swim in a sea of decent people and check-writing fat cats who have not seen fit to cast them out or shut them down, and that on the whole, government and religious reaction to it has been tepid, qualified, and quibbling. Until this changes, Moslems would do well to consider that a message in a rude and coarse wrapping may still be a message.

The Bush war on science (Part CXIII):
    the Big Bang is just an opinion

Yes, it happened. A Bush political appointee told a NASA web designer that the agency shouldn’t take sides over the Big Bang vs. creationism in cosmology.

I’ve argued in the past that since most anti-Darwinists don’t object to scientific cosmology &#8212 which is after all just as contrary to a literal reading of Genesis as is natural selection &#8212 their objection to Darwin must have other roots, in particular to the perceived moral implications of the denial that human being are made in the Image of God.

Well, that theory may have some substance to it, but the premise needs work. It turns out that some especially ignorant and bigoted Biblical literalists do want to deny the Big Bang along with natural selection. That isn’t surprising, I suppose. What ought to be surprising, but also isn’t really surprising by now, is that the Bush Administration has put some of those especially ignorant and bigoted Biblical literalists in positions where they can threaten and boss around actual scientists.

It turns out that George Deutsch, the juvenile Bushoid who told the top climate guy at Goddard that there would be “dire consequences” if he didn’t shut up about global warming, also applied his talents for obscurantism and censorship to the origins of the universe:

The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the “war room” of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen’s public statements.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word “theory” needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion,” Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, “It is not NASA’s place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.”

It continued: “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most.”

The good news is that the NASA Director just sent out a memo telling the political hacks to knock it off and let the scientists do their work. The bad news is that NASA, like the rest of the government, is still infested with an especially noxious species of political hack. And note that Dean Acosta, the NASA director’s press secretary, says that NASA will, in fact, insist on referring to the “Big Bang theory” just as the junior commissar insisted:

The memo also noted that The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual specified the phrasing “Big Bang theory.” Mr. Acosta, Mr. Deutsch’s boss, said in an interview yesterday that for that reason, it should be used in all NASA documents.

Of course “Big Bang theory” is correct, just as “theory of relativity” is correct. But that’s because “theory” doesn’t mean what the ignorami think it means.