bookmark_borderA non-believer’s guide to biblical economics

I’ve studied economics and taught mathematics to students who became economists, but I’m not an economist. Still, I know enough to recognize that economists sometimes selectively focus on data that fit their liberal or conservative ideologies. At least both sides work with data and try to make convincing arguments for their models. Economists of all stripes recognize that their own models are by no means perfect.

I should have known it would be only a matter of time before biblical economics turned the “dismal science” into something even more dismal. Some conservative Christians are now educating themselves and others with quotes about economics that come from that same infallible “science” book describing a flat earth with four corners resting on pillars at the center of a ten thousand year old universe. It’s also the same book of biblical morals that once justified slavery, anti-Semitism, treating women as property, executing blasphemers and homosexuals, and burning witches and heretics.

Of course our government’s huge national debt is a looming threat to long-term prosperity. Good secular and moral arguments can be made on how best to solve the problem. We should analyze arguments over tax policy and deficit spending. We can have reasoned disagreements about what type of tax is fairest, and whether we should spend more on guns or butter.

The one thing we should not do is make economic policy based on “God’s plan.” Nobody knows God’s plan. I don’t believe God has an economic plan, because I don’t think God exists. Conservative Christians are citing passages from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which God tells Israel not to borrow money from any nation. The implications are that we (even though we are not Israel) should not sell bonds to other countries and use the money to help poor people in this country. Whenever I hear something about “God’s plan” I compare it with the “Tooth Fairy plan.” Usually the Tooth Fairy comes out better, but in this case they are similar. Empirical evidence suggests that the Tooth Fairy gives more money per tooth to children of rich people than to children of poor people. I guess she must be an economic conservative.

You can quote from selected biblical passages to make whatever case you want, and then claim the moral high ground. Here’s something for conservative Christians to contemplate. Jesus tells us to pay our fair share of taxes without grumbling, and that he favors class warfare. He is probably a socialist, and maybe even a communist. How do I know? The Bible tells me so.

Matthew 22:21: Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

Mark 10:25: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Matt. 19: 21: If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor.

Acts 2:44: All the believers were united and shared everything with one another.


bookmark_borderMore nonsense from Turkey

Today’s my day for pointing out horrors from Turkey. (You know, the “secular,” “democratic” country whose moderate Islam US policymakers would like to see as an inspiration to other Muslims.)

I’ve just read about a Turkish cartoonist being prosecuted, with the state demanding one year’s imprisonment for “insulting the religious values accepted by the people” in a cartoon.

The speech balloon says “God, would it be okay if I skipped the last prayer? I have things to do. Thanks a lot, God! Good day…”

That’s not what got the cartoonist into trouble, however. It’s the writing on the mosque wall indicated by the red arrows: “There is no God. Religion is a lie.”

Standard-issue conservative Muslim intolerance of cartoons aside, Turkey has really become a bad place to publicly declare yourself an atheist. It was never very good for nonbelievers, but I think it has become noticeably worse.

bookmark_borderHigh weirdness on a Turkish philosophy exam

This is almost untranslatable, but I’ll try. It’s the answer to a Turkish high school exam in a philosophy course, which made it to the Turkish media, and was apparently originally praised by Islamists as an example of a brave Muslim student standing up to an atheist teacher.

The question is: “Prove to me that this chair does not exist (100 points)”

Answer (my translation is artificially coherent): “I swear that there is no such chair—let God accurse me and let the Quran strike me down if there is a chair. Let my two eyes be put out if a chair is there, look. If I am lying let it not be given to me to be able to go from point A to point B. Look, I’ve sworn a great oath, but you philosophers tend to be atheists. Nietzshe etc. are all atheists. They beleeve in evolution. The don’t beleeve in God. But you believe me, teacher. There is no chair there; let my mother be my woman otherwise. I swear to God there is no chair. Bring the Quran and I will lay my hand on it, there is none. (45 ???? teacher)”


The grade is an 8, presumably out of 10.

It looks very much like a desperate student paper; it’s amusing but I wouldn’t read more into it.

bookmark_borderDumb and Dumber

I notice that the recent posts on SO have taken a turn towards the political. Nothing wrong with that. These days religion and politics have been so thoroughly mixed that it is hard to talk about one without the other. This is especially so when candidates for high office loudly tout their religious affiliations and convictions and tout them precisely as qualifications for public office. They must think those Founders were barking up the wrong tree when they put in the Constitution (Article VI, paragraph 3) that no religious test may be required for public office.

At my age (just shy of sixty) I find myself looking at the current scene, scratching my head and wondering how the hell we got here. How can it be that ideas and individuals who would have been relegated to the lunatic fringe in the old days are now mainstream? Fifty years ago Republicans would have laughed Michelle Bachman off the stage. Barry Goldwater, derided as extremist at the time, was a model of moderation and sanity compared to some of the current crop. (Goldwater, crusty as ever in his 80’s, was asked what he thought about Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. He succinctly characterized Falwell as “an asshole.” Goldwater’s brand of conservatism was far more consistent than what passes for conservatism today. For Goldwater, getting the government out of your life meant getting it out of your bedroom too.) However, I think our deepest problem is not really so much the rise of pernicious ideologies; it is the ascendancy of sheer stupidity.
To begin to understand how we got here, I recommend the hilarious and horrifying book Idiot America by Charles P. Pierce. Pierce details how we have descended into the Age of Asininity. Of course, H.L. Mencken long ago quipped “No one every went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” There have always been morons; it is just that they have never had so much power or so dominated public discussion as now.
How did this happen, how did bay-at-the-moon lunacy come to occupy a more prominent place in our public discourse than textbook science? How, indeed, has it ever come to be thought that there is still a scientific debate over evolution, or that pluperfect nonsense like creationism, and its dressed-up cousin “intelligent design,” are worthy of a hearing? How did there come to be a multi-million dollar “creation museum” in Kentucky, with full-scale models of dinosaurs fitted out with saddles? (Adam and Eve needed those saddles. They were naked, and can you imagne the chafing you would get from riding a Triceratops bareback? Yeow.) How is it that the Texas State Board of Education can prefer the propaganda of extremist, ax-grinding cranks over the recommendations of hundreds of qualified scholars—and not be unceremoniously tossed out of office by the voters? How can a presidential administration censor and adulterate science for eight years (see Chris Mooney’s The Republican War On Science) without being savagely mauled in the media?

Pierce blames the rise of religious fundamentalism since the early 1980’s. He also notes (as does Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas?) that the Republican Party expanded its base by at least paying lip service to all sorts of strange dogmas and loopy obsessions, from creationism to the “birther” nonsense. Chiefly, though, to really understand the Great Dumb Down, Pierce says you have to follow the money. Many wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations have a vested interest in keeping us stupid. When science tells you that your products or by-products are harming many people, but you are making money beyond the dreams of avarice, what do you do? You attack the science. Big Tobacco established the paradigm. When accumulating evidence linked cigarettes to cancer, Big Tobacco found that it was easy to hire your own “experts” and do your own “research” to undermine the findings of legitimate science. Your aim is to plant doubt in the minds of the public and politicians, who generally are too scientifically illiterate to distinguish your bogus science from the real thing.

Big Tobacco’s anti-science strategy worked amazingly well. Meaningful regulation of tobacco was delayed by years. Of course, millions died, but profits of billions upon billions were reaped. Lately, the tactics that worked so well for Big Tobacco have been adopted by many companies, from Big Oil to Big Food. The cartoon “Dilbert” shows how easy it is. The evil Dogbert walks into the offices of Rent a Weasel. “I need three unsuccessful and bitter scientists and a hundred lazy journalists” he demands. The weasel gladly accommodates. The last panel shows Dilbert reading a paper with the headline “Toddlers Thrive on Pollution.” Wealthy ideologues can even endow their own “think” tanks with the mission of producing skewed statistics, crap studies, misinformation and disinformation, and general obfuscation, all aimed at boosting bottom lines and warding off regulation. To top it off, the obscurantists have been much, much more effective than scientists in getting their message out to the public. Mere reason does not stand a chance against truckloads of money and great PR. Popes and Inquisitions could not stop science, but where dungeon, fire, and sword failed, big money might just succeed.

bookmark_borderMitt Romney: A reasonable man?

Here’s a hypothetical scene in which four presidential candidates are asked about their religious views.

Candidate 1: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” He adds, “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Candidate 2: “As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”

Candidate 3: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.

Candidate 4: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.”

Were this to take place at a public debate today, I expect Candidates 1 (Thomas Jefferson), 2 (John Adams), 3 (James Madison), and 4 (Abraham Lincoln) would be booed off the stage, their political careers ended.

None of the current Republican candidates seems to have the courage of the man once known as Mr. Conservative (Barry Goldwater), quoted in the September 16, 1981 Congressional Record: “I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D.’ Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?” Are we better off with today’s presidential candidates who pander to religious factions and cannot end a speech without “God bless America”?

I think the most reasonable Republican candidates are the two Mormons. My bar here is set pretty low: they never talk about their deity telling them to run or how to vote. Perhaps they have a good reason to downplay their Mormonism. The only thing atheists and Mormons have in common is that a significant number of Americans admit they wouldn’t vote for either.

As far as the role of faith in the 2012 election, I can’t say because I don’t know the faith of the candidates. I can take them all at their publicly religious word, but why should I? The major truth-telling test for me among candidates is whether a candidate expresses a view that he or she knows will be politically detrimental. That’s why I’ll believe any candidate in this country who says he is an atheist, and I’ll believe any candidate in Iran who says he is a Christian.

The important question to ask all candidates is if and how their private faith would impact their stands on public policy. I could be comfortable with a candidate who says she would compartmentalize her irrational, faith-based beliefs and govern rationally on evidence-based information.

I was appalled by the Christian values expressed by both the candidates and the audience in the most recent presidential debate. The audience cheered when Rick Perry proudly talked about how many citizens he was responsible for executing in Texas. And the audience again cheered when Ron Paul said the government should ignore the plight of a young person with a deadly disease because he failed to pay for health insurance. Even worse, in my mind, was that none of the other candidates publicly disagreed, though they had no problem challenging anyone who favored government money for health care.

As an atheist, I pick and choose from many books—including the Bible. I particularly like how the quote from Matthew 7:16 applies to the presidential candidates who were on stage that night: “By their fruits you shall know them.”

bookmark_borderTwo Executions

This post is a follow-up on the “Pro Choice and Pro Life” posting of Herb Silverberg. Herb’s thoughtful reflections have added to SO’s offerings, and I am surprised that they have not drawn more comments.

Yesterday there were two executions, one in Texas and one in Georgia.
In Texas, Lawrence Brewer was executed. In 1997, Brewer and two associates kidnapped a man named James Byrd, who had been walking down a country road not far from Jasper, Texas. They beat Byrd savagely, urinated on him, and dragged him to death behind a pickup truck–just because they did not like the color of his skin. After murdering Byrd, who was decapitated when he was slammed into a culvert, Brewer and his pals ditched the mangled body in an African-American cemetery and went to town where they dined on barbecue. At no point afterwards did Brewer express any remorse or regrets or take any responsibility for his crime. Before murdering Byrd, Brewer had been a small-time hoodlum who picked up extra cash by burglarizing the homes of relatives. He made no statement at his execution.
In Georgia, Troy Davis was executed for the murder of a Savannah police officer in 1989. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. He was convicted on the basis of the testimony of nine eyewitnesses, seven of whom later recanted. Some added that they had testified against Davis because the police had pressured them to do so. Since his conviction, Davis never wavered in his insistence that he was not guilty. Pope Benedict XVI, Jimmy Carter, and many international leaders and protesters urged that the execution be delayed and that the evidence of Davis’s innocence be considered. Georgia proceeded with the execution (Having grown up in Georgia and having lived much of my adult life there, allow me to note that Georgia’s current governor, Nathan Deal, is a moron even by the low standard set by other Georgia governors).
These two cases place the dilemmas surrounding the death penalty in a stark light. On the one hand, I think that our most basic sense of decency is so outraged by the behavior of someone like Lawrence Brewer that it is hard to imagine any penalty short of death that would be commensurate with his crime. Moral reasoning just does not seem possible unless it includes desert as a fundamental category. That is, it seems basic to any sort of moral judgment that we acknowledge that what we do merits reward or punishment depending upon whether it is good or bad, and that degrees of reward or punishment should be commensurate with the degrees of good or bad behavior.
I know that many thoughtful and good people like Herb are opposed in principle to the death penalty. As they see it, the death penalty is not justice, but state-sponsored vengeance. Herb points out that the U.S. keeps some very unsavory company when we consider the countries that have the death penalty (e.g., China, Iran, Saudi Arabia) as opposed to the ones that have outlawed capital punishment. Though I genuinely respect the views of death penalty abolitionists like Herb, I disagree–at least in principle. The reason is that I think that Kant was right about punishment and that Mill was wrong.
John Stuart Mill, being a true utilitarian, held that the infliction of pain, per se, is always bad, and is justified only when the infliction of pain in a given case leads to a greater good overall. Thus, the pain of the punishment inflicted on criminals, per se, is bad, but is justified if necessary to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. The utilitarian view, therefore, is expressed by the old saying that we hang horse thieves not for stealing horses, but so that horses will not be stolen. That is, the punishment of criminals is justified, not in terms of retribution (which is bad) but in terms of the greater good to society that follows from a system of judicial punishments. Kant, however, made the devastating observation that we are simply using the criminal, treating him as a mere means to an end, if we punish him because we want to deter others, and not simply because he deserves punishment. By using the criminal to teach a lesson to others, we deprive him of his inherent dignity, and violate our duty to treat all rational creatures as ends in themselves rather than as means only.
I think Kant is right on this point. The only way to have a society in which persons are regarded as having the inherent worth and dignity that we each feel that WE are due, is to consider persons as rational agents. Part of what it means to regard someone as a rational agent is to hold him responsible for his actions. To hold someone responsible for his actions is to give him what he deserves–good things when he chooses to good things and bad things when he chooses to do bad things. To punish anyone for ANY reason other than that he deserves it, is to treat him as less than a rational agent. Hence, retribution is the rationale for punishment most consistent with human dignity.
Now, admittedly, considering someone like Lawrence Brewer to be a rational agent seems implausible in the extreme. He was a born loser–a dumb, malignant punk with little education and probably a room-temperature I.Q. He may have been a clinical psychopath. If we say with Kant that we must regard ALL humans as rational agents, then, logically, we have to include the Lawrence Brewers of the world in that “all.” So, really, the idea that all are rational agents is a fiction, yet it is a necessary fiction that we must maintain if we want a society that is livable for the rest of us.
One result of a commitment to viewing all (adult) humans as rational agents is that we will be outraged by the punishment of an innocent person even more than we will be satisfied by the punishment of a Lawrence Brewer. We will insist on being certain that those punished actually deserve it.

bookmark_borderThe Non-religion and Secularity Research Network

I’ve occasionally complained about the lack of attention to secularity and nonbelief as an academic area of study.

Fortunately, this appears to be changing. There are enough nonreligious people around to justify some social scientific interest. Enterprises such as The Non-religion and Secularity Research Network are up and running, and should produce some interesting stuff as the field matures. (I fully expect that there will be plenty of information coming out that will not flatter secular people as well as material that confirms our self-perceptions.)

Meanwhile, the work of NSRN and similar organizations are worth paying attention to.

bookmark_borderPro-choice and pro life

I consider myself both pro-choice and pro-life, because I support a woman’s right to choose and I oppose capital punishment. I’ve heard reasoned and nuanced arguments from both sides on these controversial issues, and I appreciate people who make it a point to listen to those with whom they disagree. What I don’t appreciate are pandering politicians like Texas Governor Rick Perry, who take simple positions with bible-based answers, while ignoring any evidence-based, opposing points of view.

You would think that those who oppose abortion under any circumstances and view it as the greatest evil would necessarily favor practical steps to reduce the number of abortions. I’m talking about government funding to promote sex education in schools and accessibility to condoms by sexually active teens. And for poor pregnant women who want to give birth, government funded prenatal health care, day-care programs, and other support systems. But perhaps punishing women for being sexually active and lowering taxes are even greater priorities than addressing abortion in those practical ways.

Were we living under biblical law, and praise be to the U. S. Constitution we are not, I could still advocate for my positions. The bible says that if two men are fighting and knock down a pregnant woman, then the death penalty is imposed on the perpetrator if the woman dies, but only a fine if the fetus is aborted (Exodus 21:22-25). And an abortion is even required if the woman is impregnated by a man who is not her husband (Numbers 5:11-31). So abortion is not that big a deal, biblically speaking.

As for capital punishment, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7) and “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19). And what better argument exists for the abolition of the death penalty than that Jesus was given capital punishment for a crime he didn’t commit?

So what have I proved? Absolutely nothing! We could just as easily quote scripture for the opposite point of view. Here’s a thought for politicians to consider. Give good secular arguments for the positions you take, instead of relying on selected passages from a book written a couple thousand years ago. As much as you might admire ancient writers, they were only human. We’ve learned a lot in the past two thousand years.

Here’s a question for you. What do the countries in each of the two following groups have in common, and in which one does the United States belong?

1. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Uganda.

2. Australia, Canada, Denmark Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom.

The United States is part of the first list, countries with the death penalty. Now guess which group most favors applying ancient scriptures when writing laws. It’s the same group that is more likely to oppose abortions and find cause to go to war.


Last night, Mike Hout, creationist nuclear engineer from NASA, was on campus to explain why evolution was religion, not science. So I had to go and waste two hours of my life, naturally.

The was nothing new about it. (I should stop hoping I will come across new and interesting forms of nonsense very often.) But the nature of the presentation made me think again that our difficulties with creationism cannot be overcome through better science education. The deeper problem with Hout’s variety of creationism is not getting the occasional fact wrong. It is having no sense of what is properly representative and what is not. And that pathology of argument goes way beyond creationism. Practically every mindless citation of “studies” or statistics, every hack advocacy-argument does it.

As long as people select their set of “facts” and arguments to fit their position, without regard to whether they are properly representative, we will have creationist propagandists. And as long as their audience has deficient skills in seeing the warning signs of advocacy-driven selectivity in the presentation of evidence, the propagandists will be successful.

And I’m not sure a secondary-education science class is the best place to address this, often because students have to acquire a significant technical background before understanding real scientific debates. I would imagine that detecting nonrepresentative advocacy-argumentation would be a skill developed even better in a history or philosophy course.

But the way our education policy is going, we’re more likely to have resources going into the memorize-the-bloody-facts variety of “science” course than the supposedly “soft” humanities that have a better chance in nudging people toward thinking scientifically.

bookmark_borderPluralism at Ground Zero

During my lifetime, our foreign policy has been defined by two wars: a cold one with Soviet-style Communism and a hot one with Islamic-style terrorism. Neither kind of war is good, but cold is better. We have no monuments, sites, or dates to honor American victims who died on our soil because of the Cold War. That’s why it was called “cold.”

This is not in any way a justification for the horrible dictatorships in the Soviet Union. That regime had much in common with many Mideast countries: an ideology that suppressed dissent and brutalized its citizens; old men holding onto power and eliminating rivals at any cost; lack of human rights or freedom of conscience.

There are differences, too. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was the doctrine that assumed neither the Soviet Union nor the United States would launch its nuclear weaponry on the other, for fear of retaliation in which millions of its own citizens would be destroyed. Leaders of both superpowers preferred life to death. I’d be more concerned today about the efficacy of a MAD doctrine with a theocracy, especially when we’ve seen suicide-bomber citizens happily give their lives to kill innocent civilians because they expected rewards for their actions in an imagined afterlife.

During the hateful McCarthy era witch-hunts, many lives of decent Americans were damaged through accusations of not being anti-Communist enough. Collateral damage also occurred by those who wanted to distinguish the United States from “Godless Communism.” The words “under God” were added to our pledge of allegiance, turning a secular and unifying pledge into a religious and divisive one. This melding of God and Country resulted in many of us who believe in no gods feeling less patriotic. Our wonderful unifying motto E pluribus unum (Out of many, one), adopted in 1782, was changed in 1956 to In God we Trust, which excludes more than 16 percent of Americans without such trust.

The 9-11 attack was a faith-based initiative, conceived and carried out by people radicalized in Saudi Arabia who became more radicalized in Afghanistan. I could support either of two different types of remembrance ceremonies that would distinguish us from those theocrats who attacked us.

The first would be to have a completely secular ceremony in this secular country, unheard of in theocracies. The second would be to allow all groups to participate in a diverse country that does not favor any one religion over another religion or religion in general over non-religion. We could have a remembrance ceremony that includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, Humanists, Atheists, and any other group that wishes to participate in unifying people of all faiths and none. In other words, E pluribus unum.

This just might help us turn the worst of times into the best of times.