Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hat’s off to Chris Mumma!

Moristotle doffs his hat to 2007 Tar Heel of the Year Christine Mumma, shown here in a detail from Shawn Rocco’s photo on the front page of this morning’s News & Observer.

In the accompanying story, Samiha Khanna writes:

Mumma helped design guidelines for police lineups that, if followed, should prevent the kinds of missteps that led to wrongful arrests in the Duke lacrosse case. Also due to Mumma’s work, North Carolina is one of only nine states that require investigators to record interrogations of murder suspects [emphasis mine]. And soon, a state law Mumma drafted will ensure that biological evidence is safely retained long after a suspect is convicted. Had evidence in [Dwayne] Dail’s case been readily available for DNA testing, he wouldn’t have spent half his life in prison.
    The changes in laws and procedures have drawn national attention to North Carolina, now recognized as a pace-setter for criminal justice reform..... [emphasis mine]

Though I am a Californian by birth and have lived in North Carolina for only twenty-four years, I am proud to be a North Carolinian.

I admit that I didn’t know who Chris Mumma was when I approached her a year and a half ago to ask her whether she’d read the manuscript of Jim Rix’s book about his wrongfully convicted cousin Ray Krone. She was just someone at the University of North Carolina School of Law whom a student there had recommended as a potential supporter of Rix’s work. As busy as she was (although I had no idea how busy), she did read the manuscript and wrote a blurb proudly displayed on Jingle Jangle’s jacket:

Ray Krone’s story has so many of the elements we see over and over again in innocence cases – unreliable forensic conclusions, incomplete investigations and overvalued testimony resulting from “confirmatory bias” that occurs because everyone thinks they have the right perpetrator and they ignore evidence to the contrary. There are more Ray Krones out there – there just aren’t many who are lucky enough to have a cousin like Ray’s.
The news about Chris Mumma in the months after the book was published in July (including her essential role in the judicial exoneration of Dwayne Dail, who had spent almost nineteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit) has made the author and me even prouder of that quotation. Thank you, Chris Mumma, and congratulations!

In honor of Ms. Mumma’s well-deserved recognition, Moristotle is pleased to announce to his readers that Jim Rix is now offering Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out at a special price. Visit his publisher’s discount store.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

My "new ten commandments" (second edition)

After drafting the first version of this on Wednesday (December 26) and publishing a slightly revised version the next day, I have continued to think about and revise it. I put a few changes into Thursday's post later the same day and yesterday (complete with footnotes, which became harder and harder to read). I decided to go with "editions" instead and not use footnotes. And I have restored Thursday's post to the way it was when I first published it.

Though chastened initially "to recognize [the list's] inadequacy," I'm feeling better and better about it now, especially since I've received some strong endorsements from friends privately.

In his chapter on "the moral Zeitgeist" (German for "spirit of the times"), Richard Dawkins discusses how moral values have become more enlightened over time, with huge changes over only a few decades in the "consensus" on such things as slavery and female suffrage. And he suggests that "One way to express our consensual ethics is as a 'New Ten Commandments.'" [p. 263 of The God Delusion]

Intrigued by this suggestion, I tried to identify what my own ten might be. Here's my first revised (second) edition:

  1. In all things, try to do no harm.
  2. This rule, adapted from the Hippocratic Oath traditionally taken by physicians, could usefully guide us to refrain from harming others and from making matters worse in all kinds of cases, including how we contribute to environmental degradation. We do harm, for example, when we make an unnecessary trip or use a vehicle that consumes excessive amounts of fuel. Or waste water, which is more and more evidently a limited resource. Or have too many children....

  3. Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.
  4. The negative version of "The Golden Rule," apparently formulated by Confucius, has always seemed to me less meddlesome and more practically useful than the version generally attributed to Jesus. Not that a mindful application of the positive version is bad.

  5. Don't rush to judgment but give everyone the benefit of an open mind; don't convict an accused person if you have reasonable doubt as to the person's guilt.
  6. This one applies everyday, but especially if you should find yourself on a jury, where you may be required to watch adversaries far more interested in winning your vote than in administering justice. In this regard I recommend Jim Rix's excellent book on the criminal justice system, Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out.

  7. Formulate laws as if you didn't know what your position in the pecking order would be.
  8. This one I paraphrased from the unique contribution to political philosophy of Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-1990). Ever since I heard of it a few years ago, I've considered something like this to be essential for a just society. Of course, in America at present, laws are written largely to benefit lobbyists (whose money helps secure them a high position in the pecking order).

  9. Treat all living creatures humanely.
  10. Not just "all others," for we too are living creatures. Alas, I follow this one far from perfectly, for I am not a vegan. The best I can say for myself is that I do not kill other animals for profit or sport, I brake for animals on the roadway, I take good care of our dog, I feed and water the birds that visit our yard, I refrain from killing snakes (even poisonous ones), and I pause for a moment before eating the flesh of another animal to acknowledge the injustice of the way it was raised and that it was killed to indulge the taste of humans. I have profound respect for those who follow this principle to the extent of eating no animal flesh.

  11. Always be willing to revise your beliefs according to evidence and reason.
  12. This one can help keep us honest with ourselves and remind us to resist superstition and magical thinking. Life in a complex world requires realistic thinking.

  13. Do not indoctrinate your children, but teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, how to generate new ideas, and how to disagree with you.
  14. I adapted this one from four items Dawkins says he would try to find room for in his list [p. 264; he didn't mention creative thinking]. Ancient superstitions and bad advice are perpetuated by indoctrination and the suppression of critical and creative thinking (and their effective use together).

  15. Support your country when it is right, oppose it when it is wrong.
  16. The absolutist credo of a certain kind of patriot has long been condemned for its arrogance and brutality. It is time to move on to try to establish a just world order.

  17. Question authority; challenge authority that appears illegitimate or contrary to reason.
  18. A principle such as this is essential to counteract false authority (such as that claimed by religious leaders for their ancient scriptures or by political cheats who wangle their way to become "leaders" or "deciders"). The principle also destroys the excuse, "But I was just following orders."

  19. Thou shalt not bow down and worship likely non-existent "God."

    Originally stated, "Thou shalt not bow down and worship an unlikely god." I realized that I needed to be clearer what I meant by "unlikely," as well as clearer that I was referring to the capitalized God (or Yahweh or Allah or whatever) of received religious doctrine. Let one new commandment suffice to dispatch the first three of ancient Mosaic Law:

    I. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
    II. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
    III. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. [– Exodus 20:3–7, King James Version]

I acknowledged in the first version that "The Mosaic commandments were mostly prohibitive; I've tended toward the prohibitive myself," but I don't feel that that is a defect. Nevertheless, I still want to address the "natural tension" between the "do no harm" prohibition-type list and the "live a good life" prescriptive list. For example, what about the use of time? Dawkins would include in his list (p. 164) a commandment such as "Value the future on a timescale longer than your own." And what about reading? Do we read at all, and what do we read?...And what do we watch on television? Where do we get our "news"?....

Thursday, December 27, 2007

My "new ten commandments"

In his chapter on "the moral Zeitgeist" (German for "spirit of the times"), Richard Dawkins discusses how moral values have become more enlightened over time, with huge changes over only a few decades in the "consensus" on such things as slavery and female suffrage. And he suggests that "One way to express our consensual ethics is as a 'New Ten Commandments.'"1

Intrigued by this suggestion, I tried to identify what my own ten might be. Here's my initial attempt:

  1. In all things, try to do no harm.
  2. This rule, adapted from the Hippocratic Oath traditionally taken by physicians, could usefully guide us to refrain from harming others and from making matters worse in all kinds of cases, including how we contribute to environmental degradation. We do harm, for example, when we make an unnecessary trip or use a vehicle that consumes excessive amounts of fuel.

  3. Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.
  4. The negative version of "The Golden Rule," apparently formulated by Confucius, has always seemed to me less meddlesome and more practically useful than the version attributed by some Christians to Jesus.

  5. Don't rush to judgment but give everyone the benefit of an open mind; don't convict an accused person if you have reasonable doubt as to the person's guilt.
  6. This one applies everyday, but especially if you should find yourself on a jury, where you may be required to watch adversaries far more interested in winning your vote than in administering justice.

  7. Formulate laws as if you didn't know what your position in the pecking order would be.
  8. This one I paraphrased from the unique contribution to political philosophy of Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-1990). Ever since I heard of it a few years ago, I've considered something like this to be essential for a just society. Of course, in America at present, laws are written largely to benefit lobbyists (whose money helps secure them a high position in the pecking order).

  9. Treat all other living creatures humanely.
  10. Alas, I follow this one far from perfectly, for I am not a vegan. The best I can say for myself is that I do not kill other animals for sport, I brake for animals on the roadway, I take good care of our dog, I feed and water the birds that visit our yard, I refrain from killing snakes (even poisonous ones), and I pause for a moment before eating the flesh of another animal to acknowledge the injustice of the way it was raised and killed to indulge the taste of humans. I have profound respect for those who follow this principle to the extent of eating no animal flesh.

  11. Always be willing to revise your beliefs according to evidence and reason.
  12. This one can help keep us honest with ourselves and remind us to resist superstition and magical thinking. Life in a complex world requires realistic thinking.

  13. Do not indoctrinate your children, but teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, how to generate new ideas, and how to disagree with you.
  14. I adapted this one from four items Dawkins says he would try to find room for in his list2. Ancient superstitions and bad advice are perpetuated by indoctrination and the suppression of critical and creative thinking (and their effective use together).

  15. Support your country when it is right, oppose it when it is wrong.
  16. The absolutist credo of a certain kind of patriot has long been condemned for its arrogance and brutality. It is time to move on to try to establish a just world order.

  17. Question authority; challenge authority that appears illegitimate or contrary to reason.
  18. A principle such as this is essential to counteract false authority (such as that claimed by religious leaders for their ancient scriptures or by political cheats who managed to become "leaders") and invalidate the excuse that "I was just following orders."

  19. Thou shalt not bow down and worship an unlikely god.
  20. Let one new commandment suffice to dispatch the first three old commandments of Mosaic Law.

Having drafted this yesterday and slept on it overnight, I am chastened to recognize its inadequacy. There's a natural tension between the "do no harm" prohibition and the "live the best life" prescription. The Mosaic commandments were mostly prohibitive; I've tended toward the prohibitive myself. But what about the use of time? Dawkins would include in his list3 a commandment such as "Value the future on a timescale longer than your own." What about reading?

_______________
  1. P. 263 of The God Delusion.
  2. P. 264.
  3. Ibid.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The relevance of the mormu

The reporter from The Des Moines Sentinel stood up quickly and glared at the other reporters to warn them back. "Mr. Romney," he began, "do you wear a mormu?"
      Romney appeared stunned for a beat. "Mormu?"
      "Precisely. Do you wear one or not?...It's relevant."
      Romney didn't seem to know which way to go with this. He decided to go lawyerly. "Whether it's relevant remains to be seen...What is this mormu"?
      "Come, come, let's not play cute, as though you didn't actually inhale or something. Last week, you said—"
      "Wait a minute," said Romney. "You're talking about the Mormon
undergarment, aren't you? I'm on record that that isn't anybody's business."
      "You may be on record, but in 1980 it was people's business whether Ronnie relied on Nancy's astrological forecasts...."
      "That's preposterous!" Romney sputtered.
      "You have no argument there, sir...but the question, with all due respect of course, is: If you were elected president and happened not to be wearing your mormu when the red phone rang on the Armageddon box (or whatever of grave national import), would you be able to function?"
      Romney stared at the reporter from the Sentinel as more time went by than any presidential primary candidate would like in a tense situation like this.
      "What's wrong, Mr. Romney," someone in the back yelled, "aren't you wearing your Mormon magic underwear today?"

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Truce to the preposition war

That the First Amendment calls for a truce is obvious. When it comes to religion (and non-religion), there are many potentially warring factions, for even though there is essentially only one non-religion, there's a big raft of religions. And the first clause (the one that guarantees freedom from religion) doesn't protect just the non-religious (from religion generally); it also protects the followers of the various religions from each other's religion (from religions particularly).

Episcopaleans, for example, are fully as happy as I am not to have to indulge Evangelicals or Jehovah's Witnesses (or anyone else who "reads the Bible literally"). And the really true-believing religionists, of course, are generally happy not to have any truck with those agnostic or (horrors!) even atheistic Unitarians and Episcopaleans. And many Americans, including religious Christians and Jews as well as the non-religious, are a little jumpy right now about Muslims, not least because many of even the most religious-sounding Christians don't really take their religion quite as seriously as really believing Muslims do (probably not even Mitt Romney). (Islam after all means "submission [to God]," and Muslim "one who surrenders [to God].") And, of course, American Muslims are reciprocally a little uneasy living in a country whose current "president" (born-again, no less) talks about crusading in the Middle East. (Muslims who aren't Americans are a little uneasy about that too. Bush of course would remind us—since he no longer has Gonzales to do it—that those Muslims aren't protected by our Constitution....)

So, the first clause protects everybody (who is covered by the Constitution).

Whom does the second clause protect? It says, "Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." Since the non-religious don't "exercise religion," they have nothing for the second clause to protect. (Their interest in the First Amendment comes back into play in the third and following clauses.) So, the second clause is there to protect the religious, that they may go about "exercising" their religion "freely."

But what does "free exercise" mean? It must, of course, at least exclude actions that nullify the first clause....

Monday, December 24, 2007

The preposition war

The First Amendment might have been worded more clearly. While it emphatically guarantees freedom from religion (its first clause is "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"), it unfortunately fails to use that preposition, and its second clause does use the preposition of (albeit in the lawyerly relative "thereof"): "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." [emphasis mine].

This unfortunate fact has given fuel not only to religionists, but also to politicians, to claim that the First Amendment is all about freedom of religion (that is, not in the least about freedom from).

The religionists, of course, don't need much fuel to start a fire, given that hellfire, they love to point out, is already right there in scripture.

I don't know whether the man who (to paraphrase Al Gore) used to be the next Vice President of the United States1 got his fuel from scripture (the Torah in his case) or from preposition-parsing, but in an article in the February 19, 2001 issue of The Nation, on how politicians pander to the religious in campaigning, Ellen Willis wrote:
Lieberman was even bolder [than Gore, who had divulged that he was "born-again"]: He responded to what he called the "miracle" of his nomination with repeated public professions of faith in God, along with declarations that religion is the basis of morality and that the Constitution provides "freedom of religion, not freedom from religion." [my emphasis]
Irresponsible, inflammatory political rhetoric doesn't help our enlightenment when it misinterprets the Constitution and proclaims falsehoods about the basis of morality, which is evolutionary, not religious.
_______________________
  1. Gore's running mate, you may remember, was Joseph I. Lieberman, U.S. Senator from Connecticut. He was, by the way, a member of my baccalaureate class at Yale.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Celebrating my blog's new tag line

Until a few moments ago, the tag line on my blog masthead was "A Journal of Dissent." As I told my friend Keith this morning:
"A Journal of Dissent" doesn't satisfy me, but I haven't figured out a better tag yet. You seemed to take "dissent" as political, but that's not what I had in mind. Not exclusively, anyway. My posts on Mitt Romney, for example, were of course political in that he's running for political office. But I intended my comments to be more on religion than on politics, on how in America people seem to assume that you have to be religious. Romney's rhetoric, for example, simply doesn't recognize non-religion (or nontheism, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation puts it) as being acceptable here; he even implies that people without faith in god aren't legitimate U.S. citizens. I'm particularly disgusted at the way he and others distort the views of the freethinkers among our founding fathers and co-opt them for partisan purposes.

I'm also unhappy with "dissent" because it is negative rather than affirmative....
Well, as usual, merely setting myself a problem (in words) quickly led to a solution (while I was outside clearing some drains). Hence the new tag line:

Celebrating our constitutional freedom from religion (while we still have it1)

My text, of course, is the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Let's celebrate!
__________________
  1. Several hours later: Rather than "while we still have it," my original parenthetical was for a few hours "and other popular delusions." While I savored its ambiguity (is religion the delusion, or the assumption that we are constitutionally free from it?), two things bothered me. First, I don't think the First Amendment can be interpreted to guarantee freedom from delusions generally, however extraordinary they are or how mad they make crowds2. Second, and more important, a lot of my friends and relatives are religious. I offend some of them enough already without implying in my masthead that religion is a delusion.
  2. In 1841, Charles Mackay published a book titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
At the suggestion of a friend, I have also changed my profile photo.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Interesting times

The ancient Chinese may have cautioned us to "avoid interesting times," but, as John Mortimer pointed out in his 2003 "last will and testament" (Where There's a Will), "there is nothing...to suggest that the times are likely to become less interesting." [p. 94]

Yes, these are interesting times. On page 13 of last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, for example, I see an advertisement for three books published by Houghton Mifflin, the first of which is Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, in recommendation of which Ian McEwan is quoted, "A magnificent book, lucid and wise." Interesting that I should not only currently be re-reading Dawkins's book (because it is lucid and wise) but also reading one after another of McEwan's novels.

And overleaf from the advertisement (on pages 14 and 15), I see reviews titled "Take It on Faith" (captioned "John Dilulio argues for government financing of social programs run by religious institutions") and "The Godless Delusion" ("A professor of philosophy thinks our era has been too quick to dismiss religious faith"). Hmm, interesting. I'm going to have to read these reviews....

It's interesting, too, to consider whether my recent dismissal of religious faith came as a result of my reading Dawkins and (before I took him up) Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and (again) Bertrand Russell, or my reading of these atheist authors proceeded from atheist tendencies of my own....

I think it was more the latter, for I remember reading another advertisement in the Book Review, sometime over a year ago, that described Harris's The End of Faith in terms that thrilled and excited me for revealing that there at last seemed to be an author who had articulated what I too was now thinking and feeling about religion. Indeed he had...and far more than that. He had read many books that I had not, looked at a lot of data I didn't even know existed. I had not only met a brother, but also met a teacher. And in Hitchens and Dawkins I met two more teachers, Dawkins the most mind-opening of them all.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mormonism's prophet would be proud of Mitt

The first time I read Richard Dawkins's 2006 book, The God Delusion, I think I must have missed his reference to Mitt Romney. But I got it the second time around:
Joseph Smith, [Mormonism's] enterprisingly mendacious inventor, went to the lengths of composing a complete new holy book, the Book of Mormon, inventing from scratch a whole new bogus American history, written in bogus seventeenth-centure English. Mormonism, however, has evolved since it was fabricated in the nineteenth century and has now become one of the respectable mainstream religions of America—indeed, it claims to be the fastest-growing one, and there is talk of fielding a presidential candidate. [emphasis mine; p. 201]

Smith too had announced for President of the United States, in 1844, a few months before a mob invaded the jail in Carthage, Illinois,

where Smith and some of his followers were being held, and shot him and his brother to death. Not even the First Amendment of the United States Constitution could protect the charismatic inventor without competent, dedicated support from the local authorities.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mitt Romney would not enlighten us

When it comes to the question I concluded by asking on Friday, How could belief in believing [that is, in faith as opposed to knowing based on evidence] have come to have such sway over Americans, we citizens of a nation born of Enlightenment political philosophy?, Mitt Romney pretty decisively identified himself as such a believer by this sentence from his religion speech:
Raised up over generations, long ago, so many of the cathedrals [of Europe] now stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer.
Don't miss the significance of those quotation marks.

As Roger Cohen put it Thursday in his op-ed piece in The New York Times:
Europe’s cathedrals are indeed “so inspired, so grand, so empty,” as Mitt Romney, a Mormon, put it last week in charting his vision of a faith-based presidency. Some do not survive at all. The Continent has paid a heavy price in blood for religious fervor....

Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, was dismissive of European societies “too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer.” He thereby pointed to what has become the principal transatlantic cultural divide.

Europeans still take the Enlightenment seriously enough not to put it inside quote marks [emphasis mine]. They have long found an inspiring reflection of it in the first 16 words of the American Bill of Rights of 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

...Bush is no transient phenomenon; he is the expression of a new American religiosity. Romney’s speech and the rapid emergence of the anti-Darwin Baptist minister Mike Huckabee as a rival suggest how estranged the American zeitgeist is from the European.

At a time when growing numbers of Americans identify themselves as born-again evangelicals, and creationism is no joke, Romney essentially pitted the faithful against the faithless while attempting to merge Mormonism in mainstream Christianity. Where Kennedy said he believed in a “president whose religious views are his own private affair,” Romney pledged not to “separate us from our religious heritage.”

...Religion informed America’s birth. But its distancing from politics was decisive to the republic’s success. Indeed, the devastating European experience of religious war influenced the founders’ thinking. That is why I find Romney’s speech and the society it reflects far more troubling than Europe’s vacant cathedrals.

Romney allows no place in the United States for atheists. He opines that, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Yet secular Sweden is free while religious Iran is not....
Oh yeah, we sure do want some more unreality-based political leadership, don't we?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"If we are to have a religion..."

In his 80's, John Mortimer (English barrister and creator of Horace Rumpole of the Old Bailey1) published a sort of last will and testament, titled Where There's a Will. Montaignean2 in its wry comment on life and culture, it reads as fresh as any of Mortimer's prose published over sixty years. Given my own current dominant theme, I was delighted by the things he had to say about religion, and I particularly liked this snippet from his final essay, "The Attestation Clause":
The meaningful and rewarding moments aren't waiting for us beyond the grave, or to be found on distant battlefields where history's made. They can happen quite unexpectedly, in a garden perhaps, or walking through a beech wood in the middle of the afternoon. If we are to have a religion, it should be one that recognizes the true importance of a single moment in time, the instant when you are fully and completely alive. [p. 180]
________________
  1. Rumpole died with the passing of the actor Leo McKern (1920-2002), who brought him to life on British television and for me and many others will always be Rumpole.
  2. Michel de Montaigne, by some credited with the invention of the essay, published his first collection in 1580.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mitt Romney gives still others pause, but some not

Mitt Romney also gives pause to a couple of op-ed columnists, David Brooks and Gail Collins of The New York Times. Brooks (a Jew, and politically conservative) expressed his pause on December 7:
When this country was founded, James Madison envisioned a noisy public square with different religious denominations arguing, competing and balancing each other’s passions. But now the landscape of religious life has changed. Now its most prominent feature is the supposed war between the faithful and the faithless. Mitt Romney didn’t start this war, but speeches like his both exploit and solidify this divide in people’s minds. The supposed war between the faithful and the faithless has exacted casualties.

The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not....
Collins expressed hers the next day (December 8):
The peak of my sympathy for Mitt Romney came when he was being battered on one side by Christian fundamentalists who think his faith is a cult and on the other by fellow Mormons, who were irate when he fudged the fact that they believe Jesus will return to earth and build a new Jerusalem in Jackson County, Mo.

This week, Mitt made his much-anticipated religion speech, and stood up for his rights not to be discriminated against for his beliefs, and not to have to explain the part about Jackson County. Good for him on both counts.

... Except that you have to wonder why he felt compelled to dip into dogma just long enough to assure voters that he believes “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”

Romney’s message, which boiled down to "let’s all be religious together," was certainly different from the John Kennedy version, which argued that a candidate’s religion is irrelevant. But then Kennedy was speaking to the country, while Romney had his attention fixed on the approximately 35,000 Iowa religious conservatives who will tip the balance in the first-in-the-nation Republican caucus....
Of course, some were not given pause by Romney's speech. Here's one Mormon's assessment of it:
From what I heard, I see no reason that anyone would feel that Romney tried to separate believers from non-believers. Non-believers are just those that have not yet seen fit to believe. Hopefully all will believe prior to their judgment day.
Leaving aside the question whether I will ever again believe (whatever efficacy that could possibly have), I told her about some of the pauses that I and others had gotten from Romney's speech. She seemed incredulous, and I was surprised that she seemed much threatened by our reservations:
I cannot understand how any intelligent being can deny the creator of our universe. Refusal to do so seems to me to be following the devil, who got kicked out of Heaven because he wanted to force everyone to do his bidding instead of using his right that God gave him to make his own choices to do right or wrong. The people who choose not to believe should stop trying to force others to lose their right to believe....Why are the non-believers trying to destroy all evidence of God from our buildings and money? If the name is so bothersome, why don't they just stay out of those buildings and not spend any money that has "In God we trust" on it? I find the pressure to remove all trace of God from America shortsighted and repulsive. I am not going out of my way to change someone else's beliefs by destroying what is important to others. I would appreciate the same courtesy.
I'm still trying to make sense of this, still trying to understand how belief in believing (as opposed, for example, to moral behavior) could have come to have such sway over Americans, we citizens of a nation born of Enlightenment political philosophy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mitt Romney gives us further pause

An interesting (but politically predictable) thing about Mitt Romney's religion speech the other day (its text can be found on the New York Times web site) is that most religious people heard it differently from the way us non-religious people heard it. Romney offends non-religious Americans straight off by stipulating that our non-religion is actually the religion of secularism:
We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism.
Secularism of course is not a religion, any more than atheism is. Certain kinds of religious people seem unable to conceive of non-religion as an alternative. And that is precisely the problem. Romney seems to be trying to secure a favored niche for religion, to build for adherents of religion an all-powerful position from which to dominate the non-religious minority.

In her Dec. 7 letter to the editor of the Times, a reader from Bainbridge Island, WA also commented on that passage:
...the speech cited includes this incredible sentiment: "Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

In fact, Mitt Romney has it backward; we are a secular nation, a notion relied upon by our founding fathers who, in all their wisdom, would be appalled at what is today passing for proper presidential declarations.

We are not a theocracy, nor is it any of my concern whom the candidate prefers as his "personal savior." These professions of belief are irrelevant and disturbing, assuming as they do that religion and religious beliefs have a place in our polity.
Romney's speech seems to me to have been artfully contrived to seduce all of the religious people together into a mutual admiration society, to form a supermajority to lord it over us non-religious folks. Of course, his main objective is to try to get the support of the suspicious Christian right—some of whom deny that Mormonism is a Christian religion—in order to win his party's nomination for president. As the Editor of the Times wrote on Dec. 7:
Still, there was no escaping the reality of the moment. Mr. Romney was not there to defend freedom of religion, or to champion the indisputable notion that belief in God and religious observance are longstanding parts of American life. He was trying to persuade Christian fundamentalists in the Republican Party, who do want to impose their faith on the Oval Office, that he is sufficiently Christian for them to support his bid for the Republican nomination. No matter how dignified he looked, and how many times he quoted the founding fathers, he could not disguise that sad fact. [The editorial, titled "The Crisis of Faith," can be found on the Times web site.]
A reader from Bailey, CO also wrote to the editor on Dec. 7:
It is hypocritical for Mitt Romney to say that this country was founded on freedom of religion and, on the other hand, to say that God must be part of public life. What about the citizens of this country who do not believe in the Christian God? What about people of no religious faith?

Are they not also citizens?

A person need not be Christian to be moral. It appears that this presidential campaign, at least on the Republican side, has become a contest over which candidate is more Christian than the others. Apparently, a candidate who does not profess to believe in the Christian God cannot be elected president of this country.

This is surely not what the founding fathers intended when they advocated the principle of separation of church and state.
Indeed, the crucial reason for the separation of church and state in the United States Constitution is to protect minorities from oppression. Not only are the followers of a particular religion in the minority relative to the rest of the population (and in need of constitutional protection from potential oppression for their religious beliefs), but so also are followers of no religion in need of protection.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Mitt Romney gives us pause

Mitt Romney today said that he thinks the "separation of church and state" has gone too far in this country, to the extent that the "acknowledgment of God" is frowned upon, unwelcome. Well, because of the 90-10 rule, the "acknowledgment of god" is not anywhere near as frowned upon and unwelcome as the "acknowledgment of no-god." The fact that the great unwashed 90% of Americans claim to believe in god tends to ensure in practice that atheists have a lot of pressure on them to keep their heads down and shut up! (as Bill O'Reilly and his ilk love to say).

An ontological argument for the non-existence of god

In the year 1078, St. Anselm of Canterbury (England) proposed an "ontological argument" for the existence of God:
It is possible to conceive, Anselm said, of a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Even an atheist can conceive of such a superlative being, though he would deny its existence in the real world. But, goes the argument, a being that doesn't exist in the real world is, by that very fact, less than perfect. Therefore we have a contradiction and, hey presto, God exists! [courtesy Richard Dawkins, p. 80, The God Delusion]
A contemporary of Anselm, one Gaunilo had, reports Dawkins, "suggested a similar reductio." And a contemporary of Dawkins, "the [philosopher] Australian Douglas Gasking, made the point with his ironic 'proof' that God does not exist:
  1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.
  2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.
  3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.
  4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.
  5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being—namely, one who created everything while not existing.
  6. An existing God therefore would not be a being greater than which a greater cannot be conceived because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.
    Ergo:
  7. God does not exist."
[p. 83, The God Delusion]