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Archive for November 2009



Huckabee and the Tacoma police massacre

A specious leftist belief that the criminal justice system is racist has undoubtedly led to more disastrous criminal justice decisions than a specious religious belief that one is in touch with one’s favored divinity.  And perhaps Mike Huckabee’s high rate of sentence commutations resulted from his best efforts to empirically evaluate the evidence presented to him by parole boards, rather than, as has been speculated upon, religious inspiration.  Still I am never reassured to learn that an elected representative may be praying for guidance or consulting the bible in making political decisions.  Though this line is impossible to enforce and certain not to be followed, the only valid materials for political decision-making  in my view are publicly-enacted laws and as much actual knowledge about the world as a politician can get his hands on.  I doubt whether a Christian would take much comfort in learning that a politician with power over his life is consulting with Allah in deciding upon a public line of action, since he does not regard the Koran as a valid source of either divine revelation or political authority.  Nor would the Christian be wholly confident that the Allah-inspired politician was moved by rational evidence in constructing his belief system or in reaching the conclusions that he drew from it.  Though prayer may merely consolidate a leader’s existing inclinations, it could also give them a zealotry or dubious certitude that they do not deserve. 


A few years ago, one of the neo-con-theo-con movement’s most revered religious figures lectured me on overincarceration, a subject he clearly knew noting about, during a black-tie dinner.  It was hard to escape the suspicion that his prim self-righteousness about the prison rate was fueled in large part by his belief that he had a particular in with God, though perhaps I do him an injustice.




The Church of Climate Change? (3)

Here’s a fairly even-handed summary of the Warmergate scandal from the London Times. These sections are particularly relevant to the idea that a belief in AGW has mutated, for some, into a quasi-religious faith:

…There is unease even among researchers who strongly support the idea that humans are changing the climate. Roger Pielke, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said: “Over the last decade there has been a very political battle between the climate sceptics and activist scientists. “It seems to me that the scientists have lost touch with what they were up to. They saw themselves as in a battle with the sceptics rather than advancing scientific knowledge.”

Ah yes, the quest for heretics.

And then there’s this:

There could, however, be another reason why the unit rejected requests to see its data. This weekend it emerged that the unit has thrown away much of the data. Tucked away on its website is this statement: “Data storage availability in the 1980s meant that we were not able to keep the multiple sources for some sites … We, therefore, do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (ie, quality controlled and homogenised) data.” If true, it is extraordinary. It means that the data on which a large part of the world’s understanding of climate change is based can never be revisited or checked. Pielke said: “Can this be serious? It is now impossible to create a new temperature index from scratch. [The unit] is basically saying, ‘Trust us’.”

Ah yes, faith.

And then…

Where does this leave the climate debate? While the overwhelming belief of scientists is that the world is getting warmer and that humanity is responsible, sceptical voices are increasing. Lord Lawson, the Tory former chancellor, announced last week the creation of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank, to “bring reason, integrity and balance to a debate that has become seriously unbalanced, irrationally alarmist, and all too often depressingly intolerant”. Lawson said: “Climate change is not being properly debated because all the political parties are on the same side, and there is an intolerance towards anybody who wants to debate it. It has turned climate change from being a political issue into a secular religion.”

A secular religion, indeed.

That said, I’d make the obvious–but necessary–point that the fact, extent and causation of climate change ought to be a matter of science, not politics. What to do about it is where the politics come in….

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Life of Brian – Thirty Years On

There’s a nice article by Sanjeev Bhaskar in today’s Sunday Telegraph on the Life of Brian, perhaps the greatest of British film comedies and thirty years old this year (FWIW I wrote about the film on its twenty-fifth anniversary here). As Mr. Bhaskar notes, it is a movie that would be unlikely to be made today given “current sensitivities”. Too true, I fear.

Here’s an extract from Mr. Bhaskar’s article:

The film premiered in America in August 1979 and immediately caused a brouhaha. The Rabbinical Alliance declared the film “foul, disgusting and blasphemous”. The Lutheran Council described it as “profane parody”. Not to be outdone, the Catholic Film Monitoring Office made it a sin even to see the film. Audiences, however, loved it, making Brian the most successful British movie in North America that year.

To counter the mounting protests in Britain, an ingenious advertising campaign was launched featuring the mothers of John Cleese and Terry Gilliam. Muriel Cleese said that if the film didn’t do well, and as her son was on a percentage, she may very well be evicted from her nice retirement home – and that the move might kill her. She won an award for the ad.

Mary Whitehouse [a tireless campaigner for her own brand of decency] failed to prove that the film was blasphemous, particularly since Christ and Brian are distinctly shown as different people. Nevertheless, a number of local councils banned it – including some that didn’t even have a cinema. The result was coach parties being organised in places such as Cornwall (where it was banned) to cinemas in Exeter (where it wasn’t). The Swedish marketed the film as “so funny it was banned in Norway”….

…The film’s view of blind faith seems as apposite as ever, and the closing song has come to represent a sort of British resilience – laughing in the face of adversity. It has been appropriated by football fans, chosen as the final song at funerals, and, movingly, during the Falklands War, the sailors on the damaged HMS Sheffield sang it while awaiting rescue.




A nation without divine favor

Reading Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism I am struck again by the peculiarity of the American nation, and its fundamental radicalism. I have already stated that this is implicitly an Anglo-Protestant nation. As a point of fact Protestant churches were established and supported in most American states at the Founding, with Massachusetts not disestablishing until the 1830s. The emergence of the Roman Catholic educational system was in large part a reaction to the Protestant content which was taken for granted in the public school system. The arrival of waves of Catholic German and Irish immigrants in the 1840s prompted the rise of the “Know Nothing” movement and a deep suspicion of “Romanism.” In 1830 the United States was a deeply Protestant nation within the dissenting tradition.



Immaculate Conception: The Inner-city Version

Seven and a half months into Ta-Shai Pendleton’s first pregnancy, her child was stillborn. Then in early 2008, she bore a daughter prematurely.  Soon after, Ms. Pendleton moved from a community in Racine that was thick with poverty to a better neighborhood in Madison. Here, for the first time, she had a full-term pregnancy.
As she cradled her 2-month-old daughter recently, she described the fear and isolation she had experienced during her first two pregnancies, and the more embracing help she found 100 miles away with her third.

It is an iron-clad rule, presumably taught in journalism schools, that when discussing black single mothers and their children, one must never, ever ask: Who and where is the father, and how many fathers are there?  Tens of thousands of articles have been written about the struggles of black single mothers, and the appearance of their children is always treated as a virgin birth. Not only are there no fathers in sight in such articles, there is no curiosity about where the  fathers are and why they’re not stepping up to the plate.  Instead, the reader will learn in great detail either about the callous lack of taxpayer-funded social services or, as in the present article on black infant mortality, about the provisions that a wise and benevolent government has made available to the mothers and their miraculously-conceived children, who seem to appear with the same inevitability as the tides. 

When [Brandice Hatcher] learned last June that she was pregnant, Ms. Hatcher said, “I didn’t know how to be a parent and I didn’t know what services could help me.”
Over the summer she started receiving monthly visits from Laura Berger, a county nurse, who put her in touch with a dentist . . . . Ms. Hatcher had been living in a rooming house, but she was able to get help from a program that provided a security deposit for her apartment. . . . Under a state program, a social worker visits weekly and helps her look for jobs. And she receives her prenatal care from the community center’s nurse-midwives.

Very nice.  But no amount of government programs can possibly compensate for the wholesale exemption of males from the responsibility of caring for their children.   The fiction of the inner city virgin birth makes for a booming social service sector, but it otherwise spells disaster for a culture.

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I just finished Vali Nasr’s Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World. Very much in the mold of Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. Nasr is the author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, and the son of the prominent Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr (of the Traditionalist School). The prose is engaging, and Nasr is both erudite and analytically focused. As an ethnic Persian the depth of his knowledge definitely exhibits particular biases, Asian Islam beyond Pakistan hovers on the margins of his narrative, less out of intent and more out of limitations of the author’s own knowledge base I suspect. Nevertheless, the focus on Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan is certainly not hobbling in any way, as these are very important Muslim nations.

Forces of Fortune is very much about the social implications of material conditions. In other words, the relative economic stagnation of the core Muslim world in relation to the developed world or the BRIC nations. Nasr’s argument is that in the 20th century Muslim elites saw in the West an object of emulation, and fixated on the exoteric aspects without comprehending the deeper structural preconditions of prosperity. Kemal Ataturk exemplified this, he forced Turks to re-conceptualize themselves as Europeans by battering them, both psychologically and literally. He demanded that Turks look the part of Europeans, that they change their dress and switch to a Roman alphabet from an Arabic script. In addition to the cultural shifts Ataturk also set the tone through an emphasis on top-down institutional development, in particular state control and guidance of the economy. In Nasr’s telling Islamic revivalism was a natural and reflexive reaction by the lower middle class and petite bourgeoisie to this assault from on high. They were culturally and economically marginalized by Kemalism, Nasserism and the Shah’s White Revolution, and the present is their revenge. Though we are aware of the international scope of Islamic revivalism, the tendrils of Kemalism, and the example of Turkey as an Islamic nation who beat back European colonialism on the fields of battle, also extend across the world. Not only did Ataturk influence Reza Pahlavi, but his model was influential in the thinking of autocrats such as Pervez Musharraf.

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The Church of Climate Change? (2)

Via the New York Times come these comments from a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia (the hacked documents came from the UEA’s Climatic Research Unit). They are particularly interesting for what he has to say about the way that the belief system of AGW has evolved, at least in some places:

The key lesson to be learned is that not only must scientific knowledge about climate change be publicly owned — the I.P.C.C. does a fairly good job of this according to its own terms — but the very practices of scientific enquiry must also be publicly owned, in the sense of being open and trusted. From outside, and even to the neutral, the attitudes revealed in the emails do not look good. To those with bigger axes to grind it is just what they wanted to find….This event might signal a crack that allows for processes of re-structuring scientific knowledge about climate change. It is possible that some areas of climate science has become sclerotic. It is possible that climate science has become too partisan, too centralized. The tribalism that some of the leaked emails display is something more usually associated with social organization within primitive cultures; it is not attractive when we find it at work inside science.

Hmmm, “social organization within primitive cultures”. Now what was I saying about an AGW religion?

To repeat myself (from my earlier post), I happen to believe that AGW is a “not unreasonable scientific hypothesis” (in fact I think it’s perfectly possible that man could be influencing the climate-although we could debate the extent). That’s not the issue here. The issue is how the story of AGW is being sold to the wider public – and how it is being received. And that’s where the religion -and, for that matter, the “tribalism”, comes in.



The Church of Climate Change?

Heather, in the course of your (fine) post on Syncopation and Thanksgiving, you reject the notion “that global warming theory represents some atavistic religious impulse.” In one sense, of course, you are quite right to do so. The idea that we might be seeing evidence (the current rather tricky pause notwithstanding) of anthropogenic global warming is a not unreasonable scientific hypothesis. And it deserves to be taken seriously.

The theory is one thing, but the creed is another. Many proponents of the premise that AGW is real have chosen to pitch their ideas, and many of their followers have chosen to believe them, in ways that rely on faith more than reason, and which do indeed look very much like a religion, complete with notions of sinners and the righteous, elaborate displays of self-abasement and moral preening, and, of course, the thrill of the End Times. Needless to say, it’s yet another reminder of how widespread a human characteristic religious belief really is.

Of course the Warmergate scandal-with its intriguing suggestions of sharp practice within AGW’s ‘priesthood’-only underlines the similarities of this new cult with the more established religions so indulgently cheering it on.




Syncopation and Thanksgiving

The New England colonists balanced Thanksgiving feasts with petitionary fasting, known as days of “public humiliation and prayer:”

Pleas for rain during spells of drought were the most common reason for fasting. But Puritans also fasted whenever a comet, an evil portent, appeared in the sky; at the start of the Salem witch trials; and throughout the various colonial Indian wars (Mather preached that the horrors in King Philip’s War, against the Wampanoag Indians, had been sent by God to chastise colonists for the sin of wig wearing). . . Puritans believed that expressions of thanks to God for their good fortune helped keep his future punishments at bay.  

It is my impression that educated Christians no longer view a twister in south Texas, say, as signifying God’s anger at human misbehavior (and no, I don’t think that global warming theory represents some atavistic religious impulse).  I may be wrong here: perhaps believers simply keep out of the public realm their view that natural and human affairs refer to them, until such a view erupts from a Falwell or Robertson. 

But if it is the case that God, ghosts, and ancestral spirits have been pushed increasingly towards the margins of our experience, the result is not dreariness but a still enchanted, wonder-filled world.  Musicians and dancers still pursue the agony of grace.  Brilliant white light fills the sky above the southern California coast.  Scientists conquer the squalor of pain and disease, taking medicine out of the domain of unwitting fraud.  And if there is ever a final tribunal of world culture, whereupon each nation will be called upon to document its contributions to the store of human beauty, America will stand tall, shoulder to shoulder with Austria, Italy, and other fonts of loveliness.  “Schubert?  Mozart?” we will say.  “Yes, fine, we acknowledge their genius and bow before them.  But here is Cole Porter; here is Leonard Bernstein; here is Rogers and Hart. Here is swing and the necessity of snapping your fingers to music, released after centuries of hidden dormancy.”  So I am grateful not just for the exuberance of America’s entrepreneurs and for the culmination of Western liberal thought in the American polity, but also for the joyfulness of America’s spirit, so magnificently on display in the American songbook.

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Politics and Science

Barely was the ink dry (pixels glowing, whatever) on  my having posted this to National Review Online:

Politics … corrupts the human sciences, suppressing research in areas where it’s feared results will crash up against what Bill Buckley called “the prevailing structure of taboos”:  widespread entrenched beliefs and emotions — in psychometry, for example, or population genetics.

… than my special issue of The Economist arrived, a survey of “the world in 2010.” The science section of the issue includes a piece by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, title: “The Looming Crisis in Human Genetics.” After discussing the meager results from genome-wide association studies, Miller turns to the just-over-the-horizon promise of full genome sequencing. (The big comparative sequencing studies to date have dealt with samples typically only 0.03 percent of the genome in size.). Miller:

When sequencing costs drop within a few years below $1,500 per genome, researchers in Europe, China and India will start huge projects with vast sample sizes, sophisticated bioinformatics, diverse trait measures and detailed family structures. (American bioscience will prove too politically squeamish to fund such studies.) …

The trouble is, the resequencing data will reveal much more about human evolutionary history and ethnic differences than they will about disease genes. Once enough DNA is analysed around the world, science will have a panoramic view of human genetic variation across races, ethnicities, and regions. We will start reconstructing a detailed family tree that links all living humans …

We will also identify the many genes that create physical and mental differences across populations, and we will be able to estimate when those genes arose …

If the shift from GWAS to sequencing studies finds evidence of such politically awkward and morally perplexing facts, we can expect the usual range of ideological reactions, including nationalistic retro-racism from conservatives and outraged denial from blank-slate liberals. The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition of the biodiversity within our extraordinary species — including a clearer view of likely comparative advantages between the world’s different economies.

The boldface there is mine. The “we” in subsequent sentences should actually be “they” since, Miller predicts (correctly, I think) that American scientists will be too “politically squeamish” to join in this tremendous exploration.

Perhaps we should just stop doing science altogether; or at least, hand over our bioscience labs to the Discovery Institute.

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