Sunday, April 23, 2017

President Carter's Christianity

Our former President is a Sunday school for adults teacher and "born-again evangelical".  Shortly before Easter, on April 15, the New York Times published an edited email interview by opinion journalist Nicholas Kristof titled President Carter, Am I a Christian?  He was asked about his religious beliefs. President Carter's answers are quoted and followed by my atheist reaction.

President Carter began "Having a scientific background, I do not believe in a six-day creation of the world that occurred in 4004 B.C., stars falling on the earth, that kind of thing. I accept the overall message of the Bible as true, and also accept miracles described in the New Testament, including the virgin birth and the Resurrection."

The virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, and overall message of the Bible are not merely non-scientific, they are in direct conflict with science, no less so than a six day creation, a 6,000 year old universe, stars falling on earth, that kind of thing.  The distinction that President Carter is claiming between the former and the latter is mostly, if not entirely, bogus. 

"My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes from my Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof. I derive a great personal benefit from the totality of this belief, which comes naturally to me."

Those beliefs contain factual historical assertions and as such we need more than an ideologically based commitment supported by nothing more than a dubious assertion of an irrelevant "great personal benefit" to properly justify such beliefs. Justifying convictions regarding historical facts on faith and "personal benefit" is a mistake.  That promiscuous method is incapable of distinguishing non-fiction from fiction, it is arbitrarily and indiscriminately available to justify any possible historical fact claim.

"I do not judge whether someone else is a Christian.... Those (mostly men) who practice superiority and exclusion contradict my interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus, which exemplified peace, love, compassion, humility, forgiveness and sacrificial love....  eventually I decide what I believe, as an integral part of my existence and a guide for my life. This is based on what I consider to be the perfect life and example of Jesus."

President Carter is being credulous and biased.  The life of Jesus is mostly unknown to us because the bible is silent about him until after he is a young adult and because the bible may not be accurately relating the actual story of a single person as it claims to be doing.  Overturning tables in the Temple was rowdy, self-promoting, behavior.  That was not particularly forgiving or humility exhibiting.  It does not require much effort to imagine a better life and example than that of Jesus as depicted in the bible.  Lives can be better or worse, but a perfect life is like a perfect year, there is no such thing.

Our beliefs regarding how the universe operates influence our decisions so we need to be careful about acquiring our beliefs responsibly. Our individual existence has a very small presence in the much larger universe and does not determine how the universe operates, so appealng to ourselves as a justification for our beliefs is not a good approach.  Instead, we need to look outside of ourselves, to the overall available empirical evidence and not restrict our search to a particular book or a particular life from a particular time and place.

"I look on the contradictions among the Gospel writers as a sign of authenticity, based on their different life experiences, contacts with Jesus and each other. If the earlier authors of the Bible had been creating an artificial document, they would have eliminated disparities. I try to absorb the essence and meaning of the teachings of Jesus Christ, primarily as explained in the letters written by Paul to the early churches. When there are apparent discrepancies, I make a decision on what to believe, respecting the equal status and rights of all people."

The letters written by the delusion prone Paul tell us about the anguished thoughts within Paul's head.  Taking his letters to have more significance than that, as if his letters convey the central cosmic truth of our universe, requires a loss of common sense perspective. This loss of perspective is amplified by the topsy-turvy decision to take textual contradictions and disparities as evidence of authenticity.  The anonymous authors of the bible, like Paul, were real and flawed people, and some early believers, including the originator of Christianity, Paul, may have been sincere.  The assertion that the authors of the Gospels had contact with Jesus is unlikely because the first Gospel (Mark) appears to have been written too many decades after the events and because Paul depicts Jesus as a cartoon like figure retrieved from memories of dreams.  Furthermore, the Gospels were written in Greek, which was a foreign language for Jesus and anyone who met him, and they are third person non-eyewitness accounts ("according to Mark..").  This does not suffice as evidence for the contents of the bible probably being historically true.

"It is usually impossible to convince skeptics. For me, prayer helps internally, as a private conversation with my creator, who knows everything and can do anything. If I were an amputee, my prayer would be to help me make the best of my condition, to be a good follower of the perfect example set by Jesus Christ and to be thankful for life, freedom and opportunities to be a blessing to others."

Contrary to what President Carter said, it is usually possible to convince skeptics by demonstrating a conclusion is best fit with the available empirical evidence.  President Carter fails to acknowldge the best fit conclusion for why a creator who knows everything and can do anything has never replaced an amputee's missing limb: There is no such creator.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Critical thinking instruction reduces belief in pseudoscience

A recent study by North Carolina State University researchers, Explicitly Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in a History Coursepublished in Science & Education, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s11191-017-9878-2found that teaching critical thinking skills in a humanities course significantly reduces student beliefs in "pseudoscience" that is unsupported by facts.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Oppose Maryland tax exemptions for Boy Scouts

The Maryland Senate is probably going to vote soon on HB 796, Sales and Use Tax - Exemptions - Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.  The House voted unanimously for this bill.  The corresponding Senate bill, SB 748, has not been reported by the Senate committee.  Therefore, you can send two emails, one to the committee, and another to your Senator, opposing this bill.  The email addresses of the committee members are on  Below is a copy of the email that I sent to the Senate Committee which you can copy.

Budget and Taxation Committee
3 West Miller Senate Office Building
Annapolis, MD 21401

Chairwoman and Members of the Committee:

Generally, tax exempt non-profits must comply with the same laws which apply to for-profit businesses.  Churches and religious non-profits are a special case because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the government making a law "respecting an establishment of religion" and also forbids "prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  However, government cannot single out particular religious non-profits for a special tax exemption.

The policies of Boy Scouts restrict membership to applicants who "subscribe to the precepts of the Declaration of Religious Principles (duty to God), and abide by the Scout Oath and Scout Law." Boy Scouts of America, Membership Standards Implementation Frequently Asked Questions, 4, available at  The Declaration of Religious Principles states, in part, that "Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God and, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member," and that "[o]nly persons willing to subscribe to this Declaration of Religious Principle ... shall be entitled to certificates of membership." Boy Scouts of America, Manual for Chaplain Aides and Chaplains, The Scout Oath reads, in relevant part, "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country", Membership Standards Implementation supra, 4.

Because the Boy Scouts of America Scouting program is closed to non-theists it should not be singled out for special tax exemptions.  Girl Scouts would be granted the same tax exemption but all other competing youth organizations, including Camp Fire, Navigator USA, and Baden Powell Service Association, will still be required to pay sales and use taxes.  Unlike the Boy Scouts of America Scouting program, these other youth programs do not mandate theism.

The uncollected sales and use tax problem has at least two appropriate remedies.  One is to enforce the state tax law and collect the sales and use taxes.  The other is to grant a sales and use tax exemption for all non-profit youth organizations equally.  Privileging BSA with a tax exemption is unfair and improper.  While pairing the tax exemption for Boy Scouts with the same exemption for Girl Scouts provides for gender balance, it fails to provide such balance for excluded non-theist boys and their families and for competing youth organizations.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Stephen Colbert and Ricky Garvis debate about atheism

Does a recent article in the conservative online news and commentary website PJ Media titled What atheist Ricky Garvis got wrong debating God with Stephen Colbert succeed in demonstrating that Ricky Garvis is mistaken?  Few people will be surprised that an atheist such as myself concludes the aforementioned commentary for theism fails to defeat atheism.  Yet few people will understand how it fails.

The commentary for theism begins by characterizing teleology as "one of atheism's blind spots".  As shown in the video of the Colbert versus Garvis debate,  Colbert's first challenge for Garvis is the question "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Gervais dismisses the question, retorting that the better question is "How is there something?" Is Garvis wrong to scoff at the relevancy of the notion of "why"? 

The theistic notion adopted by this commentary - that there is a why question with an answer that is distinct from the how question answer - assumes more than is necessary and therefore assumes too much.  An explanation that answers the how question can suffice.  This is because the how answer satisfies the why question this way: Given that this is how that happened, that did happen.  Why did it happen?  Because of its happening being possible as demonstrated by the how it happened explanation.   In other words, in this context, an origin that can happen did happen because it could and that is the whole story.  There is literally no need to provide a separate answer addressing why it happened to have the complete explanation.

But even if a how answer does not suffice to provide a complete explanation, we then have no viable option of inventing a why answer and declaring that additional explanation to also be true to fill the gap.  This is because we know from human history that we lack the capability to correctly guess the true answer to such questions. Any true answer will be so counter-intuitive to humans that we have zero chance of guessing the correct answer merely by applying reason and logic that is not fully anchored and directed by empirical evidence. Without the empirical evidence we are ignorant.  Full stop.  Garvis emphasized our condition of being ignorant.  The author of this commentary fails to address, let alone counter, that argument.

There is another dubious assumption in Colbert's question, one that Garvis did not dispute.  The commentary puts it this way "The incontrovertible truth is that something exists and something cannot come from nothing."  This notion that absolute nothingness must be the initial starting point also assumes too much.  This is a common assumption behind theism and as such it is a weakness of theism.  We have no good reason to think absolute nothingness is anything other than a fiction originating from human intuition.  While we do not know what preceded the Big Bang, the empirical evidence that we do have favors the conclusion that absolute nothingness is not possible because "nothingness" appears to be an intrinsically unstable state.  Absolutes are sometimes counter-evidenced by modern physics.  There is no absolute cold, absolute hot, absolute soft, absolute hard, absolute light, absolute dark, etc.  This sometimes may be be true even when there are absolute boundaries that cannot be crossed.  For example, there is a boundary line for absolute cold but it may not be realizable.  An object cannot travel faster than 186,282 miles per second which is far slower than one million miles per second which is far slower than absolutely fast (whatever that means).

The commentary then cites "the Five Ways of Aquinas" as being the basis for Colbert's next challenge to Garvis that there is a need for a prime mover.  Citing a 13th century thinker is a very weak approach to debating how the universe operates.  This is because our knowledge of how the universe operates is substantially better now than it was in the 13th century.  Aquinas did not know that objects in motion continue to move unless they are slowed down or stopped by friction or collisions because this explanation was discovered after he died.  In quantum mechanics there is no prime mover, there are events which spontaneously occur stochastically with a consistent probability frequency.   Aquinas could not imagine quantum mechanics because even after it was discovered centuries later it remains counter-intuitive.  There are forces that repel and attract which cause objects to move.  Aquinas could not imagine these forces because they are counter-intuitive and were discovered after he died.  

While it is true that naturalism imposes substantial constraints on what is possible, the constraints it imposes are not as severe as many theists assume.  Theists tend to rely too much on human intuition to anchor their arguments.  When we discipline ourselves with the additional constraint of depending on the available empirical evidence to direct and dictate our conclusions we discover how capable and productive naturalism is and how incapable and unproductive human intuition without the naturalism constraint is.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Constitution Center and presidential inaugural SHMG

On January 10 the Constitution Center published their 10 fascinating facts presidential inauguration.  The Constitution Center is a secular, non-partisan, federal government sponsored, organization that relies on an advisory panel of expert historians and scholars.  Therefore we have reason to take them seriously as a reliable source of information about American history.  They originally said this: 
We don’t really know who added “Under God” to the oath. Author Washington Irving claimed George Washington started the tradition of adding “So help me God” at the oath’s end. There is no direct evidence of that. Others believe Chester Alan Arthur used the words when he took the oath in private after James Garfield died.

President Arthur took his presidential oath of office twice, the first time in his apartment in New York.  A short but detailed account of that first, unplanned, oath recitation that names six participants was published the next day in the Omaha Daily Bee. That report quotes the oath and clearly states that there was no SHMG, see

After traveling to Washington D.C., Arthur was inaugurated again two days later by Chief Justice of the United States Morrison R. Waite in a larger ceremony held in the Vice President's office with invited guests. It was widely reported in newspapers, starting early the next day, that he added the phrase "so help me god" to his oath of office during that second oath of office recitation.  The published description of what happened included the who, when, where, and what details that require an eyewitness to reveal.  Participants in the second ceremony as described in the newspaper article, several dozen of whom were identified by name, included two associate justices of the Supreme Court, two former presidents, cabinet members, some Senators, and some Representatives.

I do not know who wrote the article or if subsequent accounts claiming Chester Arthur said SHMG rely on this initial report or independently confirm it. Nevertheless, the publish article is credible enough to be accepted absent any eyewitness subsequently contradicting it.  Sometimes the evidence favors a conclusion that so and so said such and such and it is misleading to suggest otherwise, even though technically it is true that we lack certainty.  
In contrast, Washington Irving's biography of George Washington fails to qualify as an eyewitness account of the inauguration.  Irving did not identify an eyewitness, he himself was too far away in the crowd from the president elect to be the eyewitness, he was six years old at the time and he published his biography over 6 decades after the fact, and his account of the inauguration was copied from an earlier account written by someone else who was an eyewitness without acknowledgement or permission [Memoir of Eliza S. M. Quincy, no SHMG in that eyewitness account].  Also, that SHMG story is counter-evidenced by a contemporaneous eyewitness account of the oath recitation written by someone who stood near the president elect on the balcony [letter of the French consul, Comte de Moustier, April 30, 1789].  If George Washington appended SHMG then not only did no one notice, but for the next ninety two years, starting with George Washington's second inauguration, no one else did that again, even though the other presidents repeated the first inauguration's public ceremony with hand on the bible followed by kissing the bible that was required by New York state law for the first inauguration held in NY.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

CNN's Katie Glaeser promotes misinformation

CNN published an article on January 18 by their employee Katie Glaeser, an Off Programming Producer, fun facts about past inaugurals that features a drawing of George Washington's face with a speech bubble connected to his open mouth containing the words "so help me God".  The article says that "Yes, this stuff really happened." The fifth fact is titled "The 'So help me God' line was ad-libbed." It says:

During his first inauguration in 1789 in New York, it is said that George Washington added the phrase, "So help me God," and so the precedent was set that presidents follow to this day. There isn't any hard evidence of this, but even the National Archives credits him with doing it.

I contacted Katie Glaeser to inform her that the National Archive Records Administration (NARA) does not credit George Washington with "doing it".  It would be irresponsible for NARA to credit anyone with doing anything without evidence.  I would have thought that a professional journalist at CNN would respect the need for evidence and notice this inconsistency.  Journalism is not worth the paper it inks, or the screen it populates with words, without evidence to back its "this stuff really happened" presumption.  I believe that my initial two emails about this reached her but my third attempt bounced.  

The National Archives abandoned their claim that George Washington added the words "so help me God" some years ago (seven years ago?) after they determined it could not be supported.  I know this because I witnessed the conversation with NARA about it and witnessed when NARA finally revised their web site to remove it (they were one of the last federal government websites to stop misrepresenting this ahistorical claim as historical).

Katie Glaeser and CNN should publicly acknowledge that NARA does not claim that GW said SHMG.  If they are unsure they can contact NARA and ask them.  It is easy to ask NARA, they have an online form for questions and usually respond promptly.  This was NARA's response on 01-20, two days after CNN published their article claiming NARA asserts that George Washington said 'so help me god': "We do not address whether Washington added the line because there isn't an official account of the ceremony and scholarly sources about whether he said "so help me god" are inconsistent."

Indeed, scholarly sources are inconsistent.  This is because too many historians in the past mistakenly accepted the story that George Washington did it without going through the trouble of verifying the claim from primary sources.  This mistake has since been corrected and historians today are no longer repeating this false story.  But it appears that Katie Gleaser prefers the false history so much that she relied on an old, isolated, inactive backup file with ".bak." in the file name on the NARA web server that asserted GW said SHMG while ignoring the corresponding active, current web page.  NARA has now replaced their backup file so that it no longer claims George Washington said "so help me God" to protect our planet from unreliable journalists like CNN's Katie Glaeser.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Jeff Session's absolutism

By Mathew Goldstein

Senator Jeff Session, speaking to a Faith and Freedom Coalition event last year about the importance of the Supreme Court, claimed that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had what he called “a postmodern, relativistic, secular mindset” that is “directly contrary to the founding of our republic.”  He complained that Sotomayor had endorsed legal scholar Martha Minow’s observation that in the law “there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives — no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging”.  He has also identified Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan as a judge with this mindset.

Mr. Sessions then said this: “So I really think this whole court system is really important and the real value and battle that we’re engaged in here is one to reaffirm that there is objective truth, it’s not all relative. And that means some things are right and some things are wrong, and we’re getting too far away from that in my opinion and it’s not healthy for any country and it’s really not healthy for a democracy like ours that’s built on the rule of law.”  If he was talking about his boss, president elect Donald Trump, instead of the whole court system then there would be lots of false statements he could quote that support his complaint.

Mr. Sessions unambiguously links a "there is no right and wrong" attitude to secularism, saying in his recent Senate hearings for Attorney General that he is "not sure" if secular attorneys are as capable of discerning the truth as religious attorneys.  Sonia Sotomayor self-identifies as a Catholic but it appears that she, like the majority of Americans, does not go to church every Sunday.  For Mr. Sessions, a failure to visibly worship every weekend appears to suffice to characterize that person as secularist.  Ms. Sotomayor, you are welcome to join WASH, we will not reject your membership if you continue to call yourself Catholic.

Mr. Session's battle in the court system between those who think "that there is objective truth" versus those who think "it's all relative" is imaginary.  Mr. Session is engaging in the hyperbole that characterizes partisan stereotyping.  Nothing in Sonia Sotomayor's or Elena Kagan's professional history supports the notion that they believe there is no right and wrong.  Saying that there are multiple perspectives, that there is no neutrality, that choice is inherent to judging, that there is no single objective stance, is not a denial that the outcome will be qualitatively better or worse as a consequence of which decision is made.  It is more likely an acknowledgement that the future consequences of today's decisions can sometimes be difficult to predict reliably, that decisions can require trade-offs between similarly weighted positive and negative elements contained in the alternative outcomes, that different types of positive and negative elements within the outcomes can be difficult to evaluate against each other.  Because of the complexities there may not be a single best choice.  For many judges the real world decisions that they are expected to make may often have complexity.

I cannot speak for Martha Minow and Sonia Sotomayor.  I am inclined to think that there sometimes is a single, most objective stance, and sometimes there is no single, most objective stance.  The details of the context matters.  It is easy to talk in generalities and abstractions.  Reasonable people recognize that generalities are rarely all inclusive and complete characterizations of every possible context, but are instead statements of tendencies that are intended to identify what is deemed to be usually true but not necessarily always true.  

If I thought our judges have a postmodern, relativistic, mindset of the sort that Jeff Session complains about then I would find that to be objectionable.  But Jeff Session fails to demonstrate that there is such a problem and I see no evidence for it.  When we look at Jeff Sessions record as a prosecutor we see a rigid, mechanical, check a couple of boxes and render the verdict, inflexibility that appears to pay little, if any, attention to the possibility that a perpetrator of a crime can also be a victim of circumstances.  The result appears to me to be overly simplistic and excessively harsh.  The extent to which justice requires accounting for extenuating circumstances when implementing a punishment is a controversial topic.  However uncomfortable this may make some people, there is some room for disagreement on the best answer to such questions and the right answer is unlikely to be found in the pages of the bible.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Biased wedding officiant laws

By Mathew Goldstein

Maryland law grants a clerk of court, a deputy clerk of court designated by the county administrative judge for the county circuit court, or a judge, the authority to perform state recognized weddings.  Like most other states, Maryland law also gives religious institutions the same authority as the aforementioned judicial staff to perform weddings.  Maryland law says that "any religious official of a body or order authorized by the rules and customs of that body or order to perform a marriage ceremony" has this civic authority.  

Non-religious couples who prefer to have a single wedding ceremony, but do not want that ceremony to be held at their local court building, have several options.  Secularist groups can nevertheless arrange to have themselves designated as a religious organization with the state of Maryland to obtain for their members the authority to perform a state recognized wedding.  There are also several organizations that grant divinity degrees for a fee.  The divinity degree confers on the degree holder the authority to perform an official wedding on behalf of the church issuing the degree and they probably also confer a good income for the people issuing the dubious degrees.

Some of the people who are inconvenienced by the biased wedding laws make an effort to change them.  Some years ago a bill was submitted in the Maryland General Assembly to give non-religious organizations the authority to designate people to perform weddings.  The bill was quickly defeated before it had a chance to get out of committee after a group of lawyers and judges that advises the legislature criticized the bill.  They complained that allowing non-religious groups to nominate people to officiate weddings on similar terms as religious groups would result in too many wedding officiants failing to follow through and submit the completed forms.

Nevertheless, slowly, states are loosening their marriage laws to allow people who are not government employees and not religiously affiliated to officiate weddings.  The elected lawmakers of the District of Columbia enacted a law in 2013 granting non-religious individuals "civic celebrant" authority to officiate weddings.  Apparently, the non-religious folks across the Maryland D.C. line can be trusted to promptly submit the completed forms after the wedding ceremony is completed.  

The Center for Inquiry, following failures to challenge the restriction on who can officiate weddings in the Illinois legislature, went to court.  On January 4, a U.S. District Judge ruled that “marriages solemnized by Center for Inquiry secular celebrants are valid” and ruled out any efforts to preclude secular celebrants from solemnizing marriages.  In 2014 the Center for Inquiry won a similar battle in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit over the failure of Indiana law to grant non-religious individuals the same privilege to officiate weddings as religious individuals.  At a rate of one state every year or two there could be wedding officiant equality in all of the states before the start of the twenty second century.  

Maryland should be one of the early states.  We should not have to wait for a judge's order, or fifty more years, for the General Assembly to change this law.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Open letter to The Public Editor of the NY Times

Mark Oppenheimer's popular recent magazine article on an atheist preacher “The evangelical scion who stopped believing,” contains gratuitous atheist-bashing.  The article is larded with the usual attacks against atheism and atheists, including a few swipes at Richard Dawkins.  The NY Times is allowing Mark Oppenheimer to utilize the newspaper as a vehicle to promote selectively negative, exaggerated, over-generalizations that play into popular stereotypes against a disliked minority group.  Accusations like those made against atheists in this article are not well justified and should have been omitted.

It is a pejorative canard to characterize atheism as representing an "uncompromising scientism".  How about the more accurate, less nasty, "uncompromising empiricism"?  The efforts of this article's author to instruct NY Times readers to self-identify as humanists instead of as atheists because the former is more acceptable to him is misplaced personal editorializing.  

Mark Oppenheimer overlooks that Sam Harris wrote a book on morality without God, that Dan Dennett has never said that religion should be mocked or its adherents pitied, and that The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins has a positive message about how one can be moral and fulfilled without relying on a God. A main message of these books was a rejection of theism, but why is the NY Times publishing content about atheism that assumes a rejection of theism is negative? If theism is false then why is it bad for people to focus on rejecting it?  Does Mark Oppenheimer make the same complaint against theists when they opt to make adopting theism a main message in their books?  And why is the NY Times publishing content that is predicated on denying and rejecting the arguments from those same writers, and many other writers, about the advantages of living a life without gods, without requiring the effort of a point by point rebuttal of those arguments?

As for “rampant misogyny” in atheism, unfortunately some atheists, like our president-elect, express sexist attitudes or behaviors.  But an objective account of atheist gatherings will not comport with Mark Oppenheimer's depiction of atheism as rotten with misogyny.   As a group they favored Hillary Clinton to be president.  Atheists as a group are not purveyors of, advocates for, or instantiations of, a rape culture. Positive attitudes about civic equality and ethical behavior may even be more prevalent among atheists than among other groups.  

As for “exalting Darwin,” wasn’t it Darwin who weakened the hold of theistic religion over society by showing that phenomena commonly considered explainable only by God had a purely naturalistic basis?  Mark Oppenheimer apparantly dislikes the implications of modern biology, but that is his personal bias that should not be imported into NY Times journalism covering atheism.

Instead of relying on Mark Oppenheimer for articles about atheism, how about publishing someone who will not try to define atheists as people with negative character flaws?  How about publishing someone who can write about atheists and atheism similar to the way journalists are expected to write about theists and theism, without the snarky anti-atheist editorializing?  Or at least do more redacting before publishing.  This article is mostly very good. With some modifications it would have been an excellent article.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Religion and politics

Is modern knowledge a pure, stand-alone, collection of information disconnected from conclusions about how the universe functions?  Of course not.  That question is ridiculous for entertaining an obviously untenable fiction.  Yet religious believers depend on arguments that modern knowledge is irrelevant or wrong when their religious beliefs clash with modern knowledge.  This has political consequences.

Should health insurance cover contraception?  If we live in a natural universe then the answer is yes.  If we live in a supernatural universe then the answer to this question, and for that matter the best answer to almost any other question regarding government policy, and individual decisions, depends on what it is claimed a supernatural entity wants, as was revealed to us in various texts, according to the interpretations of some religious authorities.

Some people who self-identify as secularists say that because our government is defined as secular it does not matter what anyone thinks regarding deities because it is legally forbidden to even consider such claims.  After all, any claim that asserts god says such and such is automatically religious.  So there is no practical problem here.

Such secularists are wrong. There is still a problem.   One remaining problem is that the definition of secular depends on utilizing modern knowledge as our decision making foundation.  Yet this principle of basing decision making on modern knowledge is itself rejected by many religious people.  Furthermore, it cannot be otherwise.  Religious people must reject at least some modern knowledge because otherwise they cannot maintain their mutually exclusive religious beliefs.  They may deny the conflict, but the conflict is there, and their mistaken denial of the conflict does not make the problem go away.

When some secularists campaign for an end to establishment of monotheism they are criticized by some of their fellow secularists.  The criticisms go like this: There are more important issues!  We cannot win!

The "there are more important issues" complaint is bogus.  Ok, there are more important issues.  We agree. So what?  There are always more important issues.  No one claims this is most important issue.  That is not a reasonable standard or demand.  It is hypocritical.  No one can claim that they only focus on the most important issues.  The only valid standard is this:  What is better versus what is worse.  When we advocate for what is better against what is worse then we have met our civic obligations to ourselves and to everyone else.

The "we cannot win complaint" gets more to the heart of the problem.  This is all about fear.  Fear of the unknown.  And it is reasonable to fear popular bigotry, hatred, intolerance, resentment.  Hell, I have experienced this myself too much in my own life.  So what do we do?

A good place to start is to acknowledge the fact that popular opinion matters.  Then we can tackle popular opinion as the problem that it is.  The other thing we should acknowledge is that there is no easy way to do this.  We cannot tip toe around the tulips here.  Addressing the public opinion problem entails confronting it head on.  People who insist otherwise are engaging in wishful thinking.  We should get off of our high horses and engage. We should not leave the public space to conservative and liberal theists arguing between themselves.  We should actively argue against theism.  The best kind of citizen (contra Boy Scouts of America) debates other citizens to correct popular misperceptions that we live in a supernatural universe.

Debating the issues at the higher level alone is a bad strategy.  That approach simply fails to address the underlying motivations for the disagreements which are sometimes rooted in opposing understandings of how the universe functions.  It cannot be overemphasized that people who make decisions and advocate for policies that match their understanding of how the universe functions are correct to be doing that.  We should be unembarrassed about focusing on that lower level, on people's understanding of how the universe functions, and in particular on the natural versus supernatural universe disagreement.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The arguments of Christian author Timothy Keller

The NY Times columnist Nicolas Kristof turned to the Rev. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the award-winning bestseller The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, to tell us if Mr. Kristof is a Christian.  An excerpt of the interview was published the day before Christmas.  I could not care less who the Rev. Keller claims qualifies as Christian (he concluded Mr. Kristof appeared to be "on the outside of the boundary").  The focus here is his arguments for why we should be Christian.  Let's see if the Rev. Keller's argument for why we should be Christian is compelling.

In response to Kristof saying he doubts the veracity of the Christian claim that a virgin women became pregnant and gave birth, the Rev. Keller points out that saying that climate change is a hoax is inconsistent with being a board member of Greenpeace.  Similarly, he argues, any religious faith must have some boundaries for dissent that cannot be removed without destabilizing the whole thing.  OK, but climate change is backed by empirical evidence, it is not a faith, and this distinction is important for the quality of any argument defending factual claims about how the universe functions.  Greenpeace is properly justified in claiming that climate change is factual.  We agree that boundaries are needed.  Let's begin by properly setting the boundary between justified and unjustified beliefs.  We know that women who become pregnant are not virgins.  The Rev. Keller's response here does not succeed in arguing otherwise.

Mr. Kristof points out that the earliest accounts of the life of Jesus do not mention a virgin birth and the virgin birth story in the Book of Luke was written in a different kind of Greek that indicates it was added later.  This is a reasonable, best fit with the empirical evidence, argument against the veracity of the virgin birth story.  The letters of Paul, the gospels of Mark and Thomas, say nothing about a virgin birth.  The Rev. Keller replies that dismissing the virgin birth "would damage the fabric of the Christian message."  He then argues for the centrality of belief in the virgin belief to the Christian message.  The Rev. Keller's argument here violates a basic premise of empiricism.  We do not start with a conclusion and then dismiss the counter-argument on nothing more than an a-priori, circular, commitment to retain that conclusion.

Mr. Kristof than asks if the Resurrection must be taken literally.  Again, the Rev. Keller mistakenly responds by citing the centrality of Christianity's historical doctrines to its ethical teachings.  OK, but when people die our metabolism stops, our body disintegrates, and shortly thereafter the physical damage is too substantial for any possibility of the metabolism restarting.  Gravity keeps the disintegrating body attached to the earth.  The Christian message is not empirical evidence otherwise.  The Rev. Keller appears to fail to recognize that historical assertions are factual conclusions, not doctrines, and that such conclusions can only be justified with supporting empirical evidence.  Christian beliefs are not empirical evidence for Christian beliefs.

Mr. Kristof points out that the first gospel, Mark, is "fuzzy" about the Resurrection being an actual historical event.  The Rev. Keller responds that Mark's gospel "ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us."  He then makes the argument that the fact that women who had social low status were the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection implies that their Resurrection claims are true because a fictional account would have cited men as the eyewitnesses.  He then cites "thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshipping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical."  These are empirical evidence based arguments.  

The Rev. Keller is now recognizing that empirical evidence carries weight and has a place in this argument.  But he is being noticeably selective here, citing empirical evidence only when it favors his conclusion, having abandoned empiricism altogether when it was unfavorable to his conclusion.  His arguments are weak and dubious.  The Rev. Keller overlooks that the gospels (after Mark) all included male eyewitnesses to bolster credibility, in addition to the initial female eyewitnesses.  His claim of thousands of sudden Jewish converts to Christianity is a dubious historical factual assertion.  Most of the converts to Christianity were likely polytheists.  Christian beliefs likely spread gradually, starting with small groups of people who came in contact with the first traveling evangelical, the originator of Christianity, Paul.  Out of 1-2 million Jews, maybe 1000 were Christian at the end of the 1st century, we do not know the actual number.  The Rev. Keller's claim that "most scholars" think that there is an additional final section to Mark's gospel that is missing is also dubious.  Mark, the first gospel to be written, ends where it does because the resurrection eyewitness stories were first introduced in the subsequent gospels.  We have no evidence otherwise.  I think he is defining "most scholars" as most Christian believers with a graduate degree in religious studies.  Those graduate degrees are occupational, not scholarly.  Early first century historians never mention a resurrection of Jesus  (Philo-Judaeus, Martial, Arrian, Appian, Theon of Smyrna, Lucanus, Aulus Gellius, Seneca, Plutarch, Apollonius, Epictetus, Silius Italicus, Ptolemy).

Mr. Kristof responds that, as a journalist, he wants eyewitnesses and evidence because without such skepticism we apply a different standard towards our own faith tradition than we do towards "Islam and Hinduism and Taoism".  The Rev. Keller responds that he agrees we require evidence.  He then defends the existence of a god as being best fit with the evidence, citing human consciousness, cognition, and moral values as being non-materialistic.  We disagree both that those traits are unique to humanity and that those animal traits are non-materialistic in origin.  I am convinced that best fit with the available empirical evidence favors the conclusion that those capabilities found in biological creatures are manifested physically.  They are materialistically derived via selection of advantageous changes to DNA over multiple generations of reproducing life.  Physical damage or abnormalities to particular areas of the brain, or drug induced interference with particular processes that occur in the brain, alter or undermine consciousness, cognition, and moral attitudes and behaviors. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that those are human capabilities that lack a materialistic foundation and therefore evidence supernaturalism.  We now have an argument for deism.  There is still a large distance to travel from supernaturalism all the way to a bible based Christianity.

The Rev. Keller then argues, citing Nietzsche for support, that human rights, concern for others, and equality have no basis in a materialistic universe, that humanistic values require a leap of faith for non-theists.  I am not convinced that such goals have no logical or reasonable justifications in a materialistic universe.  As temporary, fragile, dependent, materialistic beings, we do better when we cooperate together towards realizing shared goals rooted in a collective respect for our common, naturalistic, needs.  But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that Nietzsche and the Rev. Keller are correct.  Does supernaturalism avoid this leap of faith problem?  How?  God said so?  

Furthermore, how is a difficulty in justifying justice as a goal that is worthy of expending effort to try to achieve relevant to choosing between theism versus atheism?  We either live in a naturalistic or supernatural universe regardless of how easy, or difficult, it is to justify particular social goals.  These are two different, distinct, questions with the question of naturalism versus supernaturalism describing the larger context within which we subsequently tackle the second question.  The first, natural versus supernatural, question may have relevance to the second, justification for justice as a goal, question.  But the second question has no relevance to answering the first question.  The horse goes before the cart, not the other way around like Rev. Keller is trying to argue here.

Mr. Kristof responded to Rev. Keller by questioning whether holding beliefs consistent with modern science, such as supporting human rights, is analogous with beliefs "that seem inconsistent, like a virgin birth or resurrection?"  The Rev. Keller denied his Christian beliefs are inconsistent with science.  He cited divine miracles as the explanation for those two conclusions.  He pointed out that there is no possibility of proving that miracles do not happen.  OK, but we humans are not all present and all knowing (of course).  Therefore, this request from Rev. Keller for proof in this context is unreasonable.  Best fit with the available empirical evidence is the standard.  Without reliance on empirical evidence there is no proper justification for believing in miracles.  It makes no sense to claim otherwise.  Possibility alone does not justify belief that the possibility is true.  Certainly, science does not function that way.  Science depends on empirical evidence backed probability, not mere possibilities.

The Rev. Keller then asserts: "Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause."  Repeatability is a limitation.  But his claim that science must always assume a natural cause is false.  Science a-priori assumes nothing regarding whether a cause is natural or supernatural.  Science seeks out whatever is successful with regard to methods and conclusions.  The methods adopted by science are themselves conclusions derived from science.  Science adopts the methods that science concludes, based on successful outcomes, work.  For several hundred years science has relied exclusively on naturalistic methods and conclusions, not because science a-priori excludes supernaturalism, but because only naturalism is successful, supernaturalism always fails.

The Rev. Keller then argues that a one time miracle is beyond the reach of science.  OK, we agree that science can miss one time events that occurred about two thousand years ago.  But where does this fact take us?  Is this is justification for being a monotheist, let alone for being a Christian?  We all agree that we have limitations that carry over to the human activity we refer to as science.  We do not eyewitness the past or the future, for example.  Our capabilities are clearly limited, particularly without the assistance of machines that are more capable in some respects than we are.  But we have no business going from our limitations all the way to factual conclusions about how the universe works.  Ignorance is not a proper justification for beliefs.  Ignorance is a justification for not knowing, it is not a justification for knowledge.  When we lose our keys at night in the dark we may not find them without a flashlight, at least not until after day break, unless the keys conveniently lay under a street lamp.  Meanwhile, it is not reasonable to conclude that by a one time divine miracle the keys were transported to the far side of the moon.

Mr. Kristof then asks the Rev. Keller if it is OK to have doubts and struggle over these kinds of questions.  The Rev. Keller answers yes.  Quoting from the Book of Jude, he claims doubts lead to stronger faith.  We disagree.  Doubts about the veracity of factual claims should take us to skepticism and away from belief in those conclusions.  The Rev. Keller then asserts that our choice is between faith in naturalism or faith in supernaturalism.  We disagree.  The only option is the best fit with the available empirical evidence conclusion.  The available evidence decisively favors naturalism, the evidence is neither silent or neutral on this question.  The laws of physics that best describe the functioning of our universe are mathematical equations consistent with our universe being mechanical, material, and physical.  There is no astrology, or evidence for a God, in those equations.  Or in biology, or anywhere in our shared modern knowledge about how the universe functions.

Mr. Kristof then questions the Christian belief that billions of people are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian countries.  The Rev. Keller responds that the bible clearly asserts that "you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus".  The Quran makes a similar claim that Islam is the exclusive path to a postmortem kingdom of God.  Some arguments are so convoluted and parochial they can come only from the mouths of some Christians, or Jews, or Muslims.  They resort to similar non-empirical, anti-empirical, and empirically weak or dubious, circular, incomplete, biased, arguments.  Instead of asking Rev. Keller to judge if he is Christian Mr. Kristof may do better to say he has no desire to be Christian.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Better ways to select our leaders

Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by more than 500,000 votes. Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by more than 2 million. Yet she still lost the White House because Donald Trump narrowly won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania combined by fewer than 100,000 votes.

The electoral college is not neutral, it favors the presidential candidate who wins in the small states and/or the largest states over the candidate that is most popular. How should this problem be fixed? First we will identify where the electoral college goes bad.  Then we will examine whether the leading proposed electoral college reform, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, remedies the problems.

One problem is that all states get two electors for free, in addition to one elector per House district, the same way that each state gets two Senators.  This gives smaller states substantially more electors per voter than larger states.   

A second problem is that 48 states and the District of Columbia award all of their electors to the candidate who wins the statewide vote instead of awarding electors individually by each House district vote result or collectively in proportion to the statewide vote.  Although the electoral college is a federal institution, the states decide how their electors are selected.  State lawmakers assign their electors this way, despite it being unfair to their own voters who voted for the non-first place candidates, because it increases the influence of the state over the final result.  

When states select electors individually based on each House district result (as does Maine) then there is a different problem.  The drawing of House district boundaries for partisan advantage (a.k.a. gerrymandering) biases both the state and national results.

Avoiding these problems with the electoral college is the motive behind the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  It is an agreement among several U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all of their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote. Once states totaling 270 electoral votes join the compact—which only requires passing state laws—then the next presidential election will be determined by the popular vote, not the Electoral College.  As of early November 2016, 10 states and the District of Columbia have signed the compact, totaling 165 electoral votes which is over 60% of the way to 270. This approach to reforming the electoral college avoids a federal constitutional amendment that requires support from two thirds of both houses of Congress and three fifths of the states.

Under that National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, what happens if six (or more) candidates for president split the vote so that no one candidate wins more than twenty percent of the vote?  The candidate who won twenty percent of the vote would receive 100% of the electors from the majoritarian subset of the states that have adopted the compact.  Will the resulting president be the most popular candidate overall among the voters?  The popularity ranking of the newly elected president relative to the other candidates could be anywhere from first place to last place.  We do not know because the voters did not express their second (or third, etc.) preference.  This is not merely a problem of lacking information, it is a problem with the election outcome.  The election winner may, in fact, be the most disliked candidate overall who was elected by the 20% of the population that, to quote Hillary Clinton, define the "deplorables".

The only context where the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact avoids the problem of a candidate who is less preferred overall among the voters winning the election is the context where there are exactly two candidates.  The moment a third candidate draws some votes the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact makes it possible for a candidate who is not the most popular to win the election.  Our electoral college provides an imperfect mechanism for resolving this problem by requiring that the House of Representatives select the president from the three candidates with the most electoral college votes when firstly the voters, and secondly the electoral college, failed to identify a most popular candidate with their votes.  The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact subverts that mechanism by always giving one candidate an automatic majority of electors even when that candidate is unpopular nationwide.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is like a game of whack-a-mole.  It fixes a problem in one place while enabling the same problem to recur in a different place. In the short term the interstate compact could help avoid the wrong candidate winning the electoral college.  But for the longer term, fixing our 18th century method of electing people to public office will require more changes than the interstate compact would implement.

It is easy to diagnose the problems, including the problem with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  It is more difficult to design an optimal method for electing a single person in multi-candidate elections.  There is arguably no one election method that is the best method, certainly there is no perfect method.  

But it is not difficult to identify methods for electing a president that are technically better than both the existing electoral college and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Unfortunately, the better methods alter the electoral college and will therefore require a constitutional amendment to implement.  The integrity of our presidential elections is important.  The presidency of the United States is a very powerful position.  We need something better than either the existing electoral college or the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

A constitutional amendment focusing on federal elections provides an opportunity to populate the House of Representatives with lawmakers who more accurately represent the voters by including a provision that prevents gerrymandering when drawing House district boundaries.  To create election districts without gerrymandering we can rely on automated mathematical methods designed to optimize election district compactness.  This will tend to result in major changes to election district boundaries in ten or twenty year intervals.  This potentially increases the turnover of elected officials without decreasing voter choice or eliminating all of the experienced lawmakers, as happens with term limits.  

Four changes to the electoral college would render it substantially better:  Eliminate the two statewide electors, when a candidate won a majority of votes nationally then the electoral college is dismissed and that candidate is automatically the president elect, otherwise automatically assign the electors from each state to the individual candidates proportional to the statewide vote for those candidates, and automaticaly cast each elector's vote to their assigned candidate.  Two more changes that should also be considered: Give the electoral college some time, maybe a week, to try to reach a majority consensus with several more votes before the decision is turned over to the House of Representatives, and sequester the electors, like jurors are sequestered, during their deliberations to secure them from bribes or threats.  

The first four changes to the electoral college would elect the nationwide vote winner while increasing the likelihood that the electoral college winner will also be the most popular candidate.  The latter two changes give the electoral college an opportunity to select a nationally popular candidate when no one candidate initially won a majority of votes or electors. Without those two additional changes each elector is a particular vote and there is no need for any real people to serve as the electors.  But there may be better ways to elect a popular candidate than to hand the final decision over to the electors or the House of Representatives when there is no clear winner.

For more reliably accurate election results we would need to change the method of voting and tallying votes to allow voters to approve more than one candidate, or to rank the candidates, particularly in single winner contests.  This affects the electoral college.  The state electors could now be individually elected by House district provided that gerrymandering is eliminated. Alternatively, the electoral college could be scrapped because it is very unlikely that there will not be a clear nationwide winner. A constitutional amendment should therefore choose between retaining our current election method or replacing it with a better method and then modify the electoral college to match the election method.

My personal favorite methods for tallying the overall preference of the voters in single winner contests are the Condorcet methods.  Voters are asked to rank the candidates.  A complete ranking of all candidates is best, but omitting some candidates, or even voting for only one of the candidates, is acceptable.  Condorcet methods start by pairing the candidates with each other and incrementing the count for one candidate of each pair each time a voter preferred that candidate over the other candidate.  The pairs are usually ordered based on a measure of how strongly the losing candidate of each pair is defeated.  Any circular rankings within groups of multiple pairs, referred to as cycles (e.g. A beats B beats C beats A), are then resolved.   Different Condorcet methods take different approaches to eliminating the cycles.  After all of the cycles are eliminated there is one candidate that beats all of the other candidates.  Two different approaches to eliminating the cycles can be tried simultaneously by iterating through all combinations of culling the cycles using those two approaches.  The cycle culling that disregards the fewest voter preferences then identifies the winner. 

There are also non-Condorcet methods that are better at identifying the most popular candidate than the overly simplistic method of voting for one with the candidate obtaining the most votes winning. There are technical criteria for identifying good election methods.  We need to rely on mathematicians who study election methods to tell us how well the different methods comply with various criteria.  

Voter behavior also must be considered when selecting an election method.  It may require some experimentation and time to determine which methods actually work well in different contexts.  Primary elections, where it is common for many candidates to vie to be a political party's single winner nominee, are good for experimenting with better single winner election methods.  A problem with preference voting is that voters have incentive to vote strategically by ranking the candidates they do not want to win last because the polls say those candidates are among the most popular candidates instead of voting sincerely by ranking the candidates they most dislike last.  Sincere voters may be disadvantaged by strategic voters but strategic voting undermines the integrity of the election result.

Eliminating gerrymandering and thoughtful electoral college reform, with or without voting and ballot tallying method reform, can be accompanied by other steps to improve the quality of our elections. The federal government should automatically register everyone to vote in federal elections when they turn 18. Voter registration and de-registration could be automatically linked to state driver's licenses, state tax returns, post office change of address applications, and death certificates.  There should be regular auditing of the voter registration rolls.  Ballots could be mailed to all residents.  Governments could arrange free transportation to polling places and publish videos of the candidates promoting themselves on the Internet.  Keeping polling places open 12 hours every day for one week, as is done in Maryland, should be the national standard.  Election results should always be audited before they are finalized.  

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Ayana Hirsi Ali, a moderate advocate for secular democracy

Heather's Homilies defends Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Southern Poverty Law Center's false accusation that she is an anti-Muslim extremist.  Again, as with Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali justifiably thinks that Islam contains within it a supremicist, triumphalist, stream that poses a threat to justice, peace, and prosperity and whose primary victims are other people like herself who are born and raised as believing Muslims.  They are both committed to promoting a liberal, secularist, reformist movement within the Islamic world, although Ayaan Hirsi Ali, unlike Maajid Nawaz who is an Islamic theist, had the good sense to abandon religion altogether and became an atheist.  The SPLC's misdirected argument that they are extremists is weak, selective, out of context, confused, sometimes anti-liberal and anti-secularist in content, and on careful examination their argument falls apart.

The SPLC cites the leaked document "Preventing Terrorism - where next for Britain" by the Quilliam Foundation, which makes recommendations for counter-terrorism policy and was co-authored by Maajid Nawaz, as evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an anti-Muslim extremist.  That document is available on Scribd.  I read some of it and it reinforced my conclusion that the SPLC characterization of him as an extremist is deranged.  When the document was leaked it understandably made some people angry because it identified their groups as Islamist to the British counter-terrorism staff (Maajid Nawaz points out that in Muslim majority countries some of these same groups openly and proudly self-identify themselves as Islamist).  I cannot vouch that every individual and group named as Islamist actually is.  But I can say that the content of the document is thoughtful and not the writing of an extremist.  It is the writing of someone who is committed to defending secular democracy against its opponents.  I have reason to think that at least some of the recommendations in that document were subsequently adopted by the government.

Barack Obama's responses to Bill Maher's questions

I highlight sections of our president's responses and comment on them.

MAHER: Right… they’re atheists, agnostics, or they just don’t want to get up on Sunday morning.  And we have no representation in Congress. If our numbers were represented, there’d be over a hundred congresspeople who felt that way. It just seems like we are not included in the basket of diversity in America, which is odd because we are the biggest minority. That is a bigger minority than any other minority you can name. Don’t you think we should get a little more love?
OBAMA: You know, I guess — my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there is certain… well, I think for a candidate… I think you’re right, that  are certain occupations — probably, most prominently, politics — where there would be a bias against somebody who’s agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. Outside of that arena, though? You seem to have done alright with your TV show… I mean, I don’t get a sense… to the extent that they’re boycotting you, it’s because of your other wacky views rather than your particular views on religion…

My commentary: Bill Maher is asking about a tendency for non-theists to be excluded and under-represented in the political process wherein people are elected to make our laws.  The response from Barack Obama that there is no "active persecution" indicates an aversion on his part to having a discussion on the question being directed to him.  Why should "active persecution" be the standard for being satisfied that all is good in the context of a discussion on the civic standing of non-theists?  That is a rather low standard and it is not the standard that Barack Obama would set for other constituencies as being sufficient, nor should it be.

MAHER: [Laughs] What are my other wacky ideas? I usually agree with you!
OBAMA: I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are. So here’s what I would say, that… we should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and agnostics, are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want. That’s freedom of conscience. That’s what our Constitution guarantees. And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing. Or to treat you as somebody who’s less than I am.

My commentary: We agree that a culture in which religious beliefs are personal, like food and clothing preferences, would avoid the problems that Barack Obama correctly criticizes.  But are religious beliefs private?  Barack Obama is sidestepping this thorny question by assuming religious beliefs are private and personal.  Could it be that religion tends to resist and oppose attempts to foster a culture in which religious beliefs are personal?  Why should religious institutions want a culture where their religious beliefs have no say in public policy?  Whenever self-interested religious institutions see an opportunity to band together to form a majority to enact their religious beliefs into the public laws why would they voluntary refuse to do so?  Fostering a culture in which religious beliefs are privatized is a like fostering government without any fees or taxes, it is unrealistic.

MAHER: But we might be more pro-science in America if we were less religious, don’t you think?
OBAMA: Well… you know, I think that the issues we have with science these days are not restricted to what’s happening with respect to religion. There are a lot of very religious scientists around…

My commentary:  Bill Maher is asking if the equation "more pro-science" = "less religious" is true. He is not asking if all anti-science attitudes will disappear without religion.  We all agree that various problems we have are not restricted to any one factor.  Again, this avoidance response suggests Barack Obama is uncomfortable with addressing the question.  

MAHER: Really?

My commentary: I agree with Bill Maher's questioning Barack Obama comment that a lot of scientists are very religious.  Some scientists are "very religious", but far fewer than the general population.  There is wiggle room in the ambiguity regarding what qualifies as "a lot" and "very religious", but I think this response from Barack Obama is misleading.  The counter-argument that scientists are significantly more likely to be less religious than non-scientists is the relevant truth that Barack Obama is obscuring here. 

OBAMA: … I think the problem here is that in our school systems, and to some degree — and this is where it is relevant — with school boards around the country that are mandating curriculums and textbooks, you start seeing this weird watering down of scientific fact so that our kids are growing up in an environment — and this connects to what I was saying earlier abou the media — where everything’s contested. Where nothing is true. Because if it’s on Facebook, it all looks the same.  And if you’re reading something from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist next to some guy in his underwear writing in his basement, or his mom’s basement, on text, it looks like it’s equally plausible. And part of what we have to do a better job of, if our democracy is to function in a complicated diverse society like this, is to teach our kids enough critical thinking to be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is contestable and what is incontestable. And we seem to have trouble with that. And our political system doesn’t help.

My commentary:  Here we go again, more avoidance and a reluctance to confront the question.  The watering down of scientific fact is indeed "weird" from the secularist point of view adopted by Barack Obama where religious beliefs are assumed to be personal and private.  But for many religious people, such as the religious people that the Republican Party has adopted as one of their main constituencies, there is nothing weird about contesting scientific facts.  They mistakenly think that they possess the faith based religious truth, and they then correctly apply their understanding of the truth to their public life.   Facts about how the universe functions are, by definition, not restricted to the personal and private realm.  From this religious point of view, the scientists are wrong because they contradict the divinely revealed holy texts.  Barack Obama sidesteps this problem, placing the blame on the media, the Internet (a.k.a. Facebook), and the political system.  But the problem here is not that everything is contested and nothing is deemed to be true.  That is merely a symptom of the underlying problem.  The problem is that religion claims to identify what is true in competition with, and contradiction with, the empirically derived facts.  The media, the Internet, the political system then amplify the prevailing public opinion because they are commercial or popular institutions.  Despite all that, he provided an appropriate answer to the question in the third to last sentence where he acknowledged the need to do a better job teaching our kids critical thinking.