Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Life ends frequently, but began maybe only once

At this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, Marco Rubio expressed a commonly held view among conservative Republicans that secularists are being inconsistent and ideological, rather than factual, regarding abortion: "The people who are actually closed-minded in American politics are the people who love to preach about the certainty of science with regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception..." This is completely false, and it is a good example of why secularists tend to think that many of the conservatives religionists in the Republican party are not particularly intelligent and that their leadership, pandering to their base, are not particularly honest. And this is just one of many such examples.

When asked for the age of the universe, a very simple question with a single, straightforward correct answer (13.77 billion years ± 0.059 billion years), Marco Rubio (like Rand Paul and other Republicans seeking a national audience) punted, saying: “I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians”. What the bible says? A dispute among theologians? The age of the universe is an astrophysics question. Seeking the answer from the bible or from theologians is just as illogical and unreasonable as reading the bible, instead of the manufacturer's manuals, for instructions to maintain an aircraft, or hiring theologians instead of pilots to fly an aircraft.

So when does life begin? It may help to clarify this question by first addressing the related question "when does life end?". Life ends frequently, everytime an individual living creature dies. Everytime a bacteria, or an archaea, or a dust mite dies, everytime a single sperm or an unfertilized egg dies, a life ends.

It may seem intuitively logical for some people, given that we all experience our lives as individuals, to think that human life begins as human life ends, with each individual. But this intuition is wrong. Science tells us that life successfully began at least once, at least three billion years ago. Life may also have independently begun elsewhere in the universe, it may have started unsuccessfully multiple times within our solar system, we don't know. What we do know is that since life successfully got started billions of years ago, it has been continuous, and all life on earth may have a single, last common ancestor.

What about the role of conception? Conception is one of multiple requisite milestones in the continuous cycle of human life. Much of life reproduces without a conception event. Presumably Marco Rubio knows this, and he was talking only about human life. But human life evolved from single celled life, and a conception event doesn't change the overall context that all life, including individual human life, participates in the same continuous cycle of life.

So no, we secularists, or we liberals, who favor legalized abortion, are not being inconsistent, are not ideologically ignoring the evidence, are not being hypocritical, are not guilty of a double standard, for refusing to acknowledge the so called "absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception". Life is an ongoing, continuous process, it does not begin at conception. There is no scientifically established fact that human life begins at conception. It is the conservatives who keep asserting otherwise in the name of science that are being anti-scientific. They are the ones, after all, who advocate obtaining answers to scientific questions by reading the bible and asking theologians.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

So help me God "history" from nothing

People sometimes ask me who was behind the false claim that George Washington appended "so help me god" to his first presidential inaugural oath. Was it David Barton? The answer is that there were multiple people who shared responsibility for promoting this fiction into a fact. It happened over time with a number of milestones.

It began with four biographies of George Washington. The first biography to be published was written by the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Published in 1854, 65 years after the inauguration, it is titled "The republican court; or, American society in the days of Washington". This book mixes historical fact with apocryphal legend until one is indistinguishable from the other. His friends knew Griswold to be a consummate liar and had a saying: "Is that a Griswold or a fact?" As a literary editor he often pirated entire works even while advocating for international copyright law that would have rendered his own actions illegal. He wrote a short biography of Edgar Allan Poe that included letters which he had forged for the purpose of slandering the deceased poet. If there is a dishonest David Barton like character in this tale then it is Griswold.

If Griswold's book was the only book claiming that George Washington said "so help me God" then it is doubtful that many 20th century historians would be asserting this also. Enter Washington Irving, the first American to earn a living from writing popular books of fiction and a popular biography of Christopher Columbus. His final book was a five volume biography of George Washington published in 1857. There are no citations and it doesn't comply with modern standards of scholarship, but it is still read. Of the four George Washington biographies, this is the one that was most influential in promoting the falsehood about George Washington's inaugural. Washington Irving was also the only one of the four authors who was alive during the inauguration, and he may have been in the crowd outside of Federal Hall during the inaugural ceremony. At that time he was six years old. Griswold places him at the corner of New street and Wall street. Washington Irving never claimed to have heard the oath recitation. For his biography he copied someone else's first hand account of the inaugural ceremony with some modifications. One of those modifications was to depict George Washington saying "so help me God" immediately after the oath recitation.

John Frederick Schroeder was an Episcopalian minister whose biography of George Washington, titled Life and Times of Washington, was also published in 1857. He died before the book was published, and Griswold had a hand in completing Schroeder's book. Memoirs of Washington, by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, was also published in 1857. Kirkland mimicked Griswold and wrote, "..., he [Washington] was observed to say audibly, 'I swear!' adding, with closed eyes, as if to collect all his being into the momentous act - 'So help me God!'. Schroeder and Kirkland mingled with Griswold and Irving in the same New York city literary circles. Afterwards, many books and articles continued to claim that George Washington said SHMG.

The next milestone is the civil war. To distinguish themselves from the Unionists whose federal oath of office was godless, the Confederates advertised that Jefferson Davis included those four words when reciting his oath in 1861. The Unionists, not wanting to be outflanked by the Confederates, included this phrase in their revised federal oath of office in 1862. This phrase remains in the federal oath of office to this day.

The third milestone occurred with the assassination of president James Garfield. Chief Justice Waite led Vice President Chester Arthur in reciting the words of the presidential oath. After the oath recitation was completed, the new president, on his own initiative (without prompting from the Chief Justice), added "I will, so help me God", copying the words from the oath he had taken months earlier when being sworn in as Vice President. This was widely publicized in the newspapers.

The fourth milestone was the loudspeaker and the radio. Loudspeakers were introduced in 1921, radios in 1925. After radio became a home appliance, the inaugural oath could be heard by people across the country, whereas before only a few privileged people standing close to where the president stood could overhear the oath. By now, many people had read one of the many accounts of George Washington's first inauguration claiming that he completed his oath recitation with an appeal for divine help. Every Chief Justice during every presidential inaugural since 1933 has, while leading the oath recitation, prompted the president to say "so help me God". This is odd given that these four words are not part of the oath and the president therefore has no obligation to say them.

What appears to be happening is this: Many Americans, possibly a majority, don't know that the constitutional oath for the president is godless (and that the original federal oath of office was also godless). Some people would be upset to learn that the constitution was written to accommodate an atheist being elected president. Some people would be even more upset if they actually witnessed a president elect not saying those four words upon becoming president. To avoid disabusing these people of their false conviction that the oath is monotheistic, or of their prejudice that an oath must be monotheistic to be fully legitimate, the Chief Justice always prompts for these four words while administering the oath to the president elect.

The fifth milestone was another George Washington biography. George Washington, a Biography, by Douglas Southhall Freeman, was published in multiple volumes from 1948-1957. Volume 6, Ch. Viii, "Inauguration Day is not without Clouds, April 30, 1789", page 192 has a paragraph describing the oath recitation that depicts George Washington completing his oath with the four word appeal for divine help. Unlike the first four biographies, this is a scholarly book written by a highly respected historian. Accordingly, there is a citation to a primary source document, in this case a letter written by Tobias Lear, George Washington's personal secretary, to George Augustine Washington, George Washington's nephew who was at that time managing the affairs of Washington's Mt. Vernon Estate. This letter was in the rare documents vault at Duke University. The first three pages of this letter were published in 1987 in "The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series," vol 2:154-155. But it was page four of this letter that described the oath recitation and apparently no one had previously tried to verify that this letter actually supported the claim that George Washington appended those four words. Here it is, take a look: Lear's letter of May 3, 1789 to George A. Washington. No SHMG.

More recently, another false historical fact was layered upon the first one. This is the additional claim that every president followed the precedent set by George Washington and likewise appended "so help me God" to their inaugural oath of office. No less than the Senate Historical Office itself, despite our complaints, persisted for years in promoting this whopper falsehood with a video titled "so help me God" on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Affairs website. David Barton was probably among those endorsing this false "fact".

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Religious practices are rooted in doctrine

In his March 1 article in the Huffington Post titled "Faith Isn't Irrational, But Beliefs May Be", Peter Georgescu, Chairman Emeritus of Young & Rubicam Inc., citing Karen Armstrong's arguments, defends Christianity in particular, and religion more generally, as follows: "Belief in Christ has little to do with intellectual agreement on some ostensibly factual truth about God." Similarly he says "The major Western monotheisms all concerned themselves primarily with practice, the doing of religion, rather than doctrine. " For him "A good Jew observed the Sabbath and remained committed to the Law and the ritual year; and a good Christian embodied the Sermon on the Mount by caring for the marginalized, promoting compassion and peace, and sharing God's love." It should be impossible for intelligent people to buy into this argument for a number of reasons.

First of all, contrary to what Armstrong, or in this case Georgescu, asserts, religion has historically been doctrinal. People throughout history killed each other in wars fought over conflicting religious beliefs because they took the competing factual claims of their religions literally. The book of John, for example, self-claims to be a factual, eyewitness, historical account of real, historical events by one of the actual disciples (21:24 This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true). The Quran and the Hebrew Tanakh, like the Christian bible, are preoccupied with asserting factual, historical events, complete with the names of real locations, governments, and people. Throughout history even the most intellectual religionists claimed to extract divinely revealed facts about how the world works from their holy book. For instance, Thomas Aquinas believed that God created the body of the first human, Adam, from the "slime of the Earth" and God created the first female, Eve, immediately thereafter using Adam's rib. Similarly, he believed that God produced the fish and birds from water. Thomas Aquinas cited the book of Genesis as the source for this factual knowledge.

Secondly, the practice of religion is itself rooted in religious factual claims. It is only on the basis of endorsing the particular factual claims of a religion as being true that people can credibly justify a commitment to observing the commandments and the resulting practices of the religion on an ongoing, daily basis. According to Christianity, for example, the historical, factual, resurrection of Jesus Christ opens the way to eternal life and glory for those who believe. Anyone who claims that the resurrection is fictional is contradicting a basic premise of Christianity that is needed to justify the practice of Christianity. The religious practices of Judaism and Islam are similarly justified by, and thus dependent upon, their distinct factual claims.

Atheists don't keep kosher and observe the Sabbath because there is no proper justification for doing so. We recognize the Sermon on the Mount is seriously flawed, giving some bad advice, contradicting itself, a hodgepodge lacking any underlying theme. It characterizes poverty as a virtue and wealth as a vice, asserts that there is an afterlife, calls for lending on request without regard to need or likelihood of repayment, and the like, which are rationally unjustified. A faith that obscures or denies these flaws is a faith in conflict with the empirical evidences regarding what is true and false.

Thirdly, many of the practices of different religions are mutually compatible, while the factual beliefs associated with those practices are often mutually incompatible. Accordingly, if religion was about practice only, and not about beliefs, then it follows that there is a lack of good justification for segregating practices by religion. If religious people frequently combined the practices that originated from different religious beliefs then we would at least have some evidence that the incompatible factual claims unique to each religion don't matter to them. Yet Christians rarely commit to the religious practices of Jews and Muslims, Jews don't commit to the practices of Christians and Muslims, and Muslims don't commit to the practices of Jews and Christians.

Reading arguments like those of Karen Armstrong, and of her fans, that religion has nothing to do with beliefs regarding what is factually true or false is like reading an argument that joining a political party is properly motivated only by that political party's practices, which are devoid of factual content, and that the political party's policy statements and orientations are not rooted in any claims about what is factually true or false. That otherwise intelligent people publicly make such a superficial argument is a testament to how desperate some people are to defend religion and of the weakness of the mindless religious identity that they cling to. Liberal religionists tend to deny that their beliefs are rooted in any facts about how the world works, conservative religionists prefer to buttress their beliefs with facts about how the world works that are counter-evidenced. Underlying this disparity in approach is a single common mistake: They are both failing to take an evidence first approach to justifying their beliefs.