Carnival of the Godless: You’re Going to Hell Edition

April 1, 2007

I want to tell everyone that I’ve found religion and realized that God exists. I’m not sure which God I believe in – the God my great great grandparents worshipped, the God that inspires people who bomb abortion clinics, or the God that inspires people who fly planes into buildings – but I know one exists and anyone who doesn’t believe is going to Hell.

Indeed, kindred spirit Jon Swift notes that the values of polytheistic heathen Gandhi are inimical to American values. Jesus implores people to uproot the noxious weed of logic and accepts that life begins at conception and ends at birth. And Buford Twain correctly recognizes that being religious is easier than being an infidel; doesn’t that immediately settle the discussion in God’s favor?

Maya notes how Godless liberalism is all around her: not only does the left believe in such lies as evolution and women’s rights, but also the right ignores God’s commandments to bathe after having sex, to bask in bashing babies against rocks, and of course to love one’s neighbor as one does oneself.

Dikkii correctly notes that Dawkins is overzealous and too harsh on agnostics. The problem is that Dawkins is of course too harsh on everything. You don’t have to read Dikkii’s post to know Dawkins is wrong – all you have to know is that he’s an atheist evolutionist.

It’s unfortunate that so many atheists think I’m one of them and spam me with their hatred. Of course, it’s always nice when they attack cults like Mormonism with its garments, or reproduce letters saying atheists should be thrown out of the US, or realize that God doesn’t subscribe to liberal doctrines like proportional response, or criticize religious liberals for having no intellectual leg to stand on.

But seriously, why send me all that hate literature? Do you think just because you can write secular poetry God will spare you? Do you think just making fun of the perfectly cogent argument that believing in God isn’t like believing in Santa Claus because nobody over the age of five believes in Santa Claus is substitute for accepting His authority (God’s, not Santa’s)?

Skeptico’s exploration of the acquittal of the cartoon editor who printed cartoons making fun of Muhammad stumps me; as I’m not sure whether it’s more enjoyable to bomb abortion clinics (motto: we kill the fetus without expensive medical instruments) or fly planes into buildings (motto: we fly packages straight to the office), I’m not sure whether I should rejoice that the courts permit caricaturing people of the wrong skin color and religion or be mad that blasphemers aren’t stoned.

But Mark Dominus’s complaint that the Bible gets the value of pi wrong is certainly off target. Like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Wikipedia, the Bible is always right; whenever it conflicts with reality, reality is in error.

The same applies to John Wesley’s apologetics for sinning on the grounds that it’s a natural consequence of human civilization. Sean Prophet’s attempt to reconstruct the tree of knowledge by appealing to Godless science and some magic concerning citations in peer-reviewed papers is even more offensive to God’s creation.

As usual, there are the evolutionists who think they’re cleverer than God. Jared thinks merely pointing to scientific evidence for evolution is enough, as if God can’t change the laws of science at His whim. Biotunes goes as far as calling atheism the next evolutionary step for humans. And Jeremy Bruno dares make fun of a perfectly legitimate argument that God exists because the vanilla bee and vanilla orchid were created for each other.

Yet other people pretend to be serious intellectuals. GrrlScientist positively reviews God: The Failed Hypothesis, under the pretense that it’s possible to scientifically test God. A Load of Bright rants about how it’s bad for people to share their most intimate thoughts with God, who is omnibenevolent. Vjack says that Dawkins and Harris are very far from being atheist extremists. Rastaban makes five different arguments why God can’t exist, forgetting that the Lord works in mysterious ways knowable only to those who already believe.

And some people just want to insult us God-fearing folk. Aaron Ross Powell says atheism gives a higher value to life than religion does, which is just an outrage. AustinAtheist tries saying it’s bad for Christians to dialogue with one another. Hemant wants to desecrate the Gideon Bible. And Eight Hour Lunch says religion causes harm. If that’s notoffensive, I don’t know what is.

Finally, Stentor deserves to be commended for not spamming my inbox with anti-theistic graffiti. But he’s still going to go to Hell for saying that God brought Baal worship on Himself by instilling fear in His subjects.

Repent before it’s too late. The ludicrosity of what atheists say is self evident. If this doesn’t convince you, wait for two more weeks for the next Carnival of the Godless, to be posted on the heathen blog Neural Gourmet.

Georgia Violates Separation of Church and State

March 10, 2007

The Georgia Board of Education approved a new slate of classes, which purport to teach the Bible as literature and as a historical source, but will almost certainly become state-funded sermons.

Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, the Republican who sponsored the plan, said the Bible plays a major role in history and is important in understanding many classic literary works.

“It’s not just ‘The Good Book,'” Williams said. “It’s a good book.”

Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan civil liberties group, has said the Georgia policy is the nation’s first to endorse and fund Bible classes on a statewide level.

The bill approved overwhelmingly in the Legislature was tailored to make it clear the courses would not stray into religious teaching, Williams said.

The measure calls for the courses to be taught “in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students.”

In theory, it’s a good idea. There are a lot of works with obvious ideological tones that should still be taught for their historical value; in the West, they include the Bible, the Qur’an, the Communist Manifesto, and the two Treatises of Government. But teaching just the Bible smacks of religious favoritism, since other scriptures, even those that are very relevant to a modern American, are excluded.

And further, in practice, classes will invariably become sermons. Even assuming that most Christian teachers can teach the Bible impartially, which is doubtful, there will be immense pressure on them to preach. Georgia has a large contingent of fundamentalists, who make a ruckus every time someone offends them by teaching evolution. In the land of anti-evolution stickers, I don’t expect Bible classes to remain impartial for more than a day.

Dominionism, Separation of Church and State, and Moderation

March 7, 2007

Jessica Dreadful notes that although Edwards claims God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, he nonetheless rambles about how God agrees with him on issues like foreign policy and poverty. And as many people who know nothing of religious politics in the US, he ends up inventing his own position on school prayer, which is that children should get time to pray on their own. Jessica responds, “Great idea! Give children a certain amount of time to themselves where they can pray, think, basically do whatever they want! Why haven’t we thought of this before? Oh right, we have.. it’s called ‘recess.'”

Tyler uses the interview to start a frontal assault on the Democrats’ fellation of Dominionism. Why, he asks, do Democrats keep inviting people whose values are inimical to those of liberalism to the table? Or, in his own words,

The primary problem with Democrats appealing to evangelical voters is that most of them are bound to be like Jim Wallis. Maybe we have dragged them over on the economic issues, but they’re bound to be the same “culture of life” yahoos who current mill about on the right. In other words, we’ll probably end up with a crowd of modern William Jennings Bryans.

For a group to take over a party the way the religious right has seized the Republican Party, it must first have large numbers of voters and then have a leadership capable of telling the party to listen to its concerns. The leadership needs to be concerned primarily with the group’s main issues, and have a credible “We’ll vote the other way” threat; right-wing Dominionists don’t have the latter threat and aren’t interested in cultivating it, but make up for that in numbers.

Born-again Christians are already a quarter of the Democratic vote, but so many of them are minorities, whose leaders use their political capital to move the party left on race instead of right on religion, that they so far haven’t forced the party to adopt their religious agenda. More importantly, among minorities this arrangement has been there for decades; the influence of black churches has deterred the Democratic Party from cracking down on preachers who deliver tax-free political sermons, but has so far not prevented it from being pro-choice and mostly pro-science.

It’s plausible that the same arrangement could develop with working class whites. In such an arrangement, white Evangelicals would have a leader focusing primarily on labor and the environment, who would use religious language to talk to them but under no circumstances demand that the Democratic Party sacrifice a single socially liberal platform plank.

However, Jim Wallis is not such a leader. On the contrary, he openly disdains abortion and gay rights, and instead of telling religious people to vote Democratic spends his time telling the Democrats to lure religious people. His response to an incident such as Jerry Falwell’s claim that global warming is a Satanic myth would be more along the lines of telling the Democrats they must respect religious sentiments instead of ripping Falwell apart.

On the contrary, the group it makes the most sense for the Democrats to give voice to on matters of religion is non-religious voters. These probably comprise around 17% of the electorate now, albeit only 10% of voters, compared with 20% of the American population that attends church regularly. They naturally tend to be liberal, voting Democratic by margins approaching 3 to 1. And their primary issues are socially liberal platform planks that are already part of the core of liberal values.

When talking about issues important to people who vote based only on religious issues, it then makes much more sense for the Democrats to go all the way left. Obama shouldn’t be talking about the importance of religious charity; that only gives Wallis more political capital. Instead, it makes more political sense for him to talk about preventing religious charities from engaging in discrimination, which will lose him a small number of religious voters and regain an equal number of secularists.

Edwards’ approach is the worst, because it’s unreflectively moderate. On some issues, primarily foreign policy and some economic debates, there have evolved strong moderate positions that make sense in their own right. On religion, none has, so people who want to sound sensible end up making statements that are liable to piss everyone off. When Edwards says students need to get free time at school to pray, he doesn’t come off as a sensible centrist but as a clueless invertebrate.

The same pattern, in which there’s no serious moderate position, appears all over the map in social debates. On SSM, the moderate position, civil unions, has limited merit. On other gay rights issues, the American electorate has already abandoned the ad hoc compromise that is “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” On issues of science, there’s no compromise between good science and bad science. Abortion is alone among cultural issues in the US that admits a serious moderate position, but even it is different from what is considered sensible centrism on abortion, which is empty rhetoric about reducing the number of abortions.

And even on abortion, the Democratic Party has traditionally deferred to NARAL and Planned Parenthood. It’s changed lately, partly due to its courting of Dominionists and partly due to the waning influence of the old pro-choice movement. However, the latter has resulted mostly from women’s interests shifting to other issues; in contrast, no 34-year-old pro-secular consensus has existed that would make secular voters less interested in separation of church and state.

Obama Winks to Dominionists

March 5, 2007

What appears to be an innocuous battle between Clinton and Obama for black voters has in fact turned into a Dominionist reference on Obama’s part: “Generation Joshua.”

Obama, an Illinois Democrat, declared himself part of a new cohort of black political leaders that he called “the Joshua Generation.” It was Joshua, the Biblical successor to Moses, who led the Jewish people to the Promised Land after Moses delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

To the average voter, the term means nothing; it could just as well be yet another of Obama’s hope-inspiring phrases, one of many Biblical references to civil rights. It’s not exactly out of the ordinary to use religious language to refer to the struggle for black-white equality in the US.

But in fact, it has a very specific meaning to Dominionists: Generation Moses was the generation of parents who sequestered their children from the outside world by homeschooling them, while Generation Joshua is the generation of those now grown-up children who will conquer American politics for the movement. Like Bush’s phrase “Compassionate conservative,” this is a calculated wink to Dominionists that Obama is in fact one of them.

Unlike cases in which an organization coopts an opposing movement’s language, as in Feminists For Life’s title, here there is nothing to gain by talking about Joshua. The terms “feminist” and “pro-woman” have significant levels of support and are familiar throughout mainstream politics; the reference to Joshua is something nobody except Dominionists and people who have read Kingdom Coming will catch.

The actual racial references Obama makes are clever, but still not very remarkable. Obama notes that just like slave-descended blacks have a family history of slavery and segregation, so does his father have a history of being on the receiving end of colonialism. It’s clever insofar as it will define him as black to black Americans, who tend to care more about that than other Americans, and as practically white to white Americans, who only know about slavery; but it says nothing about his politics or even his campaign.

However, the religious references peg him once again as a Dominionist. His attempt to split the difference in his Call to Renewal and endorse the Dominionist charity agenda could be plausibly described as excessive moderation. However, excessive moderates don’t generally use extremists’ language. On the contrary, they’re typically more concerned with language than they should be, taking great care to e.g. not sound too socialist when they advocate more government in health care or education.

Even the appeal Obama made to black voters seemed to be too much about religion and too little about racial equality. Clinton at least paid lip service to poverty and inequality, though months earlier, when push came to shove, she was silent when NYPD murdered an innocent black civilian. Obama doesn’t even pretend to talk about those issues; instead, he tries talking to black people the same way the religious right is, and hopes that because he’s a black Democrat, he’ll succeed.

Carnival of the Godless #61 is Up

March 4, 2007

You know where to go. The highlights are a post on Daylight Atheism giving advice to the Christian man who has a problem with the fact that his wife refuses to have sex without birth conrol, which he believes to be a sin; a delightful takedown on of the left-wing Dominionist notion that the Democrats must consider them the soul of their party; and a precise explanation due to Alonzo Fyfe of why Romney’s “We need a person of faith to lead this country” statement was pure bigotry. Finally, an even better albeit snarky takedown of Romney that didn’t make the carnival is on EvolutionBlog, explaining why Christians can’t be trusted to lead.

Tuesday Night Links

February 27, 2007

Echidne examines the consequences of shrinking government to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. She looks at what spending cuts have done to the FDA, which is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago (link). I don’t want to blow government out of proportions; I just want to increase it to the size that I can ride the subway without being infected with cholera, eat uncooked chicken without getting salmonella, and walk under a shed without worrying about the possibility of a collapse.

Ezra writes about free trade; although he has populist sentiments, he’s fairly pro-trade. In a heated argument between Brad DeLong and Jeff Faux, he comes down clearly on DeLong’s side after Faux dodges a legitimate question about free trade’s positive effects on China. Ezra takes Faux to task for ranting about Chinese domestic economic policy for being bad for the poor. Why impoverishing China by slapping tariffs on it will cause its government to change its policy when similar sanctions against other countries have miserably failed is beyond me.

Samhita asks whether it can truly be called feminist empowerment when women in Pakistan protest the demolition of illegally built mosques. The people on the comment thread tend toward realizing that, to quote EG, “Women are a huge segment of the population, and no social/political/religious movement would succeed without any support from women. But that doesn’t make the movement inherently feminist.”

Jenny explains why it’s not a feminist duty to support Hillary Clinton. Just like I don’t accuse anyone who opposes Obama of hating black people and anyone who opposes Richardson of hating Hispanics, so do I oppose allegations that opposing Clinton is something sexist. The proper feminist or antiracist or pro-gay or pro-atheist thing to do is support a candidate based on real issues, regardless of gender/race/sexual orientation/religion. Feminism doesn’t exist to empower Hillary Clinton, but to empower the 3,249,999,999 women who aren’t so powerful as to have a shot at becoming the most powerful person in the world.

Lindsay writes about the difference between the left-wing American blogosphere and the right-wing one. While the left-wing blogosphere seeks to turn itself into part of the Democratic Party, featuring a motley crew of policy analysts, movement activists, fundraisers, and screamers, the right-wing blogosphere only engages in scalping of the type Donahue did to Amanda.

Ruchira reproduces an article about Tehran that seems to strike the correct chord in depicting the city as highly cultured and developed and at the same time suffering from a fundamentalism problem. This isn’t Kandahar or even Baghdad we’re talking about, but a modern city that doesn’t have many ingrained problems a revolution won’t solve.

Brent notes that Mitt Romney is hardly the only person in the US who thinks atheists can’t be Presidents. A clueless law professor at Colorado University rants about atheists from about every imaginable angle, including coming out in support of Romney’s bigotry. Brent takes him to task for spouting inanities about atheists’ morality.

Skatje takes down arguments for preserving the Pledge of Allegiance so that you don’t have to. Hitting the nail right on the head, she says, “An oath of loyalty is something you see in totalitarian regimes, not something you’d expect in a nation that prides itself on freedom. In a classroom with children from as young as age five robotically chanting at a flag every morning, I’d also expect a big silver screen on one of the walls. I’ve already written about nationalism. Submission and obedience to a government is another leg of it.”

Tyler rants about excessive moderates who in order to look centrist compare atheists to fundamentalists. Unlike Tyler I don’t care enough for Dawkins to get agitated when someone does a hatchet job on him, but I do care enough for reality to see that atheism is as extreme as fundamentalism to the same degree that supporting full racial equality is as extreme as apartheid.

Religion and Welfare

February 26, 2007

In most countries secularism is positively correlated with support for welfare, but does welfare make people more secular? Anthony Gill of the University of Washington says yes; in 2004, he and grad student Erik Lundsgaarde published a paper arguing that welfare provides a substitute for church attendance, making people less likely to attend church.

The full theory goes as follows: in the 19th century, the power of Christian churches came from their ability to provide social services such as charity, education, and health care. As the state started providing the same services without requiring or expecting church attendance, it became less economic for people to attend church, and less economic for church leaders to focus on welfare activities.

This theory has a lot of holes in it, but the study has some empirical backing. There’s a statistically significant relationship between a Christian country’s welfare spending as a percentage of GDP and the percentage of people in it who report attending church weekly, even when controlling for such variables as education and whether the country is Catholic or not. The weakness of the study comes not from its lack of data, but from flaws in how the variables are defined, failure to look for alternative explanations, and problems with individual case studies.

First, the study doesn’t explicitly say how welfare spending is measured. This is significant because it right off the bat fails to control for key factors. Most importantly, the most expensive part of the welfare state is social security, whose cost increases with the old age dependency ratio. But more religious states have higher population growth rates, leading to younger demographics and lower social security costs.

It’s possible to get around that by looking at states that buck the trend and are both relatively religious and relatively old. The best case study here is Poland, which is simultaneously the most religious nation in Europe and one of the oldest. Additional examples include Spain, Portugal, and to some extent Italy. The only one of the four that appears in the scattergram plotting church attendance and welfare spending is Spain, which is considerably more religious than the regression line predicts.

In addition, even when one controls for old age pensions, not all governments spend welfare the same way. The USA prefers targeted tax breaks, making its welfare system appear stingier than it actually is. In addition, some benefits can be distributed either as welfare or as spending on health care and education, which the study doesn’t account for. A good example in the US would be free lunches in schools, a welfare service that adds to the education budget.

Second, the omission of education spending is crucial. A church often thrives by having its own set of parochial schools. The standard British joke about catechism is that religious education only secularizes people, though the more common sensical effect is the opposite, namely that greater availability of parochial schools will make the population more religious. Education spending is correlated to welfare spending via the mediating variable of economic liberalism or socialism. As such, Gill and Lundsgaarde commit a grave sin of omission by overlooking it.

Likewise, a more direct political mediating variable could account for much of the correlation. In a followup paper, Gill notes that the correlation between welfare and religosity holds within US states, too. But within the US, both welfare and secularism fall under the rubric of liberal politics, contrasted with the welfare-busting and religiosity of conservative politics.

This in fact holds true in Europe and Latin America, which comprise all countries in the study but two, the US and Australia. Throughout Europe and Latin America, even more so than in the US, there is a strong tradition of anti-clerical liberalism. It’s likely that all Gill’s motivating example of Uruguay shows is that Uruguay has a long history of domination by the left-liberal Colorado Party.

Third, the main measure used for religiosity, reported church attendance, is deeply flawed. The USA’s real church attendance rate is half its reported rate. The church attendance variable tracks not how many people attend church, but how many would like pollsters to believe that they attend church. This variable has some value, but is overall less important than data based on actual church attendance.

The other figure used, the percentage of people who declare themselves nonreligious, is flawed as well. There are two dimensions to religious affiliation – one’s choice of religion, which tracks culture, and one’s position along the religious-secular spectrum. More plural areas, especially those with strong connections between religion and culture, will have a lower percentage of people calling themselves nonreligious than less plural areas.

Fourth, many of the assertions in the study admit too many inexplicable case study exceptions. Ireland and the Philippines’ unusually high levels of religiosity are attributable to the role the Catholic Church played in pro-independence and anti-Marcos politics respectively; I presume Poland could be similarly explained away, were it in the study. But other exceptions require seriously modifying the theory.

For example, the study would predict an increase in American church attendance rates after the welfare reforms of the 1990s. The American study only finds a slightly less significant correlation between welfare and religion in 1995; meanwhile, there was a measurable increase in church attendance in the two months following the 9/11 attacks.

For another example, the case study of Britain goes in almost the opposite direction as the one the study predicts. Britain hasn’t had a serious welfare system since Thatcher’s economic reforms. And yet, in the 1990s, religious belief crashed, and while children of secular parents always grew up to be secular, children of religious parents had only a 50% chance of growing up to be religious. Levels of belief crashed even among Muslims, who Britain forces a religious identity on in many respects.

And fifth, there are alternative explanations that the study should look at but doesn’t. First, it’s legitimate to ask why support for welfare correlates so nicely with secularism in Western politics. It could be an ideological accident that modern liberalism is secular and pro-welfare and modern conservatism is religious and anti-welfare; after all, in turn-of-the-18th-century Britain, it was the Tories who were more supportive of extensive Poor Laws and the Whigs who favored a libertarian economic policy.

Or, equally well, it could be the realpolitik version of what the study is trying to say: welfare is a substitute for religion. As such, religious organizations are likely to ally themselves with political groups that oppose welfare. It holds to some extent for modern conservatives, though by no means for all. In 1900, the US populists were both pro-religion and pro-welfare, and would only embrace prosperity theology in the 1960s and 70s.

A good way of gauging such political explanations is seeing if the same trends hold for non-Western countries. Muslim organizations provide the same welfare Christian ones do; in fact, one of the main power sources of Islamist movements is their strong performance in disaster relief. Of course, Islamism has an entirely different dynamic to it – its main promise isn’t charity but change – but it’s useful to examine this dynamic and see how it can apply to the West. How relevant is the promise to change the morally uncertain status quo to the rise of American Dominionism?

I should stress that except perhaps for the problematic definitions of the variables, this study is not shoddy. A data set comparing religiosity and welfare is always useful. The study’s downfall is in using the data to confirm a theory that has no other evidence to it. Although the study seems to satisfy the falsification criterion in that Gill intended for it to highlight the failure of the theory, in fact it does not falsify the statement “welfare does not cause a decline in religiosity.” All it does is superficially confirm the statement that welfare does in fact cause religiosity to fall.

Of the many different angles the study could take, the one about a direct effect of welfare on religiosity is one of the most obvious two, which is probably why Gill went with it. The other, that religious groups lobby against welfare, is more empirically plausible than the converse direction of causation, but does not fit well into Gill’s theory. But more indirect links, for example with education or political liberalism as a mediating variable, look far more fruitful. The study’s ultimate downfall is not so much that it is wrong as that it is woefully incomplete, concentrating on perhaps the least enlightening theory available.


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