WaPo editor: religion is necessary for a strong American democracy

The “proper” stand to take on religion these days, if you’re a science-friendly liberal, is to say that yes, you’re not really a believer, but you’re spiritual, that religion is in general good for The Little People, and that Richard Dawkins has ruined it all with his shrill and misdirected attacks on religion, which he’s mistakenly taken to be identical to fundamentalism.

Every bit of that is bogus, of course, but religion is the one superstition, the one delusion, that you simply can’t criticize in public. While you lose considerable reputation by attacking it, you lose nothing by extolling it. Indeed, if you’re an atheist who lauds faith, you’re seen as an affable and open-minded fellow.

Richard Just, the editor of the Washington Post Magazine, isn’t a nonbeliever, but he’s the closest thing to it: a Jew who belongs to a Reform synagogue—the most liberal branch of Judaism.  (The old joke goes, “What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?” The answer is, “A Jew.”) But Just does go to schul, and apparently believes in a higher power of some sort. He’s leveraged his faith into a very long article in this week’s WaPo magazine, which, despite Just’s undeniable talents as an editor, is about the lamest defense of religion I’ve ever seen.

His thesis is this: American democracy is falling apart, the country riven with mutual distrust.  Also, America is becoming more secular, with the percentage of “nones”—those who are atheists, agnostics, or believers in “nothing in particular”)—rising from 17% to 26% in the last decade.

Just sees a connection here, blaming increasing nonbelief on “the erosion of the traditional norms that have sustained our democracy”. He means religious norms. Now Just is not calling for more fundamentalists or Evangelical Christians, but he thinks that the main characteristics of religion are just the ones we need to buttress American democracy. And so he argues in the article below (click on the screenshot to read).

The piece is so tepid and vapid that I can barely bring myself to offer a critique, for Just adduces no evidence for his thesis. (Well, he cites two psychological studies, but they’re irrelevant to his argument.) Rather, he simply asserts that religious faith is just the ticket for repairing our democracy.

Before I summarize the allegedly salubrious aspects of faith, let’s realize that Just is writing pretty much about the last four years of the Trump era, not about America over the last several decades. Perhaps our democratic system is unraveling, but I don’t see that—nor does Just offer any evidence for it. And, as I’ll mention below, he totally ignores the place where the real data lie: the European democracies that are not sustained by faith: the atheistic countries of Northern Europe, including Scandinavia. That alone refutes his entire article.

Need I continue? Very well. Here are the values religion can use to shore up the levees of democracy:

A lack of idolatry. This beggars belief. Religion, in America, at least, is idolatrous, but Just feels that it’s better to have religion than what has replaced it: a politics that has become a religion. Yes, that’s right:

De Tocqueville was worried, essentially, that if we didn’t worship God, we might exercise our instinct to worship through politics or politicians themselves. If this concern resonates with you — if you fear that some of our politicians have, in the past few years, become can-do-no-wrong cult-like figures in the eyes of their supporters — then you’re not alone. As Quincy Howard — a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa and coordinating director for Faithful Democracy, a multifaith coalition advocating democracy reform — put it to me recently, American politics is arguably “on the brink of being idolatrous at this point, and this goes for the left as well as the right.”

Remember that Just is writing as a Reform Jew, just a hairsbreadth from atheism, and doesn’t seem to realize how damaging religion, in particular Christianity, has been to America politics—perhaps the main force sundering America. But I won’t expatiate about that. The only argument in favor of Just’s argument is that many people seem to worship Trump. But who do the Democrats worship? Saying that politics is idolatrous resembles the argument of faithheads that atheism is a form of religion. It’s an assertion without evidence, and can be dismissed as part of Just’s argument.

Inner peace and emotional comfort.  Yes, these are the traditionally mentioned virtues of religion, and I won’t deny them, except to say that it’s false comfort to rest your peace and comfort on nonexistent propositions. For if the tenets of faith be not true, and Jesus did not live and die as the son of/part of God, then what comfort is there to be had?

Just:

There is, however, a more complicated element of de Tocqueville’s warning that is also worth taking seriously today. It has to do with inner peace. Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown, recently told me that he sees a sense of personal calm as one of the key contributions religion can make to our national life. “Religion offers peace. Serenity, if you will. And people want that too,” he said. “How do you deal with undesired uncertainties and fears and worries and doubt?”

When I put the question of whether and how religion could benefit democracy to the Rev. Michael Bledsoe, the now-retired longtime pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Washington, he spoke about how “authentic communities” can help to “leaven societies.” They provide us with emotional comfort when we are sick, and with life markers from birth to death. “This is a tapestry that’s being woven almost unseen by the rest of the culture,” he said.

And it’s all delusional. Are we supposed to believe in unevidenced palaver because it brings us comfort? And, given the inevitable and increasing secularism in America, does Just feel we need to go back to faith? Granted, his is a nebulous faith without much dogma (read some of his quotes about Judaism), but it still depends on the existence of Yahweh.

Humility and doubt.  Again a howler. Maybe Reform Judaism brings humility, for argument and doubt are part of its package, but to characterize “humility” as an essential component of American religion is to misunderstand American religion. You want humility and doubt? Try science and rationality!

Just:

One value that is found in all the major religions is, of course, humility. “Believing in a higher power,” Hendi told me, “must make us humble in God’s presence, and make us realize that only God is perfect. We are not.” Faith, he added, instructs us to say, “I am right, and I know I’m right, but I could be wrong. My opponent is absolutely wrong but could be right.”

The thing that has surprised me most as I learned more about my own faith in recent years was how consistently inconsistent — how proudly riddled with uncertainties and outright contradictions — religious Judaism is. Consider this passage from Martin Buber’s 1923 book “I and Thou,” a touchstone of modern Jewish thinking about God: “One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world. … Of course, God is ‘the wholly other’; but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present. Of course, he is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overwhelms; but he is also the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I.” Every sentence about God here is essentially an argument with itself.

Note that Just avers a belief in God here: he’s not a “ground of being” guy. More important, doesn’t he realize that Reform Judaism is not the main religion of America? 43% of Americans are Protestants, 20% are Roman Catholics, and only 2% are Jews (and only a fraction of those are Reform Jews).  A high percentage of the Christian denominations are pretty authoritarian, espousing a particular morality that comes from the Bible (ergo from God).  There is no “doubt” in the minds of the Christian pro-lifers, no “humility” in those who oppose gay marriage. And none of these warts on American democracy come from secularism: they’re all a product of religious hubris.

Further, Just is a big fan of the “mystery” of religion, a supposed source of humility:

But because religion is fundamentally a mystery, it can also be a profound source of analytical humility and existential uncertainty. It can teach us to value, even celebrate, contradictions, to think constantly about how we might be wrong — an ethic that is the very opposite of the perpetual certainty now running rampant in American politics.

Yes, Trump’s religious base is certainly thinking constantly about how they might be wrong, aren’t they? How can we get them to be properly religious and embrace some doubt? Just doesn’t tell us. That’s because he’s not offering a prescription to fix American democracy, but simply expelling pious hopes into the ether. If he though hard about the issue, he’d advise his readers to join the nones and turn America into a Denmark West.

Just two more points showing Just’s cluelessness. The first is this (“Hendi” is Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University):

Churches continue to reflect the racial segregation of society as a whole. And how can institutions that drive people apart be a useful source for democratic values? The point goes beyond Christianity: To many secular Americans, religions of all kinds appear to be just one more marker of identity that separates us from one another.

It’s a major challenge, and one that isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. Yet in the long run, religion doesn’t have to be a divisive, rather than a unifying, force. Hendi told me that he thinks this is a crucial contribution that Islamic theology can make to our democratic mores. Islam, he explained, “is very particular about how God created us to be different and God wants us to be different, and that differences do not mean animosity or hatreds or negativity.” He added: “Our closeness to the divine depends on our ability to value those differences.”

What the deuce is Hendi talking about? Muslims value their differences from non-Muslims, despite the fact that Islam is supposed to be the final faith and the Qur’an urges killing nonbelievers and apostates? I suspect Hendi is a weak-beer Muslim just as Just is a weak-beer Jew. But anybody who argues that Islamic theology can buttress American democracy by bringing us together needs to get out more.

As for the “evidence” that infusing America with more faith will strengthen our democracy, Just cites two studies:

None of this will necessarily assuage the worries of ardent secularists, many of whom may intuitively fear that religion correlates with an authoritarian mind-set. But academic studies suggest the situation is more complicated. One study, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1995, found that “authoritarianism was positively related to several different facets of less mature faith development, and negatively related to several aspects of relatively mature faith development.” Another study from the same publication reached a similar conclusion in 2007: It found a positive association between authoritarianism and religiousness, but a negative association between authoritarianism and “spiritual seeking.” In other words, yes, religion can line up neatly with anti-democratic forces — and it often has — but faith that is undergirded by the right kind of values can serve as democracy’s partner.

I urge you to look at these studies. One is based on surveys of college psychology students (a sample of 156), and neither of them surveyed nonbelievers (one explicitly surveyed only believers). Neither study says anything about what a purely secular democracy would look like.

But we already know some stuff about that, for we have an experiment. Atheism is rife in the democracies of Western Europe, particularly in countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway. How are their democracies doing? Pretty well, I think. Certainly better than America. Yes, the Right has been ascendant in some lands, but, in general, the healthiest democracies in Europe, and those that have the people who are happiest and most well off, happen to be those democracies full of atheists. The lesson: we don’t need no stinking faith to have a good democracy.

How Just comes to this conclusion is simply by revelation: the same way that most believers get their faith (aside from their parents, of course). As I wrote to Andrew Sullivan, hoping he’d publish this in his “Dissents” (he didn’t):

There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations.  Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.

Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.

This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.

Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.

Just ends his 3300-word screed with an emission of gaseous verbiage; as Eliot said, not with a bang but a whimper. If you understand this, you’re better than I. But hey, it’s theology, Jake!

For [Rabbi Abraham] Heschel, we are meant to live in the world of space — the material world — six days a week, but on Shabbat, we are meant to celebrate the holiness of time. “Time,” he wrote, “has independent ultimate significance; it is of more majesty and more provocative of awe than even a sky studded with stars. … It is the dimension of time wherein man meets God, wherein man becomes aware that every instant is an act of creation, a Beginning, opening up new roads for ultimate realizations.”

In the past few years, I have often felt that politics, with its never-ending loop of can’t-look-away ugliness, was stealing my time. Perhaps you have too. If our time is holy, then we simply have to figure out a better politics — one that is saner, more measured, more humble, more humane. Religion can’t solve every problem facing our democracy, but maybe, if we step into the mystery, it can help.

My response is this: no it can’t. Yes, we need to figure out a better politics, but faith isn’t useful for that. And everybody knows we have to figure out a better politics, anyway.

For your amusement, you may want to read some of the 1,600 comments by readers. A very large number of those readers aren’t buying what Just is selling. Reader Timothy, who sent me this link, attributes the pushback largely to the Four Horsemen, and I think he’s right.  Those who argue that the New Atheism was a dismal failure have to explain why so many of the religion-dissing comments would not have been conceivable had Just’s article been published in 1960 or so. New Atheism has done its job: it’s nudged the rock down the hill, and the rest is gravity.

58 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks for reading this so I don’t have to. I do have one thing to quibble over. I think “1960 or so” really ought to be “2000 or so”.

  2. peter alexander
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Indeed. And the one downer about Biden is that he’s a Catholic believer.

    In Western Europe, religion is a matter of private conscience. That’s where it belongs. No government my side of The Pond privileges religion. And yet, in the States, you can’t be elected without grandstanding your trust in God.

    Religion infantilises America. All the more so given the transparent cynicism of people like Trump when they deploy it.

    The US will never be the civilising force it could be whilst it adheres to the rank, puerile and reactionary force that is Christian fundamentalism.

    • Posted November 8, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      “They provide us with emotional comfort when we are sick, and with life markers from birth to death.”

      This kind of thinking motivates many of these articles suggesting that the solution to our troubles is a little more religion. They seem to imply that, without religion, we lose all these things. Sure, if we eliminated religion overnight, many would miss the celebrations, traditions, and comfort. Society would undoubtedly adjust. Religion isn’t the source of these things but merely infects them.

      I’ve often thought that atheism could boost its popularity if it worked harder at providing more visible alternatives to cultural practices now infected by religion. I suppose the religious would take that as a call to arms and fight back. Still, mitigating the inevitable sense of loss that someone losing (or ditching) their faith might feel would help atheism’s cause.

      • Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        Atheism can’t provide anything. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods. Asking atheism to provide substitutes for the celebrations and traditions infect by religion is like asking not stamp collecting to be an absorbing hobby. You need something else positive.

        Such things do exist. The last funeral I went to was conducted by a humanist and contained no religious elements. It seemed to function pretty well for the bereaved people present.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted November 8, 2020 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Biden is indeed a Catholic believer: he went to church this morning as he apparently always does on Sunday mornings while Trump went out to play golf again; but have you ever seen Biden wave a Bible on the front steps of a church? or pander to the evangelical conmen like Jerry Falwell Jr.?
      As far as I can see, Biden’s religion is his and a matter of private conscience, not a flag to be waved at rallies.
      Give the man credit.

      • jezgrove
        Posted November 8, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that’s a good point well made.

      • veroxitatis
        Posted November 8, 2020 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Also, Biden doesn’t appear to be anti science.

    • Posted November 8, 2020 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      I have read that there are European countries with state religions in which the government collects or provides tithes to churches.

      For example: “All members of the Church of Denmark pay a church tax, which varies between municipalities. The tax is generally around 1% of the taxable income.” (WIKI) In Finland and Germany church members pay a tithe (“church tax”) through the national taxation system.

      Also, religious schools are funded by the government in Great Britain.

      • Rawandi
        Posted November 9, 2020 at 6:39 am | Permalink

        Although Spain does not have a state religion, a part of the taxes continues to go to the maintenance of the Catholic clergy. This is a residue of Franco’s Catholic dictatorship that our rulers have not yet dared to eliminate.

        However, the Spanish population is much more incredulous than the American. Good proof of this is that our current president, Pedro Sánchez, is a declared atheist.

  3. Blue
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    No. This of his, Mr Just’s, is so, so
    ignorant and, IF he knows any RECENT history
    at all, THEN he knows he has determinedly
    left out … … the children.

    FOLLOW THE CHILDREN, RELIGIONS.

    November is Native American Awareness Month.

    RELIGIONS from the RECENT y1870s through
    y1978 … … YEAH, you read that correctly
    … … through y1978, were the TAKERS of
    thousands and thousands of Native American
    children A W A Y … … VERY, VERY MANY FOR
    THE REST OF THEIR LIVES, SOME OF THEIR LIVES
    VERY, VERY S H O R T DUE TO THEIR EARLY and
    TORTURED D E A T H S … … FROM THEIR
    NATIVE AMERICAN PARENTS. These RELIGIONS
    literally kidnapped these children in the USA
    and put them IN to ” training schools ” IN
    ORDER TO TAKE AWAY all of their cultures and
    their parents’ teachings to them.

    I cannot get started. Ireland and the
    LAUNDRIES and pregnant girls and women.
    ALSO TAKEN. THEN their babes TAKEN AWAY
    never to be seen by the mamas again, either
    TAKEN to others OR killed and buried.
    WHERE are the children born out of NUNS
    made pregnant by the PRIESTLY Sperm Sources ?
    KNOWN is that there were / are bagazillions.
    Where ARE these people now ? Either aborted
    they are or, as born babes, killed and
    buried.

    AD INFINITUM. Ad infinitum. THE KIDDOS.

    I ‘ld offer internet sites. But. I canNOT
    be so arsed to do so. It has, for me over
    the past three decades’ time, just been
    utterly exhausting to try to bring such
    WILLFUL IGNORANCE OUT OF THE DARK … …
    such that I just do not ANYMORE
    scientifically care to GIVE to Any ONE SHIT
    of proof or evidence of what I am so angered.

    NO to RELIGIONS.

    Blue

  4. docbill1351
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    My observation of the USA is that politics took a turn for the worse with the rise of the so-called Moral Majority. Just look at the words! This was Falwell’s crew and other “born again” evangelicals. Simply by claiming to be “more moral” they drove a wedge right in the middle of society. However, the Moral Majority was highly active, they got out the vote and they elected the largest bunch of unqualified knuckleheads the country could produce.

    And, they’re still here in the guise of Tea Party and Freedom Caucus and other flim-flam names. For the most part they are undereducated, provincial and have no interest in governing or, gasp(!), public service.

    In Texas, the evangelical legislature has devolved into an ineffective rabble totally consumed with so-called social issues, highly narrow-minded but dedicated to maintaining power by any means including gerrymandering, voter suppression and the intimidation of minorities. To be sure, it’s simply patriarchal authoritarianism laser-focused on telling people how they should behave. We have major issues with soil and water conservation, energy production, education reform, transportation and a host of problems that affect people every day. Yet the legislature is consumed with abortion, gun rights, the “rights” of religious organizations to discriminate, gays and guns, gays and guns.

    I say Just’s thesis is disproven by the observable facts. Democracy is weakened by narrow-mindedness, not strengthened by it.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Just get’s it so wrong right from the beginning it is hard to follow. Our commitment to democratic values needs a lot of work, that is correct. But the answer is in religion just makes no sense. Had he said the problem is in religion it would have made much more sense. Donald Trump is the best example of how religion goes wrong since Noah built the boat. It was the religious who joined up and road the Trump train all the way – just look at his Vice President. Religion was his middle name.

  6. Sastra
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I’d like to ask Just the question I’d ask of everyone who advances one of these “religious belief is good for society” arguments: does it make a difference whether or not God exists?

    If so, then that’s the real argument and no, it’s not going to bring people together. If not, then how is anyone going to control it, so it doesn’t deviate into a version less desirable, but not any more wrong than the desirable one?

    If you think religion is beneficial because it brings peace, then advocate for peace. If you like it because it teaches humility, then promote humility. And so forth…

    • Mike
      Posted November 8, 2020 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Yes exactly. And expressed in only ~100 words. Thank you!

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted November 8, 2020 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Or how the victims of religion know that by suffering for the moment is a virtue because the real treat is after the body dies everyone gets to play foosball with all their ancestors in the “afterlife” — everyone who suffered the right way.

  7. Jon Gallant
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Given Mr. Just’s confusion of US Christian religiosity with his own reform Judaism, I am surprised he overlooks my own sect, Kosher Goyim. For us, Jewish food is the foundation of our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Our contribution to American democracy will be to transform the Democrats and Republicans into milchik and fleishik parties. As we like to say: oneschmeck of our kugel and you will be born again, again.

    • EdwardM
      Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      This is what my Irish Catholic (recovered) father wanted for his epitaph*;

      “If I had to live my life over again, I’d live over a Jewish delicatessen”

      *I’m not kidding but my mother wouldn’t let us put it on his stone. I think he was joking, but my brothers are not so sure.

  8. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    “religion is necessary for a strong American democracy” (N.B. I know this is PCC(E)’s synopsis, not an excerpt from the piece).

    I am amused by this, so I tried making some up — because these could be good seeds for writing exercises — as in, to understand better why these notions flourish:

    •Flat earth theory is necessary for strong science

    • Cancer is necessary for strong medicine

    • Unsanitary conditions are necessary for strong immune systems

    …. and so on. Next question would be if they are *sufficient* for those things, and indeed how “strong” is to be measured.

    • Posted November 8, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Isn’t there some evidence that unsanitary conditions ARE necessary for a health immune system? Of course, the key is that they not be too unsanitary. What doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

      • EdwardM
        Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        Exposure to a wide variety of antigens is what is meant; our immune system, particularly in the first few years of life, must be able to distinguish self from non-self. To do this we use a process where the immune system learns what to respond to and what not to, though it’s not “learning” in the vernacular sense; it’s just a process of selection. It is sometimes called the “hygiene hypothesis”, which suggests that overly hygienic environment in early life handicaps our immune system by not giving it the tools it needs to build up a proper immunological “memory” (it’s not a memory like our brains have). “Unsanitary” has a specific meaning and isn’t what is meant by the hygiene hypothesis.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          I never heard that clearly before. And the assumption in that is a pediatrician is guiding the parent towards the best health possible. I’d be surprised if a pediatrician has ever recommended letting kids crawl around in *unsanitary* conditions, but just getting exposed to things in the normal course of a day might be encouraged – but that also is not exactly easy to control.

          • EdwardM
            Posted November 8, 2020 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

            Well, I think that was poorly written but I’m glad you thought it was clear (I was hurried…for no good reason).

            But I want to emphasize that the hygiene hypothesis is really more about the immune responses that occur in our guts; food allergies and other GI immune disorders. When we’re very young we are capable of adapting our gut immune response so that we don’t develop immune reactions against the food we eat. This is called immunological tolerance.

            The thinking is (there is a large body of work in support) that if, during this important window of opportunity when we are very young, we are not exposed to sufficiently large pool of food antigens, we may fail to develop immune tolerance for the food. That’s bad. Ask anyone with a peanut allergy.

            That’s really what people are on about with the “let your toddlers play in the mud” kind of advice. You see what I mean?

            • ThyroidPlanet
              Posted November 8, 2020 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

              Sure, that makes sense.

              I wasn’t following the plot of the peanut butter story at first, but here was guidance at some point not to give babies or toddlers peanut butter. But I think lots of parents got scared and never gave them it. The reason not to give it is because it is too dense and thick and viscous as packaged, and presents a serious choking hazard.

              Is there evidence that peanut butter is one product which elicits immune responses that preclude peanut allergies? Shellfish are another issue as well.

              Along these lines, there are warnings for very young children – babies – not to eat honey. Reason : Clostridial spores. However, I haven’t heard of honey allergies.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        “Isn’t there some evidence that unsanitary conditions ARE necessary for a health immune system?”

        I do not know enough about the immune system to know if it can be “exercised”, but the case of Bill Haast — who immunized himself to poisonous snake bites and lived to 100 years — is a remarkable tale.

        But do we really want to examine where the line between “sanitary” and “unsanitary” lies?

        • Posted November 8, 2020 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

          I was just pointing out that it wasn’t a simple matter of unsanitary always being an unqualified good. I have no intention of getting into an argument about the precise meaning of unsanitary, especially on a blog with a bunch of biologists. That said, my educated guess is that the science is nowhere near developed enough to say precisely what we should be exposed to and what we shouldn’t. And when we try to provide a sanitary environment for a child, we largely mean one that contains as few living things as possible. If we were able to do that consistently, we might well thwart the development of a healthy immune system.

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted November 8, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

            “I was just pointing out that it wasn’t a simple matter of unsanitary always being an unqualified good.”

            …. ummmm…. I’d say some of what we used to get exposed to through unsanitary conditions is now “given” to us by doctors — vaccines — that stimulate the same or similar immune reactions. But we can leave that alone for now, I think we are on the sane page.

            But how about this one :

            There was reported a year or so ago, in England I believe, that tobacco smoking behavior is … associated with, I think … possibly stimulates… robust DNA repair mechanisms.

            Assuming that is true, I can write a catchy article based on “smoking is necessary for strong DNA repair mechanisms”.

            • Posted November 8, 2020 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

              “smoking is necessary for strong DNA repair mechanisms”

              Perhaps “necessary” is too strong but I wouldn’t at all be surprised that certain activities have both positive and negative effects on us. The net effect appears to be negative with smoking. However, if science can detect positive effects, they can try to develop ways of getting them without the negative ones. Perhaps we’ll take a daily nicotine pill to ward off cancer.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted November 8, 2020 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

                “ if science can detect positive effects, they can try to develop ways of getting them without the negative ones.”

                Absolutely — the example here might be vaccines.

                I apologize for drawing this out but it is interesting — science and ways to get ideas for writing.

            • EdwardM
              Posted November 8, 2020 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

              ” I’d say some of what we used to get exposed to through unsanitary conditions is now “given” to us by doctors — vaccines — that stimulate the same or similar immune reactions.”

              This is not exactly correct. We would not have the need for vaccines if this were true. It’s pretty muddled, in fact. It’s close though and maybe a short precis will help clear it up.

              Vaccination takes advantage of our knowledge of how the immune system works; it optimizes the selection and expansion of protein receptors. That is what it comes down to, a selection for receptors – proteins on the surface of cells. Receptors that are specific for another protein – called an antigen, found on other cells.

              We all have in us a pool of protein receptors (we make new ones too) on the surface of our immune cells. The receptors fit like a lock and key into domains on the antigens. Immune cells are “primed” (if you will) to respond if they encounter the protein antigen the receptor they have on their surface is specific for. When the receptor engages the protein it is specific for, several things can happen. One of them is that the cell starts dividing. It makes copies of itself. This increases the number of receptors in the pool. If the protein antigen is still present, these cells also become activated and divide. You can see where this is going.

              What a vaccine does is make sure that there’s a lot of that protein antigen around but not the pathogen it comes from. Or at least not a living version of the pathogen. Normally the protein antigen the vaccine is comprised of is found on the surface of the pathogen. So if a vaccinated person gets infected, there are a whole lot of receptors around specific for that pathogen. Those receptors are on the surface of some very deadly, murderous cells.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted November 8, 2020 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

                “This is not exactly correct. We would not have the need for vaccines if this were true. It’s pretty muddled, in fact.”

                Yes I know but this is my original point, is a piece of writing can be started with such a notion and sound compelling — when the devil is in the details, and of course the science breaks down at some point in the process.

                BTW that was also a good idea of vaccine / immune function, in a hasty comment anyway. This part :

                “ We would not have the need for vaccines if this were true.”

                What I meant was in the Bill Haast sense / example of regular micro exposure over long time frames to a natural, unpurified harmful substance resulting, for Haast, in immunity. Not everyone can do this though – vaccines are designed to benefit as many specific people as possible.

        • Posted November 8, 2020 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          Like sane and insane.
          The boundaries shift according to one’s view of oneself… if no self-criticism is applied you could declare in all confidence
          “I’m the only Sane person in this village”
          … and four years later prove and verify that you were wrong.
          Unsanitary as in a unwashed stain on democracy, is well worth knowing.
          Sorry If I hijacked your comment.

    • Posted November 8, 2020 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      Most of the nonscientific references to this issue I’ve read in regards to children indicate that they need to be around some dirt. Most kids used to get dirty naturally by playing outside. I grew up on a farm in an old house with an old porch and no lawn or manicured yard. I have pictures of me crawling around on the porch. And, another of me walking across the yard with a dirty face, droopy drawers and my pet chicken.

  9. Jim batterson
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    So many pages wasted by wapo on just’s pre-enlightenment drivel. Thanks for taking the time to provide an excellent critique.

    • Mike
      Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Sastra could have saved them all the trouble and almost all the words.

  10. phoffman56
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    At the very worst end of USian xianity inanity (but it’s a continuum), check out the Mass Murderer’s ‘spiritual advisor’ grifter suggesting that, with enough evangelical ranting prayers from her, angels would descend from heaven to sort out the election. She also gives an Academy Awards performance of speaking in tongues.

    This is near the end of the 15-minute Steven Colbert video a couple of days ago on this non-blog.

  11. lesliefish
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I think the ancient Greek philosopher said it better: “By all means, let us sacrifice to the gods. If they do not exist, it does no harm. If they do exist, then perhaps they will be pleased by our attention and kindly disposed to our wishes.”

    –Leslie < )O(

    • Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      The ancient Greek philosopher was of course wrong: religion does do harm—what about those sacrificed kids and animals? It does harm to indoctrinate kids into superstitions with dubious morality, and to hold up faith as some kind of virtue. And there’s all the other harms of religion as well . . .

      • phoffman56
        Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        “..indoctrinate kids into superstitions..”

        Yes, and as I suggested a couple of days ago, this likely hangs on right into adulthood as proneness to phoney authority, rather than evidence, as their choice for evaluating truth. That would be statistical and it would be interesting if sociologists had any relevant data. For example, are QAnon simpletons more likely to have had a strict Biblical literalness Xian childhood, even despite now believing something different?

      • Posted November 8, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps the Greeks had an attitude similar to Trump’s on the coronavirus: the sacrificed don’t vote.

  12. sugould
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    If trump’s ”spiritual advisor” couldn’t save him, then what hope is there for the rest of us mere mortals?

    • Posted November 8, 2020 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps Trump will throw her under the bus soon as he has with many in his administration. I’m not sorry to see their careers rendered moot.

      • jezgrove
        Posted November 8, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        Agreed, I don’t see him retaining the services the a “spiritual advisor” once it serves no electoral purpose.

  13. Posted November 8, 2020 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Democracy in America has gotten into new trouble the last few decades, but not because of secularism. Just should take a look at his own newspaper. A big factor in the decline of national sanity is the he-said, she-said reporting style of major new outlets and the resulting race to the bottom. Culminating in the bottom-most demagogue, Trump. The guy who finally figured out that there’s no penalty to lying and making sh** up.

  14. jezgrove
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    “Humility and doubt” – yeah, right. The sort of religionists who express those emotions are not the ones involved in the kind of poisonous politics that need addressing in order to boost the health of democracy, whether in the US or elsewhere.

  15. Steve Pollard
    Posted November 8, 2020 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Humility, eh?

    The (London) Times has a regular Saturday column called ‘Credo’, written by some tame God-botherer or another. Yesterday’s was by someone called Graham Tomlin, who appears to be the Bishop of Kensington. He writes in support of the risible call by Archbishop Oilwelby and his crew for a national day of prayer in the time of Covid.

    Tomlin asserts that ‘prayers are a sign of humility’. He also writes ‘it is rare to find even atheists who stubbornly refuse to cry for help from whoever may be out there’.

    How dare people like that tell me what I think and do? It is a prime example of the arrogant sense of entitlement that still exists in religion in the UK. A less humble attitude to other people would be difficult to conceive.

  16. Posted November 8, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Homo sapiens have paid dearly and received huge dividends for their intellect. A ‘gift’ bestowed on us by natural selection.
    As the species fumbles around with it we look like a chimp practising the use of a hand tool (religion!) in the wild.
    After many attempts, this rock is not suitable to break THIS nut, let’s find another… and ‘we’ did, science!
    But one rock to the uncreative, looks, but more importantly, feels, like every other rock, hard! .. and this rock is mine.
    When the intellect goes rigid, immovable against change, we have shrinkage and constraints to all the new and possible solutions to breaking open a ‘hard nut’ of life and the way out for further improvement to our lot.
    At least the chimp recognises when they have extended to much energy and need to seek a more suitable rock.

  17. Posted November 8, 2020 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    the real question is does everyone have a common system of beliefs that are not in conflict with everyone else. Example its wrong to kill other people, or its wrong to steal. When you can’t agree on basics then that’s when things fall apart.

  18. Posted November 8, 2020 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    What we have been living with in this country
    for the last 40 years =/- is a result of a portion of us trying to return to a condition that never existed in re religion (of which, the Moral Majority et al mean Christian.)If you like what has happened in re the religious pressure, greater and greater difficulty in finding a middle path on any issue to be able to function as a Democracy rather than an Autocracy, then we need more tRump-like presidents and his minions. But,
    I’m sick of it and want my Democracy back.

  19. Posted November 8, 2020 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for reading that for me so I don’t have to use my few free hits at the WaPo up this month, and moreso, didn’t have to read it at all! That’s twice the fun!

    I’m so deeply sick of the “useful to society and some people” /spirituality argument which always ignores the profound damage all the toxic monotheisms do.

    Always bring up the Scandinavian vs say, the “faith community” of Iran/ Afghanistan /ISIS /Christianity (before it was defanged) models. Japan and much of East Asia also, btw.

    D.A., NYC

  20. Posted November 11, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    An interesting article, and interesting comments. I’d label myself as am atheistic, or agnostic Jew (I do belong to a synagogue, but don’t believe in God, as He/She/It is usually thought of). I do recognize that there are good qualities fostered by religion (a sense of calmness, good-will and charity toward fellow humans, etc.), but I don’t believe those qualities require a belief in a God. I think a very important topic not raised here is freedom of (and hopefully from) religion in America, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. All citizens should be free to practice the religion of their choice, or no religion. However, if there are activities that are prohibited by a certain religion, no practitioners of that religion should be ably to prohibit those activities to Americans who don’t believe in that religion, if the activities are lawful in the U.S. That’s what religious freedom means to me, and I think that meaning has been turned upside-down by many people over the past few years.


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