Yes, Tish Harrison Warren, the Anglican priest who writes a weekly column to fill up empty space in the New York Times, has once again proffered a cure for the nation’s ills. It’s trivial and far from new, but at least it doesn’t involve God. The email I got with the column (Ceiling Cat help me, I subscribe) was headed, “Why chatting with your barista could help save America.” In the paper (click on screenshot below), it has a different title:
The entire thesis can be summarized with one of her paragraphs:
To learn how to love our neighbors we need cultural habits that allow us to share in our common humanity. We need quiet, daily practices that rebuild social trust. And we need seemingly pointless conversation with those around us.
By “pointless,” she means “avoiding hot-button issues like politics”. Her notion, which many others have suggested before, is that you can heal divisions between people by getting the “sides” to know each other. If you like or at least are friendly with a political opponent, you’ll find a way to eventually agree on politics.
This simple message, however, is unlikely to heal any divisions—after all, are citizens supposed to wait until they discuss these issues?—or are they supposed to become pals with their barista before bringing them up? Warren dilates at length about her hale-fellow-well-met Texas dad whom everybody loved and nobody hated, for he just cracked jokes and made pleasantries. He didn’t talk politics.
It goes on and on and on, without telling us how, after we’re pals with Trumpies, we can then begin to discuss abortion, the border, the unstolen election and so on.
And so we have the Paper of Record giving us stuff like this:
I see moments of this in my own life. I moved states recently and feel the loss of seemingly unimportant local relationships I’d built where we lived before. I have no idea if my favorite former barista and I shared any political or ideological beliefs. We likely disagree on important issues. But I don’t care. I know he adores his infant niece and I regularly asked how she was doing. He is working to get through grad school, and I found myself genuinely rooting for this person I barely knew.
Each of us is more than the sum of our political and religious beliefs. We each have complex relationships with the people we love. We each have bodies that get sick, that enjoy good tacos or the turning of fall. We like certain movies or music. We laugh at how babies sound when they sneeze. We hurt when we skin a knee. The way we form humanizing, nonthreatening interactions around these things taps into something real about us. We are three-dimensional people who are textured, interesting, ordinary and lovely. . . .
. . . Of course, to heal the deep divisions in our society we need profound political and systemic change. But though we need more than just small talk, we certainly do not need less than that. As a culture, our conversations can run so quickly to what divides us, and this is all the more true online. We cannot build a culture of peace and justice if we can’t talk with our neighbors. It’s in these many small conversations where we begin to recognize the familiar humanity in one another. These are the baby steps of learning to live together across differences.
Yes, and maybe if the Taliban got to know more Afghan women they would eventually allow them to go to school. Maybe if more Texas lawmakers had cake and coffee with pregnant women they would rescind their draconian anti-choice law. When Lyndon Johnson rammed the Civil Rights Bills through the Senate, he didn’t make small talk with the Senators. He used his leverage and power to bring around the Southern opponents.
Yes, we have to be able to discuss things civilly, for then, so they say, consensus will come. That’s what Biden ran his campaign on, and look where it’s gotten him.
I am not sure why the New York Times hired a religion columnist who touts not just God but Christianity on a weekly basis, asserting things whose truth she cannot possibly know. I’ve beefed about Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren more than once on this site, decrying her anodyne religious palaver. But this week’s column is the worst, at least from the viewpoint of someone who likes to see evidence behind assertions. And although the NYT picked a genial and semi-liberal pastor to write the column, she’s still making assertions on par with, “I know that someday John Frum will come back to my island bringing us all riches and cargo, for that is what my ancestors told me.” What galls me is that she’s not only getting big exposure for her unevidenced religious claims, but probably making at least half as much money as John McWhorter, who has much more to say, likes to see evidence behind claims, and turns out two columns per week.
This time Reverend Warren tells us why she believes in God, the divine Jesus and His Resurrection, and her certainty that she’ll have an afterlife. (I don’t know if she thinks the rest of us will, as Warren is adhering to the tenets of Christianity.) It’s a prime example of confirmation bias, and something that clearly has no place in The Paper of Record.
Click to read and weep:
Rev. Warren is upset because her friend and mentor Thomas, the priest who supported her through her ascent to the priesthood, died in an automobile accident along with his 22-year-old child (sex not specified). That would be devastating for anyone. But she finds herself unable to accept that such a major figure in her life is gone for good. We atheists may have trouble coming to terms with that, too, but that doesn’t mean we start believing that we’ll see our dead friends and loved ones on “the other side”. Warren:
It feels to me like something went wrong. He can’t die, I think. He’d made plans. He had so much left to do. A journey interrupted.
. . . There is something deep within us that rejects the idea that the road just stops. We feel there must be more. We must be made for more: more conversations, more laughter, more breaths to take, more miles to walk along the trail.
Yes, and there’s something deep within us that thinks that the sun moves across the sky and dips below a flat earth. But science showed that our intuitions were wrong.
Warren then broaches the idea that Jesus himself must have had a story similar to Thomas’s, something like “Prophet, Interrupted”. Thus we get to the confirmation bias: because Thomas simply can’t have just expired forever, he didn’t! Why? Because the Bible tells us so and because Warren wants that to be true:
The truth is, no one — not priests, not scientists, not the most ardent atheist, not the most steadfast believer — can be 100 percent certain about what happens to us after we die. Each week at church, when we say the Nicene Creed, I affirm that I believe in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
I believe that after I die, somehow mysteriously but also materially Jesus will raise me up to live on this good earth, made new. I believe this because I believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. Specifically, I believe the witness of the disciples and others who lived and died for their claim that they (and somewhere around 500 others) had seen Jesus alive again and spoken to and touched him. That’s ultimately why I believe there’s a God at all and why I believe God has defeated death.
Re the first paragraph, no, none of us can be 100% certain that we live on after death. But we can go on what data we have. That data says that there is no evidence for an immaterial soul that would somehow embody our person, that there is no evidence for anybody coming back from death or giving messages from the afterlife (save Jesus, of course). Finally, as Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
As for the second paragraph, she piles one delusion atop another, all coming from taking the Bible literally. For every assertion she makes is based on the New Testament being literally true. Not only was there a historical Jesus (something that many of us doubt), but also that Jesus was a divine being, both the son of God and a third of God. His resurrection, of course, as well as the witnesses, are views that also come from the New Testament. If those are reasons for believing in God and an afterlife, good luck to Rev. Warren.
After all, we know that both the Old and New Testaments contain historical errors. The census of Caesar Augustus, for example, which made Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem to be counted and taxed, never took place. Jesus told his disciples, “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28, KJV) That’s pretty plain: he was saying that he’d return for a second time during the lifetime of his disciples, which of course didn’t happen. (This statement of course has now been interpreted by theologians as meaning something else.) We’ve been waiting two millennia, and Jesus still hasn’t come back. Why not? Could it be because the whole story is fiction? And could it be that the resurrection of the dead is also fiction?
I’m curious about what makes Rev. Warren so sure that she’ll see Thomas in heaven instead, for example, of being reincarnated as another life form, as some Buddhists believe. What makes her think that the Christian beliefs are the right ones, and all other scenarios about what happens after death are wrong?
She gives the answer away in the last sentence here (my emphasis):
As a priest, when I talk about life after death with others, I tend to keep it objective, theological and creedal. I worry about making resurrected life sound sentimental, like we are just making stuff up, dreaming of what we wish was true. So I try to be evenhanded and factual. But the fact is, I believe this is true, and I believe there are good reasons to believe it’s true, but I also want it to be true.
We’ve already seen that there are not “good reasons” to believe that there’s an afterlife, as there’s no evidence save the assertions of the New Testament, which are repeatedly erroneous. The real reason is that she wants it to be true. And that’s one of the main reasons we have Christianity.
Two statements are relevant here. The first is by the estimable scientist Peter Medawar:
I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing over whether it is true or not.
Would only religionists who make assertions like Warren adopt that stand!
Yes, that’s right: this is a real op-ed from Scientific American, which, if the magazine goes on in this vein, is going to fold—or at least should fold. Click on the screenshot to read. The word “problematic” should be your first clue that this is going to be painful:
I’ll give you the first of five reasons it’s “problematic” in full and then list the other four with an explanatory sentence or two from the piece. Remember, this is not a joke and it’s not April 1. This is intended as a real contribution to social justice.
As we will argue, our justice-oriented projects should approach connections to the Jedi and Star Wars with great caution, and perhaps even avoid the acronym JEDI entirely.Below, we outline five reasons why.
The Jedi are inappropriate mascots for social justice. Although they’re ostensibly heroes within the Star Wars universe, the Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work. They are a religious order of intergalactic police-monks, prone to (white) saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution (violent duels with phallic lightsabers, gaslighting by means of “Jedi mind tricks,” etc.). The Jedi are also an exclusionary cult, membership to which is partly predicated on the possession of heightened psychic and physical abilities (or “Force-sensitivity”). Strikingly, Force-wielding talents are narratively explained in Star Wars not merely in spiritual terms but also in ableist and eugenic ones: These supernatural powers are naturalized as biological, hereditary attributes. So it is that Force potential is framed as a dynastic property of noble bloodlines (for example, theSkywalker dynasty), and Force disparities are rendered innate physical properties, measurable via “midi-chlorian” counts (not unlike a “Force genetics” test) and augmentable via human(oid) engineering. The heroic Jedi are thus emblems for a host of dangerously reactionary values and assumptions. Sending the message that justice work is akin to cosplay is bad enough; dressing up our initiatives in the symbolic garb of the Jedi is worse.
This caution about JEDI can be generalized: We must be intentional about how we name our work and mindful of the associations any name may bring up—perhaps particularly when such names double as existing words with complex histories.
If you see lightsabers as “phallic”, you’re trying very hard to be offended.
The others (the explanation is much longer than I’ve excerpted)
2.) Star Wars has a problematic cultural legacy. The space opera franchise has been critiqued for trafficking in injustices such as sexism, racism and ableism.
3.) JEDI connects justice initiatives to corporate capital. JEDI/Jedi is more than just a name: It’s a product. Circulating that product’s name can promote and benefit the corporation that owns it, even if we do not mean to do so. We are, in effect, providing that corporation—Disney—with a form of free advertising, commodifying and cheapening our justice work in the process.
4.) Aligning justice work with Star Wars risks threatening inclusion and sense of belonging. While an overarching goal of JEDI initiatives is to promote inclusion, the term JEDI might make people feel excluded. Star Wars is popular but divisive. Identifying our initiatives with it may nudge them closer to the realm of fandom, manufacturing in-groups and out-groups.
5.) The abbreviation JEDI can distract from justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. When you think about the word JEDI, what comes to mind? Chances are good that for many, the immediate answer isn’t the concept “justice” (or its comrades “equity,” “diversity” and “inclusion”). Instead this acronym likely conjures a pageant of spaceships, lightsabers and blaster-wielding stormtroopers. Even if we set aside the four cautions above, the acronym JEDI still evokes imagery that diverts attention away from the meanings of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.
I really don’t have anything to say about this except that Scientific American keeps pumping out the most ludicrous op-eds, some of which, like the one above, suggests that there are many people who would rather problematize acronyms than actually do anything for social justice. What this has to do with science is beyond me.
This is the first case of acronym-policing that I’m aware of, so it deserves some attention as a new sign of the insanity that is becoming normal in academic circles.
And I had to ensure that the authors are real because this is one of those pieces so close to satire that Titania McGrath (below) could claim credit for its authorship. But yes, the authors are real humans.
Thank you @sciam for publishing my article on the problematic nature of Star Wars and the term “Jedi”.
According to Wikipedia, The Globe and Mail (G&M), is regarded as Canada’s “newspaper of record”. Well, I rarely read it, but know from articles that readers send me that, unlike America’s Newspaper of Record (the NYT, of course) it has a mildly conservative slant. But like the NYT, the G&M has a weakness for woo, spirituality, and the numinous. The latest is an article by Liz Worth, a professional tarot card reader who does her readings on Zoom and has a Tarot School (courses start at $500).
Now tarot started as a card game, like bridge or poker, but in recent years has transmogrified into a way to predict the future for gullible people with worries or questions. In this sense it’s like astrology, and tarot readers function very much like astrologers. But the scientific and evidential basis for these two forms of woo is the same: NONE. While I know that scientific tests of astrology have failed, I know of no double-blind (or of any) tests of the efficacy of tarot. My guess would be that there is no way that selecting pieces of cardboard from a stack can tell you about the future, or shed insight on your problems that a good therapist couldn’t do without using cards.
And yet people flock to tarot readers. After the customer shuffles the deck, the reader lays out a selection of cards (“the spread”), whose guide the gullible client towards answers, either about the present or future. As Worth reports in her longish piece (click below to read), while other businesses languished during the pandemic, she was inundated with requests for readings, which she can conviently do via Zoom.
What she writes below is a justification for the woo she purveys to the credulous.
In this article, as with many articles about astrology and woo in mainstream media, the woo-defender doesn’t make a blanket statement that he/she can predict the future. It’s in there, of course, because that’s probably the main reason people consult astrologers and card readers. But readers cover up the predictability aspect with a number of rationalizations: the readings are really about the present, not the future; they help people understand themselves better; and the readers act more as psychologists than woo-mongers, using cards or stars simply as a convenient props to suss out the problems of the clients. But note the article’s title, part of which is “Tarot isn’t JUST about the future”, implying that it’s PARTLY about the future. So it goes.
Here are some statements by Worth to that effect:
Tarot is a collection of ideas, an organic invention that has been shaped by various influencers over several centuries. There is no ownership over it and no singular perspective on what it is for. While the common perception of tarot is that it’s a fortune-telling device, you’ll find many tarot readers who don’t use the cards to predict the future at all. Tarot’s modern iterations are diverse and ever evolving. It shows up in psychotherapy practices, life coaching and yoga studios. It’s been used in conjunction with personality tools like the Enneagram and Human Design. Some people see tarot as a tool to develop your intuition, others see tarot as a visual language.
Nailing down one clear definition is like trying to distill a centuries’ deep history into a sentence or two. What’s best to keep in mind when discussing tarot is that its purpose is not always to look to the future, but also to make sense of the present. Many of my clients come to gain insight about what’s currently holding them back, and what changes in their mindset or behaviour they can make to help shift their lives. Tarot is not therapy, but it can feel therapeutic for many. To divine is a verb, after all, and means to discover a truth through intuition or insight. Divination isn’t just about foreseeing what’s to come, but about seeking knowledge of the unknown, overall. We all have blind spots: If you’re not sure why you keep making the same mistakes over and over again, or you need help finding clarity in a confusing situation, a tarot reading can fill in the gaps.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s not always a prediction device, but often a way of “life coaching” and personality improvement. “It’s not therapy, but it can feel therapeutic.” Well if it’s not therapy, what is it? It sure sounds like therapy—that is, outside the many instances when it’s used simply for predictions. But if it worked, tarot readers wouldn’t be in business: they would have predicted how the stock market would go and made a pile.
But I digress. Here’s more defensive posturing from Worth:
The world of divination is much more than popular depictions of cheesy fortune tellers who make generic promises of fame, fortune and secret admirers. I owe so much of my spiritual development to astrologers, tarot readers, mediums and magicians. [JAC: Magicians???] And having grown up in this world, I know how easy it is to dismiss divination as fraudulent or deluded. Or even flat out evil. To be honest, there are people out there posing as psychics who do run scams on their clients. It doesn’t hurt to have a healthy dose of skepticism when you’re navigating this industry.
But everything requires balance. The beliefs, assumptions and misconceptions about my work – and trust me, this is real work – tend to come from the perception that I just sit down and get grand visions of my clients’ lives. That I see everything playing out like a movie, and will be able to tell them the dates and times they’ll meet their future partners, or get a phone call with an exciting opportunity.
Divination is not omniscient. When people come to me for a reading, I often remind them that they know themselves best. I encourage them to get clear about their values, boundaries and desires, rather than sitting back and waiting for me to tell them what to do.
Tools like tarot and astrology are meant to help people tap into their own coping skills and inner resources, or offer perspectives they hadn’t considered. It’s not about seeing into the future. That being said, sometimes predictions do come true. There is a prophetic element to divination, but it’s not always as clear-cut as mainstream beliefs make it out to be. And we need to remember that there is a whole world outside of ourselves. Many factors shape our lives. The economy, politics, societal norms, technology and more all influence our opportunities, decisions and challenges.
What a swamp we must wade through here? “Yes, there are fake diviners, but I’m not one of them.” “I’m doing real work!” “The real purpose is to help you ‘tap into your own coping skills and inner resources’, and I also offer ‘pespectives you haven’t considered’.” No, it’s not about seeing into the future BUT “sometimes predictions do come true.” (Well, sometimes they don’t, which is why claims like this need to be empirically tested). “And other stuff affects your life beyond how the tarot cards fall.”
Here you see the idea that the reader can indeed do predictions, but they’re not perfect predictions. That gives them an out, and a way to pretend that it’s not about prediction at all. It’s the perfect scam: an airtight system that can’t be disconfirmed.
Wait! Here’s a bit more:
Tarot readers aren’t here to build fantasies, but tell the truth of what we see – for better or for worse. Which is why, in my practice, I work to bring people back to themselves first and foremost: What do you need? What’s important to you? What steps can you take to get yourself to a good place? We can’t escape the possibility of job cuts, lay offs [sic] or business closings. Those are part of our reality. But we can focus on managing our fears, and accepting that the future always holds unknown variables – including pandemics.
. . . Intuition is important, but it works best in tandem with common sense. Predictions shouldn’t trump good judgment, and readings don’t replace decision-making or personal responsibility. Nor do they override public-health measures, science or the benefits of good hygiene.
What the hell does hygiene have to do with this? Is this a hint that some clients might have life problems because they don’t wash themselves?
At any rate, if this isn’t being sold as therapy, it sure sounds like therapy. And it may be therapeutic for some people—people who need others to talk to about their problems: “paid friends”, if you will. And that would be okay except for several things:
Tarot is often, or usually, sold largely for its supposed ability to predict the future.
There’s no evidence that it does predict the future.
If tarot readers like Worth are really doing a form of therapy, they are not trained to do therapy. They are trained in how to read tarot cards, which may involved “cold reading” of subjects.
The cards, as with astrological charts, are critical in any therapeutic functions. There’s a word for tarot readers without cards (or astrologers without charts): “unemployed”.
All this adds up to the fact that tarot readers, and other purveyor of woo, are taking money under false pretenses. Psychic services in the U.S. rake in over two billion dollars per year, and that’s a lot of dosh. Well, not many people go broke using these services, so you can say, “What’s the harm?” The harm is that they add up to a lot of money, a lot of fraud and, in the end, the enabling of a form of faith: belief without evidence. It’s religion without God, and it’s an insult to rationality.
And why did the Globe and Mail publish this unpalatable pablum in the first place? What were they trying to accomplish? For one thing is for sure: the article will simply increase the number of people who flock to tarot readers.
There are some posts I’m compelled to write even though I know that they’ll make me angry, take a lot of time, and won’t stimulate my brain in the least, for they involve religious arguments that have long been refuted. This is one of those posts.
I’m always puzzled when people who show reasonably high intelligence confess that they’re religious—even deeply religious. These people include Andrew Sullivan, NIH head Francis Collins, and NYT columnist Ross Douthat. Though I usually disagree with Douthat and his conservative views, at least they’re based on data, however misinterpreted. But his deep faith (pious Catholicism), which he displays in embarassing detail in his new NYT essay, is beyond my ken. For here Douthat not only advances some of the common and unconvincing arguments for God (many taken from Intelligent Design), but also makes many of them, and says that they’re based on science itself.
But none of his claims will convince the skeptic. Further, Douthat fails to deal with arguments against God—especially the argument from physical evil (tsunamis,childhood cancers, and so on). He doesn’t answer the question of where God came from, nor how we decide what beliefs about God are are true in the face of conflicting faith claims—though he does mention these issues. He punts on the question about why he’s a Catholic instead of a Jew or a Muslim. Is this just his preference, or are there facts about the world that vindicate Catholicism? Douthat doesn’t say.
As I began to write this summary and critique of his arguments, I felt more and more that even very smart people are willing to accept dubious claims if it makes them feel good. In other words, they lack well-tuned organs of skepticism and are ridden with confirmation bias. If you have other answers (e.g., God gives us answers to questions we can’t solve—another of Douthat’s “reasons”), weigh in below. And I remind readers of Michael Shermer’s relevant book, Why People Believe Weird Things.
But first click below to read and weep:
In this long piece, Douthat makes five arguments for God that I’ll summarize and discuss briefly. But first lays out his claim: that, in fact, believing in God, especially these days, is the most parsimonious thing to do. Atheism is less parsimonious than faith. And, even though science has advanced and explained via naturalism a lot of things once imputed to God, Douthat sees these advances as simply confirming God’s existence even more strongly.
A couple of introductory quotes. He first dismisses two reasons to at least pretend to believe in God: it can give you a communal system of ethics and philosophy, or, if you act as if you believe, perhaps eventually you will believe, and then you’re home free. Douthat doesn’t like those reasons, though, as he’s a true believer:
But there’s another way to approach religious belief, harder in some respects but simpler in others. Instead of starting by praying or practicing in defiance of the intellect, you could start by questioning the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings.
The “new atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett once wrote a book called “Breaking the Spell,” whose title implies that religious faith prevents believers from seeing the world clearly. But what if atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence?
In that case, the title of Dennett’s book is actually a good way to describe the materialist defaults in secular culture.
. . . there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.
Dennett gets bashed a couple of times, and I hope he’ll respond. But after recounting several reasons why medieval people believed in God, and claiming that they’re still good reasons (e.g., our consciousness, which allows us to observe ourselves from the outside, leads us to believe that we’re clearly made in the image of the Creator—which isn’t an argument at all), Douthat moves on to how modernity has only buttressed the case for a divine being. I find five reasons in his essay.
1.) The fine-tuned universe proves God. Here we have this argument again, which physicists have refuted repeatedly. And even if Douthat’s answer be true—the multiverse leads some universes to be suitable for human life—that is an argument against God, not for him. For if God wanted to simply create life, with humans as its apotheosis, why did he go to all the bother of setting up multiverses, many of which don’t allow life? Here’s Douthat:
The great project of modern physics, for instance, has led to speculation about a multiverse in part because it has repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. If science has discredited certain specific ideas about how God structured the natural world, it has also made the mathematical beauty of physical laws, as well as their seeming calibration for the emergence of life, much clearer to us than they were to people 500 years ago.
In other words, the multiverse explains why the laws of physics in our universe, though not in others, allow life to exist.
Are you kidding me? That’s an argument for God? The multiverse hypothesis posits not that the laws of physics are calibrated for life, but that they differ among universes, and in at least one universe (ours) those laws allow life to exist. (This, of course, assumes that the laws of physics really are “fine tuned” for life, and life couldn’t exist under any variants of those laws—a claim which itself is dubious.) Now we can’t test whether a multiverse exists, but if it does, and the laws of physics vary among them, then the “fine tuned universe” is in fact an argument against God and for naturalism.
2.) The “hard problem” of consciousness proves God. Oy gewalt, my kishkes are already in knots.
Similarly, the remarkable advances of neuroscience have only sharpened the “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, from the simple experience of color to the complexities of reasoned thought. So notable is the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue that certain materialists, like Dennett, have fastened onto the idea that both conscious experience and selfhood must be essentially illusions. Thus the self that we identify as “Daniel Dennett” doesn’t actually exist, even though that same illusory self has somehow figured out the true nature of reality.
This idea, no less than the belief in a multiverse of infinite realities, requires a leap of faith. Both seem less parsimonious, less immediately reasonable, than a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter, as the mind of God precedes the universe — that the precise calibrations of physical reality and the irreducibility of personal experience are proof that consciousness came first.
What “leap of faith” is he talking about? I suspect it’s that naturalism hasn’t yet explained consciousness (or other stuff), and therefore God is a more parsimonious explanation. But, as Hitchens noted, that still leaves you with all the work ahead of you, for what explains the pre-existence of such a complex God? How did such a god get here? Saying he always existed is not an answer, for one could say that the multiverse always existed, or that single universes pop in and out of existence because “‘nothing’ is unstable”. And if God’s main aim was to create humans to worship and obey him, what was he doing before he made the Earth. And why use evolution to get to hominins rather than poof them into existence? After all, the Bible explicitly contradicts evolution.
Here Douthat simply offers the Argument from Ignorance: because there are hard problems that we can’t explain, we should default to the God Theory. You’d think that, observing the history of science and seeing that one argument for God after another has fallen in the face of naturalism (evolution, for instance, replaced the most convincing argument humanity ever had for God: creationism), Douthat would have some proper Catholic humility. But no, he claims that, with consciousness (and other phenomena described below),science has reached the end of the road. Ergo, God.
I beg to differ. Naturalism is the one route to understanding the universe; it’s the only game in town. Scientists, as Laplace explained, have discarded the God hypothesis because it doesn’t help us explain anything. Further, naturalism is already helping us understand consciousness: the parts of the brain that are necessary for the phenomenon to appear in our species, the chemicals that can take it away and bring it back, and so on. As with Patricia Churchland, I believe consciousness will be explained when we know all the parts required, and how they interact, for a being to become conscious. (Yes, I do realize how hard that endeavor is.) Beyond that, there’s no “hard problem.”
As for the “ultimate” explanation for consciousness—whether it’s a phenomenon favored by evolution or simply an epiphenomenon of the brain—I have no answer, but I could think of possible reasons. But let’s move on to Douthat’s next reason for God.
3.) The comprehensibility of the Universe itself is proof of God.
Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis.
But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”
This again is not a new argument, and has been made for centuries. It involves two connected claims: that the Universe is comprehensible because God made it that way, so that it obeys laws (let’s leave the annoying lawlessness of miracles aside), and that God forged the human mind so that it could understand those laws, thereby appreciating God’s greatness.
As to why there are physical laws in the first place, we don’t know, but it’s likely there could be no universe to observe unless there were physical laws. They may differ among different universes, but if laws changed within a universe, what would we have? We wouldn’t have planets orbiting the Sun according to the laws of gravity, we would not have matter, whose existence depends on many regularities, and so on. In other words, we could posit a “weak anthropic principle” for physical laws.
As for why humans can investigate and understand those laws, we don’t need to posit God. The blind and naturalistic process of evolution, for which (unlike for God) we have evidence, will suffice. And if God gave us brains to comprehend the universe, why didn’t those brains include a universal belief in the real God—the one that Douthat thinks exists. All scientists worth their salt accept the inverse square law of gravity and the existence of evolution, but different populations of the world have very different concepts of God—or no god at all. Did God intend to punish atheists by withholding from them the ability to believe in God while still vouchsafing them the mental ability to detect gravity waves? I’m puzzled.
Now note that if you combine arguments #2 and #3 you get this result:
When there’s stuff we don’t understand, that’s proof of God
When we do understand stuff, that’s proof of God, too.
This means, of course, that Douthat has a watertight argument for God that can’t be disproven.
4.) Demonic visitations, near-death experiences, and other numinous phenomena prove God. This is truly bizarre, especially given Hume’s postulate that one should take a parsimonious view of such occurrences, accepting them as real only if a naturalistic explanation (including deluded observers) is less parsimonious.
Here’s Douthat, whom I’ll have to quote at length (there’s a lot more than this!):
Read the British novelist Paul Kingsnorth’s recent account of his pilgrimage from unbelief through Zen Buddhism and Wicca to Christianity, and you will find a story of mysterious happenings that would fit neatly into the late Roman world in which Christianity first took shape. (Except back then he would have probably been a Platonist rather than a Buddhist.) Or read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Living With a Wild God,” a memoir by an inveterate skeptic of organized religion, which describes mystical experiences that came to her unbidden, with a biblical mix of awe, terror and mystery.
“It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once,” Ehrenreich writes. “One reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.”
So the bolt from the blue still falls on nonbelievers as well as on believers. The nonbeliever is just more likely to baffled by what it all might mean, or more resistant, as Ehrenreich remains, to the claim that it should point toward any particular religion’s idea of God.
Likewise with experiences that seem like hauntings and possessions, psychic or premonitory events, or brushes with the strange “tricksters” that used to be read as faeries and now get interpreted, in the light of science fiction and the space age, as extraterrestrials. In the 21st century, as in the 19th or the 14th, they just keep on happening, frequently enough that even the intelligentsia can’t completely ignore them: You can read about ghosts in The London Review of Books and Elle magazine; you can find accounts of bizarre psychic phenomena in the pages of The New Yorker.
. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.
. . . Maybe they are all just mental illusion (even if some of their features are not exactly easy for existing models of brain function to explain), the result of some evolutionary advantage to feeling peaceful at the brink of death. But just conceding their persistent existence is noteworthy, given how easy it is to imagine a world where these kinds of experiences didn’t happen, where nobody came back from the threshold of death with a life-changing account of light suffused with love or where the experiences of the dying were just a random dreamlike jumble.
Let us first note that a. there are reasons why people would want to take these phenomena as evidence for a God, for who wants their life to end at death? But the phenomena, which can be reproduced with drugs, chemicals, meditation, and so on, are not themselves evidence for any kind of divine being. Anyone who’s ingested LSD or other hallucinogens will experience all kinds of bizarre things, including great and ineffable beauty that eludes us in our quotidian life, and perhaps a sense that we’re all part of one Universe. But just because we can reproduce mystical experiences with chemicals is no proof that non-chemical experiences of the numinous are evidence for God. In fact, people who are severely mentally ill often have such experiences, including the sense that they themselves are gods! Douthat is incredibly credulous about human experiences and what they mean.
And no, an evolutionary explanation for “nonhuman minds” is NOT making “a concession to religion’s plausibility”; it’s a scientific/sociological attempt to explain why people so readily buy religious claims. Pascal Boyer’s explanation, for instance, that “agency detection” would be of evolutionary advantage, does not give even an iota of credibility to religious claims. It’s simply an attempt to see why people so readily impute unknown phenomena to God. It’s arguments like this one that makes me think Douthat is either not as smart as he seems, or, more likely, is deeply blinded by his will to believe. He hasn’t the slightest idea why evolutionary biologists seek explanations for religion, or what that seeking means. We want to know why so many people believe stuff that’s unsupported by evidence. The only concession that people like Boyer or Dennett make when they study how religion might have come about is that religion exists, not that it’s plausible !
5.)Finally, because evolution leads us to believe in things that are real and true, ubiquitous belief in God must give us greater confidence that God exists. I’ve already discussed a bit of this claim, for it’s in this bit of Douthat quoted above:
. . . .Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself.
I mentioned above the fallacy of asserting that evolutionists’ study of religion gives the content of religious beliefs—including God—more plausibility. Now I’ll address the idea that evolution tells us what’s true about the world. This is often the case, for an individual who thinks a lion is harmless, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt him, is less likely than others to pass on his genes. But, as many have pointed out, evolution has also endowed us with faculties that can be fooled. Optical illusions are a good example. But there are many more, and here I’ll quote from Steve Pinker’s excellent essay, “So how does the mind work?”
Members of our species commonly believe, among other things, that objects are naturally at rest unless pushed, that a severed tetherball will fly off in a spiral trajectory, that a bright young activist is more likely to be a feminist bankteller than a bankteller, that they themselves are above average in every desirable trait, that they saw the Kennedy assassination on live television, that fortune and misfortune are caused by the intentions of bribable gods and spirits, and that powdered rhinoceros horn is an effective treatment for erectile dysfunction. The idea that our minds are designed for truth does not sit well with such facts.
One would imagine that Douthat could have talked to more evolutionists before he started making The Argument for God from Evolution. But the man is clearly beset with confirmation bias, and his willingness to make the fivefold assertion that modern science proves God more strongly than ever testifies to that bias. And because of his personal issues, we get this wretched essay that’s come from his word processor.
I’ve alluded to Douthat’s evasion of the issues of evil, and of the problem of many and conflicting faiths, and you can read for yourself how he punts on these issues, which actually are critical ones. Just one quote here:
But wait, you might say: Given that Hinduism and Christianity are actually pretty different, maybe this attempted spell-breaking doesn’t get us very far. Postulating an uncreated divine intelligence or ultimate reality doesn’t tell us much about what God wants from us. Presupposing an active spiritual realm doesn’t prove that we should all go back to church, especially if these experiences show up cross-culturally, which means they don’t confirm any specific dogma. And you haven’t touched all the important problems with religion — what about the problem of evil? What about the way that institutional faith is used to oppress and shame people? Why not deism instead of theism, or pantheism instead of either?
These are fair questions, but this essay isn’t titled “How to Become a Presbyterian” or “How to Know Which Faith Is True.” The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. It creates an obligation without telling you how exactly to fulfill it. It opens onto further arguments, between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved.
Well, at least he admits the problems, but doesn’t face the fact that these are arguments against God—especially if you use his own claims! He thinks his arguments are so strong that niggling worries about how many gods there are, or why little kids get cancer, can be ignored or put off for some other time. I, for one, look forward to Douthat’s explanation of those issues.
Lately the New York Times went soft on dowsing, and of course they’ve been perpetually soft on astrology. Nobody seems to bring up the paper’s penchant for woo when they’re praising it for “fact-based journalism.” Even in the op-eds or “personal” stories—stories that, like today’s—give credence to woo, the Times fails to call attention to the lack of evidence for these phenomena. The result is that some readers, perhaps open to “spiritual” things that don’t involve goda, get sucked into the black hole of confirmation bias.
Today’s story is particularly invidious because it’s about reincarnation, and author Sara Aridi basically endorses her own sister’s belief in the phenomenon—a belief so strong that her sister eventually became a “past-life regression therapist” herself.
Click to read and weep; author Sara Aridi is actually a NYT employee, described as “a staff editor on the Home team, where she produces the home screen and mobile app. She joined The Times in 2016.”
To summarize, author Aridi and her family are Druze (a Middle Eastern religion), and one Druze belief is that “every human being is reincarnated. Your body is a shell, and your spirit can claim another life form to live on indefinitely.” Some Druze also think that people can remember parts of their previous lives.
One of these was Aridi’s sister Heba, who was only three years old in Lebanon when she claimed that her real name was Nada (and began making sandwiches for her “husband” Amin) It turns out that a woman named Nada lived half an hour away, but had died, and did have a husband named Amin. It’s not at all clear that the putative soul of Heba, that of Nada, left Nada’s body before or after Heba “recovered” her memories.
At any rate, Nada’s relatives came to visit Heba because they’d heard of this remarkable reincarnation. (Tellingly, Aridi says “word gets around in small villages”.) They allowed Heba to visit their home, and when she did so Heba coughed up a few unconvincing “memories” about an old lady and a garden that jibed with the past.
Eventually Heba gave up all the reincarnation stuff. But then, after moving to Los Angeles, Heba discovered “past-life regression therapy”, one of those forms of therapy that convinces you that you’ve repressed important parts of your memories or life, and whose practitioners aren’t objective but tendentious. (They resemble the “recovered-memory therapists” who make their living convincing people that they were abused when they were children, and have simply “repressed” the memory.)
Heba was so taken by this therapy that she became certified in the practice herself and started treating others. And so the termites dined further.
I’ll simply reproduce the rest of the article in which author Sara Aridi gives considerable credence to her sister’s beliefs and practices. But wait! There’s more! She touts not only reincarnation, but also astrology AND “oracle cards”, which I suppose are like tarot cards. I’ve put some “reincarnation might be real” bits in bold.
On the other side of the country, I was starting a career in journalism, and was ambivalent about Heba’s new profession. I wondered why I had accepted her experience with Nada so matter-of-factly without looking into it further. Questions nagged at me: How do I explain something I don’t understand? Are someone else’s memories enough evidence of them having a reincarnated soul? It wasn’t until this past year, while my sister and I were living under the same roof again, that I started to truly reconcile our worldviews.
Before that, living on my own over the past several years meant I could carefully curate my life, and engage only with people who shared my beliefs, mainly journalism colleagues who prioritized evidence-based facts. I thought I was open-minded — until I had to discuss politics and spirituality with my family around the dinner table.
Note the half derogatory phrase “evidence-based facts”. What other kinds of facts are there? But Aridi continues:
Last December, during the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the first time in 800 years the two planets aligned incredibly close to each other and were visible in the sky, I joined Heba and our pandemic pod for a ceremony at a friend’s house. We sat in a circle, drew cards from an oracle deck and wrote down our reflections and hopes in an attempt to manifest our goals for 2021.
It was new and refreshing for me; it felt like much-needed talk therapy after an isolating year. And, my oracle cards were freakishly on point. The first said “Growth,” and mentioned leaving behind antiquated relationships, beliefs or systems. The beliefs I needed to let go of were not the spiritual ones though.
No, Sara clearly needed to let go of the “evidence-based facts” and retain her view that there’s something to reincarnation. But of course these generalized statements like “growth” can apply to anyone. There’s more:
I still have questions — many questions — about past-life regression therapy, but I support Heba and her work. Some of my closest friends have become her clients. She has repeatedly offered to conduct a session with me, but I don’t think I believe in the therapy enough to go under. And if I do, I’m afraid of what I would discover. This life has been challenging enough at times, I don’t know that I could bear the memories of another one.
That, of course, assumes that “going under” might give her evidence of a previous life. There’s more:
I also drew a second card that night: “Boundaries.” Heba and I glanced at each other. The card displayed a symbol of a red jaguar, its fangs out. As my friend read the card aloud, I was amazed by how elegantly it spoke to my struggle to be independent from my family while accepting them. The jaguar “has a healthy sense of boundaries and respects magic and the unknown,” it said. I may not be ready to confront my past lives, but at least I’m more open to having fuller experiences in this one.
Well, the last sentence sounds good, but what does it mean? Why would accepting past lives, which the author explicitly does in the last sentence, make her more open to having fuller experiences now? Wasn’t it the “oracle cards” that woke her up?
No matter, it’s all a bunch of hooey. One could of course do controlled tests of people who have claimed past lives rather than the usual anecdotal “matching” of feelings with data, but so far as I know, the whole schmear rests on these kinds of anecdotes. And if you claim a memory of a past life in which, for example, you were of a different language group, you should be able to speak that language fluently. The evidence doesn’t support that.
But the strongest evidence against reincarnation is that there is neither evidence for a soul that can move between bodies, nor any known physical mechanism that someone’s personality and memories can leave the body and somehow enter another body (and when does the latter happen?). In my view, it’s all wish-thinking, based on the desire to be immortal in the face of the fact that we’re not immortal. So we simply posit that our soul lives on my making itself at home in someone else’s body. (In fact, the observation that people have a strong motivation for wanting to live on after death should make us even more cautious about accepting reincarnation.)
Like all claimed spiritual or psychic phenomena, we can’t say for certain that reincarnation doesn’t occur, but the lack of a mechanism for the process, or rigorous testing by skeptics, certainly doesn’t give the phenomenon much credibility. As Carl Sagan used to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And we certainly don’t have that kind of evidence in Heba’s testimony. All we have are a bunch of half-baked assertions that don’t survive even slightly rigorous scrutiny.
For reasons that defy me, the New York Times evinces a weakness for these spiritual and numinous phenomena. Is the paper catering to the large fraction of Americans who believe in reincarnation? For, according to a 2018 Pew Survey, fully a third of American adults accept reincarnation. Have a look at the depressing first line of this table from the survey, which is somewhat mitigated by the “atheist” line lower down.
So be it. Those who argue that the NYT remains the newspaper of record must also explain why it shows such a weakness for woo.
Imagine what the world would say if every Israeli—soldier, or civilian—who killed a Palestinian in a deliberate act of terrorism, and was killed during or jailed after the act, got monetary rewards for life! Imagine if every IDF soldier who killed a Palestinian civilian got several hundred dollars a month, with the amount increasing with the number of civilians killed.
Well, you can imagine what the world would say on top of the opprobrium it already heaps on Israel. Such payments would be deemed immoral, unconscionable, and a war crime.
But in fact, such a fund exists—but to reward Palestinian terrorists who go after Israelis. It’s called the Palestinian Authority Martyr’s Fund, known more gruesomely (but accurately) as the “Pay for Slay” fund. I’ve written about it in detail here and here. About 7% of the annual budget of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which amounts to millions of dollars for the Fund, goes to pay off “martyrs” and their families. Nor do the emoluments stop when the terrorist is released: he or she gets continued payments and often a cushy job with the PA.
Here’s what I wrote about it a while back.
The program consists of the Palestinian Authority giving generous payments (often for a lifetime) to those Palestinians who get caught committing terrorism against Israel and are either killed or put in Israeli prisons. (They often justify it as reward for fighting the enemy, but the “enemy” often consists of Israeli citizens, including women and children.
If a Palestinian kills or injures an Israeli in an act of terrorism, or simply commits a non-murderous act like terrorist arson, he or she get a comfortable wage, and, if you get out of prison, a good job and other benefits in Palestine. (The amount you get goes up with the heinous nature of the crime; murder is the most compensated act.)
. . . . It’s even worse, for many countries, including much of the European Union, finances this “pay for slay” program by giving aid money directly to Palestine. A few countries (including Australia, Norway, and the U.S.) have cut down their contributions to Palestine because of this program, but much of the EU simply gives aid to Palestine that can be used to pay terrorist’s “martyr pensions”. Those pensions constitute about 7% of the total Palestinian budget: or about $355 million per year (in 2017).
In response to this heinous fund, Israel has annually withheld from the PA the money amount the Palestinians pay to the Martyr’s fund (Israel collects taxes on goods that pass through the country on its way to Palestine, gives those taxes to Palestine, but the blood money is withheld from these payments.)
The Israeli government has the option of allowing the “Pay for Slay” money to go through, and last year, during the pandemic, it intermittently stopped withholding the murder payments, but the amount that the Palestinian Authority gave to terrorists still amounted to nearly $200 million. And, according to an article in the Washington Post (click on screenshot below), taken word from an article in The Associated Press., Israel froze that money on Sunday: an amount of nearly $200 million.
But, as an article in Honest Reporting notes (see second screenshot below), both the AP report and the Washington Post‘s article are full of distortions and lies, implying not only that the money mostly doesn’t go to terrorists, but these journalists also use a “conflicting narrative” attitude towards the Martyr’s Fund, attempting to “balance” what Israel says about it, which happens to be true, with Palestinian retorts, which happen to be false.
This is one example of what’s supposed to be real news reporting is tainted by ideology.
Click on the screenshot below to see the Washington Post‘s article:
I’ll go through the first half of the article bit by bit, showing where the Washington Post distorts the truth. The paper’s reporting is indented; my own comments are flush left.
Israel’s Security Cabinet on Sunday froze nearly $200 million in tax transfers to the Palestinians that it said represented the amount of money the Palestinians transferred to the families of alleged attackers last year.
First of all, these are not “alleged” attackers. Some are killed during acts of terrorism, and many others are in Israeli prisons—after a trial in which their rights are guaranteed. The “alleged” terrorists are sometimes found not guilty and are often represented for free by Israeli lawyers. Once they are convicted, and the money from Palestine starts rolling in to them or their families, they are no longer “alleged” attackers. They are “convicted attackers”, which is the paper’s euphemism for terrorists.
Under interim peace agreements, Israel collects hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes for the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority. The tax transfers are a key source of funding for the cash-strapped Palestinians.
Israel has long objected to the Palestinian “martyrs fund,” which provides stipends to thousands of families that have had relatives killed, wounded or imprisoned in the conflict with Israel.
The claims that the martyr’s fund “provides stipends to thousands of families that have had relatives killed, wounded or imprisoned in the conflict with Israel” is false. The stipends only go to those who are killed, wounded, or imprisoned while committing acts of terrorism against Israel, most of them aimed at killing Israeli civilians. This is a gross distortion of the facts.
The Palestinians say the payments are a type of welfare system meant to assist families affected by the conflict. But Israel says such payments serve as rewards and incentives for violence.
. . . Qadri Abu Bakr, head of the Palestinian commission for detainees’ affairs, accused Israel of stealing Palestinians funds, calling the decision a “crime and piracy.”
This is a bogus “dueling narrative” approach to the conflict. The money is meant to incentivize terrorism, not to “assist families afflicted by the conflict”, for which there is a separate PA social welfare fund. The crime is paying terrorists for killing civilians.
. . . For the Palestinians, the families of attackers are widely seen as victims of a half century of Israeli occupation. The Palestinians say that many Palestinians are unfairly held by Israel and that the number of prisoners involved in deadly attacks is a small percentage of those aided by the fund.
This is another bit of the dueling narrative; the first sentence is misleading while the second is an arrant lie. The first sentence implies that Palestinian terrorists who go after Israeli citizens are justified in their actions because they are “victims of a half century of Israeli occupation.” Leaving aside the question of whether Palestine is “occupied,” there is no moral justification for killing innocent people because of another government’s actions.
Further, the statement that “the number of prisoners involved in deadly attacks is a small percentage of those aided by the fund” is another bald-faced lie. 100% of the Martyr’s Fund money goes to reward terrorists and their families. The paper is conflating the Martyr’s Fund with other funds that the PA uses to help the destitute or those in need of social welfare. By referring to “the fund”—the fund from which Israel withheld $200 million, the Post implies that the Martyr’s Fund is mostly for social welfare.
There you have it: a news report slanted to cover up and defang the horrible thing that the PA is doing by incentivizing terrorism. It’s an example of what Orwell, in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language“, calls euphemisms designed to blur the truth:
The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.
This article also mentions a Reuters report which does the same thing. Here’s a quote from Reuters:
Israel calls stipends for militants and their families a “pay for slay” policy that encourages violence. Palestinians hail their jailed brethren as heroes in a struggle for an independent state and their families as deserving of support.
Qadri Abu Baker, head of prisoners affairs in the Palestine Liberation Organization, called the Israeli measure a crime of “terror and piracy.”
There’s not even a counter-quote from an Israeli official! In such ways do the mainstream media demonize Israel and valorize the Palestinians. The worst part is that this is straight news, not an op-ed. After reading both the NYT and WaPo for a while, I’ve concluded that the WaPo is worse on “social justice” issues like this. But the AP and Reuters, the Big Sources, are also responsible. Is nobody checking the facts?
It is part of the hypocrisy of the Left that, while ignoring the perfidies of Palestine while concentrating solely on Israel’s deeds, they completely “forget” to mention the Martyr’s Fund.
To me the answer to the question above is a no-brainer: “Of course.” If someone who did a crime is on the loose, then anything that might help apprehend him (most criminals are men) could be useful. That includes height, weight, presence of glasses, facial hair, clothing, and ethnicity. In fact, of all of these identifiers, ethnicity is the hardest to change if you’re fleeing the cops.
And yet the media often (as in this case) quails at specifying the ethnicity of perps, as if somehow that would lead to stereotyping. But I don’t see how it could, unless it simply reinforces those bigots who would say, “See, another X did a crime.” But bigots don’t become more bigoted that way, and it seems to me that the advantage of helping police apprehend a criminal outweighs any considerations of reinforcing racism.
In fact, in this case the newspaper at issue refused to report any identifying information (though clearly race was the hot button) even though the cops already had. And they explained that they left out the information because it might “reinforce stereotypes.” Right then and there you know the criminal is black or Hisptanic.
The incident was the mass shooting in Austin Texas on Friday night, a shooting that injured 30 people, two critically. Here’s the first report (now archived) of two suspects on the loose from the Austin American-Statesman (click on screenshot)
Notice that this was published Saturday morning. At the bottom of the article, however, is this “editor’s note”:
But in fact the description isn’t too vague to help cops apprehend the suspect, or the public to identify him. Below is the bulletin issued yesterday morning by the Austin Police Department with the “vague description of the suspected shooter” (click on screenshot). It’s not that vague, and says that one suspect is “described as a black male, with dread locks [sic], wearing a black shirt and a skinny build.” Surely this is of value in helping apprehend somebody. If someone is caught but doesn’t have dreadlocks, it would be easy to find out if he had them right before the shooting.
The paper clearly saw the police report, which came out the same day as the article above, and I strongly suspect that the paper didn’t describe the one suspect (not yet apprehended when the article came out) not because of vagueness, but because the suspect was an African-American. In fact, I know this is the reason because the newspaper says so: publication of the description “could be harmful in perpetuating stereotypes.” As I said, this is a strong clue that the suspect is either black or Hispanic, so the disclaimer above is doubly ludicrous.
Here’s the police report.
When the suspect was arrested, a later report in the paper (curiously, with the same time of filing) still does not give details of who the suspect is (which is now less relevant except for those who keep track of race). But it has exactly the same disclaimer at the bottom! That makes even less sense.
While there’s no pressing need for a paper to describe someone who’s apprehended, I highly doubt that they’re withholding information because it could “perpetuate harmful stereotypes.” Instead, they’re withholding it because they think the paper will look racist if it identifies an apprehended suspect as an African American.
And their claim that “We will update our reporting” goes up there with “the check is in the mail” as One Big Lie. Remember, we’re talking about a mass shooter here, not a shoplifter or petty burglar.
The updated report:
I’ve seen the unwillingness to identify the ethnicity of unapprehended suspects in other media reports, but that often involves simply omitting identifying details rather than making an explicit statement about why they’re doing it.
We’ve come to a pretty pass when the fear of being called “racist” is so strong that it keeps journalists from giving information that might reduce crime. But sometimes criminal justice must outweigh social justice, particularly when the latter is—as it is here—misguided.
This week’s New York Times has a decent essay (click on screenshot below) by John McWhorter on the history of the “n-word”, which he actually spells out repeatedly—34 times. The reason? He’s discussing three things: the origin of the word, its various morphs and meanings, and how it became a slur at the same time that once-unsayable words like “fuck” have become pretty mainstream.
As McWhorter notes, the use of the n-word as a complete taboo has been in the air for some time, and was still used openly on “The Jeffersons” television show and on McWhorter’s own radio interviews. But when Christopher Darden refused to utter the word during the O. J. Simpson trial (remember that Detective Mark Fuhrman was accused of having used it), the true taboo period began, and of course is with us still. It’s even taboo to use it in a didactic fashion, or reading it as part of literature (see below).
This essay is not one of McWhorter’s best efforts, I thought, but is still well worth reading. I wasn’t as interested in the etymology of the word as how and when it became taboo, and in McWhorter’s main point, which he states succinctly:
Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.
In other words, the n-word is the new “fuck”.
Another issue with McWhorter’s essay is that he offers no opinion on whether the word can be uttered didactically, as in a reading of Huckleberry Finn or in a classroom discussion. While McWhorter clearly feels it’s warranted in his essay (he spells it on in full over thirty times), this is an essay on etymology and the demonization of a word—not exactly the same thing as teaching a book that uses the word. I would have expected McWorter to give an opinion about using the word in full in other contexts, but he doesn’t.
But perhaps he was prevented from doing so. If you recall from earlier this year, NYT science writer Donald G. McNeil, Jr. was forced to resign because he used the word, and in a didactic context, on a trip with students to Peru. McNeil was simply trying to ascertain whether the word was actually used by another student, and was not using it as a racial slur.
It didn’t matter. As editor Dean Baquet emphasized in the NYT’s statement (my italics)
“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
In other words, as the Daily Beast summarized its summary of the NYT staffers’ objections, which swayed Baquet from merely disciplining McNeil to eventually firing him:
But the company’s conclusion about McNeil’s intent was “irrelevant”, the irate staffers wrote in the letter, adding that the paper’s own harassment training “makes clear what matters is how an act makes the victims feel. . .
That would seem to settle the issue as far as the New York Times is concerned. It is the reaction that is important, not the intent of how the n-word is used. Ergo the NYT should never, ever allow that word to be printed, for its usage in print will certainly offend some people. (Remember, too, that McNeil used the word verbally, in a question, and did not print it 34 times!).
I guess, though, that the paper has rethought its stance. Apparently intent DOES matter now, at least in the Times‘s explanation of why it decided to publish McWhorter’s piece including multiple instances of the n-word. Click on the screenshot below (the link appears in the header of McWhorter’s piece):
The NYT’s explanation (there’s more in the short piece):
McWhorter’s piece is about the word itself — its etymology, sound and spelling. Using asterisks or dashes to veil the word would render this discussion incomprehensible, as would using a phrase like “the N-word.” Employing that phrase as a stand-in would also make the essay hard to follow, since part of the article concerns the distinction between the use of “the N-word” and the slur itself. So we came to the conclusion that printing the word was the right solution.
McWhorter’s argument has implications that go well beyond linguistic curiosity. As he writes, “What a society considers profane reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: The emerging taboo on slurs reveals the value our culture places — if not consistently — on respect for subgroups of people.”
Tracing the evolving use of this slur and the controversy it engenders — even within The Times — shows us how our society and what it respects have changed.
The first paragraph is bogus; I replaced every use of the full word in McWhorter’s essay with either “the n-word” or “n—-r”, and it did not make the essay any harder to read.
The second two paragraphs totally undercut editor Baquet’s earlier statement that “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” Well, apparently they do, at least in an erudite essay by a black linguist.
Don’t get me wrong: I think McWhorter’s essay was readable and enlightening, and the recent transposition between slurs and profanity is a good point. There was no reason for him to have to use the euphemism “the n-word” instead of spelling it out. What I object to is the hypocrisy of the NYT in saying that they won’t publish any “racist language regardless of intent”, and then backing off in this essay. As Greg asked me when he sent me these links, “How does Dean Baquet live with himself?”
Other recent contexts in which the Times thought printing nigger was acceptable include movie dialogue (March 2021), a Frederick Douglass quotation (February 2021), an essay about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (December 2020), a David Dinkins obituary (November 2020), a review of Barack Obama’s book A Promised Land (November 2020), a news analysis comparing Donald Trump to George Wallace (July 2020), and an essay on police reform (June 2020). Yet the paper’s executive editor, in explaining why McNeil had to go, claimed “we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” If there is any sensible or even consistent standard at work here, it is pretty hard to discern.
For a while, NYT columnist Bret Stephens has had, as the saying goes, “One foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave.” The banana peel is his columns, which are not only semi-conservative in politics, but also against the policies of the paper itself. (For example, Stephens wrote a column criticizing Dean Baquet’s views on the n-word, with Baquet arguing that uttering the word in any circumstance was a grave journalistic misstep, and “intent didn’t matter”. Stephens’s column got spiked and then was published in The New York Post.) At the time I wrote that Stephens was “bucking for a pink slip” from his newspaper. The pink slip (or a resignation) is the grave.
That pink slip is closer to arrival now that Stephens has published another contrarian column in his paper. In this case he will anger his editors in three ways:
a. Stephens calls out the ideological bias of casting the Atlanta spa murders as Asian “hate crimes,” saying that there’s no evidence for that. While that’s true, and while federal prosecutors have so far seen no evidence for a “hate” charge, this doesn’t matter. All the protestors seem to already know the motive. It’s a sign of the times that saying we need more evidence for such a motivation, especially when there is none, is regarded as a racist view.
b. Stephens goes against the way his own paper, as well as others, have reported on the crime, emphasizing over and over again its roots in hatred of Asians. While this is likely true for other attacks on Asians, it may well not be true for the mass shooting in Atlanta. As Andrew Sullivan wrote of the NYT last Friday,
I believe the count is now closer to a dozen. Stephens, of course, won’t mention this, as they’d either spike the column or make him leave that out.
c. Stephens notes that many (I estimate at least half, though the media tends to hide this fact) of the recent assaults on Asians were done by people of color, mostly African-Americans (see some data below). This goes against the Critical Race Theory view that now dominates the New York Times.
How long will Stephens be allowed to stay on? (I suspect he’s already a pariah in the newsroom.) And will he move to Substack, the refuge for journalists expelled by the Woke? We shall see. It would be odd of the paper didn’t have any conservative columnists, though!
Click on the screenshot to read the piece; it’s not long.
And here’s what he says about a) and c), though he doesn’t go after his paper explicitly:
The ideological bias:
And the motive, while still requiring scrutiny, is confessed: The killer claims to have been struggling with a sex addiction at odds with his evangelical beliefs. According to The Associated Press, “All three businesses where people were fatally shot Tuesday have detailed recent reviews on an online site that leads users to places that provide sexual services.”
So how do we get headlines like “The Atlanta Spa Shootings and the Year of Hatred Against Asian Americans” on a news story from U.S. News & World Report? And why has reporting of the incident by so many news outlets emphasized the race of six of the victims when there is, as yet, only one rumored bit of evidence (in a South Korean newspaper) that the victims were attacked on account of their race?
The reason is that we have two things that, separately, are important and true, but that are being dubiously conjoined for reasons of ideological convenience.
The two things are:
1.) Hate crimes against Asian-Americans are on the rise, at least in 16 U.S. cities, and have risen by 149% in 2020 over previous years, while hate crimes in general have decreased 7%. This clearly shows (given that the sample size isn’t terribly small) that there’s a significantly disproportionate increase in hate crimes against Asians during the pandemic.
2.) Donald Trump “stoked anti-immgrant hatreds that very likely contributed to the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the 2019 massacre at a Walmart in El Paso.” And don’t forget his incessant references to the “China virus” and the “Kung Flu.”
And Stephen’s lesson, which will irritate his editors most:
But if the news media should have learned one thing over the past 20 years, it’s to be exceptionally wary of trying to map one truth onto another for the sake of a compelling narrative.
. . . Now we have a rising rate of anti-Asian hate crimes, and a horrific crime in which the perpetrator is white and most of his victims were of Asian descent (although two were white). The powerful ideological temptation is to treat this as yet another shooting in the vein of Pittsburgh and El Paso — or, as one CNN headline put it, “White Supremacy and Hate Are Haunting Asian-Americans.”
Tempting — but mostly baseless. The same study that found last year’s rise in anti-Asian hate crimes also notes that the overall incidence of these crimes is relatively small, both in absolute numbers (122 incidents in 2020, out of a total of 1,717 hate crimes), and compared with other victimized groups. It should go without saying that one hate crime is one too many, but even though reports of these incidents may be a small fraction of the overall crimes, proportions matter.
And while data about the identity of perpetrators is hard to come by, the New York Police Department did keep tabs last year. It found that out of the 20 anti-Asian hate crimes in which arrests were made, two arrestees were white, five were white Hispanic, two were Black Hispanic, and the rest were Black.
Well, had I been Stephens, I would have left out the argument that the overall incidence of crimes is small, as it looks like an attempt to minimize something that angers a lot of people. Yes, it’s true that hate crimes occur less often than most people think, but that’s not all that relevant here. What is relevant is that more blacks than whites committed hate crimes against Asians, and that the proportion of blacks who commit hate crimes on Asians is twice their proportion in the population. This definitely contradicts the white supremacy trope wielded by CRT, and explains, I think, why it’s hard to find from news reports the ethnicity of those committing hate crimes on Asians.
Here’s some data from 2018 on the proportion of different groups who were subject to violent crime, and the ethnicities of the criminal. These were tweeted by Wilfred Reilly. Now the data are three years old, and don’t reflect the uptick in crimes on Asians that’s said to have occurred. At least back then, Asians were not predominantly assaulted by Whites, but Whites, Blacks, and other Asians assaulted Asians with roughly equal frequency.
In 2019, the total population percentage of these groups from Census statistics were:
Stephens does refer to hate crimes from 2020, but only in New York City:
And while data about the identity of perpetrators is hard to come by, the New York Police Department did keep tabs last year. It found that out of the 20 anti-Asian hate crimes in which arrests were made, two arrestees were white, five were white Hispanic, two were Black Hispanic, and the rest were Black.
What can one conclude from this limited data? Not a lot, except that the idea that white supremacy is what haunts Asian-Americans rests on empirically thin ice. Like so much else in public discourse today, it’s another capital-T ideological Truth in search of lower-case-t factual truths to validate its predetermined, overstretched hypotheses. That it has the laudable goal of “raising awareness” and “combating hate” does not relieve journalists of the responsibility to report facts scrupulously, not play to fears in the service of a higher good.
His indictment of journalism is, of course, an indictment of the New York Times as well, as is his last sentence, which he adds after saying that people also want to know how the perp was able to buy his gun on the day of the killing, how religious fanaticism can lead to such a killing, and why local authorities overlook the sex trade that goes on in spas.
All of this would be journalism in which the public could have confidence. Instead we have morality plays.