Should there be religious exemptions from vaccine mandates?

September 7, 2021 • 9:15 am

The other day I had a bright idea for a post on my drive to the store, and, since my short-term memory has always been lousy, I should have made a note to myself. SInce I didn’t do that, I promptly forgot it, though I knew the topic was interesting.

I was, however, just reminded of what I’d thought of by seeing the title below of a NYT op-ed by Curtis Chang (identified as “a co-founder of Christians and the Vaccine, a consulting faculty member at Duke Divinity School and the C.E.O. of CWR, a management consultancy serving secular nonprofits and government agencies”).

I haven’t yet read this op-ed except for the title, so let me first give my own view before I parse the article.

First, I agree with the title wholeheartedly.  The only people who should be exempted from vaccine mandates are those who might be injured by vaccines, including the immunocompromised.  Now adults above a certain age should be allowed to make medical decisions if those decisions don’t endanger anyone else. Thus, if you have appendicitis and are one of those sects that don’t accept medical intervention (Christian Science is supposed to be one, but members often sneak around the restrictions), it’s okay by me if you reject the operation and endanger yourself. (If you have a wife and kids, however, that may be another matter, largely because the kids, who could be left without a parent, don’t get to choose their faith.)

But with vaccinations, you’re endangering not only yourself by rejecting science-based medicine, but others as well. Thus, if you refuse the Covid shot on religious grounds, you’re endangering other people because you might get infected and spread the virus. Even if nearly everyone else is vaccinated, you could still infect the few who aren’t. Even the Bible talks about rendering unto Caesar. Well, Caesar is the state, and to the state belongs the purview of preventing pandemics and epidemics.

The fact that religious people are allowed to refuse medical care for their kids in some places, or get a slap on the wrist when they do—even when the child dies—is absolutely unconscionable. It’s one of the unjustified forms of “respect” that we afford to religious beliefs. The subject of religion and healthcare is largely the subject of the last chapter of my book Faith Versus Fact, and I tell some horrific stories of those who believe in faith healing letting their children die in the vain hope that God would save them. This should be a felony, and it is in some places, but all too often that unwarranted “respect” for faith gets parents either off the hook or with a minimal sentence. And all too often those parents justify their behavior, even when, by withholding medical care, they’ve killed their own child. As I note in my book (p. 234):

It’s not just the parents who are at fault. Religious exemptions are written into law by the federal and state governments—that is, those who represent all Americans. In fact, 38 of the 50 states have religious exemptions for child abuse and neglect in their civil codes, 15 states have such exemptions for misdemeanors, 17 for felony crimes against children, and five (Idaho, Iowa, Ohio, West Virginia, and Arkansas) have exemptions for manslaughter, murder, or capital murder. Altogether, 43 of the 50 states confer some type of civil or criminal immunity on parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds.

As for vaccinations, there should be no religious exemptions for getting them, regardless of the dictate of your faith. That’s because refusing a vaccine is not a decision with purely personal consequences, but can have widespread and deleterious effects on other people. And yet, as I note further in my book (pp. 235-236):

Religious exemptions for vaccinations, allowed in 48 of the 50 U.S. states (all except Mississippi and West Virginia) endanger not only the children who don’t get immunized, but the community in general:  not everyone gets vaccinated, and even those who are don’t always acquire immunity. To attend public schools and many colleges, like the one where I teach, students must show evidence of vaccination for diseases like hepatitis, measles, mumps, diphtheria, and tetanus. The only exemptions permitted are for medical reasons, like a compromised immune system—and religion.

Nor are Christians the only believers who oppose immunization. Islamic clerics in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria urge their followers to oppose polio vaccination, declaring it a conspiracy to sterilize Muslims. These efforts may prevent the complete eradication of polio from the human species, something already been achieved for smallpox. Dr. A Majid Katme, spokesman and former head of the Islamic Medical Association of the UK, described by the Guardian as “a respected figure in the British Muslim community,” has come out against all childhood vaccination, claiming that “the case of vaccination is first an Islamic one, based on Islamic ethos regarding the perfection of the natural human body’s immune defense system, empowered by great and prophetic guidance to avoid most infections.”  Taking his advice would, of course, be disastrous.

In all states, immunizations are required for public school enrollment, except for medical, religious and philosophical exemptions. Here’s the latest map (2021) of exemptions, taken from The National Conference of State Legislatures. As you can see, since my book was published in 2015, it appears that four states—Maine, New York, Connecticut, and California—no longer grant religious exemptions for vaccination. That’s good news. Note as well that only 15 states allow philosophical exemptions (the striped ones are also blue, meaning that they allow religious exemptions too). This shows not only that religion gets precedence over philosophy, but also that this precedence makes no sense, since a philosophical exemption is presumably a “reasoned” one (misguided though it may be), while religious dictates come from scripture or authority. Every state in the map below should be white.

Now I’ll read the article, and you are free to at any time by clicking on the screenshot below.

Chang and I largely agree, but diverge in three important ways:

First, though, he notes that the religious exemption comes from Title VII of the Civil Rights acts, which “require American employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.” And those are the grounds on which many people are claiming religious exemption from the Covid vaccination, though Chang believes that these religionists aren’t really doing it on religious grounds (which don’t exist anyway, see below), but are “nonreligious and rooted in deep-seated suspicion of government and vulnerability to misinformation.”

Further, and this is what made me realize originally that this topic deserves a post, how many religions really have dictates prompting their followers to refuse vaccination?  We know about Christian Science, of course, and there are dozens of evangelical Christian sects, largely in the American Northwest, that refuse medical care as part of their faith. But try to find a justification for that in scripture. As Chang notes:

. . . there is no actual religious basis for exemptions from vaccine mandates in any established stream of Christianity. Within both Catholicism and all the major Protestant denominations, no creed or Scripture in any way prohibits Christians from getting the vaccine. Even the sect of Christian Scientists, which historically has abstained from medical treatment, has expressed openness to vaccines for the sake of the wider community. The consensus of mainstream Christian leaders — from Pope Francis to Franklin Graham — is that vaccination is consistent with biblical Christian faith.

Biblically based arguments against vaccination have been rebutted. The project Christians and the Vaccine, which I helped to found, has created numerous explainer videos in an effort to refute attempts by anti-vax Christians to hijack pro-life values, to distort biblical references like the “mark of the beast” and to inflame fears about government control. Christians who request religious exemptions rarely even try to offer substantive biblical and theological reasoning. Rather, the drivers for evangelical resistance are nonreligious and are rooted in deep-seated suspicion of government and vulnerability to misinformation.
Chang is doing a good deed by pointing out the weakness of religious exemptions for vaccination, and by insisting that all employers should get rid of religious exemptions for coronavirus vaccines (he specifies “for Christians”, but I think no religious exemptions should be allowed).

That’s one way we differ. The other is that Chang appears to think that Christians have a “right” to refuse the vaccine in general, though not necessarily to be employed without it:

My plea to my fellow Christians: If you insist on refusing the vaccine, that is your right. But please do not bring God into it. Doing so is the very definition of violating the Third Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

I don’t think there’s a “right” for Christians to refuse vaccines deemed essential by the state. They have no more right to do that than to refuse to pay taxes on religious grounds, nor to send their children to public schools without the required shots (except, of course, for those pesky exemptions).  And not paying taxes is far less harmful to society than walking around with a possibly infectious microbe.  Everyone should be vaccinated for diseases like Covid unless there are medical contraindications. I can see no reason not to. People may say that a few people may suffer serious side effects, but those are far less harmful than living through a pandemic.

Finally, many religious schools allow unvaccinated children to attend, and some parents are sending their children there, or homeschooling them, to get around the normal vaccine requirements (right now only older children must be vaccinated). For safe vaccines, as Covid-19 jabs will surely prove to be for younger children, all children everywhere must be vaccinated, just like adults. After all, even religious children mingle with the general public, and endanger them when they’re unvaccinated.

Of course given my view that religion is man-made and generally detrimental to society (this is of course demonstrated by the last chapter of my book), I would object to any favoritism based on religion that doesn’t apply to secular people. (This doesn’t mean, though, that I favor philosophical exemptions to vaccination!) But you don’t have to go that route when making the argument that nobody should be exempt from a Covid vaccination except on medical grounds. The public health argument is sufficient.

Perhaps you disagree, or have other views. By all means, use the comments to air your thoughts.

An academic paper: Which saint is best to pray to if you’ve got Covid?

August 28, 2021 • 10:45 am

Inquiring minds want to know, and three Europeans (perhaps in cahoots with the divine) have answered:

When a reader sent me this article, and I read the online condensed version (it takes two minutes), I thought it as a joke. But no, it’s for real. You can see the journal site here, and a response to the article is the first one listed on the contents page of the latest issue. I’d love to see the response, or the full original paper (you can see a precis by clicking on the screenshot below).  I’ve archived the article’s precis here in case that for some reason they ditch the article.

 

Okay, I’m going to show you the whole “snippet” of the paper as presented by the journal:

Short report

Which Saint to pray for fighting against a Covid infection? A short survey

Summary

Background

In the absence of a treatment still considered universally effective, and of a vaccine validated by the health authorities, we wanted to know which Catholic saint the European Christian community turned to in the event of infection with Covid-19 to request a miraculous healing.

Methodology

An online survey was carried out on a sample of 1158 adults using social media tools.

Results

All results are presented in this research, with a few saints in the majority, and some dictated by the symptomatology of the Covid-19 infection or the personalities of certain « doctor guru ».

Conclusion

This medico-anthropological study is revealing the psychology of Western patients vis-à-vis the magic-religious means used in the fight against diseases, particularly in the epidemic/pandemic context.

Section snippets

Background

The relationship between religion and medicine is well known in human communities since antiquity. Medieval medicine was based on Hippocratic and Galenic doctrines, but it was also characterized by spiritual and divine influences. So, in European countries, in Middle Ages, Saints’ invocation for the curing of diseases was an usual practice.

Despite, the spiritual and religious dimensions have deviated from medicine after the Renaissance and the Late Enlightenment, the intercession to the Saints. . .

Methodology

We conducted a survey on two of the most used social networks: Twitter and Facebook. The survey was conducted between August 21 and 25, 2020. Each author posted on his Twitter and Facebook page, the following question: “Which saint you would pray for fighting against a Covid infection?”. The total number of followers targeted by the question was 15,840 people (92% from Europe).

Results

A total of 1158 adult anonymous participants (mainly from France and Italy) answered to our question. For obvious ethical reason, no sex, age or cultural background are available. All results are summarized in Table 1.

Discussion

Analyzing the results in more detail, from the survey it emerges that the majority saint is St. Rita (Fig. 1). From a young age, Rita of Cascia (Italy, 1381-1457) dreamed of consecrating herself to God, but she was destined to marry a violent man. Rita’s patience and love changed her husband’s character. After the violent death of her husband and two children from illness, Rita decided to follow the youthful desire by entering the monastery of the Order of Sant’Agostino in Cascia (Italy) [4].

Conclusions

This short medico-anthropological study is revealing the psychology of Western patients vis-à-vis the magic-religious means used in the fight against diseases, particularly in an epidemic/pandemic context. The survey confirms that Catholic people continue to entrust their sorrows, their anxieties and their hopes to the divinity, especially in time of global stress, mainly if it is a suddenly-presented difficulty that have changed the people’s lifestyle. Moreover, the choice of the Saints to. . .

Authors’ contributions

AP had the initial idea of the search and contributed to the survey. AC contributed to the survey. PC wrote the first draft of the manuscript, with significant critical input from all other coauthors. All authors have read and approve the final article. PC is the manuscript guarantor.

Disclosure of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interest.

So if you don’t get vaccinated, you better start praying to Saint Rita.

This is unbelievably stupid. And their research used subjects garnered from Twitter and Facebook!

Note that this isn’t just a survey of opinion, but is somewhat prescriptive: “In the absence of a treatment still considered universally effective, and of a vaccine validated by the health authorities, we wanted to know which Catholic saint the European Christian community turned to in the event of infection with Covid-19 to request a miraculous healing.”

Elsevier should be ashamed of itself. If anybody has access to the letter of response, I’d love to see it.

h/t: Ginger K

Atheist-bashing quote of the day

August 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’d never read the Wikipedia entry on “New Atheism” before, and so I just did. It’s pretty good, and clearly not heavily edited by theists. But the section on “Criticisms” of New Atheism reports a bale of the usual twaddle: New Atheism is a religion (I always read this as “See? You’re as bad as we are!); New Atheism is overly strident (one person calls it “mean-spirited” which it’s apparently okay to call Republicans but not religion); New Atheism provides a straw man by going after only “folk religion” rather than sophisticated theology (which isn’t that different from fundamentalism, but just gussied up with fancy words); and New Atheism is “scientistic” (that hit is from Massimo Pigliucci).

But one quote particularly struck me, and I’ll give the Wikipedia entry verbatim. If you don’t recognize the name, Sacks used to be Britain’s Chief Rabbi. Now he’s a fricking baron!

Jonathan Sacks, author of The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, feels the new atheists miss the target by believing the “cure for bad religion is no religion, as opposed to good religion”. He wrote:

Atheism deserves better than the new atheists whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.

So there’s a tidy bundle of criticisms, but none of them hold water. Let me respond off the top of my head:

a. Many new atheists used to be religious, and thus have a deep understanding of not just practicing and believing, but also of theology and the Bible. You can see this knowledge displayed frequently on this website.

b. As for our supposedly pitiful knowledge of religion, let me refer you to a Pew study of two years ago, which revealed that, overall, Jews, atheists, and agnostics showed a better knowledge of religion than did adherents to more traditional faiths, and also beat the other “nones”: those who believe in “nothing in particular”. Atheists and agnostics were also on par with Christians in understanding Christianity, and much better at understanding “other world religions”.  At the very least, you can say that atheists and agnostics are at the top of Americans in their knowledge of religion. (You can find the full pdf of the study here.)

I’ll throw this in as lagniappe, which shows that atheists and agnostics know a lot more than others about the relationship of church and state in America:

By the way, you can take the 15-question religious knowledge test that they asked here. I got a perfect score! You should take it and report your score below. (It’s an easy quiz.)

But I digress (it happens when I’m looking up references). Back to Rabbi Sacks’s criticisms:

c.  Re New Atheists: “abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.” Well, mockery, satire, and ridicule have been staple tools of criticism for years; they’re not just abusive, but, like Jesus and Mo, they are ways to reveal hypocrisy and craziness of religion and other ideologies. Mencken was particularly good at this. And as for holding religion responsible for great crimes against humanity, that’s simply true, and we saw it enacted again yesterday. Of course nobody claims that all the great crimes of humanity come from religion, though many come from tribalism, but I still can’t think of any great crime of humanity motivated by the desire to promulgate atheism. You can argue that the Soviets killed theists and downgraded religion, but I’d respond that that was done more to eliminate a competitor to the religion of Communism than to promote atheism.

Here’s a relevant meme from Barry:

d. This statement is particularly repugnant: “But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.” This comes from Sacks’s unevidenced belief that “good religion” (one of them is surely his) creates better societies than does atheism. That’s wrong. Scandinavia, for example, is pretty much a group of atheistic countries, and they are not palpably worse than religious ones, even ones adhering to “good religion”.  (I’d argue that they’re among the most moral and caring of the world’s societies.) The thing is, we’re already doing good science, and don’t need to proselytize scientists to do good science to drive out the bad stuff. (Further, “bad science’ is usually seen as “lame or incompetent science” not “harmful science”.)  Sack’s statement is analogous to saying “the cure for bad delusion is good delusion, not the abandonment of delusion.”

You’re on shaky ground these days if you try to maintain that society absolutely requires some form of religion to give people hope and communality  as a form of social glue. All I have to do is point at Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland and ask, “Well, what have they replaced religion with?”

Public acceptance of evolution grows in the U.S.

August 24, 2021 • 11:30 am

According to a survey just published in Public Understanding of Science, acceptance of evolution is increasing in the United States. Click on the screenshot below to read the article (it’s free), or access the pdf here.

The survey continued data collected over 35 years, but a lot of the methodology is described in the Supplemental Materials, which are not given in this link nor on the journal page, where I can’t find this article (it’s clearly an early publication).  Now other surveys have found a smaller percentage of Americans who accept evolution (see below), but it’s surely because of the different ways the questions were asked.

Here’s the question this survey posed to Americans:

The following question was used in all of the years in this analysis:

For each statement below, please indicate if you think that it is definitely true, probably true, probably false, or definitely false. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, please check the “not sure” box.

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Acceptance must be the sum of “definitely true and probably true”, while rejection would be the converse.

So the question at hand is simply: evolution or no evolution of humans? And for the first time, acceptance of human evolution, now at 54% , was seen in a majority of those surveyed—an increase of 14% in the last decade. Rejection of evolution (red line) appears to be about 37%, while “don’t know” is about 9%. As the authors note, the increase in acceptance since 2009 or so seems to be due more to those who “don’t know” moving into the acceptance column than to rejectors moving into the acceptance column.

If you look at a similar survey of a Gallup poll over 36 years (below), you see a different pattern, but that’s because they surveyed for more than just acceptance of evolution: they asked whether people accepted human evolution as purely naturalistic (22%), accepted human evolution but with God guiding it (33%), or simply rejected human evolution in favor of Biblical creationism (40%). The figure for rejection is pretty much the same as shown in the figure above, but the difference in “evolution acceptance” is undoubtedly due to the fact that “acceptance” below includes evolution guided by God. If you added that up with the naturalistic acceptors, the Gallup poll would show that 55% of Americans “accepted” human evolution, again close to the data above. But there are two types of evolution being accepted, one involving supernatural intervention. (Intelligent design would qualify, in this way, as “acceptance of evolution.”)

The data, then, are not that disparate between the two polls, but the apparently heartening 54% acceptance of evolution in the poll above seems to conceal the fact that most acceptors see a hand of God guiding evolution. I don’t find a teleological or theistic view of evolution all that heartening, for it still gives credence to divine intervention. And although the authors mention that disparate results of different surveys depend on the questions asked, it would have been nice had they compared the data above with that below.

A few other points. First, among the demographic data (age, gender, education, college science courses, children at home, etc.), the most important factor determining acceptance of evolution is whether the respondent took at least one college science course.

But “demographic data” did not include religion, which, as usual, turns out to be the most important factor determining how one answered the new polls. (The authors play this down in the paper, perhaps because the National Center for Science Education, two of whose members or former members are authors of the survey, have always been accommodationists.)

Nevertheless, when you do a path analysis of how these factors interact, and parse out the individual effects of factors that normally interact (for example, Republicans are more likely to be religious, and therefore to reject evolution), you find that “fundamentalist” religion has by far the biggest effect on evolution acceptance—in a negative direction, of course. (Because I can’t access the supplementary material, I can’t see how they determined whether a religious person was “fundamentalist”.)

Here’s the complicated path analysis and the weight of each factor. Religious fundamentalism has nearly twice the effect, in isolation, of any other factor on whether one accepts or rejects evolution.

Two more points. More men than women accepted evolution (57% vs 51% in 2019, a reduced disparity from 1988, when the data were 52% and 41%, respectively). This is probably because, on average, women are more religious than are men. And in terms of politics, here are the data for its relation to evolution. As you might expect, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to accept evolution, and there is a huge difference between conservative Republicans and Liberal democrats in accepting evolution (34% vs. 83% respectively in 2019).  Republicans just can’t get with the program!

 

There’s one other point I want to mention. The authors claim that it’s really “fundamentalist religion” that’s at odds with evolution, not really other forms of religion, though I’ve maintained otherwise. Here’s what they say:

Religious fundamentalism plays a significant role in the rejection of evolution. The historical explanation of the low rate of acceptance of evolution in the United States involves the central place of the Bible in American Protestantism. In a country settled piecemeal by colonists of varying religious views and without a state church, it was natural for people of faith, especially Protestants who already accepted the principle of sola Scriptura, to privilege the Bible—or their interpretation of it—as the primary source of religious authority and an inerrant source of information about history and science as well as faith and morals. In contrast, religion in European countries is strongly structured by ecclesiastic institutions and the public receptivity to creationism has been limited as a result (Blancke et al., 2014Branch, 2009).

It is thus a particular form of religion that is at the foundation of American anti-evolutionism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not religion in general (see Coyne, 2012, for a dissenting view). Indeed, evolution is routinely taught in Catholic parochial schools in the United States, and mainstream Protestant denominations similarly accept evolution (Martin, 2010). While not all anti-evolutionism originates in Fundamentalism and its inerrantism about the Bible, it largely reflects a conservative form of Protestantism with relatively inflexible and inerrantist religious views (Scott, 2009), which we have been calling fundamentalism.

I would deny the claim that it’s only Protestant fundamentalism that’s at odds with evolution instead of religious belief in general. I say this for two reasons/

First, across the world, where Protestant fundamentalism doesn’t have such sway, you still see a negative correlation between religiosity and evolution. Here are data I published in a paper in 2012. There’s a strong negative correlation between religiosity and acceptance of human evolution across 34 countries, but it’s significant even omitting the U.S.point. Further, the only country lower in evolution acceptance than the US is Turkey, which is a Muslim nation.

More important, here are data taken from the Gallup survey mentioned above. Look at “religion”. Yes, Protestants are more likely to be creationists than are others (note that they don’t subclassify “fundamentalist Protestants”), but the Catholics, touted above as being good for teaching evolution in their schools, are still 34% young-earth creationist! What is taught is not always what is accepted!

No, it’s religion of all stripes in the U.S. that’s inimical to accepting evolution. I wish the authors would have mentioned these data as well.

Nevertheless, both surveys show a general acceptance of evolution, though I like the data from the Gallup poll better because it decouples theistic evolution from naturalistic evolution. What I teach is naturalistic evolution, and so I want to know what proportion of Americans accept evolution the way I teach it to students.

When will nearly everyone in America accept evolution, then? When America is like Iceland: a country that is basically atheistic.

Ross Douthat laments the “elite’s” loss of faith

April 11, 2021 • 9:45 am

The answer to Ross Douthat’s title question below is, of course, “no”: the meritocracy, which I suppose one can define as either the rich or the educated, are increasingly giving up religion. And, if history be any guide, they’re unlikely to go back to it. Click on the screenshot below to read Douthat’s elegy for the loss of religion among America’s elite, his reasons why it’s happening, and his straw-grasping about how the meritocracy might come back to God. (Douthat is, of course, a staunch Catholic.)

Last year, by even Douthat’s admission, only 47% of Americans belonged to a church, mosque, or synagogue.  Two years ago, in an article called “In U.S., decline of Christianity continues at rapid pace,” the Pew Research Center presented the following graphs. As American Christianity has declined quickly, the proportion of “nones”—those who see themselves as agnostics, atheists, or holding “no religion in particular”—is growing apace. (remember, this is over only a dozen years).

The fall in religiosity has been faster among the younger than the older, among Democrats than among Republicans, and among those with more education rather than less.

Douthat calls these data “grim.” Here’s his worry:

A key piece of this weakness is religion’s extreme marginalization with the American intelligentsia — meaning not just would-be intellectuals but the wider elite-university-educated population, the meritocrats or “knowledge workers,” the “professional-managerial class.”

Most of these people — my people, by tribe and education — would be unlikely models of holiness in any dispensation, given their ambitions and their worldliness. But Jesus endorsed the wisdom of serpents as well as the innocence of doves, and religious communities no less than secular ones rely on talent and ambition. So the deep secularization of the meritocracy means that people who would once have become priests and ministers and rabbis become psychologists or social workers or professors, people who might once have run missions go to work for NGOs instead, and guilt-ridden moguls who might once have funded religious charities salve their consciences by starting secular foundations.

But this all sounds good to me! Isn’t it better to have more psychologists, social workers, and professors instead of more clerics? At least the secular workers are trained to do their job, and don’t have a brief to proselytize or inculcate children with fairy tales.

But no, not to Douthat. Implicit in his column is the worry that without religion, America would be less moral. (He doesn’t state this outright, but absent that belief his column makes no sense. Unless, that is, he’s interested in saving souls for Jesus.)

As a Christian inhabitant of this world, I often try to imagine what it would take for the meritocracy to get religion. There are certain ways in which its conversion doesn’t seem unimaginable. A lot of progressive ideas about social justice still make more sense as part of a biblical framework, which among other things might temper the movement’s prosecutorial style with forgiveness and with hope. Meanwhile on the meritocracy’s rightward wing — meaning not-so-woke liberals and Silicon Valley libertarians — you can see people who might have been new atheists 15 years ago taking a somewhat more sympathetic look at the older religions, out of fear of the vacuum their decline has left.

You can also see the concern with morality as Douthat proffers two reasons why, he thinks, the elite are prevented from hurrying back to Jesus, Moses, or Muhammad:

One problem is that whatever its internal divisions, the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The tension between this worldview and the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion can be bridged only with difficulty — especially because the American emphasis on authenticity makes it hard for people to simply live with certain hypocrisies and self-contradictions, or embrace a church that judges their self-affirming choices on any level, however distant or abstract.

Again, I’m baffled about why Douthat sees religiously-based morality, particularly of the Catholic variety, as superior to humanistic morality. After all, only religious “morality” prescribes how and with whom you can have sex, the supposed “role” of women as breeders and subservient partners, the demonization of gays, the criminality of abortion, the desirability of the death penalty, and the immorality of assisted dying.  What kind of morality do you expect to get by following the dictates of a bunch of superstitious people from two millennia ago, people who had to posit an angry god to explain what they didn’t understand about the cosmos? You get the brand of religion that Douthat wants us all to have! For he sees religiously deontological morality as better than think-for-yourself morality: the “the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion.”

And it’s clear, as Douthat continues his risible lament for the loss of faith, that he sees no contradiction between rationality and superstition, though the conflict between them, and the increasing hegemony of science in explaining stuff previously within God’s bailiwick, is what is driving the educated to give up their faith:

A second obstacle [to the elite regaining faith] is the meritocracy’s anti-supernaturalism: The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.

Thus when spiritual ideas creep back into elite culture, it’s often in the form of “wellness” or self-help disciplines, or in enthusiasms like astrology, where there’s always a certain deniability about whether you’re really invoking a spiritual reality, really committing to metaphysical belief.

There are two misconceptions in two paragraphs. The first is that professors indoctrinate students with the belief that there is no God—we are training them in atheism, materialism, and scientism. But we don’t do that: the students give up God because, as they learn more, they also grasp that, as Laplace supposedly replied to Napoleon, we “have no need of that hypothesis.” If there were actual evidence for miracles and a theistic god, people wouldn’t abandon their faith.

Further, although some of the “nones” are spiritual in the sense of embracing stuff like astrology or crystal therapy, I see no evidence of a rise in embracing of woo as profound as the decline in religiosity.  The example of Scandinavia, which converted from religiosity to atheism in about 250 years, shows not only that religion isn’t needed to create a moral, caring society (indeed, it shows that religion is inimical to this), but also that religion needn’t be replaced by other forms of woo. As far as I know, the Danes and Swedes aren’t fondling their crystals with alacrity.

Nothing will shake Douthat’s faith in God, nor his faith in faith as an essential part of society—in this he resembles his co-religionist Andrew Sullivan—but he does adhere to a form of intelligent design held by those sentient people who are still religious:

Yes, science has undercut some religious ideas once held with certainty. But our supposedly “disenchanted” world remains the kind of world that inspired religious belief in the first place: a miraculously ordered and lawbound system that generates conscious beings who can mysteriously unlock its secrets, who display godlike powers in miniature and also a strong demonic streak, and whose lives are constantly buffeted by hard-to-explain encounters and intimations of transcendence. To be dropped into such a world and not be persistently open to religious possibilities seems much more like prejudice than rationality.

I don’t seem to have had those hard-to-explain encounters or intimations of transcendence. I must be missing my sensus divinitatis! What Douthat takes as evidence for God, like the tendency of humans to be clever but sometimes nasty, can be understood by a combination of our evolutionary heritage and our cultural overlay. The same holds for “a system that generates conscious beings.” It’s evolution, Jake!

In the end, Douthat is as baffled by we secularists’ rejection of God as I am by his credulous acceptance of the supernatural as the only plausible explanation for the Universe:

And my anthropological understanding of my secular neighbors particularly fails when it comes to the indifference with which some of them respond to religious possibilities, or for that matter to mystical experiences they themselves have had.

Like Pascal contemplating his wager, it always seems to me that if you concede that religious questions are plausible you should concede that they are urgent, or that if you feel the supernatural brush you, your spiritual curiosity should be radically enhanced.

Well, as a scientist one must always give a degree of plausibility to any hypothesis, but when that degree is close to zero on the confidence scale, we need consider it no further. Based on the evidence, the notion of a god is as implausible as notions of fairies, leprechauns, or other such creatures.  And if the plausibility is close to zero, then so is the urgency.  And even if the questions are urgent, which I don’t believe since the world’s well being doesn’t depend on them, they are also unanswerable, making them even less urgent. Would Douthat care to tell me why he thinks the Catholic god is the right one rather than the pantheon of Hindu gods, including the elephant-headed Ganesha? Isn’t it urgent to decide which set of beliefs is right?

But maybe it’s because I never felt the supernatural brush me.

Amen.

 

h/t: Bruce

“Proof” of the afterlife in the Globe and Mail!

April 6, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The Globe and Mail is, I believe, a conservative newspaper, and one would guess that it’s that genre of paper that’s prone to printing palpable palaver that props up religion. (Well, one would guess wrong, as now papers like the New York Times do it as well.)

Here from the new G&M we have Cathy Bohlken, a respiratory therapist from Calgary, telling us how, after having rejected the existence of an afterlife, came to believe in it after all. Click on the screenshot to proceed:

Bohlken tells us that her scientific training led her to doubt the existence of an afterlife—until her boyfriend committed suicide. Then she had the need to get in touch with him, and right there is where the nonsense begins. (I don’t mean to be callous here, as her pain must have been immense, but she uses it to promote woo in a widely-read paper.)

I grieved for months, and in the spring I discovered the TV show Long Island Medium. I became completely mesmerized and decided that I needed to find my own psychic medium, hoping that someone could make a connection to Dave.

I went to see a psychic in Calgary who has a good record of helping law enforcement agencies from around the world locate missing and murdered persons.

And here’s how the psychic convinced her of an afterlife. (Note that Bohlken could have given the psychic her name when making an appointment, which would also allow some preliminary investigation.)

Patricia started the reading by trying to identify the different spirits that had walked in with me. She described one of my grandfathers perfectly, but she also said he was talking about somebody else who was there, someone that was missing the tip of a finger. I didn’t know of anyone that was missing any fingertips. (Later, I learned that my other grandfather had lost the tip of two fingers in a lawnmower accident. He died when I was a baby, so I didn’t remember him at all.) This was one of 50 validations of my life that she could never possibly have known.

Patricia sensed that there was somebody else in the room but the spirit was “wispy,” unlike my grandfather who was strongly present. After several minutes, she asked me if someone had died recently. [JAC: She’s a psychic—she should have known that!] When I told her that my boyfriend had died six months earlier, she exclaimed: “In the first year, it’s darn near impossible to reach them, but I will try because he is here.”

“He can hear you,” Patricia said. “It’s almost like he comes to you gently because you were very angry with him when he left.” She told me stories for almost an hour, telling me things that she could never possibly have known. She described how Dave would sit across from me at the kitchen island. How when I was at the kitchen sink, he would wrap his arms around me from behind. “He’s still doing that.”

She explained that “if you even think of them, it’s … like picking up the phone or having him right in front of you. If you know what you feel like, you’ll know what somebody else’s energy feels like.”

Presumably Ms. Bohlken has never heard of “cold readings“, in which experienced “readers” can make remarkably accurate guesses by noticing subtle expressions and body language, and knowing a few things about the subject. Note as well that Bohlken had a very strong will to believe, which would make her fixate on the information that was accurate and ignore the stuff that was wrong.

There would be ways to test these paranormal activities, like the strictures put into place by James Randi in his famous One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, but no psychic ever accepted the challenge (at least two agreed to, but then backed out). I’m sure Randi could have designed a test to see if this medium could, without hints or prompting, tell things about the deceased she couldn’t possibly have known. Penn and Teller could do so as well. I could try, but magicians are much better at this than are scientists, who don’t know all the tricks.

And here’s the kicker that cemented Bohlken’s belief in the afterlife.

. . . About a week after the reading, I noticed a tingling sensation on the right side of my head when I thought of Dave – as if my hair was standing on edge, this ebbed and flowed depending on the intensity of my emotions. When my mom died suddenly a year later, I was more open to the sensation and I felt her energy differently, and immediately.

“More open to the sensation,” eh? And now Bohlken is about to foist this on the world, making credulous people even more woo-prone:

Patricia left me with a parting thought to consider once my grief had subsided. “It’s almost like you wanted to write a book, and now you have the material,” she noted.

Writing a book was not something I had ever considered, but after my experience, sharing my story is something that I simply have to do.

People want to believe this stuff, of course; who wouldn’t like to live on, or get a message that their friends, family, and beloved are out there somewhere thinking of you?

And, after all, what harm is done by making people think that? The harm is twofold. First, the psychic took money (probably a not insubstantial sum) from Bohlken. The amount spent yearly on “psychic services” in the U.S. is about $2.2 billion, or about $670 for every citizen. Twenty-two percent of Americans have consulted a psychic (that means that those who have pay about $3,000 for the consultations), and 34% believe they’ve had a psychic episode. This is, pure and simple, victimization of the vulnerable.

Second, essays like the one above merely buttress this kind of scam, and also weaken people’s organs of reason. This is exactly what religion does, but of course “psychic services” are just one form of religion.

h/t: Christopher

Bertrand Russell on faith versus fact

October 17, 2020 • 11:30 am

I was shocked when a reader mentioned, in a recent comment, that the famous philosopher, logician, mathematician and vociferous atheist Bertrand Russell had written a book about the conflict between religion and science. How could I have missed it when I wrote a book about the same issue in 2015, and spent two years reading before I wrote it? I was chagrined, and of course nothing would do but for me to get the book, which was published in 1935.

Fortunately, our library had it, and I got it and devoured it within a few days. I was happy to once again read Russell’s clear prose and dry wit, but also to see that while his topic was nominally the same as mine, there isn’t much overlap between our books. I’ll just highlight a few points of similarity and difference, and mention a few of Russell’s ideas that we still talk about on this site.

Below is the title page; you can still buy the book here, with the reissue having an introduction by Michael Ruse. As for whether you should buy it, well, if you’re familiar with Russell’s popular writings you’ve probably read most of it before, and a lot of it isn’t really about religion vs. science. I’ll be self-aggrandizing and say that if you can only read one book on the conflict—and you think there is a conflict—it should be Faith Versus Fact rather than Russell’s. (If you don’t see a conflict, there are other books by accommodationists you can read). I don’t make that recommendation lightly, as Russell was far brainier and more eloquent than I. It’s just that things have moved on in the last 85 years (NOMA, advances in physics and evolutionary biology, conflicts about global warming and faith-based healing, and so on), and I don’t spend a lot of time—as Russell does—dealing with stuff like the mind/body problem, demonology, the idea of a soul, and the notion of “cosmic purpose.”

There is some overlap between what Russell and I consider to be the “conflict” between religion and science. First, our differences.  I see it as a conflict in how to adjudicate what is true given the disparate “truth-seeking” methods of science and religion, while Russell sees the conflict largely as a historical phenomenon: the fact that religion and science have been at odds with each other since science became a discipline.  That is, Russell adheres to what’s known by accommodationists as “the conflict hypothesis”. Thus, he has whole chapters on evolution vs. creationism, the Copernican revolution and how heliocentrists like Galileo fought with the Church, and the scientific vacuity of the idea of “souls” and of some external “purpose of life.”

That said, Russell does recognize that the conflict arose from the different ways that science and religion determine truth, with the former relying on empirical investigation and the latter on revelation, scripture, and authority. Surprisingly, though, for a man who wrote the famous essay “Why I am not a Christian” (1927; read it at the link), Russell is surprisingly soft on religion, extolling its virtues as an arbiter of morality and saying that its appeal is emotional, having little to do with truth.

He further argues that, when he wrote the book above, the warfare between science and Christian theology was “nearly ended,” as theology was yielding territory repeatedly to scientific facts. But he didn’t know that creationism would still be with us decades later, and doesn’t discuss the fact that, even in his time many religious people, including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Hindus, and, in fact, most faiths, still held beliefs that are contradicted by science (reincarnation, souls, karma, spiritual healing, and so on). This conflict will always be with us so long as religion asserts truths that aren’t based on empirical observation and assent—i.e., “science construed broadly.”

I’ll mention just two of Russell’s arguments with which I agree, and also deal with in Faith Versus Fact. I’ll give his quotes in indents.

Is there an objective morality? Russell discusses this in detail, and although a few modern philosophers and thinkers assert that matters of right and wrong can be discerned objectively, through science, he disagrees, as do I. At bottom, “right and wrong” are matters of subjective preference, and you cannot decide which morality is objectively “better” unless you have some personal preference for what you want morality to do. (Sam Harris, for example, thinks morality should maximize well being, and what is “right” can be determined by a calculus of well being.) But well being, like all criteria for morality are at bottom simply tastes. As Russell says,

We may desire A because it is a means to B, but in the end, when we have done with mere means, we must come to something, which we desire for no reason, but not on that account “irrationally”. All systems of ethics embody the desires of those who advocate them, but this fact is concealed in a mist of words. (p. 254)

I particularly like the concise truth of the last sentence.

Russell concludes that science cannot decide questions of values, which puts both of us at odds with people like Sam Harris and Derek Parfit. So be it. But I would argue that neither can religion decide questions of values. That’s because those questions can be decided only by referring to scripture, authority, or revelation, and those are at odds with each other among religions. I would further argue that since secular ethics (which has a long tradition) is not beholden to ancient scripture or the parochialism of faiths and of their gods, it produces a morality better than that of religion. And indeed, you’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise, for then you’d have to defend all sorts of ridiculous “morality” around sex, food, and so on. Is it really immoral to masturbate? Catholicism says so, as do many branches of Judaism.

Science is the only way of knowing what’s true. We’ve repeatedly discussed whether there are other ways of “knowing” beyond science, and that, of course, depends on what you mean by “knowing”.  If you construe it, as I do, as “the apprehension and recognition of facts about the universe—facts that are widely agreed on”, then yes, I conclude in Chapter 4 of Faith versus Fact that science is the only game in town, and religion, insofar as it makes factual statements about the Universe, including about the existence and nature of God, fails miserably. (See pp. 185-196 of FvF.) Science means “the empirical method that science uses to ascertain truth”, and need not be practiced by scientists alone.

Russell clearly agrees. Here’s one quote (my emphasis):

“The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value – the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation.

Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centered desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.

Those who have had this experience, and believe it to be bound up unavoidably with assertions about the nature of the universe, naturally cling to these assertions. I believe myself that the assertions are inessential, and that there is no reason to believe them true.

I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science, but in the realm of the emotions I do not deny the value of the experiences which have given rise to religion. Through association with false beliefs, they have led to much evil as well as good; freed from this association, it may be hoped that the good alone will remain.” (p. 197)

In the end, morality and “ways of knowing” converge in the last paragraph of the book proper (before the “conclusions” section):

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.  (p. 255)

Here’s Russell, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950:

A superb article against the religious indoctrination of children

October 14, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Many of you must have had this experience: walking through the airport, say, and seeing a family of ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the little girls dressed like their mothers, and the little boys sporting sidelocks and yarmukes—all destined to grow up into lives exactly like those of their parents. Or you see a Muslim family, with the little girls wearing hijabs and “modest” clothing.  Or Amish and Mennonites, with the children exact miniatures of the adults. And as with the clothing and hair, so the beliefs.  Those children are doomed—doomed to adopt via indoctrination the religious beliefs of their parents. They will never be exposed to alternative points of view, will never have the chance for lives different from those of their religiously regulated and constricted community.

I find this ineffably sad, for this kind of religious (and cultural) indoctrination is nothing less than brainwashing. Famously, Richard Dawkins called it “child abuse”. And although that term angered many, including parents who assert the right to control their children’s religious beliefs, Dawkins was not wrong. It is abuse to limit the lives of children by filling their minds with religious nonsense as soon as they can understand language.

Reader Andy called my attention to this 23-year-old transcript of a lecture by Cambridge neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey: his plenary lecture to Amnesty International. That was nine years before Dawkins’s The God Delusion publicized the “child abuse” argument to the world. Surely Richard derived some of his views from Humphrey, for Humphrey’s are plain, courageous, and eloquent. Further, all of us who have John Brockman as an agent, including Dawkins, read stuff on Brockman’s website Edge, where this essay was published.

Humphrey’s lecture is the best thing I’ve seen written about why parents should not indoctrinate their children with religion, and I recommend it very highly. Click on the screenshot to read the transcript.

Humphrey is far from “strident” here. Though he’s passionate in his arguments, he also considers possible objections—before disposing of them.  And the gist of his argument is in this excerpt:

I shall probably shock you when I say it is the purpose of my lecture today  [is] . . . to argue, in short, in favour of censorship, against freedom of expression, and to do so moreover in an area of life that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct.

I am talking about moral and religious education. And especially the education a child receives at home, where parents are allowed—even expected—to determine for their children what counts as truth and falsehood, right and wrong.

Children, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas—no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.

In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

That’s the negative side of what I want to say. But there will be a positive side as well. If children have a right to be protected from false ideas, they have too a right to be succoured [sic] by the truth. And we as a society have a duty to provide it. Therefore we should feel as much obliged to pass on to our children the best scientific and philosophical understanding of the natural world—to teach, for example, the truths of evolution and cosmology, or the methods of rational analysis—as we already feel obliged to feed and shelter them.

Now when Humphrey rules out “moral and religious” education, he doesn’t mean “moral” in the sense of “you can’t tell your children that hitting others or bullying them is wrong”. He means “morality as derived from the tenets of religion.” The lecture is in fact solely about religious beliefs, and doesn’t rule out teaching your children the kind of “moral” behavior that’s universally agreed upon by all, including secularists.

I won’t spoil the read for you with more excerpts, except to give one more below. Suffice it to say that Humphrey’s lecture is especially good because (like Dawkins’s books) it anticipates and answers counterarguments. Don’t parents have a right to teach their children their own faith? Even if religion is based on false tenets, isn’t it good to teach children those tenets if it makes them happier? And so on.  Humphrey then explains that religious indoctrination deprives the child of the right to hear about alternative beliefs and lifestyles, a form of learning that, if imparted, could give them richer and fuller lives.  In other words, religious indoctrination is like a mental jail in which children don’t ever get out, never breathing the fresh air of Freedom to Explore.

Lest you think I’m violating my determinism here by talking about “choice”, I’m not: I’m saying that you can make an good argument that not propagandizing children is better for them than forcing them to adopt your own beliefs. And perhaps those arguments will influence the brains of religious parents to lay off their kids, or at least prompt third parties to criticize this invidious indoctrination. Children released from religious “jail” then experience environmental inputs into their brains that can lead them to leave their religious lives behind. As an example, Humphrey mentions the Amish who, when drafted as conscientious objectors, were allowed to work in public hospitals—just as I did. Exposed to other ways of living and thinking, many of these did not return to the Amish way of life. (This stopped when Amish elders, seeing they were losing hold of their kids, got the government to agree to send Amish C.O.’s only to Amish-run farms.)

At any rate, here is the criterion that Humphrey uses to judge religious indoctrination as immoral:

So I’ll come to the main point—and lesson—of this lecture. I want to propose a general test for deciding when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible. As follows. If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to impose this system and to chose for them to do so. No one has the right to choose badly for anyone else.

This test, I admit, will not be simple to apply. It is rare enough for there to be the kind of social experiment that occurred with the Amish and the military draft. And even such an experiment does not actually provide so strong a test as I’m suggesting we require. After all the Amish young men were not offered the alternative until they were already almost grown up, whereas what we need to know is what the children of the Amish or any other sect would choose for themselves if they were to have had access to the full range of alternatives all along. But in practice of course such a totally free-choice is never going to be available.

And the second paragraph is the rub: there is no way that Orthodox Jews, observant Muslims, or the Amish, much less adherents to many other faiths, could ever refrain from imposing their beliefs on their children, for their religious beliefs and their lifestyle are almost one and the same. How could a hyper-Orthodox Jew bring up a child in a religion-free atmosphere?

But that’s a different question from “Is it wrong to indoctrinate children?”  It is wrong to brainwash your kids. What one should do to remedy the situation is much harder.

At the end of his piece, Humphreys offers one solution: make sure that all children are given a thorough grounding in science in school. Learning to think scientifically, he avers, and learning how to give reasons for what one believes, and think critically, will inevitably make children question all beliefs and, if they decide to be religious, will at least expose them to a variety of religions rather than the one they would have been forced to adopt. (I suspect the most likely outcome of this process, though, is atheism.)

The problem with this, of course, is that children aren’t given much of a scientific education when they’re young and vulnerable, and many—such as young Orthodox Jews or those who go to madrassas—are given no scientific education at all. Critical thinking courses, which naturally align with science, would help, but those aren’t on the menu for many believers, either. Can you imagine the Amish bringing up their children completely free from all religious doctrine, and making them go to secular schools where they learn science?

Humphrey’s arguments for why religious indoctrination is indeed a form of child abuse are eloquent and sound. His answers to those who criticize his views are also sound: parents do not have a “right” to fill their children’s heads with religious nonsense. What is lacking is a way to remedy this universal indoctrination. Humphrey’s own solution won’t work because it cannot be applied to those who need it most. Still, it’s useful for us to remember that this brainwashing goes on for millions and millions of children every day, and many of those children are forced into a narrow, blinkered life they wouldn’t have if they’d been given a better education.

Here’s a 2011 re-do of Humphreys Amnesty lecture:

h/t: Andy

What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?

October 12, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I was thinking last night about someone who asked a fairly prominent religious scientist—not Francis Collins—if he believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus.  The scientist refused to answer—and it wasn’t on the grounds that he kept his religion private. Rather, it was the equivalent of this person, who publicly and openly professed his Catholicism, saying, “I don’t want to answer.” When you get down to the actual claims of Catholicism, or of religion in general, scientists often take the Theological Fifth, in effect saying, “This far and no farther.”

Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?

Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance.  And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

If a scientist professes to be Christian, for instance ask them what they believe about the following:

The Resurrection
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense

Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor. Since the claims listed above are largely (but not completely) unprovable, they can remain (barely) in the realm of literality.

And, as a kicker, you can always ask them how they came to think these things were true.

I’m curious if anybody else has come across this kind of petulance when you ask science-friendly people—those willing to discuss their faith—what they really believe. I’m sure readers have some interesting stories to tell about this stuff.

I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot.  After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.

Pinker gets flak for tweeting about the “malignant delusion of the afterlife”, deletes tweet but defends himself here

June 4, 2020 • 1:30 pm

I don’t really follow Twitter, but sometimes it makes news when a prominent person deletes a tweet, as when Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times’s 1619 project deleted several tweets, including one drawing a distinction between being “politically black” and “racially black.” That made news, as did the tweet below issued about two weeks ago by Steve Pinker and then deleted. This puzzled me as I didn’t really see anything wrong with the tweet itself, though I didn’t read the linked Washington Post article.

I found out about the deleted tweet from reader Ginger K., who sent me this article from the respectable-sounding American Council on Science and Health (click on screenshot to read), which says it’s a nonprofit advocacy group but, according to sources cited in its Wikipedia article, is heavily funded by corporations, and takes some bizarre stands that align with corporate sponsorship.

At any rate, the author, a microbiologist, took issue with Steve’s statement that religion is a malignant delusion. Apparently Berezow’s main beef is not that it’s a delusion, but Pinker’s claim that it’s a malignant delusion. But he clearly implies in the last sentence that the idea of an afterlife is also wrong (I’m betting Berezow is a believer, but at least, judging by his critical review of Faith Versus Fact in Forbes, he’s a “believer in belief”). Here’s the heart of Berezow’s beef, his rhetorical filet mignon:

The other day, Dr. Pinker made a rare and unfortunate misstep. In a tweet that has been since deleted (but is still available on Facebook!), he claimed that belief in an afterlife is a “malignant delusion” because it “devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.” This is total nonsense.

Let’s set aside the debate on whether there is an afterlife or whether any religious beliefs are true. Religious people (who, in general, tend to believe in an afterlife) are happier and more civic-minded than non-religious people. They are also likelier to have better mental health. We appear to be evolutionarily wired for belief in a higher power, so even if religion is a bunch of hogwash and fairy tales, it’s still good for you and for society.

There’s so much more. Research published in the Journal of Medical Ethics shows that “doctors who described themselves as non-religious were more likely than others to report having given continuous deep sedation until death” and “having taken decisions they expected or partly intended to end life.” Yikes. One could easily expect the exact opposite. If a doctor believes in the afterlife, perhaps he wouldn’t be so worried if a patient made the transition sooner rather than later. But, counterintuitively, that’s not what the researchers discovered. It was the non-religious doctors who took actions to end lives.

On second thought, maybe it isn’t quite so counterintuitive. Have you ever noticed how many hospitals are named for Catholic saints? That’s because religious people in general, and Catholics in particular, have an obligation to tend to the sick and dying. During the plagues of antiquity, Christians famously put their own lives on the line in order to care for the stricken.

Simply put, Dr. Pinker’s claims are demonstrably wrong. Let’s hope he comes around to accepting this evidence-based worldview.

Note that Berezow says claims in the plural. That presumably means that religion is not just salubrious, but that there is an afterlife. And if you take an “evidenced based world view on that”, then no, you don’t have to buy heaven or hell.

There is no evidence here save the claim, which can be argued, that religion makes people happier, and makes doctors less likely to sedate people about to die (morphine overdoses and so on).  Whether it’s better to prolong terminal illness or give morphine with the patient’s consent can also be argued, but I’d opt for the latter.  Berezow’s whole argument hinges on religion being salubrious, even if it is wrong.  I’d add, but I must be brief, that you have to take into account not just individual happiness but societal well being, and, as Steve argues convincingly in Better Angels, one of the main impediments to moral progress in the last several centuries has been religion, which is an obstacle not just to scientific advances but to rational thinking about morality. He reprises some of those arguments in his email below, and I’ve argued at length (in Faith Versus Fact, among other places), that true morality as we conceive of it today is not religious morality, but some kind of innate or secular societally-based morality. Plato demolished God as a source of morality (well, piety, really, but it’s the same logic) in his Euthyphro Argument.

And to claim that you should believe in something because it makes you happy and “civic minded” (like American evangelicals?) reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s quote about the “happiness of credulity”:

“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”

I wrote to Steve asking why he deleted the tweet, that I had no issue with it, and added that I was just inquiring and had no intention of repeating what he said. But after he answered me, he said I was welcome to quote him on this site. So I am. Steve’s words are indented, and the quotes he gives indented further. To his credit, one of the reasons he deleted his tweet was because the article he quoted wasn’t as strong an argument as he liked. But read on for Steve’s whole email response (yes, this is the kind of emails he sends):

From Pinker:

As you can imagine, the tweet triggered a flood of obscene and abusive emails. This would not by itself have led me to take down the tweet, but on re-reading the Washington Post op-ed that I linked to (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/20/whats-really-behind-republicans-wanting-swift-reopening-evangelicals/), I realized that the empirical case for attributing resistance to Covid shutdowns to belief in an afterlife was thin — the author cited just one quote from one Evangelical politician. Together with the fact that my tweet-length comment was more provocative than necessary given the space available to explain my views, the lack of data to establish the connection made me reluctant to keep the tweet posted. (With today’s polarization, I don’t think it’s a good idea to piss people off without a strong argument.)

I do strongly suspect that belief in an afterlife encourages a lack of rational concern for societal problems. A similar argument was made in a more recent article in The Spectator https://spectator.us/eschatology-stupid-christianity-coronavirus/ , with a telling quote from Hulk Hogan, though still without data. And we have good reason to think that belief in God’s goodness abets climate change denial — the 2000 Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship addressed the “so-called climate crisis” and other environmental problems by affirming that “God in His mercy has not abandoned sinful people or the created order but has acted throughout history to restore men and women to fellowship with Him and through their stewardship to enhance the beauty and fertility of the earth.”

We also know from Philip Zuckerman and Gregory Paul’s correlations (and additional ones I conducted for Enlightenment Now) that more religious countries and states do more poorly on just about every indicator of societal well-being, even (in the case of my analysis) holding GDP statistically constant. But in comparisons across political units, many variables are intercorrelated, we could use a good data scientist, statistician, or econometrician to squeeze causation out of the correlation matrix and show that religious belief per se leads to policy complacency. I would bet it does.

In addition to societal inaction, there are, of course, even more malignant implications of belief in an afterlife. As I noted in explaining the death toll of the Crusades and Inquisition in Better Angels:

Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe  that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior  is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing  a person until he acknowledges  this truth  is doing him the biggest favor of his life: better a few hours now than an eternity later. And silencing a person before he can corrupt others, or making an example of him to deter the rest,  is a responsible public health measure. Saint Augustine brought the point home with a pair of analogies: a good father prevents his son from picking up a venomous snake, and a good gardener cuts off a rotten branch to save the rest of the tree.[i] The method of choice had been specified by Jesus himself: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:6).

Once again, the point of this discussion is not to accuse Christians of endorsing torture and persecution. Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people. Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado. The question is why they don’t, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good. The answer is that people in the West today compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to their actions,  they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.

And then there are the suicide terrorists…

There have been a couple of other replies to my tweet, including one from the conservative blogger and radio host Dennis Prager:

https://www.arcamax.com/politics/fromtheright/dennisprager/s-2366593?fs and the online edition of Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/authors/lee-habeeb-0

(I wrote to Prager offering to debate this with him, but have not heard back.)

These articles recycle the usual secular arguments for religious belief: the religious give more to charity, and so on.

I’d add an additional point in response to the secular argument for religiosity, which I noted in Enlightenment Now:

It’s long been known that churchgoers are happier and more charitable than stay-at-homes, but Robert Putnam and his fellow political scientist David Campbell have found that these blessings have nothing to do with beliefs in God, creation, heaven, or hell.[i] An atheist who has been pulled into a congregation by an observant spouse is as charitable as the faithful among the flock, whereas a fervent believer who prays alone is not particularly charitable. At the same time, communality and civic virtue can be fostered by membership in secular service communities such as the Shriners (with their children’s hospitals and burn units), Rotary International (which is helping to end polio), and Lions Club (which combats blindness)—even, according to Putnam and Campbell’s research, a bowling league.

Just as religious institutions deserve praise when they pursue humanistic ends, they should not be shielded from criticism when they obstruct those ends. Examples include the withholding of medical care from sick children in faith-healing sects, the opposition to humane assisted dying, the corruption of science education in schools, the suppression of touchy biomedical research such as on stem cells, and obstruction of lifesaving public health policies such as contraception, condoms, and vaccination against HPV.[ii] Nor should religions be granted a presumption of a higher moral purpose. Faitheists who have hoped that the moralistic fervor of Evangelical Christianity might be channeled into movements for social improvement have repeatedly gotten burned. In the early 2000s, a bipartisan coalition of environmentalists hoped to make common cause with Evangelicals on climate change under rubrics like Creation Care and Faith-Based Environmentalism. But Evangelical churches are an anchor faction of the Republican Party, which adopted a strategy of absolute noncooperation with the Obama administration. Political tribalism carried the day, and the Evangelicals fell into line, opting for radical libertarianism over stewardship of the Creation.[iii]

Similarly, in 2016 there was a brief hope that the Christian virtues of humility, temperance, forgiveness, propriety, chivalry, thrift, and compassion toward the weak would turn Evangelicals against a casino developer who was vainglorious, sybaritic, vindictive, lewd, misogynistic, ostentatiously wealthy, and contemptuous of the people he called “losers.” But no: Donald Trump won the votes of 81 percent of white Evangelical and born-again Christians, a higher proportion than of any other demographic.[iv] In large part he earned their votes by promising to repeal a law which prohibits tax-exempt charities (including churches) from engaging in political activism.[v] Christian virtue was trumped by political muscle.

And from Professor Ceiling Cat: I’d add that a lot has happened since 2016 to support Steve’s argument that evangelical Christians haven’t improved America, and it can be encapsulated in a five-letter name that starts with “T” and ends with “p”. The malignancy of at least extreme Abrahamic faith as a termite in the foundations of American society is obvious.