The Problem of Silence

There is an activity popular amongst those who consider themselves tolerant or “enlightened” that occurs at meetings and gatherings both public and private.  This is is known as a “moment of silence.”  It takes place at the same time as what would traditionally be a prayer.  However, those demanding this moment of silence believe that a prayer to any particular god is an act of prejudice as there may well be those in attendance who worship a god other than the one to whom the majority would be praying.  In their benevolence and understanding, in their supreme tolerance of others, these people choose the moment of silence as a way to show their respect for all faiths.  I think this practice is at best foolish and at worst insulting.

This video should highlight the problem, but let me make it as clear as possible.  There is little in the way of “respect” shown to someone’s god when you 1) don’t let them say it’s name out loud, and 2) grant equal “respect” to other gods, you know, the ones who don’t exist for the believers.  All you can succeed in doing is belittling the beliefs of the devout, and this should not be surprising.  After all, how other than a veiled insult can someone take the suggestion that their god, the real one(s), is the same as all the false gods that adherents to other religions think exist?  It is ridiculous to think that anyone even could take such a situation any differently if they’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening.

Think about it.  Say that you’re a Muslim, and you believe Allah is the One True God.  What you have is a situation where the people leading the moment of silence saying both that it is appropriate for others to pray to false gods, to flaunt their status as an infidel in your face, and that you yourself should afford such behavior some measure of respect.  Who are these people to demand something so absurd of someone?  Of course, the same goes for an adherent to any religion that holds that it is wrong to worship false gods, that being most of them.  Certainly, Christianity is one of those religions, the first one, two, or three (depending on how you count them) of the Ten Commandments dealing with that very thing.  It is foolish to think that any Christian who takes the Ten Commandments seriously would be comfortable with this moment of silence that grants false gods the same respect as God.  I mean, duh.

Worse, the only people who might not be upset about this, the only people who might appreciate such a situation, are the very ones for whom such a demonstration of “respect” is wholly unnecessary.  That is, it is only those people who are comfortable with other people worshiping different gods, who take no offense at such activity, that would be okay with this generic “moment” in the first place.  I mean, if I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god, then I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god!  For that reason, this attempt at pacification and tolerance is pointless in relation to the only people for whom it might be acceptable.

Then we have the issue of non-believers and those who might believe in a god but just don’t like him.  For atheists, the demand that they take a moment to show respect for nothing is just strange.  What could the point of that be?  Surely it can’t be to show respect for gods they don’t think exist.  How insulting, how patronizing and condescending, it would be for an atheist to pat someone on the back and say, “You go ahead and pray to your imaginary friend.”  Even worse, if that’s possible, would be for the individual who believes but refuses to give respect to the deity.  Imagine someone who looks at the world with its various catastrophes, e.g. the floods, hurricanes, genocide, raping of babies, and the burying of women up to their necks in the sand for the purpose of crushing her skull with rocks until she is dead, out of “respect” for a god no less, and has concluded that no amount of evil could exist without a designer, an infinitely powerful fiend whose sole desire is to torment and cause suffering.  That person almost certainly has no desire to show respect for that god, and yet this is exactly what this moment of silence demands of her.  That’s absurdity of cosmic levels.

This demand for a moment of silence can only be made by those who are woefully ignorant or just jerks who don’t care about or respect the actual beliefs of others.  Let’s cut this crap out.

*Lest there is any confusion, I do not have in mind here anything like the similarly-called “moment of silence” used as an opportunity to remember the dead at funerals and memorial services or anything of that nature.

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Stupid Is as Stupid Does: Creationism in my Backyard

Map of Louisiana highlighting Livingston Parish

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I think it’s been mentioned before on here, but I live in Louisiana.  I’ve been in New Orleans for just under a decade, though I’ve spent a good bit of my time very recently in Shreveport where most of my family lives.  For this reason it is of particular interest to me when nonsense pops up in the state, right on my own doorstep.

A few days ago it was announced that the school board of Livingston Parish was proclaiming their intent to get creationism into the science classes in public high schools.  To quote an article from the local paper, The Livingston Parish News:  “The School Board Thursday petitioned Livingston Parish Public Schools administrators to investigate options to study the teaching of creationism theory in high school science classes starting in the 2011-12 school year.”

For those of you unaware, the teaching of creationism is explicitly prohibited in public schools and for good reason.  It specifically violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  This isn’t something I’m just saying; that’s the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 is the case in question, and, in relation to the "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act," it held that “The Act is facially invalid as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacks a clear secular purpose,” that “The Act does not further its stated secular purpose of ‘protecting academic freedom," and “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind.”

It’s difficult to get more clear than that.  And guess which state was responsible for above act that was struck down so decidedly by the highest court in the land…Louisiana.  Man, we just can’t learn even the simplest lessons here. I can’t help but marvel at the willingness of the people of this state, elected officials, people of power and supposed learning, to make themselves into full-on fools in the eyes of their neighbors and the country and world at large.

One has to wonder, then, what possible justification the school board could use in petitioning school administrators to figure out how to get creationism into the science class.  Let’s look at their own words.  Again from the LPN story linked above, “Board member Clint Mitchell said that teaching creationism is not really teaching religion.  ’Teachers should not have to be afraid to not teach those things that are not prudent in evolution’, Mitchell said.”

First, the Supreme Court clearly disagrees with Mitchell that “teaching creationism is not really teaching religion.”  Further, I can’t imagine how one can even attempt to make such a case when creationism, by definition, proposes that world is the world of a supernatural act of Creation by some Creator.  How can we get around that being religion?  Also, what does it even mean to say “’Teachers should not have to be afraid to not teach those things that are not prudent in evolution”?  What does prudence have to do with what is relevant to the teaching of evolution?  I can only guess that board member Mitchell has no idea what “prudence” is.  The idea that such a person is given the task of deciding what is appropriate to be taught should terrify everyone reading this, regardless of their position on the issue.

Fortunately (what an absurd situation it is when the following is considered “good fortune”), some of the other board members were much more forthright and honest.  Board member David Tate said, “We just sit up here and let them teach evolution and not take a stand about creationism. To me, how come we don’t look into this as people who are strong Christians and see what we can do to teach creationism in schools. We sit back and let the government tell us what to do. We don’t pray to the ACLU and all them people: we pray to God.”

There can be no misunderstanding as to Tate’s reasoning.  He is explicit that creationism should be taught because that’s what “strong Christians” should do because they “pray to God.”  One can only wonder what Tate’s response would be if it were some other religion’s creation story being put for as appropriate material for the science class.  I can’t help but think he would consider that an infringement upon his right to worship his own god as he sees fit.

Board president Keith Martin has perhaps the most interesting reason for bringing in creationism to the science classroom.  He said, “Kids are getting harder and harder to discipline. Without this kind of thought, it will get even harder.”  That’s right.  We need to teach creationism because kids are acting up in class.  Whether or not this is science or even true doesn’t matter.  What matters is getting kids in line.  And it’s got to be clear to everyone how teaching creationism will solve these disciplinary issues.  Right?  It’s because…well, because…just because, ok?!

Beyond the legal issue is the bigger issue of whether or not creationism is science.  It isn’t.  There’s no way around that.  There is no scientific evidence for anything like a supernatural creator, and that’s just the way things are.  Does that mean you can’t accept that as an article of faith?  Well, that’s a different issue.  What is at issue here is what is appropriate for the science classroom.  Since the class is about, you know, science, it would seem obvious that science is the appropriate subject matter.  Attempting to shoehorn religion in there is not just illegal, it’s stupid.

Come on, people.  Let’s not be so stupid about this.

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Rebecca Watson Gets It. Color Me Unsurprised.


In the video here Rebecca Watson from Skepchick, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Curiosity Aroused, etc,  addresses the question “What does atheism have to offer?”  Her answer?  It’s a bullshit question.  And she’s absolutely right.


The kind of question about which she’s talking here is of a type that is often posed by people from a number of sides of various issues, and it’s always bullshit.  The presumption in such a question is that there must be some sort of benefit to conferred upon the holder of the position at issue, else there is no good reason to hold it.  Worse, in that case, there is reason to hold the opposing view.  But this concern from some practical benefit has nothing to do with the truth of the issue.  Nothing.

In a clear way this hits at the practical vs. the principled concern that I’ve noted here a few times, including a post dedicated just to that issue.  If you’re in an argument with someone about the truth of something, it is completely improper to ask what the benefit of holding that belief is.  What does it matter?  How does that affect the truth of it?  It doesn’t.  In terms of the way things are, your happiness is completely irrelevant.  You might be utterly miserable believing some particular truth.  It might cause an existential crisis of such a degree that your life is irrevocably ruined, but that would not change stop the truth from being the truth. 

This is not to say there is no room for discussions about pragmatic concerns.  There’s plenty of room for that.  But we need to be clear when we talk about such things that we are not talking about whether or not that makes the thing discussed is true.  They are just different questions.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying and what I’m not saying.  I’m not talking about atheism here, even though that’s the question that provoked the response Watson gives in the video.  Whether or not atheism is a justified view is completely beside the point I’m making here.  I’m saying that in a debate about a principled issue, the practical concerns of the consequences of the issue are just not relevant to the discussion.  So, in terms of the question of atheism, it just does not matter if not believing in a god makes you unhappy when the concern is which position is epistemically justified.  The same goes for theism.  If you’re a theist debating with an atheist about whether or not one is justified in believing in a god, and if that person says something like “But what good does it do to believe in you god?” tell them that they are asking a bullshit question and skirting the real issue.  It’s a red herring, and it should be pointed out as such.

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Seriously, Man

god rockA couple of posts ago I mentioned the accommodationism debate, and I wrote then that I had said pretty much everything I had to say about it for while, so I skipped talking about my ideas on the subject. Well, now I’m going to say something about it again. This is not a response to one of the usual suspects, e.g. Chris Mooney, the many contributors to HuffPo, or anyone over at BioLogos. This is aimed at some clearly on “my side” in general, a couple of people for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’m talking here about Massimo Pigliucci and Eugenie Scott.

Pigliucci, along with Julia Galef, does a very good podcast called Rationally Speaking.  The episode from a couple of weeks ago, number 11, had Eugenie Scott from the NCSE discussing the usual NCSE stuff, mostly how creationists are still a problem when it comes to teaching good science in public schools.  Everything was fine right up to the end where the discussion briefly shifted to whether or not science could say anything about the supernatural.  The question is relevant as, if it is “no,” then there is good reason to accommodate believers in the supernatural as their beliefs are perfectly in line with scientific inquiry (or not, but this seems to be the suggestion).  This is the position that both Pigliucci and Scott take, and it strikes me as both weird and, well, a little intellectually dishonest.  If it’s not dishonest, then it’s naïve.  Very naïve. (EDIT:  I should have been more clear about this,  so I’ll do so now.  I do not personally think dishonesty is the issue here.  Rather, I think the issue stems from a naivety that results from not taking the beliefs of the groups in question seriously, hence the title of the post.  That said, it is the case that intellectual dishonesty is a charge regularly leveled at accommodationists, and the charge is at least plausible.  That’s why I mentioned it, but, rereading what I wrote, it looks like I’m offering that as what I think to be most likely, and this is not the case.  My bad.)

Before I go further, let me put out the usual disclaimer here.  I support the mission of the NCSE, I have huge respect for Scott, and I greatly admire Pigliucci.  I own books by both, and I would recommend them without hesitation to others.  Really, I can’t say enough good things about both individuals.

That said, this position they take here is just wrong, and it’s wrong for a very simple reason.  Toward the end of the podcast, Pigliucci says, “The supernatural essentially means that anything goes. You have no reliability, no repeatability, because it can do whatever the hell it wants for whatever reason.”  Scott immediately agrees saying that the supernatural is “not constrained.”  The point that both are trying to express is that, in order to perform a scientific experiment, one must be able to hold variables fixed.  The concern here is that because the supernatural is not natural, because it does not follow natural law, it can do anything.  As such, there is no way to effectively study it in any empirical way as it doesn’t allow for holding specific variables fixed as a way of determining what’s happening elsewhere.  And, indeed, there might be some way of conceptualizing the “supernatural” such that this is an apt description.  The problem here is that it just isn’t a good description for the beliefs of any of the opponents of things like evolutionary biology that this accommodating position is supposed to address.

As the dominant opponents of the teaching of evolution in the classroom here in the US are evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, those are the people at whom such concerns are most properly directed.  The question, then, is whether or not it is appropriate to describe this Christian notion of the supernatural as a case where “anything goes,” and the answer there is a very, very clear and resounding “No!”  Christians may believe that God is all-powerful, and, as such, it is technically possible for Him to do anything, but this is not the way they believe He handles His affairs (Affairs?).  On the contrary, God has made several covenants with humanity, and, as He is perfectly Good, He will never betray those covenants.  In fact, for Christians, God is the only thing that can be counted on to always act the same way.  Things here on Earth might change, but God does not.  He is the only one “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 NIV).  He is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 NIV).  Etc, etc; I could list lots of verses saying something similar.  The point is that it is simply not the case that the Christian god, God, is conceived of as an entity who is constantly changing with “no reliability.”  On the contrary, ask these Christians, and I am certain they will tell that God is the only thing that is completely reliable.

This, then, is exactly why it is possible for science to examine the claims about the world made by these Christians.  What’s weird about this is that this should never have been in question, and Eugenie Scott knows this all too well.  The creationists think science is on their side!  The don’t go around saying that science can’t say anything about the many, many empirical claims their religion makes.  On the contrary, they are explicit that science is a fantastic means of discovering exactly what God has done, and that fact is exactly my point here.

Whoever the believers that are addressed by Pigliucci’s and Scott’s claims about the supernatural are, they are not the evangelical Christians who have fought tooth and nail to keep evolution out of the schools.  As such, this approach of attempting to accommodate and placate them by invoking a NOMA-like division is doomed to failure.  It is doomed because it does not take the believers seriously! At some point the bulk of the science community is going to have to get this.  Sure, lots of Christians accept that evolutionary biology is an accurate science, but they are not the problem.  They are already on the side of science, so the attempt to accommodate as a means of placation so as to get them on board with a genuine science curriculum cannot be directed at them.  Clearly, it is directed at those who oppose the teaching of evolution, and those people do not believe in a god who changes with the wind.  Their god, God, is exactly the opposite of that characterization.  He is Constant.

We need to take people seriously in their claims if we hope to get anywhere.  I feel like I’ve run this point into the ground on this blog, but it’s a huge point.  Funny enough, the skeptic community understands this about most the other paranormal claims.  Science-based paranormal investigators try to investigate in good faith.  The various skeptic publications are full of such investigations, and they almost always try to approach the issue without a preconceived conclusion.  They don’t approach a haunting or UFO sighting presuming they outcome.  They take the case seriously. But when it comes to religion, so many are willing to not look closely at the actual beliefs of the people in question.  That’s especially true for these accommodationists.  They want to point to people who already agree with them on the science stuff, like the BioLogos crew, and rely on their theology as a basis for what is believed generally.  But it could not be more obvious that this is an absolutely terrible approach.  Again, those people are not the ones fighting the NCSE.  If you want to figure out how to address those people, you need to look at their beliefs, and you need to take those beliefs seriously.

Until we get serious about taking people seriously, all we’re doing is spinning our wheels.

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What’s So Bad about Science?

Karl Giberson, science-and-religion scholar

Image via Wikipedia

The debate over the compatibility of science and religion is something about which I’ve written frequently on here.  In particular, I have repeatedly addressed the arguments from the accommodationists, those who think religion and science are perfectly compatible.  As such, and as they keep saying the same thing over and over, I don’t particularly feel like repeating myself today.  However, Karl Giberson of BioLogos has recently written a piece over at HuffPo addressing this issue, and in it he expresses a concern that I don’t particularly understand.

Giberson writes,

Jerry Coyne and I had an interesting exchange yesterday that will appear in a brief video on USA Today’s website at some point. The question related to the compatibility of science and religion. Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?

My answer to this question is "yes, of course," for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.

I want to address this issue of “scientism” and the kind of caricature that is painted by the term when it is used to describe the position of the non-accommodationists.  First, I’m not aware of anyone saying they are in favor of a position that “denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.”  In that sense, the position presented seems to apply to almost no one.  There might be all sorts of things that science cannot know that are, in fact, true.  This is obvious in practice as there are literally innumerable things that we don’t currently know, and it seems very, very likely that there will always be things we don’t know.  There are possibly even things we cannot know in principle via science, though it seems wise to avoid specifying what those might be as science seems to have a way of constantly closing the gaps we have imagined to be forever uncrossable.  Still, it is absolutely possible that there are things for which the method of science is simply ill-suited, hence things which are, in principle, shut off forever from scientific inquiry.  And, again, all the big names on the side of the non-accommodationists have said things of that very nature.  In this way, the worry of “scientism” is simply a strawman.

Now would be a good time to talk about how this is irrelevant to the science/religion compatibility discussion at all for numerous reasons, one big one being that the fact that science cannot reach something does not in any way mean that religion can, and, indeed, I keep meaning to write something on that subject.  But that’s not what I want to address, either.  No, what I want to hit is the concern that if it did turn out to be the case that all things can be known by science, this would, in some sense, be bad.  But for the life of me I cannot see the worry here.  What if it were true that science could know everything and there were no place for religion?  So what? 

Presumably, religious folk, and non-religious folk who are sympathetic to the religious in the sense that they are accommodationists, are interested in the way things are.  Let’s say they are interested in truth.  If that’s their concern, and if it were true that science was a way to know about everything, I cannot see how this would cause anyone to be unhappy.  That would mean we would have a way to get just what they wanted, namely the truth.  That would seem to be a good thing.

Now, I do understand that most, if not all, of those expressing such concern do so because they think that there are things science cannot know which religion can.  But there is typically something more than that to their worry.  It is that something would be lost, that it would be a bad thing, if there were nothing other than wholly natural processes of the type that science describes going on in the world.  And that’s what I don’t get; that’s what leaves me puzzled.  I just cannot see what would be lost.  In fact, it would look like something amazing would be gained.  Specifically, this means of acquiring knowledge that has been so massively successful would be the same way we could acquire all knowledge.  Yay!  Good for us!  At least, that’s the way it looks to me, and I will readily admit that I don’t understand the urge to pooh-pooh the knowledge we get from science as somehow less important than some other kind of knowledge.  If you’re interested in something like the truth, it seems cool that you get it however you can.  If you’re not interested in the truth, then I’ll admit that I’m not really clear on what your concern is.  Whatever it is, I would appreciate it if it were made clear so I would know how to address it.

I get thinking that something like scientism is wrong, but I don’t get the desire for it to be wrong.  If that’s all there is, then that’s all there is, and I don’t see what’s so bad about it.  I don’t get what is lost.  And, so far, no one has been able to explain that one to me at all.

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The Supreme Court Says the Cross Is Not about Christ

mojave-cross1 This is a subject on which I’ve meant to write twice before, didn’t have time, and then decided against writing on it as it seemed too late to do so.  But every time I decide not to write about this, some new twist occurs, giving me yet another opportunity to make a post on the subject.  Far be it from me to ignore such obvious signs.

There is a cross in the Mojave National Preserve that serves as a war memorial.  It was erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  A decade ago a retired National Park Service employee, Frank Buono, sued to have the cross removed on the charge that it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.  Buono won the case, and the cross was ordered removed, so Congress decided to give the land to the VFW so as to avoid having to remove the cross.  A federal court ruled that such a transfer was clearly intended to sidestep the requirement to take down the cross, and, as such, was illegal.  The government appealed that case to the Supreme Court, and on April 28, in a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled that that transfer was, in fact, legal (that ruling can be seen here).  The result of that ruling was that the cross got to stay.  However, on May 9, the cross was stolen by thieves.  Then, to everyone’s surprise, a cross appeared in the same spot just last Wednesday, May 19.  It is unclear whether this is the same cross that was removed or if it is a replica.  It is also relevant to point out that in 1999 the park service denied a request to allow a Buddhist memorial in the same area, and Easter services have been held at the memorial for the past 70 years.

That is a quick and dirty rundown on the background of the issue at hand.  What’s funny about the Supreme Court case is that, even though it was supposed to be about the legality of the transfer of the land by the federal government into the hands of a private organization for the purpose of avoiding following a mandate handed down from a federal court, most of the hearing centered on whether or not it was proper to have a religious symbol on land owned by the federal government, especially whether it was legal to have a symbol of only one religion while excluding others.  Looking at the First Amendment, it might appear that the obvious conclusion is that it is indeed illegal to have such a symbol erected on federal land.  Quoting an editorial from the New York Times:

On the merits, the appeals court was right that the cross must come down. By allowing a Christian cross, and not symbols of other faiths, on federal land, the government was favoring one religion over others. Also, Congress has designated the cross as a national memorial, which means that it continues to have official government endorsement.

It is curious, then, that the Supreme Court ruled to allow the cross to stay.  We can see the reasoning behind the majority opinion in this exchange between Justice Antonin Scalia and ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg (the pdf of the court transcript can be found here):

MR. ELIASBERG: … I think it would be very odd indeed for the VFW to feel that it was free to take down the cross and put up, for example, a statues of a soldier which would honor all of the people who fought for America in World War I, not just Christians, and say: Well, we were free to do that because even though there’s the sign that says, this cross is designated to honor all the —

JUSTICE SCALIA: The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war? Is that — is that —

MR. ELIASBERG: I believe that’s actually correct.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Where does it say that?

MR. ELIASBERG: It doesn’t say that, but a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins, and I believe that’s why the Jewish war veterans —

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. It’s the — the cross is the — is the most common symbol of — of — of the resting place of the dead, and it doesn’t seem to me — what would you have them erect? A cross — some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Moslem half moon and star?

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, Justice Scalia, if I may go to your first point. The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.


MR. ELIASBERG: So it is the most common symbol to honor Christians.

JUSTICE SCALIA: I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, my — the point of my — point here is to say that there is a reason the Jewish war veterans came in and said we don’t feel honored by this cross. This cross can’t honor us because it is a religious symbol of another religion.

And that seems to aptly summarize the kind of debate that went on in the courthouse.  The result was that the Court decided to that it was appropriate and legal for the cross to stay.  From the New York Times:

“A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a plurality opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies would be compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”

This strikes me as simply bizarre, and I am not alone in this view.  Even other Justices agree.  From the same article:

Justice John Paul Stevens rejected that view. “The cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice,” he wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. “It is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith.”

And that’s the point I want to make here.  In order to render the cross legal, they had to render it largely impotent.  That is, the cross is no longer, for the majority of the Court, a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world so that Man might have communion with God and have the opportunity to be forgiven by His Grace, which is arguably the core belief of Christianity.  I mean, the whole point of the cross is that Christ died on it!  What Kennedy and the majority have done is say that this is not the meaning of the cross, that instead it is just something we stick on graves.  But can they really believe that?  Is that why churches have the cross in front of their buildings?  Is that why people wear crosses around their necks?  Also, why was the cross chosen as this symbol, and why aren’t crosses put on all graves rather than only on the graves of Christians?  And all of this ignores the earlier points that other religious symbols are not allowed, and Easter services are held at the foot of the cross, but, of course, those issues highlight just how weird the ruling is.  The absurdity of such a view is staggering.

What is remarkable about this ruling is that, in order to keep the cross, it had to be stripped of all its meaning, and that seems to defeat the purpose of having the cross erected in the first place.  Certainly, the reason the cross is a desired symbol is because of its religious symbolism.  Once that is removed, once that meaning is gone, there seems to be little reason to fight to keep the cross in place at all.  Why not just have a plaque or any other strictly secular symbol?  What does the cross matter once it no longer stands for Christ?

Lest there be any confusion, Christians conservatives have not taken this ruling to mean what the Justices say it means.  With titles like “Big Week for Religious Liberty!” on articles praising the ruling, it seems clear that many Christians take this ruling to be a sign that the Supreme Court has ruled that religious symbols on federal property is appropriate and legal.  But, again, that is not the sense one gets from reading the ruling and comments of the majority of the Court.  Rather, the cross has been deemed to not be religious!  It’s difficult to overstate the weight of that.  What the court has told Christians is that their symbol, the one they use to demonstrate their belief in their god’s sacrifice for them, is often not a symbol of any such thing.  Rather, it is something to stick on graves.  In specific, the cross in the Mojave Desert does not represent Christianity.  It is not, in Justice Kennedy’s words, “a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs.” 

It seems that if any of these Christian conservatives were actually paying attention, they would not be celebrating.  Rather, they would be outraged.  I can’t help but think we should all be outraged at the kind of game that the majority of the Court is playing by saying that the most well-known symbol of the Christian faith is actually no such thing.

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Why Is This So Hard to Understand?

There is a gubernatorial race going on in Alabama right now.  I don’t live in Alabama, and likely you don’t either, so the race itself is of little consequence to me or most of you.  That said, there is something of which I think we should take note in terms of how the race is being run.  There are those who don’t like Bradley Byrne, who is running as a Republican in the election.  They do not think Byrne is conservative enough, and they offer up evidence of this in the video to the right.  The website of the group behind the video can be found at

First, let me say that I don’t care at all who becomes governor in Alabama, nor do I care about Byrne.  I only care about this issue as it highlights in a powerful way something that many want to deny.  This issue is not merely the fact that there is a vocal group out there who wants to destroy science education.  It is the further fact that this group recognizes that they are simply not the small minority that we are constantly told they are.  Were that the case, an ad such as this would have no power.  It only works if it finds traction with some large group of voters out there who share this anti-science sentiment.

The ad says that “Byrne supported the teaching of evolution, said evolution best explains the origin of life.”  At the end of that quote, the narrator’s voice goes up in pitch as if this were a question, suggesting that he thinks this is so incredible as to be absurd.  That’s right, this group is presenting an ad to sway voters away from Byrne by saying that he is a proponent of the apparently nutty idea that evolution explains the origin of species better than other explanations, and this is tied to his supposed claim that “parts of the Bible are…true and parts that are not.”  That is, Byrne’s endorsement of the teaching of evolution in the science classroom is seen by these people as a rejection of Christianity.

Of course, evolution does not actually explain the origins of life at all, regardless of what Byrne might have said, but I’ll be charitable here and suggest that he meant something like the origin of species instead.  Also, a point that might be noteworthy here is that, according the the website behind this very video, Byrne did not actually suggest that parts of the Bible were not true.  Rather, the word left out of the ellipses that matters is ‘literally’, and there is quite a big difference between saying that some parts of the Bible are literally true while others are not and saying that some parts of the Bible are true and some are not.  No believer, no matter how devout, can deny the former without looking like a complete fool.  After all, Jesus Christ was called the Lamb of God in the Bible, yet I seriously doubt anyone would claim that Christ was a literal lamb.  That’s just silly.  John 1:29, then, is clearly not meant to be taken literally, yet that has little to do with whether or not it is true nonetheless.  This shows that even fundamentalists think that some parts of the Bible are not literally true, so that in and of itself is no big issue.

That out of the way, the point here is that the anti-Byrne camp here is attempting to use Byrne’s apparent endorsement of the teaching of a radically successful scientific theory for the purpose of condemning him and showing him to be ungodly in the eyes of conservative Alabamians.  This would only work, though, if there already exists in the minds of these people a clear link between endorsing the teaching of evolution and abandoning Christianity.  And, of course, such a link does exist in their minds.  It is simply the case that a number of Christians believe that accepting evolutionary biology as a legitimate explanation of anything involves an explicit rejection of Christianity.  They believe it’s an either/or kind of situation, where, in this case, being pro-science is to be anti-God.

That’s the point that so many on the science side of the debate seem to miss, and it’s baffling to me that they miss it.  The tension between religion and science is not the result of a bunch of strident new atheists running around yelling that they hate the baby Jesus.  Rather, it is a result of these religious groups who are simply continuing the long tradition of rejecting science when it contradicts their favored interpretation of their holy text.  These people get to define what their religious beliefs are, not anyone else, and they say accepting science is rejecting their God.  And they are right.  They are right because their beliefs are theirs, so they get to say what they are.  The tension here is real, and it is real because of the religious folk, not a bunch of loud-mouthed atheists.

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