14 Ways to Get Active, Right Now!
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has declared Jan. 22 — the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — as "Protect Life Day."
The opening line of his pandering proclamation is blatantly untrue. He states that the U.S. Supreme Court decision "legalized abortion for any reason for the full nine months of pregnancy in all of the United States."
Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the first trimester without restrictions; it limited regulation in the second trimester to protect the woman's health and safety; and it gave the government the right to restrict or bar third trimester abortions.
Statistics show that about 87% of abortions take place in the first trimester, with 12% occurring after 12 weeks of pregnancy. Only about 1.3% are performed after the 20th week. Late-term abortions are usually to save a pregnant woman's life, such as when a woman discovers she is carrying a dead or brainless fetus.
Walker should retract and apologize to the citizens of Wisconsin for his shameful misstatement. Truth should matter, even to a fundamentalist.
We didn't elect Walker "Fundamentalist in Chief." He should keep his absurd Religious Right opinions to himself.
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We should be honoring, not casting aspersions, on this landmark decision for women's rights. As Margaret Sanger noted so many years ago in her quest to bring contraception to women, "No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation would not exist were it not for the Religious Right's war on reproductive freedom. My mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, had her eyes opened to the harm of religious sway over secular law when she founded the Wisconsin Committee to Legalize Abortion in 1968.
Tagging along with her as a junior and senior in high school, my eyes were also opened. Seeing the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda and hearing rooms crowded with nuns, priests and bussed-in Catholic schoolchildren invoking "God" and the bible in all their testimony, we realized that while there were many women's groups chipping away at women's oppression, none was going to the root of the problem: organized religion.
I still remember my own and my mother's ecstatic joy when we first heard the news about Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22, 1973. The brutal battle, state by state, to try to decriminalize abortion had been ended in one fell swoop. We didn't know then how vicious and unrelenting the religion-fueled anti-choice movement would be, but here we are 40 years later, and Roe, while a bit battle-worn, is still the law of the land. My mother has written about the historic fight to overturn antiabortion laws in Wisconsin in her book, Abortion Is a Blessing.
Today, at 86, she is literally still answering the daily calls for the Women's Medical Fund, the abortion-rights charity she co-founded (with other atheists such as professor Robert West) in the 1970s. This pure charity has helped pay for abortions for more than 20,000 Wisconsin women — indigent women who should qualify for medical assistance but who are denied the right to abortion due to the Religious Right lobby, which has cut off abortion funding in Wisconsin and in many states and federally under the Hyde Amendment.
Daily she takes calls from teenagers, rape victims, victims of domestic abuse, those with many children already, ill and homeless women, living in conditions few of us can imagine, who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy and no place to turn.
We are winning the reproductive war. We see U.S. Catholic bishops defeated in their attempts to sabotage the contraceptive mandate and bishops overseas failing to stop state-funded contraception in the Philippines. But as we celebrate 40 years of freedom for women, we must redouble our efforts to end the religion-fostered cut-off of public assistance for indigent women needing abortion care in the U.S. These forgotten and disenfranchised women deserve the same right to constitutional privacy, to control their own bodies, as the more affluent.
Atheists do indeed start and run charities. Please read the Women's Medical Fund's letter of appeal to learn more about the need. I challenge everyone who is offended by Governor Walker's proclamation, who has the means to do so, to fight back by making a charitable donation to the Women's Medical Fund.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is author of Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So and is editor of the anthology Women Without Superstition: No Gods — No Masters.
At Zócalo, Mexico City’s central plaza, are (left) professor Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True, Gerardo Romero Quijada, founder and activist with Mexican Atheists; and FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. (Their spread-out arms are in honor of Dan Barker, who does this trademark pose wherever he travels.) They were sightseeing after the conclusion of the second colloquium on Mexican atheism Nov. 2-3. Gaylor spoke at the conference, as did Coyne, Michael Shermer and several Mexican scientists and freethinking activists. The Governor’s Palace in the background features a major Diego Rivera mural which is strongly anticlerical and explicitly celebrates Mexico’s formal separation between state and church.
By Dan Barker
Freedom From Religion Foundation
FFRF members Steve Aldred (left) and Daniel Saiz (right) joined FFRF Co-President Dan Barker for a post-debate reception.
I’ve done more than 100 debates as an atheist, but really looked forward to my first visit to Oxford, England, to debate the proposition, “This House Believes in God.” Members of the Oxford Society invited me, Michael Shermer and Peter Millican (philosophy, Hertford College) for a formal debate Nov. 8.
We teamed up against theists John Lennox (well-known Oxford professor of mathematics and philosophy), Peter Hitchens (journalist, author and former atheist) and Anglican priest Joanna Collicut (co-author of The Dawkins Delusion).
It was a formal black-tie evening, so I brought my nice tuxedo that I use for playing jazz gigs and country clubs. I’m sure I was the only person in the room with piano keyboard suspenders.
The Oxford Union is “the world’s most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford.” Founded in 1823, it welcomes and encourages controversy. “The Oxford Union believes first and foremost in freedom of speech: nothing more, nothing less.”
Many of the protocols of modern-day British Parliament stem from Oxford Union customs. Eleven British prime ministers, starting with W.E. Gladstone, have been officers or members. Dozens of other members have gone on to become nationally and internationally prominent figures.
Famous speakers at the Union include many presidents and prime ministers, actors, sports figures, authors, journalists, the Dalai Lama, Malcolm X, Salman Rushdie, Mother Teresa, Philip Pullman, Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein.
The formality was enhanced by the fact that Richard Dawkins was in the audience. After a delicious supper and preliminaries, the main event began. We spoke with no microphones in the formal Debate Chamber, with hardwood floor and busts of famous people around the red walls.
We stood on respective sides of a practical table on the floor (no lofty pulpits), with most of the audience at the same level, and many in the balconies above us. We were each allotted 15 minutes.
John Lennox, our most formidable and articulate opponent, went first, speaking for the proposition. John has a likable relaxed personality, a warm avuncular style with an Irish twinkle in his eyes.
Atheism is illogical, Lennox asserted, because “nothing comes from nothing.” There is no contradiction between science and faith. An immaterial God is free to show himself to us in a material way using revelation, and the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus is clear evidence for the existence and power of such a being.
According to Lennox, the constants (forces or parameters) of the cosmos are so exquisitely balanced that if one of them were off by the tiniest fraction, we would not be living in a universe hospitable to life. Besides, without a belief in the Christian God, there is no hope.
I spoke next, for the opposition. It was my job to introduce the main ideas in opposition to theistic belief, putting as much as possible on the table for our opponents to rebut and setting the stage for Michael and Peter to drive the points home using their considerable areas of expertise.
I prepared a 10-minute opening, anticipating that I might appreciate the extra five-minute elbow room to insert specific rebuttals or allow interruptions from the floor. I turned to Lennox and said, “If nothing comes from nothing, God cannot exist.” A god, if such a being exists, is not nothing. To exclude the desired conclusion from the premise is to beg the question.
Smuggling God into the reasoning that is supposed to prove his existence also results in an incoherency, a “married bachelor,” a something that comes from the nothing from which something cannot come. If “God” is defined as an omniscient being with free will, then he cannot exist.
If you know the future, you cannot have free will. Foreknowledge of your own decisions rules out any ability to change your mind. You are a robot, not a personal being.
In response to interruptions, I briefly sketched the cumulative case that belief in a god suffers from serious deficiencies: lack of coherent definition, lack of evidence, lack of good argument (many theistic arguments are merely “god-of-the-gaps” explanations), lack of moral and theological agreement among believers, lack of good response to the problem of evil, and the lack of reliability of so-called holy books.
I turned to Lennox to counter that the resurrection of Jesus is the worst example anyone could offer as evidence for a god, and explained why. I ended with the fact that there is no need for a god: Tens of millions of good people have lives of purpose, morality, love, meaning, happiness, beauty and hope without such a belief.
As I returned to my seat next to Michael Shermer, he said “Bravo! You nailed it!” and we did high fives.
Then it was Joanna Collicut’s turn to argue for the proposition. I listened carefully, ready to take notes, but her monotone remarks were so vague, so Sunday morning sermonish, I really don’t remember what she said.
Michael Shermer virtually leaped to the table to take up for the opposition. He made the case that god beliefs are neurological, psychological, sociological, anthropological and historical. He challenged the audacity of pretending that out of the thousands of gods and religions, you just happen to possess the correct one.
“I simply believe in one less god than you do,” he said, eliciting much laughter and applause. He talked about pattern recognition and agency detection, Type 1 versus Type 2 errors (thinking the noise in the grass is the wind rather than a predator), showing that god belief is a Type 1 error (false positive) that was useful to our prescientific ancestors for survival reasons.
Very different Peters
Then came Peter Hitchens, the believing Anglican brother of Christopher Hitchens. (If anyone doubts the fact of evolutionary variation, just look at those two brothers.) Hitchens was combative and unfriendly, pitching ad hominem assaults. “I decided that I would abandon any pretense at being Mr. Nice Guy,” he wrote the next day. “Why would anyone want the universe to be a pointless chaos, where our actions could be judged only by their immediate observable effects, a universe utterly without the hope of justice, where death was the end and the deaths of those we loved extinguished them irrevocably? Well, the question, once asked, rather answers itself, doesn’t it?”
Hitchens apparently does believe all questions answer themselves because he brusquely declined interruptions from the audience.
Peter Millican, on our side, was last. He was brilliant and deftly handled the theistic arguments raised by Lennox, responding with philosophical rebuttals to the “fine tuning” argument, and the problem of evil. If there actually were an afterlife, how would future “justice” make our current suffering any less harmful?
When he sat down, I said, “Strike three! They’re out.” And I was right. At the end of the event, President John Lee announced to the audience that they were to “vote with your feet.” Our side won.
So although the exact proposition was indeed about belief and not knowledge, I think it is fair to say that it has been decided, by an Oxford vote no less, that there is no god.
Below, a small but representative sampling of disturbing emails recently received by FFRF from “loving” Christians, usually in response to news coverage of FFRF’s state/church work. Grammar and spelling are uncorrected. Warning: Language and suggestions are commonly X-rated.
The Lord: please keep your liberal ideas in wisconsin. Texas is a Christian state and we do not appreciate your interfering in our schools expression of love and faith in our Creator. Just remember JESUS IS LORD!! — Steve Rousseau
Texas cheerleader: Stay out of Texas. We dont need your non beleiving ways here. Dont stand behind the Courts or threatining lawsuits. Come here and meet us face to face. — Richard Zelenuk, Arlington
Football Banners: Suck it up and hang it out your atheist ass. — Arthur Windell, Caldwell
YOU ARE DUMB GAY IDIOTS SENT TO RUIN AMERICA: There are people who understand the truly American anti-gay dream. We want to live in a world with “In God We Trust” on the currency. Think of all of the people who died to preserve Christianity from terrorists. — Tiger Gibbons
Marbury, AL High School: You need to stay out of our business. This is Alabama, and we do as we please. — John Hazel
Tennessee: You need to leave Tennessee alone. Keep your views if you like... Just don’t bother us. I realize that people have rights... We have moving trucks here if people don’t like it here.
religion: YOU PEOPLE ARE FULL OF SHIT. IF SOMEONE DOESN’T LIKE THE SIGNS THEY CAN DO 1 OF 2 THINGS: IGNORE THE SIGN OR 2 MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT AND SOMEONE IS GOING TO WHOOP YOUR SORRY ASSES. — Daniel Berney
RELIGION: yOU AND YOUR TEACHINGS ARE WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY NOW. tEACHING CHILDREN THERE IS NO GOD LEADS THEM TO BELIEVE THEY CAN DO WHAT EVER THEY PLEASE AND THEIR IS NO RESPECT FOR ANYTHING. wHEN THE TIME COMES,AND IT WILL IT WILL BE TO LATE TO ADMIT HOW VERY WRONG AND EVIL YOU WERE AND ARE! pLEASE DO NOT CONTACT ME AS THERE IS NOTHING I WANT OR NEDD TO HEAR FROM THE LIKES OF YOU. — Nancy Grant
Tennessee: hope you needle ducks enjoy hell stay out of Tennessee stop by Caryville and see me idiots you speak with a forked tongue. — Dave Johnson
how much I dont like freedom from religion: This country, built and fought for by my forfathers has turned into a scary place to live because people like you are to worried about treating people fairly, who dont deserve to be treated fairly — Jeremy Miller, Woodstock
Suggestion: All you exist for is to undermine the moral fabric of this nation as it was historically founded. Since you all are so unhappy with that why not move ?
Suggestions: Try: Iran, N.Korea, Russia, China, Cuba, spread your poison there you will be more than welcome since you share the same ideology. I picked the other selection below for the CPUSA! — Doc H.
Texas Cheerleaders: With the recent injunction that was granted to the Cheerleaders it looks like God is tell you to “ shove your organization right up your ass “ don’t you agree! — Mike Hunt
Bible verses at Alabama football games: Those of us down here take our religion seriously and if we choose to carry signs with Bible verses at football games, well it’s really none of your business. Perhaps you should read your Bible more often. — Pam Cory
schools: Look you need to leave marbury high school alone y’all just want to mess with somebody and you need to leave the alone . They are doing nothing wrong they are not hurting no one so just go crawl under a rock and leave them .dont come down her messing with us or watch what happens !!! watch what god can he can make anything happen so leave us alone don’t miss with us or will mess with you — Robert Harmon, Prattville
TENNESSEE/GEORGIA: Tell me do you have any problem spending he U.S. money that has IN GOD WE TRUST printed on the face, I suspect not, you hipocrit. Say up North and leave us alone. I hope you burn in Hell. — Pat Guffey, Soddy Daisy
schools and prayers: just fuck off. if you dont want to hear it. just stand and shut the fuck up. — “Who cares”
Alabama: you guys are a bunch of fuken cocksucker fuk you all ahhahahahah we need freedom from you fagotts yoru the reson the whole county going to hell you think it funny 0-o open your eyes look what you made no god it all hell enjoy its allover — Don Hively
Football prayer at games: Hi I’m a conserned student at a school that no Longer has prayer before football games.... — Josh
Name: Jessica Walker.
Where I live: Tyrone, Ga., about 20 miles south of Atlanta.
Where and when I was born: Connecticut in 1967 but grew up in New Jersey.
Family: Husband, Robin; son, Jack, 11; and daughter, Maisie, 8.
Education: B.S. in accounting from Centenary College, New Jersey, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix.
Occupation: Director of project management for Caliber Services, a software consulting firm. I started my career as an accountant and moved to consulting on enterprise resource planning in the early 1990s. I took time off from the corporate world to stay home with my young children and supported my husband’s new business venture in 2003 by taking care of the back-office and accounting duties.
Now that the children are in school, I’ve come back into the work-for-pay world and have taken over more responsibility in the family business and moved from bookkeeper duties to project management.
How I got where I am today: I’ve always wanted to know the reasons behind things and found that evidence and data were much more satisfying than fairy tales. This quality drove my passion for books, learning, and not being afraid to make someone a little uncomfortable by asking them a tough question about their position on a given subject.
I have a deep interest in knowing that people are being treated fairly in life and came to understand early on that a secular worldview is the one that is the most inclusive and fairest to the most people.
Where I’m headed: I’m married to a wonderful man and we have two amazing children. We don’t try to influence our children on matters of conscience. We simply ask what their thoughts are on a particular subject, where the evidence is leading them, and suggest when more research may be warranted. In addition to raising two little skeptics, I’m finding great joy in athletics lately, especially the character-building experience that is dragon boating.
Person in history I admire: Maria Montessori. She “followed the child” to create an education system that modern research (see Dr. Steve Hughes) is now proving most accurately mirrors a child’s brain development. She cared deeply about respect for the child as an individual, the child’s place in the greater community and how to peacefully interact with others.
Montessori, one of the first female physicians in Italy, was a devout Catholic, a fact that I tend to think is an accident of geography and the time when she was born. Her discoveries about child development, sensitive periods and emphasizing learning with concrete materials through our senses rather than jumping directly to abstract concepts are strong evidence of her scientific mindset. The many children I have known (including my own) who are educated within the Montessori Method tend to be independent critical thinkers, self-assured, mature for their ages, early readers, self-motivated, respectful of others and creative, joyful people.
A quotation I like: “It is best to read the weather forecast before praying for rain.” (Mark Twain, 1835-1910)
These are a few of my favorite things: My family and friends, playing tennis and the piano (not simultaneously), dragon boat racing, Rotary Club service projects, the Fayette Freethought Society, traveling to other countries, reading anything I can get my hands on, NPR and physical fitness.
These are not: People who equate religion with morality (I tend to think it’s more of an inverse relationship), hypocrisy, bad line calls in tennis, intercessory prayer, insistence on respect for religion and/or faith, commercial television, smelly cheese.
My doubts about religion started: I don’t come from a religious family, although both my grandmothers were Catholic. We didn’t attend services and celebrated holidays in a cultural rather than a religious manner. For most of my life, I was rather apathetic about religion, then moved five years ago to Georgia, where my freedom from religion is assaulted on a daily basis.
I’ve become more and more motivated to actively work against this unwanted intrusion in my life. Living in the bible belt, I now understand more than ever how much religion and a faith-based mindset is a dangerous force for paternalism, ignorance, arrogance and misogyny.
Why I’m a freethinker: I’m a freethinker because I think there is so much self-righteous “certainty” in the public marketplace of ideas that I see eventually getting shot down after new evidence on a subject comes to light. Being a freethinker shows a level of humility with regard to the future and a respect for humanity’s ability to continually make new discoveries about our natural world.
Ways I promote freethought: I joined groups like FFRF, the Fayette Freethought Society and the Atlanta Freethought Society to find like-minded people. My children and I have talks about superstition, famous scientists, evolution, relationships, ethics, the FFRF quote of the day, the future of our planet, etc., on our morning drives to school.
I leave my back issues of Freethought Today in local coffee shops. As a peaceful protest, I refuse to stand up with all the other people during opening prayers at Rotary Club meetings. Yes, I’m the only one sitting, and yes, it’s been noticed and commented on. [See sidebar story.]
Jessica’s excellent letter
Jessica Walker writes: Being a member of FFRF and being exposed to your writings and arguments helped me in crafting the following email to my Rotary Club. I am answering a question from a fellow member as to why I do not stand up during the club’s prayer/pledge.
Thank you very much to each of you for your leadership and bravery in the face of desperate odds.
Thank you for your polite curiosity. This is something that I thought about long and hard. I even strongly considered not joining and on many occasions considered leaving the PTC Club [Peachtree City] because of its current prayer and pledge practice.
The short answer to your question about my nonparticipation in prayer and pledge is because I’m a Rotarian, a member of a supposedly (if we are to believe the statements on the Rotary International website) nonsectarian and nonpolitical organization that seeks to be inclusive of all peoples in the world. I sincerely think that the Rotarian ideals of “Service Above Self” and the Four-Way Test are superior to the sectarianism and nationalism that any club indulges in when it comes to improving human relations and uplifting others less fortunate than ourselves.
I find it very sad that we very rarely recite the Four-Way Test or our excellent motto “Service Above Self” at our meetings. For that, I would gladly and proudly stand up from my seat. The prayer/pledge only serves as a distraction from Rotary’s excellent ideals. The motto and the Four-Way Test are strong enough, powerful enough, and meaningful enough to stand on their own merits.
My quiet refusal to participate in the prayer/pledge illustrates my choice to adhere to these higher values of Rotary. I sit, rather than stand up, go with the flow and be coerced against my conscience into tacit acceptance of divisive, unnecessary and ultimately ineffective appeals to the supernatural along with nationalism coupled with the festering vestiges of McCarthyism that we see embodied in the post-1954 version of the pledge. We are better than this. We just need the courage to buck powerful forces and choose the higher road.
As Rotarians, we have the obligation to be inclusive of all people, and the only peaceful and respectful way that I have seen this to have ever been achieved in history is to keep things as secular and nonterritorial as possible, just like we are shown on Rotary International’s own website. Until we, as members of the PTC Rotary, can be brave enough to say “No more” to our current sectarian and nationalistic practices and choose to run our meetings in the most inclusive and Rotary-focused way possible, there will always be a member, a visiting member, a guest, or a potential member at our meetings who feels like an outsider — unwelcome, creeped out, unwilling to join us.
Take a moment to think of all the folks we had to lunch a couple of weeks ago on International Day. How many different religions (or no religions) were in that room? How many different countries were folks citizens of? I was intensely embarrassed for the club when the Christian prayers and pledges to a single nation were once again trotted out and forced on all these different people.
How many of those decision-makers from the various PTC international companies do you think would want to join a club that behaves in such an exclusionary, arrogant, self-righteous manner? I wonder how many of those international presidents and CEOs would now be asking to become members of our club if they had been presented solely with the Rotary motto and the Four-Way Test instead? Those are ideals that everyone can get behind and accept into their lives without violating their freedom of conscience.
I have chosen to remain a member of the club because I truly think that the Rotary ideals are worth striving for. I truly think it is also worth my incurring a bit of curiosity and/or hostility from the other members, like yourself, because I want to help people see that the Rotary ideals are more important, inclusive and useful to humanity than prayers and pledges could ever be.
If any of my ideas have resonated with you, I invite you join me in my peaceful protest of this embarrassing, coercive and exclusionary part of our meetings.
Jessica S. Walker
Director PMO Office, Caliber Services, LLC
Dawkins draws nearly 900 to convention
God Delusion author Richard Dawkins accepts an Emperor Has No Clothes Award on Oct. 12 at FFRF’s 35th annual national convention in Portland, Ore. Photo: Andy Ngo
This speech, excerpted for print, was given Oct. 12 by Richard Dawkins at FFRF’s 35th annual convention in Portland, Ore. Dawkins, a distinguished evolutionary biologist and author, is arguably the world’s most renowned living atheist. He received an Emperor Award in 2001 but was unable to accept it personally due to 9/11. The award is reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion.
Thank you very much indeed. [I am] delighted to have made a diversion to Portland to see this magnificent gathering and to see Annie Laurie and Dan Barker, who are some of my favorite people. We have been collaborating with them on the Clergy Project, among other things, and it’s a very great pleasure to see this splendid audience,
I’m often asked, why do you pick easy targets, like Ted Haggard? Why don’t you have an argument with a real theologian, the best that religion has to offer, a sophisticated religious thinker? But what’s the difference between an evangelical wingnut like Ted Haggard and a sophisticated theological thinker like the archbishop of Canterbury or the pope?
In one sense, I believe the wingnuts are more honest. They know what they believe, and although it’s false, at least they really believe it. The sophisticated theologians, I shall argue, are so drunk on metaphor, they don’t really know what they believe, or they may be deliberately deceptive.
Honoree Richard Dawkins accepting the Emperor Has No Clothes Award from FFRF Officer Jim Coors. The statuette honors public figures for “telling it like it is” about religion. Photo: Andy Ngo
To quote Peter Medawar on Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French priest and author of The Phenomenon of Man, “It may be that they can be excused of deceitfulness only because before deceiving others, they’ve gone to great pains to deceive themselves.”
The case I want to make is that in the hands of a sophisticated theologian, the resort to metaphor may be a vehicle of deceit, a con trick, played on their innocent congregations.
C.S. Lewis made the point that our whole language is full of dead metaphors. The word “attend” is a metaphor. The word “reflect” is a metaphor.
You say she’s very bright, or a very dim student. How dare you, he thundered. I can’t grasp your nebulous — meaning cloud-like — meaning. Almost every word, every phrase in our language was once upon a time a metaphor.
I’m not knocking metaphors, but they have to obey two rules. They must do real explanatory work, and it must be clear that they are metaphors. One of the problems with the sophisticated theologians is that they are very unclear when they’re talking about metaphors and when they’re not.
Here’s a good example of a very good metaphor — the distinction between skyhooks and cranes, which all of you will know from the work of Dan Dennett. It does useful explanatory work, and it can’t possibly be mistaken for anything but a metaphor.
Here’s another: When you’re trying to explain the phenomenon of refraction, physicists have found that a good way to do it is to assume that the photons of the light are trying to minimize the time they take to get through the medium, whatever it is. The beautiful metaphor, which I’ve seen exposed by Peter Atkins, is if you are on the shore, you’re a lifesaver. You see somebody drowning out to sea at a diagonal, what’s the best course to follow in order to get to them as quickly as possible?
The straight beeline direction is not good, because you can run much faster than you can swim. So you want to increase the time you spend on the beach before you hit the water. Or in that case, you could minimize the time you spend on the beach and go right to opposite where the person is drowning, and then swim straight out to them. Or you could do the opposite, which is clearly not sensible.
The optimum solution is to go at a certain angle, which really does minimize the time you take to get to the drowning swimmer, and that is exactly what photons do. If you assume that a photon is working hard to minimize the time it takes to pass through the medium, then you get the right answer with respect to refraction. So once again, the photon lifesaver metaphor passes its test with flying colors. It does real work in helping you to get the right answer, and it’s perfectly clear. It’s obviously a metaphor.
I once attended a posh conference in Germany where Nobel Prize winners were invited to bring one young colleague. I went as the colleague of my Nobel Prize-winning boss, Niko Tinbergen. Jacques Monod, the distinguished French molecular biologist, was there. He said that when he was trying to solve a problem in chemistry, he would say, “What would I do if I were an electron?”
My late colleague W.D. Hamilton solved an enormous number of problems in evolutionary genetics by asking himself, “What would I do if I were a gene trying to maximize my survival through many generations?” If you use that metaphor, then you can get all sorts of answers right.
Once again, the intelligent gene metaphor passes the test. It does real work in helping us to get the right answer, and it’s impossible for a reasonable person to think that we really mean that genes have intelligent motives.
Also I thought, one might have thought it was obvious that a selfish gene couldn’t possibly mean literally selfish. But this lady, a philosopher called Mary Midgley, wrote a savage attack on [Dawkins’ 1976 book] The Selfish Gene, in which she began, “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract, or biscuits teleological.”
Einstein’s bad metaphor
John Krebs and I used a thing called the life-dinner principle in explaining certain aspects of evolutionary biology. It comes from Aesop’s Fables. “The hare runs faster than the dog because the hare is running for his life, while the dog is only running for his dinner.” You use that principle to explain all sorts of things in evolutionary ecology.
An extremely common error is to assume that what animals are doing is working for the good of the species, working for example to stop the species going extinct. This fallacy was identified by J.B.S. Haldane as “Pangloss’s theorem,” after the character in Voltaire [parodying Leibniz] who thought all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Molecular biologist Sydney Brenner satirized that theorem by suggesting that a molecule which arose in the Cambrian era, half a billion years ago, might have been of no use at the time, but it stuck around because it might come in handy in the Cretaceous.
Another example of bad metaphors I’m afraid Albert Einstein was guilty of — Einstein, when he wanted to say something like, “Could the universe have been different from what it is? Is there only one way for a universe to be?”
Unfortunately, Einstein chose to express that very important question with a God metaphor, “Did God have a choice?” He used another God metaphor when he was complaining about Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which he didn’t like. He said, “But he does not play dice,” meaning that God does not play dice [with the world].
The fact that Einstein used the God metaphor has been used over and over again by “faith heads” who wish to claim Einstein as one of their own. It’s a very good thing, by the way, that Einstein, in one of the last letters he wrote near the end of his life, showed absolutely that he did not believe in any kind of personal God. That letter has now come up for sale. I tried to bid on it when it came up for sale last time. I was miserably outbid.
Religion arguably got its start from this very human habit of metaphorically personifying natural phenomena. People lacked a naturalistic explanation for thunder, so tribal peoples would resort to a supernatural explanation — thunder gods, like Thor with his hammer, and Zeus.
Yahweh himself seems to have begun as a storm god, one of a polytheistic pantheon of Canaanite gods that included Baal, the thunder god.
Here’s a good example of the misapplication of metaphor. Pope Benedict said, “Christ stresses that the gift received in him far surpasses Adam’s sin and its consequent effects on humanity.” The pope knows perfectly well there never was an Adam. He’s an evolutionist. He’s come down in favor of it. But he can’t resist the temptation of metaphor. They are drunk on metaphor.
I was curious to know whether priests, pastors, were aware [that the biblical creation stories are myth, not history]. I asked two of them who have since become atheists. The first one said, “During my first few months of doubt, I actually met with, all in confidence, three former students, all preaching in similar congregations, and three seminary professors. All six of them admitted to not believing in the literal creation account of a literal Adam and Eve, and the resulting fall. And they questioned the historicity of Moses, etc. But they preach as if they do when they speak in local congregations. In other words, they share their scholarly beliefs with scholars, and preach down to the laity of rural congregations.”
The second pastor said, “I would completely agree that theologians are intoxicated by metaphor and that tendency trickles down to the local pulpit. I think in some cases, both in the academy and the pulpit, the intention is to feel comfortable in perpetuating a traditional narrative, but to do it in ways that serve both a metaphorical and literal understanding. In other words, we try to be all things to all people, but fail to say anything substantial.”
Biblical beauty, atrocity
The Song of Songs is a beautiful book of the bible. It’s recommended. Read it in the King James version. “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that feed among the lilies. Thou art all fair, my love. There is no spot in thee. Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse. Thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck. How fair is they love, my sister, my spouse? How much better is thy love than wine and the smell of thine ointments than all spices, thy lips, oh my spouse, drop as the honeycomb. Honey and milk are under thy tongue, and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.”
Well that, as I said, is summed up in the King James bible at the top as “The Church’s Love Under Christ.” [laughter]
The horrific story of Abraham, almost murdering his son Isaac, is said to be a parable, symbolically telling the Hebrews to stop sacrificing humans and sacrifice sheep instead. You can’t help wondering why God didn’t simply tell Abraham instead of making him commit child abuse, which today would have him locked up.
Sophisticated theologians are drunk on metaphor, so in love with metaphor as to be seduced by atrocities like that; so in love with metaphor as to be persuaded that in order for God to forgive our sins, he had to reenact the metaphor of Abraham in the blood sacrifice of Jesus, without which it was impossible to forgive our sins. Somebody had to die.
Imagine you are God. You’re all-powerful. You’re all-loving. So it is really, really important to you that humans are left in no doubt about your existence and your loving nature, and exactly what they need to do in order to get to heaven and avoid eternity in the fires of hell. It’s really important to get that across. So what do you do?
If you’re Jehovah, apparently this is what you do. You talk in riddles. You tell stories which on the surface have a different message from the one you apparently want us to understand. You expect us to hear X, and instinctively understand that it needs to be interpreted in the light of Y, which you happen to have said in the course of a completely different story 500, 1,000 years earlier.
Instead of speaking directly into our heads, which God has presumed the capability of doing — simply, clearly and straightforwardly in terms which the particular individual being addressed will immediately understand and respond to positively — you steep your messages in symbols, in metaphors. In fact, you choose to convey the most important message in the history of creation in code, as if you aspired to be Umberto Eco or Dan Brown.
Anyone would think your top priority was to keep generation after generation after generation of theologians in meaningless employment, rather than communicate an urgent life-or-death message to the creatures you love more than any other.
Religion and public office
Now I want to switch to a completely different topic, which I think is important, because we’re just in the throes of a very important election. I want to say something which may be a bit more unpopular. We’ll see. Should we respect the privacy of a politician’s religion, or is it up for discussion, like his economic policy or his foreign policy?
Should politicians be allowed to hide behind the convention that privacy is to be respected where faith is concerned and refuse to discuss it? We shouldn’t even ask them about it, or should we question them about it?
Britain and America are rather different in the way their politicians treat religion. Tony Blair, under the forceful direction of a rather sinister figure, Alistair Campbell, who was his spin doctor, very forcefully said we don’t do God. Blair’s best friend, George W. Bush, did God in a big way, even to the extent of listening to God’s advice to invade Iraq.
I’m conscious of not being American, but because the election is hanging over the whole world, I’m going to take the liberty of making a point about American election manners. I expect I may find myself at odds with some people here.
Almost every politician in America has to do God, or at least thinks he has to do God, on the pain of almost certainly losing the election if he doesn’t. The next point, which ought to be uncontroversial, is that the separation of church and state is quite rightly deeply woven into the DNA of America, unlike in Britain, where we have an established church and we have 27 bishops as ex-officio members of Parliament.
The American Constitution states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” John Kennedy famously laid the principle on the line: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding office.”
But while it’s of course right that no religious test should be imposed before a candidate is allowed to stand for election, that’s very different from saying that voters are expected to ignore a candidate’s religious beliefs when they’re deciding whether to vote for him.
Discriminating against anybody’s eligibility to stand for election goes right against the spirit of the American Constitution. Amazingly, however, in several states, atheists are barred by state law. [Dawkins names states with specific prohibitions: North Carolina, Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina.]
I’m using Romney only as an example for the thesis that I want to advance, which is I think unpopular with some Americans, because they wrongly think it goes against the Constitution, against the “no religious test” laws. Whereas no religious test should be imposed when deciding whether a candidate’s eligible, voters are entitled to take account of what a candidate is capable of believing, even if he doesn’t let his beliefs interfere with his policies, as Kennedy vowed.
By the same token, I think journalists should be free to ask candidates about their beliefs. Their private beliefs should be fair game in debates between candidates. I wish that presidential debates were more gloves off when it comes to the religious beliefs of candidates.
Why does Mr. Obama limit himself to criticizing Mr. Romney’s taxation policy, medical policy, foreign policy and so on? Why does he ignore the
elephant in the room, which is that his opponent is capable of holding beliefs which, in England, we call barking mad, and here, you might call batshit crazy.
Joseph Smith, charlatan
Mitt Romney believes that the Book of Mormon is a sacred book, translated by a 19th century American called Joseph Smith, whom Romney reveres as a prophet and the founder of his faith. Mormons believe that Smith was guided by an angel, Moroni, to dig up some golden plates on which were written characters of an ancient language which he called reformed Egyptian, unknown to archaeologists, by the way.
He bought a seer stone in a hat, buried his face in the hat and looked at the seer stone. One by one, characters of reformed Egyptian would appear in the stone, together with the English translation. Smith would say the English word, which would be written down by a scribe sitting behind a curtain so he couldn’t see what was going on.
The scribe repeated the word, and when Smith approved it, the stone would display a new word in its place, and so on until all 531 pages of the book had been written down — in English. Mark Twain remarked that if you remove all occurrences of “it came to pass,” the Book of Mormon would be reduced to a pamphlet.
Before any of this happened, Joseph Smith had built up a track record in the area as a psychic diviner of buried treasure. He claimed to be able to see underground, looking for treasure by looking through his hat. Everything about the Book of Mormon reeks of fake.
Joseph Smith was an obvious charlatan. That’s not an interesting fact in itself. There have been numerous charlatans down the ages. The point is that Mitt Romney, candidate for the job of most powerful man in the world, with his finger on the nuclear button, is a gullible fool who believes Joseph Smith.
It seems to me entirely right that journalists should question him on his Mormon beliefs. They should not feel it’s a taboo they have to tiptoe around. The only reason President Obama should refrain from doing so, if he should, would be a purely tactical reason. It might put voters off because they wrongly, in my view, think that to do so would be to go against the spirit of the First Amendment.
There he is, looking through his hat. I’ve been Tweeting about this lately. The commonest retort that I’m getting is, well, Obama’s Christianity, isn’t that just as ridiculous?
Obama not a Christian?
I think there’s an excellent chance that Mr. Obama is not a Christian at all. I strongly suspect he may be an atheist.
I say that mainly because he’s obviously intelligent and educated. But in any case, the fact that he professes Christianity means absolutely nothing. He’s an elected American politician. And if you are an elected American politician, that has to mean that you pretend to be religious. There’s no other way about it. So that doesn’t really mean anything.
One could say the same of Romney. But I think the evidence shows actually Romney does believe it. He was a Mormon bishop. There are records of his excommunicating people. He excommunicated a woman because she left the Mormon Church. You’d think since she’d left already, there was no need to excommunicate.
And it’s really much more recently that he, I think really rather obnoxiously, posthumously baptized his atheist father-in-law. If he were professing religion for reasons purely of political expediency, instead of saying he’s a Mormon, couldn’t he say he sort of believes in spirituality or something vague like that?
I think it’s pretty clear Romney is a definitely strong-believing Mormon, whereas I don’t think it’s clear that Obama is a Christian. But even if he is, Christianity, even fundamentalist Christianity, I think is substantially less, I mean it may be ridiculous, but it’s not as ridiculous.
Christian scriptures are genuinely ancient. The translations from Hebrew and Greek that Christians use are in a language contemporary with the translators. The Book of Mormon is not ancient. The language of its alleged translation is ludicrously anachronistic. It contains absurdities, scientifically demonstrable absurdities, about the origin of Native Americans, about people of African descent. It’s an absurd piece of work. A man who seriously believes it, it seems to me, cannot be trusted to have the sort of acumen, the sort of critical mind that you need in a leader of a great country.
DNA evidence conclusively refutes the claim that Native Americans are a remnant of the house of Israel. The idea that Jesus visited America is archaeologically preposterous. The idea that Adam and Eve did, too, is even worse. It’s at least arguable that Jesus existed.
The traditional Mormon belief in the inferiority of black people, only lately renounced for reasons of political expediency, is as scientifically inaccurate as it is obnoxious. The great prophet Brigham Young even prescribed the death penalty for interracial marriage.
Reductio ad absurdum
Are any Christian beliefs as daft as Mormonism? I think the answer is probably no, but I do think that the bread and wine question should be put to any Roman Catholic seeking high office. Do you really believe in transubstantiation? Do you literally believe that the wafer becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ?
I think that question should have been put to Kennedy. I suspect that if he were honest, he would have said no, to which the reasonable response would then be, then why do you remain Catholic?
For many Americans, the sticking point is whether the candidate keeps his religion separate from his politics. This was the Kennedy defense, and it has a lot going for it. But I actually want to go further.
I’m not an American voter, but if I were, I would want to know that my president has the critical intelligence needed to be a president. Anybody who can’t see that Joseph Smith was a charlatan and a liar doesn’t have critical intelligence.
I wanted to get to the bottom of what I see as a reluctance among some Americans to question a candidate’s private religious beliefs, a reluctance to intrude upon this private matter of religious belief. Shouldn’t it be a private matter that we leave to him and don’t question? So I invented a hypothetical example.
My extreme reductio ad absurdum was a hypothetical doctor. He was an excellent eye surgeon, brilliant at removing cataracts, repairing detached retinas, all the other things that an eye surgeon should be good at. You couldn’t fault him, except for one peculiar fact. He doesn’t believe in the sex theory of reproduction.
I published this hypothetical example in two places, richarddawkins.net/, which I recommend to you, and boingboing.net/, which I also recommend to you. I expected that the commenters would at least agree with me in this extreme case. They’d agree with me that this doctor should be struck off, or at least they wouldn’t consult him, even if they had an eye problem.
Not a bit of it! I would say most of them, were outraged at my suggestion. So long as he does his job as a doctor, well how dare you criticize his believe in the stork theory!
I offered another example, which was a professor of geography who believes the Earth is flat, but who gives perfectly good lectures based on the assumption of a round Earth. But nevertheless, he privately believes the Earth is flat. I think he should be fired, but many people don’t.
Maybe people here wish to argue the case that if religious beliefs or disbeliefs, about the stork theory or whatever, are private, we have no business intruding upon them. I’m offering my alternative view, which is that we don’t only want to know what the candidate’s policies are, we want to know whether he has the kind of mind that you can trust to take reliable decisions under difficult circumstances.
Thank you very much.
The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (richarddawkins.net/) is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.
[Thanks to Cal Hutson for the excellent transcription.]