Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Creation Museum & Ark Encounter

By Mike Reid
August 23, 2016

A peculiar institution exists in the town of Petersburg, Kentucky. It is a natural history museum of sorts, but no ordinary one. Most natural history museums base their exhibits on the principles of modern science. This one is different. This is the Creation Museum. This strange museum does not promote modern science; it challenges it. It bases its exhibits not on science, but on the tenets of young Earth creationism, the doctrine that the Bible is the revealed word of God and that any understanding of how the world and its inhabitants came to be must begin there. Young Earth creationists reject all latter day theories about the the world that are inconsistent with this doctrine. They conclude from literal readings of the Old Testament that the Earth is only about six thousand years old and that God created humans and all other types of living things separately, at about the same time, and in largely their present forms. As such, they reject some of the most fundamental principles of modern science, such as Darwinian evolution and the immense age of the Earth. To most modern people, these are the quaint and long outdated myths of a premodern people living in a pre-scientific era. To young Earth creationists, this his how everything began. For anyone searching for validation of such beliefs, the Creation Museum is the place to go.

Near the town of Williamstown, Kentucky, rising like a mountain from the landscape, is a huge wooden "ship." It is no ordinary ship. Resting upon a concrete platform, it lies far from any ocean and was never intended to touch the water. It is not really a ship, but rather the centerpiece of a bizarre theme park called "The Ark Encounter." There, young Earth creationists will find another of their core beliefs brought to life—the story of Noah's flood. According to the Old Testament, disgusted by the depravities of man, God destroyed most of the world that He had originally created with a globally inundating flood. Young Earth creationist scholars date the flood from biblical chronologies as having occurred around 2348 BCE. In this cataclysm, God spared but one righteous family and a representative two of every living animal and plant with the mission that they repopulate the world anew once the flood waters receded. The Ark Encounter theme park is based on this story. At its center is a full-sized “replica” of Noah's Ark with a museum of sorts inside that provides depictions of what its builders think life inside the Ark must have been like and arguments for the story's historicity. Like its sister institution, the Creation Museum, the Ark Encounter presents a biblical, young Earth view of the world. It endeavors to convince visitors that this ancient story is history, not just myth.

The Creation Museum and the recently opened Ark Encounter are the sibling creations of the Kentucky-based Christian apologist organization Answers in Genesis (AiG) and its charismatic president, the Australian-born evangelical and young Earth creationist, Ken Ham. AiG promotes Christian apologetics in a way that I find both intriguing and infuriating. As a one-time geologist, former science teacher, student of Darwinian evolution, and secular activist, I reject the whole notion of creationism. To me, it is an affront to reason. It may be tempting to dismiss young Earth creationists as just a gaggle of uneducated backwoods yokels who cannot bring themselves into the twenty-first century, but that would be a serious mistake. Amazingly, they include elected officials, educators, captains of industry, and many other educated people. In spite of its anachronistic absurdity, creationism is thriving in America in several flavors and is working its way into our educational system and into public policy. Secularists and others who support modern science and the separation of church and state must actively oppose it. To effectively do so, one must understand it. The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter form a “Mecca” of sorts for the young Earth flavor of creationism in America. These are things that I felt I needed to see in order to understand the contemporary creationist movement. So, accompanied by my teenage son Jason, I drove to Kentucky and visited both on a hot Saturday in August of 2016.

We started in the morning with the Creation Museum. As we drove into the parking lot, we both felt a little nervous. It was that unease you feel when you enter a place where you think you don't belong. I wondered if there would be a reaction should anyone notice the Darwin Fish emblem on the back of my car. Fortunately, there was none. Pushing our initial trepidations aside, we bought tickets and went on in.

Mastodon in the main lobby of the Creation Museum
The Creation Museum is an interesting place. My first impression was that of a peculiar blend of natural history museum and off-beat theme park. The place has a sort-of Jurassic Park-type feel to it. There was even a smiling employee standing amidst the crowd gently holding a live and quite large lizard. This instantly reminded me of a scene from the movie Jurassic World. We saw a model pterosaur hanging from the ceiling. Going in further, we encountered a mounted mastodon skeleton and animatronic dinosaurs swaying their long necks and tails in tropically foliaged dioramas. The first clear indication that we were not in a normal natural history museum came when we noticed that one of the dioramas depicts a biblically-attired person sitting next to dinosaurs. This would be the first of several. Like any science-literate person, I know that the last dinosaurs died out tens of millions of years before the first human appeared. This exhibit should not have startled me given where we were and I was expecting such nonsense, but this scene was just so wrong that it caused me to do a reflexive double-take.

Humans and dinosaurs together in the Creation Museum
The museum was very crowded when we were there and many of the hallways are narrow; so as not to inconsiderately hold up the people behind us, we did not linger long in one place. The museum has a very good fossil collection. It has everything from Paleozoic invertebrates to fishes and dinosaur bones, which are all nicely displayed. Walking by them, I again felt like I was in a normal and well-furnished natural history museum admiring a paleontology exhibit — that was until I stopped to read the accompanying signs. The signs accurately describe what the exhibits are, but go very awry when they give the ages of the fossils. In all cases, they claim that these creatures lived only a few thousands of years ago. They are in fact, far older. Jason and I read the signs, then looked at each other and rolled our eyes. He snickered. I winced in disgust. I looked around to see how other people were reacting. If any of them shared our scorn for the scientific inaccuracies, they did not outwardly show it. I overheard no questioning comments or derisive remarks. From what I could see, nearly everyone else in the crowd was buying into it. I was disappointed by this, but not surprised.

Proceeding into a room with an exhibit called "The Fossil Hunt," we saw a diorama of two life-like mannequins of "scientists" excavating a nearly complete dinosaur skeleton. The walls of the room are covered with simulated rock embossed with impressions of fossils. The “fossils” are of a wide variety of creatures, including many that do not belong together, such as trilobites and dinosaur claws. Trilobites and dinosaurs were not around at the same time in Earth's history, so their fossils are never found together in nature. This is not a problem for the Creation Museum, whose curators claim that God created all life at about the same time and then wiped most of it out less than two thousand years later with a great flood. There I learned that most fossils resulted from masses of mud deposited during Noah's flood. Um, right … There are aesthetically appealing signs with statements from supposed "scientists" sporting impressive-sounding credentials who claim that there is solid evidence for a young Earth and a global flood. The exhibit tries to persuade its visitors that "creation science" is a respectable school of scientific thought that has the support of numerous credentialed scientists and that these "scientists" have concluded, from meticulous study of evidence, that the biblical creation story is largely true. I looked at all this and sighed. This is false, but I have no doubt that if one were to look far and wide enough, one could find a few people with scientific credentials who make such claims. They are a tiny minority and are completely outside of the scientific and academic mainstreams, but visitors are not told this. Like every field, the scientific community has a few crackpots loitering in its midst too.

I was particularly interested in assessing how effective each exhibit was. By "effective," I mean likely to appeal to someone who is not already a biblical literalist. I think that the least effective arguments in the museum are those presented in the many exhibits where they contrast what they call "Man's Word" with "God's Word.” In these they spell out what they claim is the secular scientific consensus on some point and then challenge it with excerpts from Scripture. Those arguments will only work with someone who already accepts the Bible literally and therefore needs no further convincing. A non-literalist, even a religious one, is more likely to read them as "Modern Science" vs "Ancient Myth” and will be unimpressed. I think this argument falls flat and I am rather surprised that they use it so much.

In my opinion the most effective, but also the most infuriating exhibit in the museum is one that features the famous "Lucy" skeleton. "Lucy" is the nickname given to a partially complete fossil skeleton of the ancestral hominin, Australopithecus afarensis found in Ethiopia in 1974. Lucy’s skull is very ape-like and small-brained, but her body is much more human-like. The overwhelming consensus among specialists is that A. afarensis was a relative of ours that lived between 3 and 4 million years ago. Multiple lines of peer-reviewed evidence indicate that her kind walked upright. Scientists are uncertain if this species was a direct ancestor of ours or an evolutionary cousin, but we are almost certainly descended from one of the australopiths; so in either case, this species represents an intermediate form that connects us with earlier non-human apes. AiG rejects this idea, of course. Their exhibit contains a laid out replica of the Lucy skeleton. It also contains a well-crafted, full reconstruction of what they claim Lucy probably looked like in life. Unsurprisingly, their reconstruction is quite different from ones displayed in other natural history museums. Theirs portrays her hunched over walking on her knuckles like any scruffy old ape and with a body and face resembling those of a small gorilla. Illuminated panels overlay the reconstruction and light up to delineate the pelvic and limb bones inside. The accompanying signage claims that the skeleton is so incomplete that there are various valid ways to interpret it. According to them, mainstream science is presenting just one way and a biased one at that. The exhibit is correct in its claim that most of her face is missing. It offers several different ways that the sparse facial bones could be reconstructed. They favor an interpretation that looks like a gorilla. However, the exhibit leaves out the essential fact that although Lucy was the first of her kind to be discovered, she was not the last. Since her discovery, other fossils of her kind with more skull material have been found. With the addition of these, scientists now have a pretty good idea of what her kind looked like and it was not like a gorilla. In its exhibit, AiG concludes that Lucy represents an extinct type of ape that was not related to humans. Their conclusion disregards the rigorous study of these fossils done by real scientists from all over the world over many years. These long and meticulous studies of Lucy and the other A. afarensis fossils have led to the mainstream scientific conclusion that she was an upright-walking human relative and not just some unrelated, knuckle-dragging ape. The Creation Museum exhibit is flat out wrong in its insinuation that the mainstream scientific consensus is just someone's subjective interpretation. It is much more than that.

AiG's Lucy walking on her knuckles like a gorilla in the Creation Museum
Far afield as it is, the reason that I think that the Lucy display is the museum's most effective exhibit is that unlike most of the others, it is not  premised primarily on the Bible or divine magic. It has the usual "Man's World" vs "God's Word" sign, but does not rely on that alone to make its case. It presents a faithful replica of the fossil skeleton, a professionally rendered life reconstruction, and some glitzy illuminations of its osteal anatomy. It correctly points out that most of the face is missing and therefore open to interpretation. Superficially, this thesis could seem plausible. Only a specialist would recognize the display’s subtle, but critical misinterpretations of Lucy's limbs, hip, and joints and the exhibit makes no mention of the other A. afarensis fossils that provide further evidence for a more human-like interpretation. With its polish and seemingly sound reasoning, I can certainly understand how a reasonable and intelligent layperson who does not have much scientific background could view this exhibit and be persuaded that Lucy was just another extinct ape with no connection to us.

Lucy as imagined by AiG showing how they claim her limbs articulated
One of the less flashy, but most important parts of the museum is its "Natural Selection is Not Evolution" exhibit where AiG "explains" Darwinian evolution and natural selection. To my surprise, they at first give essentially accurate short descriptions of both concepts, but then make two serious errors. The first of these is that they artificially constrain the power of natural selection. They accept that natural selection can produce changes, but limit it to producing variations only within a "kind" of organism. According to them, only God can produce fundamentally new types of organisms and He did that only once during his week-long creation spree six thousand years ago. They describe a "kind" of organism as being approximately equivalent to a taxonomic family. As an example, they claim that the different kinds of “dogs” we know today, such as wolves, coyotes, foxes, jackals, and domestic dogs are all the varied descendants of the two ancestral canids that Noah took along on his Ark. They allow that natural selection produced these various kinds of "dog" from an antediluvian base form, but stop there and do not accept that a doggish sort of creature could have derived from an earlier non-dog creature, even over the course of many generations. In other words, a dog may have remote descendants that are markedly different from itself, but they will still be dogs. I suppose that this modest concession to evolutionary change allows them, without undermining their base doctrine, to acknowledge the undeniable reality of natural selection, which has been observed in action with insects, microbes, and other short-lived and rapidly reproducing organisms. This also provides a nifty solution to the obvious problem of fitting two of every kind of creature on a boat, no matter how large. According to AiG, there were only a few thousand base "kinds" of creatures prior to the flood, few enough to fit on the Ark. The millions of species around today are all the product of natural selection acting, within family limits, on their descendants. AiG’s version of biology wrongly severs the essential connection between natural selection and organic evolution at large by greatly underestimating the power of cumulative selection over immense periods of time. The second critical problem with this exhibit is that it ignores the many intermediate forms of creatures found in the fossil record as well as genetic commonalities that connect the distinct "kinds" of creatures found today.

The concept of “Deep Time,” which states that the Earth is billions of years old, is fundamental to modern geology and evolutionary biology. It is antithetic to young Earth creationism. For their arguments to stand, AiG must attack this concept head on and they do. Repeated throughout their museum in various ways is a premise that is essential to their whole thesis, that the Earth is only thousands of years old and that the techniques used by secular scientists to date fossils and stratigraphic layers, such as radiometric methods, are not reliable. They make multiple attacks on the integrity of these methods. AiG claims that there is no empirical way of knowing how old these things really are and that they can only be understood within a biblical chronology. They appear to fully understand that if fossils can be definitively shown to be of great and vastly differing ages, their whole 7-days of divine creation thesis collapses.

"Man's Word" vs "God's Word" in the Creation Museum
The Creation Museum is well done. Its exhibits are attractive and thoughtfully laid out. It has most of the things that one would expect to find in a mid-sized natural history museum, even a planetarium. The museum tries to be scientific much of the time; however, it is premised on the a priori assertion that the Bible is inherently true. An assertion made without evidence is not science. Many of the museum’s arguments against mainstream scientific principles are based on their inconsistency with the Bible or the presumed young age of the Earth. The fundamental theme of this museum is like a large, intricate house of cards; it is an impressive and thoughtfully erected structure, but if you remove the base card, the whole thing comes crashing down. The presumption of biblical inerrancy is the Creation Museum’s base card.

Adam and Eve in the Creation Museum
With its Creation Museum, AiG makes a believable show of its fundamentalist casuistry by blending some real science with a heavy dose of nonsense to produce a murky pseudoscientific goulash from which most of the lay public cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. It supports its anti-intellectual concoction with an impressive collection of genuine fossils and other specimens of nature. These it elegantly displays to the visitor tainted with small, but essential misinterpretations. Visitors who already accept the Bible literally will likely leave the place confident that science confirms their religious beliefs. Those who are religious, but unsure about creationism will be intrigued, perhaps persuaded. Visitors who do not accept biblical literalism and who have some scientific literacy will dismiss the whole museum as a bastion of nonsense. A core mission of the Creation Museum is to convince the public that “creation science” is real science. I have no doubt that with many of its visitors, it succeeds in this.

Animatronic dinosaur exhibit in the Creation Museum
After about three hours in the Creation Museum, Jason and I decided that we had had enough of the place. As we walked back to our car, our brains felt rotted. In my mind, I was processing a dizzying melange of feelings ranging from bemusement to bewilderment to disgust. I must admit that I was also impressed with how professional looking the place is. It was time to head off to our next stop.

It took us about 40 minutes to drive from the Creation Museum to the Ark Encounter. Upon arrival, one has to park in a large lot that is some distance away from the central attraction. There one pays a fee to board a shuttle bus into the park. AiG’s Ark is enormous. It dominates the local landscape. They claim that it is the largest wood-framed structure in the world and I can believe it. Jason and I walked over to it. We walked around it and under it, just taking it in. We then got in line to go "aboard." I had heard that on opening day the month before, attendance at the Ark Encounter had been sparse. This was certainly not the case when we were there. The park was packed. We had to stand in a zig-zagging line beneath the structure for more than half an hour before we got in. Upon entering its hull, we were again struck by its size. Inside its cavernous interior are thousands of wooden cages of varying sizes, many with models of animals peering out of them. Moving further in, one encounters dioramas depicting scenes from the biblical story along the hull. The inside is climate controlled and offered us a welcome sanctuary from the sultry summer heat outside. Honestly, the thing is interesting, aesthetically attractive, and redolent of freshly cut wood. I thought to myself that this would be a great place to hold a wine tasting or a craft show. It just has that look about it.

The Ark Encounter
The Ark Encounter is basically a huge, three-dimensional, interactive story book that retells the Old Testament fable of the Great Flood and Noah's Ark. And honestly, the thing is pretty cool. This is by far the most serious and sophisticated rendering of the story that I have ever seen. Most depictions of this story are cartoonish and simply ignore its plenitude of logical problems, such as how Noah could possibly fit two of the millions of species of animals that exist on any vessel — even one this big. A modern aircraft carrier would not hold them all. They simply do not explain how he could have fed them and disposed of their waste or how he could have kept the carnivores from consuming the other animals. The practical problems with this story go on and on. AiG attempts to explain away the most obvious of these. As I mentioned earlier, they claim that all existing animals are descendant of a few thousand base kinds that Noah was able to fit on his Ark. They even borrow the idea of natural selection from modern biology as the mechanism that produced the postdiluvian diversity that we see today. However, like those in the Creation Museum, the Ark exhibits adhere to their claim that natural selection can only produce variations within a base kind of animal created by God. They cherry-pick those bits of modern science that they can shoehorn into their narrative and disregard the inconvenient rest.

One of the decks inside the Ark
How did Noah prevent the carnivores from eating the other animals? God made them vegetarians while on the Ark. What about the really big animals, like elephants? How did Noah fit them in? Easy, God only sent the smaller individuals among them, such as juveniles, to the Ark. Did you know that there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark? AiG cheerfully acknowledges the irrefutable evidence for the past existence of dinosaurs and the Bible says that two of every kind of animal were taken aboard. Since the Bible is always right and dinosaurs clearly once existed, there must have been dinosaurs on Noah's Ark. AiG's Ark has cages with dinosaurs in them. Did Noah somehow fit gigantic sauropods onto the Ark too? Remember, all animals are descended from just a few base kinds. AiG estimates that only about fifty or so kinds of dinosaurs would have been needed to later produce their known diversity and they were smaller back then. Sure, their ancestors would have fit on the Ark. AiG acknowledges that dinosaurs and many other types of animals are now extinct, but their forebears must have all been there on the Ark with Noah. They went extinct later and only within the past few thousand years. Do you find it curious that there is no mention of these spectacularly large and hence rather conspicuous animals in the Bible or in any other ancient source? AiG has an answer for that too. Postdiluvian dinosaurs may have been the source of later legends about dragons and other giant monsters.

Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark
My son and I left the Ark after a few hours with much the same feelings we had after leaving the Creation Museum — a mix of admiration for its scale and sophistication and disconcertion with its absurdity. As spectacular as AiGs Ark is, I think it less effective than the Creation Museum. I cannot imagine that anyone other than an adamant religious fundamentalist would accept its story unquestioningly. The logical problems with the story of Noah's Ark are so intractable that even a person of deep faith, but who holds onto a least a thread of rationalism, would have trouble accepting it literally. Still, AiG has done a better job than anyone before in bringing this fable to form. I must credit them for creativity in their attempts to address the story's many failings, but even their most thoughtful explanations inevitably fall short.

The cavernous interior of the Ark
The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter are impressive. Never before have I seen modern science attacked so professionally and with such panache and flair. No where else have I seen pseudoscience and logical absurdities packaged and persuasively delivered with such glittering polish and on such a colossal scale. What AiG does, it does well. In spite of my disgust with their deep scientific and historical flaws, I rather enjoyed both attractions in a perverse sort of way and I must grudgingly acknowledge a measure of admiration for Ken Ham. I almost want to meet him. This is similar to the way I felt a few years ago after visiting the Thomas Road megachurch and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Both are the mammoth creations of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. and his "Moral Majority." I was awed by the sizes of those institutions. It is remarkable what one truly dedicated and talented person starting with almost nothing was able to achieve in one life-time. Even though I detest everything that Falwell stood for, I could not help but admire the man for his energy and organizational skills. This is how I feel about Ken Ham also. He is clearly a tremendously talented man who possesses profound organizational skills, but like Falwell before him, I wish that he would be apply his abilities to better purpose.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Christian defense of Trump

A recent article was written by Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People For the American Way Foundation, about the arguments that various Christian authorities are making in support of the Trump candidacy for President.  The article refers to quite a few Christian leaders and seems to be well-referenced.

 Stretching to Make Trump ‘God's Guy’: 25 Religious Right Justifications for Backing the Donald  

  The idea of supporting the secular billionaire as a Christian candidate is absurd, and accordingly the justifications are a stretch.  Trump is compared to Elijah, Cyrus, and Paul of Tarsus, among others, including Lincoln and Washington.  (He isn't compared to Jesus, though, since that might be too much even for them.)  They argue that Trump must be favored by God to win, because otherwise, how could someone who made so many mistakes still be in the race?  
  These kinds of arguments support the conclusion that has been reached by many people who study Biblical arguments about any topic.  The Bible is such a large, diverse collection of books that anyone can find something in it to justify any conclusion.  This isn't a new point, but this article is a particularly good illustration.  The implied result is that Biblical arguments are almost worthless.  If any conclusion can be justified from some Biblical quote or other, how can anyone tell the good conclusions from the bad ones?  A bad argument can appear just as valid as a good one.  As a result, Christians are welcome to take inspiration from the Bible, but if they want to make a civil argument for any particular policy, including support of Trump, they should find another, rational, secular way to make their case, rather than relying on a Biblical quote.
  But believe it or not, there is one point that is made by a Christian in the article that I agree with.  The Christian is no less than Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell who founded Liberty University.  Falwell is quoted as making the following comment, in point #17:
During the primaries, Falwell responded to evangelicals who were critical of his endorsement by saying it’s wrong to be worried about electing the “most righteous” candidate. “God called King David a man after God’s own heart even though he was an adulterer and a murderer,” Falwell said. “You have to choose the leader that would make the best king or president and not necessarily someone who would be a good pastor. We’re not voting for pastor-in-chief. It means sometimes we have to choose a person who has the qualities to lead and who can protect our country and bring us back to economic vitality, and it might not be the person we call when we need somebody to give us spiritual counsel."
   Separation of church and state is a founding principle of the United States.  WASH and many other secular organizations have long argued in favor of church-state separation.  Falwell has made an argument in favor of church-state separation, not just from an ideological principle, but also from functional reasons.  He says that a reason for separation is that the people who perform political duties have different qualifications than people who have religious duties.  A person who makes a good president is a different kind of person from one who makes a good religious leader.  King David did different things than Jesus did.  Hence, giving a civil political leader the responsibility to lead a religion is a bad idea, because that political leader is unqualified to lead a religion. 
  A point like this may seem obvious in the U.S.  However, in the Muslim society, it isn't so obvious, and it is one of the things that is causing them problems.  For example, Iran is a theocracy and their supreme leader is a religious leader, an ayatollah.  ISIS is a Muslim organization.  The religion of Islam, at least in some interpretations, has some aspects involved in civil government, such as Sharia law.  The close association of church and state in Islam encourages the possibility of martyrs who are willing to kill themselves for a religious reward in support of a political state.  That doesn't mean  that all Muslims interpret their religion in the same way, and some American Muslims seem to accept the principal of separation of church and state as a valid principle.  But Muslims may have a problem with religious warriors unless they agree with Jerry Falwell that religious leaders and political leaders are different kinds of beasts.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

IGM Economic Experts Panel public policy polls

By Mathew Goldstein

The Initiative for Global Markets asks an Economic Experts Panel public policy questions and publishes their answers on the Internet.  The panel consists of fifty one "senior faculty at the most elite research universities in the United States" that "was chosen to include distinguished experts with a keen interest in public policy from the major areas of economics, to be geographically diverse, and to include Democrats, Republicans and Independents as well as older and younger scholars."  These are people who make a career of studying the empirical evidence to try to find the logical best fit predictions for the impacts of different public policies.  Sometimes they share a consensus, or near consensus, conclusion.  Our civic obligation as voters is to be aware of, respect, and defer to, the expert consensus.  We are not going to be better informed, or more likely to have the better answer, than they are when they reach a close to consensus view on an economics related public policy question.  

For example, no one should be voting for President, Congress, or Governer someone who advocates for re-implementing the Gold Standard, such as Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul, Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Chris Christie, or presidential candidate Donald Trump together with his choice for Vice President, Governor Mike Pence, given that economists unanimously think that is a bad policy.  It is embarrassing for our country that people who presume to know better than our own experts are elected.  Of particular interest to secularism advocates are the questions on vaccines and primary school vouchers.  There is close to a consensus here for mandating vaccinations against contagious diseases that maim or kill as advocated by the Secular Coalition for America.  For anyone interested in public policy more generally there are many interesting poll results to ponder.  It should be standard practice for universities to encourage their faculty to participate in public policy opinion polls.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Allegany County v. McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky

By Mathew Goldstein

Eleven years ago the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision that Ten Commandments documents displayed in a government court building in Kentucky violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  The same day the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that a Ten Commandments monument on the property of a government court building in Texas was constitutional.  Justice Breyer voted differently on the two similar disputes because he concluded that the monument in Texas was more secular than the framed wall displays in Kentucky for various trivial reasons, including that the Texas monument was one of more than a dozen different monuments on the court building property.  Justice Stevens dissented from that second decision, Van Orden v. Perry, arguing that the display "has no purported connection to God's role in the formation of Texas or the founding of our Nation ..." and therefore could not be protected on the basis that it was a display dealing with secular ideals. Stevens said that the display transmits the message that Texas specifically endorses the Judeo-Christian values referenced in the display and thus violates the establishment clause.

Justice Stevens was correct, although his implied endorsement of the existence of God as a secular fact was biased.  Justice Breyer's hair splitting distinctions between the Kentucky and Texas Ten Commandments appears to reflect an effort to balance his discomfort with the displays with his discomfort with confronting public opinion.  He appears to have ruled against one display in accord with his honest preference that such religiously partisan monuments not be displayed on government property, to try to limit the harm, while carving out an exception big enough to ensure any government could continue displaying the Ten Commandments anyway.  These two inconsistent decisions place the dispute in an unresolved status that encourages more litigation.

A self-identifying secular humanist and atheist who owns property in Allegany County, Jeffrey Davis, recently filed a lawsuit in Allegany County seeking to have the McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky decision re-applied to a Ten Commandments monument on the property of an Allegany County court building.   The granite monument is one of hundreds (the total number is disputed) purchased and donated over ten years by the Fraternal Order of Eagles to promote the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille Ten Commandments movie.  The Fraternal Order of Eagles is a theists only membership organization, with an initiation ritual that features a Bible and religious phrases and prayers, that restricted membership to Caucasians in the past.  There is also a George Washington monument somewhere else on the same property.  Davis is writing the arguments himself although he is not a lawyer.  He expresses an interest in obtaining assistance from experts.  Apparently the Maryland ACLU (no surprise here) and the AHA have so far refused to assist him.  

Meanwhile the county is spending lots of money on a non-profit law organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, to try to convince the judge to retain the Ten Commandments monument.  Alliance Defending Freedom is a conservative Christian organization that describes itself as "defending the right to hear and speak the Truth".  We would never argue that our government institutions should display the secular humanist manifesto to respect our freedom of expression to communicate the fact that there is most likely no God and that religions are fictions.  Our government does not function as our vocal chords, keyboards, printers, Internet, billboards, etc.  When our government remains silent regarding theism versus atheism our government does not thereby deny anyone's freedom to express themselves.  There is a time and place for conducting business and another time and place for expressing convictions about (an imaginary) god within every 24 hour day, with time remaining for eating, sleeping, etc.  Or watching T.V., it's your choice.

Ten Commandments monuments on the property of a government institution never were, never will be, never can be, a secular display in any country where a majority of citizens profess those commandments came from God as revealed in a (too often primitive and barbaric) holy text that designates death penalties for violations.  No judge, no team of well educated lawyers from an expensive law firm, no biased popular opinion, declaring otherwise will change this basic fact.  The Ten Commandments is religious by origin, by content, by usage.  It is a thoroughly religion drenched biblical document that also has some incidental secular content.  When judges falsely claim such displays are secular they demonstrate that they, and our laws, sometimes lack integrity. As secular humanists we should say this publicly, repeatedly, and unequivocally.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Ayn Rand was not a good philosopher or economist

By Mathew Goldstein

For about three years Adam Lee has been criticizing Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged chapter by chapter, section by section, on his Daylight Atheism blog.  His criticisms of that book, and of Ayn Rand, were also critical of Objectivism.  Objectivism is the name given to the world view that the atheist, and self claimed advocate for reason and individualism, Ayn Rand tried to promote with her books.

Atlas Shrugged the Ideologocal Event Horizon summarizes Lee's criticisms of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist movement.  He argues that Ayn Rand's Objectivism fails to deliver on its claims of being rooted in reason and individualism.  Ayn Rand's fictional books are indeed unrealistic fantasies that attempt to promote a flawed philosophy.  Various Republicans reject Objectivism as being tainted by its link to atheism (as if that link automatically defeats the philosophy), but they continue to promote her books anyway as providing insight into good economic policy.  As a guide for economic policy we lack sufficient reasons to think her writings are any more sophisticated or realistic than her Objectivism philosophy.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

I don't like to boast but...

By Gary Berg-Cross

You may find it surprising, but I've been thinking about boasting and self promotion a bit these days. Well OK, in today's campaign environment this is perhaps not that surprising as we are confronted with naked forms of narcissism than usual . I'm thinking here, of course, of various claims that flow, or overflow, out of candidate Trump's mouth. In March, for example, on Good Morning America D. Trump claimed, “ No One Has 'Done So Much for Equality as I Have' Evidence? His clubs are open to everyone.

"You take a look at Palm Beach, Florida. I built the Mar-a-Lago club, totally open to everybody. A club that, frankly, set a new standard in clubs and a new standard in Palm Beach and I've gotten great credit for it. That is totally open to everybody."
Speaking to AIPAC he boasted “I've studied the Iran nuclear deal more than anyone.” The AIPAC audience laughed, maybe nervously. One reporter labeled it a “Crazed Speech Filled With Self-Promotion And Delusion.” 
Doonesbury  documented 20 such boastful delusions including claims of being # on Bible reading, women's issue, trade etc.

It's all consistent with Dan McAdam's Mind of Trump article ( a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency) in The Atlantic which provides such labels to the Donald personality as:

  • narcissism,
  • disagreeableness,
  • grandiosity

These ingredients offer some idea of why Trump trumpets himself. He thinks we need to know how awesome he is. He just lacks or does not find useful the methods by which many of us engage in humble boasting. Where we may not want to let our audience on to how we are dying to brag about our kids or grand kids, new job, great investment, well Trump is on to the direct bragging path. And like a super stereotyped New Yorker he anticipates a good return on investment with little cost.

Generally, research suggests that people dislike direct, explicit self-superiority claims such as being better than others, chosen, gifted or favored by fortune. It is perhaps a comparative thing with thelistener being put one down. You can read all about the dynamics of “humble boasting in another Atlantic article by MATTHEW HUTSON called “How to Boast on the Sly A guide to bragging better.”

While we can't expect Trump to be guided by factors that influence day to day boasting as opposed to national level ones there are some factors in here that may eventually come into to play at least for some voters, outside of the Trump tribe, who are entranced with a blinding, boastful, self delusional and self promoting vision of change and leadership.

For example, as noted by Hutson when we brag overtly, we miscalculate how others will react. That is, studies suggest that self-promoters overestimated the extent to which their audiences would feel “proud” and “happy,” and they underestimated audience annoyance. A way around this is to “hire” someone to do the boasting for you. There is plenty of that in politics but again, Trump likes to toot his own boast organ himself so he may run into a limit here as praise from the usual suspects seems to be hard to hear.

One wonders if we will see a turn off from DT's explicit self-superiority claims (“I am better than others”). Of course in a campaign such claims are always there is some form maybe a bit more humbly implied. One warning to Hillary, as Hutson notes:

"Women appear to pay the greatest price for bragging. When job candidates in one study self-confidently highlighted their accomplishments, they were seen as more competent than when they spoke modestly. Yet the women who self-promoted were seen as less likable than the self-effacing women. "

Another cultural hurdle for women to clear.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Off target, the Air Raid podcast

By Mathew Goldstein

The Secular Coalition of Maryland (SCMD) is "... a radical left-wing lobbying group that wants to ensure that people of faith do not have the ability to practice their religion freely."  Or so claims Brian Griffiths who is Editor in Chief of the Red Maryland Network where his recent comments can be found on his The Air Raid podcast.  He is a former Chairman of the Maryland Young Republicans for two terms who also served four years on the Maryland Republican Party Executive Board, was President of the Anne Arundel County Young Republican, and was Assistant Secretary and Northeast Regional Vice-Chairman of the Young Republican National Federation.

He characterizes SCMD as a "left wing hate machine" who seek "to force people to participate in" what he characterizes as "state sanctioned homicide" (this is referring to the bill that proposed legalizing physicians prescribing a lethal dose of barbiturates to the terminally ill).  To make his case he cited, among other things, our opposition to the bill titled "Health Occupations - Health Care Practitioners - Exemption From Participation in Aid in Dying". That seemed to particularly annoy him.

After reading some of the contents of the SCMD web site and identifying bills SCMD opposed he devoted most of the remaining time mischaracterizing SCMD positions.  He ignored that SCMD opposed only particular provisions of some of the bills, falsely claiming that we opposed the bill sponsor's stated goal in its entirety each time. He conjured a straw man negative stereotype of SCMD and then attacked the straw man he created.  He appears to have close to zero tolerance for every legislative outcome that SCMD seeks and focused more on negatively labeling us than on making an effort to engage in any two way discussion on the substance of the issues.

SCMD argues that Maryland's health provider conscience law should be amended to clarify that the clauses granting institutions a conscience right to refusal apply only when the institution is privately controlled.   Also, freedom of conscience is not a one way street that applies selectively only to the people who adopt one side of the two opposing sides.  Whenever institutions objecting to some medical procedures can mandate refusal to provide them on freedom of conscience grounds it necessarily follows that institutions that support those same disputed medical procedures are entitled to the corresponding right of conscience to mandate agreement to provide them.

A good freedom of conscience bill for health care providers would prioritize freedom of conscience for individuals over that of institutions (since these two goals unavoidably conflict) by restricting institutional level employee mandates to privately controlled institutions.  A good bill would also be reciprocal and not privilege institutions that want to opt-out over those institutions that want to opt-in.  With those two modest adjustments that bill would become a reasonable and balanced bill that allows individuals working in public institutions to opt-out and allows privately controlled institutions to fully opt-out or opt-in.

It is clear that the perspectives of the SCMD and those of Mr. Griffiths are very far apart and in conflict.  Mr. Griffiths' views appear to align with those of his church.   Religious institutions take their theology seriously, they are inclined to claim that they are defending the will of God, which can generate conclusions that conflict with people who think differently about what God wants, or think that there is no knowledge of what God wants, or think that there is no God.  What is unclear is if there is a genuine willingness on his side to argue on the substance of our disagreements.  His commentary sounded like an effort to shut down the possibility of a discussion.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Mark Twain on Bob Ingersoll

by Gary Berg-Cross

It is always a pleasure to read Mark (Sam C) Twain and The Mark Twain Project makes that easier than ever with many of his letters and 3 volumes of his later in life Autobiography online.

One very pleasant surprise for me was to read on Twain commenting humorously but insight-fully about Bob (Robert) Ingersoll. There's a section in part 1 of his Autobiography where he talks about his 3 viewing General Grant in 1879, when Grant  had just returned from a journey around the world, and now was to be feasted in Chicago by the veterans of the Army of the Tennessee in what was called The Great Banquet.
He makes himself the audience (although he was to be the final speaker) viewing a contest among the best speakers:

"The speakers were of a rare celebrity and ability.....Colonel Vilas was to respond to a toast, and also Colonel Ingersoll, the silver-tongued infidel, who had begun life in Illinois and was exceedingly popular there. Vilas was from Wisconsin and was very famous as an orator. He had prepared himself superbly for this occasion.
He was about the first speaker on the list of fifteen toasts, and Bob Ingersoll was the ninth."

Twain notes that prior speakers, like Gen Vilas make it hard on Bob Ingersoll who rises to the occasion. You can read that long section in http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200551h.html

Below is what Twain wrote in a more direct report to his lifelong friend and co-author Willain Dean Howells

 ".....and the last and greatest by Robert Ingersoll, whose eloquence swept the house like a flame. The Howells letter continues:

I doubt if America has ever seen anything quite equal to it; I am well satisfied I shall not live to see its equal again. How pale those speeches are in print, but how radiant, how full of color, how blinding they were in the delivery! Bob Ingersoll's music will sing through my memory always as the divinest that ever enchanted my ears. And I shall always see him, as he stood that night on a dinner-table, under the flash of lights and banners, in the midst of seven hundred frantic shouters, the most beautiful human creature that ever lived. "They fought, that a mother might own her child." The words look like any other print, but, Lord bless me! he borrowed the very accent of the angel of mercy to say them in, and you should have seen that vast house rise to its feet; and you should have heard the hurricane that followed.  from http://mark-twain.classic-literature.co.uk/mark-twain-a-biography-volume-ii-part-1-1875-1886/ebook-page-39.asp"

You also get some of Twain's enthusiasm in a letter to his wife, Livy which is copied below:

I’ve just come to my room. Livy darling, I guess this was the memorable night of my life. By George, I never was so stirred since I was born. I heard four speeches which I can never forget. One by Emory Storrs, one by Gen. Vilas (O, wasn’t it wonderful!) one by Gen. Logan (mighty stirring), one by somebody whose name escapes me, & one by that splendid old soul, Col. Bob Ingersoll,—oh, it was just the supremest combination of English words that was ever put together since the world began. My soul, how handsome he looked, as he stood on that table, in the midst of those 500 shouting men, & poured the molten silver from his lips! Lord, what an organ is human speech when it is played by a master! All these speeches may look dull in print, but how the lightnings glared around them when they were uttered, & how the crowd roared in response! Ah, It was a great night, a marvelous night, a memorable night. I am so richly repaid for my journey—& how I did long wish with all my whole heart that you were there to be lifted into the very seventh heaven of enthusiasm, as I was. The army songs, the military music, the crashing applause—Lord bless me, it was unspeakable.


This was the first time that Twain heard Ingersoll and his subsequent affection for Bob is shown in a letter he wrote to the orator's daughter after his death in 1899.
"Except my daughter, I have not grieved for any death as I have grieved for his. His was a great and perfect spirit; he was a man—all man from his crown to his footsoles. My reverence for him was deep and genuine: I prize his affection for me and returned it with usury."

from The Robert G. Ingersoll Museum in Dresden, New York
by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.