Friday, February 24, 2012

The Deception Continues…

“What I find hard to understand is this: Having seen the clear failure of the basis on which Republicans had introduced the Bush tax cuts (i.e. that by 2010, the economic growth resulting from these tax cuts would expand tax revenues and thus eliminate the budget deficit resulting from these tax cuts), in 2012 the Republicans are able to once again present these tax cuts as a solution and still be considered a serious political party in the US.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Humanism Test

Andy Norman

If you believe that … you just might be a humanist!
  1. All human beings possess dignity, worth and basic rights.
  2. We should strive to remake this world into one that affords every human being the opportunity for a rich, rewarding life full of joy and creative fulfillment, and as free as possible from pain and suffering.
  3. We stand a better chance of progressing toward this goal if we understand what really works to promote human flourishing.
  4. To gain this understanding, reason, science and critical inquiry must be given free rein to discover the truth about the world, human nature, and what makes people happy.
  5. Moral codes function to protect freedoms, promote mutual cooperation and advance collective well being; they should be designed (and occasionally redesigned) with that in mind.
  6. Fear, dogma, superstition, blind faith, wishful thinking, supernatural “explanations,” and tribal or ideological loyalties should all be avoided, for they tend to close minds, block understanding, and de-motivate the critical inquiry necessary for scientific and moral progress.

Andy Norman teaches philosophy at Carnegie Melon University and received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. His work has appeared in Free Inquiry, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, and dozens of journals. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife of 20 years, two fascinating kids, and a dog that couldn’t care less about Frisbees.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Better and Better : An Interview with Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler : Sam Harris

A great read for a bit of optimism!

Better and Better : An Interview with Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler : Sam Harris

Pain Without Gain

February 19, 2012


Last week the European Commission confirmed what everyone suspected: the economies it surveys are shrinking, not growing. It’s not an official recession yet, but the only real question is how deep the downturn will be.

And this downturn is hitting nations that have never recovered from the last recession. For all America’s troubles, its gross domestic product has finally surpassed its pre-crisis peak; Europe’s has not. And some nations are suffering Great Depression-level pain: Greece and Ireland have had double-digit declines in output, Spain has 23 percent unemployment, Britain’s slump has now gone on longer than its slump in the 1930s.

Worse yet, European leaders — and quite a few influential players here — are still wedded to the economic doctrine responsible for this disaster.

For things didn’t have to be this bad. Greece would have been in deep trouble no matter what policy decisions were taken, and the same is true, to a lesser extent, of other nations around Europe’s periphery. But matters were made far worse than necessary by the way Europe’s leaders, and more broadly its policy elite, substituted moralizing for analysis, fantasies for the lessons of history.

Specifically, in early 2010 austerity economics — the insistence that governments should slash spending even in the face of high unemployment — became all the rage in European capitals. The doctrine asserted that the direct negative effects of spending cuts on employment would be offset by changes in “confidence,” that savage spending cuts would lead to a surge in consumer and business spending, while nations failing to make such cuts would see capital flight and soaring interest rates. If this sounds to you like something Herbert Hoover might have said, you’re right: It does and he did.

Now the results are in — and they’re exactly what three generations’ worth of economic analysis and all the lessons of history should have told you would happen. The confidence fairy has failed to show up: none of the countries slashing spending have seen the predicted private-sector surge. Instead, the depressing effects of fiscal austerity have been reinforced by falling private spending.

Furthermore, bond markets keep refusing to cooperate. Even austerity’s star pupils, countries that, like Portugal and Ireland, have done everything that was demanded of them, still face sky-high borrowing costs. Why? Because spending cuts have deeply depressed their economies, undermining their tax bases to such an extent that the ratio of debt to G.D.P., the standard indicator of fiscal progress, is getting worse rather than better.

Meanwhile, countries that didn’t jump on the austerity train — most notably, Japan and the United States — continue to have very low borrowing costs, defying the dire predictions of fiscal hawks.

Now, not everything has gone wrong. Late last year Spanish and Italian borrowing costs shot up, threatening a general financial meltdown. Those costs have now subsided, amid general sighs of relief. But this good news was actually a triumph of anti-austerity: Mario Draghi, the new president of the European Central Bank, brushed aside the inflation-worriers and engineered a large expansion of credit, which was just what the doctor ordered.

So what will it take to convince the Pain Caucus, the people on both sides of the Atlantic who insist that we can cut our way to prosperity, that they are wrong?

After all, the usual suspects were quick to pronounce the idea of fiscal stimulus dead for all time after President Obama’s efforts failed to produce a quick fall in unemployment — even though many economists warned in advance that the stimulus was too small. Yet as far as I can tell, austerity is still considered responsible and necessary despite its catastrophic failure in practice.

The point is that we could actually do a lot to help our economies simply by reversing the destructive austerity of the last two years. That’s true even in America, which has avoided full-fledged austerity at the federal level but has seen big spending and employment cuts at the state and local level. Remember all the fuss about whether there were enough “shovel ready” projects to make large-scale stimulus feasible? Well, never mind: all the federal government needs to do to give the economy a big boost is provide aid to lower-level governments, allowing these governments to rehire the hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers they have laid off and restart the building and maintenance projects they have canceled.

Look, I understand why influential people are reluctant to admit that policy ideas they thought reflected deep wisdom actually amounted to utter, destructive folly. But it’s time to put delusional beliefs about the virtues of austerity in a depressed economy behind us.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Life Without God

A Column by Sam Harris
An Interview with Tim Prowse

Without God Sam Harris

(Photo by H.koppdelaney)

Tim Prowse was a United Methodist pastor for almost 20 years, serving churches in Missouri and Indiana. Tim earned a B.A. from East Texas Baptist University, a Master of Divinity (M.Div) from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, and a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) from Chicago Theological Seminary. Acknowledging his unbelief, Tim left his faith and career in 2011. He currently lives in Indiana. He was kind enough to discuss his experience of leaving the ministry with me by email.


Can you describe the process by which you lost your belief in the teachings of your Church?

An interesting thing happened while I was studying at East Texas Baptist University: I was told not to read Rudolf Bultmann. I asked myself: Why? What were they protecting me from? I picked up Bultmann’s work, and that decision is the catalyst that ultimately paved the road to today. Throughout my educational journey, which culminated in an Ordination from the United Methodist Church where I’ve served for seventeen years, I’ve continued to ask the question “Why?”

Ironically, it was seminary that inaugurated my leap of unfaith.  It was so much easier to believe when living in an uncritical, unquestioning, naïve state.  Seminary training with its demands for rigorous and intentional study and reflection coupled with its values of reason and critical inquiry began to undermine my naïveté.  I discovered theologians, philosophers and authors I never knew existed.  I found their questions stimulating but their answers often unsatisfying. For example, the Bible is rife with vileness evidenced by stories of sexual exploitation, mass murder and arbitrary mayhem.  How do we harmonize this fact with the conception of an all-loving, all-knowing God? While many have undertaken to answer this question even in erudite fashion, I found their answers lacking. Once I concluded that the Bible was a thoroughly human product and the God it purports does not exist, other church teachings, such as communion and baptism, unraveled rather quickly.  To quote Nietzsche, I was seeing through a different “perspective” – a perspective based on critical thinking, reason and deduction.  By honing these skills over time, reason and critical thinking became my primary tools and faith quickly diminished. Ultimately, these tools led to the undoing of my faith rather than the strengthening of it.

It sounds like you lost your faith in the process of becoming a minister—or did you go back and forth for some years? How long did you serve as a minister, and how much of this time was spent riven by doubt?

I didn’t lose faith entirely during the ministerial process, although a simmering struggle between faith and doubt was clearly evident.  This simmering would boil occasionally throughout my seventeen-year career, but any vacillations I experienced were easily suppressed, and faith would triumph, albeit, for non-religious reasons.  Besides the money, time, and energy I had invested during the process, familial responsibilities deterred any decisions to alter course.  These faithful triumphs were ephemeral and I found myself living in constant intellectual and emotional turmoil. By not repudiating my career, I could not escape the feeling I was living a lie. I continued to juggle this stressful dichotomy to the point of being totally miserable. Only recently have I succumbed to the doubt that has always undergirded my faith journey.

After I read your book, The End of Faith, I could no longer suppress my unbelief.  Since I’d never felt comfortable in clergy garb and refused to accept a first-century worldview, your book helped me see that religion could no longer be an instrument of meaning in my life. I’m sad to say, Sam, this conclusion did not result in an immediate career change.  I didn’t break from the church immediately, but rather feigned belief for two more years.

If you could go back in time and reason with your former self, what could you say that might have broken the spell sooner?

I would tell myself to ask questions, to read the text, to wonder, to explore the nuances, to take seriously my intuition and abilities to debate.  I’d tell myself to listen to what is actually being said with critical and reasoning ears.  I’d tell myself to substitute “Invisible Friend” for “God” every time I encountered the word and notice how ridiculous the rhetoric sounds from grown-ups. I would challenge myself to be more skeptical, to study science.  I’d tell myself to find joy in life – it’s the only one you are going to get – don’t waste a second.

Believers often allege that there is a deep connection between faith and morality. For instance, when I debated Rick Warren, he said that if he did not believe in God, he wouldn’t have any reason to behave ethically. You’ve lived on both sides of the faith continuum. I’m wondering if you felt any associated change in your morality, for better or worse.

I’d be interested to know what behaviors or impulses God is deterring Rick Warren from acting upon. I doubt very seriously if “God’s goodness” evaporated tomorrow, Warren would begin robbing banks, raping children, or murdering his neighbors!  These types of statements, while common, are fallacious in my opinion.  When Rick Warren uses God as his reason for being good, he is not using God in a general sense.  He isn’t referring to Thor, Neptune, or Isis, either.

One can find a few biblical passages that do promote “goodness” to use Rick Warren’s term, but only by cherry picking them and avoiding the numerous passages that are appalling, offensive and destructive.

Since God is nothing more than our creation and projection, any talk of God is our reflection looking back at us.  Hence, our morality begins with us anyway. My morality hasn’t changed for the worse since I left the faith.  If anything, it is much more honest because I am forced to consider what is really going on in ethical decisions.  Family, culture, beliefs and values, genetic tendencies, all play a role in shaping morality, but I’m not arguing an extreme relativism.  While I do give credence to certain cultural influences on determining right and wrong, I believe that some issues are universal.  Which is why, unless Rick Warren is truly demented, he wouldn’t begin doing heinous acts if his faith evaporated tomorrow, and if he did, it would be more the result of mental illness than lack of faith.

Did you ever discuss your doubts with your fellow clergy or parishioners? Did you encounter other ministers who shared your predicament (some can be found at And what happened when you finally expressed your unbelief to others?

As an active minister, I did not discuss my atheism with colleagues or parishioners. Facing lost wages, housing and benefits, I chose to remain silent.  However, I did confide in my wife who provided a level of trust, understanding, and support that proved invaluable. Unfortunately, some ministers do not enjoy mature confidants.  Some have lost marriages and partners, friends and family, leaving them with feelings of isolation and abandonment.  Hence, many continue living in estrangement, uncertain where to turn or who to trust, waiting for their lives to be completely upended when the truth finally is discovered.

This is why the Clergy Project is so important.  It provides an invaluable resource of support for current and former clergy who are atheists.  It is a safe and anonymous place to discuss the issues atheist clergy encounter while providing encouragement and support that is genuine and heartfelt. It greatly eases the desperation and uncertainty of where to turn or who to trust!  I’ve been a member of the Clergy Project since July 2011, and it prepared me well for the responses to expect from friends and family during my post-clergy conversations. So far, I have not been surprised by the responses I’ve received nor have I lost any significant relationships due to my professed atheism, but time will tell.

It is nice to hear that your exit from the ministry has been comparatively smooth. What will you do next?

Repudiating my ordination and leaving faith behind was much smoother than I had anticipated.  Ironically, something I had worked years to accomplish ended in a matter of minutes.  When I slid my ordination certificates across a Bob Evan’s tabletop to my District Superintendent, I was greatly relieved.  The lie was over.  I was free.  This freedom does not come without consternation, however.

Fortunately, a dear friend helped my family by offering their second home to rent at a very reasonable price.  Another dear friend has procured a sales job for me in her company.  While housing and employment have been provided in the short term, long term my future is much more uncertain.  Ideally, I’d love to write and lecture on my experiences; especially concerning the negative impacts faith and church have on individuals and societies. I’d love to write a novel.

I do not have visions of grandeur, however.  If the rest of my life is spent just being a regular “Joe” that will be fine by me.  I have a wonderful family and a few good friends.  My heart and mind are at ease.  I’m healthier now than I’ve been in years and tomorrow looks bright.  For the first time in my life, I’m living. Truly living, Sam.

Moochers Against Welfare

Here’s one for my conservative ‘friends’ (I use the phrase very guardedly!).  But I warn you, it requires some actual thought…

February 16, 2012


First, Atlas shrugged. Then he scratched his head in puzzlement.

Modern Republicans are very, very conservative; you might even (if you were Mitt Romney) say, severely conservative. Political scientists who use Congressional votes to measure such things find that the current G.O.P. majority is the most conservative since 1879, which is as far back as their estimates go.

And what these severe conservatives hate, above all, is reliance on government programs. Rick Santorum declares that President Obama is getting America hooked on “the narcotic of dependency.” Mr. Romney warns that government programs “foster passivity and sloth.” Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, requires that staffers read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” in which heroic capitalists struggle against the “moochers” trying to steal their totally deserved wealth, a struggle the heroes win by withdrawing their productive effort and giving interminable speeches.

Many readers of The Times were, therefore, surprised to learn, from an excellent article published last weekend, that the regions of America most hooked on Mr. Santorum’s narcotic — the regions in which government programs account for the largest share of personal income — are precisely the regions electing those severe conservatives. Wasn’t Red America supposed to be the land of traditional values, where people don’t eat Thai food and don’t rely on handouts?

The article made its case with maps showing the distribution of dependency, but you get the same story from a more formal comparison. Aaron Carroll of Indiana University tells us that in 2010, residents of the 10 states Gallup ranks as “most conservative” received 21.2 percent of their income in government transfers, while the number for the 10 most liberal states was only 17.1 percent.

Now, there’s no mystery about red-state reliance on government programs. These states are relatively poor, which means both that people have fewer sources of income other than safety-net programs and that more of them qualify for “means-tested” programs such as Medicaid.

By the way, the same logic explains why there has been a jump in dependency since 2008. Contrary to what Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney suggest, Mr. Obama has not radically expanded the safety net. Rather, the dire state of the economy has reduced incomes and made more people eligible for benefits, especially unemployment benefits. Basically, the safety net is the same, but more people are falling into it.

But why do regions that rely on the safety net elect politicians who want to tear it down? I’ve seen three main explanations.

First, there is Thomas Frank’s thesis in his book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”: working-class Americans are induced to vote against their own interests by the G.O.P.’s exploitation of social issues. And it’s true that, for example, Americans who regularly attend church are much more likely to vote Republican, at any given level of income, than those who don’t.

Still, as Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman points out, the really striking red-blue voting divide is among the affluent: High-income residents of red states are overwhelmingly Republican; high-income residents of blue states only mildly more Republican than their poorer neighbors. Like Mr. Frank, Mr. Gelman invokes social issues, but in the opposite direction. Affluent voters in the Northeast tend to be social liberals who would benefit from tax cuts but are repelled by things like the G.O.P.’s war on contraception.

Finally, Cornell University’s Suzanne Mettler points out that many beneficiaries of government programs seem confused about their own place in the system. She tells us that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say that they “have not used a government program.”

Presumably, then, voters imagine that pledges to slash government spending mean cutting programs for the idle poor, not things they themselves count on. And this is a confusion politicians deliberately encourage. For example, when Mr. Romney responded to the new Obama budget, he condemned Mr. Obama for not taking on entitlement spending — and, in the very next breath, attacked him for cutting Medicare.

The truth, of course, is that the vast bulk of entitlement spending goes to the elderly, the disabled, and working families, so any significant cuts would have to fall largely on people who believe that they don’t use any government program.

The message I take from all this is that pundits who describe America as a fundamentally conservative country are wrong. Yes, voters sent some severe conservatives to Washington. But those voters would be both shocked and angry if such politicians actually imposed their small-government agenda.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Severe Conservative Syndrome

February 12, 2012


Mitt Romney has a gift for words — self-destructive words. On Friday he did it again, telling the Conservative Political Action Conference that he was a “severely conservative governor.”

As Molly Ball of The Atlantic pointed out, Mr. Romney “described conservatism as if it were a disease.” Indeed. Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, provided a list of words that most commonly follow the adverb “severely”; the top five, in frequency of use, are disabled, depressed, ill, limited and injured.

That’s clearly not what Mr. Romney meant to convey. Yet if you look at the race for the G.O.P. presidential nomination, you have to wonder whether it was a Freudian slip. For something has clearly gone very wrong with modern American conservatism.

Start with Rick Santorum, who, according to Public Policy Polling, is the clear current favorite among usual Republican primary voters, running 15 points ahead of Mr. Romney. Anyone with an Internet connection is aware that Mr. Santorum is best known for 2003 remarks about homosexuality, incest and bestiality. But his strangeness runs deeper than that.

For example, last year Mr. Santorum made a point of defending the medieval Crusades against the “American left who hates Christendom.” Historical issues aside (hey, what are a few massacres of infidels and Jews among friends?), what was this doing in a 21st-century campaign?

Nor is this only about sex and religion: he has also declared that climate change is a hoax, part of a “beautifully concocted scheme” on the part of “the left” to provide “an excuse for more government control of your life.” You may say that such conspiracy-theorizing is hardly unique to Mr. Santorum, but that’s the point: tinfoil hats have become a common, if not mandatory, G.O.P. fashion accessory.

Then there’s Ron Paul, who came in a strong second in Maine’s caucuses despite widespread publicity over such matters as the racist (and conspiracy-minded) newsletters published under his name in the 1990s and his declarations that both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act were mistakes. Clearly, a large segment of his party’s base is comfortable with views one might have thought were on the extreme fringe.

Finally, there’s Mr. Romney, who will probably get the nomination despite his evident failure to make an emotional connection with, well, anyone. The truth, of course, is that he was not a “severely conservative” governor. His signature achievement was a health reform identical in all important respects to the national reform signed into law by President Obama four years later. And in a rational political world, his campaign would be centered on that achievement.

But Mr. Romney is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, and whatever his personal beliefs may really be — if, indeed, he believes anything other than that he should be president — he needs to win over primary voters who really are severely conservative in both his intended and unintended senses.

So he can’t run on his record in office. Nor was he trying very hard to run on his business career even before people began asking hard (and appropriate) questions about the nature of that career.

Instead, his stump speeches rely almost entirely on fantasies and fabrications designed to appeal to the delusions of the conservative base. No, President Obama isn’t someone who “began his presidency by apologizing for America,” as Mr. Romney declared, yet again, a week ago. But this “Four-Pinocchio Falsehood,” as the Washington Post Fact Checker puts it, is at the heart of the Romney campaign.

How did American conservatism end up so detached from, indeed at odds with, facts and rationality? For it was not always thus. After all, that health reform Mr. Romney wants us to forget followed a blueprint originally laid out at the Heritage Foundation!

My short answer is that the long-running con game of economic conservatives and the wealthy supporters they serve finally went bad. For decades the G.O.P. has won elections by appealing to social and racial divisions, only to turn after each victory to deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy — a process that reached its epitome when George W. Bush won re-election by posing as America’s defender against gay married terrorists, then announced that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security.

Over time, however, this strategy created a base that really believed in all the hokum — and now the party elite has lost control.

The point is that today’s dismal G.O.P. field — is there anyone who doesn’t consider it dismal? — is no accident. Economic conservatives played a cynical game, and now they’re facing the blowback, a party that suffers from “severe” conservatism in the worst way. And the malady may take many years to cure.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What Nonbelievers Believe

By David Niose

Created Feb 8 2012 - 5:53am

So strong is the concept of God-belief in our culture that the words "believer" and "nonbeliever" are understood as referring to only one thing: belief in a divinity. This can lead to some distorted thinking, such as the idea that "atheists don't believe in anything," a notion echoed even by high-profile politicians who should know better, such as Senator John Kerry. If this is conventional wisdom, it's little wonder that disbelief is often associated, incorrectly, with nihilism and moral breakdown.

This is one reason why the modern secular movement has become increasingly assertive in emphasizing what ordinary nonbelievers do believe. Typical secular views are rooted not in complex philosophy but common sense, and when they are fairly considered - without misguided prejudices - we find that they are neither extreme nor dangerous.

As I've interacted with secular individuals from all over the country in recent years - not just the scientists and professors, but the non-academics who are less likely to over-intellectualize - I've found that they disagree on more than they agree. This is a huge demographic with wide-ranging opinions on politics, economics, and other issues. Still, overall, they tend to be well informed, and they generally agree on certain basic facts beyond their disbelief in divinities. Here are some of the views most commonly shared across the nonbeliever spectrum:

Everything since the Big Bang can be explained naturally

Typical nonbelievers know that scientists are pretty sure that the universe began almost 14 billion years ago with what has come to be called the Big Bang. They know that knowledge gained through science gives us a general understanding of how the galaxies, stars, and planets subsequently formed, and how life evolved on Earth from microscopic replicators to more complex organisms, all the way to the wide variety of species that we see today. Every gap in knowledge has not been explained by science but, as noted by Jodi Foster among many others, enough gaps have been sufficiently filled that we can reasonably infer that the entire chronology - from the Big Bang to the rise of humanity on this obscure planet - can be explained without resorting to supernatural phenomena. If so, this means that there is no need for a God to explain anything that has happened since the Big Bang.

We can only speculate about what "caused" the Big Bang

Maybe that's true, your Sunday school teacher might argue, but surely the Big Bang itself (or whatever else "caused" the universe to come into existence) must have necessitated a God, right? This speculation, however, is based on not even a shred of evidence, and reflects very human biases about causation. (That is, since we are thinking beings that can create things, we assume that the universe itself must have been created by a thinking being.)

The believer, awestruck by the grandiosity of the universe and the puzzle of origins, will insist that "there must be something." To this, the nonbeliever will agree - yes, there must be something. But to nonbelievers, that something equates to explanations that have not yet been discovered. The difference between believers and nonbelievers is that the former insist that the "something" must be defined as a being with intent, or at least a mysterious "higher power." The nonbeliever, on the other hand, takes a more humble position, simply conceding that these questions cannot be answered based on current limits on knowledge.

Ethics do not require a God

The idea that religious belief is synonymous with morality, or at least that it correlates to a more ethical worldview, is still promoted by religious leaders, but is demonstrably untrue. As Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College notes in this article, studies consistently show that more secular societies have lower violent crime rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, and higher rates of education. This is true internationally, when we compare the more secular nations of Europe to more religious societies like the United States, as well as within this country, when we compare the more religious states to the more secular. In any analysis, the more secular democracies produce the most socially desirable outcomes. To conclude that people are good because they fear eternal punishment or seek eternal rewards is to overlook the mountains of data that show that what we call "ethical" behavior - traits like empathy and compassion, for example - is innate in many animals.

Religion is man-made

If we sit back and consider religion objectively, we can understand how and why it came into being. Those interested in this area might find Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which delves into great detail on the subject, a worthwhile read. The trait of assuming agency for natural phenomena is found in many animals, for example, and the development of myths can be seen as a useful tool for an extremely intelligent social animal. As humans organized into more complex societies, it is not at all surprising that religion became institutionalized as part of the power structure of those societies. None of this, of course, validates the truth claims asserted by any religion, but it explains why theology has been part of the human chronology for millennia.

The God of the Bible is especially implausible

Even if we accept, for the sake of discussion, the unsupported assumption that the world was set in motion by a thinking being of some kind, nonbelievers find the idea that this Supreme Being would judge us based on our believing in "Him" implausible. Having given usintelligence and sufficient reasons to justify religious skepticism, this divinity would have to be sickeningly cruel to thereby punish us for reaching doubtful conclusions about "His" existence. Even most believers would agree that, based on the evidence, a position of disbelief is not unreasonable. Yet we are to conclude that the Grand Deity would condemn us to eternal punishment merely for skepticism? Most enlightened societies today encourage attitudes that see real-world ethics as being more important than mere belief. Although this approach would seem sensible even to most believers, it nevertheless runs contrary to the biblical concept that salvation is impossible without faith.

The idea of prophecy is even less plausible than a God

Indeed, holy texts in general are troubling to nonbelievers. Most holy books - the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc. - exist because religious leaders insist that the authors of those texts are legitimate prophets who received direct communications from God. If a modern person claims to hear voices from God, we immediately conclude that mental illness must be involved, yet the idea that ancient men were communicating with God is perfectly acceptable to the major religions. Revelation-based religion - whether the revelations were directed to the prophets of the Old Testament, Paul of Tarsus, Muhammad, or Joseph Smith - is simply unacceptable to nonbelievers. We may be uncertain about what, if anything, caused the Big Bang, but the illegitimacy of so-called prophets seems clear, a matter of common sense.

Only humans can solve human challenges

            And unfortunately, this is often a radical idea in modern America.

Money and Morals

February 9, 2012


Lately inequality has re-entered the national conversation. Occupy Wall Street gave the issue visibility, while the Congressional Budget Office supplied hard data on the widening income gap. And the myth of a classless society has been exposed: Among rich countries, America stands out as the place where economic and social status is most likely to be inherited.

So you knew what was going to happen next. Suddenly, conservatives are telling us that it’s not really about money; it’s about morals. Never mind wage stagnation and all that, the real problem is the collapse of working-class family values, which is somehow the fault of liberals.

But is it really all about morals? No, it’s mainly about money.

To be fair, the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback, Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” does highlight some striking trends. Among white Americans with a high school education or less, marriage rates and male labor force participation are down, while births out of wedlock are up. Clearly, white working-class society has changed in ways that don’t sound good.

But the first question one should ask is: Are things really that bad on the values front?

Mr. Murray and other conservatives often seem to assume that the decline of the traditional family has terrible implications for society as a whole. This is, of course, a longstanding position. Reading Mr. Murray, I found myself thinking about an earlier diatribe, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 1996 book, “The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values,” which covered much of the same ground, claimed that our society was unraveling and predicted further unraveling as the Victorian virtues continued to erode.

Yet the truth is that some indicators of social dysfunction have improved dramatically even as traditional families continue to lose ground. As far as I can tell, Mr. Murray never mentions either the plunge in teenage pregnancies among all racial groups since 1990 or the 60 percent decline in violent crime since the mid-90s. Could it be that traditional families aren’t as crucial to social cohesion as advertised?

Still, something is clearly happening to the traditional working-class family. The question is what. And it is, frankly, amazing how quickly and blithely conservatives dismiss the seemingly obvious answer: A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.

Most of the numbers you see about income trends in America focus on households rather than individuals, which makes sense for some purposes. But when you see a modest rise in incomes for the lower tiers of the income distribution, you have to realize that all — yes, all — of this rise comes from the women, both because more women are in the paid labor force and because women’s wages aren’t as much below male wages as they used to be.

For lower-education working men, however, it has been all negative. Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.

So we have become a society in which less-educated men have great difficulty finding jobs with decent wages and good benefits. Yet somehow we’re supposed to be surprised that such men have become less likely to participate in the work force or get married, and conclude that there must have been some mysterious moral collapse caused by snooty liberals. And Mr. Murray also tells us that working-class marriages, when they do happen, have become less happy; strange to say, money problems will do that.

One more thought: The real winner in this controversy is the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson.

Back in 1996, the same year Ms. Himmelfarb was lamenting our moral collapse, Mr. Wilson published “When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor,” in which he argued that much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. If he was right, you would expect something similar to happen if another social group — say, working-class whites — experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.

So we should reject the attempt to divert the national conversation away from soaring inequality toward the alleged moral failings of those Americans being left behind. Traditional values aren’t as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe — and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America’s working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Romney Isn’t Concerned

February 2, 2012


If you’re an American down on your luck, Mitt Romney has a message for you: He doesn’t feel your pain. Earlier this week, Mr. Romney told a startled CNN interviewer, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.”

Faced with criticism, the candidate has claimed that he didn’t mean what he seemed to mean, and that his words were taken out of context. But he quite clearly did mean what he said. And the more context you give to his statement, the worse it gets.

First of all, just a few days ago, Mr. Romney was denying that the very programs he now says take care of the poor actually provide any significant help. On Jan. 22, he asserted that safety-net programs — yes, he specifically used that term — have “massive overhead,” and that because of the cost of a huge bureaucracy “very little of the money that’s actually needed by those that really need help, those that can’t care for themselves, actually reaches them.”

This claim, like much of what Mr. Romney says, was completely false: U.S. poverty programs have nothing like as much bureaucracy and overhead as, say, private health insurance companies. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has documented, between 90 percent and 99 percent of the dollars allocated to safety-net programs do, in fact, reach the beneficiaries. But the dishonesty of his initial claim aside, how could a candidate declare that safety-net programs do no good and declare only 10 days later that those programs take such good care of the poor that he feels no concern for their welfare?

Also, given this whopper about how safety-net programs actually work, how credible was Mr. Romney’s assertion, after expressing his lack of concern about the poor, that if the safety net needs a repair, “I’ll fix it”?

Now, the truth is that the safety net does need repair. It provides a lot of help to the poor, but not enough. Medicaid, for example, provides essential health care to millions of unlucky citizens, children especially, but many people still fall through the cracks: among Americans with annual incomes under $25,000, more than a quarter — 28.7 percent — don’t have any kind of health insurance. And, no, they can’t make up for that lack of coverage by going to emergency rooms.

Similarly, food aid programs help a lot, but one in six Americans living below the poverty line suffers from “low food security.” This is officially defined as involving situations in which “food intake was reduced at times during the year because [households] had insufficient money or other resources for food” — in other words, hunger.

So we do need to strengthen our safety net. Mr. Romney, however, wants to make the safety net weaker instead.

Specifically, the candidate has endorsed Representative Paul Ryan’s plan for drastic cuts in federal spending — with almost two-thirds of the proposed spending cuts coming at the expense of low-income Americans. To the extent that Mr. Romney has differentiated his position from the Ryan plan, it is in the direction of even harsher cuts for the poor; his Medicaid proposal appears to involve a 40 percent reduction in financing compared with current law.

So Mr. Romney’s position seems to be that we need not worry about the poor thanks to programs that he insists, falsely, don’t actually help the needy, and which he intends, in any case, to destroy.

Still, I believe Mr. Romney when he says he isn’t concerned about the poor. What I don’t believe is his assertion that he’s equally unconcerned about the rich, who are “doing fine.” After all, if that’s what he really feels, why does he propose showering them with money?

And we’re talking about a lot of money. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Mr. Romney’s tax plan would actually raise taxes on many lower-income Americans, while sharply cutting taxes at the top end. More than 80 percent of the tax cuts would go to people making more than $200,000 a year, almost half to those making more than $1 million a year, with the average member of the million-plus club getting a $145,000 tax break.

And these big tax breaks would create a big budget hole, increasing the deficit by $180 billion a year — and making those draconian cuts in safety-net programs necessary.

Which brings us back to Mr. Romney’s lack of concern. You can say this for the former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital executive: He is opening up new frontiers in American politics. Even conservative politicians used to find it necessary to pretend that they cared about the poor. Remember “compassionate conservatism”? Mr. Romney has, however, done away with that pretense.

At this rate, we may soon have politicians who admit what has been obvious all along: that they don’t care about the middle class either, that they aren’t concerned about the lives of ordinary Americans, and never were.