Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tuesday Is Recycling Day

Because this quickie piece from late 2008 actually spells out in a more articulate manner what I was kind of getting at with the Sunday Sacrilege "prank" post from a couple of days ago.

"Citizen Dicks" (Originally Published, 12.8.08)

I'm sure I'll get a couple of good solid eye rolls from people who accuse me of going out of the way to drag my favorite quixotic windmill into this debate, but bear with me.

The Supreme Court has just shot down an emergency appeal filed by a New Jersey man who claims that -- and stop me if you've heard this one before -- Barack Obama can't be president because he's not a U.S. citizen.

The court, wisely, didn't even bother to comment on its decision or the case in general -- it just threw the whole damn thing out.

Although no one in their right mind expected the suit to survive its date with the high court, the fact that it made it as far as it did is mind-boggling. For months now, the least in touch with reality among the far right have been propagating the rumor (and it's never been anything more than a rumor) that Obama's birth certificate is invalid and he actually holds a foreign citizenship. In response, several credible and non-partisan sources -- most noteworthy, the Annenberg Political Fact Check -- have investigated the claim and found that it's utterly without merit. Obama's birth certificate and citizenship are completely in order and any claim to the contrary is flat-out nonsense.

But has this absolute confirmation of the facts and denunciation of conspiracist wishful thinking stopped the far right nutballs from repeating the lie over and over again in the hopes of making it true?

Of course not.

While the New Jersey case has been blown out of the water, there remains another appeal still out there -- this one from a Philadelphia man who makes the same dubious assertion: that Barack Obama can't be president and shadowy forces within the government and media are (successfully) covering it up.

It seems incomprehensible that someone can be almost literally hit over the head with the facts and yet still hold to a conviction which stands in direct opposition to them. There's a word for that sort of thing: insanity.

Yet we as a culture not only allow this kind of bullshit thinking to often go unchecked, we actually condone it -- as long as it's called by a more socially palatable name. Like, say, "religious belief."

Whenever anyone asks me what my objection is to having personal faith in the idea of a benevolent god -- what's the harm, even in the absence of hard evidence -- my answer is always the same: Because we don't apply that same lax standard of proof in any other facet of our daily lives. Believing in something wholeheartedly while demanding no tangible evidence to back it up is -- unless you're schizophrenic -- strictly the domain of religion. We live in a world in which it's been deemed completely normal for a person to buy into the most outlandish set of assumptions without asking for concrete evidence -- while every other part of his or her life is still expected to abide by the rule of reason.

The problem with this notion is that if one element of our lives is immune to logic, then logic itself holds no real value. If we arbitrarily choose to apply it to one thing but not another then what power does it have?

I've said it before but it bears repeating: the truth matters.

It matters because it's the yardstick by which we measure our common reality. Without an agreed upon set of facts to provide a foundation for our experience -- as well as a method for ascertaining them -- society itself would be in danger of collapse. There are some things we simply have to accept as true or false. And the only way to differentiate between the two is to apply the same burden of proof across the board.

Wishful thinking isn't enough to make God real.

The same way it's not enough to make Barack Obama a foreigner.


DXM: The Speed of Lies/8.28.08


Le Penseur said...

This sort of writing is the reason why I stop by this site several times a day.

Anonymous said...

OH! Now it all makes sense. Thank you for your wonderful insight. I suppose the Big Bang Theory or any other physicist theory can be explained by something other a higher power that created the initial energy? But then again, you're speaking more about the church and right-wing extremists than the general idea of a higher power, no?

I'd hate to use reasoning when it comes to a higher power. That'd only be logical.

Chez said...

Are you really making the shockingly huge leap of logic from "Well, the Big Bang had to come from somewhere," to "OBVIOUSLY, some omnipotent being was the cause of it -- I mean that only makes sense?"

Are you seriously doing that?

Because if so I don't even need to say another word since your logic is inherently flawed from the start.

To answer your question, though, you can actually use reasoning in discussing a "higher power" -- but when you do you'll find that you lose. That's exactly why belief in a god is based on faith -- because it can't be based on anything else.

Deacon Blue said...

I think the problem here is that we have to stop elevating intellect to being the be-all-end-all and have to stop relegating faith to some dark corner where you put a dunce cap on someone. (Likewise, those on the other end need to stop elevating faith as the answer to everything and must stop denigrating critical thinking.)

Because the fact is, science requires a significant (though not overwhelming) amount of faith. Can't account for 90% of the matter in the universe? Well, let's create the theory of "dark matter" and start looking for that. Except that before long, because it answers the holes in your other theories, dark matter moves from being theory to being accepted as "probably the truth." And so people behave as if it exists, even though it hasn't been demonstrated. It might actually exist. But it's faith elevated to truth.

That's the way science works at times.

Likewise, faith can have a significant (though not overwhelming) rational/intellectual component. Again, it isn't the primary driver, but it does have a place, and one can speak intellectually and rationally about spirituality, even if it cannot be "proved."

To try to say that the two are always mutually exclusive (faith and reason) is a fallacy. They do overlap at times and it is absolutely necessary that they do.

Norm said...

@Chez Personally, I just think that it can be extremely healthy to look at a higher power. I am not defending the republican rhetoric and the sit-on-my-high-horse antics that come from churches that are used in politics. I think people that are sticking to biblical creationism are a little extreme, but to beat up on a higher power just seems "illogical" as you put it. Personally, I think it is more plausible that this earth we live on has a design behind it than a chaos of math and forces and particles that just so happened to work themselves out into an amazing abundance of dynamic life after countless years. I mean, you will really sit there and say that? I mean, touche if you can. To say I'm illogical for walking down to the park and seeing a design behind the wind and the trees and water and all the animals, that seems ridiculous.

I'm not promoting Christianity, but I am promoting a higher power. If you want to have problems with Christianity, which I think is the main battle you are trying to fight, at least you can have a substantial argument about the bible being illogical and containing flaw after flaw about the history of this planet (not even factoring in moral flaws).

Chez said...

Fair points all, Norm. And I totally get what you're saying. I do admit that I like Bill Maher's take on the question of whether there's no higher power at all in the universe: The only intellectually honest answer is, "I don't know -- and neither can anyone else with absolute certainty."

Liz said...


While I appreciate much of your writing, and am as offended as you are by the religious nutsos in this country, I have to say that for you to say that there's no rational evidence for God shows that you haven't actually done an investigation.

You've let your own bias guide your thinking, and made assumptions without backing them up with evidence.

Do I think there are many things wrong with organized religion today? YES! But to say there's no facts or evidence that support God's existence is just like saying there's no facts or evidence to support Barack Obama's citizenship.

If you were there when he was born, then you know for sure that he was born in Hawaii, as indicated. But if you weren't there, then you rely on the evidence, such as the birth certificate, the implausibility of a plot to present him as a citizen long before anyone knew he would run for president, etc. You use that evidence to rule it's extremely improbable that he's anything except a bona fide U.S. citizen.

You can do the same thing to draw conclusions about God. In fact, many athiests have done so over the years, and after trying to disprove God's existence, realizing that the more logical conclusion is that God does in fact exist, and that if he does, they'd better believe in him.

That's how we ended up with books like "Is God a Delusion?" and "The case for God." If you want to make statements about religion being bunk, at least examine the evidence first.

(I'm an analyst by trade. I'm also a Christian.)

Chez said...

You're joking, right, Liz? There's no verifiable "evidence" whatsoever -- at least not the kind you generally apply in every other facet of your everyday life.

And please, spare me Pascal's Wager. It's a ridiculous conceit.

Liz said...

Actually, Chez, not joking at all. Have you actually researched the subject from an evidentiary perspective?

It was not my intention to pose Pascal's wager. I don't actually believe people should believe in God as a "best case" scenario. I was just stating the facts of what had happened to several atheists who started researching the evidence for God's existence (generally to disprove it to a love done) and ended up becoming Christians.

Do you have any knowledge of how scientific conclusions are drawn? They're generally not based on conclusive proof, but a series of hypotheses that, based on the observable evidence, are more plausible than the null hypothesis.

Many of the scientific truths we accept are not conclusively proven, but just hypotheses that are considered extremely likely.

So I ask you, where's the conclusive evidentiary proof for atheism? Can you conclusively prove that God doesn't exist? And how then do you explain the well-documented historical accounts of Jesus?

Rather than just laughing at me and rejecting what I'm saying without any evidence to the contrary, why not actually look at some of the other evidence-based research on the topic? Otherwise, aren't you a hypocrite for saying I believe in God without evidence that he exists when you have no evidence to support your belief that God does not exist?

Chez said...

Um, wow. Listen, Liz -- you seem like a really nice person and I honestly do appreciate you reading. I mean that. But trust me when I tell you I've spent the last decade or so reading up on every angle of this debate -- to say nothing of being raised Catholic to the point where I can quote you chapter and verse of the Bible if need be. Sorry, but it's ludicrous to say that there's actual proof that God exists -- or that Jesus was divine. Excuse me if I don't run down all the logical fallacies most Christians employ in an effort to bolster their belief in God when challenged by those who subscribe strictly to notions like burden-of-proof and so on -- but I get the impression that you really hold firm to what you're saying and therefore there's nothing I could tell you that would convince you otherwise. If you say you believe in God because you have faith, then hey, I can't argue with you -- you're bulletproof. But to claim that evidence points to the existence of God is just ridiculous. It doesn't. Not one bit. It's just wishful thinking on your part.

Liz said...

Well, thanks for saying I seem like a nice person, even if it did come off as being a little condescending. Nice is not a word people use to describe me often - I'm too candid and direct for most people to think of me as "nice." But what you didn't say is that I seem like a rational and logical person, and it was your implication that rational people can't (shouldn't?) believe in God that bothered me and prompted me to respond.

I know you don't know me personally, but there's not a person who does who wouldn't describe me as rational and logical.

If you've read books like the ones I referenced (again, "Is God a Delusion?" and "The case for God," both written by former athiests)and hold firm to your belief that there is no God, I have no problem with that. Not everyone will believe. But please don't put people like me in the same category with people who have blind faith without having examined the rational and evidentiary reasons for their faith.

Again, you're the person who equated believing that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen with religion. I was merely pointing at that you have to rely on evidence and make assumptions in both cases. You weren't present at Obama's birth any more than you were present at Jesus's birth (or death, or resurrection, for that matter). So in both cases, you review evidence and draw a conclusion. I see that as applying the same burden of proof across the board. But to say that someone would have to be schizophrenic to review the evidence about religion and draw a conclusion other than the one you've made is simply false.

Clearly, your comment section isn't a place for a drawn out debate on this topic, and you don't seem interested in having such a debate, but I appreciate you publishing my comments, and responding to my second comment with a bit less outright dismissal.

I'll continue to read you, because you're funny and smart and often show me things I don't have time to find on my own and appreciate knowing about. We can agree to disagree on whether my religion is based on blind faith or evidence-based assumptions. I'll go on NOT being certifiably insane either way.