Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Why I Am Not a (Public) Christian

I received an email from a man whom I knew back when I was an up-and-coming leader in an organization of Christians in the sciences, the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). Had I stayed with them, I might have been one of their most prominent members. But my participation became sporadic after 1994, and I attended no meetings after 1999, as my conventional faith gradually fell apart. This man had run across a 1987 article I had written for the ASA journal, in which I struggled with the ideas about why God would allow apparently evil things to happen in the natural world. He wanted to know what had become of me and hoped I was still a Christian.

At first, I intended no response whatever. Not because I have any ill feeling toward the ASA; they are reasonable and sincere people, unlike most self-described evangelical Christians, but because I could write a book in response. I finally decided to write a short but vivid response, parts of which I include below. I decided on a pamphlet-length response, sort of a Thomas Paine instead of an Aquinian Summa Theologica.

“Dear Ted,

I was surprised and pleased to receive your email, but I am afraid that what I have to say won’t be entirely pleasant. I have nothing bad to say about the ASA, or the many fine people I have known in its ranks, which includes you.

But I have entirely distanced myself from any public identification with Christianity. My private views are between me and God, however defined. I am one of those people whom an evangelical Christian would label as an atheist, although I do not affirm this label. Thank God American evangelicals will not be my judges. (Do I hear an amen on that?)

American evangelical Christianity has increasingly become the private playground of the Republican Party and, more recently, worshipers of Donald Trump. To me, American evangelical Christianity has become blasphemous. It’s been like this a long time. When I first worked at The King’s College, it was pretty much a Republican institution. After I left, they hired Dinesh D’Souza as president, mainly because of his political views, ignoring the warning signs that later they had to admit: that he was morally unsound. When I worked at Huntington College, it was another Republican institution, although those were back in the gentle days of George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle (Huntington was his hometown). Under George W. Bush, American evangelical Christianity was largely supportive of war and torture. And now, the American evangelical church seems to either worship Donald Trump, or to go along with those who do. Where is there any public outcry among evangelicals against Trump committing nearly every sin that is possible for a man to do? For the love of God, I keep my distance from American Christianity and its support of, or its silent acquiescence to, Trump.

Moreover, I live and work in rural Oklahoma, where Christianity is also tied almost completely to the accumulation of automatic weapons. The local church, which sometimes posts condemnatory signs against me (I’m the local evolution professor), sometimes gives away automatic weapons as door prizes for its revivals.

When I teach my classes, I begin the first day by writing on the board, “Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” I have yet to have any student, although most of them have been drilled in Sunday school, identify the source of this quote. They think of Jesus holding a machine gun, not as getting down on his knees to look at wildflowers. I want to get them to start looking at the natural world around them and marveling at it, regardless of its origin. I give surveys to my classes, which consistently reveal the profound ignorance that my students have about the Bible, the religious ones even more than the non-religious ones.

A recent national survey showed that only 30 percent of white evangelicals, in 2011, thought that a president could be forgiven of moral lapses; today the figure is 72 percent. Evangelicals hated Barack Obama, an astonishingly moral man, while admiring the pussy-grabbing Donald Trump. This has nothing to do with God, Jesus, or the Bible. It’s all about politics, money, power, and guns.

The scientific credo of American evangelical Christianity seems to be, regarding what they call God’s creation, “It’s okay if you pour oil on it, it’s okay if you chop it down, it’s okay if you shoot it, it’s okay if you drive your truck over it, so long as you don’t believe that it evolved.” (Did I mention that I live in Oklahoma?)

Meanwhile even the moderate Christians seem powerless to stand up to the right-wing conquest of Christian faith. Last year, I wrote to every member of the English department at Calvin College (from which my daughter graduated) to ask their views on what constitutes Christian literature. I believe I sent twelve emails. I received not a single answer. I know that the messages were received. I think the faculty must have just been confused: to them, the world consists of Calvinism and atheism, therefore their brains simply had no binding sites for the peptides of my intermediate ideas.

Meanwhile, the ASA has, I assume, remained reasonable. But after a while, I began to feel the futility of agonizing over unanswerable questions. I remember how hard David Wilcox struggled with trying to reconcile Adam and Eve with the record of human evolution. Good try; I admire him still. I think it is safe to say that the ASA has no discernible impact on American Christianity. I have devoted myself instead to writing books (I’m completing number 5 now for fall publication) about topics that might actually help to educate people, for example, how to think scientifically.

Maybe the ASA needs to refocus. When it started, Christianity did not dominate politics. Today a twisted version of Christianity is threatening the world. Maybe the need now is not to get more people to believe in God but to get believers to rediscover peace and love.

Maybe when we move to France, which we plan to do some year soon, I might start going to church again. In France, nobody becomes a Christian for money, power, or sex. The only Christians in France are those who want to be.”

Friday, October 13, 2017

Altruism as Evil: The Work of Donald Trump

Altruism occurs when (usually) animals cooperate with one another, to the benefit of all of them. One kind of altruism, recognized by evolutionary scientists, is indirect reciprocity, in which an individual gains recognition and admiration for doing generous acts—and along with that admiration comes profit. We all want to do business with people who have a public reputation for generosity.

Nearly everyone recognizes altruism as good. Everyone, that is, except Donald Trump. He seems to believe that it is evil to do good things for other people.

One way that more fortunate countries have of helping the less fortunate ones is through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Educational and scientific exchanges promote world peace, one of the express purposes of the United Nations in general and UNESCO in particular. UNESCO facilitates altruism, especially indirect reciprocity.

But Trump has removed the United States from UNESCO. Not only does he not believe that the United States should promote world peace in this way, but he also appears to hate the reputation for goodness that the United States used to enjoy as a member of UNESCO. It used to be that when the world looked at America, it thought, “they want to help us,” and we got a lot of admiration for that. But today the world looks at us and thinks, “they hate us.” Trump, who is always sneering and insulting everyone else, already promoted this image, and has now backed it up by action. We hereby send the message to the world that, even if you are our friends, we do not need you. We do not even like you.

Trump’s consistent message has been “America first.” But this is not what he meant. Probably every nation puts itself first. What Trump meant, apparently, was “America only.”

America, Trump thinks, does not need the admiration or goodwill of the world. All we need to do is to intimidate them.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The End is Near?

The end is near! The end is near! The Republicans are going to get out their guns and start shooting the rest of us! Oh, and the sky is falling, too.

I know what I would have said to this even a couple of days ago: Yeah, right. The Republicans talk tough, about how there should be absolutely no restrictions at all of any kind for any reason on building up huge stockpiles of any kind of weapon. (Except, oddly enough, nuclear weapons. I haven’t quite figured out why they find a nuclear weapon ban acceptable.) They say that people like the Las Vegas shooter should have been utterly free to build up his stash of weapons in his hotel room, weapons that he had altered from semi-automatic to automatic. They even say that kits that allow semi-automatic weapons to be so altered should be freely available for purchase by everyone, even people with a known history of psychiatric problems. Only after the man starts shooting should law enforcement be allowed to take any action.

But the Republicans aren’t really going to do this. They never plan to actually use all those weapons they are hoarding.

Well, that’s what I thought, until I was in Wal-Mart yesterday. The line consisted of people with huge numbers of things to purchase. The late-middle-aged woman ahead of me saw that I had only a few items, and asked me to go ahead of her. I accepted the offer, since it would help me a great deal and make no difference to her. They were, after all, still waiting for a prescription refill. I realized this was an Oklahoma redneck actually living by the Golden Rule rather than just talking about it. For about a minute, I felt good and thought maybe I have misjudged this rural Oklahoma hotbed of fundamentalist gun nuts.

Then, for no reason that I could tell, she started telling me that her husband had just purchased an AK-47 at a pawn shop for over $400, and she said that lots of people were purchasing them because they knew the price was going up, probably to $700, very soon. I wondered what had prompted her to tell me this. I looked at my T-shirt. Was it a flaming liberal T-shirt? No, it was from the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California. My shirt did not say, “Dump Trump, shoot me right here,” with a target painted on it. And the woman’s voice sounded utterly friendly and sincere.

I knew that here was my opportunity to learn something about the people among whom I am embedded, one of the few people in town who does not worship the NRA. I asked her why her husband purchased the AK-47. She talked about how, in her neighborhood down by the lake, there were drug deals going on all over the place. They have up No Trespassing signs but the drug dealers tear them down. I realize that an argument can be made for them to have a gun, but an AK-47? I did not ask this question, however. I just let her talk. I did not ask her in what way gun restrictions might harm them—surely, they have a good reason to get permission for a gun, to protect themselves. Surely her husband could pass a background check.

Finally, I did ask if he planned to actually shoot people with the AK-47. She said absolutely not—she is the kind of person who wouldn’t hurt an animal, much less a human. She even uses glue to repair turtle shells. She said she didn’t want to go to hell for shooting someone. She said her husband would just shoot the AK-47 into the treetops to scare criminals away.

I am assuming her husband (who was standing behind her, his mind a thousand miles away) was not crazy. But if he started shooting his AK-47, what would stop him from shooting just a little bit lower and maybe killing someone who was actually not a criminal? Can we be one hundred percent sure that her husband would never slip, for just a moment, into fury? He doesn’t have to be crazy; he just has to be imperfect, make a single mistake, which is something that all humans do—especially according to religious people like her who believe the mankind is sinful.

Unless, of course, she believes her husband is as perfect as God, which is blasphemy.

Moreover, whoever the person was whom her husband planned to shoot at, but not shoot, might be crazy, and have his own AK-47, and come after them. If I say you should have a background check before getting an AK-47, I do not mean that you are crazy, but that this should be a standard procedure to make sure that only people like you can make such an acquisition. The crazy intruder might shoot them, their children, and the grandchildren the woman was so profusely praising.

The chip reader beeped, so I removed my card and left, without drawing any conclusions from the conversation. The woman said she was stockpiling food since the Big Battle was about to begin. Strangely enough, it was all frozen food, which would decay if electricity was lost during the Big Battle. I let her continue hauling frozen dinners onto the conveyor belt.

You can see why I am now wondering if the Republicans are about ready to start shooting. Here is one couple who would not start The War themselves but who are waiting eagerly for the first sign that they believe will tell them it is time to start shooting.

This is also why I am an agnostic. In America, being a Christian means that you worship the NRA and the Republican Party, and probably Donald Trump also. In America, being a Christian has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus. This is why I want utterly nothing to do with American Christianity. Maybe, if I move to France, I will start going to church again. In France, Jesus does not carry an AK-47 around.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Republican Psychology

Lots of things have been written about the Republican Brain. I’ve probably written a fair percentage of them myself. Do we need another overview of Republican psychology? Yes, because it has suddenly become the dominant, powerful psychology of the United States. It is now the face we show to the world. Not everyone who identifies as a Republican shares these features, but the powerful ones do. To the powerful Republicans who are now in control, the moderate Republicans are as irrelevant as Democrats.

Here are some of the characteristics that you find in almost all conservative Republicans:

  • First, they must believe themselves to be uniquely right in the eyes of God. They cannot believe that there might be more than one right approach. Not only are they right; they are the only ones who are right.
  • Second, they must find people to accuse of doing the things they declare to be sinful. Nowadays they are finding lots of people like that: Democrats, Muslims, immigrants, Native Americans.
  • Third, they must make their accusations loud and public. The recent Las Vegas shooting was carried out by a 64-year-old man, whose motives remain unclear at the time I post this essay, but right-wing news outlets quickly said that a Muslim extremist had done it. The right-wing fake news was the story that caught the attention of French online media. For good reason, the French think Americans are by and large crazy, though they are willing to make individual exceptions to this rule of thumb. At least my French relatives make an exception for my family.
  • Fourth, they have a psychological requirement to be hypocrites, to then do the things they accuse others of doing. One example, nearly trivial but illustrative: In his campaign tweets, Trump accused Obama 38 times of taking time off to go golfing. He promised to not do this, “I’ll be too busy working for you.” But he took golfing vacations (and other vacations at immense taxpayer expense) six times in his first thirty days. Of course, Trump like Gingrich was famous for serial marriages, each starting with an affair while still married to a previous wife. Conservatives condemn this but then must either do it or utterly approve and worship leaders who do. This is an essential step in closing the circle.
  • Fifth, they accuse Democrats of being “bleeding hearts,” and they just assume that Democrats will not stand by and let people starve or die of disease. Therefore, the Republicans who run the federal and many state governments will stand by and let Democrats pay for food and health care for the poor out of private donations. This starts a downward spiral in which altruistic Democrats get weaker and poorer as Republicans get richer and stronger.
  • Finally, there is no problem in the world, certainly in the country, that cannot be solved by just letting people have as many guns as possible, without any background checks. While it is just as legal for a Democrat to buy an assault weapon as for a Republican, the Republicans buy more. Republicans claim they will never use these guns, but this means that we are supposed to think they are stupidly wasting their money. Notice I never accused them, above, of being stupid. Maybe they won’t have to use their guns, because they know that we all know that they have huge stockpiles of weapons and we do not want to piss them off.

While Republicans are not as evil as Nazis, their psychology is just as dangerous to the future peace of the world as was the Nazi psychology.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Just Under the Surface

In the current political climate, where Christians consider Nazi racism to be one legitimate viewpoint even if they do not themselves embrace it, it is certainly possible to believe that the time is not far away when conservatives will institute an evil reign of terror. It seems unlikely that this will happen, but could Germans in 1933 have guess what Hitler would do? And he did it because they let him.

We are surrounded by nice people all day every day. But occasionally we get glimpses of the evil that hides in human nature and which can come out under the right circumstances. Here are some examples.

First example. I had a student a few years ago who was very smart and dedicated, and very nice. Strange topics sometimes come up in individual conversations during laboratory sessions. For some reason, some of us were talking about Vlad the Impaler and this student, with a straight face, made the case that he deserved to be the national hero of Romania. This student, so nice on the outside, harbored at least this bit of evil in her heart. If she should ever in a future dictatorship be in a position to make decisions about what to do with political dissidents, such as myself, what would she do? I doubt she would come up with the idea, but I also doubt she would resist it if a future dictator liked the idea of impaling his enemies.

Second example. In Durant, Oklahoma, a white man who identified himself as “Goofy” went on a verbal rampage against all Mexicans, and said that World War III is going to begin right here with whites against immigrants. Most white people do not feel the way he does, but there must be at least a couple of million people who do and who can cause an immense amount of terrorism once they get started. All they need is some event that will unleash their currently latent fury, like (in this case) hearing a woman speak Spanish on a cell phone. (The woman has been in America legally for 40 years.).

We all have evil in our hearts; evolution has made human nature both good and bad. While altruism is part of human nature, we must understand that we are altruistic only toward those people whom we consider to be inside of our group. Slowly through history we have expanded the boundaries of what we consider our group to be. To many people, altruism extends not only to all humans of every race, but to higher animals, to trees, etc. But there are millions of people who still consider other races to be outside the realm of altruism and therefore not deserving even the simple decency of being allowed to live.

Even a small terrorist minority can ignite the worst elements of human nature and cause a wave of terrorism. Let’s hope (stupidly, perhaps) that this does not happen. Conservative religion, whether Christian or Muslim, frequently unleashes the worst in human nature.

This essay appeared on my science blog, without the final sentence.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Goodbye Old Folks, Hello Guns

The nursing home down the street from me has closed. The first thing I noticed was that there was no longer any liquid garbage on the street outside. The nursing home staff always poured lots of uncontained liquid garbage into dumpsters, which would then leak out all over the street and cause a stench. (Isn’t this against the law? At least they did not pour uncontained shit into the dumpster, as far as I know). I noticed that the street was not an open sewer. It was only then that I noticed that the parking lot was usually empty, except when it had pickup trucks of the kind that handymen use.

This nursing home is run by the local fundamentalist church. Apparently, they spread themselves too thin by running this nursing home. They apparently need to focus their efforts. And I am pretty sure what those efforts are. They mainly want to focus on getting their members to buy guns and have them ready to use, perhaps in the near future. I do not know this, but I have evidence that suggests it. This was the church that sponsored what they called a freedom rally a few years ago. The door prize was an assault weapon. By shutting down the nursing home, which I suspect was plagued by health code violations, this church can afford more assault weapons.

Another thing they can focus on is to verbally attack evolutionary scientists like me. This is the church that put on their marquee, “Evolution: The science of calling God a liar.” They have guns; I am their enemy, they think; should I be scared? Maybe. I am certainly vigilant. I keep a low profile. I never put bumper stickers on my car, and seldom put campaign posters in my lawn. (I did once. It was a sign urging a no vote on state question 777, which gave almost unlimited power to agribusiness corporations. Amazingly enough, the question was defeated.) I still walk to work, right out in the open, sometimes wearing an evolution shirt, but I am ready to start driving, by an alternate route, if necessary.

Rural Oklahoma fundamentalists and racists have a pent-up anger that needs only a slight stimulus in order to erupt. Just a couple of days ago, a Durant, Oklahoma man went on a verbal rampage against a Mexican woman, cursing her for being an immigrant and speaking Spanish. (She was indeed an immigrant, but has resided in America legally for 40 years.) He threatened to start World War Three over immigration. The woman shot a video, which was aired on a local news channel.

Of course, that lone crazy man cannot start a war by himself, and most people just considered him batshit. But there is A LOT of pent-up anger and violence in millions of conservatives in America. All they need is the right stimulus, one big enough to begin a chain reaction of fury and religious zeal. We cannot know when that might occur. They could not start a war, but they could wreak a devastating amount of terrorism; this is something that just a few thousand of them could do—it would not require a mass uprising.

What might the stimulus be? Fundamentalist pastors claim that they speak the very words of God, and their “sheeple” follow them blindly, not even reading their Bibles. Some of these churches celebrate and encourage the hoarding of assault weapons. If a fundamentalist pastor wanted to start a terrorist uprising, there is not much that could stop him.

October update: They were just cleaning out the old folks home; the old folks are back.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Evolution of Language...and Manipulation

What are the evolutionary purposes of language? Most people would, without further thought, assume that the principal purpose of language is communication of information. That is, indeed, one of its purposes; but, I believe, it is a secondary purpose. The primary purpose of language is social interaction: to influence others to do what you want them to do, to create a good (or bad) impression of yourself in the minds of others, to identify yourself as a member of their particular group.

This is the principal reason that there are languages, plural. Each “tribe” even today has its own language. These languages are much more complex than they have to be, and the main reason is that if you cannot master the complexities of the language and its pronunciation, you are probably an outsider.

But even within a society, language is primarily a tool of social interaction, and often of manipulation. We can see this in the current eruption of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sentiments in the United States. The use of these terms would prejudice a reader against them, and I would avoid them, except that the right-wing extremists are proud of them. Some of them carry Nazi flags, and the others allow them to.

1.      When a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of anti-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017 [], President Trump vacillated between condemning neo-Nazi activities and considering them to be merely part of the spectrum of political opinion. At no point did he or any other member of his administration call this an act of terrorism. But it fits all definitions of terrorism. The terrorist was not targeting a particular individual with his car; he was attempting to create terror among the people who were protesting against the white supremacists. And he used deadly force. If he had been Muslim, he would have been instantly branded as a terrorist. The selective use of the word “terrorist” against Muslims but never using against white Christian extremists is a clear use of manipulative language.
2.      The white supremacists call their cause and their rallies “free speech rallies” rather than neo-Nazi or white supremacist rallies. By getting millions of people to use this term for their activities, they project the message that, “You can’t possibly be against free speech! So you have to allow us to shout out our hatred against our fellow citizens.”

Technically, they have the legal right to say whatever they want to, so long as they do not incite people to violent action. But they are evil. We cannot allow them to depict their actions as mere defenses of free speech. All of us who are not aspiring Nazis must keep calling these people, and all who sympathize with them or speak out in their defense, what they are: the modern defenders of Adolf Hitler.

Hitler himself was a master of language manipulation. (He wasn’t a master of much else. His leadership was disastrously delusional and destructive for his own German people, for example.) Most of us think of the phrase “Deutschland ├╝ber alles” (Germany over all) as being Hitler’s phrase for world domination. But it was originally used to unite the German kingdoms (such as Saxony and Bavaria) into a single country: Germany was more important than its constituent kingdoms. Hitler stole the phrase and all the sympathy that went with it. Also, if Hitler had publicly proclaimed that he planned to slaughter millions of Jews, if he had called it an attempt at extermination, he would have had much less support from the German people. But he called it a “solution,” and who wouldn’t be in favor of this? A person is as likely to support a “solution” as “free speech.”

Political conservatives hate, viscerally hate, our modern language practices in which we attempt to counteract the racism of the past. They call it “political correctness,” which implies that anyone who does not use racist terms is doing so only for political influence. Our use of “black” instead of “nigger” can only mean, to conservatives, that we want political power; they think it cannot possibly be because we want to show respect and love to people who people who have been oppressed and slaughtered in the recent past. Conservatives want to refer to what happened in Tulsa in 1921 as a race riot, implying that black people were doing the killing and burning. In reality, it was a white mob hunting down and shooting blacks. Prominent Tulsan and KKK member W. Tate Brady was pleased to see a black man being dragged behind a car with a noose around his neck. It is not “political correctness” that makes us refer to the 1921 incident as a massacre or as an act of terrorism rather than a riot. It is a desire for truth, and to try to make up for the white massacre of blacks in the recent past.

To test the hypothesis of “language exists largely for manipulation,” all we need to do is see the spectacular failure of invented languages. Esperanto was invented to create world peace under the misguided notion that a common language will prevent miscommunication. But liars can lie in Esperanto. Charles Bliss created a system of symbolic communication that, he believed, would prevent language from being manipulated. He printed up six thousand copies of his book and sent them to government and other leaders all over the world, and got no response whatever, until some nurses noticed that this system might help children with cerebral palsy, who cannot communicate what they are thinking, to connect with the world. Bliss’s system thereby escaped extinction. But soon it was being used, not in place of other languages, but as a way of learning them, leading right back to the manipulation that Bliss, an escapee from World War Two, hated so much.

So when humans have created new languages for the express purpose of avoiding social manipulation, the new languages become the venues of social manipulation. This is an experimental confirmation of the hypothesis that languages evolved for social interactions, one important component of which is manipulation.

And there is nothing we can do about it, other than to keep using language in such a way as to try to counteract evil people from using their words to oppress others in their attempt to revive Nazi sentiments and make them palatable.

I also posted this essay on my science blog.

After posting a video on this topic, I received a comment saying that the white supremacist in the car was merely trying to get out of the crowd, and that his car was being attacked by leftist protestors. Well, of course this is what happened, AFTER he drove his car at high speed into the crowd. Of course his car was attacked AFTER he committed his act of terrorism. This is obvious to anyone who has seen the videos, such as this one. The fact that there was someone even within my small circle of YouTube viewers who believes that it is okay for a white supremacist to ram his car into protestors, that killing someone is a form of free speech, is frightening. My video, so far, has had only 18 views, and this comment came from one of this small number of viewers. Extrapolating to the total adult population of America, this means that there are approximately a half million right-wingers in America who believe that such action is justified. There might be more, as my videos tend to be viewed by progressives.