Links and Comments: Politics and Religion

Three items by Jeffrey Tayler at Salon recently. First, in what I might call the pot-kettle-black category, Religion is the real problem: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and GOP demonize Muslims, but too afraid to take on the real truth, where the real problem isn’t only Muslims:

More broadly, once one accepts, on the basis of no objective evidence whatsoever, religious propositions about the nature of reality, a supreme being, and mankind’s relation to alleged commandments issuing from that being, one confronts an inherent wild card: believers may decide to act on the texts they deem sacred, just as the texts tell them to do. Religion, in short, is the problem – and especially Abrahamic religion, with its monotheistic dogma dividing humanity into the saved and the damned.

Also by Tayler, Meet the Fox News atheist — the man Bill O’Reilly calls a fascist and Sean Hannity thinks is evil. About David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, who’s just published a book, Fighting God, and who’s had some number of vitriolic exchanges with the Fox folk. Tayler chats with Silverman about those two hosts:

“O’Reilly’s a very nice guy, a very intelligent man, he’s very knowledgeable. He falls for the ‘God of the gaps’ idea. That’s exactly what the cosmological idea is, and the idea from design is and the argument from morality. It’s all ‘God of the gaps.’ My personal opinion is that he’s too smart to believe what he’s saying.”

“Unfortunately, and unlike Mr. O’Reilly, Sean Hannity’s off-camera persona is exactly the same as his on-camera persona . . . . I have some fun with him off-camera, but it’s clear he doesn’t like me and I think he actually thinks I’m evil. I don’t think he has the ability to like me and disagree with me at the same time . . . . Because religion poisons people. Religion makes good people hate . . . . Religions creates divisions that shouldn’t be there. It gives us nothing but hate while saying it’s giving us love. This is a very good example of why religion deserves to die.”

(I bought Silverman’s book and have read some of it, and am not sure I can recommend it: it’s very blunt and rather crude, e.g. citing religious belief as “brainwashing” way too many times, without any nuance about the way religions serve cultural functions aside from the religious beliefs themselves, which are, admittedly, silly. I do like the way he observes that *all* religious beliefs are “cafeteria” religions — i.e., every believer selects which tenants of their holy book are important, and which to ignore. The examples are obvious.)

And then from Dec 13th, Follow Bill Maher’s lead, not Donald Trump: There’s a way to critique ideology behind religion without resorting to hate.


An illustration of the Republican science denial that I discussed a couple posts ago: Tom Tomorrow on the Warped Physics of the GOP Universe.


And one more, at Salon: Age of the Fabricating Faker: All the Republican candidates embody this condition — but none so much as Donald Trump.

We live in a time of dramatic make-believe. Almost half the voting population in the United States is at best skeptical about well-established scientific evidence, at worst in utter denial, when the evidence runs counter to their ideological beliefs. Corporations brand products more or less divorced from the outcomes they credibly are able to effect. Individuals increasingly advance their own interests by fabricating résumés and memoirs partially if not completely at odds with their actual biographical achievements. And politicians and political interests increasingly make up claims about the world, other candidates and themselves so at odds with any semblance of reality it should take a nanosecond of fact-checking to refute. And yet significant swaths of the electorate and of publics more generally are not merely convinced by the claims but seemingly have their base beliefs reinforced by such representations.

Motivated reasoning at its finest. The current version of “You can fool some of the people all the time…”


A Salon discussion between Sam Harris and Sean Illing. Harris is notorious for calling out Islam for its tenants and for criticizing Islam apologists, like Reza Aslan and Nicholas Kristof. What appeals to me instead are his clear-headed takes on religion and faith in general:

But we shouldn’t lie about the zero-sum contest between reason and faith—and, therefore, between science and religion. Religious people do make claims about the nature of reality on the basis of their faith, and these claims conflict with both the methods and conclusions of science. If you believe that the historical Jesus was born of a virgin, resurrected, and will be coming back to Earth, you are a Christian. Indeed, it would controversial is to call oneself a Christian without believing these things. But each of these claims rests on terrible evidence and stands in contradiction to most of what we now know about the world. The odds are overwhelming that Jesus was neither born of a virgin, nor resurrected. And he didn’t ascend to some place in the sky where he could abide for thousands of years, in a form that leaves him free to use his powers of telepathy to eavesdrop upon the private thoughts of billions of people. Nor will he return from on high like a superhero, flying without the aid of technology, or magically raise his followers to meet him in the stratosphere for the Rapture. All of these expectations—which most Christians harbor in one form or another—entail claims about biology, history, physics, and the nature of the human mind, that defy the centuries of intellectual progress we’ve made on these topics. To believe any of these things is to ignore one’s commonsense and a dozen specific sciences at the same moment.

Of course, we can pretend that none of this is happening and that science and religion represent “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould infamously said. But this is a lie. And it’s a lie that has many unhappy consequences. Ironically, one of the consequences, which I have focused on more than my atheist colleagues have, is that it bars the door to truly rational and modern approaches to getting what religious people claim to want out of life. We can’t develop truly rational and nonsectarian approaches to spirituality, for instance, if every generation is taught that faith in the divine origin of scripture must be preserved at any cost.

I’ve written and spoken a fair amount on these topics, because I share the sense that there really is something that religious people are right to want out of life and fear to lose under the glare of scientific rationality. It’s understandable that they’re afraid to lose an objective foundation for morality, because many overeducated people will tell them that morality is fiction—we just make it up to summarize apish preferences that were etched into our brains through evolution. Notions of good and evil have no grounding in truth, because they are just culturally derived ways of talking about emotions like shame and disgust. Thus, to say that something is “good” is not to say anything about reality. As I argued in The Moral Landscape and elsewhere, I think this is utterly false. There are perfectly rational ways to think about moral truth.

Religious people are also right to worry that many scientists and secularists believe that spiritual experience is synonymous with psychopathology or conscious fraud. Again, this is untrue. But if one hopes to save the baby in the bathwater of religion, one mustn’t ignore the fact that our world has been dangerously riven by divisive nonsense, simply because most people were told, since the moment they could speak, that one of their books was written by the Creator of the universe.


Fortunately, says Sally Kohn at The Daily Beast, The Religious Fundamentalists Are Losing. One of many such essays over recent years, especially notable for how quickly this trend is progressing.


Vox: A telling — and disturbing — anecdote about conservative media from a House Republican. About how conservative news media is feeding voting constituents with so much false information, which they forward to their congressmen, that it’s dramatically changing the way those congressmen work. Says Devin Nunes, (R-CA):

“I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,” Nunes said. “Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is “based on something that is mostly true.” He added, “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”

Vox: Why conspiracy theories flourish on the right, which plays off the previous story.

In the popular imagination, conspiracy theories are the result of ignorance and psychological instability. But it turns out that’s not really true at all. Conspiracy theories are extremely common, even among well-educated, productive members of society. Some new research in political science helps home in on the circumstances and character traits that allow conspiracy theories to flourish — and casts a fairly grim light on the direction of American politics.

Again, motivated reasoning; with details about a new study about what sorts of people are most susceptible.

For liberals, more knowledge reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of trust, and more trust reduces endorsement of CTs, no matter the level of knowledge — “knowledge and trust are both independently negatively related to liberals’ endorsement of liberal conspiracies.”

For conservatives, on the other hand, more knowledge increases endorsement of CTs among those with low trust; for high-trust conservatives, knowledge seems to have no effect — it neither increases nor decreases tendency to endorse CTs.


The research suggests that there is only one way to mitigate or reverse this process: restore some level of trust in the US political system. But conservative elites — who have the ear of their base — have no incentive to do so, and it’s not clear that anyone else has ability to do so. Declining trust in institutions is broad and deep in America; it may very well be unstoppable. As long as it continues, conspiracy theories will play a larger and larger role in public life.


Finally, Politifact’s Lie of the Year: everything said by Donald Trump.

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