A New Religion That’ll Bring You to Your Knees: My Father’s God Has Orange Hair

Being a political scientist is not what many think. We are not politicians drafting legislation. We are not activists trying to make the world a better place, according to our own preferences. And we certainly aren’t trying to get people to believe what we believe. Instead we strive to explain incredibly complicated phenomena by use of empirical data, simulations, and, where those are not possible, qualitative analysis. Because most people don’t understand this, we are often dragged into meaningless conversations about religion politics. People are always trying to tell us what they believe. And to be honest, I don’t care about your beliefs.

A Short Anecdote

Prior to Trumpism I was able to hold intelligent conversations with my father about political science. He would call, asking about the Russian annexation of Crimea, or some other major event, and I would attempt to explain it using traditional international relations theories. Although my father and I sit at divergent ends of a political spectrum, our conversations always centered on what is, and never what either of us believed ought to be.

Post November election everything has changed. My father, emboldened by (what I can only describe as) a “personal” victory in the electoral college, calls me thrice a day to berate my beliefs, demonize everyone left of him (which, considering how far right he is, is pretty much everyone), and to tell me why Trump is the Lord and Savior will be the best president since Madison.

A Short List of What My Dad Believes Trump Will Do

This list is frustratingly stupid, according to a political scientist (me).

  • He will send troops to Israel, storm the West Bank and Gaza, and kill every Palestinian that doesn’t leave the newly annexed Israeli territories.
  • He will label political rivals Islamic terrorists and have them sent to Gitmo, where they will languish without trial.
  • He will both (contradictorily) reinforce the Cuban embargo as well as “liberate the Cuban people” by installing American democracy.
  • He will declare war on China by nuking major cities.
  • He will unilaterally declare war on any UN member state that attempts to prevent any of the above actions.
  • He will fire, arrest, and/or execute for treason any judge who stands in the way of the above actions.

What the Hell?

My father not only believes Trump will do these things; he supports Trump doing these things!

  • He literally said, “Genocide isn’t a war crime if no one can stop you. And who’s powerful enough to stop the US?”
  • He literally said, “I don’t care if Trump has to lie and label democrats Islamic terrorists. If they don’t support Trump, they are just as bad as terrorists.”
  • He literally said, “We need to liberate the Cuban people. They need American democracy, and we’re going to override Obama’s dangerous relationship with a dictator.”
  • He literally said, after I explained how Chinese mercantilism is not easily combatted, “Trust me, Trump is going to give them one chance to play nice. If they don’t take the hint, we’ll wipe out a few cities, kill a few million of their people, and then they’ll play nice.”
  • He literally said, after I explained international law and how diplomacy and multilateralism are viable alternatives to unilateralism and war, “No one in the UN can stop us. If we have to nuke every other country to save our reputation as the big kid on the block, Trump will do it.”
  • He literally said, after I explained the separation of powers (elementary stuff), “No judge is going to stop Trump. He’ll just fire any judge [including Supreme Court justices] who won’t let him do what America needs” and “If that means throwing them in jail and executing them for treason, so be it. I won’t lose any sleep over it.”

What the Hell Happened?

My father had Reagan, and he had W. He supported and worked for Oliver North’s senatorial campaign. He has always been a staunch republican, loyal to the party. But with Trump he became a fanatic. He’s disavowed the US constitution, the Geneva Convention (and many, many others), human rights, rule of law (maybe that’s redundant), and the very reality we understand in a multipolar nuclear world (mutual assured destruction). So what happened?

Notice none of the above points mentions ISIS or terrorism (except to label rivals as terrorists). He refuses to accept it, but the answer is he is terrified that Islamic fundamentalists are going to kill him and erase his identity.

Populism is a social response to the threat to either existential or ontological security. Trumpism is the response to both. My father non-sequiturally colors his proscriptive statements, a la Trump, with “ISIS is going to keep killing us” and “Muslims want to create a Muslim theocracy in America.” Back him into a corner, and he’ll bring up either ISIS or Muslims (unable to differentiate between the two). And it’s always about them killing us or erasing our identity as a liberal democracy, which, ironically, is precisely what he wants to do.

My father has never been a religious person, although he views himself as a Southern Baptist. But now he is a devout and pious Trumpist. Somehow he believes in the teachings of Trump with the same fervor religious fanatics believe their books. And, not to let that pesky thing called cognitive dissonance get in the way, he is willing to kill his neighbors and dismantle the American system of governance in exchange for a totalitarian regime—in order to save the lives of his neighbors from people who want to dismantle the American system of governance in exchange for a totalitarian regime.

My greatest fear is sitting through these kinds of conversations when people find out I’m a political scientist. I never thought my father would find religion and try to convert me. And I certainly fear Trumpism will continue to produce such dedicated adherents who want to teach me a thing or two about how the world should work.

I’m sure there are many others out there. My dad can’t be the only one.

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Time’s Arrow Rounded a Bend: Trump, Putin, and the Reduction of Certainty

Reducing uncertainty is the only thing politics strives to achieve. While legislation might be written to address precise economic, political, or social grievances, the process is an exercise in uncertainty reduction, making sense of highly complex phenomena. The more certain we can be about the future, the less afraid we are to face it.

I was sitting in a cafe in Beirut when I got the news about Vladimir Putin’s re-ascendency to the Kremlin. Lebanon was split, half supporting a man they believe capable of maintaining order in the Middle East, and half criticizing a man they felt was fostering corruption in the Middle East. The days ahead were uncertain.

I was sitting in a cafe in Beirut a year earlier when I got the news about a civil war breaking out in neighboring Syria. Pro- and anti-Syrian fights broke out in Beirut, and I almost got caught a few times between brawls. The days ahead were so uncertain that the streets were all-but empty for a few nights.

I was sitting in a seminar on global order last Tuesday when I got the news that Donald Trump was probably going to be the next American president (at that time the New York Times gave him a 95% chance of winning Florida). I think we—political scientists—were among those most shocked. Particularly in my field. The years ahead are uncertain.

The Western World failed Russia following the end of the Cold War. Instead of bringing Russia into the fold, we alienated the Motherland, leading to Yeltsin’s infamous quip, “Russia isn’t Haiti… Russia will rise again.” Our status quo sense making reduced our Russian uncertainty, buying Russia time to fester and build. But now we have elected a man into office who has a real fighting chance at rekindling America’s relationship with Russia (don’t tell your Trump supporting family members that; they really, really hate it).

The one thing that is certain is that for the next year or two Russia and the US will become closer than ever, and the White House-Kremlin order will look more like a tea room than a war room.

But Trump is not the man Putin thinks he is, and Putin is not the man Trump thinks. Our newfound romance will be based on mutual selfishness, not mutual understanding. Our certainty about Russia is plagued by uncertainty about Russia, and there will come some times when the leaders realize this and butt heads.

Trump has said he supports committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. He has strongly implied he is willing to consider using nuclear weapons against Jihadists. Either of these two events will not only undermine American-Russian relations; they will certainly give Russia the upper hand (at best).

Let’s take nukes. Every sitting president starting with Kennedy has been pressured by military brass (the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Every sitting president has resisted such urge because they understand the concepts of mutual assured destruction and the escalation of force. If Trump uses nuclear weapons against Jihadists in Syria, he will invariably harm Russian interests. This leaves two options. First, Russia can retaliate, leading to a nuclear war (Russia is also rumored to have a doomsday device). This is unlikely, but it’s possible. And second, Russia would take this opportunity to offer an extension of the Russian nuclear umbrella to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and other areas where there are overlapping interests. Certainly in such an event, smaller states will feel more secure under the protection of a benign hegemony than a malicious one. Russia will be the moral leader, and the US will be the maniac. I would even predict a Western swing towards Russia.

A nuclear first use scenario is unlikely, but war crimes and crimes against humanity are somewhat more likely. Trump as Commander in Chief has made it clear he’ll play the Dirty Harry cop, quick to temper and quick to violence, and he’ll break any law that restrains his ability to act. And if Abu Ghraib, My Lai, and No Gun Ri have taught us anything, our military service members in the theatre of combat are not immune from becoming monsters. War crimes delegitimize our position as a benign power, and they have long-lasting consequences, both of which will give Russia an increase in power commensurate to our reduction.

Normally I wouldn’t care about balancing. We’ve been building Europe for generations, even allowing Germany to wield considerable power when history tells us Germany can’t be trusted with power. But I don’t think a bipolar system, or a unipolar system with Russia as the only superpower, is likely to allay our uncertainty in a positive way.

Domestically, there’s the common fear among the LGBT community, environmentalists, and secular activists that a Trump Supreme Court will undo generations of progress. To be fair to Trump I don’t think he’s going to put creationism in the classroom, force conversion therapy on people, or allow Florida to be washed away by rising sea levels. Even if he wanted to stack the Supreme Court or pass anti-LGBT laws, the common voter won’t allow their senators and congressional leaders to draft or support such legislation. A Trump SCotUS can only consider laws passed.

But here’s the thing; we don’t know. Our future is certainly uncertain under Trump. I hope he turns out to be the best American president, upholding secularism and human rights, tackling global issues multilaterally, and providing for global stability in constructive ways, but I fear this will not be the case. No one reduced uncertainty when we elected Trump. We merely reinforced Time’s Cycle. Time’s Arrow rounded a bend on November 8, 2016.

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Security and Religiosity: The Jacksonian Values that Wed American Society to Faith

There is a set of academic literature that suggests there is a negative relationship between existential security and religiosity. As security increases, we become less religious as a society. This is demonstrated across societies. More secure societies in Europe are distinctly less religious than less secure societies in, say, Sub Saharan Africa. The threat of death is a compelling religious motivator, and if you are guaranteed limited salvation from death by the society, then salvation by the church is a cogent alternative. But there is one intriguing outlier: the United States.

The US ranks high on both existential security and religiosity. This disparity between what we expect and what we see—in terms of the US—has always fascinated me. How do we as a society hold onto religious superstitions when every other highly sophisticated society has shaken off such beliefs? Outside of my usual work this problem has always sat on the back burner. But maybe we can answer the question using a philosophical framework, one previously set forth for us by Walter Russell Mead in his piece in The National Interest (Winter 1999/2000) titled “The Jacksonian Tradition: And American Foreign Policy.”

The Jacksonian Tradition

Mead’s “Jacksonian Tradition” explains American foreign policy by framing it in a populist structure. Essentially, America is a “warrior culture” because the people—not generals, political scientists, or political elites—know best. And they want a warrior culture, damnit!

Populism is the idea that representative democracies only work if the representatives have connections with the people. Think of our democracy as a form of mobocracy. We disregard expert testimony. We are skeptical of elites. We feel there is something wrong with the country when we are disconnected from the policymakers. We are stubborn against advice or instruction (no senator is going to tell us what we should do). We value normal people like Joe the Plumber. And we believe Washington is a huge conspiracy against the American people (well, not I, but the average voter).

Populism gives us a sense of identity, of authenticity. Our identity is mired in the values of John Wayne; June, Ward, and Beaver Cleaver; and Andy Griffith. These are the true Americans, the pioneers. The characters had both feet on the ground, and they had values everyone believes in. And their television shows never necessitated fancy, complicated explanations. They were simple to digest, and they left you feeling fulfilled.

Mead underscores American Jacksonian values of self-reliance, equality, individualism, honor, and courage. Self-reliance is the legacy of the frontier movement, a you-gotta-take-care-of-yourself mentality, and the government’s job is to get out of the way. Equality is the aforementioned don’t-tell-me-what-to-do outlook. Elites and the working class are equal, despite outward appearances. Individualism means every American has the right and the duty to seek self-fulfillment. Our honor is one of financial esprit, rejection of government help, and resistance to social welfare (more on honor in a bit). And courage means we stand up for what we believe, and we’re willing to lay down our lives if necessary to protect our kinship, family, and the common morality. And Americans are indeed, as Mead points out, quick to settle scores with violence.

Outside of these values is darkness. And war is a necessary evil in an evil world. And so we go to war regularly—not just war, but all out war. The greatest tragedy of the Gulf War, populists would say, is that we turned around at Baghdad instead of ousting Saddam Hussein. But we also fight wars clean, and we expect the “empires of evil” to fight clean wars as well. Honor means showing your enemy respect, a la WWII German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. If you fight a clean war, we’ll fight a clean war. If you take the gloves off, we feel justified in committing mass-scale civilian slaughter.

Implications on US Religiosity

The United States presently sits at the top of a hierarchy of states in terms of power. And as Robert Kagan would say, power compels the US to violence. We must protect our values, but that leaves us vulnerable. Our power is wielded in an evil world where our values are overshadowed by the darkness of an anarchical, chaotic jungle. Our values are constantly challenged by the encroachment of Communism during the Cold War; of European pacifism, socialism, and cooperation; of Islamic terror regimes with no Code of Honor. Being at the top, surrounded by darkness, and facing a barrage of attacks against our values undermines our existential security. If our values are our identity, and our identity is all we have, then an attack against our identity is an affront to our very existence.

If we are our values, and our values face constant threat, then salvation comes not from the state—which, as mentioned earlier, populists believe is a mass conspiracy against America (just ask any Trump supporter)—then salvation must come from the pulpit.

In America we have low infant mortality, high life expectancy, fairly decent healthcare, a large GDP, a robust middle class, and enough amenities to make Jay Gatsby blush. We work hard, but we value our downtime. Leisurely entertainment dominates the economy—Hollywood cinema, NFL games, Lady Gaga, and entire sectors set up to prepare the outside of your home for the annual arrival of Santa Claus. By this, one should expect our society to resemble Estonia or Sweden in terms of religiosity, not South Africa or Palestine.

I argue that our Jacksonian values wed us to our faiths, due in part to our position as a global hegemon that wields considerable raw power. The threat of death is everywhere, not only literally, but also ontologically. We face attacks by terrorists and threats by Vladimir Putin, and we also face a global market of counter-values that ostentatiously challenge our identity as honorable Americans. How do we protect our physical and spiritual being? The church certainly guarantees they can do both.

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The Alt-Right and Atheism: Overlap and Divide

A small but growing conservative movement is popping up in the US, fueled in part by well-known atheist Youtubers and bloggers. The movement is referred to as the Alt-Right—or alternative right—movement by some. And some atheist are quick to endorse Alt-Right positions and complain about social phenomena regarding race issues, nationalism, reactionary politics, and Trump-entusialist beliefs. Often these Youtube videos or blog posts espouse a special criticism of social justice warriors, or SJW for short, often citing the First Amendment and “free speech.” And to be honest, I agree with a lot of what critics like the Amazing Atheist and Sargon of Akkad say… except, of course, where I don’t.

I’m not going to go down the exhaustive list of usual Alt-Right positions. Rather I’m going to say what I agree with and what I don’t—from the position of a person who watches these videos and read these blog posts. Specifically I will address race issues, free speech, feminism, and immigration policy.

Race Issues

From what I’ve seen and read, many Alt-Righters and Youtube atheists are incredibly critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. This criticism is definitely warranted in some areas. For example, the oft-cited BLM belief that you can’t be racist against white people is only true if we develop a brand new definition of racism and jettison the standard definition. This new definition is often forced upon society in order to win the argument by technical knock out. If you change a definition so that your opponent cannot defend him/herself, then winning the argument is not very victorious. And it’s not very honest. It’s actually quite meaningless (unless you’re Kim Jong Un).

BLM activists also live in a world where an acceptable method of submitting its beliefs into the global market of ideas is to obstruct the lives of everyday citizens. Blocking traffic and annoying people just trying to live their lives is not the ideal way to win over converts.

But the BLM movement also exists in a world where perception is key. Whether or not BLM has good ideas, I think we can acknowledge that they have perceptions about the state of the world. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the activists to submit their beliefs to the global market of ideas. And while it’s difficult to test these ideas (for example, police departments will probably not confess to racist practices), we can at least study the factors that lead to such perceptions. I’d be willing to bet many statisticians and social scientists already are.

Free Speech 

Alt-Righters nail free speech. When a university professor physically assaults a student and asks for “muscle” to remove a student reporter from a “safe space,” this is entirely unacceptable. Free speech does not include physical intimidation. From my perspective safe spaces should be forums for open dialog, without fear of personal attack. Spaces that exclude based on race, gender, or sexuality are only safe so long as you a good at covering your ears and shouting “la la la I don’t hear you” for the rest of your life. At some point though you are going to have to reconcile your beliefs with the real world.

But while free speech is usually the domain of the state—and, for example, Sargon of Akkad knows this very well—it doesn’t help their cause when people with Alt-Right beliefs build caricatures of their opponents in 40 minute Youtube videos just to make the finishing blow during the last 30 seconds. The video debate between Thunderf00t and Sargon over Brexit exemplifies the strengths of Sargon’s beliefs when he isn’t able to build straw men (to be fair, this is despite whether or not Sargon makes a compelling point—to me it’s lost in the bias).


From an academic perspective feminism has some really great ideas. I recommend Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics for a good discussion of where feminist theory can make some good contributions to society. From a scholarly position I welcome Enloe’s and J. Ann Tickner’s brand of feminism.

But I agree with the Alt-Right and many atheist thinkers that feminism as a social, economic, or political theory is fine and dandy, but feminism as lens for viewing everything as racist and sexist is a cancer to the global market of ideas. But there’s also some problems.

Is there a pay gap? Absolutely. Is it the product of career choice? Not completely, but yeah, to an extent. Regardless of how we answer those questions (and these are merely my best guesses), I again have to take the more conservative route. Should the system prejudice men in order to close the gap? I don’t think that’s a very good solution, and it smacks in the face of David Hume’s Guillotine. If the pay gap exists in the way feminists believe, how do we logically get to: women should succeed at the expense of men? I don’t think we can do that.

In other words, I agree with Sargon and the Amazing Atheist with this one, with one minor deviation.


This is where I almost completely part ways with the heavy hitting atheist vloggers and bloggers. I think a Facebook post I made in September 2015 sums up my positions pretty well:

One of the things that strikes me most about the migrant crisis in Europe is that many of these people are coming from Afghanistan, meaning they are willing to travel—sometimes on foot—through ISIS controlled territories in Iraq and Syria, facing assault, rape, or death every step of the way, for the mere possibility of a better life in Europe, Turkey, or elsewhere. To us this should say something about their hopelessness and yet resolve; instead we’re focusing on whether or not we can share.

There seems to be a massive reactionary force happening. The fear of Islamic terror in Europe and the US decapitates us from the humanity we slowly strive to achieve[1]. When I lived in Lebanon during the fledgling months of the Syrian Civil War—before the Islamic State rode into Syria—I was often asked my position as a political scientist on Assad and the Free Syrian Army. My answer was always the same:

“I am against all sides because people are fucking dying.” (You can get away with using English profanity in Lebanon—just don’t use Arabic profanity).

My position has not changed with the arrival of the Islamic State. Rather, it has become more pronounced. I am against all sides, including American and European nationalists, because 1) people are dying, and 2) we are actively striving to prevent their salvation from death.

And perhaps the most important point: A refugee denied basic humanity, a refugee denied salvation from Jihadist terror is a potential Jihadist terrorist in the making.

Look, people with different beliefs as ours do not live in a vacuum, and neither do we. And when they cry out for help, if we treat them as unequals because of their beliefs—if we treat them as sub human[2]—we cannot expect refugees from terror to choose between going home and face death, or going home and mitigating death by joining the group trying to kill them. A refugee denied is a terrorist made.

Final thoughts

I’m not sure how the switch came around. Atheism does not naturally lead to a political stance. And, for example, the Amazing Atheist even shifted from supporting Bernie Sanders to (weakly) supporting Donald Trump. This is a remarkable shift (even if TJ says he’s not voting for anyone). And I think it could be an overreaction to the Atheism+ movement (that seems to believe if you’re not a bleeding heart liberal, you’re the literal devil). But these shifts do not necessarily reflect a growing trend in atheist thought towards nationalist and reactionary policy. This post merely stands to discuss a phenomenon I’ve noticed in user-based media.

Are the Amazing Atheist and Sargon of Akkad Alt-Righters? I honestly don’t know. And this post does not claim they are (even if I have used strong language). I don’t think they’ve ever claimed to follow the movement, but it’s forgivable to say there’s some overlap—at least—with their political views and the Alt-Right movement.

And finally, I’m not so hesitant to accept alternate viewpoints and seeing if we can find some common ground for the purposes of debate—as long as the debate is a free and open debate, and not one where I cannot win by default (or skin color). And I’m not afraid of the encroachment of Islam to the point where I will turn my country inward.

[1] For a fantastic article on this process utopian, see Booth, Ken. “Security and Emancipation.” Review of International Studies 17, no. 4 (1991): 313-26.

[2] This is a well-understood method for creating war-driven societies: Campbell, David. Writing Security United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Rev. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

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St. Peter and St. Petersburg Paradox: Faith as a Gamble

This post uses the general idea of the St. Petersburg Paradox to explain faith. The paradox can be summed up like this: How much should a person be willing to wager in a lottery with a potential payout of infinity dollars? The answer is infinity dollars (minus one). Of course this is not the answer people give. Most people would not be willing to wager more than a meager sum because the probability of winning that lottery is essentially zero, despite the actual expected value of the lottery being much, much higher than fathomable.

If this idea is extrapolated to the promises of many religions, this modified version* of the paradox might be settled. How much of your life would you be willing to wager to participate in a lottery with a potential payout of infinite life? The answer is any amount necessary up to infinity minus one.

When we talk to our devoutly religious brother and sisters, I think we can see this line of reasoning. Despite the probability of winning this lottery being essentially zero, many devoutly religious people find no discrepancy between how much they are willing to wager and how much they expect to win. A wager of an entire lifetime is a very low price to pay for an expected value of ∞, and most would be willing to wager as many lifetimes as necessary to achieve the expected payout.

The new paradox—if this is true—is, however, the discrepancy between how much they are willing to pay for this lottery and how much they are willing to pay to play numerous identical lotteries. A Christian is not going to wager anything in the Islamic lottery, despite an identical expected value of playing, and a Muslim is not going to wager anything in a Christian lottery. Etc., etc.

In other words, faith might be seen as a wager in a specific lottery where the longer you play the more likely you can win, despite the odds being almost infinity to one against winning.

So why don’t non-believers play this lottery? Because until someone can show us the money, we’re not going to risk what little we have on a fabled payout.

*This modified version assumes there are only two payouts (0 and ∞). In the real lottery there is an infinite number of possible payouts. My version does not perfectly reflect the logic behind the original lottery.

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The Rise of Secularism and the Fall of Christianity: Google Books N-Gram Analysis

Google Books’ Ngram allows users to search for the frequency of terms appearing in books in Google’s database of printed material. The results show how often those terms have appeared in print over the years. Today I was messing around with the search tool and discovered something rather interesting. First, the word “secularism” appears in print more often than the word “Christianity” each year during the last ~75 years. This is illustrated below.


And second, beginning in the early 1700s “Christianity” appears in numerous books, peaking at about six books in every thousand. This surge and its peak took place during the scientific revolution, which is understandable (see Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsWiki page here). But subsequently Christianity began a rapid decline into obscurity (relatively speaking) to well fewer than one mention per 1,000 books by the American Civil War. This decline took place during the Age of Reflection, a paradigm shift away from reductionism and towards more complex explanations of natural phenomena.

And third, the rise of the appearance of “secularism” began somewhere between the two World Wars, but by the 1950s, when fighting wars the traditional way literally meant human extinction, “secularism” dwarfed “Christianity.” “Secularism” might very well be correlated with the threat of nuclear war. The European response, for example, to the Second Thirty Years’ War and the proliferation of weapons capable of destroying the planet was to break down the walls between states, integrate into a single community, and reveal its own vulnerabilities as confidence building exercises with former enemies. To do any of these while maintaining sectarian differences would have been the suicide of the emerging post-modern system. Religion, particularly Christianity on the European continent, was compelled to shrink and give space to secularism. I imagine the word overtaking Christianity for this precise reason (although I admit there could be a plethora of other reasons).

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Official Non-Secular Songs in the Military

As a veteran of the US Navy, I’ve always respected the secular nature of the branches of the American armed forces. Maintaining a secular position about religious matters is not only compelled by law, it’s also necessary for logistics purposes. An organization made up of people from every religious background would find itself less cohesive and coherent if it picked and promoted one of those religious positions over all the others. But there’s one tiny, insignificant, official, and non-secular position. It’s the official songs of the armed forces.

The Coast Guard’s “Semper Paratus” is the only completely secular song of the bunch. The rest mention god in one way or another. Let’s break it down one by one.

The Air Force sings a song simply titled “The U.S. Air Force.”

God is mentioned in the second verse:

Minds of men fashioned a crate of thunder
Sent it high into the blue
Hands of men blasted the world a-sunder
How they lived God only knew!
Souls of men dreaming of skies to conquer
Gave us wings, ever to soar!
With scouts before And bombers galore.
Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force!

The Army rocks out to “The Army Goes Rolling Along.” 

Faith in God is mentioned in the third chorus:

Men in rags, men who froze,
Still that Army met its foes,
And the Army went rolling along.
Faith in God, then we’re right,
And we’ll fight with all our might,
As the Army keeps rolling along.

The Marines belt out the “Marines Hymn”

Heaven is mentioned in the third verse.

 Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

And the Navy chants “Anchors Aweigh”

Faith and God are mentioned in the third verse.

Blue of the Mighty Deep; Gold of God’s Sun
Let these colors be till all of time be done, done, done,
On seven seas we learn Navy’s stern call:
Faith, Courage, Service true, with Honor, Over Honor, Over All.

While none of these songs are explicitly Christian or other, they do make the assumption that everyone in the military believes in one god or another. This is incredibly frustrating as an atheist, but it’s even more frustrating as a veteran, someone who took an oath to protect the constitution.

But to be honest and perhaps blunt, I don’t think it’s even worth trying to change the lyrics. It would take tremendous effort, and it would probably definitely fail. These songs are so ingrained in military culture that I bet even atheists sing the verses without giving them a second thought.

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Boulding’s “Skeleton of Science”: And What Complexity and God Mean to Knowledge

This post is a quick introduction to a field in engineering management and modeling and simulation called systemic science. The author of this field, a Quaker, captures beautifully how god plays into the way we think about complex problems.

In 1956 Kenneth E. Boulding published “General systems theory: The skeleton of science.” This piece identifies nine levels in the hierarchy of complex systems in the study of systems science. These levels elucidate the level at which empiricism is possible. Each level becomes more complex, reducing the ability to empirically study a phenomenon. Hard science dominates the first four levels; this is followed by less precise sciences, such as social and psychological fields where empiricism is less probable, and eclectic measures are often taken to approach explanation. These levels keep me gainfully employed! At the ninth level empiricism is impossible, but speculation and questions remain. Here’s a quick rundown.

The Hierarchy of Complexity

Level 1: Level of “frameworks,” or “static structure”

  • Stuff the universe is made out of
  • Ex. Crystal structures

Level 2: “Simple dynamic system with predetermined, necessary motions”

  • Clockwork systems
  • Ex. Motion of the solar system

Level 3: Closed loop control mechanisms

  • The maintenance of equilibrium in a system
  • Ex. A thermostat

Level 4: Structural self maintenance in an open system

  • “The level at which life begins to differentiate itself from not-life.”
  • Ex. A biological cell

Level 5: The genetic-societal level

  • Low-level organisms with functional parts, growth, reproduction
  • Ex. A plant

Level 6: Animal level

  • Brain to guide movement, learning, behavior
  • Ex. A cat

Level 7: Human level

  • Self-consciousness, knowledge, symbolic language
  • Ex. A human being

Level 8: Sociocultural systems

  • Norms, values, cultures, roles
  • Ex. The nation

Level 9: Transcendental systems

  • “Inescapable unknowables”
  • Ex. God

Boulding beautifully sums up the ninth level (p. 136):

To complete the structure of the systems we should add a final turret for transcendental systems, even if we may be accused at this point of having built Babel to the clouds. There are however the ultimates and absolutes and the inescapable unknowables, and they also exhibit systematic structure and relationship. It will be a sad day for man when nobody is allowed to ask questions that do not have any answers.

Boulding’s hierarchy provides us with a blueprint to identify where the gaps in our knowledge rest. As empiricism becomes increasingly more unlikely at each level, the gaps should become wider. These continuously fuel the scientific community with deeper questions. The gap in the “God” level is infinitely wide, fueling society with an endless array of unanswerable, but interesting, questions, which might explain why humans are so want to debate what a god is, what its intentions are, and how we should worship one (or many).

Each level becomes more and more complex until, ultimately, complexity is all that remains. The “God” question is therefore rather interesting, despite its relative meaninglessness to all other debates, where empiricism at least maintains a fighting chance.

On the flip side to this I could change Boulding’s assertion: It will be a sad day when nobody is allowed to ask questions because we already have all the answers. Thank God for complexity!

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The Question of Atheist Charity: Less Diffusion of Responsibility?

Checking out the Friendly Atheist’s blog, I’ve come across an absolutely fascinating story. To summarize, an atheist organization wanted to give a charitable donation of $100 to a non-profit with religious ties that helps children. The non-profit refused the money because of the source, so the atheist organization started raising more money to force the non-profit to accept a donation. Ultimately the non-profit refused to accept well over $20,000, strictly because they don’t want to be associated with non-believers. This compelled a Christian man to start his own fundraising campaign to get non-atheist-tainted money to the non-profit. When atheists started donating to that one, the gofundme campaign was cancelled. Holy crap! What a crazy story!

In the end all is well. The money will be donated to a secular organization, and the Christian-linked charity will get a sizable donation anonymously. (The fundraiser is still ongoing. If you’d like to donate click here).

But it got me thinking, and it also reminded me of another story from the Friendly Atheist from five years ago. Basically there was a question about whether or not a secular organization was being discriminated against by the American Cancer Society. I went back to that article, and then something hit me.

Per the article, on the micro lending website Kiva, as of 2011 the group called Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious have donated far more money than any other group, including Kiva Christians. In fact, I just checked and this is still the case. The atheist group has raised almost $28 million, $2.5 million more than Kiva Christians.

The Question

Why is it we hear time and time again that atheists and other secular organizations are really, really good at charity, often outperforming religious institutions? To really exemplify this question, when the Catholic Church turned its back on freezing nuns, refusing to raise the money needed to provide the nuns with heat in the middle of the winter, a group of atheists came to the rescue to replace the nun’s boiler.

In this piece I offer no answer, but rather I seek to offer a hypothesis. That is, during times of charitable need, atheists cannot rely on the diffusion of responsibility through their social structures.

Non-believers, no longer belonging to the religious communities of their childhoods, feel a part of the non-religious community. And because that community is so small, the burden of responsibility is greater on each member, compelling them to do something they might not otherwise do for the greater good. The pressure to give is smaller if we know that millions of others are going to give. The pressure to give is greater if we know there is only a small handful of people capable of giving.

So my hypothesis is:

Atheists and non-believers often outperform religious charity due to a greater feeling of responsibility as part of a smaller social group.

At least, this is my hypothesis, and if I phrase the question differently it’s certainly a scientific question.

But there might be competing hypotheses. Non-believers might feel a need to prove themselves in a world usually hostile to non-belief. That is, some teachings insist that atheists have no moral barometer (to steal a phrase from Steve Harvey), and the non-believer feels compelled to prove those teachings wrong.

Another hypothesis might be that as personal income increases, religiosity decreases. And as personal income increases, charitable giving increases. In this case a single independent variable affects two dependent variables, but religiosity has no effect on charitable giving. Atheists outperform religious people strictly because they have more disposable resources.

Whatever the answer may be, the observation does not change. Although not always, secular charitable giving often outperforms sacred charitable giving (feel free to inundate the comments with instances that contradict this point).

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No Christianity, Many Hospitals: A response to Catholic News Service article

Today I read an article titled “No Christianity, No Hospitals: Don’t Take Christian Contributions for Granted,” on the Catholic News Service’s website. In the article author John Stonestreet praises the Catholic contribution of hospitals to society. Without the invention of Christianity, he notes, hospitals as we know them would not exist. I’d like to take a minute to go through the article, line by line, and offer some feedback.

Pro-abortion forces should be careful what they wish for, especially when it comes to Christian hospitals.

To be fair, everyone should be careful what they wish for, but this is a rather minor point. More important, what does this have to do with abortion?

recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who “think” that religion plays a role in solving important social problems “has fallen significantly” in the past fifteen years.

In 2001, 75 percent of those polled said that religious institutions played such a role in our society. By 2016, the percentage had dropped to 58 percent.

Here we set up the is… Stonestreet has identified a fact of society.

Now what’s changed? There’s no evidence that religious institutions have reduced their efforts in addressing the problems around them. Pew suspects that the drop has something to do with the rise of the so-called “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated.

Yes, and I agree with Pew. The religiously unaffiliated view social issues as secular problems. But that’s not the point here. The point is that society views on social issues are becoming more and more secular. More on that after the next bit.

I think part of the problem is that the religious contribution to the common good is so woven into the fabric of American life that most people these days just take it for granted and never stop to think about how prevalent it really is.

That could be, but it’s not really all that surprising. We fully understand how as quality and quantity of life and lifespan increase, the role of the church decreases. It’s a natural social phenomenon that we can watch happening in practically real time (raw data is here). The thing is, however, that religious institutionalism really is losing its prevalence (at least in the developed world).

So today I want to talk about one such contribution: religious hospitals. As Wikipedia tells us “Greek and Roman religion did not preach of a duty to tend to the sick.” The idea of the hospital grew out of the “Christian emphasis on practical charity,” especially towards the sick.

As mentioned above, the role of the church over medicine is understandable in societies where disease and death were more common. But the author seems to think (from an unsourced Wiki page) that hospitals are the product of specifically Christianity. I’m assuming he read the Wiki page on hospitals or the history of hospitals, which—before any mention of Christianity—shows examples of Greek religious hospitals, Buddhist religious hospitals, secular Indian hospitals, Sri Lanken Buddhist/secular hospitals, and Roman emergency care facilities, most of which predate the Christian hospital. While the adoption of Christianity in modern day Turkey certainly helped propel the ancient Christian hospital, the hospital doesn’t owe its existence to the Christian church.

Thus, as historian Roy Porter wrote in his book “The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity,” “Christianity planted the hospital.” Or stated differently, without Christianity, there would be no hospitals, at least not as we understand the idea.

So what? Well, first see my above paragraph. But more to the point, if Christian hospitals had never existed, does the author think that modern medical science (an undoubtedly secular area of study) would have failed to produce the MRI machine? The Hippocratic Oath, which was written centuries before Christ? Penicillin? Of course, again this is not the point. I’m waiting for him to get to his first.

That’s why, again quoting Wikipedia, the Catholic Church is “the largest [non-governmental] provider of health care services in the world.” How large? “It has around 18,000 clinics . . .  and 5,500 hospitals, with 65 percent of them located in developing countries.” By one estimate, the Catholic Church “manages 26 percent of the world’s health care facilities.”

That’s remarkable. The Catholic church certainly provides a lot of health services worldwide. But does the author think that if those hospitals shut down tomorrow the market would not fill the void? If demand for medical services remained constant but the supply of medical services dropped by 16% in the US, don’t you think entrepreneurs would be fending each other off for the largest slice of that piece of pie? The stats on the scope of Catholic hospital charters doesn’t tell us that we owe our health to the Catholic church.

So unless folks don’t consider providing health care in the developing world as “an important social problem,” the 42 percent who answered Pew’s question in the negative could not be more wrong.

There it is. That’s the problem. Who says that? Who believes helping the sick is unimportant? No one, which is why the author immediately changes gears. Straw man #1.

But in the off chance that respondents interpreted the question to mean “important social problems” just in the U. S., well one in six hospital beds in our country is located in a Catholic hospital. In at least thirty communities, the Catholic hospital is the only hospital in a 35-mile radius. This doesn’t even take into account hospitals run by other Christian bodies such as Baptists, Methodists, and especially Seventh-Day Adventists.

I already addressed the hospitals-in-the-US issue. Oh and yes, it also doesn’t take into account Islamic health centers, Jewish hospitals, military hospitals, and, for the lion’s share, Secular private hospitals and clinics. The number of hospital beds by religious sponsorship tells us nothing of the level of care.

Now for many progressives, this is a bad thing since these hospitals do not, because of their “commitment to the sacredness and dignity of human life from conception until death” define “women’s health” in the same way they do. To them, the spread of Catholic hospitals just means fewer abortions, and of course, that’s bad.

Again, who says that? Who says that fewer abortions is a bad thing? Does Stonestreet really believe pro-choice people praise abortions? Straw man #2. What secular people lament is when a church has a dogma and tries to make everyone else live by it. It has nothing to do with getting excited over how many abortions a person has. It has to do with being free to live by our own morality, not church ethics.

For someone actually sick and in need of medical care, this is completely irrelevant, if not perverse.

Well, we can agree on one thing; this is completely irrelevant.

And speaking of perverse: many also have the strange notion that if Christian institutions got out—or as some would prefer, were forced out—of the health care business, government would just somehow pick up the slack.

Two things: First, no one is trying to force religious medical institutions out of business. Straw man #3. Second, I cannot speak on behalf of everyone, but perhaps some would like the government to pick up the slack, but as I stated earlier, the free market would pick up the slack. … oh god, I can feel it coming…

This highlights the foolishness of the pro-abortion ideological crusade against Christian professionals and organizations in health care. As we’ve talked about before on BreakPoint, Washington State is already forcing Christian pharmacists (who by the way got no help from the Supreme Court) to choose between their faith and their careers. If states or the federal government attempt to force Christian hospitals to perform abortions, and those hospitals close their doors, the results would be catastrophic.

Sigh… Straw man #4. Stonestreet furthermore forgets there’s a difference between forcing someone to choose between their faith… and asking them to do their jobs. But if everyone who can’t do their jobs wants to quit on sectarian lines, let them. Medicine is inherently secular, and just as we would not accept a male Muslim gynecologist to refuse to see female patients because it goes against his religion, we expect Christian doctors to provide for everyone, no matter religious beliefs. Doctors know what the job entails. For example, I’m vegan. If I choose to work at McDonalds I’d better be willing to serve hamburgers, no matter my moral position on meat.

As I said earlier, the Christian commitment to caring for the sick, and other acts of compassion, are such a part of American life they’re taken for granted.

Americans take for granted hospitals, because as a society we’ve decided that hospitals are important to have. That’s why we have so many of them. We no longer care what role the church played in providing those services in the past. All we care about is that when we need hospitals they will be there. And whether or not they will be there has nothing to do with whether or not Christianity has a seat on the board of directors.

This article was supposed to be about how important Christian hospitals are, but it spiraled into several irrelevant arguments against abortion. I’m not sure where they came from, but there they are.

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