On the Wizard of Oz

In the famous 1939 movie the Wizard of Oz, Toto pulls back the curtain and the the “Great and Powerful Oz” is found to be an ordinary conman who was carnival worker before a tornado brought him to the Emerald City. Once the Wizard is exposed, that is the end of his ability to achieve awe and fear among the inhabitants of the Land of Oz since the mechanics of his deception have been exposed.

Once the mechanics are exposed, that is supposed to be the end of the deception.

It should work that way with propaganda as well, but it’s not working out that way.

Propaganda is the use of media to manipulate us. It has become particularly associated with the NAZIs, who were expert at manipulating the population both to hate Jews and to want to go to war. As Herman Göring said in an interview from his jail cell during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials:

Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

Interview of Herman Göring taken from Gustave Gilbert’s Nuremberg Diary (1947).

Propaganda is hardly limited to the political sphere. It is also prevalent in religion, in advertising, media, and in religion. In an article written as far back as 1931, and which appeared in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, the American social scientist William W. Biddle defined four principles for creating propaganda: (1) rely on emotions, never argue; (2) cast propaganda into the pattern of “we” versus an “enemy”; (3) reach groups as well as individuals; (4) hide the propagandist as much as possible. A more recent and perhaps more sophisticated model for propaganda has been advanced by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky to explain how propaganda and systemic biases function in corporate mass media. The model seeks to explain how populations are manipulated and how consent is “manufactured” in the public mind for particular economic, social, and political policies. As examples, Herman and Chomsky cite the failure of the media to question the legality of the Vietnam War while depicting the Soviet–Afghan War as an act of aggression. Another example is favorable media coverage to fraudulent elections in allied countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, while giving unfavorable coverage to elections in countries such as Nicaragua.

A Triumvirate of Propagandists

In recent American political history, the first guy who really understood the power of image was our revered 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Reagan looked the part of a President. An overrated President and underrated actor, Reagan knew how to play the part of a President. Known as the “Great Communicator,” He kept his message very simple: he wanted smaller government and to increase national security. Reagan’s administration invented (or at least popularized) “trickle down” economics, which was eventually repudiated by Reagan’s own Budget Director, David Stockman. No matter, Reagan significantly changed the tax structure of the United States, providing enormous tax relief to the wealthy. No friend of the middle class, his administration also paved the way for social security benefits to be taxed. But who remembers that now?

The next guys whose mastery or propaganda has to be appreciated is former Speaker of the House, former Presidential Candidate, and permanent gadfly Newt Gingrich, whose 1994 Contract with America was filled with emotionally laden and patriotic words. Words like “fiscal responsibility,” “taking back” our streets, “personal responsibility,” “restoration” of the “American Dream” and of “national security,” “common sense” legal reform, and the “Citizen Legislature” Act. All of these are words that elicit a positive emotional response, especially among those who tend to be more conservative. 1

A 1990 article in the Chicago Tribune reports on the operations of GOPAC, the Republican political action committee that, since 1978, has been dedicated to educating and electing a new generation of Republican leaders. At the time under Gingrich’s leadership, the Committee distributed a pamphlet entitled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” in which they laid out a series of words that Republican candidates should use that promote an optimistic message for Republicans. These are words like: share; change; opportunity; legacy; challenge; control; truth; moral; courage; reform; prosperity; crusade; movement; children; family; debate; compete; active or actively; candid or candidly; humane; pristine; provide; liberty; commitment; principled; unique; duty; precious; premise; caring; tough; listen; learn; help; lead; vision; success; empower or empowerment; citizen; activist; mobilize; conflict; light; dream; freedom; peace; rights; pioneer; proud or pride; building; preserve; pro; flag, children, environment; reform; workfare; eliminate good-time in prison; strength; choice or choose; fair; protect; confident; incentive; hard work; initiative; common sense and passionate; and finally we or us or our.

On the other hand, “contrasting words,” that elicit negative emotions include: decay; failure; collapse; deeper; crisis; urgent; destructive; destroy; sick; pathetic; lie; liberal; they or them; unionized; bureaucracy; betray; consequences; limits; shallow; traitors; sensationalists; endanger; coercion; hypocrisy; radical; threaten; devour; waste; corruption; incompetent; permissive; destructive; impose; self-serving; greed; ideological; insecure; and the phrase “compassion is not enough.”

Building on the work previously done by Gingrich and others, Republican consultant Frank Luntz suggested, in 2006, that Republicans substitute the following “positive” phrases for these more neutral or negative phrases:

Instead of saying thisSay this instead
Tax reformTax simplification
Global economyFree market economy
Foreign tradeInternational trade
Tort reformLawsuit abuse reform
Corporate transparencyCorporate accountability
Healthcare optionsHealthcare choice
Drilling for oilExploring for energy
Republican phraseology

In some cases, these substitutions are not dramatic. Some of them are subtle. But they are all designed to appeal to the emotions in a way that the original phraseology did not.

The third master of propaganda in this Republican Triumvirate is Roger Ailes, the former Chairman of Fox Television and President of Fox News. Ailes began his professional career for the The Mike Douglas Show when it was still locally produced, stayed with it when it was nationally syndicated, and then became an advisor to the Nixon campaign, which was very much in need of someone with television savvy. Ailes began to do political consulting, and in 1984, Ailes worked on the campaign to reelect Ronald Reagan.

Ailes was credited with the “Orchestra Pit Theory” of political news coverage, which allegedly originated with his saying, “If you have two politicians on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”

By 1996 Fox News had been founded by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, with Ailes as its founding CEO. It was clear from the beginning that Fox News as intended to be “ballast” for what Murdoch, Ailes, and other right-wing thinkers believed was a substantial liberal bias in the mainstream media. Fox News began operating with the slogan ” the slogan “Fair and Balanced” — which it did not drop until 2017, after Ailes had been ousted over sexual harassment allegations — and which represents something absolutely essential about how propaganda is used on Fox News.

In effect, the idea is to repeat something over and over again, no matter how fabricated or shameless it may be.

Jon Stewart famously had a clip that he used on the Daily Show entitled “Fifty Fox News lies on six seconds.”

Ah if it were only fifty.

Fox News has, over the years, engaged in thousands upon thousands of lies. Politico subsequently fact-checked the Daily Show’s assertion, and found that all of the claims that the Fox News had made that the Daily Show had cited were indeed either just “lies” or “pants on fire” lies, except that Political counted only 49 instead of 50.

In fact, Politico recently did an analysis of Fox News in which they evaluated 178 statements and found that 40% were either true, mostly true or half-true, and a whopping 60% were false, mostly false, or “pants on fire” lies.

Statement TypeNumberPercentage
Mostly True2011%
Half True3419%
Mostly False3821%
Pants on Fire1810%
Total Statements178100%
Politco Analysis of the truthfulness of statements on Fox News

Some of you may be wondering why Fox News can’t be sued when they propagate lies. The answer lies in two peculiarities of the law: (1) in order to sue, a person has to have standing, which is another way of saying that they have to have been victimized by the lie; and (2) in the United States, we differentiate between news pieces and opinion pieces when it comes to First Amendment law. Without getting into all the legalities of it — which can get rather complex — the general idea is that a broadcaster has to be factually accurate in a news piece but they do not have to be factually accurate in an opinion piece. 2

To be fair, it’s not just Fox News that blurs the distinction between news and political commentary. That was part of the subtext of former New York Times Editor Jill Abramson’s recent look at the news business, The Merchants of Truth. But Fox News does it more shamelessly than any other broadcast outlet. Fox news does it so shamelessly, and so effectively, that there are now legions of stories about people whose families have essentially been broken up by Fox News. There are people out there who believe that their loved ones have been rendered unrecognizable by their devotion to Fox News.

And to be fair once more, it’s not only Republicans who use language to their advantage. In the example below, we see the words Republicans and Democrats might use relative to the same topics:

Illegal AliensUndocumented immigrants
Gun rightsPun control
Pro lifePro choice
Death taxEstate tax
Choice of words used by Democrats and Republicans

Other Right-Wing Media

Although Fox News has been leading the charge, they are hardly the only right-wing media outlet that has gained traction. Some outlets are kind of subterranean, such as Sinclair Media. Founded by Julian Sinclair Smith, the company, the second-largest television station operator in the United States, is currently run by the four sons of the founder. David Deniston Smith, the current Executive Chairman is also a former pornographer who back in 1996 was caught up in a prostitution sting that resulted in a sentence of community service. The company owns or operates 193 stations across the country at last count. They are also known for some “Orwellian” practices, including having “must run” segments that all of its stations must run.

In March of 2018 the corporate Sinclair office sent an internal memo to its stations requiring them to produce and broadcast an “anchor-delivered journalistic responsibility message,” written to sound like it was the actual opinion of the local anchors. The script required the anchors to state:

I’m extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that [the local station] produces. But I’m concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, national media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy. We understand Truth is neither politically left or right. Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.

Required Sinclair script for anchors to read

The promos began to receive attention in the mainstream media after Deadspin and ThinkProgress posted video compilations featuring all of the promos being played simultaneously.

False Equivalence

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein recently wrote a book entitled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, in which they argue that there has been asymmetrical polarization of the political system.3 They use as their first example the imbroglio over the 2010 budget negotiations. As described by the authors:

On January 26, 2010, the Senate voted on a resolution to create an eighteen-member deficit-reduction task force with teeth, a fast-track procedure to bring a sweeping plan to solve the U.S.’s debt problem straight to the floor for an up-or-down vote. The resolution was coauthored by Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and had substantial bipartisan support, including from Republican leaders like John McCain and Mitch McConnell. But on January 26, the Senate blocked the resolution. Fifty-three senators supported it, but it could not garner the sixty votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Among those who voted to sustain the filibuster and kill the resolution were Mitch McConnell and John McCain. McCain was joined in opposition by six other original cosponsors, all Republicans. Never before have cosponsors of a major bill conspired to kill their own idea, in an almost Alice-in-Wonderland fashion. Why did they do so? Because President Barack Obama was for it, and its passage might gain him political credit.

Mann, Thomas E. and Ornstein, Norman, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.

Subsequent to this vote, Fred Hiatt, the opinion editor of the Washington Post, wrote of McConnell’s change of position, “No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that is wrong with Washington today. No single vote could embody the full cynicism and cowardice of our political elite at its worst, or explain by itself why problems do not get solved. But here’s one that comes close.”

Tim Alberta, the chief correspondent for Politico, wrote a book entitled American Carnage, which is essentially about the evolution (or devolution) of the Republican party through the Teaparty era, which led up to Trump becoming the de-facto leader of the Republican party. Both books reinforce the same idea, which is that while the Republican party has swung dramatically to the right, the Democratic party, if anything has remained centrist and a protector of corporate America. There is a false equivalence between the politics and tactics of the uncompromising right — who have signed all of their members on to an uncompromising no new taxes pledge — and the compromising politics of the left, who are willing to put entitlements and cherished social programs on the table.

The Arrival of Donald Trump

And finally we come to Donald Trump. I don’t think that Trump is nearly as brilliant as Ronald Reagan, or Newt Gingrich, or Roger Ailes, but he does understand television, and he does understand branding. He’s a good salesman in a peculiar sort of way, if nothing else. As people who follow Trump know well, he is from the Roy Cohn school of conflict management: never back down, never concede anything, never retreat from a lie, no matter how outrageous it is. Now if President Trump were a good liar, we’d really have a problem. But he’s just a bad liar, lying about things that are easily disprovable.

  • He began his Presidency by lying about the size of his inaugural crowd.
  • He lied when he claimed that 3 million undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election (which also happens to be the margin by which Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote).
  • He lied claiming that Barack Obama had spied on his campaign.
  • He lied about Hurricane Dorian and how it was threatening Alabama, and wrote on a map with magic marker.

That is, of course, just a short list. Depending on who’s counting, Trump has told somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 lies in the first three years of his presidency, which is roughly between 10 and 14 lies per day, on average. And then some of the lies, like the one about Hurricane Dorian, are just plain silly. And so inconsequential. But it doesn’t matter how ridiculous the lie, Trump will never back off of one.

What do Trump supporters mean, then, when they keep claiming that Trump “tells the truth” or “tells it like it is.” It’s not that he tells “factual” truth, we can be certain of that. It’s that he tells “emotional” truths, or what feels to his supporters like emotional truth. These are the truths of resentment that have been nurtured so expertly over at Fox News and by other right-wing media outlets. The table below sets forth some of the “alternative facts” made famous by Kellyanne Conway, and what the real facts actually are:

Alternate FactsActual Facts
That racial minorities have been getting a free ride ever since the enactment of civil rights laws and “Great Society” programs in the United States.That racial minorities are still routinely discriminated against, are still incarcerated disproportionately, and have much less wealth and much less income on average when compared to “white” Americans.
That “illegal” immigrants are taking away jobs from hard working Americans.That “undocumented” aliens are an indispensable part of the agricultural, restaurant, and elder care economies, and that they do jobs that very few Americans are interested in.
That our culture has become too “politically correct” and that you cannot say anything without offending someone.That our “liberal” culture, while occasionally overdoing it, is also trying to make up for centuries of discrimination and oppression.
Liberals are big spenders and always looking to solve things through government programs.The federal deficit has, on balance, been reduced during Democratic administrations, and increased ballooned during Republican ones.
Republicans are the party of “law and order.”There have been vastly more indictments and convictions of members of Republican administrations than of Democratic ones
That liberals don’t look out for America but are concerned with the rest of the world first.On balance the American economy has done better under Democratic than Republican administrations.
Alternative Facts vs Actual Facts

Plenty of conservatives might argue with my last two conclusions, but it’s absolutely clear that Democrats have at least been better in terms of reducing the deficit and maintaining a healthy economy.

That Donald Trump’s appeal is mostly about attitude and appeal to the emotions can be seen, at least anecdotally, in a recent article on the upcoming battle in swing states, and why a large number of traditional Democrats still support President Trump. Here the person being profiled is Harold Klinzing, a 46-year-old roofer who loves his labor union, and is the sort of voter Democratic presidential victories were once built upon. Klinzig had this to say about Trump:

I just absolutely love the way Trump presents himself. I’ve always been brutally honest my entire life. I say what I think and if you don’t like me for it at least I’m honest, is the way I look at it. And Trump comes off that way.

Harold Klinzing, voter in Pennsylvania

Klinzing “liked the bluster and the bombast” and way that Trump spoke, the article went on to note. Klinzing also “believed that society had become too politically correct and that minorities play ‘the race card’ and accuse white people of racism too much.”

And there you have it, my friends. Supporters of what I have been calling the “FU” President ever since he was elected, just live his attitude. He apologizes for nothing.

With Trump, the discussion is not complete until one acknowledges one thing, and that is the prevalence of racism among Trump supporters. Racism is not explicitly part of the discussion on propaganda except to the degree that it is part of what has become to be known as dog whistle politics, which is where the speaker uses coded words that everyone understands.

After the Trump election, the journalist Alexander Zaitchik wrote a book entitled The Gilded Rage, in which he toured through Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Mexico and the conservative parts of California, “embedding” with Trump supporters to find out what they thought. The book is primarily conversational, modeled after the work of Studs Terkel, but one of the things they reveal is the persistence of racial animus, ostensibly denied, in Trump supporters.4

There had, as some of you might remember, been a lot of discussion after the election as to which attributes correspond most closely with Trump supporters, and the candidates seemed to be (1) lack of education, (2) support for authoritarianism, and (3) racism. The argument was never settled, and won’t be for quite some time. Nevertheless, in December of 2018, Psychology Today contributor Bobby Azarian posted an article entitled A Complete Psychological Analysis of Trump’s Support, in which he posited that the following fourteen factors corresponded with support for Trump:

  1. The notion that practicality “trumps” morality (pun intended)
  2. That the brain’s attention system is more strongly engaged by Trump
  3. America’s Obsession with Entertainment and Celebrities
  4. That some men just “want to watch the world burn.”
  5. The fear factor, which is that conservatives are more sensitive to threat
  6. The power of mortality reminders and perceived existential threat
  7. The Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is that humans often overestimate their own expertise
  8. Relative deprivation, and a misguided sense of entitlement
  9. A lack of exposure to dissimilar others
  10. That Trump’s conspiracy theories target the mentally vulnerable
  11. That Trump taps into the nation’s collective narcissism
  12. The desire to want to dominate others
  13. Having an authoritarian personality
  14. Appeals to racism and bigotry

It isn’t explicitly asserted in the article, but I would be willing to bet that these personality traits also correspond with a certain increased susceptibility to propaganda.

A Case Study in Propaganda

As a case study in propaganda, we can look at the oft-repeated promise Donald Trump made during the 2016 presidential campaign that not only would he build a great wall on the southern border, but that he would make Mexico pay for it. Whenever someone questioned this assertion, Trump would respond that the “wall just got six feet taller,” or something to that effect.

What was the point of this obvious lie?

The point was to identify Trump as this überskilled negotiator, a dealmaker so good that he could get other parties to do what they clearly did not want to do, what was clearly not in their own interest.

In the same vein we had Trump’s assertion that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the agreement that the Obama administration negotiated with Iran to keep them from enriching uranium for nuclear weapons — was “the worst deal ever negotiated.” He promised to withdraw from that agreement if elected President, and he delivered on that promise.

Now think about it. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action wasn’t negotiated between the Obama administration and the Iranians; it was negotiated between the Obama administration, the Iranians, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. In other words, between our three most important allies (apart from Canada) and our two most important adversaries.

Let me repeat that: our three most important allies and our two most important adversaries.

Russia, the country that Donald Trump loves so much, was in on the deal. Vladimir Putin was in on the deal. And yet, it was “the worst deal ever negotiated.”

So, did Mexico pay for the wall? Of course not.5

But many people still think of Trump as a successful businessman.6 He had some successes, but his career was far more checkered than the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Carlos Slim, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin or Larry Page. Those are guys who created something out of nothing. Or fellow presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, who also managed to get himself elected twice as the major of New York City.

Trump started life with a $1 million investment from his father in 1976, and there have been plenty of reports that he would be much richer than he currently is if he had just invested in stock market index funds. 7As in $10 billion richer. The business magazine Forbes has estimated Trump’s wealth at about $3.1 billion as of the beginning of 2020, but who knows. As of this writing he has yet to release — as he promised he would — any of his tax returns.

Most of the reason people believe that Trump was such a successful businessman was because of his successful run on the Apprentice.8 His “your fired” tagline became well known, and even his detractors have to give Trump this: he’s a very good salesman, and he’s very good at branding himself.

But Trump’s myth is mostly propaganda, my friends. It’s propaganda. It’s propaganda in action, and it’s already won him the presidency once.

The Persistence of Magical Thinking

Propaganda is not restricted simply to politics, media and advertisement. It had, arguably, it’s origin in religion. According to Bruce Lannes Smith, Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University, in an article written for the Encyclopedia Britannica, the word propaganda derives from the title and work of the “Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagation of the Faith), an organization of Roman Catholic cardinals founded in 1622 to carry on missionary work.”

Part of the underlying theme of these essay is that virtually all religious belief requires a certain amount of magical thinking. Normally, a lot of magical thinking. Magical thinking is, in effect, the antithesis of critical thinking, which, by the way, is not the same thing as rational thinking or the scientific method. Although they are cousins.

Christianity is hardly the only religion that requires magical thinking. First of all, all of the “Abrahamic” religions9, whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam, or all guilty of the same kinds of magical thinking. But they hardly stand alone.

Belief in the Hindu and Buddhist faiths essentially also requires belief in reincarnation, for which there is precious little evidence. Reincarnation is, of course, a delicious fantasy, because it answers the greatest fear that most of us have, which is that we will “cease to exist.” Since most of us cannot imagine a world without us, the panic that we will cease to exist is at the core of much of our anxiety. It is literally existential anxiety. Enter reincarnation, which reassures us that we will not cease to exist, but that our “souls” or “essence” will continue to exist for time immortal.

Reincarnation is a close cousin to an eternal afterlife, which is another way of insuring that an essential part of us — our “souls” — continue to live forever. There is nothing that will assuage the fear of death than the belief that a part of us will somehow get to live forever.

New Age beliefs are especially prone to magical thinking. In fact, if there is one thing that almost all New Age beliefs have in common, then it is in the power of “spirituality” — whatever that is — to make a difference in our lives. But there is no common definition for spirituality.10 The form makes no difference, really, because people who subscribe to New Age thinking often believe in forms of spirituality that are, if you take their mythology literally, inconsistent with each other.

Our ability to deceive ourselves is at the forefront of cognitive science. My previous discussion of the Wilkomirski Affair demonstrated that a person can literally come to believe — passionately and with full conviction — that they had an experience that they, demonstrably, never actually had.

Our ability to deceive ourselves through religion is — when you start to think about it — incomprehensible (pun intended). There are literally billions of people who think that an itinerant Jewish preacher who lived approximately 2000 years ago in one very particularly narrow corner of the world will come back and “save” them (it’s not exactly clear from what) even though any reasonable reading of the Christian narrative indicates that Jesus thought the Kingdom of God would come in his lifetime, and that what the Jews of Palestine would be saved from, more than anything is Roman occupation.

And yet, there are people from as farflung places as Reykjavik Iceland to Lagos Nigeria to Tierra del Fuego Argentina who think that Jesus is coming to save them.

Or look at the concept of “original sin,” which is what many Christians believe Jesus is coming to save us from. Belief in original sin also requires one to believe the biblical creation narrative — of which there at least two, both of which are not entirely consistent with each other — that originally there were only two human beings, and that they were tempted by a talking snake, that all men and women acquired original sin (the “fall of man“) because both of these people took a bite from an apple growing on a forbidden tree.

I’m sorry, but it’s insane what you have to believe to be a devout Christian.

And yet, literally billions of people believe it.

But it doesn’t stop there. You also have to believe that these two, Adam and Eve, had kids who then married each other and had intercourse — incest be damned — because there were no other people on the Earth.11 Or if there were other people on Earth, nobody knows where they came from. And you have to believe nonsense like that Adam lived to be 930 years old, and that other characters lived to ages that might be appropriate for a Redwood Tree, but not for human beings. And then you have to believe that there were creatures which were partly men and partly God (the “Nephilim“) which consorted with human beings, and then you have to believe that there was a worldwide flood, and that one guy and his family brought a bunch of animals onto a very large boat — even though there were predators and prey on that same boat, and they somehow managed not to each other for 40 days — and even though there fish and birds at the time who could have kept swimming or kept flying — and somehow that wiped the slate clean, but apparently not for original sin.

These are the kind of things that you have to believe to take the Bible literally.

Is it any wonder that atheists like myself believe that it’s just as credible to believe in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy?

And yet there are millions of evangelicals who want us to “respect their religion” and treat them seriously when they claim that the Earth is only 6000 years old.

The inability (or unwillingness) to think critically is also what makes people so very susceptible to political propaganda. The same unwillingness to question the irreconcilable inconsistencies in the Bible is also the same unwillingness to recognize that it’s not immigrants who are taking your jobs, but that they’re being shipped to China by the Board of Directors of the company that you work for. It’s so much easier to ignore the inconsistencies and it’s so much easier to blame the immigrants.

Science and Religion

People have tried to harmonize science and religion, such as the late evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. As previously discussed, Gould tried hard to harmonize the two fields through the concept of non-overlapping magisteria. That is the notion that science and religion each represent different areas of inquiry over which they have “a legitimate magisterium, domain of teaching authority,” and the two domains do not have to overlap.

The problem with this notion is that it really is hard to keep the two domains separate. For example, if science cannot find any evidence for a “soul” — science has clearly found evidence of consciousness, which in of itself is an amazing mystery — than science begins to intrude into clearly religious matters.

Conversely, if you take claims in the Bible literally — such as that the Earth is only 6000 years old or that evolution did not happen — then you’ve clearly intruded way far into the domain of science.

Now, to be sure, there are religious leaders who have been very welcoming of and open to science. Two easy examples are the Dalia Lama — who famously conducted an extensive discussion with the physicist Anton Zeilinger which was eventually published — and Pope Francis — who, before joining the Jesuits (and while still known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio), trained as a chemist and ran tests in a chemical laboratory. Vatican City even has a Pontifical Academy of Sciences and whose purpose is “to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical, and natural sciences and the study of related epistemological problems.”

But there remains a fundamental problem, which is that if you don’t believe in the story of Adam and Eve, or original sin and of the fall of man, then what is the point of being a Christian? Without original sin there is nothing for Jesus to save you from.

The truth is that it requires an immense amount of mental gymnastics to make these things fit into one harmonious whole. And that is because Christianity is not really an intellectual exercise. It’s all about feeling and emotion: it is about feeling “safe,” and “at one” with a creator.

People don’t become believers because they have interesting thoughts about religion. People become believers because of how religion makes them feel. For most of us, this process begins at a very young age, when we are introduced to religious practices in a family and community context. That is, of course, why it is very rare for someone who is raised, say in Italy in a Catholic family, to grow up as a Hindu. If they were to become a Hindu, it would almost always be because they were exposed to Hinduism through a course of some kind, and were both intellectually and emotionally attracted to what Hinduism has to offer.

Religion is comfort food. Or in Karl Marx’s less charitable interpretation, the “opiate of the masses.” But I’ll choose the more charitable interpretation: religion is comfort food. But immensely powerful and addictive comfort food. (In this way it’s much like sugar.) It’s the same reason, really, that Trump supporters can blame refugees or immigrants for the loss of their jobs than for the corporate CEOs who actually made the decision to ship their jobs overseas: it is so much easier, so much more comfortable to blame refugees or immigrants.

The Tara Westover Analogy

Tara Westover recently wrote a memoir, Educated, which received a lot of praise from a lot of heavy hitters, including President Obama, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, as well as being a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s award in autobiography and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard prize for best first book. The praise was deserved because the book is both brilliant and eminently readable.

Part of what makes the story remarkable is that Westover was from an obscure family of Idaho Mormon survivalists. Her parents did not send her or any of her six siblings to public school, and were, in fact, so distrustful of government, that none of the children had birth certificates. Several of the kids nevertheless made the decision to attend public school when they were old enough to make that decision, and three of them managed to get themselves accepted in college. Not only that, but all of those three managed to get PhD’s, including Tara, who managed to earn a Master’s degree from the University of Cambridge at Trinity College as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, and after being a visiting fellow at Harvard University, returned to Trinity College to receive a PhD in intellectual history.

The reason I mention the family here is that the family bifurcated almost perfectly between the siblings who were educated and those who were not. The uneducated siblings joined the parents in believing that the educated group had been waylaid by Satan and were irredeemable. The three educated siblings felt sympathy for their uneducated brethren, but had to separate completely from the family.

In a sense the Westover family is symbolic of America as a nation. While our nation is not as neatly or dramatically bifurcated as this family, it is a nation that is increasingly split between urban and rural populations, the educated and the uneducated, the coasts and middle America.

Infinity and Other Transformative Experiences

My “transformative” religious experience, if I can be said to have had such an experience, was at the age of five when my cousin Lutz first introduced me to the concept of infinity. No matter how large a number you can think of, you can always add “1.” No matter how far out in space you are, you can always go a further. No matter how long you’ve been dead, you’ll continue to be dead forever. That concept totally freaked me out — to be dead forever — that was traumatizing to a five your old, for sure. I still haven’t completely resolved the trauma, but comfort myself with the notion that being dead will be a lot like what it was like before I was born, which didn’t seem that traumatic. Some scientists are now arguing that time is circular. “Forever” isn’t a concept I can grasp, any more than I can grasp the concept of God. What I know is only this: I have no assurances of an after-life, so whatever I want my life to be, I had better make it a good one in the life that I know.

Marx famously said that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” (Die Religion . . . ist das Opium des Volkes). No doubt people seek comfort in religion for obvious reasons. When I think about what the universe will be like after I die, I think of it as being the same as the universe was before I was born. But as comforting thoughts come, that isn’t really a great one. Recently, someone sent me an article making the argument that there is accumulating scientific evidence, coming from near death experiences, that suggest that the “soul” does survive our death and head for some kind of afterlife. I don’t know if that’s true. I would like it to be true. I would like it to be true just as much as you would like it to be true. I’m just not willing to believe it until the evidence becomes sufficiently compelling.

What Does an Atheist Believe?

Someone once said that saying you’re an atheist is like saying that you don’t play golf. It doesn’t tell you a lot about what you do play, or what you do believe. And atheists generally do believe in something. For one thing, they tend to believe in science. But science is about a process; it’s not an end in itself. It’s just a technique, or a set of techniques, for how to acquire knowledge.

So I believe in the “big bang,” not as an established fact, but as the most likely explanation of the mechanics of how the world was created. That does not tell us anything about the meaning of the World. Why do I believe the scientists? I believe them because:

  • They managed to land a man (or several men) on the moon, and they recently landed a rover on an asteroid;
  • They created nuclear power and they decoded the genome and created antibiotics;
  • They created the Internet and CD player and DVD players and all kinds of amazing gadgets;
  • They created the technology that allows doctors to insert a catheter in the groin to treat an embolism in the brain.

In short, science is remarkable. And what scientists know is astonishing. And the big bang theory is the one that is most consistent with what theoretical physicists and others know about how the Universe functions and how it should function. But it leaves many questions unanswered. Scientists are now postulating that there may be multiple universes, or a so-called multiverse; that the big bang may have created a mirror universe to our universe; or that time stretches back infinitely in what is known as a “rainbow gravity” theory.

These things are largely beyond my comprehension. Just as I disbelieve anyone so arrogant as to think that they know what “God” is or what “God” intends, it’s clear to me that whatever the Universe is, that is beyond the comprehension of my puny brain. I’m not going to get it. What separates me from most believers is not my intelligence or lack thereof; it’s not my intuition or lack thereof; it’s not my imagination or lack thereof; it’s my ability to tolerate uncertainty.

I recently came across the story of Ryan Bell, a former pastor at the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church, an adjunct professor, and a “researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion.” In January 2014, he “began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheist landscape,” which led him to substantially doubt his previous faith. In a story on National Public Radio, the former pastor opined that “that people very much value certainty and knowing, and are uncomfortable saying that they don’t know.” He went on to say that “I think before I wanted a closer relationship to God and today I just want a closer relationship with reality.” Me too. I want a closer relationship with reality. I want a closer relationship with truth, whatever it may be.

What Do I Hope to Achieve?

This sequence of essays began with the observation that it would be silly for me to try to dissuade you from your belief system and, in fact, that a part of me envies the comfort that it brings you, if you are a person who has religious belief. I just can’t join you there.

The question may be asked relative to what I hope to achieve with this blog. I recognize, at the outset, that I’m mostly preaching to the choir. We already know that trying to base a discussion in “rationality,” trying to persuade people with sound arguments, is unlikely to work. It’s unlikely to work because that’s not how most people are open to persuasion. Still, I do have a couple of specific objectives that I hope to accomplish.

First, building on the work of scholars much more capable than I, I’m hoping to provide a readable summary of why one should not take the Bible literally as the inspired word of God.

Second, I would like to “draw back the curtain” — in the Wizard of Oz sense — on right wing propaganda. The more we get information out that exposes how the right wing engages in propaganda, the less powerful it becomes. It’s like with magic. The more one exposes a magician’s tricks, the less likely that people are to believe it as true. We may admire the magician’s skill, but we don’t have to believe that it’s real.

Third, I’m hoping to make an argument for critical thinking and, in a sense, I’m hoping to model a bit of critical thinking with respect to religious or spiritual superstition.

And finally, for those who are curious, I’m hoping to provide a little of a window into at least one atheist’s belief system, and some insight in how I got from here to there.

Return to discussion of the Purpose of the Blog
  1. Newt Gingrich has been a hell-raiser since before his entry into politics in 1979. Way back in 1974 while a young party activist and still obscure college Professor, Gingrich told an audience of partisans that Republicans needed to be “nasty,” that they had to learn to “raise hell,” to stop being so “nice,” and to realize that politics was, above all, a cutthroat “war for power.” When Gingrich was finally elected to the House of Representatives on his third try, his strategy was to blow up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating, and then seize on the resulting dysfunction to wage a populist crusade. And credit to him, he succeeded brilliantly at that, and he’s still at it even as I write this, decades later.
  2. In addition, under the First Amendment, political campaigns essentially have First Amendment protection for lying to the public, with some specific limitations.
  3. It should be noted that Thomas Mann is with the non-partisan Brookings Institution, and that Norman Ornstein is with the conservative leaning American Enterprise Institute.
  4. Whenever someone begins a conversation with the disclaimer that they’re “not a racist,” that is almost always a bad sign.
  5. In the 2016 election the media was accused of taking Trump literally but not seriously, while his supporters were alleged to be taking him seriously but not literally. But it turns out many of his supporters took Trump seriously and literally, although very few of them seem to be holding him to account for the fact that Mexico will never pay for the wall.
  6. Trump’s businesses filed for bankruptcy protection six times, not the four times he claimed on the campaign trail. Trump also failed (1) with the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League ; (2) the now-defunct Trump University; (3) with the Trump Taj Mahal (1991), Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino (1992), Plaza Hotel (1992), Trump Castle Hotel and Casino (1992), Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts (2004), and Trump Entertainment Resorts (which all went bankrupt); and (4) Trump Steaks, GoTrump, Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage, Trump: The Game, Trump Magazine, Trump Ice, Tour de Trump, and the Trump Network. Which is not to take away from the man’s successes, of which he’s also had many. The point is that his business record is far more checkered than most other famous businessmen.
  7. Aside from the $1 million (about $4.5 million in 2020 dollars) trust fund from his father Fred Trump, the New York Times reported that his father set up approximately 295 distinct streams of revenue for his son. It’s also been reported that the Donald is the beneficiary of several trust funds set up by his father and paternal grandmother beginning in 1949, when he was just three years old.
  8. Donald Trump hosted the first 6 seasons of the Apprentice from 2004 through 2007, hosted an additional season in 2010, and hosted seven seasons of the Celebrity Apprentice between 2008 and 2015.
  9. The main Abrahamic religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but also include Bábism, the Bahá’í and Druze faiths, Mandaeism, Rastafarianism, Samaritanism, Shabakism, and Yazdânism.
  10. In the Wikipedia entry for spirituality, under the “definition” section, it is noted that “There is no single, widely agreed upon definition of spirituality.” No kidding! Definitions of “spirit” frequently reference terms such as “soul” and “essence,” which, in a tautological turn, frequently reference back to “spirit” in their own definitions.
  11. For example, according to the Book of Jubilees, Cain married his sister Awan, one of the (apparently) many daughters of Adam and Eve.