Back in 2005, the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner published a book called “Freakonomics.” The book has been described as attempt to meld together pop culture with economics. By 2009 it had become a New York Times bestseller. The book garnered a lot of press for its theory that the noticeable drop in juvenile crime rates that had been observed beginning in the early 1990s were not a function of community policing or other innovations in public safety, but a function of the 1973 abortion decision Roe v. Wade (discussed above). Levitt and Dubner argued that an entire cohort of unwanted children were not born, especially to poor and minority populations (the cohorts that were most likely to engage in crime as juveniles). They tested their theory in part by looking at the states where abortion had been legal prior to the 1973 decision and comparing those statistics with the states where Roe changed the law. They also looked at the state where abortion was now legal but had limited availability in practice. Because the political implications of this theory were explosive, Levitt and Dubner received a lot of push-back to their thesis, necessitating a number of responses to their critics. (Some of the push-back was about a spike in murder rates of mostly young black men, which Dubner and Levitt trace back to the crack epidemic of the early 1990s.)
In the end, this is an important public policy question to get correct: was it community policing and other innovations, or the availability of legalized abortion that brought down the juvenile crime rate. The “what works” question is the one that interests me the most, and it should really interest all of us. In that regard, we should be looking as objectively as possible at questions like:
- Do corporate tax breaks really stimulate the economy (and how does each dollar spent on corporate tax breaks compare to each dollar spent on unemployment insurance benefits?)
- What can actually be done about global warming (and does it really make sense to rebuild the New Jersey shoreline after Hurricane Sandy?)
- What actually contributes to increases in education (and do standardized test really measure this accurately?)
These are important questions that challenge not only our intellect but also our value systems. If we cannot apply critical thinking to these kinds of questions, how do we ever hope to progress as a society.
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?
So 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, 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.
Second, for those of you seeking support in your beliefs — or maybe even those of you who are genuinely curious, genuinely on the fence — there may be some arguments here that you can use. At least there is a reasonably coherent, reasonably condensed narrative here, one that makes the case for why we should oppose wishful thinking, why we should not treat the Bible or other religious manuscripts literally, and why we should not use those manuscripts or the superstitions they help engender as the basis for making public policy.
Of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? 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.
One always has to be careful when quoting NAZIs, or comparing a situation with NAZI Germany, for the risk of falling into the rhetorical trap of reductio ad Hitlerum. But those guys knew an awful lot about propaganda. And it does seem to work that way here in the United States as well. We’ve already been dragged into wars by Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and arguably, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Barack Obama. If we relied on the Republicans, we’d build a wall on the border with Mexico, exclude all Muslims from the United States, and bomb the shit out of Syria. And all those positions are fueled by propaganda. If there is a “war” we have to fight these days, it should be the war on propaganda. That would be a war worth fighting. For once.