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What’s God Got to Do With It?

November 2011

He may be invoked in the national motto, but God has nothing to do with why Americans are free and secure

This op-ed was originally published in the Los Angeles Times, Friday November 4, 2011.

The House of Representatives voted last week by a margin of 396–9 to reaffirm as the national motto the phrase “In God We Trust,” and encouraged its pronouncement on public buildings and continued printing on the coin of the realm. The motto was made official in 1956 during the height of Cold War hysteria over godless communism and—in the words of Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s and Peter Sellers’ 1964 classic antiwar film Dr. Strangelove—“Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

As risible a reason as this was for knocking out a few bricks in the wall separating state and church, it was at least understandable in the context of the times. But today, with no communist threats and belief in God or a universal spirit among Americans still holding strong at about 90%, according to a 2011 Gallup Poll, what is the point of having this motto? The answer is in the wording of the resolution voted on: “Whereas if religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace of ideas, the very freedom on which the United States was founded cannot be secured.”

What is troubling—and should trouble any enlightened citizen of a modern nation such as ours — is the implication that in this age of science and technology, computers and cyberspace, and liberal democracies securing rights and freedoms for oppressed peoples all over the globe, that anyone could still hold to the belief that religion has a monopoly on morality and that the foundation of trust is based on engraving four words on brick and paper.

If you think that God is watching over the United States, please ask yourself why he glanced away during 9/11 (why not divert those planes and save those innocent people?), or why he chose to abandon the good folks of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina (surely an omnipotent deity could hold back the flood waters as surely as he unleashed them on Noah’s generation), and why he continues to allow earthquakes and cancers to strike down even blameless children. The problem of evil—why bad things happen to good people if an all powerful and all good god is in control of things—has haunted the faithful since it was first articulated millennia ago with nigh a solution on the horizon.

It’s time to drop the god talk and face reality with a steely-eyed visage of the modern understanding of the origin of freedom on which the United States was founded and continues to be secured. God has nothing to do with it. If you want freedom and security you need the following:

The rule of law; property rights; a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system; economic stability; a reliable infrastructure and the freedom to move about the country; freedom of the press; freedom of association; education for the masses; protection of civil liberties; a clean and safe environment; a robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states; a potent police force for protection of our freedoms from attacks by people within the state; a viable legislative system for establishing fair and just laws; and an effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.

With these in place the citizens of a nation feel free and secure. Why? The answer is in the final word of the motto: Trust. Claremont Graduate University economist Paul Zak has studied trust between nations and found that the more of these components that are in place, the more citizens trust one another. Zak even computed the differences in living standards that trust can affect, demonstrating that a 15% increase in the proportion of people in a country who think others are trustworthy raises income per person by 1% per year for every year thereafter. For example, increasing levels of trust in the U.S. from its current 36% to 51% would raise the average income for every man, woman and child in the country by $400 per year or $30,000 lifetime. Trust pays.

Trust has fiscal benefits that are derived through specific political and economic policies that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion or belief in God. Despite a strong belief in God, the percentage of Americans who believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems” has plummeted from 82% to 58%, while those who believe that “religion is old-fashioned and out of date” leaped from 7% to 28%, according to a 2010 Gallup Poll. Thus it would seem that Americans are more aware today than a half century ago that it’s up to us to secure our freedom through enlightened secular policies with practical social applications rather than faith-based hope in empty mottos reflecting an era gone by. 

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Occupy This!

November 2011

On Sunday morning, October 16, 2011, I taxied down to the Occupy Wall Street shindig from the 92nd Street Y where the Singularity Summit was unraveling as organizers scrambled to figure out how to work the wireless Internet system in the room while speakers boasted about how close we are to computers achieving human level intelligence. Human ignorance maybe, but intelligence? More on that topic later. (See my Scientific American column for January—out mid December—for my skeptical thoughts on when I think computers will achieve human level intelligence. Hint: We’re five years away…and always will be. But since I don’t want to sound so pessimistic, I have taken a cue from the singer/songwriters Zager and Evans, that the exordium and terminus of the singularity will be 2525 and 9595.)

When I posted some pics I snapped with my iPhone on twitter and made a couple of snide remarks, many of my fellow skeptics chided me for my insensitivity or berated me for my libertarian blindness to real social injustices being protested at the various “Occupy X” events. I call them events (or “shindigs”) because my general impression is that although there are some real issues being mentioned here and there in a desultory manner, for the most part I think most people I saw were in one of two categories: (1) onlookers such as myself snapping pictures and taking in the scene; (2) participants wanting to be part of what might turn out to be this generation’s (a) Woodstock or (b) Montgomery bus boycott. In my opinion it is neither, but I have to admit that I haven’t inhaled that much second-hand pot smoke since I was in college (yes, even at the staunchly conservative Pepperdine University, there were bountiful plumes of pot smoke wafting down the dorm room hallways!).

I have appended various photographs at the end of this essay to let the moment speak for itself, grammatically challenged signs and all, but let me first make a few comments regarding what might be gleaned from the party atmosphere of a few salient points of political and economic significance.

  1. Why has no one from Wall Street gone to jail for the financial meltdown? Bill Maher has asked this question several times on his HBO show Real Time. I have asked many experts myself, including economists, lawyers, and Wall Street traders. Answer: no one went to jail because they didn’t break any laws. Conclusion: If you want someone punished for the meltdown you have to first change the law. Perhaps these protests are the first step in that direction, although I doubt it because I don’t think Wall Street by itself caused the meltdown. It was a combination of many factors, primary being the removal of risk aversion from both Wall Street traders (and bankers) and Main Street home buyers. Still, if you want to blame Wall Streeters…
  2. What, exactly, did these Wall Street people do that was so wrong? Well, for one, the protestors seem to think that they are too greedy. This is like standing outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles to protest that Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are too greedy because they are constantly trying to win a championship and make a ton of money in the process. That’s the whole point of playing professional sports—to win and make a boatload of money in the process! Analogously, the only reason to work on Wall Street is to make a boatload of money. That’s the whole point of “playing the market.”
  3. The Wall Streeters accepted bailout money that they shouldn’t have gotten. Yeah, well, whose fault is that? What did you think they would do? Turn the money down? Heck no! You offer someone a handout and they’ll take it, whether it is a main street worker or a Wall Street CEO. The problem is that they should never have been bailed out in the first place. That happened because of crony capitalism, which is nothing like the libertarian vision of real capitalism. So here I’m sympathetic with the Occupy X protestors: no “in profits we’re capitalists, in losses we’re socialists.” Sorry. If you want to play the game of Risk you have to accept the losses as well as the gains.
  4. Wall Street CEOs and their resident COOs, CFOs, traders, and the like, make too damn much money, hundreds of times more than the gap used to be between the highest paid and lowest paid members of corporations. Emotionally I am once again sympathetic to the Occupy Xers: the amount of money some of these guys makes is obscene, and the income gap between them and us is Grand Canyonesque in yawning abyss. But what’s the number? How much is too much income? $1 million? $10 million? $100 million $1 billion? $10 billion? Is it really the job of some government agency to set a ceiling on how much anyone is allowed to make? Would any of my readers care to pick a number and defend it? And what if it is a number well under Bill Gates’ income? He’s giving most of it away to what most of us would consider very worthwhile causes (disease eradication in Africa, education in America). Is it okay to make $X if you give most of it away, or is it only okay if it is taxed away from you and spent on some cause someone else thinks is better than the causes you want to support?
  5. The government should regulate Wall Street more. I agree that all competitions must be regulated by a well-defined set of rules that are consistently enforced with penalties assessed without prejudice or bias, from sporting contests to stock market trading. That is what the SEC is for, among other regulatory bodies. But from where I sit as an average Joe the Skeptic position of modest income who tries his hand at stock market trading in figures infinitesimally smaller than the Big Boys, it all looks like insider trading to me—from the Wall Street CEOs to the Beltway politicians appointed to look after them, who seemingly trade jobs and hold their positions no matter who is in power, Democrats or Republicans. Obama has drunk the Wall Street Kool Aid no less than Bush did. They all do. The entire system is corrupt, in that sense. Once you allow the players to dictate who enforces the rules of the game, the game is over. It would be like Barry Bonds being appointed Director of the Steroid Drug Testing Agency overseeing baseball to insure a fair contest, while he is still playing the game!

Will anything come of the Occupy This protests? Probably not. If the President of the United States can’t institute changes, who can? Congress? Yeah, right, there’s no corporate money tainting those jobs now is there? So here’s one man’s simplistic answer: no more government bail outs for anyone for anything, either on Main Street or Wall Street. Bail out money corrupts, and government bail out money corrupts absolutely.

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The Real Science behind Scientology

November 2011
It’s not what you think
magazine cover

IN THE 1990S I had the opportunity to dine with the late musician Isaac Hayes, whose career fortunes had just made a stunning turnabout upward, which he attributed to Scientology. It was a glowing testimonial by a sincere follower of the Church, but is it evidence that Scientology works? Two recently published books argue that there is no science in Scientology, only quasireligious doctrines wrapped in New Age flapdoodle masquerading as science. The Church of Scientology, by Hugh B. Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University, is the most scholarly treatment of the organization to date, and investigative journalist Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology is an electrifying read that includes eye-popping and well-documented tales of billion-year con tracts, aggressive recruitment programs, and verbal and physical abuse of staffers.

The problem with testimonials is that they do not constitute evidence in science. As social psychologist Carol Tavris told me, “Every therapy produces enthusiastic testimonials because of the justification-of-effort effect. Anyone who invests time and money and effort in a therapy will say it helped. Scientology might have helped Isaac Hayes, just as psychoanalysis and bungee jumping might have helped others, but that doesn’t mean the intervention was the reason. To know if there is anything special about Scientology, you need to do controlled studies—randomly assigning people to Scientology or a control group (or a different therapy) for the same problem.” To my knowledge, no such study has been conducted. The real science behind Scientology seems to be an understanding of the very human need, as social animals, to be part of a supportive group—and the willingness of people to pay handsomely for it. (continue reading…)

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Social Singularity:
Why Things Are Getting Progressively Better

October 2011

Michael Shermer discusses the problem of tribalism, which we inherited from our primate ancestors, and which we must overcome if we are to achieve a stable and just global society. This lecture was recorded on October 15, 2011 at the Singularity Summit in New York.

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Transhumanism, the Singularity and Skepticism

October 2011

Michael Shermer is interviewed about his views on the future of Artificial Intelligence, the technological singularity, transhumanism, and skepticism. This is not something that Michael Shermer usually talks about. Michael also spoke at the Singularity Summit in the US this year (2011). This footage was taken at the 2011 Think Inc conference in Melbourne.

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