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More God, Less Crime or More Guns, Less Crime?

More God, Less Crime (book cover)

During the last week of 2011, I spoke at and attended a wonderful salon in Santa Fe, New Mexico organized and hosted by Sandy Blakeslee, the brilliant science writer for the New York Times and the author of numerous engaging popular books on neuroscience. Two of the speakers at the salon addressed the topic of the decline of crime, one (Byron Johnson) attributing it to god and the other (John Lott) to guns. Of the two, Lott by far took the day with superior data and better arguments, although for a much wider and deeper analysis of the decline of violence in general I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), which I recently reviewed in these pages.

More Guns, Less Crime (book cover)

Byron Johnson is a professor at Baylor University and the founding director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion as well as director of the Program on Prosocial Behavior. Acknowledging that he took the title of his book, More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More (Templeton Press, 2011) directly from Lott’s book, More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Johnson mostly recounted his experiences working with prisoners in an attempt to lower recidivism rates by increasing religiosity…of the Christian variety, of course. What few data slides he presented harmed his case more than helped it by being either impossible to read (dark, small type) or countering his claim (one slide showed no difference in post-conversion crime rates). Even his anecdotes seemed to gainsay his thesis, as in recounting the story of one man who even after converting to Christianity refused to confess his crime of rape and murder of a young girl until he met her mother on the day of his execution, at which point he broke down and apologized to her. Additional anecdotes and frank admissions by Johnson only worsened his case, such as that many prisoners only convert in order to impress parole boards, and that many of his fellow Christians (he called them “high octane” evangelicals) were only in the game to tally up conversion scores in an environment ripe for the picking. (I routinely receive letters from prisoners who bemoan the constant evangelizing, not only by Christians but by Muslims as well who also see prisons as conversion opportunities. As the Russian comedian Yavak Smirnoff used to joke about performing in the USSR, mixing “captured” for “captive” audiences: “they’re not going anywhere!”)

Johnson seems like a nice enough fellow, and with our current overcrowded prison system letting criminals out early, if he really can lower recidivism rates it’s hard not to acknowledge that this is a good thing for society (assuming he’s having any effect at all, which I presume he must be at least on a case-by-case basis, even if it isn’t statistically significant from other recidivism methods). Although I would much prefer that people not commit crimes for rational and secular moral reasons (respect for private property, sanctity of life, etc.), I am reminded of an encounter I had with a young Christian man in his early 20s during the Q & A after one of my public lectures. I had just asked the rhetorical question—which I often ask during my talk on the evolution of morality and how to be good without god—“What would you do if there were no God? Would you rape, steal, and murder?” Naturally people agree that they wouldn’t, but in this instance the man said he was pretty sure that if he decided that there were no god he would do just that. I told him that Jesus loves him and has a plan for his life and future. It got a laugh but everyone in the room realized that not everyone is a rational calculator and moral reasoner. Some people may very well need the shadow of enforcement that comes from believing in an invisible policeman in the sky who, like those pesky red light video cameras at busy intersections, insures that even when the cops aren’t around all sins and violations will be settled in due time, even without due process.

As far as I know Johnson, along with his fellow religious believers who embrace the hypothesis that religion is good for society, have failed to account for a simple and obvious (once you think about it) correlation and comparison: Gregory Paul’s 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion and Society—“Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”—that showed an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. “The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.” Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies.

If religion is such a powerful prophylactic against sin, immorality, and crime, then why is the most religious democracy on the planet also the most sinful and crime-ridden? I’m not claiming that religion causes these problems (although Paul does make this claim), only that the claim that it prevents or attenuates them is falsified by the data.

John Lott, by contrast, is a social scientists’ social scientist. A data man to the core, I spent several hours with him the night before at a party pressing him for details of his argument that more guns means less crime. He was unwavering in his conviction—both to me privately and in his public talk (and in his book)—that not one social scientist or criminologist has been able to produce a single example of a city or county that has experienced a consistent decline in crimes after a ban on guns was enacted. In fact, in slide after slide and example after example Lott showed that the opposite correlation tends to be the case: gun bans increase crime.

Take Washington, D.C. Before the ban on handguns was implemented in August of 1976, DC ranked 20th in murder rates out of the top 50 cities in America. After the gun ban, DC shot up to either #1 or #2, where year after year it held steady as “the murder capital of the nation,” as it as dubbed by the media. As a control experiment of sorts, after the Supreme Court decision in the Heller case overturned the DC gun ban, murder rates dropped and have continued to fall ever since. According to Lott, whose data is based primarily on crime statistics provided by the FBI, once the gun ban was lifted, homicide rates plummeted 42.1%, sexual assault rates dropped 14.9%, robbery excluding guns dropped 34.3%, robbery with guns plunged 58%, assault with a dangerous weapon excluding guns sank 11%, assault with a dangerous weapon using guns tumbled 35.6%, and total violent crime nosedived 31%, along with total property crimes decreasing a total of 10.7%.

Chicago showed a similar effect, Lott demonstrated. Ever since the gun ban was implemented in 1982, no year has been as low in crimes as it was before the ban. Island nations (which serve as good tests, Lott says, because their borders are more tightly controlled from extraneous variables) demonstrate the same effect: Jamaica and Ireland homicide rates increased after gun bans were imposed. Ditto England and Wales: After a gun ban was imposed in January of 1997, homicide rates slowly climbed and peaked at an average of 28% higher after the ban. (By dramatic contrast, Lott said that in 1900 London in which people were free to do whatever they wanted with their guns, there were a grand total of 2 gun-related deaths and 5 armed robberies in a population of many millions, and this was 20 years before gun laws began going into effect in 1920.)

Why do more guns mean less crime? Lott offers a very practical explanation: it is extremely hard to keep criminals from getting and keeping guns. In other words, Gun bans are primarily obeyed by non-criminals. Criminals that already have guns do not turn them in, and potential criminals that want to get guns have no problem procuring them on the street illegally. Lott cited several studies by criminologists who interviewed criminals in jail and collected data on the amount of time they spend casing a home before burglarizing it. In the U.K., where gun bans are much more prevalent than in the U.S., the criminals reported that they spend very little time casing a joint and that they don’t really care if someone is home or not because they know the residents won’t be armed (whereas they, of course, are armed). Their U.S. counterparts, by contrast, reported spending more than double the time casing a home before robbing it, explaining that they were waiting for the residents to leave. Why? They said that they were worried they would be shot.

Why is crime so much higher here in the U.S. than in the U.K. and elsewhere? Lott explained that the remarkably high homicide rates are a geographical anomaly. The U.S. justice department reports that about 80% of violent crimes are drug gang related, and that about 75% of homicides take place in 3% of counties. And even within those counties the murders are taking place in a tiny portion in which drug gangs are operating. So when we compare murder rates between countries—say between the U.S. and Canada—it is really comparing the crime in one country to just a very tiny portion of American cities where gangs proliferate. What would happen if drugs were legalized? Speaking as an economist who understands the basic law of supply and demand, Lott opined that there is no doubt that crimes would decrease while drug-use would increase. So it’s a trade-off.

I do not know this area well enough to judge the validity of Lott’s thesis. His data and his plausible causal explanations for the correlations strike me as sound, although I know that proponents of gun control have taken him to task over various statistical issues. Still, I would like to see his fundamental challenge met: is there any city or county in the U.S. where crime and murders have consistently decreased after gun control laws were passed and enforced?

Anecdotally, of course, we are horrified at the innocent people gunned down who would be alive were there no guns anywhere in the country. Just days before Lott’s lecture, in fact, there was the story about the U.S. soldier returning home from Iraq who was shot dead on Christmas day in a dispute over a football team. Had there not been guns in that home the worst thing that probably would have happened is a bit of pushing and shoving and shouting, perhaps a roundhouse punch or two thrown, and a couple of bruised egos in the end. But the problem is that the genie is out of the bottle. Millions of guns are already out there, and short of a Stasi-like police state sweep through every home, business, garage, shack, storage unit, cabin, car, and container in every nook and cranny in every state in the union, gun bans will most likely be honored by the people who least need them and ignored by those who do—the criminals.

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E Pluribus Unum for all faiths and for none

Foreigners could be forgiven for thinking that America is fast becoming a theocracy. No fewer than three of the remaining Republican candidates (Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann) have declared that they were called by God to run for the country’s highest office. Congress recently voted to renew the country’s motto of “In God We Trust” on nothing less than the coin of the realm. And this year’s Thanksgiving Forum in Iowa (co-sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage) featured most of the major Presidential candidates competing for the title of God’s quarterback.

Rick Santorum, for example, in the course of denouncing Islamic Sharia law, inadvertently endorsed the same as long as it is a Christian on the Judge’s bench: “Unlike Islam, where the higher law and the civil law are the same, in our case, we have civil laws. But our civil laws have to comport with the higher law.” Not content to speak in such circular generalities, Santorum targeted his faith: “As long as abortion is legal—at least according to the Supreme Court—legal in this country, we will never have rest, because that law does not comport with God’s law.” God’s law? That is precisely the argument made by Islamic imams. But Santorum was only getting started. “Gay marriage is wrong. The idea that the only things that the states are prevented from doing are only things specifically established in the Constitution is wrong. … As a president, I will get involved, because the states do not have the right to undermine the basic, fundamental values that hold this country together.” Christian values only, of course.

The historically challenged Michele Bachmann minced no words when she declared: “I have a biblical worldview. And I think, going back to the Declaration of Independence, the fact that it’s God who created us—if He created us, He created government. And the government is on His shoulders, as the book of Isaiah says.” A Bachmann administration would apparently consult the Old Testament for moral guidance because, she pronounced with her usual hubris born of historical ignorance, “American exceptionalism is grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is really based upon the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were the foundation for our law.” Really? Where in our laws does it prohibit belief in gods other than Yahweh, ban the manufacturing of graven images, forbid taking the Lord’s name in vain, bar us from working on the Sabbath, require us to honor our parents, and interdict the coveting of our neighbor’s house, wife, slave, servant, ox, and ass? Even the notoriously difficult to follow 7th commandment is not illegal, much to the relief of candidate Gingrich.

Surely the pluralism of America’s religious diversity is what makes us great. Not so, said Rick Perry: “In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.” But don’t politicians owe allegiance to the Constitution? Alas, pace Perry, no. “Somebody’s values are going to decide what the Congress votes on or what the President of the United States is going to deal with. And the question is: Whose values? And let me tell you, it needs to be our values—values and virtues that this country was based upon in Judeo-Christian founding fathers.” You mean the values and virtues of the atheist Thomas Paine and the Deist Thomas Jefferson, the latter of whom rejected Jesus, the resurrection, and all miracles as nonsense on stilts, and yet who nonetheless insisted on building an impregnable wall protecting religion from the encroachment of state abuse?

Finally, the erudite Newt Gingrich was more specific in his plan to bring about a Christian nation through legal means, starting by redacting the 14th Amendment: “I am intrigued with something which Robby George at Princeton has come up with, which is an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, in which it says that Congress shall define personhood. That’s very clearly in the 14th Amendment. And part of what I would like to explore is whether or not you could get the Congress to pass a law which simply says: Personhood begins at conception. And therefore—and you could, in the same law, block the court and just say, ‘This will not be subject to review,’ which we have precedent for. You would therefore not have to have a Constitutional amendment, because the Congress would have exercised its authority under the 14th Amendment to define life, and to therefore undo all of Roe vs. Wade, for the entire country, in one legislative action.” If the 14th Amendment can be averted on a technicality, what about the others?

If you are a Christian, of course, this is the mother’s milk of nursing privilege. Power to the (Christian) people. It’s the oldest trope in history—religious tribalism—and it’s being played out in the land of liberty. So it is prudent for us to educe that other national motto found on the Seal of the United States first proffered by the founding patriarchs John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson and adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782: E Pluribus Unum—Out of many, one.

How many make up our one? There are 300 million Americans. Gallup, Pew, and other pollsters consistently find that about 10 percent of Americans do not believe in God. That’s 30 million Americans. That’s not all. A 2008 study by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) revealed that between 1990 and 2008 the fastest growing religious group in America were the “Nones,” or people who responded “None, No religion, Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, or Secular” in the survey. Remarkably, this group gained more new members (19,838,000) than either Catholics (11,195,000) or Protestants (10,980,000), and totals 15 percent, or 45 million Americans.

Read that number again candidates! If you are elected President of these United States are you really going to dismiss and openly refuse to represent 45 million people living under the same Constitution as you? And that’s just the Nones. Tens of millions more Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Jains, Taoists, Wiccans, New Agers, and other law-abiding loyal Americans—many serving in the armed services protecting our liberty—are non-Christians who hold the same dreams and aspirations for what this country has to offer as do Christians. In fact, at most Christians comprise 60–76 percent of all Americans, which means that somewhere between 72 million and 120 million U.S. citizens are non-Christians no less deserving of representation in this democracy.

It’s time for candidates and politicians to stop the God talk and start acting like true representatives of the people—all of the people. It’s time for the 45 million Nones to demand both respect and representation no less than any other American, and for presidential candidates, when asked about their religion, to reply something along these lines:

I understand why you are curious about my religious beliefs, but I am not running to represent only Americans who happen to believe what I believe about God and religion. I am running to represent Americans of all faiths, and even the tens of millions of Americans who have no religion. If elected, my allegiance is to the Constitution and my duty is to uphold the laws of this great land, which are to be applied equally and without prejudice to all Americans no matter their color or creed. I realize that some candidates and politicians pander to their religious voting block in hopes of gaining support by tapping ancient tribal prejudices, but that is not my way. I get why other candidates are tempted to appeal to those deep emotions that are stirred by religious unity against those who believe differently, but I am trying to do something different. If elected I fully intend to represent all Americans under my jurisdiction, not just those Americans whose beliefs I happen to share. I am trying to build a better America for all Americans, not some. The original motto of this country is E Pluribus Unum. It means “Out of many, one.” It means that we are stronger together than separate, united by our common belief in liberty and the freedom to believe whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm others. As a candidate for the highest office of this noble nation my faith is in its people—all of the people—and what we are able to do together to make the world a better place to live.

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Is America a Christian Nation? Readers Respond to Chuck Colson

On November 4, the Los Angeles Times published my Opinion Editorial entitled “What’s God Got to do With it?” (which I also posted on Skepticblog) about Congress reaffirming our national motto “In God We Trust.” I argued that trust does not come from God but from very specific social, political, and economic institutions.

Chuck Colson, the one-time special counsel for President Richard Nixon, one of the Watergate Seven who also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in his attempt to defame the Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg, and the man who found God and Jesus just in time for his jail sentence in federal prison, now blogs on political and social issues from a Christian perspective and has attempted a smack-down of my Op-Ed by arguing that “God Has a Lot to Do With It.”

His argument is summarized in his own words thusly:

It was Christianity, you see, that taught the West that all human beings are created in the image of God. Without that understanding, the very words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all Men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights,” could never have been written.

Most of all, our ideas about what constitutes a free and secure society are derived from Christianity. Political scientist Glenn Tinder has written about how much of what we celebrate in our society, like the “respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings,” has “strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity.”

Before I respond in my next blog with a deeper historical analysis of how equality, liberty, prosperity, and trust arose well ahead of religious doctrines (see, in the mean time, Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature for a thorough history of this development), I tweeted the link to Colson’s rebuttal and asked my readers to respond in their own way, which they did with some very cogent points:

Nicholas Johnson writes:

Those poor Greeks and Romans. They knew nothing, apparently.

Nathan George writes:

It should be pointed out that Colson seems to dismiss science by saying “the science Shermer puts so much stock in” as he types this very statement on his computer which science, not Christianity, is responsible for.

David Carmer writes:

It is the height of hypocrisy to say that we, as a nation, trust in a deity. If we truly had sincere trust we’d need no army, no judicial system, no anti-trust laws, no prison system, no government oversight, and so on. An honest deep felt trust in God would logically lead to us living in a lawless state wherein we expected our benevolent protector to handle the details and to keep us safe. To embrace the motto, shouldn’t we get rid of all those laws and government organizations that are designed especially because we cannot trust in divine intervention? 

Hans Van Ingelgom writes:

The biggest problem I face when discussing Christianity is that I don’t know what it stands for. Christianity is subdivided in countless branches, often with opposing views. You can’t simply discuss somebody’s views just by knowing he’s a Christian. Does respect for the individual include the right of gay marriage? Should the state be neutral to religion, respecting individual choices? It depends on what Christian you ask.

David Schumacher writes:

You might remind Colson that some of the Christian founders were still using spectral evidence to put people to death as recently as the witch killings of Salem.

David Allen writes:

The response to Chuck is easy—Christ was a wise man and Christian values are good, but no god is needed to come up with those values. And as for him citing the Declaration of Independence and the words “All men are created equal”—those words were written by men who held slaves, so the words ring hollow.

Mark Bowermaster writes:

Yeah, because nothing says free and secure like an omnipotent cloud wizard demanding your allegiance by threat of never ending immolation.

Adam Qureshi writes:

His argument does not even pass the null hypothesis. What the heck did we do before Christianity came along a mere 2 thousand years ago?

Eric Lawton writes:

The ancient Greeks were just as much a source of all these values such as the rule of law. Christianity plunged us into centuries of dark ages, superstition and theocracy. Of course those people, the early Protestants, who helped us to restore these values through the enlightenment were Christians, because it was pretty much illegal not to be. But it doesn’t prove that it was because they were Christians that they did that; otherwise it would have happened much earlier. It was the beginning of our escape from Christianity and a return to secular values which got us where we are, and is one of the reasons for the separation of Church and State in the U.S.

Peter McCully writes:

And what has Christianity given us concerning the rights of homosexuals, women, slaves or even animals? Most, if not all of the advances in human rights over the last two hundred years or so have been a gradual unpicking of the stitches in Christianity’s fabric. Nice of the church to take credit for it though.

David Serbin writes:

Colton is both right and wrong. Education, laws, and enforcement of laws do have some root in religion. But what Colton forgets is that these were bad things. Education for centuries meant hitting children, dress codes, and other awful practices that are only practiced today by private religious schools (although as we’ve seen with Penn State and other teacher’s scandals, public schools aren’t great either). Another problem is that citing the law from the Bible begs the question: which laws? Laws that stone adulterers or ban gay marriage? Surely those laws don’t make society any better off. Finally, Colton says that God is responsible for freedom of the individual, equality, and security. But banning gay marriage does not increase individuality nor equality. The Founders were of varying religious beliefs, but they fled in part due to the Church of England and they would be rolling in their graves if they saw the way that Christians have abused their 1st amendment right of freedom of religion to try and make this country a theocracy by using the state to put God on the pledge, the dollar, and anywhere and everywhere possible.

Jerry Jaffe writes:

When the bible tells us to stone our neighbors to death (Deut. 17 2–5) and we don’t, is that because we know right from wrong without reference to the bible, perhaps?

Andi Wolfe writes:

How very convenient that Colson forgets that the Declaration of Independence did not apply to slaves and women. If you really want to invoke a religion that values all humans, respects individuals, and promotes the essential equality of all human beings, look to the Buddhists. They actually live their lives as if their beliefs have meaning.

Will Colon writes:

You might be inclined to point out that if religion—specifically Christianity—is in some way responsible for the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans, why is it that historically theocratic nations or nations endorsing a particular religion have been home to some of the most illiberal treatment of humans in our species’ history. The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God by Jonathan Kirsch is a good book that touches on this; specifically it highlights how the absolutism of religion—again, specifically Christianity—lends itself to scenarios like the Inquisition and the injustices that dovetail along with it. It’s also worth noting that while many of our Founding Fathers did hold some belief in a creator—a common belief of the time—a great number of them were Deists who were deeply skeptical of the Christian god.

Bob Makin writes:

As to the claim that a free and secure society is derived from Christianity, may I enquire as to what the practice of slavery, the Inquisition and pogroms against the Jews have to do with freedom and security? I would think that the capriciousness of that religion does more to inject a great degree of uncertainty into any civilization which finds itself under its influence. Given that God has been a merciless and cruel dictator given to fits of rage, widespread destruction of entire societies, not to mention the annihilation of the entire population of the earth, I fail to see that being created in his image is any kind of recommendation.

David Kaloyanides writes:

Colson ignores the foundation of democracy in Athens more than 500 years before Christianity existed. He ignores the code of Hamurrabi, which is our oldest codified set of laws that governed the behavior of humans. He also ignores the teachings of the New Testament where Christians were called upon to obey whatever governing authority existed at the time as such was established by God. Colson also ignores the amazing educational progress of the far east where most people were literate while the early Christians were not. Colson also equates the West’s scientific pursuits to Christianity when in fact it was the Renaissance—the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman culture and science that spurred the growth of both science and political thinking. Finally, the founders of our nation were “Christians” loosely speaking. But they were nothing like a Colson Christian. Nothing in Christianity supports democratic thinking. Rather, it promotes totalitarianism form of theocracy. It does not support capitalism, as Christians are expressly taught to shun the material and share all worldly possessions in common. The language of the New Testament lends itself more to a communist than capitalist economic world view. But as the New Testament was not interested in politics or economic policy, Colson is just wrong about how its teachings promoted our system of government today.

Joe Seither writes:

There is simply no expressly religious language in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights—except the parts that make absolutely crystal-clear that religion and politics should remain independent from one another. Now, this is a really important point, given that many of the founders were theists, but also with some deists, freethinkers and freemasons in the mix. Given this, it’s no accident or trivial point that they enshrined in the very first amendment a separation between government and religion. The fact that some or many of the founders were men of faith adds much gravity to the proposition that the anti-establishment principle and language they agreed upon—and signed their names to—was no mere accident. It was intentional.

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What’s God Got to Do With It?

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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The Real Science behind Scientology

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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