Dispatches from Future America: Nation Ratifies Reproductive Rights Amendment

[Editor's Note: The last dispatch I received in this ongoing series was particularly bleak. As if on cue, I got another message the other day, this one apparently originating from a very different, and much rosier, future. I get the strong impression that these two possible worlds are, in some manner, competing against each other.]

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI (August 6, 2037) — The Thirty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified today after passing the Mississippi state legislature by more than the required two-thirds majority, making Mississippi the crucial thirty-eighth state to approve the proposal. The new amendment, which takes effect immediately, defines "the freedom to exercise control over one's own reproductive system" as "an inviolable human right which may not be transgressed by any federal, state or local government or any employee thereof".

Cheering crowds packed the halls of the statehouse where Gov. Jasmine Victoria Meredith symbolically signed the measure into law after its passage by the legislature. "From this day forward, Mississippi's place in history as a champion of women's rights is assured," said the governor. "With these penstrokes, we erase the follies and crimes of the long-gone past - the anti-miscegenation laws, the shameful forced sterilizations, the hostility toward basic rights of reproductive choice - and step into a new era where the fundamental liberties of every human being will be respected and defended."

Advocates of the measure traced the roots of their victory back to the early 2010s. "When the government issued regulations requiring that insurers cover contraception as part of the health-insurance overhaul, it galvanized the feminist movement nationwide," said Feminist Majority Foundation president Amanda Marcotte. "The new generation of politically active women who emerged to defend that move turned out to play a major role in the progressive revolution of the early 2020s."

Among other things, historians credit the revitalized feminist movement with securing the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 2023. "But in spite of the improvements that brought about, there was ground left uncovered," added Marcotte. "That led to the National Childcare Act of 2026, which required all large employers to offer nine months of paid parental leave, finally bringing the U.S. into parity with the rest of the developed world. Ironically, it was these liberal measures that brought about the dramatic decline in the divorce rate that religious conservatives had so long wished for. When that became obvious, further reforms began to snowball. The most dramatic, of course, was the Congressional approval of a strong, comprehensive sex-ed curriculum for all public schools nationwide, and the effects of that silenced even the most stubborn naysayers. The rate of new HIV infections was already plummeting even before a vaccine was finally approved in 2031."

The newly approved amendment is intended to build on these gains. One of its provisions defines access to safe and effective contraception as a "public good" which the government is obliged to provide. "In most areas of the country, this was a formality," said CNN analyst Athena Jones. "Still, there are a few conservative regions that tried to keep out family-planning clinics with burdensome regulations and regular harassment from protesters. The passage of this amendment should offer a solid ground for a court challenge striking down those laws, as well as providing federal resources for clinic escorts where local officials are unwilling or unable to provide them."

The decision was not without its critics. "This law constitutes grave heresy, the arrogant decision of a godless nation that presumes to place itself above the infallible will of God," said a statement issued by Pope Honorius V. "It is not the place of man to declare that he controls his own body when Holy Mother Church clearly teaches otherwise. All those who voted in defiance of our earlier commandment on this matter are hereby declared to be anathema."

Most political observers expected the papal blast to have no effect. "The last census found that the number of practicing Catholics in America is under 3 million and falling," said CNN's Jones. "The church's membership has been declining for decades, driven by an exodus of young people reacting to Rome's unbending bigotry on the the long-settled issue of same-sex marriage, its ongoing refusal to ordain women despite a crippling shortage of priests, and the continuing fallout from the convictions of top church officials in Poland, India and the Philippines for covering up child molestation. The Vatican has long since rendered itself irrelevant as a political force."

With victory in hand, the backers of the new amendment have vowed to look abroad for their next steps. "Although America has guaranteed its citizens the right to education and sexual freedom, not every country in the world still enjoys those same privileges," said Gov. Meredith. "Despite the dramatic slowing of the global birthrate, we have much work left to do before world population stabilizes at a sustainable level. With the momentum of today's victory, I hope we can prevail upon Congress to do more to expand American support of family-planning and childhood vaccination efforts worldwide. The 1% of GDP we're currently devoting to this problem isn't nearly enough."

August 8, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink77 comments

There Are 10 Times as Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

The propagandists of the religious right shout it aloud as their battle cry: "America is a Christian nation!" And in the trivial sense that ours is a nation populated mostly by Christians, this is true. But in the sense that they mean it, that Christianity was intended to occupy a privileged place in the law - or worse, that Christianity was intended to be the only belief professed by Americans - it couldn't be more false. Although religion in general and Christianity in particular play a dominant role in our public life, ours is a secular nation by law. And befitting that heritage, America has always played host to a lively tradition of freethought, unorthodoxy, and religious dissent, one that dates back to our founding generation.

To name just one example, Thomas Jefferson rejected miracles and special revelation - he famously created his own version of the New Testament, which kept only the moral teachings and parables and cut out all the miracle stories - and encouraged his contemporaries to "question with boldness even the existence of a God." He himself was a deist, not an atheist, but this subtle distinction was lost on his contemporaries, who hurled accusations at him every bit as vicious as today's TV attack ads. For instance, in the presidential campaign of 1800, the Gazette of the United States editorialized as follows:

"At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is 'shall I continue in allegiance to GOD-—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—-AND NO GOD!!!'"

Jefferson's political opponents denounced him as a "howling atheist" and a "French infidel", and paranoid rumors circulated that, if he became president, he would order all Bibles to be confiscated. Of course, in the end Jefferson was elected to two successful presidential terms, and the feared wave of atheistic persecution failed to materialize.

But stories like these aren't just historical footnotes. Just as freethinkers have always had their place in our nation, the strategy of slandering and demonizing them for political gain is likewise alive and well, as I found out for myself in 2008.

In that year's North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent, was running against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. In the waning weeks of the campaign, Hagan attended a fundraiser at the home of Woody Kaplan and Wendy Kaminer, advisors to American Atheists' Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The Dole campaign found out about this and tried to make political hay out of it, releasing a campaign ad which said:

"A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor... Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?"

When I saw this ad, I was incensed. (Can you imagine a political ad which attacked a candidate by saying, "He attended a secret fundraiser held by the Jews and took Jewish money. What did he promise in return?") I dashed off a blog post titled "Why I'm Donating to Kay Hagan," expressing my anger at politicians who try to drum up anti-atheist bigotry to win votes, and wrote a check to the Hagan campaign. I thought nothing more of it until a few weeks later, when I found out that my post was being featured in another anti-atheist ad by the Dole campaign:

As you can see, the ad highlights my statement that "Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform," as if this were a bad thing. It portrays atheists not as fellow citizens entitled to take part in the democratic process, but as agents of a sinister and un-American conspiracy - the same ugly slander that's historically been used against immigrants, Roman Catholics, Jewish people, gays and lesbians, and every other minority that seeks out politicians who will defend their interests.

Clearly, Dole was counting on a wave of outraged, prejudiced voters to flood the polls and propel her to victory. But her campaign's open appeal to anti-atheist bigotry may have produced a bigger backlash than she had expected. According to the Charlotte Observer, the Hagan campaign received 3,600 contributions within 48 hours of Dole's "Godless" ad, many of them presumably from nonbelievers upset at being dragged through the mud by right-wingers trying to score political points.

Unfortunately, Hagan herself turned out to be no friend of atheists. Although she was happy to accept our donations, when our association with us became an issue, she fled to the safe ground of piety-drenched politics. Her campaign released an ad accusing Dole of "attacking my Christian faith," going so far as to threaten a defamation lawsuit. It would have been nice to see some defense of the idea that America is a secular nation where a person's faith has no bearing on their fitness for public office. Instead, her response consisted solely of, "Yes, I believe in God and how dare you imply otherwise!" - effective, perhaps, but cold comfort to atheists who had for some reason assumed that we have as much right to be involved in politics as anyone else.

But despite this disappointment, there was a heartening outcome. For whatever reason - whether it was the flood of donations from outraged atheists, or Hagan's strong protestations of piety, or because the "Godless" ad simply failed to change enough voters' minds - on Election Day, Elizabeth Dole was defeated by a solid margin, and Kay Hagan became the new Democratic Senator from North Carolina.

As the Hagan episode shows, even many Democratic politicians, who should rightfully be our allies, feel that outspoken atheism is a disqualifier for public office. John Kerry gave voice to this sentiment in November 2007:

"The vast majority of Americans say they believe in God... The vast majority of America, at some time, goes to church, and I think it matters to people. When you are choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them. So I think it is probably unlikely that you are going to find somebody who stands up and says, 'Well, I don't believe in anything,' and you'll get a whole bunch people who get excited about voting for that person... It's just a fact."

Even Barack Obama, despite having been raised by a nonreligious mother, has been no friend to atheists - something we found out on the first day of his presidency, when he invited the anti-choice, anti-gay-rights, anti-stem-cell-research right-wing pastor Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. Breaking a clear campaign promise, he's also continued the George W. Bush "faith-based initiative", which hands out government money to religious groups which openly proselytize, discriminate in hiring, and face no outside accountability. And polls continue to show that atheists are among the most reviled and least trusted minorities in the U.S., even more so than Muslims or gays.

Some corporations have been accused of having a "glass ceiling," an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from rising to the topmost positions. In that sense, American politics clearly has a "stained-glass ceiling," a de facto barrier to atheists running for office. Despite the many great Americans who've been nonbelievers, despite the guarantees of secularism written into our Constitution, outspoken atheism is still seen as an insurmountable liability for anyone who seeks to serve our country as an elected officer of the government.

Why is this? It's not because atheists are so rare that politicians can safely ignore us. On the contrary, nonbelief is far more common than many people realize.

The definitive word on atheist demographics in the U.S. is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a massive study that questioned over 50,000 Americans about their religious beliefs. The ARIS found that self-identified atheists and agnostics account for 1.6% of the population of America, or about 3.5 million people. But the ARIS also asked people in-depth questions about what they really believe. And based on their results, the survey's authors concluded that whether they choose that word to describe themselves or not, 12% of Americans are atheists - over 36 million of us!

To put that number in perspective, there are about as many atheists in America as there are members of all the mainline Protestant churches - Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ - combined. There are ten times as many atheists as there are Jews or Mormons. The only two religious groups in America that outnumber atheists are Baptists and Roman Catholics. But both of those groups have seen their membership as a percentage of the population decline steadily since 1990, while the non-religious have grown proportionally in the country as a whole and in every state. And the numbers show a clear trend: every generation since World War II has exhibited higher rates of nonbelief, now up to 20% among those born since 1977.

So, atheists don't lack the numbers. Nor do we lack passion or political interest. In fact, the opposite is true: atheists have one of the highest rates of political participation of any group. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of the non-religious are very or somewhat likely to vote, an astonishingly high turnout level. In fact, the only group more likely to vote is Christian evangelicals. But the political loyalties of evangelicals are settled already, while non-religious voters - again according to Pew - are disproportionately likely to be independent voters whose choices often determine the outcome of an election.

Given these facts, politicians should be lining up to court us. On a purely numerical level, atheists are a large, potentially influential group. We're highly motivated to get out and vote, more so than almost any religious group. We tend to be swing voters, the kind that makes all the difference in close races. And most of all, atheists are common among the young, and good politicians know that political loyalties established at a young age usually last for a lifetime.

So why aren't candidates seeking atheists out and appealing to us for our support? Why is the political class, even the liberal political class, so fearful of being associated with us?

The obvious answer is that the pervasiveness of anti-atheist bigotry makes it political suicide to associate with us. (Elizabeth Dole failed in her attempt to appeal to it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.) But I think there's a deeper answer that explains both why that bigotry exists in the first place and why politicians so habitually neglect us: Atheists don't lack the numbers or the passion. What we lack is the organization.

Organized religions have two built-in advantages: they have large followings that are accustomed to unquestioning loyalty, and hierarchical structures through which the leaders can issue marching orders to the flock. This means it's easy for them to orchestrate coordinated actions, like marches, protests and letter-writing campaigns, that are highly visible to politicians and journalists. Atheists, by comparison, are a fiercely independent and contentious bunch - and while I wouldn't change that if I could, it does make it harder for us to act in unison in the ways that make politicians take notice. It also makes it more difficult for us to mount a swift, strong and coordinated response to the slanderous stereotypes that are habitually heard from pulpits and in the media.

But if we can overcome that and become politically organized - and there's much evidence that this coalescence is already happening - the potential benefits are enormous. Atheists don't agree on everything, but I'm confident that we agree on enough to form a constituency that couldn't be lightly dismissed. The rise of atheists as a political force, if it succeeds, wouldn't just benefit atheists, but would have positive effects on American society in general and possibly even the world as a whole.

After all, most of the goals we share are also goals of the broader progressive movement: greater protection of free speech, firm separation of church and state, increased funding for science education and research, equal rights for GLBT people, and greater public support for reason and rationality. The idea that we want to take away people's right to pray or worship in private, or even to preach their beliefs in public, is just as much of a lie today as it was in Thomas Jefferson's time - but we do unapologetically demand that government employees, when acting in their official capacity, take no action to endorse or aid any specific religion or religion in general. This is no more than the Constitution already requires.

The global arena, also, would benefit from greater atheist involvement. If you list the evils that afflict humanity on an international scale - transnational religious terrorism; the abuse and subjugation of women; the denial of human rights in dictatorships and theocracies - you'll notice that many of them have this in common: they're all rooted in primitive, violent, patriarchal religious worldviews, and derive their strength from the excessive power and privilege accorded to faith. Again, a stronger atheist presence on the international stage would be as welcome as a cool breeze in the hothouse of fundamentalist religion, which has so often been used to justify ongoing oppression and inequality.

Imagine the kind of world we could live in if atheists were a political force. It would be a world where secularism is the unquestioned law of the land, where religious groups wouldn't interfere in politics unless they could put forward arguments backed by evidence that anyone could examine, and not just appeals to faith. We'd rely on science and rationality to shape public policy; humanity would heed the voice of reason, rather than gut feelings or superstitious taboos. In this world, the religious arguments propping up tribalism, racism, and the oppression of women would wither away; the decrees of unelected and unaccountable authorities would fade into dust, and democracy and the liberty of the individual would be the guiding principles.

Religion isn't solely responsible for all the world's evils, but - particularly where it goes unchallenged and unaccountable - it plays a role in a surprisingly large number of them. Even if it doesn't fade away entirely, which I don't expect to happen anytime soon, it's likely that the pressure of atheistic critiques would force it to become more moderate, more enlightened, and more humane. A world where atheists held political sway wouldn't be a utopia by any means, but I'm confident in asserting that it would be more peaceful, fair and free than the world as it is now - and this makes it a goal well worth fighting for.

July 1, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments

Dispatches from Future America: Nation Celebrates National Day of Reason

[Editor's Note: This just keeps getting stranger.

Last month, I received a news dispatch from a disturbing future version of America through an anonymous remailer. The other day, I received a message from a different address, presenting itself as the same thing... but apparently from a very different future than the previous one.

I have no idea how to explain this. Parallel universes? Uncollapsed quantum wavefunctions? Which of these, if any, are our future? Are different possibilities somehow competing with each other to become reality? I think this was sent to me because someone wanted it to be shared, but other than that, I leave the judgment up to you...]

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS (June 27, 2035) — The first annual National Day of Reason, approved by Congress in a bill passed last year, was observed yesterday in this midwestern metropolis by an array of national figures. President Linda Sanchez delivered her address from the steps of the Public Library of Science, framed by a skyline of residential towers laminated in solar glass. A crowd whose size was estimated at fifty thousand gathered to hear the speech on a tree-lined pedestrian avenue beneath the turning blades of the nation's largest urban wind farm.

"My fellow Americans, I am proud and honored to speak before you on this day," her remarks began. "As one of our wisest leaders, Thomas Jefferson, put it, the president has no authority to direct the religious exercises of her constituents. I applaud Congress for repealing the National Day of Prayer law, a senseless and divisive event meant to convey a false message of the superiority of religious people. In its place, I'm proud to celebrate the first National Day of Reason, a fitting tribute to the virtue which powers our civilization. It was reason that sent human beings to the moon, reason that cured cancer through stem-cell research, and reason that offers the best hope of a future of peace and prosperity for all of us."

Media observers weren't surprised by the President's decision to attend the Kansas City event. "Kansas City's political importance increased greatly in the Midwest progressive revolution of the 2020s," said CNN analyst Athena Jones. "Its selection as one of the dozen primary hubs in the national high-speed rail network made it a major migration point, and the boom that followed the completion of the rail network, which had its roots in the stimulus bill of 2009, cemented its economic power. Kansas City is emblematic of the changes that have come across this country in the past two decades, which made it a natural choice for the President to attend."

The National Day of Reason was commemorated in parallel events across the nation. In Washington, D.C., a crowd estimated at one million people gathered on the National Mall to hear speeches by a series of dignitaries, including taped messages from representatives of the United Nations, the Middle East Democratic Alliance, and the scientists at Ares Research Station 1 in Elysium Planitia. However, some of the loudest cheers of the day were heard during the keynote address by Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Jane Braasch.

"Almost four hundred years ago," said Chief Justice Braasch, "an ancestor of mine had his life and livelihood nearly destroyed by Governor Winthrop and the Puritan theocrats of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, because he was advocating for a secular government. But today, we're emerging into a new future, one in which we recognize that we are a single human family on this tiny planet. Today, even the most devout appreciate the value of reason and secularism and understand that this system is in everyone's best interests. There are no human rights without secularism. There are no women's rights without secularism. There is no democracy without secularism. Let us never forget that only a truly secular government makes real freedom possible!"

In spite of the celebratory mood nationwide, President Sanchez struck a solemn note in her remarks, pointing out how many challenges are still faced by the human species.

"The fighting in Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia is ongoing, the remnants of a fading and archaic worldview that no longer has any place in a free and rational planetary civilization," she said. "Despite the long-overdue achievement of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, millions of people still lack access to comprehensive public education, family planning, and advanced healthcare. Ensuring that every person on Earth has access to these necessities will be the cornerstone of my second term. Last but not least, although the global atmospheric carbon-remediation project is proceeding on schedule, the best estimates are that it will take decades to fully reverse the damage. The tens of billions of dollars we've spent on reseeding coral reefs and building advanced seawalls to protect coastal regions are a tragic testament to the greed and short-sightedness of the past."

"But although we face great challenges, let it never again be said that Americans are afraid to offer equally great solutions. We'll no longer be afraid to dream big, to take bold action, to make decisions that advance the common good while keeping an eye on the future. Most importantly, we'll no longer be afraid to rely on the guidance of science and reason, rather than the irrational passions of prejudice or faith. If we keep to the course we're following, we have the potential to create a future bright beyond imagining, not just for the United States of America, but for the entire human species and all our descendants yet to come."

No religious groups were in evidence to protest any of the National Day of Reason rallies. However, a statement e-mailed to the press by a group identifying itself as the New Reformed Campingists denounced the "godlessness that has brought humanity to the brink of ruin" and asserted that the Rapture was due to happen "any day now".

May 13, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink16 comments

Chris Hedges Doesn't Believe In Moral Progress (Except When He Does)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part III

As I've written before, Chris Hedges is a nihilist. He flatly denies the possibility of moral progress, and vehemently asserts that any efforts to improve humanity will inevitably end in mass slaughter and destruction. He says so bluntly at the beginning of his book:

Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses... We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the inherent flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history... All utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in squalor and fanaticism. (p.10-11)

A harsh verdict, to be sure. But this doom-and-gloom fatalism raises a puzzling contradiction with statements Hedges makes elsewhere in the book:

The religious figures I studied and the ones I sought to emulate when I was a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School, included Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, William Sloane Coffin Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and Daniel Berrigan. (p.3)

and later:

[The atheists'] attacks dismiss those - and there are millions - who found the inner fortitude through religion to fight for justice and lead lives of compassion. It seeks to invalidate the achievement of those religious figures who lost their lives in the defense of humanity. (p.34)

Did you catch it? Hedges speaks of the "achievement" of religious figures like Martin Luther King Jr. who fought for justice and compassion. Achievement? What achievement is he referring to? Didn't Hedges just get done telling us that no collective moral progress ever has been or ever can be achieved? Isn't he thus forced to believe, by his own argument, that the efforts of King and others didn't make any lasting difference? And if so, what exactly is it that he admires them for?

But it gets worse. For, you see, the truth is far more appalling: Martin Luther King was one of those dreaded utopians!

"When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

...This is for hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, 'We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.'"

—Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address, 16 August 1967

These statements conflict with the received wisdom of Chris Hedges, who assures us that there is no moral arc in the universe, that no one ever will overcome, and that in fact, nothing will ever get better in any way, so we might as well give up hoping.

What this shows, I think, is that Hedges don't hold the worldview he says he does. He doesn't really believe in the impossibility of moral progress. He just hates the way we advocate it - by attacking religious prejudices at the roots, by encouraging people to put aside their superstitions and become rational. (His angry denial that religion played any role in the Bosnian conflict is a good example.) In other words, he too wants a better world - it's just that he's deluded enough to believe that religion has no responsibility for the state the world is in, and that there's no reason we have to give it up. If he instead acknowledged the necessity of atheism, he might see it as a promising solution to some of the problems he regards as intractable, and he wouldn't be so embittered and pessimistic.

Other posts in this series:

December 22, 2010, 6:47 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink56 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Gene Roddenberry

As a wedding present to ourselves, my wife and I bought the DVDs of the original Star Trek, and these past few months, we've been working our way through them. For myself, it was a test: I hadn't seen most of these episodes since my childhood, and I was curious to see if they held up. I'm pleased to say that, for the most part, they more than hold their own. There's plenty to criticize, but after all this time, it hasn't lost its charm.

Despite everything that makes me roll my eyes about Star Trek - the dated special effects, the hammy acting, the hackneyed plots, the ludicrous science - there's a powerful heart of optimism beating beneath the surface of the show. The idea that human beings have conquered our own divisions and become united as a species, that we're setting out to explore the universe purely for the sake of exploration, that we've become members of a galactic civilization of intelligent life - for all these reasons, the world of Trek could be fairly described as a utopian vision of humanist philosophy. And that's why it's no surprise that Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, was himself a humanist and a nonbeliever.

As Susan Sackett, Roddenberry's longtime personal assistant, put it to a humanist group in Massachusetts:

Ms. Sackett said that Star Trek, like humanism, promoted ethics, social justice and reason, and rejected religious dogma and the supernatural.... She said Mr. Roddenberry, who lectured in Worcester in the 1990s, strived in his Star Trek ventures to affirm the dignity of all people.

"Rationality was the key... There was no recourse to the supernatural," she said.

Ms. Sackett said Roddenberry was so resolute about religion that he refused suggestions to add a chaplain to the crew of the starship Enterprise.

And Roddenberry himself said:

"I have always been reasonably leery of religion because there are so many edicts in religion, 'thou shalt not,' or 'thou shalt.' I wanted my world of the future to be clear of that." (source)

Brannon Braga, one of the original writers and producers, expressed similar thoughts at a 2006 atheist conference in Iceland:

STAR TREK, as conceived by Gene Roddenberry, portrays the epic saga of humanity's exploration of space and, in turn, their own struggles as a species. Every episode and movie of STAR TREK is a morality tale in which human beings find solutions to conflict through enlightenment and reason. Through science. Through wit and intellect. Through a belief in our potential as animals that can supercede our baser instincts. In Gene Roddenberry's imagining of the future (in this case the 23rd century), Earth is a paradise where we have solved all of our problems with technology, ingenuity, and compassion. There is no more hunger, war, or disease. And most importantly to the context of our meeting here today, religion is completely gone. Not a single human being on Earth believes in any of the nonsense that has plagued our civilization for thousands of years. This was an important part of Roddenberry's mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of STAR TREK and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.

Star Trek's humanist ethic comes through clearly in several classic episodes, including "Who Mourns for Adonais?", in which the crew of the Enterprise is confronted by an alien being who claims to be the god Apollo and demands their worship; or the Next Generation episode "Who Watches the Watchers?", in which the crew's existence accidentally becomes known to a primitive society, and they must convince those people that they are not gods.

With all that said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Star Trek has spawned its own devotees who follow and imitate the show with an almost religious fervor. But even this, I think, is testimony to the hunger for an optimistic, humanist vision of the future, one not based on the supernatural, and that's the kind of thing that all atheists should be doing our utmost to provide.

Other posts in this series:

August 13, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink29 comments

Reengineering Human Nature: Dogmatism

The Problem: Human beings are stubborn creatures, set in our ways, resistant to changing our minds once we've made a decision. Religious groups publish creeds which they believe must be taken on faith and should be maintained against all contrary evidence - and they consider the ability to do that a virtue, rather than a character flaw. Even when dramatic disconfirmation comes, such as the apocalypse failing to occur on a predicted date, a common response is for believers to become even more committed.

Human dogmatism rears its head in politics as well as in religion. The stubborn persistence of conspiracy theories, even in the face of overwhelming evidence and common sense, is an example. Pseudoscientific beliefs such as the fear that vaccination causes autism persist even after failing the tests their own advocates set for them, and as with religion, outside criticism only tends to make the true believers cling to their beliefs all the more tightly. Although some people do change their minds about beliefs that are important to them, the striking thing about these conversions is how rare and noteworthy they are. The obstinate nature of dogmatism slows human progress, fostering division and sectarianism and causing people to hold to wrong ideas long after they've been more than adequately disproven.

The Solution: To illustrate how emotion dominates reason in human behavior, Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis compares the mind to a person riding an elephant. The rider can usually steer, unless the elephant decides it wants to go somewhere else. In a similar way, the brain's emotional centers have deep projections into the rational parts of our brains, but not vice versa. A person who's feeling angry or frightened can easily be induced to make bad decisions, and it's almost impossible to persuade someone to give up a pleasurable habit that's bad for them, even when they know it's harmful. And the sense of belonging to a group, of being on the side of good or having access to secret truths of which the rest of the world is ignorant, is a feeling that has powerful emotional rewards.

Because the stubbornly emotional, nonrational parts of the mind can override the rational parts, human beings easily fall into the trap of dogmatism. But there's no reason the mind has to be designed this way. Why not shape our brains so that the rational centers instead override the emotional ones, or at least so that the two of them are equally powerful? That way, we'd be more likely to consider the evidence supporting a proposition and not just whether it feels good to believe it. The emotional centers would still operate just as before - we wouldn't be Vulcans, we'd still be human beings who feel happiness, love, anger and fear - but it would be far easier to overrule irrational emotion with objective reason when the situation calls for it.

The Real Explanation: The tendency toward dogmatism is a legacy of our having evolved in a complex and dangerous world. Humans and our direct ancestors lived on the edge of survival, at the mercy of the weather and climate and constantly threatened by natural disasters, by predators, and not least, by invasion and warfare with other humans. Under these circumstances, when a tribe found one way of life that enabled them to survive - fishing, or herding, or hunting and gathering - they'd have a strong incentive not to change it unless forced to by circumstance. It's much safer to go with what you know will work, rather than risk death by striking out into the wilderness and trying something brand-new. And evolution has imprinted that lesson on our brains, steering human behavior with brain areas that reward us with positive feedback when we find something that works, and warn us away from the unknown with negative emotions like fear.

Our ability to reason is a recent adaptation, compared to the older and more primitive emotional drives that shape our behavior. In evolutionary terms, it's like a new branch freshly grafted onto a large, ancient tree. It's little surprise that it hasn't gained the ability to override those older impulses - but an intelligent creator, foreseeing the greater benefits we stand to gain through reason, most certainly could have designed it that way.

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July 28, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink25 comments

Reengineering Human Nature: Pride

The Problem: According to Christianity and other monotheistic religions, pride is the deadliest sin. Taking excessive pleasure in yourself and your own talents and accomplishments is the surest way to end up condemned. I personally don't agree with the extreme view that pride is the worst possible character flaw - when properly harnessed, it's an important driver of individual effort and achievement - but I do agree that excessive pride is a problem common to human nature.

Most dictators and other evil rulers partake of an unhealthy amount of pride, believing themselves to be infallible and deserving of unlimited power. The same is true of fundamentalist religious leaders who fantasize that they've been personally chosen to deliver the will of God and force others to conform to it. When it goes unchecked, pride promotes the destructive view that society's elite aren't just more successful but morally superior, and that others are lesser beings whose needs are unworthy of consideration. Excessive pride promotes the dangerous delusion that the wealthy and powerful succeed solely because of their own inherent greatness, when the truth is that luck and circumstance play a much greater role in individual success than most people acknowledge.

The Solution: Christian authors often speak as if pride was a character flaw inherent to free will, one that not even God could get rid of. But the truth is that it's an entirely contingent fact of human nature. There's no reason why we have to have that tendency at all, and a truly omnipotent creator could simply have designed us so that we don't feel it.

Even Christian authors recognize that this is possible. Consider this passage from C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce:

"It is up there in the mountains," said the Spirit. "Very cold and clear, between two green hills. A little like Lethe. When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else's: without pride and without modesty."

The only problem with this scene is that Lewis thought this magical fountain was in Heaven. Why isn't it on Earth? Why doesn't all water in the world have the same effect? Or does God not want to eliminate pride from the world?

If you want a more concrete way of implementing this, here's my suggestion: design the human mind so that we don't feel a sense of ownership toward intangible qualities. The root cause of pride is that people feel possessive toward their own character traits, their own deeds and actions, in the same way that we feel possessive toward physical objects. They want to mark those things as belonging to me, not to the rest of the world, and praise themselves for possessing more of them than other people. But it's completely plausible to imagine a different psychology which would instinctively think it ridiculous that anyone could own something that can't be seen, touched, or held. People with this type of mind would still value intangible qualities like justice, compassion, or happiness, and want to see more of them in the world - they just wouldn't boast about how much of these abstract goods they'd acquired for themselves, and would value the existence of these qualities in others just as much as in their own lives.

The Real Explanation: The evolutionary roots of pride are murkier than more basic instincts like lust or selfishness, but I'd hypothesize that they have to do with sexual selection. Humans, like many species, compete with each other for mates. And when you want to convince a potential mate that you're a better choice than your rivals, the best way to do it is to boast (verbally or non-verbally) about all your positive qualities: how healthy you are, how strong you are, how high your standing is in the tribe, how faithful and true you'll be. The selective advantages to bragging about your virtues go hand-in-hand with the kind of brain that thinks of them as something belonging to me and not to anyone else.

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July 16, 2010, 12:16 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink13 comments

Reengineering Human Nature: Selfishness

The Problem: Nearly all the world's religions teach that we should be generous to the poor and needy, and warn that greed and selfishness are destructive sins. "For the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10).

But this principle is rarely honored, even by the religious leaders who supposedly believe it. Catholic popes and bishops, as well as many Protestant preachers and televangelists, live in opulence and luxury and possess vast amounts of wealth: ornate mansions, private jets, multiple homes filled with art and treasure. Preachers of the "prosperity gospel" teach that God wants to make all their followers rich. Meanwhile, on the secular side, there are libertarians and acolytes of Ayn Rand who teach that selfishness is an unmitigated good and that all taxation and social programs are equivalent to theft and slavery. These influential apostles of greed have attracted huge followings and have contributed to a vast and growing gap between the world's rich and the world's poor.

The Solution: Clearly, the majority of human beings prefer getting to giving. But this isn't an ironclad law of human nature: Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest had the custom of potlatch, where a person's standing in the tribe was set by how much wealth they could give away, not by how much they had for themselves. There are also modern philosophers like Peter Singer, who's argued that everyone should give away a quarter of their income or more to charity and who follows through on this principle in his own life; and businessmen like Warren Buffett, who's pledged to donate nearly all his multibillion-dollar fortune to charity. Examples like this are rare, but they do exist.

The traits of selfishness and greed are part of human nature, but the degree to which they're expressed is affected by the surrounding culture (the same is true, of course, for altruism and generosity). But there's no reason why the set point has to be where it is. Just as David Hume imagined the possibility of all human beings naturally being as diligent and industrious as the most devoted among us are now, we can imagine a world where human beings are naturally as generous as the most generous among us are now; a world where altruism is the norm, and cultures that value selfishness and greed are as rare as potlatch is in our world. Our brains could be wired so that giving away, rather than acquiring, is what gives us the most pleasure.

The Real Explanation: Human nature is forged by evolution, and in evolutionary terms, the success of the individual is all; more specifically, the success of the individual's genes. In a world of scarce resources, which describes the environment of our ancestors, there's little evolutionary benefit to extreme generosity, and potentially a strong benefit for selfishness. If my genes motivate me to give away resources I could have used for my own survival and reproduction, then I'll be less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce, and those genes thus will bring about their own disappearance from the gene pool. On the other hand, if my genes motivate me to be selfish and acquisitive and to get as much as possible for myself and my descendants, I'll be more likely to survive and to have healthy children, who will inherit my selfish genes and propagate them into the next generation.

Granted, this isn't the whole story. In a social species, it may benefit me to give away valuable resources to other members of my tribe from time to time. If I have more than I need and give away some of my extra (food, clothes, tools, shelter, mates), the recipient of my gift will owe me a favor, which I may be able to cash in some day when I'm in need. The potential benefits of this reciprocal altruism laid the evolutionary foundations for humans' sense of generosity. But all else being equal, evolution will always reward the individuals who keep as much as possible for themselves, which explains the dominance of our selfish side.

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July 9, 2010, 10:45 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink18 comments

Reengineering Human Nature: Violence

The Problem: Many religions, including Christianity, teach that unjustified anger and violence are sins that risk the offender's eternal soul. The Ten Commandments order people not to murder - usually a crime committed in the throes of anger - while Jesus says that even a momentary outburst of anger can lead to damnation: "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca [an Aramaic insult —Ebonmuse], shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:22).

But humans are violent creatures. Nations and peoples have been pitted against each other since the time of our oldest written records, and countless millions have died in the wars, invasions and rebellions that fill our history. Hunter-gatherer societies, often caricatured as peaceful savages, actually have even higher rates of murder and warfare than modern industrialized states. On the individual level, as well, there are millions of short-tempered people who think little of responding to any provocation with fury and violence. For most of human history, for example, and in many places still today, beatings were considered an acceptable method of keeping wives in line.

The Solution: Some human beings are natural pacifists, shunning war and violence. The question is, why aren't we all like that? Instead of giving us an impulse to violence and then commanding us never to use it, why wouldn't God simply create humans such that violence is unthinkable to us?

There are several plausible ways to implement this in human neural wiring, and the easiest one that I can think of is through the sense of disgust. Human beings have an intrinsic sense of disgust: we instinctively recoil from things like rotting food, diseased animals or excrement. This is an adaptation to protect us from disease and pathogens by making us physically nauseated at the thought of coming in contact with things that are likely to transmit them.

A creator with the freedom to design human psychology as he sees fit could have discouraged us from doing violence by connecting those circuits to the sense of disgust. With this change, the idea of doing physical harm to another person, whether up close and in person or at a distance, would fill us with revulsion and nausea and would make it all but impossible to actually carry out that impulse. (We could specify that this deterrent triggers based only on the intent of an action, not its effect, so it wouldn't interfere with doctors giving shots or performing surgery so long as they genuinely want their patient to get well.) Humans would then quickly find that diplomacy and negotiation, rather than bloodshed, would be the only feasible way to solve our disagreements.

The Real Explanation: The problem with this possibility, in evolutionary terms, is that it's an unsustainable equilibrium. If all people were peaceful and non-violent, and then one mutant appeared who could use force to get his way, the rest of us would be helpless against him and he and his descendants would rapidly outcompete us. There's no evolutionary advantage to the individual in being a pacifist. The benefits are only to the species as a whole, and natural selection doesn't work at that level. Thus we expect that evolution would make us violent animals, to defend ourselves from all the other violent animals who stand to benefit from doing the same.

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June 16, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink21 comments

Reengineering Human Nature: Lust

The Problem: According to the commandments of the major religions, God expects humans to have only a single lifelong romantic partner and to remain sexually faithful to them: "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14).

Yet, as any given week of tabloid headlines will tell you, humans aren't naturally wired for monogamy. Even after we're married or in a monogamous relationship, the sex drive continues functioning, often producing strong feelings of attraction and lust for people other than one's chosen partner. Even celebrities and politicians in high-profile relationships, people who have by far the most to lose from being caught cheating, seem unable to resist the urgings of adulterous desire. (John Edwards and Tiger Woods are the two most famous examples in recent headlines - by the time you read this, there will probably be others.) Religion also seems ineffective at restraining lust: consider the many high-profile preachers, from Jimmy Swaggart to Ted Haggard to Jim Bakker (and many, many more), who've been caught in heterosexual or homosexual relationships outside their marriage.

The Solution: It's utterly bizarre and inexplicable, on the theistic worldview, that God would create humans with overwhelmingly strong inclinations to commit an act he doesn't want them to commit, and then punish them harshly if they fail to resist the temptations he himself implanted in them. This view makes God out to be some kind of Kafkaesque sadist who doesn't want humans to be saved and delights in placing stumbling blocks in their path.

But it didn't have to be this way. If God is an omnipotent architect with the power to create any kind of beings he pleases, and if God's preferred model of sexual and romantic relations is lifelong monogamy and fidelity, it would have been easy for him to make that happen. Rather than creating human beings as we are now, God could have created a world of human beings with a different psychological makeup.

In this possible world, if entered into willingly, the ritual of marriage produces psychological and physiological change in the brain such that from that day onward, a married person experiences feelings of love and sexual attraction for only their chosen partner and no one else. The ability to feel platonic love, to form friendships and meaningful relationships based in mutual respect and admiration, would be unaffected, but the idea of falling in love or feeling lust for someone other than your partner would be as inconceivable as the idea of falling in love with a lamp or a table. In this world, adultery simply wouldn't exist, as there would be no desire to engage in it.

The Real Explanation: Human nature was not created by God, but shaped and instilled in us by evolution. And evolution, above all else, rewards reproductive success: the drive to have as many descendants as possible, to maximize the contribution of your genes to the next generation. This is not because evolution has some sort of moral preference for this behavior, but simply because living beings that act in this way will proliferate at the expense of those that don't, and therefore we're more likely to be descendants of the former rather than the latter.

That being the case, it's to be expected that many human beings become attracted to more than one person over the course of their lives. There's no evolutionary advantage to shutting down your sex drive, while there is an evolutionary advantage to mating with anyone who might be willing. (Natural monogamy does evolve, but only on rare occasions - usually when children need the full attention and nurturing of both parents to survive.) For this very reason, if human beings were wired as I've described above, this would be strong evidence against evolution and in favor of God's existence. But this isn't what we actually find to be true.

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June 11, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink32 comments

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